Urban legend has it that sometimes there’s rain on the Absa Cape Epic. Well, did we ever get it. By 5pm on Thursday night, looming clouds had opened up, and as we cowered over our suppers, it was announced the forecast for the next day would be much the same.
Until that point, we’d be sucking down dust with every turn, lungs turning to muck every morning. Perhaps the rain would settle the ground at bit. We’d also been riding in temperatures hovering around the 40C mark daily. Perhaps the rain would bring the heat back to normal. I tried to be optimistic.
Before dawn on Friday we woke up shivering in our soaking tents. It had rained most of the night and we were not only in for mud, the temperature was barely over 10 degrees. For us Northerners, this wouldn’t be a problem. We brought rain jackets and merino arm warmers. Sadly the prospects of a bike race in “Africa” meant foregoing 3/4 length Roubaix bibs and wool socks.
I would be riding this stage solo again, and the idea of doing it soaking wet was just about too much to deal with. But I’d have it. I know how to deal with rain and mud and being cold for 8 hours. I like winter training for this very reason.
The race set off from Caledon at 7am, and within 5 kilometers, every rider was covered in mud. Top to toe, the wet red dirt even covered my glasses so thick I had to take them off and deal with dirt-infested eyes. New white socks blended to the colour of my skin. Bib shorts soaked through the pad, grinding sand into already painful saddle sores. And we had only just begun. Riders were stopping to wash their bikes off on the banks of ponds, like some sort of unholy baptism of carbon fibre and stainless steel. But we deal with worse mud than this on our weekend training rides… I plowed on, little gears slowly pushing me through the heavily-ridden sludge.
We spent the morning climbing into an Antarctic cloud, temperatures plummeting down toward the zero mark, pounding rain and wind cutting into our overly-exposed skin. Having by then lost my few riding partners, I began passing riders I hadn’t come across before on the course. Two by two, I moved through the ranks.
Muddy fields soon gave way to alpine fire roads, skirted by bursts of colourful wildflowers. Today was meant to be one of the race’s most scenic. Too bad I couldn’t see much past my front wheel. Exotic blossoms sent blasts of fragrance into the cold African air. I might have even thought for a moment the flowers had come out because of the rain. Like wildfires which burst the seed pods of certain flowers, they’re only visible when the landscape looks otherwise devastated by Mother Nature.
Stay positive. Keep eating. Keep drinking. Keep spinning your legs.
As I reached Water Stop 2, riders were shivering, begging for tea and hoping the noises coming down the radio were announcing the stage to be abandoned. No such luck.
I pressed on. African rain is just as cold as English rain. But African puddles are lovely warm things. I found myself intentionally splashing through their deep middles, having a moment of relief from the cold air.
And just as the sun came out, we hit single track. Deep, muddy, slippery-rooted single track. Just like home. And I smashed it like never before. Up ahead were the neon helmets of the Belgian women’s team, to-date ranked solidly around 10th position. I could see them snaking through the woods not 400 meters ahead of me. And I caught them by the final water stop. Everyone seemed to be having a terrible day. Except me. I couldn’t get enough.
Chasing one last woman through the remaining single track into Oak Valley, I checked behind me. No one. I crossed the finish line in a time that would have put me in 10th position in the women’s category for the stage. Only half an hour behind some of the pros. South Africa has nothing on Wales in January.