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.