I jumped at the chance to take part in the inaugural UCI 2.2 Mzansi Tour in South Africa when the opportunity arose. I would be riding for the Cape Town based team, NuWater, and, more importantly, it would be exciting to race back on home soil. But, as the temperature rose to over 40 degrees on the first day, it didn’t feel like home, it felt like a furnace.
Getting there wasn’t easy either. After a 7 hour drive to Limoge for the 2nd round of the French Cup, I had to immediately head to the train station for a 4 hour journey to Paris. With my suitcase and bike bag in tow, I arrived at the Paris airport just after 12pm and settled on the floor for a bit of shut eye before my 7am flight. At 5am I checked in for the 11 hour flight home. I wasn’t too happy about getting a middle seat but I felt more sorry for the passengers next to me because I only had the chance to baby wipe shower since the race the day before.
After two days of travel, I arrived home to rather festive South Africa and I couldn’t help becoming excited for the 5 day tour ahead. Then, horror! When we arrived in Nelspruit, where the tour was destined to start, I unpacked my bike to find my front fork had been smashed to pieces. The normal rigidity was replaced with a bendy piece of spaghetti. Being 7pm, I would have to wait until the following day, the day before the start of the tour, to source a new fork.
The next day, my hunt for a replacement fork began with 4 hours of phone calls to Giant reps, bike stores, and friends. I eventually tracked down one at Valencia Cycles in Nelspriut and, although the black and blue fork would look rather odd with my white frame, at least I would be able to start.
In preparation for the 165km stage, I ate my weight in breakfast. The temperature was forecast to be rising all day and with attacks flying as we rolled off the start line at Kruger Park, I knew I was in for a tough day. When a break eventually settled up the road, the peloton took on a steady rhythm but as the temperature rose over 40 degrees, the bunch continued to thin out on every climb. Even though the commissaires opened feeding early, riders were continuously scrambling for bottles and cold water in an attempt to control body temperature. Now accustomed to French racing in sub 15 degree weather, I realized I was clinging on with everything I had, struggling to handle the furnace-like conditions.
As we hit the main climb for the day I blew, like one of those over-heating cars on the side of the road you see in movies. I was steaming and I just wanted to pull over, stop and cool down. After a few km in no-mans land, the rather sizeable Groupetto picked me up. A long, hot 70km later, I crossed the finish line and ditched my helmet and shoes and immediately made a bee-line for a cold shower. I was unhappy and surprised my body had reacted the way it did to the heat but the heat is not something I could control or prepare for. Plus, it was hard to be disappointed when big-name riders had blown right along with me. I went to bed hopeful for a better day tomorrow.
Stage 2 felt a little like deja vu with hot temperatures and high altitude. The break disappeared in the first 2km leaving a hilly 188km left to cover. With NuWater represented I sat back and ate a considerable amount of “piesangbrood” (banana bread). The stage exploded in the final 40km and, after another hot day riding at 2000m, I just didn’t have the intensity to go with the front runners. Again I had to settle for the main bunch on the way to the finish. With the hardest two days of the tour behind us I was hopeful my body would adjust back it it’s natural climate and my legs and lungs would return.
Stage 3,4 and 5
I’m not the sort of rider who likes to sit back and be “bunch filler” I like to mix it up, be aggressive and get off the front when the opportunity for general classification is out the window. Apparently, my legs were still in France. With no punch, it was hard to slip into any breakaways and I struggled to make the front splits. I had to be content with finishing the tour, getting a solid 800km in the legs at high altitude and looking ahead to the racing in France.
After a disappointing tour, I packed up my things and my mis-matched bike and headed back to France, eager to get my legs back. I can’t say for certain what the caused of my “dip” in form, whether is was the death-like heat, stress, fatigue, altitude, travel or a combination but there is not much to be gained on dwelling on it. It was a good learning experience, great to race on home soil, and I’m looking forward to seeing the benefits of a week of hard racing at altitude. I might also be looking forward to racing in 15 degrees again, maybe.