The five stages of stage races

Participating in a mountain bike stage race is not just a physical challenge, but also a mental contest with yourself, your partner and the little voice inside your head that pushes and pulls throughout the race.

By David Moseley

Five kilometres into day three of my first mountain biking stage race, which just happened to be the second ever FNB Wines2Whales, I turned to my partner (my girlfriend back then, my wife now) and said, “That’s it. I can’t go on. My bum is wincing. My legs are crying and the thought of doing another 80km is forcing me to re-evaluate life in ways I never thought possible. I’m done, Robyn. Done! Just go, just leave me to the vultures.”

(Of course, I was so tired at this stage of the race that my comments were nowhere near as dramatically eloquent as I like to remember. It was probably something closer to, “Can’t. Go. On. Leave. Me. That bush. I’ll just. Rest. There.” Robyn looked at me unsympathetically, looked ahead at the first climb of the day and turned back to me. “This was your idea, you twit. So stop complaining. We’re finishing this thing whether you like it or not.”

Four years later and not much has changed in our mountain biking relationship. By day three I’m ready to burn my bike as a sacrifice to the gods of bum soothing, and Robyn is cajoling me onwards, insisting that if I don’t want to finish then I shouldn’t have started in the first place. She’s hard like that. But she’s still not immune to the Five Stages of Stage Racing.

Everyone goes there. The highs, the lows, the questioning moments when you wonder what lunacy inspired you to enter an event that involves cycling for three days in the row, the euphoria of spotting the finish line, the grim resolve required to climb on day three. Those are the peaks and valleys that make mountain biking the sport we love. Sometimes we’re in denial, other times we’re angry, often we bargain for some relief, depression can strike at any time, yet ultimately we accept the adventure for what it is, a physical and mental challenge like no other.

We’ve all been here, that moment in the early kilometres of a stage race when you tell yourself, “I’m okay. This is fine. I’ve done the training. Ja, so I only did 30km every weekend. But I can definitely handle three days of 80km. Easy peasy.”

That would be denial. You’re so convinced in your mountain biking prowess that you’ve fooled yourself into believing that roughly 240km on the bike is utterly achievable on the back of two months’ half-arsed training. And it is. It most certainly is. But only if you’re a supreme denialist.

For our first W2W Robyn and I cycled no further than 40km on training rides. But so powerful was our denial of the race reality that we ended up being gutted with a six-hour first day. “How could this happen?” we asked each other, stunned at the inadequacy of the performance. “We trained so hard. We put in ALL the hours. We rode at least once a week for a month!” Yup. Classic denial.

Next, of course, is anger. This normally comes just before the crest of a race’s first major climb. “Why me?!” you ask, flustered, faltering and alone as the rest of the field, you imagine, is sitting in the village sipping cold beers and munching saucy Spur burgers.

Pushing your bike, that’s incredibly got heavier as the race has progressed, you declare mournfully to the universe, perhaps with a clenched and shaking fist, “It’s not fair. It’s just not fair. Why do I have to suffer on these hills?”

You might experience some of this anger on day three of the W2W, as you head over the last climbs towards the Onrust finish. Robyn and I certainly did in 2010, as we struggled up a long, sandy climb only to be told by a marshal with a vague waft of the hand that we were heading over “there”. “Where?” I asked after picking my jaw up from the floor and wiping tears from Robyn’s eyes. There, just over there. “Oh, I see. Just next to that mountain.” No, no. On TOP of that mountain. “Whyyyyyyyy…”

You’ve seen the route profile and you know the positions of all the major climbs. But you’ll do anything to delay the inevitable, so you start wishing for more downhill, more flats. “Please,” you mutter to anyone who’ll listen, “just one last downhill to get my strength up. I’m not ready to climb. Not yet. Soon I will be, but just not yet. I’m too young to climb.”

If you’re not fully prepared for day one of the W2W, you may start bargaining sooner than you think, hoping that the first climb is over in the blink of an eye. It won’t be. Last year, before our race was ended by an unruly tree around the 40km mark, Robyn was doing the bargaining. “Anything. I’ll do anything to finish this climb,” she huffed as we left Lourensford.

Someone must have been listening, because before the next major climb started I cycled straight off the path and cut my shin open, ending our 2012 participation. My wife gave me a few comforting pats on the back as I sat in the dust cursing my luck, but I definitely saw her looking heavenwards and mouthing a silent “thank you”.

Depression is three-fold on a mountain bike stage race, especially one like the Wines2Whales. It can refer to that feeling of emptiness when you ask someone at a water point on day three how far you’ve cycled, and they snort before saying, “20km, boet. 60 to go.”

It also refers to that very literal, sinking feeling you get when you’ve punctured moments after repairing your first puncture. As happy-go-lucky participants whizz past, you do your best to smile at their, “you okay, bud?” inquiries while you unpack pumps, bombs and tubeless repair kits for the energy-sapping task.

Finally, it’s also the overwhelming sensation of melancholy that smacks you in the face like a wet mackerel on the Monday morning after your Wines2Whales weekend. “What am I doing in this office,” you think. “My legs are numb, my skin is roasted and my bike is creaking in all the wrong places. I should definitely be out cycling!” That’s the power of stage races. They break you down, only to make you fall in love with them. And then when they’re gone, and a full year away from taking place again, all that’s left is the emptiness and yearning to push your body and bike to the limit again.

In the end, you know everything is going to be A-okay. “It’s all going to be fine,” you say either to yourself of your partner, just as Robyn had to do to me in 2011 as I lay clutching my calf in the Grabouw fynbos. “You can’t fight the cramp. Accept the cramp. Embrace the cramp,” she advised as chuckling riders zipped past, enjoying my cries and winces.

With acceptance, you come to terms that everything a stage race throws at you. Heat? No problem. Rain? That’s why we ride. Howling south easter guaranteed to blow sand in your face for 80km? Tired legs, sunburned noses? You take it all on the chin because you accept that mountain biking comes at a price.

You understand that to enjoy the winding singletrack, you first have to climb. You realise that to saviour your beer at the end of a stage, you first have to work up a thirst. With acceptance you find peace on your bike.

All is well in the world as you and your partner hit that perfect pedaling harmony where not a word is spoken and sections of the race fly by. Without realising, you’re grinning from ear to ear as roots and rocks become mini launch pads and in your mind, for one brief moment, you’re a world champ racing to beat the clock.