The 37-year-old from Johannesburg completed the 167km event, which started in Hartbeespoort, in 5:31:10 – 13 minutes faster than Vanessa Bell’s time of last year.
“I’m mostly a roadie but have enjoyed being on the podium in quite a few mountain bike races in the last year,” said Van de Winkel.
“Although my strength is usually the climbs, and this was a flat race, I felt the advantage the true mountain bikers have on the technical sections was limited.
“I have good bunch and speed skills from training with the men in the mornings, so my aim was to stick with the front men as long as possible. I didn’t have any support or back-up, so I carried three bottles so that I didn’t need to stop.”
The African road champs bronze medallist said the race hardly went according to plan.
She understood that the dirt roads were “pretty decent” and, based on advice, decided to pump her shocks hard and inflate her tyres to over four bar.
“Maybe this is fine if you’re heavy, but, for a 43kg girl, I couldn’t control my bike when we hit the first corrugated, rocky and sandy road shortly after the neutral zone.
“I actually couldn’t see much due to the dust from the bunch and I was at my limit fighting the corrugations and trying to keep up with the men.
“I’m not exactly sure what happened but I ended up in a high-speed crash with some men flying over me from behind. I was extremely upset with myself and thought my race was over.”
She added that her bottles and glasses were scattered all over the place. Other damage included a bent derailleur, grazed leg, torn pants and a broken shoe.
It took her a while to get going again and she was forced to chase the other women on her own, but she knew she had to give everything or her race would have been over.
“I caught a group and then this group caught another one in front, which contained the leading women. I was relieved to catch them, but I had realised by this time that only one of my gears was working.
“I knew I had to stop and try pull my derailleur back and out of the spokes. I also wanted to let some air out of my tyres but couldn’t afford to lose time.”
When cows blocked the road approximately 45km into the race, temporarily slowed the bunch, she took the opportunity to do some quick maintenance to her gears.
“It was a risk. This gave me three gears to work with, but I realised at this point that I’d just have to make the best of the bad situation and try win some prize-money to fix my bike.”
It was mostly Fiddy Gey van Pittius and Marisa van der Linde, who placed second and third respectively, up front with the eventual winner.
“We’ve raced together before so knew each other’s strengths,” said Van de Winkel.
“Marisa, having done the race last year, was giving me advice on the route. Our plan was for her to lead Fiddy and myself out for the corrugated rough climb just after 100km to try drop the other girls, who were on gravel bikes.
“I have to admit that I was struggling with my hard tyres on the corrugations. I was not comfortable and I wouldn’t do that to myself again. I felt like I had blisters on my hands.”
Van de Winkel and Van Pittius, who was also on a mountain bike, were able to distance the other girls.
“The two of us worked well together. With my broken shoe, my foot kept coming out, but luckily Fiddy stayed with me.”
On the last road section, with about 20km to go, a tandem came past and they jumped on.
“I was hanging on for dear life because I didn’t have the use of my hardest gears, so I had to spin like mad and was pretty much at my limit.
“It was only once we were close to catching the men in front and I was looking back to see if I could give up and drop off that I realised there was no one else behind me.”
The men’s race was won by Gawie Combrinck.