Stage 1

Stage 1

OH. MY. GOD. I’m sitting about 20m from the finish line with Rob, in some random fishing chairs, dazed and confused - can’t be bothered in going to the race meeting - we’ve asked Damian from POC to be our proxy.  One of the officials just passed and asked how it was, we both just looked at him blankly.  He told us the pro’s are saying it was way harder than Unbound, which, to be honest, barely flickered a reaction from us.   We couldn’t care less what the pro’s think, we know it was hard.  He walked away when he saw our lack of engagement and Rob said, “I didn’t find it enjoyable at all, not even a little bit.”  This was Rob’s first gravel experience, it’s safe to say it was a baptism of fire, it took us two hours to do the first 16km.  It was like end of days, the first few kilometres of “gravel” were hardcore, there were punctures, crashes, water crossings, and then we hit the mud.

Not normal mud, this was trench warfare.  Coming into it things didn’t seem so bad, it looked like there were small passages we could make it through.  This was not the case.  Within metres of entering it shit got real, everyone came grinding to a halt.  The mud was like clay, tyres were clogging and locking up, chains and chainrings were as useful as a chocolate fireguard.  It quickly became clear that riding was no longer an option, everyone stopped and tried to clean their bikes, at first this was successful, people remounted, then tried again, and it got worse.  There were bodies everywhere, some persisted with trying to rid their bike of mud, searching, begging for sticks, there weren’t many sticks available, they became a valuable commodity.  No matter if you cleaned the bike, you couldn’t test it as there was mud as far as the eye could see, the only option was to hike-a-bike out of it.  This then meant your shoes became clogs, and once you got out the other side you were back to the stick search-begging scenario.  But first you had to get out the other side.  It became every man for himself, my buddy system with Rob disintegrated.  

Eventually I made it out, and it looked like I could get going again, yet it took me a good 5mins of cleaning the chainring and my chain with my hand, fortunately I was wearing full finger MTB gloves, thank you POC.  The mud didn’t care about your frame clearance, it filled whatever gap was available.  It was so ridiculous that I found it funny, just laughing to myself at how ridiculous it was, we had barely started and we were all stopped.  Eventually I made it out to freedom, like breaking through a thick fog into sunlight, I hung around for Rob, not knowing where he was - eventually I found him standing in a puddle trying to clean his bike, it adding to the comedy of it all.  Welcome to gravel, Rob.

I took me another 5-10mins to get Rob’s bike working again, I even took for a ride to put a bucket load of power on the chain to get it to clean the mud out of itself.  Amazingly this worked.  Then we were off again, and things didn’t really get better.  I don’t think I’ve even encountered such a hardcore route, at times Cape Epic was bad, and for sure much worse at times, but the consistency of the horror today was second to none.  Eventually we made it to the first feed at 45km, it took us three and a half hours to get there.  Mikel, the man responsible for the Migration Race and Amani, was there, all smiles, loving it way too much.  Telling me how the leaders were already at km 90.  Thanks Mikel.  Rob rolled in shortly after me, our buddy system had involved me riding about 100m in front of him willing him on, not sure how that was helping his morale, but it helped mine.  We got our drive trains oiled, refilled our bottles, and set off again, but not before Mikel told us he was getting in the helicopter with the media guys to film us, so we better look good.  I was psyched about this, Rob less so.  Needless to say they got shots of us with me approx. 100m in front of him.

Eventually we got to the turn off point where you could choose to do the Zebra (shorter course) or Leopard (longer course).  Rob made the wise move of taking the Zebra, I told him I was going to continue on the Leopard, he said meekly, “I understand.”  I felt bad, but I gave the good news that I’d probably be arriving at the same time at the finish as him, which again, probably wasn’t so good for his morale.  I then had some fun, until it wasn’t, there was one moment where I had champagne gravel and was fully in flow, only for a herd of cows to be blocking it, when they literally had their pick of Kenyan countryside.  Speaking of cows, I saw hundreds of them today, and sheep, and some dogs.  That was what Stage 1 Safari composed off, gutted.

I had the trails mostly to myself, I was quite a way behind everybody at this point, it was properly surreal battering along them on my own in the wilds of Kenya with absolutely no clue where I was, totally dependent on my Garmin.  There are no arrows or marshals here, it’s all self-guided from the supplied map.  I got carried away at one point barrelling down a long fast (by today’s standard) gradual descent, it felt so good to feel like I was actually moving, I didn’t notice the left hander coming up and came two wheel sliding into and by the grace of god managed to unclip and stamp my left foot down and somehow, miraculously bounce myself back up right.  I did it with such force that I twinged a muscle in my right thigh, didn’t care though as the relief and pride of staying upright was golden.  About 15km from the finish we turned onto a tarmac road, the first of the day, it was gorgeous, like the whole day it was a howling headwind, yet it was glorious.  In the kilometres before my internal monologue had been raging about how bumpy it was, all the time, I was dreaming of a full-suspension bike and thinking about how I was going to tell everybody that was the bike we should be using.  

Eventually I made it to the finish, and who was standing on the finish line having just finished?  Rob Gitelis.  Love it when a plan comes together.  Tomorrow isn’t easier, today was a slog, with a mere 800m of total climbing, tomorrow is 166km with 3000m of climbing.  Rob is going full Zebra.  I’m going Leopard.