A South Africa Stage Win
United in Felix Unite, the TDA riders enjoyed a beautiful and relaxing rest day along the shores of the Orange River. I relaxed my muscles, but I couldn’t fully relax my mind. I had made a decision to pursue a Stage Win in the final three race days of the Tour. As we entered South Africa, there would be no turning back from a new round of self-inflicted suffering.
The race is its own wild animal on the Tour d’Afrique. It is composed of 92 or so Stages (single day races of approximately 60-207 kilometers each), 8 or so Sections (groups of Stages) and one overall four month race. It takes place over flats, hills, mud, dirt, lava rocks, nice pavement, pothole-ridden pavement and favors not just the fast or the strong, but the consistent. Picture sleeping in a tent through heat, rain, cold, illness, injury, bugs and noise, and then picture getting up and racing everyday on a rapidly depreciating asset for four months…across Africa. That is the TDA bicycle race.
When I signed up for the TDA, I entered the race because I thought it would be fun and help me improve my riding. One of the risks of the race is riders become so focused on it that they miss out on the broader life-enhancing experience of biking across Africa. Not me…my overall time reflects stops at just about every coke shop and small village along the way! There’s a nice group of semi-serious racers on this trip, who like to ride at a good clip, but don’t think twice about stopping if something cool or tasty surfaces along the way.
The real racers are formidable talents. The overall female winner, German Gisi, has not only smoked the women, but she ranks among the top three guys as well. The overall male winner, Aussie Stuart, is probably the single most consistent rider on the trip. When I started the Tour, I spent most of Egypt and Sudan finishing exhausted but patiently near the middle or back of the pack. Just when I finally started to feel strong and fit in Ethiopia, a weird kidney infection set me back. I have been focused on self improvement, but it took until South Africa for me to even contemplate keeping pace with the fast chicks!
In order to have a chance against more talented riders I knew I had to execute a strategically perfect coup and be prepared to exceed my current pain threshold. German Ruben, Australians Rod and Juliana and Canadian Jenn were enthusiastic about my attempt and offered to serve as domestiques. American Tim and South African Jethro (two of the fastest guys) offered to help pull for a bit when they would inevitably pass us along the way. In a professional bike race, there’s one Lance Armstrong and the rest of the team works to break the wind and set the pace. I am so grateful to have friends like Ruben, Rod, Juliana and Jenn, who happily volunteer to suffer in the service of helping others excel. I love the chivalry, sportsmanship and unexpected team dynamic of cycling.
The morning of the attempt, I woke up and my stomach felt like I was back in college standing on the starting line of a big cross country race. I cursed myself for getting myself into this situation- why not enjoy another easy day on the road? Who would care if I won? What if I couldn’t do it? I spent a large part of my college and early professional career afraid to try something challenging for fear of failure. This trip has taught me that the only failure is not to try, and hard work always yields some permutation of reward. I resolved to give the race my all and be proud of not success or failure, but the mere instance of the attempt.
The first part of my race strategy was to leave camp early, and hopefully gain the mental advantage by getting to the half way point before Gisi and the fast racers could catch me. The day was 117 kilometers in total with almost three thousand meters of climbing and descending. Ruben and I set off and I was breathing like Cecil Rhodes’ tourist train across Africa on the first hill out of camp. My anxiety evaporated and was replaced by a cloud of total concentration. We caught up to Rod and Juliana, who executed epic pulls for the first half of the ride. Rod was just crazy, pedaling like a maniac down the hills. I loved it. Ruben is the strongest climber and as I killed myself to match his pace up a series of climbs, I looked back and realized we had inadvertently dropped Rod and Juliana. One of the support vehicles rolled up and told us our other pacers Jenn, Jethro and Tim were 10k back and couldn’t catch us! What was going on?!
Ruben and I had an understanding such that every time I asked him to slow the pace I owed him one beer. Everytime he dropped me on a hill I owed him two beers. I don’t think he expected me to scream at him to go faster as he exerted twice the effort breaking the wind, making sure I was eating and drinking enough and occasionally urging me on in German. We flew past lunch (the biggest sacrifice for the win in my book) and launched down a series of descents where we hit over 70k per hour. 30k left to go…20k left to go…10k left to go…and still noone in sight. A final breathless sprint took us to camp where we both collapsed from the happy exhaustion of a respectable effort.
A few time calculations by race director Kelsey yielded the results- I took the women’s stage and Ruben unexpectedly won the men’s stage. We averaged a speed of almost 36k per hour on hilly rolling terrain. I didn’t think I could even do this, and feel empowered by the upside of a “just go for it” approach to success and failure. It was a fair and valuable win or loss because I drove myself hard, with hope and heart. For the record, at the end of the day I technically owed Ruben zero beers, but probably bought him a few anyway. What a fabulous start to South Africa.
Stage wins aside, our first few days in South Africa have been oddly anticlimactic. I didn’t expect eight piece bands and angels descending from the high heavens to trumpet our arrival to our final country (okay fine maybe I did)…but there wasn’t even a “Welcome to South Africa” sign at the border! We have been riding along the hilly and not so scenic N7 highway, through the desolate mountains of Northern South Africa. In the words of South African Mark, “Noone ever goes here.” We have been staying in overland campsites in towns with tongue-twister Africaans names, which descend more into the depths of winter each night. We now huddle together at dinner in down jackets, hats and long underwear longing for another hot drink or even the mugginess of Malawi. As we ride into the Western Cape over the next few days, we will see the ocean for the first time since Egypt. The forecast is calling for rain, strong Southeasterly headwinds and cold temperatures. But like with my Stage Win, I am continually focused on attitude not outcome.