Friday 7 February 2020

Posted by Velouria Posted on 06:31 | No comments

Oak Valley 24hr 2020

I never set out to be a 24hr solo racer. That was something only the hardcore mountain bikers amongst us did. I much preferred the idea of riding in a team with mates. Do a lap. Chill. Chat. Relax. Do a lap. But that all changed when we couldn't find a fourth person for our 4 man team, way back in 2006, at Dirtopia's 24hours of Malmesbury. The tents were packed, the beers were chilling. There was no way we were going to miss out on a weekend of beer drinking, bike riding and braaing, so the three of us entered solo.

On the start line of my first solo 24 hour in 2006
We'd ride a bit. Stop. Chat. Have a beer. Do a few more laps and watch the legends of 24-hour racing dice it out - Gavin Roussouw and Shaun Peschl. That was the plan at least. Earlier in the week, I'd asked on The Hub for some advice on how to not die at my first solo 24hr race, and Gavin gave me some advice that's stuck with me ever since: "If you have to brake, you're going too fast".

A young Meurant giving an enthralling race briefing
From the start, I latched onto a guy's wheel. He wasn't a race snake, but it looked like he knew his way around a 24hr race. And I copied everything that he did. When he took a bottle, I took a bottle. When he ate, I ate. When he put his lights on, I put my lights on. This went on for about 7 hours until I lost him - he probably snuck away to file a stalker complaint at the nearest police station - but I had my template on how to ride a 24hr. Steadily and consistently.

A 3x9 26 inch Raleigh with bar ends!
At around midnight something extraordinary happened. I took the lead. In my first 24hr event. Not having a clue what I was doing. And for the next four hours, Gavin and I diced it out before I wilted away, eventually finishing a distant second. But the seed of 24hr solo racing had been planted.

2nd Overall. I was so broken I think they had to carry me up to receive my goodies
Fast forward 14 years. The bikes may have changed, the lights have certainly improved, but Dirtopia's 24hr events are much the same. A great weekend away with mates and bikes and beer and braaing. After a three year absence, I was coming back for one last race. One last go at riding to my limits and then pushing just a little bit beyond them.

The thought of doing a 24hr is always very appealing, especially in September when the event is months away. But, as the days and weeks pass, the reality of just what a 24hr entails starts to nibble away at your subconscious thoughts, and before you know it, you're questioning the thought process that got you into the predicament in the first place. What level of insanity had decided that this was a good idea? What part of 380kms in 24 hours sounded like fun? Where was the joy in having numb hands, numb feet, and other numb bits for days after the event?

After a week of wishing for a natural disaster to strike Grabouw, of mingling with Chinese people in the hope of catching a certain deadly illness, of praying, begging and pleading with any deity that might listen, race day dawned. And it was a beautiful day. Warm, but not too warm. Windy, but not too windy. Just right.

Packing the car for a 24hr is probably the easiest race to pack for. Even the Argus requires more admin. And the reason for this is simple - we don't take a lot with us. Despite this being a weekend away, we don't pack a tent. We don't pack a chair. We don't back bedding. We don't pack any creature comforts, as we're not there to use them. It's just race food, race drinks, race lights, and some spare gloves. And a podium outfit. We're there to race bikes and anything else makes the desire to stop racing just that little bit more tempting.
Snacks! Snacks! Snacks!
If you've never experienced a Meurant Botha race briefing, you are missing out. It's worth entering a Dirtopia event just for the race briefing. Even if you get in your car and drive home before the race starts, you will still have gotten your money's worth. I learnt a few things in those 20 minutes, like the definition of a person who takes a short cut. Or how to deal with people that are rude when asking to pass you. (Unfortunately, as this is a family blog, I can't go into too much more detail, other than the word "box").

The turnout for the race briefing
With the race briefing done, and the crowd still chuckling to themselves, it was time for the traditional Le Mans start. All the bikes are parked at one end of a rugby field, and all the bike riders line up at the other end. When the clock strikes twelve, there is a mad sprint across the field. Bike riders hop onto their bikes and speed off onto the route for their first lap. That's the theory anyway. But I am a bike rider. I choose to ride bikes so that I don't have to run anywhere. Ever. And so, when the gun goes off, the most I can do is an enthusiastic shuffle. I know that I'm not that abnormal because, when I look around, there are plenty of fellow shufflers just humouring the idea of running until we get the opportunity to do what we're good at, and that's riding bikes!

I have no idea why anyone would want to run!?
The first lap is always a bit of a schizophrenic challenge. You want to impose yourself over those around you, but you also want to hold something back. You want to go fast, but you want to go slow. And you know that every other rider is thinking the same thing too. I started off a bit too fast and almost immediately picked up a line of riders on my wheel. If I sped up, they sped up. If I slowed down, they slowed down. It was like playing a bike-themed version of Simon Says. My followers had clearly done their homework and knew about my inability to go downhill fast. As we crested the big climb they all zoomed past me, getting into the singletrack ahead of me. While my ego did take a bit of a knock, it was probably the best thing that could have happened - I was now riding my own race at my own pace.

After around 6 laps I started to settle into a rhythm. The flow was starting to come to me and I was feeling quite smooth on the course. It also helped that I lapped Lance, my longtime 24hr nemesis. While it's never cool to see someone having a terrible ride and suffering, a part of me was glad that for once, Lance wouldn't be the one hurting me. What I hadn't figured out yet was just who my competition was going to be.

Finding my rhythm
My secret to 24hr racing isn't speed or technical skills. It's consistency. A real-life story of the tortoise and the hare. One of the things I do to make sure I ride consistent laps is to put down a few time markers on the course. My first marker was at the bottom of the steep climb, just as we went over the big style - 18 minutes. My second marker was the first timing point at the top of the climb - 28 minutes. I would then aim to hit those times again and again and again. And lap after lap after lap I would surprise myself - I'd be within 5 or 10 seconds each time.

28 minutes to the top!
My other secret weapon is my support crew. Not only do I have a backup, but my backup also has a backup. My wife has figured out the right combination of care and cruelty to keep me going. She knows when to lie to me, when to withhold information from me, and when to tell me to toughen up and pedal. And, she's been able to get Bonte, the backup's backup, to do the same.

The secret lives of the backup crew
One of the rules that we have is that no matter what I say, I don't want to know where I am in the race for at least the first 6 hours. I want to make the race about me, like I am the only guy out on the course. After all, I am the only thing I have complete control over.

The winning team!
There are two moments of 24r racing that I love - sunset and sunrise. No matter what sort of ride you're having, the setting sun signifies a chance to reset and start over. Everything's new. The course changes, there is a shift in temperature. Even the people on the course seem to change. Gone are the 6-hour race snakes, replaced with the riders that are in it for the long haul, either in teams, or riding solo. Your whole world becomes the tiny puddle of light in front of you, and as the world fades from view, you can feel your mind decluttering too. All unnecessary thoughts draining away, and only the brain cycles required to navigate the obstacles in front of you remain.

To pass the long and lonely night hours, I give myself some admin out on the route. Tasks like changing my light brightness from low to medium, or having two mouthfuls of fluid as the trail flattens out. The catch is when my OCD aligns all at once and I have far too much admin to do in a very short space of time. Like at the top of the course. Drink some juice. Turn on the backlight of my computer to make sure I hit the 28-minute target. Change back into my big blade for the upcoming downhill. Swipe my tag at the tag reader, and turn my light onto bright. Swiss precision is required.

Of the six 24hour races that I had won before this one, I had always been in the lead by midnight for five of those. And racing from the front is so much easier than chasing. You're the guy controlling the pace of the race. You don't need to go faster than anyone, just as fast as the nearest guy. And that's a great place to be. However, I was not in that place this year. With the lift on the information ban, I found myself down in a disappointing 3rd place. I wasn't leading. And with 2 riders within 5 minutes behind me, I was barely hanging onto a podium spot. And that's when my backup (and the backup's backup) kicked into gear. While they had been withholding information from me, they'd been very busy gathering information on all my competition. I got a complete rundown of the race situation. Who was where. What lap times they were doing. How they looked. How long they were stopping for. And I liked what I saw. The brains trust reckoned that if I kept my current pace up, I'd take the lead in about 3 laps time. And at 02:34am I finally took the lead.

Time for an emergency Red Bull!
In previous years Meurant has always gone to bed just after midnight to catch a few hours of sleep but he was wide awake this year, with a Cheshire cat grin from ear to ear. I think one of the main reasons he puts on these 24hr events is to get an armchair view of the bike racing, and the more suffering there is, the better. He had two bike riders with completely different strategies slugging it out, lap after lap after lap. For the next ten hours, the gap between us was at most 20 minutes, and at one point down to just 20 seconds.

Meurant, glued to the action!
Over the years I've threatened to retire from 24hr racing several times (usually during and after each event I enter). But the brain is a funny thing. The pain and suffering are forgotten, the nervous weeks spent training fade from memory, and all that's left is the pureness of man and machine against the elements. The solitude. The adventure. And if all goes well, the glory. But this was different. This was to be my swansong 24hr, no matter the result. I hoped to go out on a high - one last victory - but as the race wore on, and Murray Craib refused to crack, I found myself considering the idea of settling for second. I secretly wanted Murray to pass me so that I could back off and end the suffering. But the one thing I've learned over the years is that if you're suffering, the other guy is probably suffering too!

Sunrise is my happy place, and I don't think I've ever needed a happy place like I needed one now. It's the start of the final push. The beginning of the end. The air starts to warm. There are fresh faces about. The trail comes alive. And I was beginning to believe that I might just stand a chance of hanging onto my tenuous race lead. Lap after lap after lap the big pass never came. And lap after lap after lap I was still hitting my markers - 18 minutes at the style, 28 minutes at the top. The only weapon I had in my armoury to defend my lead was the amount of time I spent between laps at the start-finish area. I was able to shave a minute off my lap times by doing Formula 1 like pitstops. In hindsight, it was those pitstops that won me the race.

Keep on rollin', baby
You know what time it is
At 8:21am, Murray was just 2 minutes behind me, but that was the closest he would get. I slowly eeked out a margin and by 9:58am I had 14 minutes. While the rest of the country was cursing Eskom's load-shedding, I was secretly grateful as suddenly we were all racing blind. We had no idea of the gaps between us - I was solely reliant on my backup (and my backup's backup) to keep me informed. And while we thought I'd done enough, my heart did sink when Murray passed me on my final lap. I thought I was a lap ahead, but for the remainder of the lap, I wasn't sure. As I approached the finish line for the final time I looked for signs that I had done enough to secure my 7th win. And as I scanned the crowd, I was met with hundreds of faces urging me on over the final hundred metres. Telling me that I'd done it. I'd won my toughest 24hr adventure yet.

My greatest supporter, and my biggest fan.

My 15 minutes

One of the regrets I've always had is that I've never celebrated a 24hr victory. I've always just been so relieved to finish. In the wee hours of the race I'd made myself a deal - if I go on to win this event, I'm doing the bike-over-the-head victory salute. And after 7 victories, I finally had my celebration pose.

The Pose!

While 24hr solo racing is a solo adventure, a whole lot of people make my adventure possible. From my wife (the backup) and Bonte (the backup's back), to Louise (my longstanding genius coach) and the guys at William's Bike Shop (they're not mechanics, they're bike wizards!), they've all played an integral part in this particular adventure. Thank you.

I'm glad I packed a podium outfit!

Some race stats:
31 laps
55 772 kilojoules
34 bottles of Enduren
6 Rehidrats
2 Red Bulls
Longest stop: 5m11s
Fastest lap: 39m14s (the first one)
Slowest lap: 50m12s (the 12th one)
Moving time: 23h30m36s



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