The last race of the season came and went on Sunday. The weather gods smiled upon us, after predictions of heavy rain and strong winds all week, it turned out to be sunny and warm although the South Easter picked up during the race.
The route was back on the classic track after the roadworks had been completed on Hels Hoogte Pass…so no flat detour this year but the full punishment, and right from the gun as we start the climb inside the first 2km. This was the same route as the very first race I did as an elite 2 years ago, so I had some scores to settle.
The mayor of Stellenbosch fired the gun for the start, albeit a little prematurely, so we got off the line in a panic. I spun some high revs to try get some heat into the legs before the Old Hels Hoogte pass started. On the climb I sat comfortably in the group that was feverishly surging as guys hustled to make up positions. I tried to conserve some energy for the steeper areas. We hit the first of the steeper switchbacks and the group strung out more and more. I moved around some guys that were fading fast and tried to hang on as best I could before getting unhitched after acceleration after acceleration. I kept my form and cadence natural and avoided getting caught up in the hype. I rode steady and soon passed a number of guys. I did get dropped though near the top and popped out into new Hels Hoogte with the main peloton still in view, but rounding the corner and soon to descend. I shifted down and dragged some other faultering souls over with me and set about a chase – right about now this was feeling all too familiar. Last time I never caught sight of the bunch again.
Thankfully this time the gap was smaller, the car convoy was in sight, just, and I sat in the 53/11 all the way to the turnoff at Pniel. I had a group of about 8 riders, I was rallying them to work together, but it’s not easy when everyone is still broken from climbing. There were some strong boys and we set about the chase. I took huge turns, not wanting to give up, and eager to close asap so I could finally rest. I saw Andreas Studer finishing up a puncture rear wheel replacement, and as we passed him I knew he’d soon join us and we’d have some more firepower.
It took us ages to catch, nearly 35km. Some chasers fell from our group, but each time the guys slowed I took more turns and pushed to close again. Eventually we got back as we exited some roadworks and could sit in a bit. I asked Charles what was happening up front and it turns out my new team mates Rob Quinn and Tredoux were in a three man break with Moolman. No wonder the pace was so high as the rest of the team worked to close them down.
Through the vineyards and up into the back of Wellington the pace was steady, some surges and attempted breaks but nothing major. But as we exited Wellington and headed into the South Easter, all hell broke loose.
The wind was perfect for a serious gutter session and that exactly what we got. The pack was soon splintered into three fragments as we fought for any kind of slip from the wheel ahead. Dangerously the gutter enforcers up front were riding up the oncoming lane in the yellow line on the right side of oncoming traffic! I sat behind trying to set up some kind of safety net over on the left. Nobody followed to help and we lost ground. I was now in pack three… not where I wanted to be at all, and the legs were suffering from the 40km TT early on. I could swear I wanted to close my eyes and black out numerous times along this section. 20-30km of guttering, echelons and hard pulls, but I helped pack three close on pack two and eventually we caught the front pack after what felt like forever. Then the attacking came as men shot off the front of the group before we hit the rollers. Garett and Davies got into the move that stuck of about 6 riders. We chased some more.
Three big rollers loomed up to haunt me some more with 15km to go. My legs were complaining at the sight of them let alone the riding, and then just as I’m holding a rhythm, someone attacks! I was quickly displaced to the arrieré du peloton and I tried to just stay in contact with the car convoy off the back. A few cheeky slips and thanks to my gravitationally enhanced body, I found my way into that pack each time, and by this time I was fighting cramps. I slipped in some FiT Antilac tabs and drank the rest of the fluids I had on board to keep them at bay.
Thankfully the rollers ended and the last 5km was mostly flat and downhill. I went through the left turn up to the finish line out front, over the ride I lost some ground as the sprinters wound themselves up. I didn’t follow and paced myself over the rise. I made good headway and was near the front heading in to the finish line area. I got up to sprint as best I could muster given the level of exhaustion, I just had to get up to speed as it was a slight downhill so it went surprisingly well. In the end I took 16th place and was happy that I could dig deep and finish where I did especially since I rode in the elites and had no team support.