Tuesday 29 November 2016

Posted by Velouria Posted on 23:51 | 2 comments

Double Century 2016

As the race reports start trickling in, the Coronation Double Century seems to have lived up to its reputation as being one of the ultimate tests on a bicycle. From racing teams to weekend warriors, this event pushes everyone to the limit, and sometimes a little beyond. It brings out the best in people, and occasionally the worst, testing fitness, teamwork, endurance, strategy, and one's sense of humour.

The traditional prerace photo
Training starts in earnest for the Double Century in July, when the first teams brave the winter weather (at least in the Cape) and start building the fitness. As summer approaches, more and more teams litter the roads, twelve people working on their strategy. For some that strategy is to win, for others, a target time, and some, just to finish. The final build up is marked with an explosion of social media activity, photos of near perfect pace lines litter the internet, as do pictures of race day kit. It's then that you start panicking about the one ride you missed, or the interval session you took a little too easy.

Team Selfie
Thankfully, Team HotChillee avoids all this stress. We're a one time team. We get together for one ride, and that's it. Race Day. Often, the first time we meet most of our fellow teammates is the night before the action begins. This is not to say that there isn't a rigorous and stringent selection process that newcomers need to pass in order to ride in the HotChillee colours. Potential riders are stalked and analysed on Strava, race results are compared and tabulated, and social media profiles are scrutinised. The final test for any newcomer is what we call the Saturday Night test. For us, the event doesn't finish when you cross the line. The Saturday Night Braai and Sunday Fry Up are as much part of the Double Century weekend as riding bikes for 202 kilometres is.

A roadie, a triathlete and a Paris Roubaix winner all get into a cab...
Once again, HotChillee had entered two teams, a racing team and a mixed team, and we gathered for the traditional pre-race meal at Tridici. Much like a good race strategy, one needs a decent meal strategy when dining at Tridici. Go big on the main course and you're going to fade towards the end of the evening. Much like the race, the secret is to pace yourself, and finish strongly. You want to be there when the legendary chocolate brownies make an appearance. Tridici virgins are easy to spot - those individuals that look longingly at the dessert table with regret in their eyes.

Looks like trouble!
With dinner out of the way, it was time for the team meetings. A chance for everyone to contribute to the plan for the following day. And while we pretty much know what needs to be done, it's a great opportunity for the the new guys to offer some tips and hints. One such new guy was a big Swedish guy by the name of Magnus Backstedt. If Sweden played top flight rugby, he'd have been a lock, but instead he chose to unleash his power on the roads of Northern France, culminating in a famous win at Paris-Roubaix in 2004. He quietly listened to our team strategy and then asked to say a word or two. After the seventh time of mentioning the phrase "just smash it", I think I might have passed out from the fear of what awaited us the following morning!

Magnus, smashing it before we've even hit the timing mats!
Team HotChillee ProAm lined up on the start line for a 7:13 start, a mixture of experience and youth, pros and amateurs. Two riders who have successfully navigated the HotChillee Development Rider Program were back, Nicholas Dlamini and Shameeg Salie, and it's always fantastic to see them grow as professional bike racers. Joining them was Thulasizwe Mxenge, a product of the Velokhaya and HotChillee Development Rider Program, and a talented youngster on a bike. Other new additions to the team that we'd also successfully stalked researched included the two powerhouses - WattBike Rikus and Warren S, and of course, The Big Swede. The remainder of the team consisted of the usual suspects, Jarryd, Captain Craig, Dan the Triathlete, Luke - the Original Wattage Cottage, and myself. Astute readers will notice that there are only 11 names. Unfortunately, Halfway Warren was fighting a late onset of the plague and was bedridden. He is now affectionately known as Nowhere Warren.

You don't ride as much behind Magnus, but rather under him!
As the gun went off, Magnus did indeed "smash it" right from the start. Zero to 45km/h in 15 seconds. Images flashed before my eyes of being dropped by my team within sight of the start banner as I fought to clip my feet into the pedals. And while we have dropped a rider previously before reaching the N2, I was in no way looking to break that record. Thankfully, The Big Swede has an aversion to hills, and I'm sure I was not alone in sighing a deep sigh of relief when gravity reined him in a bit. And heaven help the the rest of us if he saw a team up the road! Too make matters worse, we were being put to the sword by a guy who had been off the bike for two months, having ridden for the first time the week previously, and was riding a brand new bike that he'd received the night before.

All aboard!
It was with mixed emotions that we waved goodbye to Magnus as we hit the bottom of the first climb. Relief that the haze of pain and misery would lift as we settled into a more manageable pace, sadness that he'd completely cooked Warren S, and disappointment that we'd lost our powerhouse and dispenser of peloton justice. No team dared argue when Big Maggie told them to stop wheelsucking us!
I was warned about sharing too many backup secrets!
With nine riders remaining and 70 kilometres to the first stop I'd be lying if said I wasn't a bit perturbed. Had we overdone it a bit? Too fast too early? But I needn't have worried. Our Dimension Data pros stepped up to the challenge, continuing the destruction where Magnus had left off. In the few short years of riding with us they'd gone from promising bike riders to talented bike racers. They took on the lion's share of the pace setting, driving us onward relentlessly, while the rest of us did what we could to contribute to the team cause.

Not often that you get to "recover" while on the front
As we hit the foot of Op de Tradouw pass - Thula pulled up alongside me and asked for a bottle. I still had a full bottle, and thinking he just wanted a sip or two of my juice - I handed my bottle over. And that was the last I saw of both Thula and my bottle. In the many years of riding this race I'd seen some well calculated drops, from Jarryd selling me down the river in 2011 with an expertly timed vanishing manoeuvre, to Nic fading on us in 2014 and leaving two amateurs to punch way above their weight with several seasoned pros. But this one was something special. It wasn't just a well calculated drop, it was a well calculated drop with a masterstroke of artful convincing. And suddenly we were down to 8 riders with 40 kilometres to go, and I had quarter of a bottle left.

Choo Choo!
The great thing about the Double Century is that not only do us amateurs get to ride with some of the best pros out there, we also get to race against them. And while Louis Meintjes might have a Tour de France top 10 under his belt, and pretty much every Strava KOM on the DC route, I recorded a higher top speed than he did. And anyone who has ever seen me descend will know just what a feat that is for me!

Descending like a demon!
We rolled into the neutral section having clocked an average of 40km/h for the first 105 kilometres, and the toll was starting to show on several of the older riders. The thousand yard stares were aplenty as we restocked our supplies and replenished our bodies, our backup crew taking on the roles of miracle workers, psychologists, and trauma counselors. Reality quickly returned when through the masses we caught sight of The Swede. I was quite sure he still had a few "smash it" 's left in his legs, and we were all going to experience them shortly, first hand. Magnus grabbed a quick coke and we set off on the next voyage of misery and torment - 43 kilometres of trying to sit on the pointy end of the saddle for as long as possible. Thula had also made a reappearance, and after he gave my empty bottle back, I made a point of keeping my eye on him. I'm not sure what they're teaching the youngsters at Velokhaya, but Thula has certainly mastered the art of sneakiness!

Thula getting some ninja tips from Maggie
Team HotChillee ProAm quickly collected a wheelsucking mixmatch of teams - teams quite happy to lurk behind us, reap the benefits of our work, and offer nothing in return. And despite our best efforts, there was nothing we could do about it other than to drive the pace on relentlessly. We started to suffer casualties early on, and before long the team was down to a skeleton crew again. The DiData guys, Dan the Triathlete, Jarryd, Thula the Quiet Ninja, and the surprise package of WattBike Rikus (he's named that because he is the only person on this earth who can sit on a Wattbike for 4 hours non stop). As the top 6 rode away from the rest of us, at least we could gain solace from the fact that our stalking research techniques had yielded at least one good result.

A Swede with no "smash it" 's left
For people who love riding bicycles, it's rather ironic how we all looked forward to the opportunity to get off our bikes at the next check point. And if Bonnievale had Uber coverage (here's an idea - Ubers with bike racks in Bonnivale for the last weekend of November) they would have made a killing! But alas, the only way to back to Swellendam was aboard the Swedish DiData express, and we all had tickets. Luke and Warren S however were so engrossed with more life threatening issues that the train left without them.

Hell no, we won't go!
Magnus had one last "smash it" left and used it just to the start of the climbing, before causing absolute chaos and mayhem in the following bunch with the rate at which he got dropped. When you see The Big Swede going backwards you do whatever you can to get out of the way. Captain Craig was next to go as the pace started to lift with the first hints of white line fever kicking in. As the first of the final 3 climbs approached, I pulled a Reverse Thula. I rode up alongside Thula, gave him my full bottle, and wished him luck for the remaining 20 kilometres. This was what the previous 180 kilometres had all been for - the final push to the line. As I watched The Sacred 6 of Team HotChillee ProAm disappear up the road, I could only hope we'd done enough.

The Sacred 6
The rest of us limped home in drips and drabs, eager to see the results of the day's efforts. And finally we heard - 13 seconds separating 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, with Team HotChillee ProAm the unlucky bridesmaids in 4th. Team HotChillee Mixed fared much better, claiming a well earned second place with a strong ride from start to finish. Despite the result that will have us scratching our heads for ages, trying to find those elusive 9 seconds over 202 kilometres, the 2016 edition of the Coronation Double Century definitely lived up to its billing, and will certainly be remembered for years to come.

Thursday 25 August 2016

Posted by Velouria Posted on 16:33 | No comments

Trans Baviaans 2016

For me, the year is divided into two halves - before Baviaans, and after Baviaans. Before Baviaans is the dark winter of the soul, body and mind - if you're not doing long lonely rides in appalling weather, you're abusing yourself in the garage on the WattBike - an exercise that makes queueing at the post office seem like a pleasurable affair. Before Baviaans is filled with fear, subterfuge and regret. Fear that come race day you're going to be the weakest link. Subterfuge in that the odd white lie about your current form might induce complacency in your partners, and regret in almost everything else. Regret that you entered this race. Regret that you didn't try to keep some of that amazing form from summer. Regret in having that extra helping of dessert. Regret in missing those last fifteen minutes of cooldown on the WattBike.

Captain Craig, myself, and Last Minute Charles's finger

In comparison, after Baviaans is a new beginning. The weight and dread of the event has passed and you're left with mostly positive memories of yet another magical trip through the Baviaanskloof. The legs feel amazing, bike riding is fun again, and it feels like summer is just around the corner. Perhaps this is what keeps us coming back, over and over again.

Spot the Brick Layers
In hindsight, naming ourselves after the worst nuclear disaster ever was probably tempting fate a little, especially since this was my 13th adventure between Willowmore and Jeffreys Bay. Team Warm Fuzzy Kittens would have been more apt, but given our history of riding together, perhaps the name The Chernobyl Brick Layers is quite fitting.

Smiles before the storm
We finally lined up on the start line in Willowmore once again, and for the first time in ages Captain Craig and I were just a two man team, with no backup - our usual accomplices abandoning us like the captain and crew of the Oceanos. Thankfully, Last Minute Charles volunteered to undertake the vital role of dealing with our technical, nutritional, and logistical requirements. Our hopes were that the emotional fragility during the 2015 event would not be an issue, especially since Halfway would not be around to provide any much needed hugs.

Pre-race hydration and stategy session
My sole objective for this year's race was to avoid the nuclear catastrophe I'd had the previous year during the first 100kms. Even the consolatory KOM I got did little to erase the mental scars that I've been carrying around for a whole year. My secondary objective was to not be the weakest link in The Chernobyl Brick Layers. Again, the 8 hours of being the whipping boy in the team the previous year were still fresh in my mind.

Team number 9
After the traditional rendition of the national anthem before the start (and it really was a good rendition this year), 1200 slightly mental ultra endurance mountain bikers set off in search of the coast. The lead bunch quickly formed with the usual faces making an appearance. A noticeable change this year was the number of ladies in the front bunch, with all three mixed teams comfortably holding their own. The first 100kms were rather uneventful, except for the continuous hunting of a non-existent smooth line on the gravel road leading up to the Kloof. The choice was ultimately between loose road debris, corrugations, or dancing with the thorn trees on the side of the road. And being on hard tails, The Chernobyl Brick Layers found the going particularly bone jarring. Captain Craig and I had completely different approaches - he would ride on the front and pick his line, while I would do the same, but right at the back of the bunch, ala The Brick Layer BookEnds (probably a better team name).

Look mom - we're in the lead bunch!
We made Checkpoint 2 in one piece this year, my main objective successfully achieved. Perhaps it was the horrid headwind that kept the bunch honest, or perhaps my legs were hiding some sort of form. From now on though, the real racing started, and the answer to my secondary objective would shortly be known. The next 40 kilometres are key, and more often than not, I somehow manage to fall to pieces up the climbs of Baviaans Back, Fangs and MAC, usually resulting in me leaving a toxic splatter of nuclear waste behind the water tanks at Checkpoint 4. But this year was different. The legs felt good, the stomach was behaving, and Captain Craig was showing the slightest signs of weakness - a truly rare occurrence. And by slightest signs of weakness I mean that I was able to ride at one or two heartbeats below nuclear meltdown zone.

We rolled into Checkpoint 3, having made good progress with our steady pace, catching and passing several teams that either overdid the first 100kms, or underestimated the first of the climbs. While grabbing a coke (or two or three), we couldn't help overhear one of the motorbike marshals commenting about our bikes. Something like "These are the most unique bikes here. Totally old school. And hardcore. Hardtails - crazy. And check those forks. WTF. And look at the roadie cluster. Hahahahaha." We weren't quite sure what to make of all that. I'll give the "Hardtails - crazy" bit, but the rest? The Lauf fork is amazing, although it did come off second best over the corrugations. As for "the roadie cluster" - we both run 3x10 setups, mainly for the speed that the big blade gives us  - Captain Craig has a 46 - and the security that the 22 blade offers should things go pear shaped. Nothing like watching 1x11 guys spinning their legs like a bunch of epileptic hooligans. Certainly not oldschool, since I'd just gone to 3x10 earlier this year ;)

Old school roadie gears;)
Back on the road we were still moving up through the field, having put in a good effort up The Fangs when disaster struck. What started off as a minor technical issue quickly escalated into a full on nuclear disaster. Captain Craig's back wheel lost pressure, so we stopped and bombed it. But that didn't work. There was still a leak. A leak we could hear but couldn't see. We tried to convince our porridge brains to take control of the situation, but they were having nothing of it. We eventually located the hole - a tiny side wall graze, enough to allow the air to slowly ooze out. We should have just bombed it again, and let the wonder of Stan's sealant do its thing. But we didn't. We were treating this minor anomaly as a full on major incident. Our irrational brains decided that the best course of action was to fit a tube. So we popped the tyre off, and readied Captain Craig's tube. A 26 inch tube. For 29er wheelers. Square peg, meet round hole. With all the finesse of a gorilla with a 10 pound hammer, we finally wrestled the tube and tyre back onto the rim and bombed it all once again. While all this mayhem was occurring, team after team came flying past us, rubbing salt into our already raw wounds!

Riding for the Rhinos
After what seemed like an age - 10 minutes in a bike race like this is an age - we were going again, the Mother of all Climbs ahead of us. My last decent climb of that hill was in 2013, ironically when we were reduced to a two man team after Captain Craig broke his frame. We assumed our usual formation, side by side, in silence, as we inched up the climb. On a personal note, I was hoping to end my streak of pukiness, and so when we got to the KOM flags near the top of the climb and I hadn't needed to purge my stomach contents, I took it as a sign that our luck was changing. However, I always forget about the last little run into Checkpoint 4 - a horrible little uphill drag that seems to take an age. To add to the torment, the annoyingly persistent headwind was back, and so too were the first signs of trouble brewing in my belly. If I could just make the checkpoint in one piece, I'd be good enough to make it to the finish.

Yup - those are bar ends! Old school!
We rolled into the checkpoint and chatted with a few of the teams that had past us during Puncturegate. Those sort of chats you have with your neighbour where you try to be friendly, but you're not actually friends (even if you are, this is a race and everyone's the enemy). While Captain Craig nursed his back wheel, I went about nursing my belly. And I don't mean my usual visual burp trick behind the water tanks - Coca Cola! With our lights attached (Captain Craig has a theory - we have backup lights at Checkpoint 3 and proper lights and Checkpoint 4 - perhaps we should be bold enough to have backup lights at Checkpoint 4 and proper lights at Checkpoint 5 - either way, we'd certainly be motivated enough to make Checkpoint 5 in the light!) we set off after the teams in front of us. Our hope was to find a nice little group and share the pace making, particularly given the relentless headwind. But our hopes were dashed. Not only did we not see a single other team for the next 30 kilometres, the wind seemed to have upped its annoyance factor too.

The view up MAC
(Captain Craig wasn't suffering that much!)
Checkpoint 5 was almost upon us when we finally spotted some targets - Maza & Sipho - our nemeses from this year's 36One. While Last Minute Charles took care of our bikes, and I stocked up on some more coke, Craig entered into negotiations with the RMB guys. If we rode together for the next leg, we'd stand a better chance of catching some of the teams ahead. In principle, everyone was on board with the plan and we set off for the Neverender. However, as soon as the road went up, the RMB guys started to ride away from us - our agreement in tatters. Again, our hopes of catching those ahead of us started to fade. But we did have one trump card up our sleeves. Like the safety instruction manual at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, few people actually read the race booklet that we get at registration. Most of the booklet is filled with rather meaningless info about time penalties, food at checkpoints and the correct way to mount your race number. However, hidden amongst all superfluous info, like a diamond in a haystack, is a very important tidbit. Something along the lines of "At the fork in the road, go left". On the surface, it's nothing earth shattering, but miss that one turn and you'll be lucky to ever see civilisation ever again. And, you can bet that some first timer team will accept the challenge of exploring the great unknown. So while The Chernobyl Brick Layers didn't actually catch and pass anyone, we'd moved up 4 or 5 places by the time we got into Checkpoint 6. We'd also ridden our way back across to the the RMB guys, Captain Craig dropping mini nuclear bombs all the way up the Neverender.

The MAC, in pretty decent condition.
With the lights of Jeffery's Bay almost visible on the horizon, we had one last leg to go. Our thoughts now were on how we were going to ditch the RMB guys - the fragile alliance now over. I set a steady pace on the front, trying to make life tough for Team RMB. One particular effort up the Mini Mac showed their team weakness while at the same time hurting Captain Craig. Now I'm not sure if I awoke the sleeping dragon, or if I triggered his desire for vengeance, but as soon as the we crested that final climb, Captain Craig reintroduced us all to his 46 tooth chainring. The RMB guys were bouncing around like hyperactive kids full of E numbers - their legs spinning at impossible revolutions. And still Captain Craig drove us on, The Chenobyl Brick Layers diving into the final single track first. And just as I was about to pop, we got our gap. Time to put on the big boy underpants and harden up. Through the twists and turns we held our advantage, eventually crossing the line in 9:39, and 17th place.

Now this is a bike race
Last Minute Charles met us with warm clothes, some snacks, and more importantly, some cold beer. Although we weren't entirely happy with the result, we were happy to have survived another adventure together. More importantly, we'd made it through lucky number 13 without a complete nuclear meltdown. I'm off to enjoy my After Baviaans - till next year.

Relive 'Baviaans #13'

Tuesday 2 August 2016

Posted by Velouria Posted on 10:29 | 1 comment

France 2016

Say what you like about the French, but when it comes to bikes and cycling, they get it. And I'm not just talking about the skinny lycra-clad pro wannabe cyclists. Anyone on two wheels is treated with respect, from those skinny lycra-clad pro wannabes, to crazy long distance randonneurs, from daily commuters to weekend warriors.

Quiet country roads, and hills!
Solo adventures in the French countryside
It's unnerving at first to have an 18 wheeler truck drive behind you for kilometers on end, grinding away in second gear as the driver waits for an opportunity to overtake. And by overtake, I don't mean the South African definition of give a warning blast on the hooter and then proceed at full speed regardless, passing with millimeters to spare.  The French definition of overtaking is the same for all road users - wait until the oncoming lane is clear, indicate, pull over into the oncoming lane, pass the cyclist/tractor/horse/camper van, indicate, return to lane. While we're begging for passing space legislation of just one metre, the French give 1.5 metres. Which is plenty when you see how narrow some of their roads are.

Emergency water stop
And it's not just about road safety. Cycling is part of their lifestyle, their culture. The easiest way to strike up a conversation with a French person is to do so with your bike nearby. For some reason, a bicycle is like a secret symbol or mystic handshake that opens the doors to an exclusive club. I've had whole conversations about cycling, the Tour de France, bicycles and bike riders with French people while not understanding a single word. These conversations usually involve lots of arm waving, some wild gesticulating at bicycle parts, a random French word here and there, and smiles all round.

TDF - fun for the whole family

Kids, firemen, foreigners
Glamour shot

Where else would an entire village come to a standstill in a carnival atmosphere? Entire communities celebrating the passing of the Tour de France. Kids on jumping castles, families lining the streets, local craft beer flowing.

Dane 0 - Tourmalet 1
The French take a pride in knowing that foreigners have travelled halfway around the world just to come and cycle in their beautiful country, and they've embraced this. Whether you're climbing the legendary climbs of the Tour de France, or just cruising the country lanes, you're a guest in their country and they treat you like one.

A family affair
All you need is a bike

Thursday 21 April 2016

Posted by Velouria Posted on 19:59 | 1 comment

The 36One 2016

This is a stupid, stupid event. Nothing about this bike ride makes sense. It's ridiculously long, through dusty semidesert conditions, and it starts just as the sun goes down. And yet 780 people thought that this sounded like a good way to spend a weekend.

Crazy crazy stupid
After vowing, not once, but twice, to never ever do this event again, both Captain Craig and I were back for more self-inflicted misery. We had a team title to defend, although admittedly, neither of us were talking up our chances too much. We both prefer the understated approach of seeing how it plays out on the day - it's so far and so long that anything can happen.

Spot Team Lunatic Express
This year, Team Lunatic Express had built up a bit of a cult following, mainly because of Captain Craig (aka Captain Chaos) and his light antics of 2015. And while some of the things that my partner gets up to do cause a certain amount of stress, I generally tolerate most of it as it always makes for an interesting blog post or anecdote afterwards. Together, we're the perfect combo of Yin and Yang - one cautious and pedantic and the other footloose and carefree.

Team Lunatic Express
As the sun dipped lower in the sky, we lined up on the startline of the 36One Challenge with hundreds of similarly crazy minded cyclists. Unlike other normal events, the air was thick with apprehension and nervousness - some riders not entirely sure they would ever see their loved ones again. And despite having done this twice before, I was one of those riders - 16 hours of bike riding lay ahead of me. That's 16 hours for something to go wrong, 16 hours to ruin the race strategy, and more importantly, 16 hours for Captain Craig to come up with a unique way of either injuring himself or having to survive on barely serviceable equipment. And as I stood there, resisting the urge to go to the toilet for the 5th time, it was reassuring to see that each and every rider had their doubts, their demons, their worries.

The unofficial member of Team Lunatic Express - Halfway Robertson
Right from the gun 5 teams formed a little lead group at the head of the race. After taking a turn on the front, I settled into the paceline while Captain Craig spent some of his pent up energy near the front. This gave me a chance to suss out the competition. We had the skinny RMB race snakes riding a crafty strategy early on. There were the guys on orange bikes pushing the pace a bit, but looking to the rest of us for cues. And finally, there were the guys in orange kit lurking at the back, keeping their heads down, silently observing the small group.

It's a tough weekend out for everyone
An hour in and this small group was shattered on the first real climb, leaving the skinny RMB race snakes and Team Lunatic Express at the front of affairs. This left us in a rather tricky position - drive on to maintain the gap over the chasers with the risk of overdoing it, or stick to the game plan of riding cautiously for the first 6 hours. Few things in life bring Captain Craig as much satisfaction as dishing out a lesson in bike riding, and usually I'm quite happy to indulge him, as long as he doesn't overdo it. But something wasn't quite right. We're rather similar riders, both fond of pushing heavy gears, grinding our way up climbs, and cruising along with our diesel engines, and yet, for the first time in ages we appeared to be completely out of sync. It was a theme that would last the entire ride - when Captain Craig was feeling good, I was suffering, contemplating self sabotage, and as quickly as I'd recover, he'd fade, entering his own private hell of torment.

Finding beauty in negative spaces
With the skinny RMB race snakes starting to hurt me up the climbs I had to ask Captain Craig to back off. As simple as this sounds, it's usually quite an involved process, mainly because Captain Craig has the hearing of an 80 year old. What would normally be a quiet word is instead a broadcast for all and sundry to hear - "Craig, please slow down - I'm feeling kak". I often get the volume wrong the first time, and have to repeat myself even louder, further embarrassing myself. It's right up there with announcing to the world at the top of your voice that you're a Liverpool supporter, or that you think the Bulls look great in pink. Not cool.

Halfway giving the Eye
Captain Craig got the message as we eventually waved goodbye to the skinny RMB race snakes and settled into what we do best - cruising along at our own pace. We don't talk much, mostly because Captain Craig can't hear anything, and all I can hear is wind noise, thanks to my rather generously proportioned ears. Occasionally the outside world would intrude upon our little puddles of light, a frog hopping like his life depended on it, a rabbit running from an unseen monster, the mangy dog having so much fun barking at cyclists in the middle of the night, but mostly it was just us and a slowly setting half moon. As tough and as stupid as this ride is - these are the moments that keep us coming back for more - the quiet solitude, the shared silence.

Spectators come in all shapes and sizes
While I hate to admit it, the best aspect of riding in a team are the stories we have to tell afterwards. My partners are usually the stars in the drama that unfolds, from lights that don't work, to spectacular crashes. I'm the observer, the spectator to their antics. Not at this race. In a testament to how good the food at the checkpoints was, ranging from ostrich sosaties to koeksisters, banana bread to date balls, I broke a spoke not far after the halfway mark. And while I've been called a big guy in the past, the message was finally sinking in - this was the fifth broken spoke in 3 weeks. The cycling gods were subtly telling me to cut back on the Nutella!

Halfway enjoying the delicacies on offer
Nursing a wobbly wheel we continued to make good progress, taking turns to dip in and out of bad patches. During a prolonged stretch of misery, just as I was contemplating a silent protest to the unpleasantness that Captain Craig was dishing out, I punctured. Weight issues aside, the irony was that we'd just caught the skinny RMB race snakes again, having last seen them 6 hours previously. We quickly bombed the wheel and set off on the chase, only for the tyre to once again go flat. Time to pop in a tube. As I ripped the tube off my seatpost, green slime spurted everywhere. My spare tube had been on my bike for so long that it had perished and was literally crumbling in my hands. No problem - Captain Craig's tube would do the trick, except he didn't have a tube on him. So there we were, in the middle of nowhere, with no tube and no sign of help, as we watched the lights of the skinny RMB race snakes disappear up the road.

Post race story telling
A couple minutes later a herd of bicycle lights appeared further down the road - salvation was on its way. Or so we thought. Fifteen riders must have ridden past us without so much as an utterance of "Are you ok?". And they say roadies are the unfriendly ones. Eventually, the leading lady, Hannele Steyn-Kotze stopped to offer some assistance, but didn't have a spare tube. Same with Henning van Wyk - another old school mountain biker with proper race etiquette. Thirteen minutes later, while watching our race slip away, we eventually got a tube. Rider 307 - you are a rare find in this modern age.

Rider 307 - we salute you!
With my tyre issues solved, and adrenalin coursing through my veins, we set off in pursuit of our podium spot. Our rough estimate had us in forth place with about 100 kilometres to go. Certainly enough time to get back onto the podium. The only catch being that we still had the imposing climb of Rooiberg to deal with. To compound matters, Captain Craig's good patch was fading quickly and the memories of the previous year's climb were flooding back fast. In a classic example of "going slow to go fast" we backed off the pace completely and rode at a slow, steady crawl up the hill. One by one, we reeled in the lights ahead of us. Broken bodies with vacant stares greeted us as we plodded along, and as we crested the climb we caught and passed the skinny RMB race snakes. The race was back on!
A frantic decent and a mad team time trial later we rolled into Checkpoint 3 just as the sun was rising. Captain Craig ordered me to get some tea, and when I told him to get his own damn tea, he told me it was for me. Apparently I ride quite well after a good cup of tea. We scoffed down some food, sipped on the tea, ditched our lights and hit the road as soon as we could, hoping to maintain our advantage over the skinny RMB race snakes. The final 80kms are brutal, but we figured that if we could hide out of sight we'd have a good chance hanging onto third spot.
Almost winners and worthy opponents - the skinny RMB race snakes

We plodded along, slowly conquering one torturous hill after the another, knowing that if we got to the final 40kms of flat farm and district roads, there'd be almost no chance of any skinny race snakes catching us on our preferred race terrain. With white line fever that lasted for around two hours we slowly hoovered up any riders ahead of us in the last desperate bid to improve on our overall standing. The town of Oudtshoorn eventually emerged from the mid morning haze as we finally crossed the line in 16h53, utterly spent and in dire need of a refreshing beer. In the background, through the hurt, sweat and grime, the announcer was going on about the arrival of the first team. Through the disoriented murk we eventually figured out that he was talking about us - Team Lunatic Express. Despite our (my) mid race wobble, we'd come back strong enough to defend our title. Suddenly it seemed all worth it, and that beer tasted extra good!

The skinny RMB race snakes of Maza & Sipho in 2nd, and Team Lunatic Express in 1st
In previous years I've always been hesitant to commit to doing this crazy stupid event again, but I am already thinking about next year.