Cannondale Garden Route 300 MTB Stage Race February 2011

Sunday 20th March 2011

by catherine williamson

Sometimes in my cycling career I have no doubts I am one of the luckiest people alive and the weekend just gone was one of those times. Paid to race in one of the most beautiful places in the world with some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. It doesn’t get better (apart from the lack of husband in tow but that’s asking a lot!!).

Having arrived 2 days before the race started we had a tourist spin round Knysna itself followed the next day by a ride round the single tracks we would be racing on. What a place. Riding along through the forest on some fantastic single track that even I loved then popping out onto a cliff path with some amazing sea views. We marked out the course with a couple we were staying with, hence the 3 hours to do 25km!!

Following a pre race pasta munch and briefing we were keen to get going early the next day; well I was after a strong coffee and rusk from Mug and Bean! My partner Nicci was looking slightly nervous at the start… wasn’t sure if it was with what was ahead of us or that I had gone missing in a toilet queue the size of Heathrow’s Security line!! Feeling at home in the tight packed ‘peleton’ along the road we soon settled into a comfortable pace on the first climb and headed into the single track we had marked yesterday in a decent position. I legged it ahead so I could walk down a few drop offs and we came out onto the coastal path together. After the next welcome feed stop there was more open tracks and slowly we passed a number of guys that had set off too fast. On each of the descents we found each bend had a sand section that provided the entertainment of the day sliding through almost on top of each other with no control and plenty of girly screams!! The last 10km did nearly crack us… going wrong once then finding some really steep climbs followed by some equally slow single track descents it seemed to take forever and we were both glad to emerge onto the finish field. 95km, 1700m climbing, 4hr58, 13th overall and 1st woman’s team we were both pretty chuffed and confident with our lead.

Following each stage we were given lunch by Mug and Bean then dinner later on. The food either got better or we were just getting more hungry, whichever it was it was delicious especially the Malva pudd and custard!! Staying at Nicci’s friends 100m from the sea I also headed there after each stage to lie in the sea, well that was the idea until a wave knocked me flying one way and my bikini the other… luckily there weren’t many people around and I was able to pull everything back to where it was supposed to be without been seen!!

Day Two was 98km with around 2000m of climbing. Most of the route was on open tracks and roads and after participating in a pile up in the deep sand at the start we just missed a free ride on the back of a big lead group. It was a long day with a lot of climbs and got extremely hot for a Yorkshire lass. It didn’t help that my back brake was binding and my back itself from a crash last week was cramping up! Still the views were worth it and we again motivated each other when pulling back the guys that had set off too fast. I managed a record munch ride for the 4h30 we were out: 1.5 bananas, 1 jel, 1 Pepsi, 3 soggy rusks, a protein bar and 3 bits of sponge cake and still managed a huge lunch and dinner once back. Finishing a similar position to Day 1 we were now 12th overall and had a lead of nearly an hour over the next woman.

On the final day the effort began with a ride to the start, only 15km but over a mountain and with one of those ultra fit chatty guys who manage to spin twice as fast as you and still half wheel and talk the whole way there. Still, wheel spinning free the ride today was total pleasure. We rode in a fairly big group long some open roads and tracks taking full advantage of sucking wheels, my excuse been that if I went to the front I’d have no idea where Nicci was and that I was also a woman and therefore would show the guys up if the camera went past and I was dragging everyone along! I managed to get ahead for the single track climb through the forest so I could plan my route and not get wrapped round a tree stump. Emerging at the top in the mist was pretty daunting with some steep gravelly descents ahead. Surviving those and taking in the views too it was an amazing ride and to top it off chunks of malva pudd at the feed stop!! Just as I’d said those fateful words of ‘we’ve cracked it now’ Nicci’s chain jammed and just as I was contemplating running the 10k left a guy stopped and yanked it out.

We soon forgot the nasty finish down the single track again when crossing the line we were given a glass of champagne and oysters! I’ve never tasted anything so good and could have eaten and drank the whole lot but thought better of it and instead rode home slightly tipsy but very chuffed. It was so nice to complete such a tough event with such a great partner who I discovered was as competitive as me even when we had such a comfortable lead. My only complaint that it was only 3 days long and not more (though I’m not sure Nicci felt the same about that!!)

Catherine Williamson

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