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.