Thursday 28 January 2016

Posted by Velouria Posted on 13:00 | 4 comments

Oak Valley 24hr 2016

For two years I have lived with the memories of pulling out of the 2014 Oak Valley 24hr after nine hours. For two years I have wondered if I made the right decision at the time. And for two years I have tried to avoid the thought of ever doing a 24hr again. Thankfully, I had a very good reason to skip the 2015 Oak Valley 24hr - the addition of a little endurance athlete to our family.

A photo posted by @amarider on
As entries open for Dirtopia's 24hr, so too do the queries as to my participation. This year, I remained strong and determined to sit out another year, giving my confidence some more time to heal, as well spending more time with my young family. All went well until a morning in mid November where some friends successfully managed to convince me otherwise. They had thought of everything - how I could get the miles in without being an absent parent, how my wife (my backup and secret weapon) would receive additional support during the event, and how the little endurance athlete would be looked after for the duration of the event. In a moment of weakness I caved to their well laid out plans and sent the email to The Coach - time to get fit for a 24hr event again!

Back doing what I love
Needless to say, The Coach was less than impressed. Eight weeks is barely enough time to get ready for The Argus, let alone a 24hr race. But, being the miracle worker that she is she devised a training program that the devil would have been proud of. And just to show that she isn't the devil, she even gave me the week off between Christmas and New Year. The rest of the time I spent touring the roads of the Boland for hours on end on my own, clocking up an inordinate amount of kilometres.

In the zone, tapping out the laps
The easiest part of a 24hr event is the training - lots of long slow rides with the brain disengaged, letting the body toughen to the distance and acclimatise to the heat. However, as the event gets closer and closer, the mind starts to kick in. All the self doubt, the fear, the memories of the pain and suffering come flooding back, and somehow you need to harness the deluge and channel it into something resembling a plan for race day. Things to do. Things not to do. What works. What doesn't work. For several weeks the plan rolls around in your head, consuming more and more of your thoughts the nearer the event gets. Very soon you're dreaming about the 24hr, until the night before, when you most need to sleep, you lie awake running scenarios over and over through your mind.

Given the week Meurant had endured, we thought he could do with a drink!
The secret to a good 24hr race is the quality of your backup. It's not about the quality of the equipment, or the awesomeness of their camp setup. It's about having a mutual understanding of the goals and what needs to happen to achieve them. I'm lucky in that my wife is probably the best 24hr backup person I know (and I'm not just saying that because I'm married to her). And this year my backup had backup in probably the second best backup person I know (I'm not married to her though). Together, my backup crew put on a formidable show, tending to my every need. From nutrition, to hydration, from timekeeping to motivation, they had everything covered. All I really have to do is pedal, they do all the brain work. They are sympathetic when they need to be, and cruel when the moment requires it.

My feed station (the gin belonged to the backup!)
Race day dawned to clear skies and the prospect of temperatures in the high 30s, with a chance of rain overnight. We rocked up at Oak Valley an hour before the start, and set up our meagre support station. The less creature comforts there are, the less temptation there is to stop riding to enjoy them. A quick race briefing from Meurant, who'd probably had the worst week imaginable with the Simonsberg fires destroying not only indigenous fynbos and farmland, but also some of the best mountain bike trails in the Western Cape, and we lined up for the Le Mans style start. I always chuckle at the commitment and dedication some racers put into their run - it's almost like they do special training for the start. I, on the other hand prefer a far more sedate shuffle - after all, you should only really run when there is something life threatening chasing you!

Round and round
The first couple of laps are always a challenge, not because of the effort required, but because you have to hold yourself back and not get caught up in the mayhem of the racing relay teams. Us solo riders are in this for the long haul, and any over exertion is going to hurt us later on. It's really difficult to ride slowly when your brain is telling you it wants to race. I have a strict "no info" rule for the first six hours - I don't want to know where I am, who is ahead of me, or how many laps they've done. For me, the first six hours are all about finding the rhythm of the course that is sustainable for the following 18 hours. I put down markers - how long it takes to clear the first single track, how long it takes to get to the top of the big climb, how long the descent takes, and after six hours I have a good idea of the times I should be hitting each and every lap from then on. It makes for a rather boring race report, but doing lap after lap after lap at the same consistent pace is something that I'm good at.

A mixture of sweat, dust and snot
After six hours the contenders had been separated from the pretenders. There were several of us jostling near the top of the leaderboard. Marius, fresh off his maiden 3rd place the previous year. Lance, his collection of podium places showed his 24hr pedigree. Philip, a 68 year old who just happened to have the surname Erasmus - legendary in endurance events. And Jochen, a complete unknown and finally someone to take over my original nickname of "Who is that guy?". While my brain turns to porridge on the bike when it comes to basic decision making, I am somehow able to perform amazing mathematical calculations. I can figure out gaps to competitors, the amount of laps it will take to pass a rider ahead of me, or the number of laps I'll do at my current pace. I also able to build up a mental image of where everyone is on the course at a given time, and where I am able to make up time on them.

Competitors sharing the bum cream
While I'm playing make believe with imaginary bike riders in my head, the backup crew are doing an amazing job of keeping my going. Often, I'm not sure if I've actually conveyed my wishes to them, or if it's just a conversation I've have had in my head, yet whatever it is I've wished for will miraculously appear at the end of each lap. On one occasion, three-quarters through a lap, as I was feeling the first twinges of cramp, I made a mental note to remind the backup crew that I needed Rehydrate on the following lap. I then reached down to my still full bottle and took a deep gulp of what I thought was water, only to discover the cramp banishing taste of ice cold Rehydrate. Not only did my backup address my current needs, they could foretell my future needs too! (That, or I'd simply forgot that I'd been given a bottle of Rehydrate).

Marius trying to find his happy place
Friendly faces and words of encouragement do wonders to lift the spirits, and it is always great to hear the comments, both out on the course and in the pit area. Captain Craig made an appearance to offer backup to the backup's backup, as well as support and assistance. And even though we weren't riding together, he still felt the need to hassle me about the length of time I took taking on supplies and snacks in the transition area!

The winner of the hardcore prize!
There are three parts to a 24hr race. The two daylight sections, and the night section. Apart from just being dark (obviously), it's completely different to racing in the day. It's about consolidation and recovery. It's about laying the platform for the final 6 hours of racing. As the night wears on, the course gets quieter, and the nature of the trail changes too. Things look different. Holes look deeper. Trees look closer together. Rocks look bigger. Yet this is the time when I most enjoy 24hr racing. It's just you, your bike, the small section of trail illuminated by your light, and your thoughts (along with the odd frog and field mouse). It was during these dark hours that I came to a realisation. There are two things that make me happy during a 24hr event, and they are both related to lube. The first is a freshly lubed chain which makes the bike feel like a new bike. It's quiet, and it shifts easier, and somehow that eases a burden we all carry - the fear of mechanical failure. The same applies to the second thing - applying bum cream. Whatever aches and pains you might have seem to melt away with a fresh application of bum cream. Your bum naturally feels better, but so too do your legs, and feet, and hands.

And so begins another lap
Solo 24hr racing is both an ego boosting activity, as well as an utterly humbling experience. It's pretty cool to knock up an insane amount of laps and receive the admiration of many of the fellow riders out on the course, but at the same time you quickly learn which riders you can chase, and which riders it is best to just yield the track to. If you're that kind of guy that has issues with ladies riding up and down hills faster than you, then this probably isn't the sport for you.

The grime was the only thing holding my legs together
By sunrise, it had come down to a two horse race. Marius had popped spectacularly and lay huddled in his tent, wishing he was anywhere but at Oak Valley. Lance had endured a bad patch or two, and while still in 3rd place, was several laps off the pace. That just left Jochen "Who is that guy?" Waldherr, who was still going strong, stubbornly knocking off lap after lap. (I did some serious Facebook stalking after the event and it turns out Jochen is no stranger to 24hr racing, having come 6th at the European 24hr Champs, as well as consistently placing near the top of the leaderboard at other 24hr events.) I had a two lap lead over him, but that's not a margin I felt comfortable with given the amount of racing left. My strategy was to mark Jochen lap for lap, until there was no way he could close the gap. In the process of marking him we started chatting. He was out in South Africa on holiday, visiting his girlfriend, and had ridden Attakwas the week before. You could see he was quite hardcore - he was riding a 26 inch hardtail MTB - probably the only rider of the 600 strong field on a little bike. It's seldom that you get to ride side by side with the competition in a race and have a leisurely chat about all sorts of stuff - again, the beauty of 24hr racing.

The backup station I never got to see
The clock slowly wound down, and as I got the the point where Jochen couldn't catch me, I stopped and chilled with my backup. We'd had a near perfect race, and despite there being times when I was scared of my backup (being told that I had better finish a bottle on the upcoming lap, or else!) I was extremely grateful for the outstanding job they did in managing me, even though it turned out that they lived a secret life when I was out on my laps - the wine flowed, they enjoyed juicy looking steaks with salad and even got in a few hours of sleep. Somehow, they managed to hide this all from me, removing any temptation there might be to stop "for just 5 minutes".

The little endurance athlete on the podium once again
As I completed my last lap, I was greeted by the little endurance athlete in our family. Although he didn't quite understand what all the excitement was about, I could tell he was rather taken by the spectacle. All the bikes and people and danger tape!

Lance, the little endurance athlete, myself, and Jochim "Who is that guy?"
A big thank you to Dirtopia for another top notch 24hr event, and congratulations to each and every rider who took part in making this the premier 24hr event in South Africa. To my fellow solo competitors, well done on another weekend of good, tough racing. It was brutal out there! To my backup, and my backup's backup - thank you for another superb effort. You are the envy of many. To The Coach - I didn't mean all those nasty things I said about you on those long and lonely rides. Thank you for getting me into tip top shape! Lastly, to my bike, thanks for working like a dream and not giving a moment's trouble, despite my bum no longer wanting to have anything to do with you.

Well done bike

Some stats: 32 laps, 355kms, 8250m of climbing. Approx 45 bottles of fluid on the bike. 8 litres of Coke. 4 chocolate Sterri Stumpi's & 3 Coffee shakes. 10 Rehydrate sachets. Copious cups of tea and coffee, and 2 sips of a Gin and Tonic. Results



  1. Very well written and thank you for sharing your race!

  2. You did it again!! Well done :-)

  3. Fantastic Dane! What a great write up to summarize your awesome achievement!

  4. Great write up and amazing ride dude!