Saturday, 13 February 2016

Posted by Velouria Posted on 14:23 | 2 comments

The Big Day Out 2016

In just its third year, the Big Day Out is already becoming an institution in the local cycling community. As the summer temperatures pick up, so to do the murmurings about this crazy ride.

Essentially, there are three rules for the Big Day Out:
  1. It has to be a obscenely long ride
  2. It has to be a near perfect day
  3. It's by invite only

Plotting a route is no problem as we're spoilt for choice when it comes to amazing places to ride. Finding the perfect day entails watching the long term weather forecasts on countless websites and spotting a day with very little wind. The catch is that such days are often accompanied by temperatures in the high 30s to low 40s - Captain Craig's worst nightmare! Finally, the committee reserves the right to invite additional riders. Applications pour in from all over the globe, and the committee diligently sifts through all the motivations, considering the merits of each and every one. A short list is compiled, and the committee then votes. To date, no suitable candidates have made it past the vote. Until now. Halfway Robertson wrote a very moving essay expressing his desire to join the Big Day Out. Terms like "greatest accomplishment", "legendary status", "burning desire" and "give my life meaning" littered his prose. He even wrote a poem. In Haiku.

the road goes upwards
conversation stops, puff, pant
the silence of hills*


Application accepted.

The Big Day Out 2016
The original objective of the Big Day Out was to ride further than we'd ever gone before in one day. That meant something in excess of 365kms. In two years of trying we were unable to achieve this - the first year being scuttled by severe heat and a nasty headwind, and the second year ending with a broken derailleur. Third time lucky.

Bikes packed - ready for a Big Day Out
The day kicked off at 5am and we made good progress for about an hour before the wind started picking up. Every single weather source had promised that the wind would not blow, and yet here we were battling into a stiff gale 40kms into a 369km ride. At our current progress, we'd need a week to make the route! In addition, the first 180kms are supposed to be easy, just gently knocking off the kilometres before the temperatures get too hot. Instead we were slogging away at a snail's pace into a gale, our legs and minds both taking strain.


We finally made Wolseley feeling rather worse for wear, already the doubts about successfully completing the Big Day Out lurking at the backs of our minds. But if there is one thing all three participants of the Big Day Out are good at, it's persistence in the face of adversity. A short stop, a quick grumble, and we were off again - secretly hoping the cycling gods would smile on our endeavour and do something about the wind.



As we started the scenic climb up Bainskloof Pass, our prayers were answered. The wind was now a tailwind, and for the first time that day we got a hint of just how warm it was going to get, much to Captain Craig's dismay. There is something special about riding up Bainskloof - the twisty road, the imposing mountains, the lure of the crystal clear pools down below, and the isolation. Apart from the odd car, it was just the three of us in the middle of nowhere, riding bikes.


Before long, we rejoined civilisation as we descended the pass down into Wellington. A quick stock up on much needed fluids, and a chance to get our heads around the big climb of the day that lay ahead of us - Du Toit's Kloof Pass.


The main climb of the day would take us just short of an hour as we trudged uphill in the midday heat. The mercury climbed steadily, eventually settling at 40C, as we now longed for the cooling gale from earlier that morning. Halfway up the climb we passed the halfway point for the day, and while this would normally be a reason to celebrate, knowing that another 184.5kms lay ahead was enough to dampen even the most optimistic of us. We were also faced with another tough decision - once we went over the top of the pass there was no short cut home. We were committed to 175kms. We didn't think twice.


An interesting thing happens when you ride on unknown roads in the heat - you're always on the lookout for water as you never really know when you'll find that next oasis. As we descended the pass, with at least 30 kilometres to go to the next town, I caught sight of a tap. At that very moment, nothing else mattered apart from what that tap meant. Sustenance, survival, happiness.


Mixed emotions from Halfway Robertson making the halfway mark
Halfway Robertson, having passed the halfway point of our Big Day Out, got a serious case of burger fever and dragged the two senior members through the Molenaar River Valley on towards Rawsonville, and our scheduled lunch stop. In hindsight, Rawsonville was possibly not the best place to expect a meal worthy of the Big Day Out. After scouring the main road for gourmet establishments, we had to settle for the best out of a long list of dodgy choices - Nikki's Take Away. The only saving grace was the price of the soft drinks - R6.00 for 500ml! I felt like we were back in the Nineties (although some will say that the entire Rawsonville is stuck in the Nineties). After wolfing down a burger that we knew we would encounter again, we set off for Villiersdorp, 69kms away.


I think there is unanimous agreement when I say that the next section was the worst section of the day. It wasn't the toughest section of the day, nor was it the hottest, but I think it fell into that zone of self doubt. We'd done 220 kilometres, and despite only having 150 kilometres to go, we still couldn't see the end of the tunnel. As we slogged on, with the temperature hitting 37C at 5pm, our spirits started to waiver. And just as our shoulders were sagging and our heads slumping, the quaintest little farm stall appeared. With a tap! What followed was surreal, and must have appeared quite comical to any onlookers. Captain Craig and Halfway Robertson proceeded to worship that tap like it was some ancient life giving deity. And in return, the tap blessed them with a cooling, refreshing elixir. Suddenly, Villiersdorp seemed possible again, and we started to believe that we'd make the final 80 kilometres.

Just as things were looking up, Halfway punctured - a reminder that despite only having 100 kilometres to go, we still needed some luck to go our way. With the puncture fixed we made our way to Villiersdorp up Rooihoogte Pass, the taste of Nikki's burger returning to remind us of our earlier indiscretions. Just 85 kilometres to go.


The emotions of a Big Day Out
The sun was sitting low in the sky as we headed towards Franschhoek Pass, our last big climb of the day. By now, each man was in his own private hell, dealing with his own demons. From numb toes to cramp, from sore knees to aching hands, each of us plodded our way up the climb, one pedal stroke after another. After an eternity in purgatory we reached the top, and as we witnessed a spectacular sunset, started to believe that we'd make it.

We each drank at least 23 bottles of fluid
 It's on rides like these that you learn a lot about your mates - their character, their vulnerabilities, their stubbornness, their determination. Verbal communication gives way to body language and subtle gestures. With one look you can communicate a thousand things. Perhaps Halfway's Haiku had been prophetic!

The final pass of the day - Helshoogte - lay ahead of us as the final rays of light faded. One last push and the end was within touching distance. With 17 kilometres to go we pulled in for our final snack stop of the day. As we wolfed down some much needed replenishments to the bemused stares of several onlookers, we got into a conversation with an inquisitive bystander. Given that it was well past 8pm and dark, his comment was that most cyclists do their training in the morning. You can imagine his reaction when we told him that we'd started our ride at 5am in the morning. Instant hero status. For a brief moment we felt like rock stars, or professional sportsmen, with our very own groupie. But we couldn't wallow in stardom for long, as the final stretch awaited us. A stretch that I ride home from work each day, with three annoyingly brutal little climbs.

As we counted down the climbs and the remaining kilometres, our bums point blank refusing anything to do with our saddles, our hands throbbing and our toes numb, we were joined by an escourt. My wife slotted in behind us, headlights blazing and hazards flashing, like a mini parade through the dark streets of Somerset West.

Homeward bound
The final few kilometres, through the same dark streets we'd started this adventure on 15 hours previously, seemed to take an age. The conflicting sentiments, the sense of achievement versus the level of exhaustion and discomfort, dampened what should have a celebratory procession. But that was ok. It's what the Big Day Out is all about. And we'd finally done it!


While any thoughts of doing a Big Day Out any time soon will be quickly silenced, I'm quite sure we'll all be back for another day of making memories with mates on bikes. Applications open in January 2017.

*Actual poet is Steve Airey

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2 comments :

  1. Ah yes Mr. Walsh. Your "ranconteuring" is as entertaining as ever and quite possibly the only cycling piece containing the term "elixir."

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