Tuesday 26 November 2013

Posted by Velouria Posted on 17:41 | 11 comments

Coronation Double Century 2013

Unseasonal weather, year end functions, flash floods and the turning on of the Christmas lights mean only one thing - it's Coronation Double Century time. Another crazy South African invention, right up there with the Kreepy KraulyDolosse and Pratley Putty, the Coronation Double Century is a 12 man team time trial over 202kms, with over 320 teams participating, that tests everything from fitness and endurance to friendship and one's sense of humour.

Team HotChillee
After the breakout performance in 2012 where Team HotChillee narrowly missed out on a spot on the podium, we came back fitter, stronger, and more determined to leave our mark on this monument of South African long distance road racing. We scrutinized the palmar├Ęs of several cyclists, handpicking riders from various disciplines and specialities that would contribute positively to the team and get us closer to that podium. And then we got the news. HotChillee had secured the services of Team Sky's Ben Swift. Once word got out we were so inundated with CVs that we had to turn riders away. We weren't just looking for guys that could ride bikes - Team HotChillee is about racing hard, but it's also about making friends, having fun, and not taking ourselves too seriously.

Ben Swift, and evidence that pro's do carry saddle bags.
Apart from Ben Swift, this year's team had a unique flavour to it. We had several seasoned campaigners, an iron man, a handful of rouleurs, a few triathletes, some race snakes and a talented youngster by the name of Nicholas Dlamini. Take note of the name, as I'm sure we're just seeing the beginning of something very special. Together, we had a near perfect combination of speed, strength, experience, and eagerness of youth. Unlike other teams that begin their DC preparation in early May with training rides and weekends away, Team HotChillee has a "rock up and ride" approach. We all know what is required and go about our preparation in our individual ways. Our first training ride together is often the ride down to the start line.

Nicholas Dlamini - a super exciting talent on a bike
I was more than aware that I wasn't in the greatest of shape, struggling to find some form after my Australian adventure. Rather than waste my time on some last minute secret training - I spent the week leading up to the DC clearing out my pain cave, making sure it was as comfortable and cosy as possible, as I came to terms that I would be spending a fair amount of time lurking in the shadows at the very back. Once I had made peace with my destiny, a sense of calm washed over me and I was ready to race.

Last minute strategy consultations
Team HotChillee had a 7:09 start time - 3rd last. By the time the top teams are lining up, the carnival atmosphere that hangs in the air for the earlier teams has dissipated, and a sense of quiet determination replaces it. We all know what we're in for, what we've got to do, and how it is going to feel. There is a mutual respect amongst the top teams - bitter competitors on the bike, and mates off the bike - we let the cycling do the talking.

Race line nerves - old hat for the pros.
In retrospect, it was a miracle that Team HotChillee even made the start line. An incident that will forever be referred to as as The Great Sock Mutiny threatened to end our DC without a single pedal stroke. In order to look like a true racing team, Captain Craig had issued each team member with a pair of (second hand) HotChillee socks. The only problem was that these socks barely covered our ankles, and in the age of almost calf high socks this is not acceptable. And to make it worse - our pro was lucky enough to escape the short sock fate that awaited us - something about contracts and obligations. Amidst allegations of Captain Craig being an undercover UCI sock regulator, a compromise was reached - stretch the living daylights out of the short HotChillee socks and next year we'd have UCI legal long HotChillee socks. Crisis averted. Barely.

Team HotChillee's template for next year
After an inspiring introduction by Paul Kaye, Team HotChillee were off, led out under the guidance of Ben - our level headed euro pro with as much talent as the rest of the team combined. We were not going to start too fast, and instead, aim to finish strong - a particular weakness in recent years. By the time we'd left the city limits of Swellendam my vision was already beginning to narrow, my entire consciousness focussed on the wheel ahead of me. All that mattered were the 11 other individual bike riders around me and how we coordinated our efforts together to work as a well oiled machine, slicing through the cold morning air.

I think Ben might be drafting me
The first hour is always the worst - it is the hour when your fears and doubts nag away at you the most. The hour when you haven't quite found your spot in the pain cave and made yourself at home. How much longer can I keep this up? Will I be the first to drop? Are we starting too fast? And just when the team was settling down to business, Halfway Warren broke a spoke. There were unconfirmed eyewitness reports that claimed to see him putting his foot into his spokes, but given the fact that Halfway Warren didn't finish last year's DC and that he had a score to settle, I find this difficult to believe. He tried to ride on valiantly, but a few hundred metres later any dreams of losing his nickname vanished as he punctured. Suddenly, Team HotChillee were down to 11 riders with 170kms to go.

Ben keeping an eye on the Dan the Iron Man
Despite losing Broom Wagon Warren we continued to make good progress, catching and passing several teams ahead of us before the climbing started. Ben, Jarryd and the other mountain goats set a steady pace, which for us bigger guys is still pretty much flat out, as we wound our way up Tradouw Pass. In previous years I've marvelled at the beauty and the scenery, but this year it was all business and hard work. Dan the Iron Man, like a fish out of water, was getting up to things that only a triathlete could, dropping back to rescue dropped teammates that we'd given up on. I half expected to see him come running past me after donating his bike to Broom Wagon Warren.

Captain Craig getting some advice in the picnic zone
From the back of my pain cave I really wasn't noticing much, apart from the wheel in front of me. Ask if I saw the guy riding in the tutu dress, or if I witnessed Captain Craig's bottle dropping harakiri incident and you'll get a blank stare from me. However, ask me to describe the back wheel, cluster and riding style of a member of Team HotChillee and I could spend hours recalling the minutest detail. Alistair looks like he's wrestling an alligator - in the saddle one moment, and out the next. And then there's Nic's restricted junior gearing rear cluster. In order for him to keep up with Ben Swift (with a surname like that, Ben was always destined to be a fast cyclist, or a fighter pilot) he spins his legs at such a cadence that small vortices are visible on either side of his bike. Imagine trying to ride in your 14 sprocket at 82km/h down the other side of Op de Tradouw Pass - that's a cadence of 164.

Not many people can say they've had a Team Sky rider touch their nipples.
Broom Wagon Warren can
With the 3 hour mark approaching, we pulled into the compulsory picnic zone at Ashton, having covered the 115.6km in 2h58. The opportunity to regroup, refuel and revise our strategy was welcomed by all, some a little more than others. The entire team, except for Broom Wagon Warren, was back, and as we waited for Lieuwe to conclude some important business, all thoughts were on the remaining 84kms. We'd been solid this far, but we needed to keep it going. Give as much as you can for the team, and then give a little bit extra. Creep a little further into the cave.

A jubulent Team HotChillee
In what felt like a repeat of previous years, things started going wrong almost as soon as we left the picnic zone. We dropped our backup almost immediately, followed shortly by Hector the Hulk. A sudden surge and Captain Craig found himself staring at a gap that he couldn't close and suddenly we were down to 9 riders with 70kms to go. Doc Dylan was the next to wave goodbye, and I was hanging on by a thread. As we overtook several slower teams and their backup vehicles in a rather harrowing experience, I had a moment of inattention and found myself gapped by my team. I did everything I could to close it, pedalling with muscles I didn't know I had, desperately calling for more power from the engine room. But none was forthcoming. Ben looked over his shoulder and volunteered to come and rescue me - but it would have been futile. I waved him away, resigned to my fate of limping the remaining 55kms home. I watched the 7 remaining Team HotChillee riders winding their way cautiously through the back markers as they headed for the line. It was now up to Ben, Nic, Dan, Jarryd, Lieuwe, Alistair and David to finish what we'd all started.

Post race, pre prize giving chilling
As I slowly emerged from my cave I realised that I still hadn't seen our backup vehicle. I wasn't concerned about my own well being - I would get to the end eventually. I was worried that our race snakes up ahead could find themselves in difficulty without any support. Somewhere behind us in the chaos and congestion, our backup vehicle was stuck, having to fend off attacks from inexperienced drivers and cyclists alike as they tried to weave through the disorder and pandemonium. The only thing I could do was hope that Broom Wagon Warren's earlier sacrifice would be enough to appease the cycling gods and that we'd be spared any additional misfortune. The closer I got to the finish without seeing Team HotChillee on the side of the road, the more I believed we stood a chance.

As I entered the finishing arena I caught the announcer listing the provisional results. Some team in first, another in second, and then I heard it - Team HotChillee in third. They'd done it. We'd done it. Something us average, everyday guys had been dreaming about for years. Twelve guys who'd never ridden together before as a team, from all over the world, with differing backgrounds, cultures and upbringings had united on race day behind a single goal and achieved it. Each and every member had contributed. And while the result is special, I think the commitment and camaraderie displayed by Team HotChillee will be my enduring memory of this year's Coronation Double Century.

The podium
A big thanks to everyone who made this weekend possible - Sven and HotChillee, Captain Craig, our backup crew of Bonte, Yolanda and Michelle, and everyone else behind the scenes. To our imports - Ben and Dan - it was great riding with you and we hope to see out in South Africa again. And to the rest of the team - thank you and well done. Now lets aim one step higher.

Lieuwe mixing his fake fur

Nicholas playing golf not nearly as well as he cycles

Thursday 14 November 2013

Posted by Velouria Posted on 15:42 | 4 comments

Wines2Whales 2013

After the mutual dissolution of Team Starsky and Hutch - Red John was looking for a real race snake that could match his climbing prowess and I was looking for a partner that would let me stop at the water points - I was left wondering who I could ride Wines2Whales with. Enter Halfway Warren. Our new team, The French Toast Mafia, promised to be a halfway house for those a little low on form, slightly overweight, and in desperate need of some last minute training before the upcoming Double Century.

Where is the wine?
The Wines2Whales Race was going to be our adventure - enjoy the beautiful Western Cape scenery, stop at the water points, and drink beer afterwards. We had no expectations of grandeur - my lungs, legs and technical skill were still somewhere in Australia, and Halfway Warren had been spending far too much time on a road bike. Our only goal was to finish.

Come race day we were seeded in A, and as we lined up in our start chute we both noticed an odd vibe. We're both quite used to hanging out with the race snakes on the road that take themselves far too seriously, and it felt like were lining up for The Funride World Champs. You could almost taste the haze of testosterone and leg rub that hung over the start chute. Halfway Warren and I managed to find a relatively safe spot at the back of the pack, away from the once over glances and pretty posers. Without too much fanfare, the gun went off and we were racing. For about 5 minutes. That was how long The French Toast Mafia could hang onto the A bunch. To be fair, it really only one member of The French Mafia that was dragging his lungs up the climb, sweating like a drug mule at Australian Border Control, and cursing his Christmas pie addiction. Me.

Before long, we found ourselves riding completely on our own, caught between two bunches. It felt like we had the whole course to ourselves. No congestion, no testosterone, just open trails and scenic views. The reason I started mountain biking in the first place nearly 20 years ago. With Lourensford less than 5 minutes from my front door, we often take the spectacular beauty and the quality of the riding for granted. Much like a person seeing his life flash before his eyes before dying, I was appreciating any and everything that could take my mind off the suffering. And we weren't even halfway.

Check out The French Toast Mafia at 1:21

And then it came into view. Like an oasis in the desert. A life saver. A morale booster. A safe haven. I'd heard the rumours about the wealth of treasures to be found at Wines2Whales water points, but much like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster I'd never seen them with my own eyes. I was like a kid in a candy store - jelly babies, mini doughnuts, baby potatoes, sandwiches, coke, bananas. And if you thought I was bad, you should have seen Halfway Warren - I was convinced he was going for the "How many baby potatoes can you fit in your mouth at once" award. He got so carried away with those baby potatoes that he offered me one caked in thick layer salt. I could feel the moisture being drawn out of my system as I choked and gagged on the toxic carb bomb, but unlike previous years with Red John, I could just have another coke.

Completely staged for the camera. I was never in front of Halfway Warren at any time on Stage 1
We continued on our way, losing a tit for tat battle with a couple of guys on singlespeeds on the climbs. My shame was now complete. And the downhills weren't much better. I was suffering from a severe case of brain inertia - the inability to make decisions about where to point the bike when faced with upcoming obstacles, often with the results that I simply rode over or into things in front of me. This is in stark contrast to Halfway Warren's obstacle avoiding style. He is so paranoid of puncturing on rocks that he tries to avoid them all. The result is that he swerves all over the place, and I'm convinced he probably rode an extra 10kms because of his rock avoidance paranoia. I eventually gave up trying to follow his line.

We limped over the compulsory portage up the Gantouw Pass, cursing the early pioneers and their choice of escape route from British persecution as our legs started cramping. Cyclists are not built to carry bikes on their shoulders while walking up a mountain. A lot more single track, a bit of climbing, and a swarm of bees later we crossed the line. We'd made our goal - we'd finished in one piece. Time for beer.

Our home away from home
Stage two dawned on us with the fact that The French Toast Mafia had been demoted a group. Which was great. More time to get ready, less argy-bargy, and a more relaxed starting pace. In complete contrast to the previous day, things felt so much better. The legs felt good, the heart and lungs were behaving, and I felt like I was once again riding my bike, not wrestling it. Before long we'd ridden off the front of our group, Halfway Warren on the receiving end of my overnight form. At one point I asked an innocent question and in return I just got the silent treatment. I thought I'd really pissed him off. It turns out that he did reply to me, but only in his head. He lacked the energy and ability to verbalise his thoughts. He swears that the hay fever pill he heard me take before bed was to blame! From there it was into the single track, once again all on our own - just two guys riding bikes and having fun.

The French Toast Mafia, in our HotChillee kit, enjoying the gentle start of Stage 2
As we settled into our rhythm I started noticing things that I'd been oblivious to the day before. Like Halfway Warren's riding quirks. Apart from his rock paranoia, he has an uncanny habit of unclipping his inside foot around corners. He claims it acts as a mix between an air brake and a counter balance, but from behind it looks like he is using it as an indicator. Very considerate of him. And his love of camera men. I don't think there was a camera man that didn't get some sort of crazy pose out him.

My brain inertia of the previous day was gone and my legs just continued to get better. And then it hit me - white line fever. For the second time that day Halfway Warren went quiet as we sped towards the finish line, my body and bike working together in unison for the first time in a month. Throw in parts of the 24hr course and I was on autopilot. The short stage meant that we had plenty of time for beer drinking, navel gazing, and spotting up country folk. The compression pants were the easy tell tales, but with a bit of practice we spotted a few other signs. Exotic race Tshirts, ghastly looking recovery drinks, and of course obsession with position, time and seeding. Sometimes I think the race for 63rd position is fiercer than the race for the podium.

A super slow mo of The French Toast Mafia at 2:49
The final stage dawned on us - I'd once again taken my hay fever tablet and hoped that the legs would stick around for another day. Another gentle start with some rolling hills, and before long The French Toast Mafia were back at the front, opening up the gaps on the climbs and losing some time on the technical descents. The first half of the race whizzed by in a blur, Halfway Warren sticking out his leg all over the place, as we approached the midway water point of the day. In a reversal of Red John's role, I was now having to drag my partner out of the water points as it turns out he is his own worst enemy. Too much time spent at the water point means that Halfway Warren consumes too much, and that means that 10kms later he'll be leaving little surprises all over the place as he purges his overflow valve. Not so nice if you don't know it's coming.

Ironically posing 3 months prior with a protea bush that would send me tumbling on Stage 3
With the scent of the sea filling our nostrils we could almost sense the finish line, and I could feel the onset of white line fever starting when disaster struck. Several teams took a wrong turn up a hill, and realising our mistake turned around to race back down to the missed intersection. In the flash of a second the team in front of me locked up brakes, blocking the whole trail, leaving me nowhere to go but into them, at 31km/h. I flew through the air like a rag doll at a dance a marathon, the contents of my pockets flying in the opposite direction, and came to rest quite heavily on a quartzitic sandstone outcrop, neatly disguised by a fynbos bush. Before I'd even come to a complete stop, the protagonist and his partner were ready to head off down the hill. While I don't mind crashing - it is a consequence of bike riding - I was quite annoyed that Team 431 showed zero empathy and saw this as an opportunity to move up one place in the standings. With barely a concern for my well being or an apology for riding like total beginners, they sped off.

And just like that, a red mist descended. I flew down that mountain, adrenaline pumping, my belly filled with rage. Halfway Warren later told me that he was concerned about what I'd do if we caught the offending team. We did eventually catch them, and luckily for them I'd calmed down sufficiently that instead of there being a cyclist fight, I just mumbled something obscene under my breath.

Nothing says manly like cyclists fighting

With the adrenaline wearing off, I was suddenly quite aware of just how sore my wrist was. Holding on to the bars was difficult, and braking was near impossible, which explains why I washed out on one corner, and rode into Halfway Warren on another. To add insult to injury, Team 431 repassed us, racing as hard as they could for 56th place, eager to drink their recovery drinks and don their compression pants as soon as possible. The irony was we had 10 minutes on Team 431 as they had started in A and we were in B.

With the sea in sight, the enthusiastic support of my wife filling our ears, The French Toast Mafia crossed the line, glad to put the day's adventures behind us. Halfway Warren had been a great partner, dishing it out as well as receiving his fair share of suffering. And despite some near misses, we achieved our goal - we finished.

I learnt a few things at this year's Wines2Whales:
  1. We live in a very beautiful part of the country
  2. There's more to mountain biking events than positions and times
  3. Beer is the only recovery drink anyone should ever need to drink
  4. Halfway Warren has a porta loo phobia
If mountain biking is the new golf, what's the new mountain biking? Is it time to invest in a cyclocross bike?

Thursday 24 October 2013

My road to the WEMBO World 24hr Solo Mountain Bike Championships didn't begin in April when I said goodbye to my friends and family in favour of spending any and all free time on my bicycle, clocking up the miles on the roads of the Western Cape. It didn't begin last year when Meurant Botha from Dirtopia and Gavin Rossouw (one of SA's top 24hr racers) managed to talk a hole in my head after winning our local 24hr event for the 3rd time, that I needed a new challenge. It began one wintery September day back in 2006 when I couldn't find enough friends to enter a team into our local 24hr event. In a moment of madness, I decided to go it alone and entered as a solo rider. Solo 24hr racing was the stuff the hard tough men of mountain biking did, not something a roadie and part time dirt lover would ever consider.
My first solo 24hr race in 2006

Come race day and I was regretting my moment of bravado - I was so far out of my comfort zone that I was looking for any excuse not to line up on the start line. The real solo riders had pit crews, mechanics, masseuses, coffee machines, spare bikes and all the comforts. I had my wife, a flimsy green gazebo, a Raleigh MTB, and a friend with a skottle braai. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that was my race strategy right from the start. I found a rider going at a pace that I could handle, and I followed him. When he swapped bottles, I swapped bottles. When he ate, I ate. When he put on lights, I put on lights. When he stopped to sleep - well, I was still feeling good and kept on going. Imagine my surprise when, at around midnight, it was announced that I was the new race leader. Now what? Who did I follow and copy now? How do I defend a lead for 12 hours? I valiantly tried to hold on, but 6 hours later Gavin passed me, correcting the temporary imbalance in the universe, and restoring order. I finished in second place, having clocked up 55 laps and 355 kms, but more importantly, I’d joined the club of those hard tough men.
Finishing my first solo 24hr in second place

Over the years I’ve done several 24hr races, faring better at some than at others. My first win was special, as was defending the title a year later. Racing Tinker Juarez (a former 24hr World Champ) in Johannesburg was a highlight and my first test against a legend of the sport.
Tinker and I going head to head

Lining up on the start line at Mount Stromlo, a cycling nirvana on the outskirts of Canberra in Australia, for the World 24hr Solo Mountain Bike Championships reminded me a lot of my first race. I felt so out of my depth. There were guys with full pro sponsorships, fancy pit areas, entourages of supporters, nutritionists, armies of mechanics and several race bikes. I had my wife, a $8 lawn chair, my trusty farm gate of a 29er, a South African flag, and my snacks and supplies in the back of our hire car. I might have felt like an amateur, but at least I looked racey in my Go for Gold sponsored kit.

Our modest pit setup
On the start line, rubbing shoulders with the hot shots

There were 270 entrants for the world champs, but in the only category that I was interested in - Male Elite - there were 27 riders from 8 countries. We each got called up to the start line, and somehow, I ended up next to 3 time World Champ Jason English. I’d read about him and seen him on YouTube and here I was, rubbing shoulders. The next few minutes were all a blur, and before I knew it we were off - racing. The 24 000 kms I’d clocked up in training during some of the foulest Cape winter weather had all been for this moment. I’d sold my car, missed birthday parties, and turned down that extra helping of dessert. I was in the form of my life, and I was ready to see where I fitted into the global 24hr racing pecking order. Using the same race strategy that had served me so well all those years ago, I quickly found someone to follow and slowly started knocking off the laps.
Early laps, concentrating on the wheel ahead

A lap at Stromlo was 16.9 kms with around 320m of climbing. And it was like nothing I've ever raced on before. There are no free sections. Every single metre of the lap has to be earned. A lapse in concentration anywhere and your race could be over. To emphasise the point, a rider had died on the course the day before the event. And it was brutal - 8 laps in and I couldn't feel my hands or feet. None of these manicured, smooth courses that us South Africans seem so obsessed about. This was real mountain biking, with no chicken runs, escape lines or dumbed down sections. The only way was through or over. There wasn't a section longer than 20 seconds where you could take one hand off the bars to eat and drink.
One of the many twisty rocky sections

Like most 24hr races, I was ultimately racing myself - my mind in a constant battle to retain control over my body as it slowly fell apart. The cold dark laps in the early hours of the morning are the worst. You become your own worst enemy, searching for an excuse to give up, wanting just one more minute in the lawn chair under the blanket before heading out. And yet once you’re out there nothing else matters. You’re alone with your thoughts, riding your bike, worrying only about the obstacles ahead of you, illuminated by the small puddle of light from your bike light. This is why we ride bikes. This is why I travelled 10768kms to the other side of the world. Much like the people who climb Everest, we do this because we can.
The DaneTrain in action

As South Africans we’re conditioned to hate the Aussies, and try as hard as I might, I struggled to find an Aussie that I didn’t like. Complete strangers offered all sorts of support, from backup mechanic services to just keeping my wife company in the early hours. Out on the course it was much the same thing - polite Aussies asking for track or getting out of the way when they could. The few European riders could learn a thing or two from the Aussies about trail etiquette.
The drinks container

With sunrise, the end seemed just a little bit closer. By now it was all about discomfort management. On the climbs my bum would be aching, on the technical sections my hands and feet would throb, and on the fast descents my back would seize up. Slowly but surely I inched towards my target of 20 laps, gradually moving up in position. With an hour to go I was in a rather fragile looking 12th place, being hunted by the riders behind me. Yolanda, my nutritionist, mechanic, press lady and general motivator, managed to get me out for one last lap, having convinced me that the guy hunting me down was only 7 minutes behind me. In a Herculean effort I gave it everything I had left, ignoring the pain as best I could, knowing that if I could get to the final downhill section with out being passed, 12th place would be mine. With little over 8kms to go disaster struck. I could no longer ignore the pain in my back and I had to get off my bike to stretch it out. And yet my hunter still didn't appear.
Sometimes I really hate my wide handle bars

I made it to the final downhill, and then the finish line, and to my surprise found that I had ended in 11th place. More tellingly, there had been no hunter - the challenger had been unable to get out for one last lap. I'd ridden 21 laps in 24:17, for a total of 354.96kms. The similarity to that first 24hr race wasn't lost on me. I'd given it everything I had - I'd discovered new depths to my pain cave, places I didn't think existed. I found out just how far I could push my body, and it finally broke within sight of the finish. There were no unanswered questions, no what ifs, buts, no maybes. I now know where I stand on the global pecking list, and I have a new appreciation for the guys at the top.
Some of the local spectators

A friendly ex-South African offering advice and directions
The last remaining challenge of the day was to get showered and cleaned up. While normally it takes 5 minutes for a decent shower - that was how long it took me just to put my underpants on. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered I had them on back to front. That was just something I was going to have to live with - I had neither the desire or the inclination to spend another 10 minutes sorting this problem out. We packed up our meager backup possessions into the hire car and set off in search of some fast food and the comfort of our apartment bed. This was the beginning of my retirement from 24hr solo racing.
Night riding, deserves a quiet night

I'd ridden 354.96kms and climbed 6700m. I'd burned 19658KCal (or more than 7 times the daily recommended intake) and consumed 2 bottles of Game, 22 bottles of water, 2 litres of chocolate milk, 1 litre of strawberry milk, 7 large lattes, 9 cokes, 3 bottles of Lucozade, 2 boxes of slap chips, a tub of soup, a bowl of oats and a Gu.

Finished, and content

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Posted by Velouria Posted on 21:24 | 3 comments

Trans Baviaans 2013

At 10 o'clock on a cold, windy morning in the sleepy hollow of Willowmore, one of the highlights on the South African mountain biking calendar gets underway - the Trans Baviaans. For The Night Time Ninjas, the race begins several months before, and I'm not talking about competing with other teams, I'm talking about the intra-team competition.

Trans Baviaans #10
The objective is to give the impression that you are the weakest link in the three man team, while doing everything in your power to ensure that you aren't. The only rule is "There are no rules". Anything goes - secret training, strategic alliances, double crossing, faked illnesses, false rumours, doctored Strava uploads. It's a mental game that has you secretly spying on teammates' training progress, inflating body fat percentages, and doing some extra training on the rollers in the garage where no one can see. Come the race weekend all that changes - the gloves come off, the secrets are spilled and you talk up your game to convince your teammates that you are in peak form, finely tuned and ready to race. In a three man team you don't have to be the fastest, but you certainly don't want to be the slowest.

Red sky at night?
Part of my pre-race psychological warfare arsenal is to book our accommodation in the Willowmore Primary School hostel. Apart from being convenient and central, it has several characteristics that tend to get to Old Man John. There is seldom hot water, and for a shower addict this is apparently quite a problem. The mattresses are thin, the pasta meal is oily and stodgy, the wooden floors are noisy, the rooms are cold, the toilets clog frequently, and there is always at least one team that has to wake up at 5 in the morning and walk around making a noise like a herd of Nguni cattle.

No one reads these
Captain Craig added to the warfare by suggesting that we ride in the now infamous HotChillee Epic kit. While both he and I like the tight fit, OMJ has a serious aversion to anything that a rugby prop forward can't fit into. Even having a new bike didn't prevent additional attacks on OMJ - it might be new, it might be light, and it might be a 29er (finally), but it was a Silverback. Amazingly, OMJ took this all in his stride. Perhaps he had made peace with his place in the team, or perhaps he had a bigger plan.

Trial run fitting into the tight top
OMJ still thinking we were pulling a prank on him
The Night Time Ninjas rolled into the start chute with 10 minutes to spare, quietly confident that we'd have a good ride, and secretly hoping to improve on last year's 6th place. For a long 10 minutes we sat in the cold wind and watched the rain approach as we listened to a local rendition of the National Anthem before we were unleashed for the 10th edition of the Trans Baviaans.

OMJ showing off the latest fashions. Someone please call StyleMan
I could watch OMJ trying to get his knee warmers equal for hours
As usual, the first hour is like a road race - it's hard and fast, with the bunch doing its best to whittle out the free loaders and wheel suckers. Forget about saving heart beats and keeping the legs fresh, if you want to reap the benefits of riding in the lead bunch later on you've got to do whatever it takes to make sure you don't get dropped, while keeping an eye on your teammates to make sure they are showing the same commitment. With 80kms done, things were looking good - there was a select bunch moving along at a decent pace with a very welcome tailwind making life rather easy. Checkpoint 2 was approaching, and shortly thereafter the hills would begin. The sense of calm that hung over the bunch was shattered when Captain Craig called me over and mumbled about something being broken. A quick scan of the scene didn't reveal much - he was in one piece, and from what I could see, so was his bike (to be fair, his bike is always in a state of brokenness, but nothing seemed exceptionally bad). It was when he hit a slight bump in the road and his rear wheel bounced a foot to the left that I realised what he had said - his frame was broken. The irony was that I'd broken the same make of frame a year previously in exactly the same place, except mine had been a slight crack, compared to the clean break that was staring up at Captain Craig.

The last known photo of Captain Craig and his working bike
Too many pies?
Briefly, for 5 seconds, my heart sank. Our dreams of a podium were as broken as Captain Craig's bike. With that realisation, it was time to make a decision. Much like the Navy SEALs, and as much as we like to mess with each other, The Night Time Ninjas obey the unwritten code of "Leave no man behind". Despite his protestations for us to stay in the lead bunch, OMJ and myself dropped off the pace to nurse Captain Craig to the next checkpoint. Perhaps we could salvage our race once we got there. Maybe we could repair the break, or find a spare bicycle. Upon reaching the checkpoint we quickly realised that his bike was beyond repair, and it probably wouldn't last another 5kms. Our only hope was to find a spare bike. While the checkpoint offered coke, marsh mellows and friendly conversation, spare bikes were in short supply. OMJ gallantly offered up his bike but Captain Craig refused. I'm not sure if it was because he'd accepted his fate, or because he didn't want to ride a Silverback, but after a prolonged goodbye, only two thirds of The Night Time Ninjas left the checkpoint, not knowing if we'd ever ride together again.

You'd think after all these years OMJ would look a little more racier
We were now officially unofficial finishers, our race was over, along with our aspirations of a good result. The only thing keeping us going was that this was my 10th Trans Baviaans, and that I had to finish before 10am on Sunday to remain in the small group of 3 riders who have finished all the Trans Baviaans events to date. We plodded along like a car running on 3 cylinders, tapping out a good tempo, but lacking the raciness that we usually exhibit. We were catching the back markers of the lead bunch, and while we weren't really racing them, it did feel good to move back up through the field. After leaving Checkpoint 2 in unofficial 18th place, we arrived at Checkpoint 4 in unofficial 10th place which only reinforced our feelings of what could have been.

I know he secretly likes the hostel
With OMJ doing his first Baviaans on a hardtail 29er, and Captain Craig making friends with the officials at Checkpoint 2, the responsibility fell to me to pick the lines down Combrink's Pass. Having spent 6 years following my teammates, the sudden responsibility lead to some rather interesting decisions, the more interesting of which would get a running commentary from OMJ behind. Somewhere down the pass I hit something and lost some air in my rear tyre. An on-the-go inspection seemed to indicate that the tyre was ok, and that it was holding air. It just wasn't holding as much air as I would have liked. With renewed determination to get to the checkpoint at Kondomo to sort out the wheel, the Surviving Night Time Ninjas put their heads down and rode like the wind. The 17 different weather websites that I'd frequented in the days leading up to Trans Baviaans had all promised a westerly to south westerly gale which would be a tail wind for most of the ride, so you can imagine our surprise when we found ourselves battling a nasty headwind for the 20kms leading into Kondomo.

Wind. Lots of wind.
As I filled my tyre with air, OMJ filled his belly with whatever he could find - coffee, oranges, banana bread, and jelly babies, all washed down by several swigs of water. We said goodbye to our ever faithful backup and hit the road, having slipped from unofficial 10th to unofficial 13th place. The short stretch of tar was a welcome relief, and my roadie roots came to the fore, towing OMJ to the foot of the Never Ender - a long, gentle climb that acts like a slow poison, slowly wearing you down bit by bit, till you long to be put out of your misery.

Our backup, passing the time taking self portraits
I am the holder of a rather dubious record at Trans Baviaans - I have ejected my stomach contents on 3 different climbs, in 3 successive years. This year I was hoping that I could finally break my run of gastric elimination. With two climbs to go, all signs were looking good, I'd been careful in what I'd eaten and my stomach felt settled. As we made our way up the Never Ender I was once again getting abuse from OMJ regarding my choice of line, the hardtail 29er doing his tender bum no favours. Trying my best to limit the grumpiness, I was picking smooth manicured lines up the climb when I heard a massive grumble from behind. Thinking I was in trouble again, I looked over my shoulder only to see OMJ saying goodbye to the remainder of his snacks from the previous checkpoint as they exited via his mouth. While I know how awful it feels to be in that situation, I couldn't have been happier that it wasn't me.

Pre race nerves catching up with me
I also have to blame OMJ for what happened next. Because of his dramatic emergency stomach purge, I was a little hesitant to fall victim to the same fate, and neglected to eat. As a result, I briefly had a bad patch where my legs deserted me and I was pedalling in squares. Thankfully, this was quickly remedied with some Dutch mini Stroopwafles - the legs came back with the top of the Never Ender in sight and the Depleted Night Time Ninjas were back on track to make the final checkpoint before sunset.

As we rolled into Checkpoint 7, I briefly flirted with the idea of a quick stop and a dash to the finish in an attempt to crack the 9hr mark. As unofficial finishers it really didn't make that much difference, and since OMJ had vowed retirement from competitive bike racing after this year's Baviaans, I thought he might want to enjoy the last 20 kms.

Along with OMJ, his shoes are retiring too
We finally turned our lights on, and headed off towards the lights of Jeffreys Bay. After a fast a furious chase, we hooked up with another team as we hit the tar for the long and arduous grind to the finish. I don't think there is a worse finish to a bike race in South Africa - an uphill tar drag into a raging crosswind for several kilometers. Add a teammate who can't ride in an echelon (like most mountain bikers) and it made for a long and frustrating finish after the beauty of the previous 220kms. The Vestigial Night Time Ninjas crossed the line in an unofficial 11th place, in 9h04, a bittersweet Pyrrhic victory.

Finishing faces (1)
Finishing faces (2)
As we sat there, eating our Spur burgers, our thoughts turned to our missing teammate. No one had heard a thing from him, and we had no indication as to where he was. Our only hope was that he would use his wit and charm and hopefully by some miracle find his way to Jeffreys Bay.

Our missing teammate, his broken bike, and his transport for the previous 9 hours
Just after midnight we got a call that he was at the finish. By now the temperature had plummeted, the wind was howling, it was pouring with rain - generally not a good idea to be outside. As we drove to pick up Captain Craig we passed countless teams, slogging it out in the foulest of weather up the ridiculous tar climb to the finish. These are the real champions of Trans Baviaans, the unsung heroes. The guys and girls who spend many more hours in the saddle, fighting the terrain, their bikes, on the limit of their fitness. It's darker, colder, windier, yet they're out there. And they'll be out there again next year. Just like me.