If you can’t be in a race the next best place to be is the feed zone. Far from being stuck on the side lines, being in the feed zone means you’re part of the race. You may not be pushing the pedals but miss getting out a bottle or two and suddenly you’re the one putting your rider on the rivet.
After 1500km of driving, I found myself in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal helping Edward Greene prepare for South African Time Trial and Road Race Championships. I wouldn’t call myself a soigneur, just a damn good girlfriend. I planned well-balanced meals, filled bottles, pinned numbers, set up and packed away trainers, cheered my lungs out, and stood in the feed zone on race day for almost 6 hours.
The first event was the time trial and after watching Edward prepare for weeks on end, I was more nervous than he was. I help him set up, sync all our clocks to race time, and keep him on schedule, all while ensuring he stays cool and hydrated before the start. When it comes time for the 40km individual effort, Edward seems to harness his nerves and get down to business. I, on the other hand, was shaking. He looked cool as a fluorescent cucumber in his neon skin suit but I was surging with nerves.
I watch each lap in earnest, just hoping he wouldn’t have a puncture or a crash on the rain soaked roads. I wasn’t too concerned about his time or placing, just that he would be able to cash in on all his hard work. He manages to catch every rider except one in his start group, placing a respectable 8th overall in a formidable field of heavy hitters that included Conrad Stoltz and yellow-jersey wearer Daryl Impey, but there is a difference between performance and results. I wait for him after the finish line, hoping he feels happy with his effort. When our eyes finally meet, I spot the tiniest glint of satisfaction. Phew, relief.
Three days and a lot of cooking later, I arrive at the feed zone for the road race. While Edward relaxes and prepares for the race, I have my own work to do. 180km starting at 10am meant it was going to be hot and hot in KwaZulu-Natal means humid. I’m well aware cold bottles could mean the difference between making the break and getting dropped. Since I was also going help feed two other riders, I set about organizing my big cooler box. 20 litres of water, 7 litres of carbohydrate juice, 6 litres of Coke, and a lot of ice. Hmmmm….did we have enough?I scope out the designated feed zone and stake my claim at the top of the hill on the right hand side, just as Edward requested. This was my home for the next 5 hours. After the fast first lap of no feeding was over, it was my turn to get into the action. Now, standing in front of a peloton charging uphill at over 30km/hr takes more guts than you think. As you manically scan the bunch for your rider and jostle among the other feeders for a good position, it can be easy to lose awareness and get in the way of the race or even cause a crash. With the peloton whooshing past me no more than a foot away, I fill with adrenaline as my eyes dart around looking for Edward. In a split second I spot him, understand his request for water, let him grab it from my fingers on the move, and he’s gone, leaving me to scavenge for the empty bottle he threw to the side of the road. First feed and 2 laps done, 7 feeds and 8 laps left. With a break up the road, the race settles and Edward and I get into a rhythm. I’m getting him ice cold bottles, reminding him to eat, and he’s looking strong. As I’m preparing for the next feed, however, I see the bunch charging up the hill faster than usual. Daryl Impey of Orica-Green Edge has put the hammer down and is tearing up the hill at lightening speed. I know this is the split. Whoever makes it over the climb with him is in the race, who ever doesn’t is out of contention. Where is Edward?
I step back for Impey to pass me and stick my head out again to spot Edward. He’s a few wheels back, sprinting 53:11. I yell encouragement at the top of my lungs, shocking those around me with my big-voice-little-body combo. He’s on the wheel, in the action, and I fill with excitement as I continue to bellow. Instead of juice, I hope I’ve fed Edward with my spirit this lap but, as the bunch disappears out of sight, only time will tell.The course is a circuit on a 4 lane road separated by a median and a chain-link fence. I hop up on the metal rail, clutch the top of the fence, and stare at the crest of the hill where the bunch will come back into sight. My eyes are glued to the road. Edward has to make this split.
What seems like a millennium later, the lead car comes flying past and I can see riders on the horizon. The break has been swallowed back up and the bunch is down to less than 30 riders from 120 started. I start to look for Edward’s neon green sunglasses and distinct kit. Where is he? My heart is beating a mile a minute. I finally spot him and he shouts he next feed order to me. I refocus on my job, ignoring the other feeders who are still waiting to see their riders.The race heats up with more attacks and riders continued to be shelled off the back. Each lap I managed to feed Edward perfectly as he maintains his active presence in the front bunch, contributing to the racing. But Impey, the favourite to win, still isn’t away and sure enough he jumps again, attacking almost right in front of me. The winning move goes and only the eventual U23 age category winner, Louis Menjties, can follow him. More riders jump but the two are gone with a few solo chasers, leaving a small bunch to fight over positions in the top ten.
With only one lap to go, the majority of feeders and spectators walk down to the finish line but I decide to stay. I know the last kick over the feed zone climb can be worth a few positions so I want to keep cheering Edward on. I even convince a group of slightly drunk and sunburnt spectators to also chant Edward’s name when he comes past.
As the bunch starts the final climb, I see Edward in full flight powering up the climb. Along side my new friends who are roaring his name, I shout with everything I have left. The 10 or so in the group vanish over the crest of the hill and with that my race is done. I gather up my belongings, suddenly feeling sunburnt, and my legs remind me I’ve been standing for almost 6 hours. I head back to the car where we have planned to meet and wait.
I sit in the car anxious to see Edward and wonder what we’ll be discussing on the drive home or whether it will be silent like the back of a broom wagon. To my delight, he borrows a cell phone and calls me right away. He finished 8th in the elite men. He sounds pleased but I know that voice. While I’m over the moon he finished 8th, he’s already thinking about what’s next.