South Africa is a country that is fast becoming known for it’s stage races. The Cape Epic, Sani2C,Wines to Whales and the Cape Pioneer Trek are all some of the big ones that I have ridden in our country, while the Four Peaks in Austria and Trans Hajar in Oman are some of the more exotic ones I have had the privilege of competing in abroad. The one thing that they all share in common for me is that I have raced all of them with a male team mate eyeing the big prize.
When the invite came from the 1Zambia race organiser Owen Green to ride his event in Zambia, it didn’t take much to decide that I would go. The question was, who was I going to ride with? It was while discussing this with my girlfriend Amy that a bold suggestion was made. Her. She rides and is fit, why not? One thing lead to another, a training plan was made, training was done, bikes were prepped, flights were booked and before we knew it we were on our way to Lusaka for a mountain bike adventure!
The race was based about an hour outside of Lusaka at Lilayi Lodge where the camp site was set up and ready for us up to two days early as riders arrived and dribbled in over the two days leading up to the event. As both first timers in Zambia, and mixed team virgins we really had no clue what to expect over the next 3 days. It was new terrain both literally and figuratively, and the only thing for sure was that it was going to test our relationship to the max.
The event was set to take place over 3 stages. The first two days were 68km and 72km respectively and ran in a clover leaf format starting and finishing at the lodge, while the last day was to be a mighty trek down off the escarpment to finish at the mighty Zambezi River over a gruelling 108km. What added yet another completely new dimension for us was that the race was not going to be marked, and it was up to every participant to download the route onto their GPS and navigate the whole way. Pretty exciting stuff!
Our first two nights spent camping took some adjusting to. Being out in the Zambian bush exposed us to a whole array of new sounds, from frogs croaking in the pond, bush babies shrieking in the above trees(I am told that it was mating season), and other smaller animals lurking in the grass, it was a great reminder that we were in rural Africa, and what a pleasure it was to adjust to!
Heading into the event there was lots to think of. Being the stronger rider, I decided to ride with an Opsrey hydration bag in order to carry both of our spares to take some of the load off of her. I must say that I probably got a little carried away with spares. I had everything from tubes, to CO2 cannisters, to chain lube, derailer hangers, a Leatherman, spare valves, tyre sealant, tyre plugs, chain lube, brake pads, not to mention all of our nutrition. The pack must have weighed about 10kg! The next 3 days were a roller coaster of note. So without boring you with the details, here are a few memorable experiences we shared and learned riding as a mixed team through the Zambian country side.
Stage 1 brought a lot to absorb. First off, the terrain was a lot tougher than we imagined. Short steep climbs, and technical single track downhills were the name of the game, and as we picked our way through the stage we found ourselves in a heated mixed team battle. We probably let our competitive side get the better of us, and with 20km to go, things got really tough. We had started too hard and we were paying for it, especially at 1300m altitude! Tears were shed, but we picked ourselves up and brought it home at a high pace in a sprint against another mixed team to take 3rd on the day. We were utterly elated to finish our first race as a couple. Bring on the next two days!
We learned a thing or two from the first day, and decided to start a little slower for stage two, which was supposed to much more flowing, and was dubbed the easiest of the 3 days. For a reason still unknown to me, I decided to make it the hardest and downloaded the wrong route onto my GPS. This turned out to be a complete disaster! Riding with a few other teams in the beginning helped, but once everyone settled into their own speed it was utter chaos. The Zambian bush is a spider’s web of little trails and foot paths, which makes for great riding, but is no fun without a GPS! Everytime we got into a good rhythm we would realise we had gone off track somewhere and have to turn around. This was tolerable for the first few times, but 4 hours into the stage it was no laughing matter. Tears were shed again. With the 4th mixed team breathing down our necks we found a group of riders who seemed to know where they were going and having lost our way many, many times as well as our sense of humour along the way we finally made it back to the lodge, maybe a little less happy than the previous stage, bodies in one piece, sanity not.
As testing as the second day was, it was soon forgotten as the hospitality, great food and great people at the event made it disappear as we shared war stories and soon realised that we A) weren’t the only ones who got lost, B) had not had any technical issues up until this point, and C) had not had one fall. Things weren’t so bad after all. Up ahead was the final day, which according to the murmurings around the camp was as hard riding as day 1, but 108km long.
We were now two days into Amy’s first stage race, and the final day was also going to be her longest mountain bike ride ever. The only logical approach was to hit the final day cautiously, and to ride at a comfortable, sustainable pace. Turns out this was a winning formula! They weren’t lying, the last stage was incredibly tough. Plenty of short, steep, rocky climbs were encountered as we made our way to the edge of the escarpment. What was really special about the last day was the array of terrain changes. We went from winding singletrack in the bush, to forest track, to flowing trails in a jungle- like environment, to rolling grasslands, to steep mountain ascents, until finally we had done most of the climbing and saw some stunning views as we dropped down a really steep, washed out descent to the flat lands were the Zambezi River awaited our arrival.
The day was long and tedious at times. We made sure to have regular breaks, eat and drink plenty, and take in the scenery. Yes, there were tears again, but we knew by now that most of the hard work had been done and over the last 20km we employed all our mixed racing tactics that we had learnt such as pushing, hanging on, and slinging to make the last 20km fly by as we made our way to Kiambi Lodge.
The joy of reaching the finish line together was only equalled by the sight of the mighty Zambezi, a river that is an impressive sight to say the least. The past 3 days’ riding had been tougher than we both expected, probably the hardest 3 day race I had ever participated in. It was needless to say that I was super proud of our achievement, and relieved that we were still talking to each other and came out smiling at the end. It was a relationship test of note!
To cap off the event, the event organisers loaded us all onto boats and shipped us all out to an island in the middle of the river where a cold, home brewed quartz of beer awaited us as we did the prize giving and watched the sun set on what was a very long day. The festivities were not done however, as in true Zambian style a fines meeting was held for all the funny mistakes made though out the event. Let’s just say we had a few good reasons to drink!
A massive thanks must go out to the 1Zambia crew for inviting and hosting us so well at this event, I am sure by the standard that has been set it won’t be the last one. One thing I am even more sure of is that I will be back for more.
There were no mixed feelings about this one!
Keep it rubber side down,