The first hill rose to 600 metres and was not technical and, as a result, was ridden relatively quickly. We then turned into the singletrack and almost immediately dived down a steep mud chute, meaning braking involved sliding all the way. The problem was it just continued to go down and so it was a great relief to feel it level out and for bike and rider to remain in one piece. Shortly after, I was caught by Mike Blewitt and Imogen Smith, the Australian mixed pair, and we were able to swap turns along a rare, flatter section. I was amazed at how effectively they worked together almost symbiotically and with a thorough understanding of the other person’s needs. Soon after I hit the front, they dropped back and I didn’t see them until much later in the stage.
The trail continued to rise and the rain fell harder. At the half way checkpoint, I was progressing reasonably well, but perhaps the ever increasing leg fatigue or the four previous days of extreme exertion were about to catch up with me. It may have even been due to the fact I hadn’t slept too well the previous night, or it may have been the cold, wet conditions causing me difficulty. Indeed, I perform much better in extreme heat than in cooler conditions. Whatever it was, I began to struggle up the endless rocky and muddy climbs. Normally, I am progressing through the field late in a race but today I was slipping back. I continued to struggle and became colder and colder.
I hoped the endless climbing would warm me up but it didn’t. I had a spray jacket but I decided, perhaps incorrectly, not to put it on. I pushed my bike up a long, steep hill and kept slipping on the wet rocks and roots. It was tough going for me but some of the Europeans were far more adept at walking up these steep ascents and caught and passed me. I tried to follow their footsteps but without success. Perhaps I need to train in this particular aspect of our sport!
We later hit a shallow, rock-strewn river and climbed up it for a few kilometres. It proved fairly technical and required a great deal of concentration. I continued to slip back through the field. It was here that Mike and Imogen caught me and so I tried to squeeze any remaining strength from my tiring body. After riding together for a number of kilometres, Mike hit a pedal on a rock and I was able to approach the final insanely steep descent alone. My hands were sore but I managed to control my bike through the large, rain-soaked rocks that littered the single track descent and reached the bottom, which also happened to be the finish line. Andreas from Germany followed me over the line, disappointed he had missed beating me by just one position.
I was exhausted and cold and quickly washed my bike and showered (unfortunately in slow running, cold water). Soon after dressing the blood began to return to my extremities and I was able to reflect on a disappointing day in terms of my performance. I finished in a time of 3.35.16, with an average speed, albeit a slow stage, of just 12.3 km/h. I was 19th in M2 and 71st overall and I remain 15th in M2 in the General Classification.
Tomorrow is a massive day. I, therefore, started my recovery as early as possible by immediately eating and drinking and treating myself to another leg massage. The fifth and final stage will cover over 79 km and three challenging climbs and a network of extremely technical trails await.