Wednesday 22 August 2012

Posted by Velouria Posted on 19:19 | 5 comments

Trans Baviaans 2012

The farewell tour
Once again, three middle aged men made the pilgrimage to Willowmore in the Eastern Cape for the small matter of a bike race. Not just any bike race - the 9th edition of the Trans Baviaans mountain bike  race. The usual crew of Captain Craig, Little John and myself were all together for one last attempt at a top five finish - Little John is slowly starting his transformation from wannabee race snake to leisurely weekend warrior, shifting his focus from 5am tempo rides to 5pm sundowner rides, from riding flat out to riding flat roads, from clocking up 25 hours a week on the bike to clocking 25 hours a weekend with his family.

A clean bike is a fast bike - even if you have to clean it in the rain
In what has become another Baviaans tradition, we spent the night in the Willowmore School hostel, listening to the nervous restlessness of the first timers, hearing them clomp up and down to the toilets at all hours of the night, burying our heads under our pillows as they got ready for the 10am start at 5am in the morning. With our beauty sleep ruined we finally got up, put out our kit and supplies for the day and wandered off to breakfast.

Start line nerves from the old man
I've discovered a new party trick that works especially well in the crowded dining hall of the Willowmore School hostel - find a rather nervous looking individual and strike up a conversation about the race, without giving too much away. Offer some advice, tell them not to worry too much and let them know what a fantastic event it is. Eventually he'll ask how many times I've done the race or what my best time is and this is where I love watching people's facial expressions. They range from total disbelief to wild skepticism. In a way I'm a little hurt that no one takes us seriously, but generally when your team name is Walla Walla Weasel Whackers, I really shouldn't expect anything less. Out of respect for Little John's retirement race, I'd opted not to name our team the usual name of Soggy Bottom Boys.

Captain Craig and I - chilling in the start chute
With 10am fast approaching, we packed our supply boxes for later in the day, put on our kit, stuffed our pockets with supplies and tools, and headed off to the start line. It's not often you get to see the impact an event has on the local community, but as Trans Baviaans has grown, so too has the involvement and interest from locals. In what used to be a one horse town where if you ventured too far away from the local hotel you might never see your teammates again, the whole community comes out to support the race, lining the recently swept streets and cheering wildly. In a week where many needlessly lost their lives in the Lonmin mine shootings, it was refreshing to see South Africans of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds coming together in the name of sport.

Winners of the "Kleintjies" race - one lap around town
The local race snakes about to start their 2 laps around Willowmore

After another mumbled race briefing by Wikus the organiser and a much improved rendition of the national anthem, we were set on our way for the 230km ride to Jeffrey's Bay. A lead bunch immediately formed and so began the cycling poker. For the next three hours there was bluffing, double bluffing, peeking at the cards of others and a bit of underhanded dirty tactics. All the cycling tricks in the book were used, from glass pedaling on the front to wheel sucking on the back, from upping the pace when "The Biggest Cyclist in the World"™ had a mechanical to surging on the hills - everything to get some sort of advantage over the rest of the bunch for the second part of the race.

Little John working on his race face
In the blink of an eye we had done 105kms in 3h20 to checkpoint 2 - Little John fighting with the big boys on the front of the bunch while Captain Craig and I dangled off the back as we took a bit of strain through the countless water crossing as the bunch surged to get back up to speed on the exits. Any hopes about not getting wet feet or a soggy chamois were dashed on the first crossing. As the day wore on and the temperature started to rise, I think many riders in the bunch were only too glad for the regular cooling of feet, legs and bums.

Little John was the only one doing the "YMCA"
The strategy from checkpoint 2 onward is simple - ride a constant, steady pace from checkpoint to checkpoint. Make the most of the good patches, and survive the bad patches. Little John, much like a fine wine or smelly cheese just seemed to get better with age and the responsibility of setting the pace fell to him. If there ever was a point to be made in the 26 vs 29 inch wheel size debate, Little John was coming out fighting for the little wheels as he made his teammates on the bigger wheels work rather hard to keep up. With his hairy legs and baggy shirt, his cycling bandanna and retro helmet, he certainly looks the part of a weekend warrior, not the race snakes which we found ourselves amongst.

ET phone home?
A solid ride to checkpoint 3 had us arriving in 10th place overall. A quick change of bottles and some salty potatoes later and we were on our way, heading towards my nemesis - The Mother of All Climbs. If something can go wrong for me at Baviaans, this is usually the place where it happens. I've had a massive side wall cut in my tyre, I've bonked so badly that Little John had to push my bike as I tried to stumble up the hill, I've developed stomach issues and had to take a moment to purge my stomach contents. All I wanted was an incident free leg of 28km up to checkpoint 4 at Bergplaas.

Lights on, downhill awaits
Shortly after leaving checkpoint 3 we found ourselves in 8th place as the two leading teams came past us in the wrong direction - they had missed the checkpoint. I felt for them, as Little John and I had pulled the same move in 2007. Not only do you end up riding an extra 10kms, but doubts and cracks begin to appear in your mind. It wasn't long after that move that I found myself walking up MAC. Little John set another superb pace as we approached the climb. Much like meeting your in-laws for the first time - it's not something you want to do, but it is inevitable - we started climbing. I kept waiting for the ninja of death to strike me down, but the further we made it up the climb without the ninja of death making an appearance, the more confident I became that I could finally banish my MAC demons.  It certainly helped the spirits that we caught and passed 3 teams on the climb, and in a symbolic gesture of thanks for all the times Captain Craig has had to deal with my self destruction on this climb, I was even able to give him a slight push.

Team 333 - aka The Walla Walla Weasel Whackers - in 5th place
As we approached checkpoint 4, Little John adopted his father voice and demeanor and barked out orders to his younger teammates about the schedule of happenings for checkpoint 4. I was tasked with getting life saving soup and bread rolls for the Weasel Whackers, while Little John would get our box. Captain Craig got a pass, and was told to do whatever it is he does. A cup of coke, some soothing bum cream and the life saving soup later we were ready to leave. With a pit stop more commonly found in a Formula One Grand Prix we'd been able to climb up the leader board, and we found ourselves in 5th place as we signed out of checkpoint 4. Out of habit from when we used to be slow, we'd attached our lights at the stop, but at the rate we'd been riding, we'd only need them several hours later.

Trying to look fancy for the camera
As we were leaving we caught sight of "The Biggest Cyclist in the World"™ and his team, and this provided us with some added motivation to make use of the fantastic descent down the other side of the MAC. It wasn't long before we found ourselves back on the valley floor with another team for company. Little John and I shared the pace making as we drove on towards checkpoint 5 at Hadleigh, determined to make the teams behind us work hard if they wanted to catch us. I also knew that we'd never hear the end of it if Little John did all the work on the front as we loafed at the back. Sometimes the bigger picture needs to considered, despite the consequences.

Little John in the zone
We flew into checkpoint 5 where we finally met up with our support - my very capable and experienced wife. A quick bottle change, some fluid and snacks and we were back on the route in 5th place - Jeffrey's Bay was almost within sniffing distance. Just the small matter of the Never Ender climb stood between us and the downhill to the finish.

Captain Craig sporting the new trend in cycling - calf warmers
The roadie in me appreciated the tar section out of Hadleigh before we turned off onto the road to Humansdorp. Captain Craig navigated the flooded Gamtoos River crossing on his bike while Little John and I chose discretion over valour and walked through the thigh deep, ice cold waters. And then the Never Ender began. Little John immediately went to the front and set a perfect pace and the two 29ers slotted in behind. Thank goodness there were no photographers to record the rather embarrassing situation. We made good progress up the Never Ender when disaster struck. I had been taking a bit of strain with Little John's relentless tempo and in an effort to get a boost I took a Gu. Next thing I knew I was projectile vomiting like a newborn baby. There is nothing quite as funny as watching the awkwardness between two grown men deciding how to react to a teammate who is ejecting a troublesome Gu as fast and as violently as possible. To my credit, I was able to do all this on the bike, with only a marginal decrease in pace. I was however quite disappointed that I'd been unable to break my run of reverse gastric emptying.

The Weasel Whackers crossing ANOTHER river
Once the awkwardness had subsided a little, and my teammates had realised that I was going to live, Little John resumed the pace setting as we neared the top of the climb with the sun slowly sinking below the horizon. After lugging the lights around for several hours, we were finally able to use them. Still in parent mode, Little John told Captain Craig to turn his light on, despite it not being quite dark enough. He would later tell us that Captain Craig has a reputation for falling over in broad daylight, and he wasn't going to take any chances with him in the semi-darkness. As we approached the unmanned checkpoint we saw the tell tale sign of some lights stalking us from behind. Try as we might we could not hold them off, and as we arrived at checkpoint 6 we found ourselves in 6th place with 30kms to go.

Sunset at checkpoint 6
Organised chaos in the backup vehicle
A quick stop, some ego pandering from my wife, some last minute snacks and we were off - the Jeffrey's Bay lights beckoning in the distance. Captain Craig was finally taking strain - he'd been threatening us with stories of poor form all ride long and after 8 hours of showing little weakness we didn't actually believe him. One last river crossing followed by a leg busting climb, and it would be a cruise into the finish. Or so I thought. Captain Craig caught sight of a pair of fast approaching lights, and in the most rapid onset of white line fever I have ever seen, went to the front for the first time all day and proceeded to rip my legs off. As he powered his way towards Jeffrey's, the regrets started. I regretted the push I had given him near the top of MAC, I regretted all the times I had gone to the front to help Little John, I regretted the speed sessions I had missed because of the rain, I regretted not choosing running as my sport of choice.

The Walla Walla Weasel Whackers - 6th place overall and first 3 man team.
We never did see those lights behind us again. As if it wasn't bad enough, Captain Craig caught sight of the team ahead of us, and although I didn't think it was possible, managed to up the pace even more. I don't recall too much of the final 10kms, except for Little John's rear tyre, and the pain in my jaw from biting down on my handle bars. I didn't know if we were catching the team ahead, and I didn't really care right then. I just wanted the pain to stop. Thankfully, the finish line put an end to the pain and suffering - we'd crossed the line in 6th place in 9h28 - less than a minute down on the guys in 5th. An added bonus was that we were the first 3 man team.

And with that I shook Little John's hand for the 6th and final time (I also had to endure a man hug). Captain Craig had finished his 5th Baviaans, and I was on my 9th. As they say though - the band has to break up before they can have a reunion tour. Perhaps the Walla Walla Weasel Whackers will be back again next year with the original line up of Little John, Captain Craig and myself, or perhaps we'll hire a session cyclist to fill the void for a couple of years.

Additional photos from The Nature Gym, Photo Dynamix (1, 2, 3)