Friday 18 April 2014

Posted by Velouria Posted on 10:39 | 5 comments

The 36One Challenge - 2014

It's not often that an event comes along that changes the scenery of bike racing so dramatically. Hell & Back, Trans Baviaans and the Cape Epic were game changers in their day, each setting the benchmark and ushering in a new category of mountain biking in South Africa. While only in its third year, The 36One Challenge promises to be one of those events. Coupled with Dryland's legendary event organisation and attention to detail, I'm quite sure this event is going to become one of those iconic events on our mountain bike calendar.

Another HotChillee road trip
What is The 36One Challenge? It's a 361km, non stop, mountain bike race in and around Oudtshoorn. It starts at 6pm on a Friday evening, and riders have 36.1 hours to complete the distance. The thing that makes this event so unique is that it caters for everyone, from the hardcore endurance race snake, to the average weekend warrior looking for that next challenge. If you're the antisocial type, you can do the full 361kms on your own, or if you have a crazy friend that you like sharing intimate details with at 3 in the morning you can do the full distance in a two man team. If the thought of spending most of the weekend on your bike terrifies you, you can opt for the shorter, but by no means easier, half option - 180kms - starting just before sunrise. And then there are the relay options - 2 or 4 person teams, taking on the 4 stages that make up the race, each stage a marathon on its own.

Why did I get myself into?
As the start date approached, I started to wish I been more diligent in my training leading up to the event. Suddenly 361kms seemed a lot longer than it sounded when we entered, 3 months previously. Once again, Captain Craig and I were partnering up and taking on the two man team challenge. The old adage applied - you don't have to be the strongest rider in the event, you just have to be stronger than your partner. With that in mind, the last few weeks before The 36One Challenge were filled with as much psychological deception and skulduggery as there was last minute training. The excuses were flying - sore backs, dodgy bellies, gammy knees - you'd swear we were two old grumps in an old age home awaiting the Grim Reaper.

Two guys posing under a sign like that? Thankfully it's a bar.
The worst part about doing an event for the first time are the unknowns. Not the known unknowns - every race has those and we know how to deal with them, the unknown unknowns. The things we can't even begin to anticipate. Thankfully, places like The Hub are a wealth of knowledge, but there is always that nagging feeling that you've forgotten something. With pensive reluctance we lined up on the start line, the uncertainty of the challenge that lay ahead playing on our minds. And then we were off. Unlike most mountain bike races where the start is a blur of dust, testosterone and snot, The 36One was quite a bit more sedentary. Team HotChillee were tucked on the back of the lead bunch, coasting along nicely, when out of the corner of my eye I saw something black and round flying through the peloton. I had a good chuckle, thinking that some sucker had just lost their light, until I looked down and realised that the sucker was me. I gave Captain Craig a yell, stopped, turned around and went in search of my light in the gutter. Not a good way to start a race with 355kms still to go.

With my light safely and, this time, securely clipped in, we set about doing what we do best - tapping out a mind numbingly boring tempo, riding our own race at our own pace. Slowly but surely we caught and passed riders who had been a bit too optimistic about their ability to ride with the race snakes in the lead bunch and before long we had them in sight again. Just as things were looking up, disaster struck again, and this time it was serious.

You think it's ridable?
Five minutes previously Captain Craig had received a warning as he overcooked a corner that tightened up on him. He made it through unscathed, and I'd hoped he'd learned from his mistake. But Captain Craig is Captain Craig, and such learning opportunities are often ignored as he is consistently pushing the limit. Usually it works out for him, but every now and then the limit pushes back. On a sweeping left hand corner, with Captain Craig carrying far too much speed, the limit gave him a decent shove. With a rain trench and small barrier fast approaching, I feared the worst. This was going to be another one of those situations where I'd have to describe to Captain Craig's wife just exactly how he had broken some body part, as well as wrecked his bicycle. And then a cycling miracle happened - moments before impact there was a loud bang and suddenly Captain Craig was flying through the air, over the small wall and trench, eventually coming to rest in a heap of bike and body, having used his shoulder, hip and knee to stop. On closer inspection we discovered his rear tyre had rolled off the rim, and somehow got him airborne before contact with the wall. Instead of burying a partner, all I had to do was assist in getting the tyre back onto the rim.

They want us to go where?
In a testament to Captain Craig's toughness, he didn't complain once over the next 16 hours about his injuries, although he was rather upset about the small hole in his cycling shorts. Our plan now for the rest of the ride was to finish, preferably in one piece, and to enjoy the remaining 320kms. Despite there being around 300 participants, we soon found ourselves all alone, occasionally catching a glimpse of a light up ahead, as we knocked off the kilometres under an almost full Karoo moon.

Almost go time
The one great travesty of The 36One Challenge is that while I suspect we are riding through some very scenic parts of the Klein Karoo, we do so mostly at night, following the small puddle of light in front of us. Our entire world was a 3x10 metre lens of the dirt road in front of us. Anything to the left or right didn't matter. For 12 hours, that is all we saw of the route we rode.

The pebble Captain Craig carried around for 320kms
After the initial excitement during the first few hours of the race, the remainder of the night time riding was uneventful as we rode from water point to water point - little oases of light, drink and snacks in the cold dark Karoo wastelands. And credit must be given to the people manning the water points in what felt like the middle of nowhere. No matter the time of night, we were greeted with smiles, enthusiasm and Klein Karoo hospitality, which made it very difficult to leave sometimes. I later heard that the water points became party points once the race snakes had all passed through, with offers of energy drink being replaced with offers of brandy. Sometimes I think we have this racing thing all wrong.

Must find the snacks!
While I can remember most of the ride quite vividly, I can't remember any of the conversations Captain Craig and I had, apart from the odd "How are your legs?". I suspect that is not because we don't have anything to say, but rather that we don't need to say anything. One look at Captain Craig and I can tell if he is suffering, if he is feeling strong, if the pace is too fast, or if he's been drinking and eating. Like an old married couple, we're comfortable in our silence. And in the middle of the Klein Karoo with no one else in sight, there is a lot of silence.

Things the back markers get up to after too much brandy
We made the halfway mark of 180kms in just under 8 hours. Having done more kilometres than there are left is always a milestone, even if we still had the tougher second half ahead of us. A quick stop and we were back into our routine, me on the front with my light on dim, and Captain Craig behind with his light switched off to save the battery. He probably rode 80% of the route on a combination of my light and the moon light - clearly his earlier near death experience hadn't rattled his confidence. Endurance riding is all about maximising the good patches and minimising the bad ones. My overeagerness to reach the halfway mark had caught up with me. I was on the edge of a dark and bottomless abyss, mashing the pedals with the coordination and finesse of a drunken sloth. While there usually is a light at the end of the tunnel, it often doesn't feel like it.

Last hill of the day
I emerged from my dark and lonely cave just in time to confront the big climb of the night - Rooiberg Pass. The good thing about climbing at night is that you can't see the top. The bad thing about climbing at night is that you can't see the top. Like an invisible taunter, the mountain slowly but surely takes its toll, one pedal stroke at a time, while the optimist in us hopes that each corner is the last. This game of shadow boxing lasted 40 minutes, before we finally crested the hill, only to be rewarded by a treacherous descent. When Captain Craig says he doesn't enjoy a downhill you have to know how bad it must be. With the climb behind us, we raced off to the final check point in Calitzdorp as the first hints of sunrise began to show. While I'm not much of a morning person, there is something special about watching the sunrise from the vantage point of a bike saddle. A renewal of sorts.

Captain Craig, his bloody knee, and an ice cold beer
We ditched our lights, stocked up on snacks, and set off on the remaining 80kms back to Oudtshoorn, thinking the hard work lay behind us. A quick glimpse at my computer revealed a slight problem. We'd climbed just over 4000m so far, but I vaguely remembered the organisers saying something about 5100m of climbing. That left us with the equivalent of two Rooiberg Passes of climbing left. At first I thought my computer was wrong, but as we made our way through the beautiful valleys and dales towards the foot of the Swartberg mountains, we soon realised that the only way out was up. It was around this time that Captain Craig put in such a vicious attack up a climb that I was convinced he was attacking me, and not the two riders we'd recently caught and passed. Perhaps my deodorant was starting to fail as the temperatures were now in the low 30s, or perhaps my squeaky pedal had finally gotten too much for him.

After our mid afternoon nap, waiting for Hector
As we crested the last big hill with my tongue dragging behind me, we caught sight of a small group of riders in the distance, and in a flash my white line fever kicked in. Despite Captain Craig's best efforts to kill me on the climbs my legs were feeling great. Throw is some targets up ahead, 40kms to go and the objective of finishing in under 17 hours, and I was like a hyperactive buffalo after 3 espressos. While we caught and passed the riders up ahead, I also rode Captain Craig into the ground and before long he popped like an egg in a microwave. Thankfully the final water point was nearby with much needed coke and snacks, and while he could have spent several hours there, we were soon on our way.

A rather broken looking Hector. Just an average day for a rhino.
As we entered the outskirts of Oudsthoorn my bum finally gave in. The uneasy truce between my saddle and it now a thing of the past. Thankfully, the remaining kilometres were all on tar, which after the adventures of the previous 16 hours felt like velvet. And just like that Team HotChillee crossed the finish line. There were no high fives, no congratulatory hugs, or scenes of jubilation. We were relieved it was over, relieved we'd made it despite our early mishaps, and relieved to still be talking to each other.

2nd placed team
The 36One Challenge is the toughest "normal" race I have ever done, and while it's hard going at the front of the race, it's the average rider that I admire the most. The guys and girls that take anything from 22 to 29 hours to finish, through the heat of the day (and some of them a second night of riding) And take nothing away from the riders who did the Half - that in itself is an impressive achievement. Finally, I think the spirit of The 36One Challenge is summed up by the winning 4 man team - a bunch of guys more suited to the front row of a rugby scrum than to the skinny, lycra-clad world of mountain biking. Each team member accepting and conquering the challenges presented to them.

The Two Man Team podium


  1. Well written and ridden. I really suffered on this race. My final time was 23h35!!!!

    1. Thanks David. Don't worry, everyone suffered. If you didn't, then I think you have a problem. Well ridden - riding fast is easy, you're the guys I have the most respect for.

  2. When are you going to give up the day job and become a journalist? Well done as always!

  3. Nice going and a good read as always dude!

  4. cool race report, well written, your best work so far me thinks.