"I tucked myself away as best I could inside the 19 riders I was with and managed to finish 13th on the stage which was my best ever result for a professional road stage."
South Africa has always been on my list of places I wanted to visit, so when the chance to ride Tour of the Freestate came up with Escentual For VioRed, I jumped at the chance to be on the team. Heading out for our team were also Elle Hopkins, Gaby Shaw and Claire Galloway, with Lauren Creamer and Ciara Horne joining EFV for the race. It was a strong squad but all relatively new to stage racing, this being only my 3rd tour.
We arrived in Johannesburg and were whisked off straight to the National TV studio’s for an appearance on the Super Sport News Channel, before grabbing some lunch and heading to our first night’s accommodation on the way to Bloemfontein.
Catching up after a crash
Stage 1 was an 80km stage in pretty much a straight line from Virginia towards Bloemfontein and with the wind playing a huge part in the race, we found ourselves riding in the gutter with the attempt to put as many riders as possible in the wind. The tactic of staying at the front could not have been more important and as riders battled for wheels further back there were several nasty crashes, with some rider’s races ending inside the first 20km.
The Escentual girls were all well hidden in the bunch and as the pace increased inside the last 20km, I managed to keep myself in the front 20 riders that split the peloton and ended up with a decent gap to the bunch. All the expected contenders were in there and with this being the last chance for scoring Olympic Qualification points, Hitech, RusVelo, Lotto, Ukraine and Dolmans were all right up there with ambitions for their top riders.
With so many strong riders in the group it was gradually pulling away from the peloton and then disaster struck for me with about 9km to go on the stage. One of the girls from Toyota punctured and lost control of her bike, sending her flying across the road to the right and into the path I was taking to try and avoid her. I ended up flying over the handlebars as I rode straight into her.
Jumping up and straightening the bars out, I then put my chain back on and quickly jumped back on my bike to start the long chase to try and get back on! With the road being so long and straight I could see the group I had been with and also a string of riders who were chasing to get back there themselves. I passed a few people as I worked with Ludivine Heniron from Lotto to try and regain contact, but there wasn’t enough time and we lost 1 minute 30 seconds to the eventual winner from Ukraine.
Riding in the gutter again
Stage 2 was a similar situation with a long straight road of around 95km from Jaegersfontein to Bloemfontein and with the wind direction we again found ourselves riding in the gutter and again more crashes happened as riders fought for shelter and to keep contact. The effects of my crash on stage 1 started to bother me about halfway through when the pace was constantly changing and it took big support from Ciara and Claire to keep me out of trouble and in contact with the front group. In the run in to the finish I let a wheel go and lost 30 seconds to the leaders but given the bad patch I’d had it seemed a small gap compared to what it could have been without my team mates.
Our transfer day to the mountains came as a welcome rest and the chance to get my back straightened out after the crash.
It was pretty bruised down the right side and affecting my right leg, but some treatment made everything relax off a bit and after a spin along part of the course for the next stages we were ready and raring to go in the final two hilly/mountain stages.
Planning an attack
Stage 3 was starting and finishing in a town called Clarens on the edge of the Golden Gate National Park and standing at 1,745m above sea level. The 122km loop promised to be the toughest stage to date but with the wind not making such an impact on the peloton the field stayed safe and altogether for the first 65km.
Attacks started going off the front as we neared the longer climbs of the day and I took my chance to bridge across to one small group and then counter attack it, but the big teams dragged it back together and I had to rethink the plan of attack. The EFV girls were keeping me safe and tucked out of the wind, so that when the chance arose again I could try and get away. The main climb of the stage came at about 85km from the finish and was a long stepped climb leaving around 20km of descending into the finish where there was a short climb back into the town.
I saw a couple of riders take off from the front on one of the shorter climbs, so as we went over the top and started to descend I attacked with speed from the back of the group and got across the gap. We pulled out a little more of an advantage up the next climb which triggered a reaction from the bunch and the race split to pieces as the big teams decided this would be the time to whittle the group down and have a winning group off the front.
As myself and my fellow escapees got swept up by the charge I almost lost contact on two occasions, but managed to get myself back to them on the descents and recovered enough before the final rise into the last 20km to the finish.
Finishing in Clarens was great, with a short sharp climb for about 350m at 500m to go and then a flat S-bend into the finish line. I tucked myself away as best I could inside the 19 riders I was with and managed to finish 13th on the stage which was my best ever result for a professional road stage and elevated me to 18th on GC.
Building an advantage
The final stage was going to be the decider and given the way the field had split on the smaller hills of stage 3, we expected the final stage would have a similar and possibly more devastating effect. Starting with a 20km rolling road the race then entered the National Park, climbing from 1,600m to around 2,200m at the highest point and then passing our hotel at 2,000m before rolling into the same finish area in Clarens. Our team had decided that Elle and Lauren would work to protect me near the front in that first section, then Claire and Ciara could take over in the hills, with me looking to gain an advantage and get up the road if I could.
Lotto had their team leader, Ashleigh Moolman, lying 4th at 26 seconds and so from the start were sending riders off the front in almost a continuous motion of attack after attack.
At one point there looked to be a decent size group off the front and not being able to see the race leader, Emma Johansson who was safely hiding in the bunch, I decided to try and get across to them just in case.
The big teams followed me, bringing it all back together again and we turned into the National Park as one big bunch. This is where the terrain started to get interesting and again Lotto sent a rider up the road, Robyn De Groot, who quickly established a 40 second advantage.
There was about 50km to the finish and as the road hit another big rise a gap opened up on the right hand side of the road as the bunch all fought for protection on the left. The pace seemed to slow, so I took the chance and jumped up the right hand side, crossing the gap to Robyn and starting to build up a lead. I knew I was on my own with the pace setting, with Lotto riding for Ashleigh, so I just kept my head down and managed to build up a 1 minute 30 second gap before we hit the bigger climbs of the day.
Getting over the first one with still a 1 minute and 20 second advantage, the gap then started to drop and by the time I reached the top of the biggest climb of the day I had been joined by race leader Emma Johansson and Ashleigh Moolman and the three of us started the descent where upon we were joined by one of Emma’s team mates.
Off the descent we were on the main road into Clarens and a series of enormous speed bumps gave me something to think about and I briefly lost contact but was soon joined by Hanka Kupfernagel in a group of 3. We Time Trialled ourselves back to the front 3 riders and this stayed the front group of 7 into the finish where I didn’t have the legs to come higher than 7th on the stage but this still elevated my GC to joint 12th overall.
It had been a tough race and the Escentual girls all finished, to give us a great position of having 3 riders in the top 30 which was mainly filled with professional riders. It was a superb team effort and although we had lost Gaby Shaw to a stomach bug after two stages, we were lucky to have her get well quickly enough to support us and cheer us through the final part of the race.
Visiting a Lion Park on the way back to the Airport with all the other teams, certainly added to the highlights of the week and we finally boarded our planes a tired but very happy group.
Next stop is the Tour Series in Colchester and the start of a busy week of racing!