Fore-mostly, logistically the race required great organisation and preparation and efficiency each day from riders with start times as early as 6:30am, which required pre 5am alarms. Another challenge faced by participants was adapting to the food, and simply consuming enough to fuel the racing and recovery each day, as well as being careful with consuming only clean water. My stomach was certainly not used to the food I was feeding it, but I knew that it was better to suffer slightly with an unhappy stomach if it meant I was getting enough fuel in me for the racing.
With days over 8 hours in the saddle, this didn’t leave too much of the day for faffing before the next stage, so efficiency definitely was key in successfully completing the week competitively. A self supported race, this meant that both my bike and my body needed looking after in between each stage, and I was lucky to only suffer a few minor mechanicals that needed attention over the 4 days of racing.
The race was all at altitudes above 2000m, with climbing on stage 2 taking us closer to 3000m. This presented another challenge to riders, with less oxygen in the air severely impacting the ability to push out power. I found that initially my body struggled with the altitude, but that it quickly adapted and I was no longer as conscious of how it inhibited my performance.
The course itself also presented many challenges, with several riders finding it particularly technical in certain sectors. Beyond the technical single track descents, which I found to be exciting and enjoyable, albeit a little on the cusp of gravel/MTB territory, the terrain was incredibly rough in parts, which meant that the actual riding gave your whole body a hammering. This was without a doubt, the most challenging terrain I’ve ridden in a race, and with four stages, this was definitely something that added to cumulative fatigue.
On the first stage, I suffered a mechanical at 50km, which was unfortunate as it left me without a group to ride with on the flat and faster stage meaning I finished 4th in the women’s race. This was still a strong result, but with eyes on the podium, I was disappointed that a mechanical problem had taken me backwards in the race and lost me time on GC.
The second stage was the most challenging of the 4 days with close to 3000m of climbing over the 168km course. On this day, I crossed the line in 3rd in the women’s field, with a smile across my face declaring it to be the best bike course I have ever ridden. The stage contained a 20km beautiful climb and several single track descents that really pushed the limits of a gravel bike, but were hugely enjoyable if within a rider’s comfort zone.
The third stage aka the ‘mud stage’ took us through several river crossings and mud sections after a serious downfall the previous afternoon. Testing riders’ resilience, the undulating course was challenging and at this point fatigue from earlier stages appeared in riders who had taken the first few days harder. My target for the week was a strong podium finish, and I knew that I needed to control my enthusiasm to race fast each day and pace my efforts across the week, so on the third day I reeled in my effort towards the end of the stage, thinking towards the final stage (188km) the next day, finishing in 3rd.
The final stage of the race was the highlight of my week. I started the day 31 minutes behind 2nd place on GC, having taken over 30 minutes off the rider in front of me on GC on the 3rd mud stage. This challenge didn’t seem impossible to me, albeit definitely a large chunk of time to take! With no further stages to pace towards, I completely gave it me all from the start of the stage and slipped away from the women’s field through a rough and muddy section. With 188km and a decent amount of climbing, I knew that the day would be challenging, but with a lot of drive intrinsically and my legs feeling good, I continued to push over the stage, increasing the time gap on all the women behind me. Crossing the line over half an hour before the next woman, with a helicopter escorting me to the line was a surreal experience and one I never expected out of this race, given how strong the other riders were. On crossing the line, I was overwhelmed by hugs and celebrations from friends new and old, and those who had believed more in my abilities than myself! This last stage took me strongly into 2nd on GC, behind US pro (and friend) Amity Rockwell. We were joined on the podium by Maria from Iceland, who similarly paced the week well, taking herself upwards on GC on the last day- and the three of us stood grinning but rather overwhelmed, as the Maasai warriors dressed us in their blankets and celebrated our result with chanting.
Riding these stages, surrounded by animals and stunning nature was simply an incredible experience. And I think returning to Richmond park, I may be rather disappointed by the lack of zebras in my eyeline! I feel so lucky to have been able to race the migration gravel race, and the people and atmosphere of the race is something I simply cannot do justice through writing. Riding through the Mara, we had constant children cheers of ‘jambo’ (hello) and were only greeted with huge enthusiasm and celebration. At points this was even rather overwhelming and I found myself tearing up behind my sunglasses, as I was cheered by huge crowds of children as I pushed my body to its limits to really see what it could do.