Quiet Night In
The restaurant was quiet that night. In some ways I was lucky I was back at the hotel. Many riders simply ran out of fuel, energy or daylight and spent a very cold night out on the mountain. A friend of ours - Laurie - told us that he’d abandoned all hope of making it back in the daylight and was picked up by locals who showed him real hospitality: homemade beer, fresh bread, and warm blankets.
Riders continued to trickle into the fuel stop prior to Ramabanta and were sent back by road - arriving back at the hotel long past midnight. Among these was former three-times winner of the Roof, Lawrens Mahoney, who retired due to exhaustion.
Back at the hotel, stories continued to circulate about injury and hardship. Three bikes had been lost, falling off the mountain, including one which tumbled all the way to the river below. The rider of the Kawasaki I had seen wedged in the rocks earlier in the day had only managed to save himself from further injury by clinging perilously to a small bush. And another rider came back the following day to rescue his bike after a five-hour trek by donkey, which he’d traded for his boots and helmet.
Were they really going to start the final day with just five riders? I went to bed exhausted but slept very little and got up at 4am to check the official notice board - still hopeful of starting the final day.
But it was not to be. At midnight the organisers had taken the decision to shorten the next day’s route and allow back into the race anyone who had made it as far as the petrol stop before Ramabanta - ie the one after where I’d been stopped. Oh well, no need to hurry breakfast then.
So later on that day three of my pit crew and I went riding - just for fun. We went up the famous Baboons Pass - about an hour on a bike, but several days in a 4x4, apparently. The top, at nearly 3000m, offered awesome views. It didn’t seem too hard, but there again I hadn’t had to do the other 150km that went with it that day.
40 riders started the Saturday but few would make it all the way to the end of this epic race. We drove to the finish at Roma Bridge and waited late into the afternoon for the leaders to arrive.
Chris Birch had started first that morning, but with the amended route not having been correctly programmed into his GPS, had been forced to follow route markers. Unfortunately for him he had arrived at a crucial junction before the marshal who was supposed to be directing him on the shorter route could get there. As a consequence he went the wrong way up Bushman’s Pass. By the time he realised his mistake and returned to the start he was over an hour late and had used crucial reserves of energy.
The organisers - realising their mistake - allowed him a new start time, and off he headed once more, to tackle the course again! At the finish, news was reaching us that factory BMW star Andreas Lettenbichler was leading on the course, but that his BMW had cracked a case and was on borrowed time. And sure enough, less than 10km from the finish line, the German’s luck ran out when his Beemer cried enough, robbing him of a podium finish.
More than ten hours after they set off, the first bike came into sight at the finish line. Top South African rider Jade Gutzeit on another BMW was leading on the course, closely followed by Kiwi Rory Mead. But then to everyone’s surprise a 300 KTM came wheelying down the track, crossing the line with a rolling stoppie. It was Chris Birch, who, despite having started over an hour after everyone else, and having also ridden an extra part of the course, had overtaken everyone up to third place!
Results were sorted and on corrected time after 20hrs of racing, third place was awarded to Jade Gutzeit (BMW), second to Rory Mead (Yamaha), but in first place - a full two hours and 13mins ahead of his nearest rival, was defending champ Chris Birch (KTM).
After three days of rocks and pain only 26 riders were classified as finishers in one of the most gruelling Roofs in the event’s long history. It’s certainly one of the most amazing and unhinged races I’ve ever entered. But would I do it all again?
You bet I would. Because despite the mayhem and difficulty of this year’s race, I’d be the first one to go rushing back if I had the chance. It’s a bonkers race and the organising left a bit to be desired this year, but as an event it’s one I’ve just got to go back and finish…
Thanks to all the people that made this adventure possible: Kriega, Docklands Riders, Pro-Carbon Racing, Paul Green Tyres, Jim Aim Motorcycles, Acerbis, Dr Shox, to my daughter Jemima for the lucky pictures she made me. And a special thanks to Anthony and his family, Paul, Dom, and all the others who made me feel so welcome and supported. Without them it would have been impossible!