Wednesday 29 April. Day 1.
A beautiful morning greeted us on race day. After a light breakfast it was time to line up for the 7h00 start and after a quick 3-2-1 Go we were off. I was pretty relaxed knowing there was a long day ahead but the legendary trail runner Andrew Porter, still holder of the solo Grand Traverse record and defending X-Berg champion, was off like a bullet. I though he was just making making a joke when he sprinted off towards TP1 but I soon realized the race proper was on. My plan was to ride at a sensible pace but to ride till the 23h00 to 5h00 no-race cutoff. I wasn’t feeling particularly strong as we set off for TP1 about 12km away so I just paced along.
It was a pleasant morning and the ride along the canal towards TP1 was fresh as we rolled past the start of the Berg and Bush MTB race. We all rode together and portaged up to TP1 on top of a hill, no sight of the trail runners or paragliders as we dropped back to the road, they had only 4km or so to the TP as the crow flies and I suspected they were ahead of us. We eventually caught and passed the trail runners as we descended into Little Switzerland Resort, they had made very good time during the first 2 hours. The drop from Little Switzerland past Montussi Lodge was the biggest of the whole race and a lot of fun, well a lot more than running down. I was riding with Guy Pitman, an experienced adventure athlete and a strong cyclist. I suspected Guy would pull away during the day and go on the win the race so I wasn’t trying to keep up although we enjoyed the company along the way. The Scuttling Spiders, defending MTB Team, were just behind us as we arrived at Cavern Resort to tackle the portage/hike up to TP2, it was right at the top of the mountain and being weak on my feet I knew this was going to cause problems.
The climb behind Cavern rises about 700m above the valley. It took me a belabored hour to get to the top, in the process Guy and Justin from the Spiders had passed me and left me behind, I was slogging up and down again tortoise style, they were light footed and fast. At the top we had to scramble up a steep crack in the cliff face, almost like proper rock climbing, just the beginner grade, although for me it felt pretty vertical :-). The views from the top were breathtaking and I was not unhappy to experience a big climb with the rewarding views. I got back to the bicycle at Cavern and my legs were very uncomfortable from the big hike, I was really worried about the cycling ahead so decided to take it easy and try and recover for the next 2 or 3 hours en route to TP3 at Mnweni. It was now around midday and 5 hours into the race, also time to start paying attention to hydration and nutrition. The Spiders had vanished into the distance with Guy not far behind. I passed Guy while he was having a leisurely chat with Pierre Carter along the way and he told me he’d catch up soon, which I expected would happen as he was fast on the bicycle. As it turned out we took different routes and only caught up way later in the day. The road to TP3 at Mnweni runs along Woodstock Dam and I expected the Westerly to provide some assistance from the back but somehow the wind was coming from the front, I just kept pedaling a rhythm. For a brief period I saw the Spiders ahead but they were strong and put in time in me very fast, Guy was somewhere behind me. The temperature and humidity was high and it wasn’t long before I started cramping, the big hike and perhaps some dehydration started taking its toll. I started drinking my Octane, one bottle after the other in the hope of hydrating again and to try and make it through the very hot midday hours. It was perhaps the toughest part of the race, just hanging in there from midday to around 17h00 when I knew I’d be strong again in the cooler weather. I was quietly hoping the others were pushing too hard and that the long day would catch up with them. From experience I knew if I looked after myself, I’d get through the rough phase and become strong again in the late afternoon. Unfortunately the always threatening cramps acted as a limit on my intensity so I just kept going, only making very short stops to eat and get a fresh filling of Octane.
I reached TP3 at Mnweni in 2.5 hours (50km from Cavern) ahead of my forecast. I had also caught up with the Spiders and we rode together for while until the big climb out from Woodstock Dam broke up the group. It was also a bit cooler with a few drops of rain so we made good time as we rolled up and down towards TP4 above Cathedral Peak Hotel. The landscapes and vistas were amazing during this leg with one beautiful view after the next, it was to become a trademark of this race.
The tar road to Cathedral was busy, with people, animals and taxi’s. I got through slowly and fine but my support crew had a brush with a bunch of undisciplined and aggressive local youngsters, fortunately without consequences. We had been going for around 10 hours as the night started falling and I was at last starting to find a rhythm, it had taken me all day. I was now rather looking forward to some night riding.
I reached Cathedral Peak Hotel around 18h30 and as guests started preparing for dinner, I was preparing for a night ride. It was my plan all along, I was feeling good again and my first nature break next to the road indicated my dehydration was something of the past, took me all of 6 hours to re-hydrate and rid the cramps. I could again stand on the bike and put some power into the pedals without fear of a muscle twitch. Strategically I was not going to make it all the way to TP5 which was on top of a mountain and down in time before the 23h00 curfew so I decided to ride up the next 30km to the start of the portage and then call it a night. I arrived at the start of the portage just before 21h00 and was picked up by my support team to drive back to Didima Lodge for a good sleep.
It had been a pretty long day, my legs were still very sore from the big hike and I was unsurprisingly a bit tired. It had been a very rewarding day with some amazing riding, beautiful views and a some good distance and ascent (174km/3950m). It took a while to settle as we got everything ready for the next morning but the 5 hours sleep till 3h15 was going to be very welcome! We had to drive back to where I had stopped at 21h00 and restart again at 5h00 the next morning.
I had not come to X-Berg to race, with Race to Rhodes coming in June, it was a great opportunity to get some very handy and interesting riding under the belt. I wanted to test myself and enjoy the Drakensberg at the same time. My support team though had kept track of the other competitors during the day. The paragliders had the weather against them all day and with no flying possible they had to hike and were way behind. The trail runners made good progress but rough terrain meant they were sleeping the curfew out one valley behind us at Mnweni. It appeared we had made the most progress of all on Day 1 which was great, but with favorable weather for the paragliders and some shorter crossings from TP4 onwards for the trail runners, I expected them to catch up the next day.