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?