Gavin Horton is the 2023 winner of RASA, although this truly is a race where everyone who finishes is a winner. This brief race report acknowledges the effort of Gavin as it is a commendable win. At the same time, his win also holds some keys for anyone else wanting to be a winner of a blanket at Diemersfontein.
Among the racers, Gavin was the proverbial tortoise among the hares, not that his time of 14 odd days is a slouch effort. Quite the opposite. The key is that he was always in with a chance and while he was in it, he was always a possible winner. The other hares in front of him suffered various race ending incidents. These are common with RASA and anyone with any goal at Pietermarizburg, should always in my view, simply state that they ‘hope to finish’. Anything else is bonus. Notably, Gavin didn’t finish his last RASA attempt a year ago.
Gavin must have faced thoughts at times during the first section to Rhodes that he was last on the trail and last of the racers, but as a coach and veteran of this event, he would know that much of this is a mind game and that by simply keeping going and by stilling the mind, the race would unfold. The key here is to anticipate that at some stage things won’t look as good as you may have hoped for, but by sticking to the plan and taking it day by day, things will likely turn out better than you hope for.
Gavin is trained in biokinetics and instinctively knows how to look after the body. Somewhere on one of the long climbs out of the Baviaanskloof several years ago I was grinding along with him and complained to him about pains in my right ankle. In his quiet way, he simply said, maybe you should try uncleating with your left leg first for a change and push/ walk on the left side of your bike - duh! A simple thing which undid days of repetitive strain on my right leg/ ankle. Problem solved and on we went.
Gavin’s gear choice is notable for several reasons. His bike and gear are nothing fancy and importantly, nothing new. It's the same bike he has used several times. The same tri bars and the same strategy of running shoes for the portages – it’s worked for him in the past so why chance change. Some of the hares were undone by significant bike and setup changes. The point is that there is no need to try and be fancy with gear at RASA. Reliable always beats trying to gain some small advantage in experimental gear selection.
It became clear that as the race entered the Karoo, Gavin had a plan to push for longer days and play to his strengths of riding faster over better roads. This saw him making significant gains on the hares ahead of him. The hares had the early advantage of much lighter bikes on the portages, he had the advantage of a triathlon background and was comfortable in a semi-time trial position, something impossible on a single speed with no shock. He made up significant ground as they headed toward the Baviaanskloof. This would also have buoyed him mentally knowing that things were turning in his favour. Contrast this to the first few days when he was last on the trail and had the mind games I mentioned earlier.
Adapting to the conditions – the impassable rivers and rerouting of the trail to more rideable sections would also have lifted Gavin. The point is he never knew this would happen, but just sometimes, there is something equivalent to a tailwind (beneficial changes) and he would have been grateful for this.
The withdrawal of first Bruce, then Roger and Mike all happened quite quickly. This suddenly thrust Gavin into the race leader’s position by some margin over the next rider. While he would have had to pass each of these retired riders and commiserate with them, his newfound status was entirely as a result of his consistent approach and strategy. But there remained work to be done to get to the finish. It must have crossed his mind to try and keep up the pace he had built up and to try and finish as strongly as he could have, but the race was now his to lose. So again he adapted to an easier pace, forsaking a faster finish time for the certainty of win.
If one looks further down the field to finishers like Mark Basel, Andy Walker and Brad van der Westhuizen, one will see a similar pattern play out in terms of their strategy of steady riding, being adaptable and taking advantage of any sort of ‘tailwind’ which might come their way. To some this may seem like playing it safe, but RASA is probably just too tough to try and be too prescriptive. Each blanket given out is just as hard earned as the one given to the overall winner.