Gale force winds, mass crashes and... Matt Damon?

Battling the elements in the Cape Argus

With it still dark outside, and with wind blowing against the hotel window, the day of the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour had finally arrived. It was the day we were to take on the South African women over 110km, in a race only they had won.  

The HotChillee Challenge Team were very quiet over breakfast, but it was difficult to tell if this was due to nerves or the fact it was an ungodly time in the morning – 5am! If the silence was due to nerves, this was nothing compared to the nerves that were about to hit us, that none of us could have ever anticipated.  

We rolled down to the start together, still in the dark, to find thousands of riders milling around trying to find their starting pen. There was a real buzz in the air and the atmosphere was great. However, all this was about to change when we found out the true strength of the winds – 90mph.

The wind caught us as we tried to cross the road to our starting pen. Our bikes were blown off the ground and we struggled to stay upright. The starting banners flapped and got blown away, the barriers at the side of the road fell over, some tents around the start line blew away and a portable toilet blew over.  

My fellow HotChillee riders Alice Monger-Godfrey and Nikki Harris had to shelter behind a wall, while Emma Davies and I managed to shelter behind a building. At this point I felt like I was in a movie, with Emma and me on one side of the gorge while Alice and Nikki were stuck on the other with the bridge missing!

Once on the start line, the nerves disappeared briefly while we spoke to some of the South African women and wished each other luck. But during the final few minutes of waiting the nerves were shown on all of our faces, even though we didn’t want to admit it.

Bang! We were off, both men and women together in a start of around 200 riders. The start was quick like a normal road race, but within 100m the peloton came to a sudden stop as the crosswinds caught them and 25 riders hit the deck, including Emma and Nikki. 

I stopped to make sure they were alright, but they struggled to get upright and back on their bikes as the winds were unbelievably strong. Not the start anyone had expected or wished for. 

We soon regrouped as the HotChillee Challenge Team and got stuck into the race and got used to the crazy winds, which were mainly headwinds with the occasional strong cross-gusts during the first half of the race.  

The initial 20km was pretty quiet, with Nikki staying in the top 15 and Emma, Alice and me moving from the front to the middle of the bunch. There was a new section added to the course due to roadworks, which was tricky, but this was negotiated with no crashes and the peloton got through the sharp bends safely.  

At the bottom there was a significant injection in pace and the race had begun. There were a few attacks from the men but nothing stayed away for very long, and then there was an attack from the HotChillee team. Emma got away with another lady but unfortunately she didn’t work with Emma and the men chased them down and Emma was back in the bunch. 

The race split up on the back half of the course on a sticky little climb followed by a very long straight descent, which had a tailwind. This caused many splits in the peloton and the HotChillees were split into different groups. We later found out that Alice had two punctures during the race. Some groups came back together and I worked really hard and caught up to Nikki.

From 55km to the finish Nikki and I worked really well together to pass each small pack on the road in front of us and drop them. It was exciting to race with Nikki again as we had spent two weeks racing together in Belgium in 2006. We worked hard together, dropping lots of the men as we stormed up the 5km climb to Chapman’s Peak.  

When we got to the top, having really moved back up the field, we could see the front group ahead of us. At that point we were hit by gale force winds and were stopped dead in our tracks. 

The last 30km was unbelievable due to a block headwind with insane side gusts that were very scary. I've spent a lot of time training in Lanzarote over the past seven years in strong winds, but this was something I'd never experienced before. Nikki and I both managed to stay upright and safely got to the finish. Later in the day they had to stop the race at Chapman’s Peak and bus everyone to the finish as the winds were too dangerous.

Nikki and I crossed the finish line together and were really chuffed with our performance – and staying upright. A big, relief and our hug certainly showed this. We headed to the Pick n Pay hospitality tent that we had been invited to following the race.  

We decided between us that we might have finished in the top 20 women. I was really pleased to have achieved this after only two-and-a-half weeks of full-time training for the event, after being retired for 12 months. Nikki was chuffed after a season break following her first cycle-cross season.  

On reaching the tent, the full HotChillee team ordered well-deserved celebratory drinks. Then the women’s results were displayed on the TV screen and Nikki and I were displayed as ninth and tenth. We were so pleased with our first Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour.

Emma's first toast to the team was: “To Pick n Pay hospitality and notCape Town hospital.” It was certainly an amazing hospitality tent, with drinks, great food, sunshine, free massages, and continued winds.  

Unfortunately the team were having so much fun we missed Jan Ulrich come and go, but the atmosphere and camaraderie were fantastic, and the afternoon was unbelievable, with drinks flowing for a few of us (obviously including myself as a retired rider). The hospitality tent with its friendliness and buzzing atmosphere was finally trumped by a brief visit from Matt Damon. An amazing end to an amazing day.

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