No better way to come back to racing after my big crash than to take on a 202km team time trial. After taking such a long break from racing I was nervous to come back, especially since 9 other teammates would be depending on me. We were essentially a new team but, since a few of us had raced together last year on another team, we had our sights set on defending our third place title.
We all gathered at the start venue as the sun was rising, anxious to get on the road while we did our final bike checks. I could feel the team was jittery with excitement and nerves but, even as the underdogs of the ladies category with only 10 primarily young riders instead of the standard 12, we were quietly confident we could pull something off. Just as our support team was collecting the last minute banana peels, the loud speakers blared “Old Mutual Investment Girls.” In the bat of an eye, we were off.
Maryke, our team captain, and I lead the team through the winding streets of Swellendam and as we hit the highway to leave town the team quickly settled into a pace-line and a rhythm. Like a well-oiled machine, we pounded through the first 30km and approached the big climbs like a team who had been riding together for years. Our spirit seemed to carry us over Tradouw’s Pass, the first climb of the day but as we hit the second mountain pass, Op de Tradouw, the steep continuous gradient separated the climbers from the flat riders. Once we regrouped at the top, Kelley Hess, our resident Iron Woman, pulled us down the well-earned descent at over 70km/hr. That is, until the block head wind.
We had 60km of head wind. I’m talking brutal, gusting, scatter-our-paceline, struggle-to-pedal-straight, unrelenting headwind. On top of having to constantly regroup as the wind splintered us apart, we also struggled to stay together navigating through rider congestion. Then the rain came. The cold, heavy downpour only lasted about 30 minutes but it was long enough to soak us through and turn our white socks a nasty shade of brown. The only relief was that 200 other teams were suffering along with us.
The feedzone, or rather our manager Susuan Melmed, came upon us like a gift. Armed with fresh bottles, salty potatoes, some gels and a pep-talk from Susan, the remaining 90km seemed not only doable but race-able. Refreshed and regrouped, we all climbed back onto our saddles and, not so silently praying for a tailwind, we went back into the headwind.
Team echelons were covering the entire width of the road now that we were dealing with a crosswind. I was trying to be happy about having a crosswind because I remembered the route turned at the small town of Robertson but I wasn’t sure the wind would be in our favour. As we approached Robertson, Emily, our vice captain, pulled us around the corner and our team erupted in cheers. Like a weight had been lifted, we all rejoiced as we watched our speedo’s easily pick up to 40, 45, and 50km/hr. We kept the pace high, clocking over 80km/hr at one point, and ate up as much ground as we could.
The team seemed to have it’s mojo back but then Lauren made a quick detour to the side of the road. Since she was riding DC still bandaged and taped-up after getting hit by a car earlier in the year, I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised that she vomited and then got back on her bike to keep racing. After her “nutrition donation to the tar,” as our team captain put it, the distance started to take its toll and we began to lose a few riders. When we pulled over for a quick feed at 160km, we had lost another and it was only a little ways down the road we were down to our final 6.
Since you have to cross the finish line with a minimum of 6 riders, we stayed close as we navigated over the last 4 rollers in the final 25km. We counted them together as a team, cheering each other on, singing, telling jokes, doing whatever we could to get our bodies to the line. As strictly a road-rider, I was nervous as we approached the portage section but since every one else was riding over the dirt trek, I decided to be brave and just commit. Then I came face-to-face with what seemed like the Muur de Swellendam of dirt. Panicking out loud as I blindly followed the wheel of my teammate up the pathetic 5 meter long dirt climb, I somehow made it back on to the tar where my wheels belonged. The 6 of us regrouped and we just focused on the finish line which was less than 10km away.
As we entered the final kilometre and turned the last corner, which is up hill, we all summoned a final surge of energy to cross the line in 6:51.25. Unsure of our rank until prize giving, we were ecstatic when we were called to the podium for third! It was a long hard day in the saddle but, as always, the sense of accomplishment and the pleasure of riding on a team with such strong women made it worth while.