There was a cry, and a sudden bunching. People swerved, but with nowhere to go. A front wheel was taken out, and to my left there was a domino effect as riders and bikes tumbled. There was the sound of medal against asphalt, sliding at 40 km/h, and the dull thud of bodies hitting the road.
My final day in South Africa is one that I will remember. Alex, my friend, has set himself a number of sporting challenges, including riding the Cape Argus in March. It is the biggest mass participation cycling race / event worldwide. Because of the sheer size of it, and its London Marathon-esque appeal, there are starting blocks. If you are a ‘charity’ rider, riding only for this event, you start at the back. To make your way forward you need to qualify to get a better start position. By collecting points at other events, you can get a better start at the Argus. For this reason, and owing to the very same system, here I was, stood with him in start block R at Die Burger Tour (it starts at A and goes through to U as far as I could tell) waiting to start our race at 6.58am. On the day I fly home.
The event is, by comparison to the Cape Argus, relatively small, but is still rumoured to be the second largest one in South Africa. With 3,350 entrants, I can well believe it. Now, depending on your point of view, this was either the fourth of fifth Sportif which I have done on the road, or my first ever road race. Alex and I had actually decided to race it. We had set a target of three hours for the distance, and wanted to finish relatively fresh. Being unable to do anything for the rest of the day is not a good idea when you still have to pack and make it to the airport.
On the start line, we eyed up the other people in our group. With one or two exceptions, it was obvious that we didn’t belong this far back. We chatted to another rider, on a very nice Cervelo, and established similar goals. Once out of the neutralised start, Cervelo guy, Alex and myself lead our little group, together with some of the other faster riders and formed the train to chase down the pack in front, who started with the other groups. It worked well, although there were a lot of people who were happy to sit on our wheels. That makes them clever and us stupid though, doesn’t it?! All the same, we reeled in rider after rider, with the pace barely dropping below 45km/h for the first 30km, or at least anywhere where we were able to force it that high. The sheer number of riders made this difficult, and passing so many all the time, also kept us from riding the pace we wanted. Concentration and alertness was the name of the game. I don’t mind inexperienced riders in a group, but I try to keep myself on the outside or near the front when they are around. Alex adopted this tactic too, but it was me who found myself trapped after about 25km with a very nervously responding pack around me. I rode for about 1.5km trying to make my way into a better position, thinking that it was too tightly wound, and the spring would break any minute. I kept looking around, trying to find the gap in the riders to move to the outside of the pack. Slowly, but surely, I got myself into a good position. The danger had passed. I was safe…. I rode on for another km or so, and then it happened. Suddenly I had to avoid rapidly decelerating bikes, and confusion in the pack. The bike in front of me had their front wheel taken out. The yell, as they went down. I moved to avoid them as they slid across the road, making the minimal adjustment that I dared, so as not to take out anyone behind me. Stay upright. Avoid their limbs. Ignore their cries. Stay upright. I could feel something on the inside of my arm. The top of someone else’s brake hood. Accelerate, separate. Ride on. We both survived. I checked behind me, to see a scene like one of those mass crashes in the Tour de France. There was no escape, no-one had anywhere to go, and were just piling into each other.
Alex was alongside me.
“You okay? Didn’t think you’d have gone down, was it near you?”
“It was right there, I have a scratch, nothing more. I hope they’re okay, where is Cervelo man?”
“Up ahead, spoke to him as soon as it happened, he was looking for you too”.
I stomped on the pedals up to Cervelo guy, and used my adrenalin rush to pull for a bit.
The rest of the ride was less eventful, thankfully, although on the first climb Alex found himself a pace guy and dropped me and we both dropped Cervelo guy. Alex had to slow up later for me to get back on – not bad for a someone who has been riding for only four months! In fairness, towards the end, his tiredness was showing, but his performance was outstanding for such a new rider. For me, the main challenge was to try to spin out the two bottles that I had for the 97km. With about 25km to go, I was dry, and had thrown my bottles to kids at the side of the course. Alex however (who had larger bottles) still had one full one. He donated it to the cause, and we shared it. After a few mouthfuls, and a gel my energy reserves were reinvigorated. At the next climb, Alex later told me, he looked up to see me about 40m away powering off. I thought people were following, but they obviously weren’t, so I eased off, and waited for him to come back to me, and we continued to ride together. We took it in turns with an older guy until on the final climb of the day, Alex dumped his chain. He had to stop. I slowed, soft pedalling, and waited for him. Everyone passing encouraged me to keep going, not realising that I was waiting. I felt a little bad when Alex was back on my wheel, and I turned catching his eye, and paced us past everyone who had just shown concern. We got back to the older guy, and rode with him for a bit. With 5km to go, Alex was fading, but it was downhill. Rather than the normal finishing ‘eye balls out’ finish that I would normally do in a race, we rode together, crossing the line with the exact same time hands raised.
Our time. 3hr 3mins….. if only I hadn’t dithered on that climb, or Alex’s chain had not jumped off….. Puts him in good standing for The Cape Argus though. Quite tempted to go back to ride it myself!