17 June - what's happening up front

James takes over the Yellow Jersey at Ntsikeni, and retains it at Masakala, but Barnes closes the gap through the day

After a divergence of sleeping plans last night, with the Allendale race leader Andrew Barnes electing to pull up short and sleep at Centocow Mission, the Yellow Jersey changed hands at Ntsikeni last night, with Tim James taking it over at that point from Barnes. James arrived at Ntsikeni support station at 01h20 in the early hours of this morning for some well earned sleep.

It wasn’t a very long sleep, and he departed Ntsikeni at 04h33 this morning. Barnes, meanwhile, departed Centocow at about 01h10, arrived at Ntsikeni at 8h00 and departed at 8h20. On departure of Ntsikeni, therefore, James had around a  3 hour 45 minute lead on Barnes. But Barnes has ridden stronger through the day than James, steadily reducing James lead. By the Little Umzimvubu River crossing, the gap was down to about 1 hour and 50 minutes, a great effort given that they’ve been battling strong headwinds through the day.

However. Barnes’ efforts were not enough to prevent James from retaining the Yellow Jersey as at Masakala support station, which he arrived at around 17h25. Barnes arrived later at around 18h30, having reduced James’ lead to around 1 hour and 5 minutes as at Masakala arrival. At time of writing we were waiting to see if anyone would move on into the cold night, or whether they will remain put for some sleep.

Barnes’ 10 hours and 20 minutes, while significantly faster than James’ 12 hours and 50 minutes, was not the fastest time for the Ntsikeni to Masakala stage. This honour goes to Gert Peens, who started in better weather conditions last week and rode the stage in 9 hours and 45 minutes. Perhaps James’ and Barnes’ relatively slow times give one an idea of the weather conditions today.

Today is also where big questions start to get asked of riders’ bodies. If there’s a weakness, or of one of them isn’t 100% fit and healthy, this is where they can start to get found out. Is James tiring? Or is Barnes going too fast in order to catch up? Time will tell, but it is at this time where the body’s digestive system can start to shut down, eating can become more difficult in some instances, and that raises the risk of a rider “blowing”. These are the type of things that the riders experience whilst out there on the trail, well into the 2nd day, and having only had a few hours sleep quite a long time ago. Its never as smooth as what it appears to be when watching from our couch via Tracker. In short, we are at a crucial time in the race. If they get through the next few days intact, the chances are that they are 100% and aren’t easily going to blow. What are the chances of “health” issues? James has had a few in recent races, most recently being forced to withdraw from the Dash to Durban race in April, but also in the past 2 year’s Race 2 Rhodes and RASA. Barnes’ “constitution”, on the other hand, is relatively unknown, as he hasn’t raced much in recent years.

 The riders’ times at this stage are significantly off record pace. Martin Dreyer, in his 2012 record ride, arrived at Ntsikeni 3 hours and 20 minutes earlier than James at 22h00 on the 1st evening, whilst around 17h00 on the 2nd day Dreyer was already 1 support station further than James, having just arrived at Malekholonyane. However, they are still very much on track for a sub-3-day Rhodes arrival before Friday morning 06h00 despite poor weather conditions and reported snow on Lehanas Pass portage. But at the current rate, the iconic Lehanas portage may well be done into tomorrow night.

 Is there any other close competition to Barnes and James as at Masakala? Marnitz Nienaber, Ivor Jones and Stuart Roos are the “next best thing”, and they were still at Glenn Edward as James and Barnes reached Masakala, putting them perhaps as much as 5 hours behind the 2 lead riders. So the gap between these 2 and the rest is starting to become more noticeable.

Oosthuizen cements his grip on the Lantern Rouge

At the other end of the RASA race spectrum, the Lantern Rouge remained firmly with Pierre Oosthuizen at Ntsikeni arrival, which took him 3 days and 3 hours, and he looks set to retain it at Masakala, which took him 4 days 10 hours and 15 minutes to reach. Pierre man is certainly getting his money’s worth.

By John Loos (Blanket/Whip)