So after the first two stages (read here) we go higher and deeper into the jungle...
Stage Three – 60km/2780m - Kalupahana to Nuwara Eliya (Gamini De Silva memorial stage) – takes in the stunning Horton Plains National Park at 2100m above sea level and offers the riders a chance to spot wild elephants if they’re lucky. The route takes in Sri Lanka’s highest waterfall, Bambarakanda, crosses the highest plateau, and finishes in the highest town, Nuwara Eliya; with a few other highs and lows in between.
We began with an 18km downhill group ride then straight in to an uphill rolling start. 1300m of ascent over 17km. It’s another of those infernal climbs that gets harder as you go higher (I like them, but I’m an idiot). It begins on black-top before progressively deteriorating (or improving) to concrete and finally to a great rocky trail (the top section is very similar to some of my local Peak District trails so I’m right at home on it). It’s also brutally steep in places but undulates enough to get in periods of recovery too. It’s a great climber’s climb. I spent the early part of the climb in the company of a few new riders, I think most were being cautious, but the pack soon began to split and I was left with Shanith Muhandiramge (Sri Lanka) and Pamela Zuloaga (Spain). Pamela had been unsure about tackling todays “Queen” stage so it was great to be able to give her some encouragement.
In my experience the women always prove to be tougher than the men and it’s very rare that a female racer ever drops out. Perhaps halfway up the climb Pamela’s partner Alfredo was waiting for her so that they could ride the stage together (he’s a very nice guy). The climb pops out on to a sealed road that bisects the park and to the handily positioned water station. I hung out for a while chatting with some of the LSR team (LSR do the logistics for us) until everyone went past. The water station is something of a false summit and the climbing continues sharply on the road for quite a while before it rolls a little more gently across the high plateau. Sadly the elephants were conspicuous only by their absence, fortunately the views across the open plain more than made up for it; Sri Lanka is a stunningly diverse island.
At the far end of this beautiful traverse is the piece de resistance; the best descent of the whole race, it’s unbelievably good. It’s a forbidden trail that can only be ridden during the race with special permission from the parks authority. If you want to ride it then you’ll have to enter the race. In 2014 I screamed into the finish, pulled a massive skid, jumped off the bike, and told Phil Evans that he was a genius and that he’d pulled off a masterstroke. It made Phil’s day because another rider had crossed the line a few minutes before me, burst into tears, and wailed that “It’s too hard!”
So, once again, I stomped on the pedals and went as fast as I could through the jungle; it’s still ace. The noodling trail ends suddenly and pops out into a tea plantation where I pulled up and waited for Alberto and Pamela to catch up. From here the trail continues its downward trajectory for quite a few miles on super-fast plantation roads, I told Alberto to go and enjoy himself whilst I coached Pamela on the art of flow, by the time we reached the valley she was definitely letting go of the brakes a bit more. In the mountains, as I’m sure you all know, there is a price to be paid for such a fantastic descent and we all began the steady climb upwards to another 2000m summit.
Thankfully this one is much more amenable and rises on a forgiving gradient through the Diyagama West tea plantation,for about 12 or thirteen kilometres, passing a stunning waterfall on the way, and then peters out to a ribbon of singletrack for another three kilometres. The singletrack is great, quite steep and tricky to begin with, then a fun challenge to the top, and finally the reward of a fairly short but very fast descent to the New Zealand Dairy Farm, and the oddest landscape in Sri Lanka. It wasn’t for the occasional exotic tree you might easily believe that you were riding your bike through the English countryside; it’s all rolling green fields dotted with the distinctive black and white of Friesian dairy cows. I was half expecting to see a buxom wench with a milking stool and a bucket at any minute.
At this point the race follows fast sealed roads until we turn off at a Military barracks for the final leg into town. Surprisingly the gravel track had been sealed in the few weeks between our recce and the race. As we meandered down it became clear that it was still a work in progress because the road gang were waving and shouting at us (in a friendly way) not to continue. The hot black asphalt was still steaming and sticky. Much to the delight of a local farmer we had to shoulder our bikes across his potato patch and pass them down a near vertical ten foot bank to get back on the road further below. The stage has one last sting in the tail; a short but mercilessly steep climb up a concrete road and I spurred Alberto in to attacking it with one last push. Both of us slumped, gasping, across our handlebars at the top and tried get our breath back as we waited for Pamela to catch up.
From here on in we followed another stretch of black top to Nuwara Eliya, around the tranquil Lake Gregory, and over the line at The Galway Hotel. For the first time in the race the sweeper actually swept in last.
Cory Wallace won his second stage in 3h43m39s. Laxmi Magar also took her second stage win in 5h54m36s. Pamela Zuloaga and Alfredo Laguia brought up the rear in 8h24m26s
Stage Four – 52km/1046m – Ramboda to Kandy – The mostly downhill one!
Most people are looking forward to this one, partly because it’s the last day and their suffering is over and partly because it’s the easiest stage. Of the 52km there is probably 30km of descent and only one tough climb, a trifling 8km/600m right at the start. The standard group ride to start line at the Bluefields Tea Plantation is about 24km; it climbs out of town for about 6km before whizzing down a swoopy alpine-style highway for another 18km.
After putting the riders under starters orders I hung around for ten minutes before pursuing the tail enders up the climb. Neil. Dan, Shanith, and Pamela, where all quite close together and I flitted up and down amongst the group. Alfredo was again waiting for Pamela further up the hill (he’s marriage material that lad!) and after cresting the hill and passing through the first water station I was free to race.
I put on my metaphorical rabbit chasing hat and went all out for the next 25km. I caught a lot of rabbits. The trail follows rough plantation roads before morphing into a concrete sealed tuk-tuk road, and finally to black-top, and it’s as fast as you want it to be. It was great to push hard all the way and I had great memories flooding back to the 2014 event where I raced my buddy Eric Coomer, right on the rivet, for miles.
At the bottom the trail goes back into jungle and I slowed down to a steady spin to wait for San Kapil(UK) to catch up. I hadn’t spent much time on the trail with San and I fancied riding into the finish with him. It used to be all singletrack but unfortunately progress has significantly altered this part of the course and it’s now a gravel road that I suspect will be sealed by the time next year’s event comes around (We really need those permissions for the new stage in 2018).
San and I were treated to a deluge of rain that came down so hard that even my feet were wet in the end. Eventually we dropped on to the highway and rolled up and down on the smooth surface to the finish line at Peradeniya University on the outskirts of Kandy. We had a little sprint just for the cameras and then swapped high-fives and man hugs.
Cory Wallace again snaffled the stage win in 2.08.31. Tenacious Tan Tryhorn triumphed over the ladies in 2.56.49. Todays Lantern Rouge was lit by Pamela and Alfredo in 4.27.43.
It was now a matter of transferring to the hotel and having a few beers.
We spent the night in Kandy and then took the slow train through the mountains back to Columbo for the presentation ceremony hosted by the race sponsor Sri Lankan Airlines at the prestigious Galadari Hotel.
1st Cory Wallace (Can) - 13.08.45.
2nd Nick Craig (UK) - 13.24.34.
3rd Alexander Geelhhar (Germany) – 13.50.53.
4th Albert Kikstra (Netherlands) – 15.36.55.
5th Thomas Begert (Germany) – 16.10.55.
1st Laxmi Magar (Nepal) – 20.20.18.
2nd Tan Tryhorn (Australia) – 21.08.03.
3rd Claire Demarquet (France) – 21.39.11.
Best placed Sri Lankan Rider:
Dane Steve Nugera – 16.13.44 (6th overall).
Best Young Rider:
Akshit Gaur (India) Aged 17 – 18.27.13. (10th overall).
The biggest surprise at the ceremony (for me at least) was being presented with the “Riders Rider Award”. I’m still overwhelmed with the honour of it, and I will cherish my magnificent elephant trophy forever. Even though I’m not much of a racer (I’m solid mid-pack) I really enjoy the impetus that racing brings and I get a great deal of pleasure from encouraging and seeing normal people achieve things that they weren’t sure were possible when they started. I like to see, and help, people to reset their limits.
Although I think it may have been my less-than-sympathetic race briefings each evening that swung the vote.
My overriding memories of Sri Lanka are of the great people we met along the way(always), the infectious enthusiasm of kids wherever we went, the consistently delicious food, the truly beautiful and diverse tropical landscapes, the most amazing butterflies I’ve ever seen, and the finest tea you will drink anywhere.
For the record my kit list included lots of Alpkit items.
The Faro Softshell Shorts are outstanding and are great mountain biking shorts too. Gravitas Jacket, Kelper Merino Boxers and Tees, Tonka Convertible Trousers, Griffon Lightweight Fleece Jacket, Muon Headtorch, Various Airlok Drybags, and the indestructible DryDock 50 Duffle bag.