The Migration Diaries: Millar hits the wall

A Grand Tour stage on gravel

Stage 2 for David was a clear case of sometimes you are the hammer and sometimes you are the nail. Though he started the day in high spirits and ready for adventure, any stage would be challenging that takes in nearly 3000 meters of climbing and covers 170 km nearly entirely on gravel or gravel that has turned to mud. And has rivers to cross. And takes place largely above 1800 meters.

By contrast, Factor’s Rob Gitelis had a much more positive experience taking the zebra course. That course still scaled the super difficult 17 km climb, but cut out some of the worst sections through muddy tracks and crossing rivers. Lucky for David, since it meant he had a buddy to ease his burden once he hit camp after nine hours on the bike.

Day 3 – Stage 2 – Maji Moto to Wild Campsite

Rob had a great day, cruised it, which was no mean feat as even the zebra course was horrendous. I, on the other hand, did not cruise it. Well, I did for a while. I started with Rob chilling at the rear, figuring I’d have a buddy system start then wind it up. Although speaking to people and understanding the gravitas of the leopard course, it became clear I was going to have to hit out quite early to make sure I was safe for the checkpoint cut-offs. I spent the first 10 km moving up, then when it opened up, I set off on my own on what were, once again, cheap beer gravel “roads”. It was groundhog day.

The rain has destroyed everything. At best it’s like giant corrugated iron, at worst it’s like a pump track made by drunk people and covered in rocks and sand.

I passed a few people on the open 30 km towards the first climb, and found myself sitting about 500 m behind a small group that were rotating to share the work (I presume, I couldn’t see this, and couldn’t get closer, so guessed that was the case). Then we hit the 18 km climb. I caught the group that was in front of me easily, then just kept going and started catching lots of people, finding myself at the summit with the leading women. I can’t tell you how pleased I was with myself, this effort turned out to be a terrible mistake.

Hitting Grand Tour heights

We were at the same height as the Galibier, just under 2600m, yet verdant green and lush, which was strange. There wasn’t a descent for what seemed a long time, then all of a sudden it was OH SHIT single track descent. There were the two women, Sarah Sturmey and eventual winner, Luise Valentin, and Josh Reid, who finished 10th here last year but this year has decided to turn his ride into a content creation masterpiece. He stuck a go-pro in his mouth and followed me down the single track, can’t wait to see that. Not only that, he was capturing video and photography at all moments, this was very cool to begin with, yet grew more belittling in direct correlation to my crumbling physical state. Although, I now think it’s cool again since he’s going to have some magical stuff from our day out.

We came off the mountain, passing the zebra turn off, and set off on a 70+km extra loop. This was the hardest part of the day, which was exciting. It was next level shitshow mountain bike madness. We spent 30 km in forests on single track, relentlessly going up and down, and forever dismounting to cross mud sections and rivers.

Trailing off trails

At one point I said to the women, joking but not, because I’d already told them third place was miles behind, that we should chill out and treat it as a nice day out on the bike with friends in Kenya. They pretended to like the idea, then left me and Josh at the second feed zone at 110 km. Things went from bad to worse for me from here on in. I was not loving it. We were properly in the middle of nowhere, barely any trails visible, and when they were, they would disappear into rivers or through bush that did not look like a path anybody would ever take. I have no idea how they mapped this, but Bear Grylls must have had something to do with it.

My decline and fall continued, eventually the third place woman caught us. Josh and she rode off unceremoniously. I stayed with an Amani rider; we chatted about how fucked we were, I asked his name, but at this point I could barely remember my name so I’m going to have to look at the results to find it out.

The buddy system reciprocation

I got to the finish line and collapsed on the grass. Rob came across looking fresh as a daisy and pleased as punch, having had a great day on the bike. He was very kind, realizing my broken state, he went about sorting all my stuff out. Got me a burger and fries and sorted out my tent. The pity was real. I didn’t get off the grass for nearly an hour.

I can’t even remember when I was last so tired. I was out there for nine hours, and it felt like I was on the pedals all the time, or concentrating on not crashing, or hiking my bike through deep mud or rivers. It was properly mind-bending, and all above 1800m altitude, which maybe I didn’t take too much into account either. Anyway, feeling better now, although it’s all relative, I thought I was going to die three hours ago. Tomorrow is a mere 140 km and 2000 m of climbing, so that will be fun.

Day 4 – Stage 3 – Loita to Nibosho

Though the Migration Gravel Race organizers announced stage 3 as being the reward for making it through the first two brutal stages, that doesn’t mean it was going to be a walk in the park. After a good night’s sleep in spite of the rain, David realized he needed to balance his performance ambitions with the high altitude realities. Slipping easily into a super domestique role, David certainly made the most of his stage 3 adventure, while Rob has started to get the hang of this whole gravel thing.

David takes up the story…

The perfect end to a tough day

I will start with how it finished last night: rain, lots of rain, it began during the race briefing and prize presentation, then lasted through dinner and beyond. This wasn’t initially a problem, when Rob and I had been decanting our huge suitcases into our camping bag before setting off, I asked him if I should take my rain jacket, after all the forecast did not include rain. He said I’d better take it because if I didn’t it would definitely rain. So this moment was actually quite satisfying. I meandered achingly over to my tent and smugly pulled my jacket out of my bag.

What I didn’t do was take my towel off the roof, put my shoes inside, or even close my tent. So when I got back from dinner, my tent was filled with a big puddle of water, with my booster connected to my computer laying in it, towel and shoes were obviously soaked, I mean they were already wet from the hell hole of a day, but they had been drying. Now I could look forward to putting on soaking wet shoes at 7am - awesome.

Somehow, and I don’t know how, even my pillow was wet, this made no sense to me as it wasn’t even near the entrance, an absolute mystery to behold. I am officially a terrible camper, I hated myself, in the dark with my headlamp on, I used a T-shirt to soak as much of the puddle up as possible. This was, in many ways, the perfect end to the day.

Weetabix for the win

Fortunately, I slept okay, probably because I was absolutely broken, or had simply given up on life; quite hard to distinguish between the two. I woke up and it was grey, foggy and wet. The campsite did not look homely. I trudged through the wet long grass over to breakfast, with absolutely no residue of fatigue in my body from yesterday, which was surprising and relieving in equal measure.

Looking at the breakfast buffet revealed cracks in my armor, I couldn’t be bothered in consuming real food, having to think about what to choose, or god forbid peel a hard boiled egg, was not an option this morning. There was a box of Weetabix which everyone seemed to be ignoring, jackpot, I had ten Weetabix. Job done. I made a cup of coffee, proper camping style powder coffee stirred in, I filled it with hot water, which the person following me informed me was actually tea (I hadn’t cared that it looked like dirty water). I just looked at him and shrugged, I figured it couldn’t taste worse. It did. I drank it anyway.

Brain foggy morning

I was quite late getting ready, this was another sign things were not all well, my brain was not functioning at full capacity, a few cylinders short let’s say. I told Rob to head to the start without me, when I got there a few minutes before roll-out I couldn’t see him, so I figured I’d push myself closer to the front, unsurprisingly this was not difficult, nobody seemed that interested in being there, apart from the mentally unwell. I figured I may as well get a head start.

My tactic today was the opposite of yesterday, go fast early then slow down and pick the right people to ride with. It was in pieces after only 5km, the front group had flown away, and there was no sign of anybody behind. While in this no-man’s land I saw two wildebeest, I went to get my camera out but the sketchiness was too intense; crashing is top of my list of things not to do here. It was a majestic site, two lone beasts, running along the plains in parallel to me.

I’m not sure when it happened, but eventually Sarah Sturm (women’s leader) and Josh Reid (racer content magician) caught up to me, the very two riders I’d been with yesterday, it was like a reunion, a weird one, but nice all the same. My plan was coming together. We stuck together, not going too hard but keeping it rolling along. Miraculously, I was feeling good. I'd also done some deep thinking about why yesterday had been so traumatic, and came to the conclusion maybe the altitude had something to do with it. Hello genius.

Reality bites high altitude style

So today I was a little bit more realistic about what my sea-level physiology could cope with, and a little bit more careful about what I should and shouldn’t do. I have a kind of permanent lactate thing going on in my legs, a highly unpleasant sensation, and my heart rate won’t go up, power is obviously down, and if I go too hard then it has catastrophic after effects. Which was what happened yesterday when I got carried away on the big climb up to 2600m, I basically ended my day right there, self-inflicted-abject-misery was the gift I gave myself.

Not long before we hit the big climb of today the second and third placed women caught up with Sarah, Josh and me. I decided to just do my own thing up the climb, refusing to go anywhere near the hurt zone. This meant I spent most of the climb just behind them, then rejoining on flatter sections or little descents. The climb peaked out at 2500m, another monster altitude, in fact, looking at my Garmin throughout the day, we barely went below 2000m.

Super domestique extraordinaire

I can add this to the list of things I should have considered before coming to the Migration Race. Applying this newfound intel worked wonders. I felt great, I mean, better than yesterday. I was in my element once we were back down off the mountain and into the hilly up and down terrain, I became super domestique for the women, understanding that 4th place woman was way out of contention, and I wasn’t affecting their race, I figured I could get the headwind sections done on the front and get us all to the finish quicker.

With 10km to go, I got out of their way to let them race, it was really interesting, I could feel the tension and was almost willing one of them to do something, I was genuinely nervous for them, “Ooo, I’d attack there.” “Go now.” “They’re worried about the headwind.” “Too tired to risk a move.” “All in for the climb to the finish.” When I got to that last conclusion with about 3km to go and it was all stalling I went on the front again and just set a steady tempo to allow them all to sit on the wheel and rest before the final climb.

Then Sarah and Luise jumped off me, Maddy couldn’t go with them and trailed valiantly behind. I was with Josh watching and willing them on. I was also getting really pissed off as I could see on the final climb up ahead the Chris McCormack and Nick Gates group (who were finishing the zebra ride so nearly 50km behind us) with their own following car on the narrow road as Sarah and Luise were approaching, I was saying to nobody but everyone, “Get the fucking car off the road! Can’t they see they’re coming?!” Fuming I was. They did, so all good, I calmed back down.

It was so impressive to watch them race up there, and being with them for a big chunk of the day was an absolute pleasure. No matter how hard it was Sarah kept waving to all the kids, such good vibes. Sarah won in front of Luise with Maddy not far behind, they are now holding the same places on GC. I have no idea what’s going on in the men’s race apart that Matteo di Marchi is leading.

Buddies reuniting

Rob made it through the day in good form again, he says he’s getting the hang of gravel, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The carnage is real here, in yesterday’s stage 50% of the Leopard riders chose the escape route. Absolutely no shame in that, and goes to show just how off the scale it was. I’m feeling much better today, and the stage was much more like what my rose-tinted self-selecting mind had imagined it would be.

There were moments of breathtaking beauty, at one point Josh, Sarah and I were fully taken aback, we didn’t take pictures (even Josh), we knew they wouldn’t do it justice and we were better just to soak it up and lock in our own heads. Tomorrow is the last day, zebra and leopards doing the same ride, 140 km back up to where we started. Rob is a bit nervous, I’m going back to buddy systeming him, I haven’t told him this yet, so he can sweat it out overnight and appreciate it all the more in the morning.

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