Tuesday 21 February 2017

Posted by Velouria Posted on 10:31 | 7 comments

The Big Day Out 2017

Four years ago, after a rather dismal showing at a 24hr race, the idea for The Big Day Out was born. Inspired by a birthday ride that Richie Porte and Cameron Wurf did, we wanted to do something just as memorable. As is usually the case, the other half of the "we" was my trusty co-accomplice - the "always up for a bike ride" Captain Craig. Our objective that day was to ride further than we'd ever gone before on a single bike ride. And that meant 361 kilometres.

We failed. On the road from Malmesbury to Durbanville our plans fell apart as we wilted in the heat and persistent head wind, and with empty bottles we were forced to take a shortcut. While we still rode 335 kilometres in temperatures fit for cooking turkeys, we knew we'd be doing this again.

The following year was even less successful, with a broken derailleur scuppering our plans at just 200 kilometres. In the meantime, we'd undertaken a few new races, and 361 kilometres was no longer good enough to achieve our initial objective. We needed to go further. And we needed additional reinforcements. Enter the ominously named Halfway Robertson - another sucker who just loves to ride bikes.

In 2016, we finally achieved our goal - 369kms in a little over 14 hours of bike riding. It was hot. It was windy. It truly was a Big Day Out. As elated as our little trio was, at the back of our minds we knew that somehow we'd have to raise bar for The Big Day Out 2017.

I felt somewhat under prepared
For a ride that started out as an ad hoc adventure, it's become a rather serious endeavour. There is a committee, a constitution, and various rules and guidelines about what constitutes a Big Day Out (our reference is always Ritchie Porte's Birthday Ride). Planning starts several months before, with talk of new route ideas, new inductees, and new challenges. And for 2017, we were going to back to our roots. We were going to attempt to emulate Porte and Wurf - 400kms in a single day.

With the route settled on, all we needed was the perfect day for riding bikes. And this is where members of the committee differ in their interpretation of the word "perfect".  Captain Craig and Halfway Robertson would prefer a cool, windless day, possibly with a few clouds in the sky, and an afternoon breeze (obviously a tailwind) that picks up as the legs start to fatigue. On the other hand, I like it hot and windless. The hotter the better. And as the Big Day Out Benevolent Dictator for Life, I get my way.

Our day started at 5am in the cool dark air of the Southern suburbs of Cape Town - nervousness and trepidation lurking at the back of our minds about the challenges that lay before us. Our first obstacle - to safely navigate the infamous bike lane and get out of the city in one piece. And almost as if Murphy was watching us, right at the most dangerous section of the bike lane, I punctured. Just 12 kilometres into our adventure. While I sorted out the puncture, my companions, armed with bicycle pumps and multi-tools, stood guard, suspicious of all passersby! Thankfully, it wasn't long before we were on the road again, all our limbs and possessions intact.
The first challenge of the day was not a physical one, but rather a mental test. It's been said that a surefire way to crack even the toughest of minds is to have them ride up the West Coast road. Career criminals have been known to succumb, melting into quivering wrecks still within sight of Koeberg nuclear power station. But this didn't deter us as we fought the monotony and boredom of the West Coast road, slowly inching towards Yzerfontein. Our determination resolute. Just as our spirits were starting flag, and conversation had deteriorated into a series of grunts and groans, the turn off to Darling appeared.

And with the change in direction turn came some hills. And some turns. And almost immediately our mood picked up. Conversation started to flow again, the legs had some new found energy, and our bums sighed in relief. Before long, Darling rolled into sight and had our first of many refreshment stops for the day. A quarter of the ride done - a measly 100 kilometres.

The open road
Back on the road we set our sights on our next milestone - brunch at Riebeek Kasteel. By now the honeymoon phase of the ride was over. The witty banter had dried up, we were freewheeling the downhills, and our only focus was to knock off the kilometres, one by one. We'd been a bit sneaky with the route planning - avoiding any and all hills for the first quarter, but that was about to change. The first of many passes awaited us - Bothmanskloof Pass. This is not an iconic pass, and particularly from the side that we were riding it from there was nothing spectacular about it, except the the road went up. And as the road went up, so did the temperature, hitting the low 30s - an ominous sign given that it was just 10:30am. We crested the climb in no time and coasted into town, brunch awaiting.

The Babalas burger
The Babalas burger in Riebeek Kasteel hit the spot, restoring not only our energy levels, but our mojo too. No matter which way you looked at it - 240 kilometres to go was still a sizeable challenge. With a slight bit of reluctance we remounted our steeds, and set off for our next objective - Wellington. Our last leg before the real challenges of the day began.
By now, the body was running on autopilot, trying to be as efficient as possible. Big efforts were a thing of the past, and now it was about using as little energy and exertion as possible to propel the bike forward. A welcome tailwind came as a double edged sword - on the upside, a great way to knock off the kilometres a little bit quicker, but on the downside, both giving us a false of our strength and robbing us of a cooling breeze.

As we gulped down ice cold cokes in Wellington, our core temperatures dropping slightly, and our energy supplies returning to more normal levels, the locals couldn't help but give us strange looks. Who were these strange creatures riding bikes in the midday sun with temperatures in the uppers thirties? Not only did we receive peculiar looks, we also got a lot of unsolicited advice, the most common being "You should really be riding early in the morning to avoid the heat". Obviously we got more peculiar looks when responding that we had in fact started at 5am, and that we were riding from Cape Town to Somerset West, the long way round.

Hot hot hot
The halfway mark of our adventure was Bainskloof Pass, a magnificent 12 kilometre climb on twisty winding roads. The countryside looked like a moonscape due to several recent fires, and to add the the other worldly feeling, the temperatures were peaking in the lower forties. We inched our way up the climb, passing baboons chilling in the shade that knew better than to venture out into the midday sun. And yet, there we were, slowly but surely climbing the hill, shirts open wide, looking for anything to cool us down. Although we didn't mention it at the time, I don't think the irony was wasted on us when Halfway Robertson started showing signs of weakness near the halfway mark. Thankfully, help was at hand in the form of a welcome mountain stream. Something primal overcame Warren, as his gaze locked onto the stream and it's enticing waters. In a single fluid movement, he parked his bike, removed his shirt and cleared a barrier wall, before making a beeline towards a mini waterfall. Sitting in a pool, with water gushing over his head, it was probably the most content I have ever seen him. I am quite surprised that we managed to somehow coax him out and back onto his bike!

Captain Craig might have been struggling on the climbs, but put a piece of twisty downhill in front of him and he's off like a fat kid on a waterslide - nothing can stop him! As we watched him disappear in the distance, Halfway and I did our best to not keep him waiting at the bottom for too long. A quick refill of bottles and it was back into the routine of knocking of the kilometres. We might have been over halfway, but we still had a long long way to go.

Even the locals thought we were mad
Instead of heading straight to Worcester and Rawsonville, we took a detour through the Slanghoek Valley, because, believe it or not, it's not that easy to find 400 kilometres of rideable, safe roads in the Western Cape, without doing some silly loops and diversions. The downside of this particular detour was two-fold. The first being the infamous Slanghoek climb. While not a long hill, it is a testing hill, and that's on fresh legs. After 9h30 in the saddle it's just another straw on the camel's back. The second downside was purely mental. The roads were covered in sticky grape juice from the recent harvest. Picture riding in treacle. This was too much for Halfway who crumbled like a house of cards on a windy day, convinced his bike, or his legs had given up the ghost, and he was doomed to spend the remainder of his life in the Slanghoek Valley.

Must. Keep. Pedalling.
After picking up the shattered pieces of Halfway's psyche, we limped into Rawsonville and our designated lunch stop for the day, the gourmet establishment called Nikki's Take Away. In the year since our previous visit, the menu had been massively expanded and so we settled on the newly added Miss Piggy burger. If regret was a taste, I now know what it would taste like. And I tasted that regret for the remainder of the Big Day Out.
With the Miss Piggy burger sitting uncomfortably in our bellies, we set of for Villiersdorp, and the toughest leg of the whole ride. The memories from Big Day Out 2016 still haunted us, and while we secretly hoped that we were a year older, a year wiser, and a year fitter, we feared the worst. And rightly so. As we turned the corner behind the Brandvlei dam we were greeted with a searing headwind. And for the second time that day Halfway cracked. Partly due to the heat. Partly due to the Miss Piggy burger. Partly due to the the very nature of the Big Day Out. We all took a moment to gather ourselves as Captain Craig did his best rendition of a pep talk. Some promises were made. Some lies were told. Anything to keep us going.

Make it stop
Fortunately, we knew about a hidden oasis from last year's adventure. There are no loungers, no chilled beverages. Just a tap under some oak trees. But at 6pm on this particular Wednesday evening, with temperatures still in the mid thirties, it was all we needed. While not quite the waterfall from earlier, it didn't stop Halfway from pulling a similar move as he submerged himself under the flowing water once again. We took our time at this unofficial stop, refilling bottles, replenishing the energy levels, and trying our best to "keep our shit" together. Twenty kilometres to Villiersdorp, with the Elandskloof Pass standing between us and our next stop. This is what the Big Day Out had come to, a series of 20 kilometre slogs, and we had just 5 more to go.
As the sun started dipping low in the sky, the temperatures finally dropped below 30C for the first time in ages, and the mood started to improve. We were still tired, and our bums and legs still ached, but the setting sun marked a new beginning. The next chapter in our Big Day Out story. The wind abated, the light softened, and our minds cleared. For the first time that long long day the end was almost in sight. Just a short 80 kilometres to go.
We hit the bottom of Franschhoek pass in the fading twilight, and a realisation hit us. This is why we do these crazy adventures. This is why we torture our bodies. This is why we ride bikes. Three guys, in the middle of nowhere, with not a car in sight, surrounded by mountains. For that minute, nothing else mattered. Pure cycling nirvana. And then reality gatecrashed our little man moment as we realised that we still had to get over the mountain in front of us.

Homeward bound
My enduring memory of the climb, done in almost complete darkness was the smells. The unique smell of fynbos. The sweet smell of blossoming flowers. The smell of crisp clean mountain air. And occasionally a combination of Captain Craig, Halfway and myself, our deodorant having failed us a long long time ago. We eventually crested the climb, and for the second time that day Captain Craig transformed into a downhill maniac. Like a magician's assistant, he vanished. His tiny little commuter light doing little to light the way. In complete contrast, I was crawling down the hill so slowly that it felt like I was riding with one hand on the centre line, feeling for the cateyes, like a blind person reading his way down the hill.

Mountains ahead
Patiently, my fellow accomplices waited at the bottom for me, before we set off once again. With the sun well and truly set, it fell to Halfway Robertson to be our man with the light. Much like Captain Craig, Halfway has a history of light failure during epic events, and we hoped that night would be an exception. We had 60 kilometres to go, but we weren't counting in kilometres any more. We had 5 more challenges ahead of us. The soul destroying Helshoogte Pass, and then 4 bumps on the road to Somerset West.

He might be half a National Tandem Champ, but he's still a funrider.
While normal people were enjoying dinner in the fine restaurants in and around Stellenbosch, we were still plodding along, one pedal stroke after another - 3 guys, out on bikes. It felt surreal. Like we were observing normal life from a distance. Removed from reality. And I'm quite sure everyone else thought the same thing about us - 3 guys, on bikes, removed from reality!

Not just signal, but we almost lost the will to live near Purgatory
My wife, along with Captain Craig's, had been eagerly following our progress all day, hurrying us along when our stops got too long, and offering encouragement when things got slow. And with 20 kilometres to go, she couldn't bare the tension of watching the live tracking any longer. She bundled our son into the car and they came to find us, pulling up behind our sorry little peloton and offering a valuable backup to Halfway's light. My wife was in her element, hazards flashing, escorting 3 tired adventurers for the final part of their journey. My son didn't exactly share the sentiment, and after a quick wave hello, nodded off to sleep, bored by his father's outlandish idea of fun.
Those final kilometres were filled with emotion. And we're not the emotional types. But so much goes through your mind. The sheer scale of 404 kilometres. The adventures we'd had. The places we'd been to. The good bits. The bad bits. The Miss Piggy Burger. And then the thought of returning to reality the following day hits you. Elation mixed with sadness. But for this one day, we were rock stars!

Rock stars

Halfway having a moment.

Friday 3 February 2017

Posted by Velouria Posted on 13:14 | 3 comments

Oak Valley 24hr 2017

Back in 2007, on a dry and dusty Wiesenhof track, I won my first solo 24 hour race. I had no idea what I was doing. I was never really in contention, lapping consistently slower than the leader. But I was having fun, lap after lap after lap, ably supported by my wife and Jayne, a third year physio student. My Raleigh RM7.0, equipped with 26 inch wheels, V brakes and those flappy Shimano shifters, was anything but a comfortable ride, and yet it handled everything that Meurant could throw at it.

In my element
I wasn't in the race at all until 3 o'clock in the morning when Paul, the current leader (and mate), ran out of battery power. These were days when halogen lights and nickel cadmium batteries were the norm, and a smart lighting strategy was more important than a decent nutritional plan. I had recently bought, at great expense, one of those new fangled LED lights with a lithium ion battery. The jury was still out on whether these new gadgets would catch on as they were prone to overheating and blowing up. Mine was super fancy and had a thermal cut out that would kick in and turn the light off before it exploded. And I knew it worked because it would cut out without warning in the warm South African nights, regardless of whether you were just coasting along or bombing down some gnarly single track, plunging everything into absolute darkness. Wait a few minutes and the light would return to life, unlike those halogen/nickel cadmium monstrosities.

At sunrise I took the lead, and for the next 3 hours Paul and I duked it out, throwing everything we had at each other. I imagine we looked like two sloths fighting in slow motion, pushing our broken bodies to the limits to get the upper hand. And with 3 hours to go Paul cracked. He didn't bonk, or run out of legs, he just couldn't convince his bum to sit on his saddle for one more lap, his 26 inch hardtail feeling like a razorblade covered cactus. I did one more lap and then waited for the finish, sharing war stories with Paul. It might have looked like we were racing each other, but ultimately we were racing ourselves, comrades in arms against the demon that is solo 24 hour racing.

Fast forward 10 years and nothing has changed. Sure, the bikes have evolved and those LED lights did catch on, but solo 24 hour racing is still about racing your own demons. And this year was no different. In the weeks leading up to the event the pressure starts to mount as the self doubt begins to creep in. Have I done enough training? Did I do the right sort of training? What training has the competition been doing? Who is the competition this year? Race day can't come soon enough.

The venue at Oak Valley might be bigger, and Dirtopia might have a few more banners, but you can always bank on Meurant putting together a course with a little bit of everything. Some testing climbs, some twitchy single track and some flowing downhills. The heavy rains in the run up to the event might have forced some route changes, but it was still a perfect route for 24 hour racing.

Right from the start at 12pm I try to do my own thing but this year I had company, several riders watching my every move under the mistaken impression that I know what I am doing. I don't. My strategy is rather simple - get into a rhythm and routine and try to keep that going as smoothly as possible for as long as possible. A 24 hour race isn't won in the first 6 hours, but it certainly can be lost in the first 6 hours. With that in mind I was quite hesitant to engage in any racing, but I also don't like company.

My "long suffering wife"
And so I took a calculated risk. Put in some quicker laps, push quite hard on the climbs and see who responds, and for how long. One way or another the race was going to be settled before the sun went down, and I hoped that I'd be on the right side of that risk. Two or three riders followed me, including Lance - the nearly man of so many 24 hour races. From previous years I knew he was a maniac on the technical downhill stuff that I hated so much, but I also knew that he disliked the hills even more than I did. With that in mind I hatched a plan - push on the ups and recover on the downs, and see how long we could do that little dance.

The Dane Train
Like a seasoned roadie Lance remained glued to my wheel, only ditching me on the descents before resuming his position behind me, lap after lap after lap. Just as I was starting to doubt my strategy and my ability to keep up the efforts on the climbs I got a hint. It wasn't much. A bike length or two briefly opened up between us, and Lance closed it quicker than it had appeared. But it was enough. That was the sign I needed. We did a few more laps together with the gap opening up slightly larger each time before I lost him at the transition area for good. And while the race was far from over, I was able to once again ride my race at my pace.

Backup and backup to the backup
The best part about 24 hour racing is that you get so many opportunities to ride the perfect lap. Your knowledge of the course grows as you tweak and adjust your lines, push the limits on braking points and measure your efforts more appropriately. A mental picture builds up in your mind of where you are on the route, what's coming up, and the best way to ride it. It's mountain biking by numbers, and it's highly effective when the brain starts to turn to porridge. However, it all comes crashing down when you round a corner and a completely new scene greets you. It could be a rock that is out of place, or a branch jutting out into the path. It could be a dropped water bottle or skid mark, but it's enough to snap you out of autopilot mode and force you to reassess the scene before you. And as you rebuild your mental picture you start to ask questions. What happened that caused a 15kg rock to roll into the path? Where did that branch come from? Do they know they've dropped a water bottle? Why did they brake so hard right here?

And before you know it you've gone full Inspector Clouseau, looking for clues. Was there a crash? Is there someone lying in the bushes? Was it sabotage? Is the skid mark related to the dropped bottle? Of course, there are no answers, but it keeps the mind busy, and while the mind is playing Inspector Clouseau it's not thinking about your sore bum, or the ache in your knee, and that is something that money can't buy!

Mutual respect
As the night goes on the course gets quieter as only the crazy remain out on route, the more sane people opting to catch a few hours of sleep. It's then that solo 24 hour racing becomes magical. Your whole worldview is a tiny puddle of light in front of you (that thankfully no longer cuts out when it overheats) and the only beings keeping you company are the Leopard Toads out on the route, and a handful of totally committed backup crew in the transition area. It was around this time that Lance and I found ourselves in sync once again, albeit I was a lap up. The aggressions of earlier were a thing of the past, and we enjoyed a couple of laps together, keeping the demons away through strength in numbers. In a great show of sportsmanship, Lance invited me for a coffee break, and so, for the duration of the coffee break a ceasefire in hostilities was declared as we chatted about the race, the course, and the competition. With the last sip of coffee, our race resumed and we parted ways. As it turned out we wouldn't see each other again on the course until it was all over.

A successful 24hr race requires 3 things. A good, simple strategy. An amazing backup team (and not only do I still have my wife doing backup, even my backup has backup). And no creature comforts. I'm there to ride my bike for as long and as far as possible. No sitting down. No catnaps. My bike must be the most appealing thing for those 24 hours. My reward for doing a lap is a quick snack, and the chance to do another lap. And while it's tough to leave the backup crew at 2 in the morning, they have the "you have to be cruel to be kind" thing waxed and will chase me on my way if I overstay my welcome.

Lost in thought
There are several significant moments when riding a 24hr race - the start which puts an end to all the waiting and nervous energy. The finish which puts an end to all the suffering and exertion. Sunset, which transforms the course into a dark and lonely world. But for me, the moment I enjoy the most is that lap that starts in the dark, and finishes in the light as the sun slowly makes a reappearance. That's the sign that everything is going to be ok. It's not over yet, but I've broken the camel's back. I'm in the finishing straight with just 6 hours remaining. Keep it steady, look after the body, choose clean lines, and enjoy the last few laps.

The traditional post race photo with Meurant
As the sun rises higher in the sky, the course fills with more and more riders, each with their own tales of hardship, suffering and endurance. Their bodies showing the signs of fatigue and torment, but their smiles revealing the fun that they're still having. With 12pm approaching, those with any mental capacity left are doing sums as to how many more laps they want to do. How many more they need to do. I'd set my mind on 30 laps being enough for victory, but at the behest of my backup crew I did one more, just to make sure, and just to make them happy. And while the number 31 really grates with me (it's prime, and consists of two primes, and is just an ugly number), it didn't grate me enough that I was going to do another lap!

The winning team!
And so, with 31 laps in the bag, a total of 378km and 7500m of climbing, I crossed the line for the last time, glad to finally get off the bike, and pleased to have conquered the 24 hour demons once again.

The 2017 podium

Thanks to Mark Sampson for the photos.