New for this year was that Tankwa Trek was 4 days and started on Thursday afternoon with a prologue, it was still a mass start which made it feet more like a short stage of 29 kilometres. There is a new UCI rule that stage races must be 4 days to get the UCI status and Tankwa wanted to continue to be a UCI race, which we appreciate. There were good UCI points up for graps for the XCO riders, who has started to collect points for Olympic qualification. This meant that we had tough competition from Team Ghost with Barbara Benko (Hungarian XCO champion) and Anne Terpstra (Dutch XCO champion) and Team Summit with Candice Lill and Annie Last (English XCO champion). I raced again with Mariske Strauss (South African XCO champion) and she was also eager to collect points. On the start line we also had Team Kross with Ariane Luthi and Cherie Redecker who were both in good form and Team Dormakaba with Sam Sanders and Amy McDougle, who are always strong. It would be a tough women's race with good girls from 6 different nations and getting on to the podium was absolutely no given!
Thursday: Prologue 29km, 410 meters of climbing
It was 39 degrees warm when we arrived at the race venue 3 hours before the start on Thursday, they measured 42 degrees as the warmest along the prologue route as the warmest! The heat was what everyone was talking about and it was absolutely the warmest I have ever raced in, at least started a race in. We all know that the shorter the race the harder you go, which the brain probably still thought of doing but my body just said no! We always have a ladies only start at a UCI race and we were off 2 minutes behind the elite men at 15.02. It felt like my legs were boiling and I didn't get air from the start. I struggled a bit to get in to the race mode and to find a good position in the small bunch. Eventually after a longer single track we got away together with Summit and Ghost and the pace was high. I felt like I was riding way over my max and had to let them go. It felt like I was standing still up the only hill on the route and I had no control over the bike on a new 4 km sandy downhill, it was as if my brain was not functioning. With a few kilometres left, I heard that Ariane and Cherie were catching us and they were soon on our wheels, then suddenly I hear how it is a crash behind me and looking behind I see both Mariske and Ariane are on the ground, they are quick to get up and Mariske is with me but Cherie stops, her saddle was skewed. While this happens Sam and Amy catch us, we manage to hang on to them and Amy looked really tired and with 1 kilometre left we can easily pass and finish in 3rd but we are as much as 3.06 behind Ghost who won.
I almost fainted after the finish and it took a long time before I could stand up again, the pulse was the highest I have seen in many many years while the watts numbers were quiet low, it was the body's way of coping with the heat. I was impressed by the European cyclists who managed the heat better than me who lives here.
Friday: Stage 2 84 km, 1800 meters climbing
It was a bit slower start today, or it felt so since it was cooler, the bunch stayed together until the first single track at about 15 kilometres, I found it difficult to fight for a good position with all the XCO riders who just use their elbows to get a spot so while Mariske was sitting first I was almost last. I had Ariane in front of me on a long downhill and she was very close to crashing and dropped from the group, she could ride faster downhill and it left me on my own chasing. I caught up with Mariske and Team Kross and at the first water point we were back together with Summit and Ghost as well. The 4 teams stayed together for a while and about 10 kilometres later Kross lost contact and we were 3 teams left. I have done every Tankwa Trek since the race started in 2013 and the route is basically the same every year, so I knew where today's toughest and steepest climb was, it is difficult to stay on the bike if you do not have a good line and good balance up there. I attacked just before and Mariske came with and went to the front, it was perfect timing since we had our own track and only Ghost came with us. I felt really good on that steep climb and at the top we had a 2-minute gap to Summit. We worked well with Ghost all the way to the finish and we got a 2nd place on the day, only one second behind the winners and 2 minutes ahead of Summit which meant that we moved up to second on GC. At least I felt better than the day before which I was happy about.
Saturday: Stage 3 87km, 2200 meters of climbing - "The Queen stage"
Merino monster is the one thing associated with the Tankwa Trek, a 10-kilometer climb with 1000 height meters! It is brutal! It is sometimes so steep that you do not think that you can get up and even if you know that you are on the easiest gear you are looking for an easier one… At the race briefing they also make every first timer aware of the climb before the climb since many riders think they are on top of the monster before they start it, due to the climb before is so long and a bit steep. It is simply a very difficult stage with a lot of climbing. It is also the day when it is most likely that there will be bigger time gaps and we saw that as our chance.
Right from the start we could see that both Ghost and Summit did not seem as fresh as previous days. After about 12 kilometres we arrived at Du Toit's drop, a 4 km long downhill single track with a 10% gradient and very loose and sharp corners, not my strong side, and this is where I sat last year with Esther waiting for the ambulance. I took it very easy down the drop and I lost the group, but I also knew that we would not have any problems catching them today. It was Summit and Kross who were in front, Ghost had already dropped and it turned out that they had had some mechanical problem right before the downhill. We soon caught up with Kross and shortly after the first water point after 25 kilometres we also caught up with Summit. We rode together with them for a long time but I could see that they did not look so strong. When we came to the second water point after 47 kilometers and the climbing started we went to the front and upped the pace a little, I felt very good and comfortable and it was a nice feeling when I heard it went quiet behind and the others had dropped off! The first climb went well but when I looked back at the top I still saw Kross so we had to ride hard on the flat part until the Merino monster.
When we started the climb we had a gap of about 1.20. The climb was as brutal as I remembered, it never gets easier and I was absolutely sure the others would catch up. Mariske was super strong and helped me a lot, towards the end she gave me her pocket to hold on to and gave me a push, all for us as a team to move faster. We knew that the bigger the gap we had at the top, the greater the chance that we could hold on to the lead to the finish. There was also a Queen of the mountain prize that we managed to take. At the top we had a gap of 2.50. The downhill went very well and the last 15 kilometres on the flat to the finish were hard and we worked well together. I could see that we were both equally tired and worked equally hard. We won the stage and even managed to take over the leader’s jersey!! It felt really good that we could do this on the hardest stage!
Sunday: Stage 4, 85 km 1250 meters climbing
It was nice to start the last day in pink! It would be hard to keep it since only 1.25 separated the first 3 teams. The day started with about 30 kilometres on gravel roads, which made for a bit of a slow start and everyone waiting for the race to really start. It was a full on sprint in to the first single track. Again, I had a hard time getting in front so it was Summit, Ghost, Mariske, Cherie, me and Ariane, in that order. We kept a good speed without gaps, but I heard how Ariane crashed again behind me and lost touch with the rest of us. At the end of the single track Cherie decided to wait and stopped, leaving me to pass her and then chase the others, this was at the bottom of the only climb of the day. My legs were burning and for a split second I just wanted to let them go, but I dug deep and managed to stay. Ghost dropped half way up and we were alone with Summit. I could recover a bit on the long piece of single track and we were all together when we reached the second water point at 57 km, which was also the only tech zone for the day. I threw my bottle (which was not empty) to take a new one from Nicole, but I didn't see her first among all the people and when I saw her it was too late, so I missed the bottle! We had 30 kilometres left in the heat without water! Luckily, I had a very good and strong partner so we shared Mariska's bottle and at the last water point she sprinted off ahead of the rest of us to fill her bottle, so we had one more to share. We rode tactically and let Candice and Annie make the most of the work in front, they had to get away from us to take the win away from us. With about 6-7 kilometres to go, there was a left bend up on some sandbags which Annie did not see so she went straight, she realized it quickly and was soon back on track, they did not lose much time on it but on the other hand I think they lost power and motivation. We got a small gap and when we went into the next single track and sandy section, I could see the gap growing and we managed to win the stage by 30 seconds!
It was such an amazing feeling to win this year's Tankwa Trek and stand on the podium with some of the best cyclists in the world! I won my 4th Tankwa Trek which also felt awesome and this was my absolute best performance since my injury 11.5 months ago! I'm not back in the form I was when I fell but I'm on my way!
A big thank you goes to Mariske who was a very good partner, we rode amazingly well together and now we look forward to Cape Epic in 5 weeks! Thanks to our masseuse Nicole who is our everything at the race and helps us with whatever we need! Thanks to Geordie who looked after our bikes, so they were in top condition every day! And a big thank you to both Fairtree and Silverback who made it possible for us to do this race! Thanks to Dryland for a great event, it was my 7th Tankwa Trek and I'm coming back next year!
Early morning start.
Down the rocks on day 2
Hydrating before start
Going up the Merino
Finally at the top!
The start on the last day
Close up of all the good gears ;) Silverback, Enervit, Spiuk etc
At the single tracks at Houdenbek!
We did it!!!!
Happy winners :-)
Final podium with Candice, Annie, me, Mariske, Barbara and Anne.