It was interesting to hear the second SA XCO National was going to take place in Lesotho. The big talk was not that it was in Lesotho but at an altitude of 3220m!
There was big talk on twitter among some of the top personalities in SA Mtbiking circles. Comments were made that there hasn’t to date even been an UCI World XCO at that altitude. The question was also raised if the organizers were aware of the medical risks. Now imagine how us ‘coasties’ were feeling coming from sea level! We had no idea how it was going to influence the riders.
Extreme altitude gives your breathing system quite a knock. Altitude sickness can set in from as low as 2 500m and from 2 800m it is pretty common. The highest point in the race was 3 273m which is equivalent to 10 738feet. (If you’re interested in reading about racing at altitude click here – Understanding the Challenges of High-Altitude Racing)
On race day we saw top SA riders cruising past the feeding zone at nothing faster than a jogging pace. Partly because there was a short kick in the track but the main reason being was riders were down on power by 20-35% and in extreme cases as much as 40%. Some riders literally stopped on the track for a few seconds to get their breath back.
Our East Cape Mountain bike riders rode bravely with no complaints. Yes, there were thoughts of pulling off but thankfully there were other East Cape locals supporting, so all the riders pushed on to the finish.
I was just there for support but took my bike with in any case because I wanted to get a feel of riding at extreme altitude. The day before the race I took to one of the gravel passes that covered a 9km uphill from 2500m to 3220m. Starting out I felt pretty good and was doing a good pace at heart rate just a few beats under race pace. Just after the halfway mark my pace started to drop considerably. I was taking strain and backed off. Although the pace was down (big time) my heart rate only dropped by 3 to 5 beats. At the top I was back to race pace but was feeling a strain to breath. A very interesting feeling and definitely not ideal for racing! It took me 1 hour to do the 9km climb which is more or less the same gradient as the top half of the Zuurberg pass. Definitely not hectic for Mtbiking. Just shows you what high altitude does to your body.
To have done a full blast XCO race at extreme altitude is definitely no joke. Our EC racers, (all from the coast) showed huge character and guts. Respect to this EC XCO team which included, Gerrit Rautenbach, Adriaan Venter, Mathew Allen, Kyle Bradford, Marco Joubert, Jason Reed and Brendon Wood.
For more tales from 3220m head over to Rourke Croeser's blog. He managed a 3rd place in the Elite category - http://rourkecoeser.blogspot.com/?spref=tw