There are things I heard about this race that I acknowledged and admitted only partially to myself before I came here. There were the legends of the strength of the field, the tales of the brutality and beauty of the landscape, and the horror stories of thorns and harsh, harsh track conditions that torture your equipment while the laser-like sub-equatorial sun beats down on you constantly. It turns out, all of these things are true…and ultimately even understated.
The prologue, which really is misleading since it’s an hour and change TT which in most venues would warrant more than the mild term “prologue” was a tough course that offered up a sampling of what lies in store for us the rest of the week; There was some single track, seemingly endless climbing through vineyards and more exposed, dusty double-track then I have ever encountered before. Did I mention it was hot? Jason and I set a time that didn’t quite live up to our hopes, struggling a bit to find a rhythm across the rough terrain, but ultimately it wasn’t a disaster. And while the day yielded the first glimpses of how tough the race would be, for me it also opened my eyes to the other things that would make this race special…the people, the places the majesty of this very different landscape. In a way, the terrain and the towns remind me f a lot of places I’ve been. Part Napa Valley, part Florida Keys, part wilds of Utah high dessert, and yet there is nothing that translates exactly. In none of these places though have I seen the acres of “shanty-towns” or the amount of support turned out for me everywhere I go. People, school children and adults, come out to watch the race come by and cheer us on…even in the midst of what the developed world would call squalor. Where there could be resentment or distaste for the affluence that this race represents, I detect none of it and instead find myself the one who feels on the inside of the bubble looking out and realizing that bike racing is an honor and a privilege, and I should be more grateful then I am sometimes.
The race departed this morning at 7AM, leaving behind the massive infrastructure of our traveling circus of race village, replete with hundreds of tents, showers, campers, the giant dining tent and countless other pieces of the puzzle that make this all possible, at break-neck speed. You would think, I thought, that staring down the barrel of 120k of racing with 1900+ meters of climbing that we might start a bit slower then the average hour and a half XC race. Well, I can say it isn’t so. The pace and the racing was frantic, just like euro racing always is, and there was lots of sketchy passing and jostling at high speed as the front of the race tried to rip itself free from the masses. In the madness, I careened into what could only be described as a small boulder with my front wheel, denting the rim (I would find out only much later) and loosening some spokes enough that they were rubbing on the brake caliper. Luckily I was able to give them a good yank when I had a second and make it through the day, but even more impressive is that my WTB Nano TCS tires didn’t flat or even lose any air…which brings me to a second point: All the plants in Africa are trying to kill you…seriously. The sheer amount and variety of thorns I encountered today was astounding from small innocuous ones to four-inch long death needles that look like they could sever a major artery, it seemed like every plant in it’s struggle to survive in the deadly heat and dusty soil, set out to defend itself with sheer force. When we finished, Jason pulled 47 thorns out of his tires (also the WTB’s); I lost count on mine…luckily, thanks to our sold equipment in that regard, we made it without a flat.
Unfortunately I wish that good news was all I had. It was not meant to be though, as Jason struggled a bit early on with some muscle trouble and we had to stop and make a saddle adjustment to try and help it. Then he crashed on a descent and broke his fork lockout, condemning him to do the last 50k on a rigid front end. Let me be the first to say, that his ability to do that is really, really impressive. Beyond that, he still flew down the descents at a speed that would leave a lot of people behind him. Serious skills. Despite the mechanical setback, our second 50k of the race was actually pretty fast. Finally making our way out of the serious climbs (serious like never ending marches) we hit a lot of rolling vineyard paths and really put the stick to it, managing to reel in a few of the teams who had passed us earlier in the day. Not quite enough to save the day, but we did our best under the circumstances.
When I wasn’t staring at my front wheel through a seeming waterfall of sweat pouring off my forehead, the race went through some amazing country today. From lush mountains early on in the day, to brutal dessert-like conditions in the lowlands and endless vineyards it was a showcase of all you can take in when you spend 5 hours rallying your mountain bike through some wild country….I even saw a baby tortoise on the descent of Tortoise Mountain, how cool is that? Ultimately it was a hard day on the bike, hard mentally and physically. I was pleased with the performance of my equipment, especially my bike the Redline D680, which for me is the first foray into 29’ers, and I have to say it really rips. The big wheels I’ve been so unsure of for so long really are fast and in this package, handle great. Beyond that, I was pretty happy with how I felt on the bike and think that if we can get ourselves sorted out as a team in the upcoming days, we are in for some solid and competitive rides. But beyond the racing, this really is an amazing journey, and an experience I will not soon forget. I am honored that my bike has taken me this far….thanks to everyone.