Wednesday 19 August 2015

Posted by Velouria Posted on 23:55 | 7 comments

TransBaviaans 2015

For the twelfth year in a row, I made my way to the little town of Willowmore in the Eastern Cape for a bike race. And not just any bike race. A race that started my obsession with ultra endurance mountain biking. A roller coaster ride of camaraderie, suffering, elation, and exquisite beauty. A lot of things have changed in those twelve years, and a lot of things have stayed the same.

My first Baviaans, in 2004
Back in the day, we all rode 26 inch mountain bikes with bar ends and a whopping 60mm of front suspension. Tubeless tyres didn't yet exist, and the best lights money could buy lasted 3 hours, weighed a tonne, and produced a measly puddle of golden yellow light. Thankfully, they're all a thing of the past, unlike Wikus's PA system, the sosaties at check point 3, and the usual pre-race banter about the condition on the kloof.

Although we were on different teams at the time, the current team members are all visible in this photo from 2011
After the slightly disappointing result of 2014, The Quixotic Hill Engines were back to set things right. Captain Craig had spent a week training on the brutal gradients of the Pyrenees, while Halfway Robertson had indulged in several days of race simulation in the Italian Alps. My preparation was not as exotic, but included some upper body weight training (lifting a toddler is hard work!), several brutal sessions on the evil Wattbike, and the usual work and back commute. While not up to the standard of my jet-setting teammates, I thought I was in pretty decent shape. Strava even said so.

The Quixotic Hill Engines, presented by HotChillee
Race day morning dawned and we were once again quietly confident of a good showing. Conditions were perfect - warm with a generous tailwind, and everything felt good. After the usual mumbled race briefing from Wikus, and a tentative rendition of our national anthem, we were sent on our way to the enthusiastic cheering of the small gaggle of remaining spectators.

Warm, with a welcome tail wind
Our race plan is always simple - do just enough to stick with the front bunch, avoid pushing too hard, and try to get into a rhythm as soon as possible. We also like to do a quick head count, see who's who and to gauge where we stand in the pecking order. On a side note, I do the same thing with my teammates to determine the internal team pecking order. My initial assessment had Captain Craig on top, me in the middle, and Halfway in third. Perfect - it's never nice being the weakest link.

Our worldly possessions in two boxes
As we dropped into the Kloof we got our first signs that things weren't going according to plan. While everything felt good, a quick team consensus revealed that we were all riding at very high heart rates. We put it down to nerves and adrenalin and continued onwards at speeds more fitting of road racing, hoping that everything would settle down as we hid in the bunch for the next two hours.

But our hopes were quickly dashed, when, in a follow up team meeting we unanimously agreed that we could not continue at this pace and expect to live till nightfall. With wise and mature heads not often associated with our team, we dropped off the bunch, preferring to ride at a more consistent pace than endure the lung and leg busting surges that were happening up front. We took stock, reassessed the plan, and rolled along at a decent pace, holding the lead group in our sight as we each took turns to set the pace on the front.

Halfway practising his aero tuck
And yet, despite our level headed approach, I still wasn't recovering. My turns on the front got fewer and I got more and more accustomed to the view from the caboose of the HotChillee Train. I was still convinced it was just a bad patch, and that I'd ride myself through it. Until the cramps started. They started off as distant tweaks - my legs trying to mumble something to me - and slowly got worse and worse. By now Captain Craig and Halfway were doing all the work on the front, and occasionally I'd have to request a drop in pace, particularly over small rises as I was struggling to hang onto the wheel in front of me.

How many grown men does it take to figure out how to attach a timing chip to a helmet?
The first compulsory stop could not have come at a better time. I hoped the break would be enough to restore my karma as we went through the usual check point rituals, from eating and drinking, restocking the pockets to lubing the chain. But I knew something wasn't right. I was so desperate to rediscover my form that I even asked Halfway for a hug. And while quietly sobbing into his shoulder offered momentary relief from the slowly escalating catastrophe, it did nothing to revitalise my body.

Is this aero?
I still clung to the fading hope that I'd find some legs, but as we started climbing, so too did my heart rate. And with the increased heart rate came the cramps. Each surge a little more severe than the last. Any glimmer of a recovery quickly vanished as I settled into a physical and mental state that I hoped would see me to the end. The phrase "pain cave" gets thrown about a lot these days, describing anything from the burn felt while doing 2 minute intervals to the discomfort encountered when riding into the howling South Easter. I was not in the pain cave. I had gone into the pain cave and laughed at its patheticness. In comparison to the pit of despair that I found myself falling into, the pain cave is a mod con packed, luxury bachelor pad with fluffy duvets, deep pile carpets and an endless supply of beer. I was entering Dante's Inferno.

All smiles before the start
Occasionally, both Halfway and Captain Craig would descend towards my pit of misery, only to recover and escape its deathly clutches. By the time we rolled into the next check point I was starting to contemplate throwing in the towel. Despite covering the first 124km in 4h30, we had the hillier second half of the race ahead of us, and I wasn't sure I had the legs to go uphill.

My fancy new Lauf fork
Two thoughts go through your mind when you have a bad day like this. The first is about survival. Will I be able to make it to the end, or am I going to end up either in the back of an ambulance, or huddled under a bush wishing it would all end? The second is about letting the team down. Despite the reassurances and sympathy from my teammates, it's never cool to be the "if only" guy. It always feels bad explaining to others that we would have had a fantastic race, if only I hadn't had such a bad day.
Fifeteen kilometres in and already we were showing signs of weakness

On a hill I have ridden 11 times in a row, I found myself having to stop, get off my bike, fight the now ever present cramps, and push my bike. And this was a hill that doesn't even feature on the profile. This didn't bode well for the big climb of the day that lay ahead, aptly named The Mother of All Climbs. The MAC has claimed my scalp several times over the years, and in recent years is the one climb in South Africa that is most guaranteed to make me vomit. And 2015 was no different.

The HotChillee Express
Sometimes, when suffering, it's nice to have the company of your teammates around you, like a reassuring favourite blanket when you're young. With them nearby, despite how atrocious things are, you're going to be okay. At other times, it's better to suffer alone, in your own little world, at your own crawling pace. Whether intentional or not, Captain Craig and Halfway left me to my own devices up The MAC, as I slowly limped up the climb, pedal stroke after pedal stroke, stopping for the occasional stomach emptying, or a particularly bad wave of cramps. I finally reached the top of The MAC, and with some very generous pushing from both my teammates (at the same time!) we eventually rolled into the next check point. I think I still have their hand prints on my lower back!

As tough as it was, it still beats work
While my guardian angels ran around after me, refilling my bottles, unpacking my supplies and lubing my chain, I gulped down two cups of the now legendary Check Point 4 soup. This is the same soup that in the past has settled my stomach, given me super human powers, and solved world hunger. I'm quite sure the recipe was handed down from the cycling gods themselves. All I needed from the soup this year was a warm and fuzzy feeling that everything was going to be alright. A sign that somehow, between my supportive teammates' efforts and my flappy wobbly legs, we were going to make it to the finish in Jeffreys Bay.

Must. Have. More. Coke.
As we left the comfort of the check point and the life giving soup, Captain Craig took on a fatherly role in our team dynamic, while Halfway sat on the front to set the pace. Captain Craig would shepherd me with gentle nudges and expert prods back onto Halfway's wheel, keeping me sheltered and protected from the wind, and help ease me over the climbs. On the odd occasion that I'd venture out from behind Halfway's bum for a change of scenery, Captain Craig would sternly reprimand me and tell me to rejoin the safety of our formation. Our technique worked so well that we actually caught and passed a few teams which helped lift my morale. For several hours we'd been the ones being passed, and no matter what sort of day you're having, it's never a pleasant feeling.

Trouble, as Captain Craig drives the pace on the front and I go out the back
The soup had done wonders for my soul and my spirit, but my legs were still a mayhem of demon cramps. Pedalling caused cramps. Not pedalling caused cramps. Thinking about pedalling caused cramps. The only thing I could do to control the cramps was move them around. Give all the various muscles in my legs a turn to contort and twist themselves into tennis ball-sized blobs of pain. Unlike previous years, the slower pace gave us opportunity to chat. Amongst other things we discussed the beers we'd have at the finish, what sport I should take up instead of mountain biking (stand up paddle boarding, or darts), and the state of the chafe of Halfway's nether regions. I also had a very public conversation with my legs, and I have to say - Jens Voigt is wrong - legs don't respond to reason, commands or threats.

We'd joked about this beforehand, and I even accepted the title. I didn't think it would be this bad!
We rolled into the second last check point in daylight, which, despite the day we were having, was something that many teams can only dream of. We were welcomed by our able backup - Jason the Barefoot Runner. At this point we were no longer interested in positions or times, and for the first time in many years we got to enjoy the offerings of the check points without Captain Craig rushing us along. Halfway had been suffering from a killer headache for several hours, and foolishly asked the medics for some tablets. After a full medical examination, DNA testing, blood work and a CAT scan he was given two tablets and sent on his way. With that in mind, there was no chance I was going anywhere near the medics for any medicinal relief!

Four broken spokes for Halfway
Back on the road, while I was fighting the demons in my legs, my teammates were having their own private battles - mostly mechanical. Captain Craig had punctured, and had another light malfunction, with Halfway slowly but surely breaking one spoke after the other in his rear wheel. My teammates would send me on ahead as they attended to their mechanical issues, and each time I secretly hoped that my legs would come back and that they wouldn't be able to catch me. And each time that wouldn't happen and they'd quickly reel me in.
We inched our way up The NeverEnder, and for the first time in ages it really was never ending. Like Chinese water torture it wore us down, but it didn't matter. We were in no rush. Up until now, Halfway had already broken 3 spokes in his rear wheel (no fat jokes please - he is a sensitive soul), and so between nursing me and his bike we eventually conquered The NeverEnder, rolling into the final check point.
Halfway attended to his failing wheel while Captain Craig and I enjoyed the jaffles on offer and got dressed a little warmer for the final push to the finish. And talking of pushing, I am proud to say that I made the final leg without a single push. My teammates had either given up on me, or they too were finally feeling the strain of nursing my sorry body for 180kms. As the lights of Jeffreys Bay got brighter, so too did our mood. We'd survived a character testing ordeal, and although I'm sure to be carrying the mental baggage of this event for years to come, we'd emerged stronger for it. When a bad day is finishing 43rd, in 10h31, almost nine hours ahead of the last team, there really isn't too much to complain about.

Halfway completed his fifth TransBaviaans.


  1. well done for pushing through dude! That's a very long way to go when you are having an off day...

  2. Amazing mate - well done! Sounds like a proper hard mans (whole)day on a bike. Definitely one for the list! The Hoff

    1. Thanks Todd. I can't recommend this race enough - even on a bad day it's amazing.

  3. This is one tale to remember for many years haha, nicely written! And well done on pushing though and the "vas byt" till the end!

  4. Well done for finishing and sharing your experience in a well written article!!!