Team First Ascent took to the trails of Ceres for the Momentum Health Tankwa Trek presented by Biogen, South Africa's premier 4-day stage race. In this article they share with us their experience of this year's event, which saw them covering a distance of 288km with a vertical ascent of 5760m.
Tankwa Trek is always a highlight on the SA MTB calendar, the attraction of some elusive UCI points, paired with the race being a perfect prep race for Epic, results in a world class field of international riders. Combine this field with some of the hardest days on an MTB you can encounter across the rugged Tankwa-Karoo terrain in mid-summer, when the mercury regularly reaches the 40s and you have a recipe for some crazy crazy racing. It also makes for the perfect place to put our First Ascent apparel to the test. Richard was riding with Zandi, whilst Luke paired up with guest rider CP van Wyk.
The short and fast stage 1 was a new addition to Tankwa and one that had us all feeling a bit nervous when faced against some of the best XC racers in the world. With the temperature sitting at 42C on the start line and an hour of flat-out racing predicted, we knew it would be frantic and frantic it was, the start was a full-blown sprint and it just stayed that way the whole stage. CP and Luke managed to hold onto the lead group for the first third until the tempo became too hot and eventually were forced to hold onto whatever reserves they had left, to bring in a top 20 on the stage. Richard had a really tough time battling with the extreme heat and as a result he and Zandi lost a bit of time, but over the next 3 big days anything was possible.
This stage is a complete stage of mountain biking that has everything from great singletrack to some proper jeep track climbing. The day started off hard and split up within the first 5km. Both of the teams found themselves in the second group that worked well together heading into the first piece of singletrack at 15km. Unfortunately, CP punctured in the middle of the singletrack that caused them having to stop numerous times over the stage. After the singletrack that defines the first 50km of the stage, the main climb of the day comes. The climb starts off consistently and ramps in a few places towards the top. Zandi and Rich rode a consistent stage to ensure that they kept their position for most of it and gained back some time that they had lost yesterday. Luke and CP also finished the stage off strongly and managed to limit some of their losses, to ensure that their hopes of a good GC result were not all gone.
Often referred to as the queen stage due to the presence of the Merino Monster - the biggest climb on the SA calendar. It’s a day that can make or break your Tankwa. Luke and CP decided to go for the break after losing so much time the previous stage, they used the single-track of the Du Toit drop and following trails to get into a good group of riders and then continued to drive the pace hard to the base of the Merino. From there the crux of the race starts, Luke and CP rode their own race up the climb and many Cadence gels later crested the climb in a good position. What many people forget is that the descent following a long climb can be as decisive as the climb itself, the guys used this to their advantage to pass two more teams and drove it home to a strong 13th on the stage, vaulting them to 14th on GC.
Rich and Zandi had the advantage of a strong result the previous stage and as a result reserved a bit more energy earlier on the stage planning to utilise their climbing prower on the Monster. Unfortunately racing doesn’t always go to plan and Zandi didn’t have the legs to hang with the group up the climb, resulting in them loosing time to those around them on GC and slipping to 19th on GC.
The last day of Tankwa is always a fun day on the bike with it being a flat-out sprint to the finish. The day starts with around 35km of open gravel roads until it pinches tightly into a narrow singletrack. The first objective of the day is to make it all the way to the singletrack in the front bunch. With the overall race still wide open this is never an easy task as many of the top contenders make the pace fairly hard. Couple this with a road race like bunch and you have yourself a very fast and nervous bunch for the first hour of the day. After getting through the worst of the open roads Rich had a small crash just as all the teams began fighting for position into the single track. Luckily for Rich and Zandi the crash didn’t slow them down much and they were quickly up and running again.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before they passed a stuck CP who had somehow managed to unscrew the bolts from under his shoes and had his cleat stuck in the peddle. With some tough fingers the two of them managed to get the cleat unstuck and were back on their bikes after 6 minutes. After charging through the beautiful singletrack Luke and CP were working hard to recuperate their lost time.
Rich and Zandi were also working well together and were closing the gap on the team in front of them before the rails really came off and Zandi was struck with stomach issues. Luckily for Luke and CP their issues for the day were over and the two of them were able to limit their losses and catch a few of the teams that had gone past them during their mechanical. Their valiant chase back meant that they only lost one position on GC and as such finished 15th overall. For Rich and Zandi the day continued to be a tough one but non the less they were able to keep it all together and finished 21st on the stage and 19th overall.
Tankwa proved to be an incredibly tough race with it often seeming like our two teams had more bad luck than good luck through the race. These sorts of races always offer up invaluable lessons and we hope to be able to build on what went right and do better in our next races.
Luckily for the team, the next race is not too far away with the team taking on the Knysna Bull this week. This race will no doubt be an entirely different experience to Tankwa. The Knysna trails are well known for being smooth and flowing through beautiful indigenous forests and Luke and Zandi are looking forward to the challenge. The racing will no doubt be fast and furious and filled with action as many of the top cyclists in the country will be attending the race.
Lastly, Tankwa was Rich’s last race for the team as he looks to focus a bit more on his academics in his final year at UCT. We want to thank him for all the dedication and hardwork he put into the team and his racing, we will look back fondly on all the memories and races we did with him proudly in the Team First Ascent colours.