Friday 8 December 2017

Posted by Velouria Posted on 11:22 | 1 comment

The Double Century 2017

On the surface, The Coronation Double Century might be a 12 man team trial over 202kms of winding roads through the Overberg. But scratch a little deeper, and you'll quickly discover the intricate and complex nature of this yearly pilgrimage. A psychologist's wet dream into the inner working's of the minds of endurance athletes of all shapes and sizes.
The scientific papers that could be written about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or Survivor's Guilt could fill several editions of The Journal of Psychology alone, but what really interests me is the range of emotions before, during and after that I (and hopefully others) experience.
It is said that basic emotions evolved in response to the ecological challenges faced by our remote ancestors and are so primitive as to be ‘hardwired’, with each basic emotion corresponding to a distinct and dedicated neurological circuit. Being hardwired, basic emotions (or ‘affect programs’) are innate and universal, automatic, and fast, and trigger behaviour with a high survival value.
Robert Plutchik identified 8 basic emotions, and I'm quite sure I experience each and every one of them in various measures:

Mumblings of Double Century plans and strategies begin almost as soon as the saddles sores and aching legs from the previous edition have recovered. Things that can be done better, riders that need to be "convinced" to ride with us, improvements to the after party. We scheme and conspire for months on end, convinced that we're finally going to get it right. As race day approaches, the anticipation of the sufferfest that awaits is almost palpable. In the final week before the big day, we go from "I can't wait to race bikes in Swellendam over 200kms" to "I really don't know why I do this to myself every year". And yet somehow, we make the start line each and every year!

For me, the biggest surprise of the day is seeing who is going to be the first rider to pop. None of us wants to be that guy. It's a long and often lonely ride to the finish, and then there is the year-long stigma of being the guy that tapped out first. So, for the first hour of racing, we're not really racing the teams around us, we're shadowboxing with each other, taking our turn on the front and giving it almost everything, but secretly holding something back and hoping that someone else is going to crack first.
Captain Craig is never on my list of guys who are going to crack early on. He's the master of digging deep and holding a wheel, so when he came past me (backwards) pedaling squares after 40 minutes I thought he was kidding. A look over my shoulder a few seconds later and he was gone - our team captain relegated to a day of trying to beat the sweep vehicle and control the demons in his belly. (He was successful with the first challenge, not so much the second)

As we descend deeper into our own worlds of misery and suffering, the strangest things bring us joy. A bite of an energy bar, the slight shift in wind direction, the overtaking of another team. While racing bikes as fast we can is fun, it's not joyful. It's the things that happen while we're hurting ourselves that bring us joy.

I've never been so happy to see a complete stranger standing on the side of the road dishing out water and coke. My whole survival depended on this stranger (who also happened to be our backup) to get me home, and for those 5 minutes where I was being fussed over, I was happy. A kind of primitive and primal happiness. Happy to be alive. Happy to be riding bikes with mates. Happy to have full bottles.

We're a team of journeymen, a motley crew of renegade bike riders that gather for just one day. We come from different towns, different provinces, different countries, and yet somehow the stars align on race day. For 5 hours we're a team. A collective greater than the sum of the parts. We ride hard. Sometimes too hard. Giving it everything. And then it's all over. We go our separate ways, the team disbanded for another year. We might bump into each other here and there, but for most riders, we won't see each other ever again. And that's sad.

In the oxygen starved environment that is the HotChillee Racing pace line, the weirdest things can fill you with anger and rage. Someone dropping a gel sachet. A slower team not moving over to the left. Your own teammate subjecting you to 480 watts of torture for 5 minutes. These things rattle around in your head, taking on a life of their own, and before you know it, you're stomping the pedals with fury. I like that sort of anger. It's a powerful motivator to push through the pain. To take one more turn on the front. To squeeze the last remaining energy from my legs.

And then there is the bad anger. The anger that brings out my Hulk. This doesn't happen often, particularly when racing bikes, but when it does I just feel like giving up. Giving up on the race, and giving up on cycling in general. Cycling is supposed to be fun, especially at our level. We're just weekend warriors in search of glory. Cycling is our escape from the 9 to 5 routine. So when one team takes things a little too seriously, crossing the line from racing hard but fairly to blatantly cheating, the bad anger starts to boil inside me. What annoys me most is that a team whose name I cannot mention cheat by drafting us for 30kms, despite our protestations, and then step onto the top step of the mixed podium and celebrate their "victory". Are they so morally bankrupt that this is acceptable to them? Do they wear that medal with pride, or is it a dark reminder of the depths that they will go to in order to win?

Going into this year's Double Century I was confident of my fitness and form. I wasn't in peak peak condition, but I was solid. The speed was there. The endurance was there. The motivation was there. It was going to be a good race. And then we got news that Nic Dlamini would be joining us as our rent-a-pro. My world came tumbling down. Gone are the days of Nic riding on restricted gears, pumping out a cadence of 130 plus in order to keep up with us. He's now a lean, mean racing machine with a particular talent for crushing the souls of amateur riders with his abundance of watts that many of us can only dream of. Suddenly, I was fearing for my well being. The race had gone from an unbearable sufferfest with mates to a potential death ride on board the Nic Dlamini Agony Express.

And he didn't disappoint. Without looking up, we all knew when Nic was near the front as all our numbers would go haywire. Like the instruments of a plane flying into the Bermuda Triangle, things on our cycling computers just didn't make sense. The speed would shoot up, heart rates would max out and the watts were off the charts. We were going way too hard, and we all knew it, but we were powerless to stop it. Instead, eleven riders would cower in fear, waiting for the next Dlamini drubbing.

With the advent of things like Strava and GPS tracking, it's relatively easy to get an idea of your team members' fitness and form. But it's not a perfect science. Come race day, each member of the HotChillee Racing team places a certain amount of trust in the rest of the team that they've done the hard miles. Being the optimists that we are, we like to believe that everyone is in tip top condition, but until that gun goes, you never really know what sort of ride it is going to be. Are we all talk and no walk, or are we going to surprise ourselves and everyone else with a good ride?

The opposite is true as well - will my teammates step up when we need them most? Will they give everything for the cause? And the answer is usually yes. Whether it's closing the gap after a dead wheel, or riding me back onto our train after I got dropped on the downhill (again), there is always a teammate that answers the call. Someone punctures and in a flash a wheel is offered (although we suspect there was a selfish component here as Tim no longer had to endure the hiding on board the Nic Dlamini Bullet Train). It's probably this feeling that keeps bringing me back year after year to the Double Century. A twelve musketeers sort of vibe.

Again, the team that I cannot mention. They went from a morally dubious bunch of bike riders to everything I hate about cycling and cyclists in the space of 3 seconds. I've played several sports over the years, I've raced at various levels, in various disciplines, and not once in the 34 years that I've been riding bikes has anyone ever punched me. But that all changed when I asked a member of the team that I cannot mention to give me some room so that I could rejoin the HotChillee paceline (that they had been wheel sucking for 30 kilometers). I got an expletive filled rant followed by a punch for my efforts.

Where did cycling go wrong that this is seen as acceptable behaviour? Or is this just a reflection of modern society and how we interact with others? Is this the example we should be setting for tomorrow's generation? Cheat, swear and punch your way to victory? In a fun ride? I'd hate to see the response in a situation where the stakes are a lot higher.

As for my actual race report, The Double Century is a difficult race to report on when you spend half the time dropped from your own team. And the bits where I was part of the team are shrouded in a haze of suffering, or blurred as images of my life flashed before my eyes.

This is what I wrote on The BikeHub:
1. Start
2. Stare at the bum in front of me while chewing bar tape everytime Nic Dlamini was anywhere near the front.
3. Pretend to take a turn on the front, but I was actually too shattered from Nic's 5 minute motorpace session that I was actually recovering while on the front
4. Repeat 2 and 3 about 15 times
5. Pop spectacularly
6. Ponder the meaning of life and what series of bad life decisions had brought me to this point
7. Water point 1
8. Repeat 2 and 3 about 10 times, but this time there was no popping as I was number 6
9. Water point 2
10. Pop again - about 2kms out of the water point
11. Make a million deals with the muscles in my legs if they could just get me to the finish and not wage a violent war whenever I tried to pedal
12. Curse any uphill, no matter the gradient
13. Repeat 11 about 37 times
14. Finish, vowing to race in a mixed team next year!
(15. Two days later start thinking about doing it all again next year!) 

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