For the first time ever (as far as we know), there would be a separate women's competition at a stage race. The W2W celebrated the 10th anniversary and this year they had changed so that the women’s race took place during the first event, and not at the last as it has been in previous years. This would mean that we could start as the first bunch and not get caught by any men, we could have our own race with all the tactics etc which is impossible for us when we have men around us. This also meant that media could focus on our race which is a good step forward for women’s racing.
I raced alongside Mariske Strauss for the first time and I was nervous for many different reasons. We had never ridden together before and had no idea how we would work together. I was nervous about how the leg would tolerate 3 consecutive days of racing and I also had no idea how bad my form was with such little training the last months. There were many strong teams, probably the strongest field in the history of the race! There were 5-6 teams which had a good chance of winning and Mariske and I had the goal of a podium spot but were also well aware that it would be tough and the risk of ending outside of the podium was there so we tried to not have any expectations and just see how we worked together.
It had been very hot during the week before the start and the weather forcast said about +40 degrees all 3 days so instead of starting at 7am (as planned) we started at 6am every day!
26th of october - stage 1 Lourensford to Oak Valley 68km, 1650m climbing
The alarm was set for 03.30 and it is always hard to get up and eat oats at that time. We arrived at Lourensford at 05:00 and started to warm up in the dark. Just before the start at 6 am it got light and we saw a beautiful sunrise. It was different with the women's start, it was not as hectic as when we start with the men, but the speed was still high up the first 6 km climb! I felt good from the start and we soon ended up as 3 teams. Candice and Adelheid (my last year's W2W partner), Team Summit, soon left us and no one could respond. We reached the top of the climb together with Ariane and Barbara from Team Spur but they were faster on the downhill and got a gap on us. We saw them for a long time and were riding in 3rd. Mariske was a bit stronger and I felt a bit unsure as to how much I could help because I did not know how long I would last, I started to feel better after about an hour and we could work well together. When we got to the mandatory "portage section" we were just behind Team Spur. Mariske got cramps walking up and had a slight dip afterwards while I felt strong. I saw Spur in front of us, maybe about 30-40 seconds but suddenly I just saw Barbara and wondered where Ariane was. When we got to the last water point, Barbara was there wondering if anyone had seen Ariane ... It later turned out Barbara had fallen and Ariane overtook her and took a wrong turn, leaving Barbara chasing Ariane without knowing that Ariane was actually behind. This resulted in an hour's time penalty since a team can never be more than 2 minutes apart. We were now in second place and when my energy started to drop, Mariske was strong again, but unfortunately we both got very tired at the end and suddenly, with 3 kilometers left, I hear something behind me and when I turned around both Team Spur and Team Ascendis with Robyn and Michelle were just behind us. It was a sprint between the 3 teams which we managed to win and take 2nd place, less than a second ahead of Team Ascendis.
27th october stage 2, Oak Valley to Oak Valley, 66km 1350m climbing.
This day is called "play day" as it's 80% of single tracks and about 50 bridges to cross, it's a fun day at the same time as it is hard of course! It was a fairly calm start even though my legs and lungs could definitely feel the first short climb! After 18 kilometres, Candice and Adelheid left us, nobody could match them this weekend! The same 3 teams who sprinted yesterday ended up together, but soon Barbara dropped, and Ariane had to wait for her and we did not see them anymore. We rode the rest of the day together with Ascendis and although we tried to get away a few times, it did not feel like any serious attempts from any of the teams and it ended in a sprint again. I did not have a good day and struggled to keep up, Mariske was a good team mate and helped me a lot, especially on the climbs, so it felt really good that we managed to take the sprint and another 2nd place. We now had a 0.6 seconds lead over Ascendis going in to the last stage.
I was mostly happy about that I had no pain in my leg, not at all, even though I had been riding hard now for 2 days!
We had great support from our mechanic Pierre who took care of the bikes and Craig who gave us a massage and we had great accommodation at “Stonepeak mountain lodge” where I have stayed many times before and it starts to feel like home away from home when I'm in Grabouw!
28th october stage 3, Oak Valley to Hermanus, 72km - 1350m climbing.
It was a big group together for a long time on the last stage since it is mostly downhill. I felt strong but unfortunately had to give a gap on a technical downhill after around 17 km, my confidence and skills are just not back yet. Team Spur and Summit got away and we were left chasing with Ascendis. We soon passed Summit who were fixing a puncture and we did not really care much about Spur who were far behind on GC. We let Ascendis do a lot of the work today since they had sat our wheels a lot the day before. It felt like it was a bit of cat and mouse between us and once again there were no real attempts to get away. With 15 km to go Summit caught us and they rode with us to the finish. There were a new climb 5 km from the finish, it was very steep with loose rocks and I was very tired and hardly thought I would make it up, luckily Robyn was also tired, and we managed to keep them behind, from here it was flat to the finish and it was clear that it would come down to another sprint. As Summit had the overall win in the bag already, they did not contest the sprint and just sat behind. It was a new finish and I did not know what it would look like. Mariske sat at the front for the last 3 km or so and I was a bit nervous that it was a bad move but just had to trust that she knew what she was doing. Robyn pulled a road attack once but both Mariske and I reacted immediately, and nothing happened. As we came around a corner on grass and I looked up I could see the banner for the finish, we were on the last few hundred meters and we all sprinted flat out! Mariske and I managed to win yet another sprint and secured the second place overall.
We were incredibly pleased with that and I honestly did not think it was possible to take a podium spot or even if my leg would handle to race for 3 days! I was mostly happy about how well my leg managed this and I hardly did not feel it at all!
I have to say it was the most beautiful backgrounds I have ever seen behind the podium!! The new finish was amazing, and we even saw whales behind us! So it literally was "Wines to Whales"!
When we came home I just unpacked and packed again for the next adventure, a round 2 of Wines2whales! This time together with the group of Swedes who came to South Africa on a tour with Pathfinder (a Swedish travel agency) and I had helped to organize everything here in South Africa. My partner for this event was my friend Annemie and we would just take it easy and stop at all the water points and enjoy the views, things which I never have time for when I race! I was looking forward to this adventure!
And what adventure it turned out to be!!
The forecast still showed very hot the first day, but a lot of rain day 2 and moderate temperature day 3, so the start times changed to 6.00 day 1, 08.00 day 2 and the original start time 07.00 am on day 3.
29th of october stage 1 Lourensford to Oak Valley 68km, 1650m climbing
This time we would do everything "for real", sleep in tents and without support. Craig dropped me off at Lourensford at 05:00 and I met up with Annemie and we left our bags in the tent truck that transported them to Oak Valley and we went to the start. I was not used to not have someone to give a jacket to, not warming up etc. We met Lars and Daniel from the Swedish group, they started 10 minutes after us. We started nice and easy up the first long climb, I chatted to lots of people around us and really enjoyed it! I saw the views I have never seen before even though I have done this race 7 times! Annemie rode well and my legs felt better than expected! Just before the first water point we saw Lars and Daniel, they came flying past but just a little too fast since Lars crashed right in front of us as he tried to overtake in a slippery corner! We stopped at the water point and had some sweets and chatted to people. We kept going and I noticed that Annemie started to get tired so we slowed down. In the end it went very slow and I stopped now and then to wait for her, it did not bother me at all since I was just enjoying it so much, it was such a different experience for me and in the day I got a great training session in, it was actually my longest ride (in time) since my operation 7,5 months ago! We stopped at all 3 water points for food and sweets and our time was just under 5 hours (compared to the 3h36min I had done 3 days earlier). Annemie needed food asap so after we left the bikes at the bike wash and bike storage, we went for the Spur burgers, then we found our bags at the bag tent and then time to look for our little yellow tents. We went to the showers and then there was some time to chat to people before lunch. I can’t afford to spend energy on things like this at normal races so I was just enjoying the whole experience! There would be a lot of rain during the night and when Alexa from Squirt said they had a container with 2 mattresses which was empty, we accepted the offer to sleep in it, at least we would not get wet! The storm came in while we were having dinner, the wind was extremely strong and even if we felt safe in our little box it was very noisy from the wind and rain! We went to bed and did what we could to sleep with earplugs.
At 23 o'clock I woke up and saw that Annemie was up, she was going to the toilet and I also needed to so I joined her. We walked out and saw lots of cars driving up and down and there were people everywhere!? We went to ask what was going on, the guy looked at us and said: Did you not receive the message? What message? Our phones had been on silence. The whole race village were being evacuated due to the storm!! There were also a big fire close by and it was just too high risk to keep everyone there. We were told to grab what we needed for the night and 20 busses were ready to take everyone to safe accommodations. There must have been about 600 riders there and the crew did a great job evacuating everyone! We were taken to a school nearby and we all got to sleep in a big hall on mattresses from the tents.
30th of october, stage 2
We woke up at 06:00 and were informed that the bus was leaving at 8.30 to take us to another place for breakfast. We have nothing to do so we started chatting to our very friendly mattress-neighbours and makes new friends! Once again, it was great to be doing what the “normal riders” do at a stage race, I enjoyed it so much! At that stage we did not know if it was going to be a race or not that day. In the end it is decided that it will be 40 km instead of 66 km and it will start at 11am. We return to the race village and everything is back to normal, they have fixed everything in the morning so that we did not even notice that there had been a storm the night before. It is still raining and it is freezing cold and will be very muddy and slippery out on the course. We got ready to race and went to the start, but still doubting if this is the right thing to do, so when someone said “I don’t understand why you girls are doing this” I just thought to myself that I had done the route 3 days earlier and we had nothing to race for and to be honest Annemie did not look keen at all! So we quickly made a decision not to do this stage! It was a very good decision since I did not want to risk anything, and also not destroy the bike in the mud. A lot of riders made the same call as us!
Annemie's mother came to pick us up and we spent the afternoon at home instead. We left the bikes at the race village so we would not be tempted not to ride the last day, we still wanted to finish this event in Hermanus (again).
31st october, stage 3 Oak Valley to Hermanus, 72km - 1350m climbing.
I was very happy to wake up at home in a warm bed when the alarm went off at 4.30 am! And that feeling got even stronger when Craig dropped us at Oak Valley and it was +6 degrees and everyone looked super cold, I don’t think we would have gotten a lot of sleep in our box in the cold! Our start was at 7.10 and it turned out to be a very nice day when the sun came out. The rain had made the trails perfect, not muddy at all, it had just made it less sandy and great to ride on. Annemie was much stronger today than on the first day, so we had a good ride down to the coast. I had so much fun again when talking to other riders and stopping at the water points, also just to enjoy the trails in a different way, without it constantly hurting. I even saw the ocean a lot earlier in the stage than I knew one could, it only took me 7 W2W’s to see this!
Everyone in the Swedish group was happy afterwards and everyone had had a good race and time cycling in SA! But I must say that everyone looked a bit tired during the last dinner when we were back in Stellenbosch. Next year, we hope that more riders will join this trip from Sweden!
With Shaun at the water point
With our snooring mattress neighbour ;)
Some more pictures: