The leaders were completing the long stage two cycle ride on the flat roads of the Karoo desert plateau to arrive at Transition 2 (TA2), while teams at the back of the race were finding the final checkpoints in the giant sand dunes on the coast and keen to reach the sanctuary of TA1.
Those same teams would experience different weather during the day, the teams at the front of the course enduring brutally hot conditions, while those at the back and still riding in the mountains, had much cooler temperatures and overcast skies. By tomorrow all will likely be dealing with much colder temperatures and heavy rainfall. The Eastern Cape is showing off all of its changeable elements for the World Championship.
TA1 remained busy into the morning and most teams coming in through the night chose to sleep in the tent there. The Craft Divils from Ireland put up their red Teepee to sleep in a quiet spot away from the hubbub of the main tent, where teams were coming and going and the generator humming away.
Lorraine Horan of the team said. “The first leg was so tough, incredibly beautiful, but boy was it tough and hard on the feet. I’m small and the boys had to help on the swim. I had my bag on my head and they held me from being swept in the current. Our plan is to put the tent up and sleep each night.”
Inside the transition tent Andy Wayland of Beacon AR was stirring after a fitful rest and he said it too noisy to sleep well in there. When, where, and how long you sleep are important choices in an expedition race. (Team Belgium was seen by the side of the road later in the day, laid out on a grassy gateway in the weak sunshine and fast asleep.)
Also waking at TA1 in the morning was ‘Pongo’ Baker of Team Costa Rica Pura Vida. He is a former World Champs Race Director, returning to competition after a break of some years. He said the swims on stage one were very cold, but then he does come from Coast Rica!
By this stage some teams were opting to miss checkpoints and walking in along the road, missing the last river swim which was beside the transition.
However, that wasn’t an option for Team Tshenolo who waded across and said they were determined to get all of the checkpoints. The Cape Town team is very inexperienced, two are in their first race, but they are determined and have trained and prepared rigorously.
The weather at TA1 in the morning was damp and misty, and on the first part of the ride, going up into the mountain ridges that parallel the coast, stayed overcast and breezy. It was fortunate it wasn’t hotter on the long climb up to CP25 at the historic Zuurburg Mountain Resort and that was a checkpoint teams were very glad to reach.
Through the morning teams were stopping for breakfast/lunch in the alluringly comfy conditions of the hotel. Wearing their race bibs they sat under the chandeliers, eating at the big wooden dining tables and tucking into bacon and eggs. Several described it as a haven or a godsend, but it was a honeytrap, costing the teams momentum and time, and some stayed for an hour or more, or fell asleep in the garden chairs. The Mountain Mammoth team gained at least 5 places simply by not stopping for breakfast!
The later part of the 181km ride was along a broad dirt road which ran arrow straight for kilometre after kilometre across the Karoo. Teams dropped from the mountains onto this arid plain which is known for its intense heat. Right now it does not look arid as the recent long and heavy rains have turned it green with vegetation, but it was hot, with temperatures in the high 30’s in the day.
All of the teams who rode there during the day found the heat debilitating and draining. The road was monotonous, bumpy and dusty, as much a mental test as a physical one in the unchanging scenery. Teams took a long break at TA2 to cool down and recover, and among them was Tiki Tour of New Zealand, who were all laid out in the shade a tent. Eight time world champion Chris Forne was first up and trying to get the team moving again.
Those watching the leaders transition said they were slower than usual, clearly feeling the effects of the two opening stages, even though they rode in the cooler night time temperatures. They arrived at TA2 early in the morning and race leaders SAFAT reported one team member was feeling ill.
Soon after leaving to begin the next 80km mountain trek by climbing steeply up to the abseil transition they were passed by Estonian ACE / La Sportiva. (In third place 400 team of France lost some time when they missed a checkpoint and had to return for it.)The abseil has never been used before and is a spectacular 50m sheer drop into a ravine, which is on private land. The race has set up 8 ropes and the recent rains have made the setting more dramatic than usual as the waterfall volume is high.
The lead teams are pushing to get to the leg 5 kayak stage as early as possible, aiming to arrive in the night and sleep, before the dark zone prohibition on the river is lifted at 5am. However, they may not make it in time as their pace is slowing going into their second night without sleep, the terrain is difficult and its night time.
Race Director Stephan Muller has highlighted this as a key moment in the race and said already that he thinks the leaders are pushing too hard and will pay a price. He has also highlighted CP42 as potentially difficult to navigate too in the night.
All those arriving on day 3 will have to decide if they can sleep before the paddle, with the risk of being caught in the dark zone the following night as a consequence, as it is at least an 8 hour paddle. But if they don’t sleep they will paddle slower. It is a dilemma all teams will face tomorrow.
By the close of day two the first team had pulled out of the race, and surprisingly it was Black Hill of Czechia, one of the most consistent top 10 teams in the World Championship of the past decade. Even more surprising was that one of the race favourites, Tiki Tour of New Zealand, moved to an unranked status when Tom Lucas withdrew. There will be no 9th World title for Chris Forne at this race.
Another favourite, Brazil Multisport, world ranked #3, also incurred a 2 hour penalty by forgetting to take helmets on stage 3 for the abseil. It was a rookie mistake by an experienced team and perhaps a sign of the strain which the leaders the teams are under after two massive opening stages.
The pressure won’t ease on day 3 when teams must decide their Dark Zone and sleep strategy, and cope with predicted heavy rains as well as the continuing demands of the course. There is still a very long way to go and there will be many twists and turns to come in this epic World Championship race.