This year’s Tankwa Trek was my third in a row but by far the toughest. – By Mark Murphy
The goal for 2017 was for my Epic partner, Shaun Frayne and me, to find a groove and to see how well we work together in the harsh conditions. I hope to tell you a story of an average, middle-aged man’s experience as he chases the elite pack.
Everybody focuses their fear and attention on day 2 with the Merino Monster: a tough climb that strikes fear into most riders. In my opinion day one is by far the toughest but this year it was even tougher. I hope I can describe to you what we went through and experienced…
Day 1 – 89km 1990m
Starting in B batch wasn’t what we had hoped for but we aimed to move up the field by the end of the day. The groups were big and given 2min gaps which, in my mind, was the only negative of the entire event as huge bunches congregated on the Witzenberg ox-wagon trails within the first 10km of the day.
One thing a mountain bike profile never really reveals is just how tough the terrain is over the distance. You don’t see the loose rocks on the steep climb at 55km do you? Well they were so loose that my dinner companion, a certain Mr Sauser, told me that he had to walk up there. The climb of the day is a 12 km traverse through pine plantations that ends up overlooking Tulbagh on the right and the stunning Witzenberg valley on the left. The shade from the plantations was an absolute relief owing to the peak temperature of 48-degrees! Ouch.
Once again, I emphasise the riding terrain that doesn’t get noticed on a profile. With the heat taking its toll on all riders, the last 20km were brutal. You have to keep alert and if you are a novice, this is probably not the race you should be attempting. I am just all too pleased to be riding a Niner Jet9 RDO with its 120mm fork. This machine kept me moving fast on the descents and smooth through the rocky single tracks. Unfortunately, like most other riders on the day, we both started cramping and had to pull over for a minute or two in the last 15km. A hard day was completed in a gruelling 5h16 min registering 15th position for us in the vets class.
Our saving grace was our team masseur, Liezel Malan, who managed to make our legs feel “brand new, second hand”.
Day 2 – 87km 2 200m
We managed to achieve our goal and move up to the A batch. And for today, there were 7 minute gaps between groups – thank goodness! Shaun had been on antibiotics the whole week and his stomach was playing up too. This drained an-already shattered body and gave us no choice but to calm down and use the early part of the ride as more of a “training strategy”. We knew by the time we got to the 37km mark it would be racing again!
A thunderstorm at 4am helped cool the conditions and the short rain spell hardened up the thick sand. This was a big plus and helped the tired legs.
The Merino Monster is always in your mind and it’s always best to conserve energy before reaching it. From the bottom water point to the top is around 8km and about 700m of ascent and my Strava shows a maximum of 22,4% gradient in one section! The descent has been softened with concrete bricks which is a bit of a disadvantage for Shaun and me as we are more adept at bombing down rough terrain and using that to gain time. But on the safety front, it definitely helped those less skilled. A fast, flattish section takes you home with the last 5km a good test of single track skills.
Day 3 – 89km 1250m
The easy day of the Tankwa is only 89km long. Piece of cake, eh? The start is flat and fast on a long district road. Unfortunately for Shaun, the illness had sapped most of his top-end power and energy, so we rode this section at an easy pace. As such many B batch riders came screaming past us with gusto. Our experience told us that we would see them again later in the day when it got a bit tougher. This day is all about the beautifully manicured single track through mind-blowing rock formations and picturesque mountain landscapes. The varied terrain gives all types of riders a chance to enjoy the 30km of fun. The last 10km is world-class. You have a wonderful technical single track and you can put the hammer down. An outstanding finish to the best 3-day stage race in the country. We managed 28th overall and 14th in vets. Pleasing under the circumstances.