Friday 16 December 2022

Posted by Velouria Posted on 15:53 | No comments

The Double Century 2022

A well-known journalist once told me that it's the bicycle adventures that don't go according to plan that make for the best stories. And he's 100% correct. No one wants to read a race report where the highlight of 7 hours of racing is the tough decision between a vanilla or berry energy gel. And so, when SportsWorld Dennis invited me to join his rag-tag collection of bike riders for the 2022 Double Century, I jumped at the offer. This team had all the ingredients for an epic bike adventure!

Team Oryx

At the best of times, the Double Century is always a bit of a gamble, and rightly so. There is so much that can happen both in the build-up to the event, as well as during the 202 kilometres around Swellendam. Usually, the biggest challenge in the months and weeks before the event is trying to figure out at what level you need to be at, come race day. And it's usually quite easy to do this. Riding with Ben Swift means that you need to take a month off work, rent a cabin high up on the slopes of some remote peak in the Cedarberg, and get in as many high-altitude kilometres as one possibly can. Going for the Mixed win? You're going to need to convince the coach to give you loads of steady power intervals, some upper-body strength work for when the pushing needs to happen (and this isn't to push the ladies, this is to push the guys that the ladies have destroyed!), and some mental training in learning how to leave your ego at home, particularly when it's a lady pushing you up a hill.

James the Noob with the OGs

Like any team event, you don't need to be the fastest, but you certainly don't want to be the slowest, and this is where that athlete stalker tool called Strava comes in handy. Strava stalking your teammates gives you a good idea of where you fit into the hierarchy of the team. By and large, this is quite a simple exercise, but over the years I've learnt a few things to look out for. The teammates who upload everything to Strava aren't the real concern. They're an open book, and it's quite easy to see their fitness levels. It's those people who upload sporadically. Or upload rides without all the data. (Here's looking at you JP). What are these people hiding? What end of the fitness spectrum are they actually on? What mental games are they playing?

Team Oryx strategy discussions

Having the tough conversations

And then there are those people whose whole training strategy for the Double Century is basically just wishful thinking, and the hope that others have factored in some upper-body strength training. Sometimes it's work and family commitments that keep people off the bike, and sometimes it's illness. And then once in a blue moon, it's a broken hip while cycling at 10 km/h in a bike lane on a cycling holiday in Slovenia.

Google Translate of a Slovenian news article


Throw in a couple of other factors, like 2 teammates doing their first-ever Double Century (for comparison, Captain-Craig-of-the-broken-hip and I have over 40 Double Century events between us), the team never having ridden together before, and a forecast for some dodgy weather, and I was quite sure that Team Oryx were going to have an amazing adventure, and that this race report would just write itself.

It's just 202kms, right?

While I'm always a fan of adventure (the reason I ride with Captain-Craig-of-the-broken-hip so much), I did have another reason for wanting to ride with this team. Bike racing is about pushing yourself, setting ambitious goals, seeing how close you get to achieving them, and watching the progression over the years. It starts off with just wanting to enter the Double Century, to be ready to ride something like this. And shortly after that it's wanting to finish your first Double Century. And then it's wanting to finish in the top half of the field, and then under 7 hours, and then under 6 hours, and then get a top 20 result, a top 10 result, challenge for a podium position, improve on your podium position, and finally, go for a win. And yet, despite all the success we've had at the Double Century, there's been one achievement that's eluded us - the Charles Milner Medal. A medal that is awarded to each team that completes the 202 kilometres together as a team of 12. It sounds like everyone should have one of these medals, but this was the one medal that Captain-Craig-of-the-broken-hip and I have yet to add to our collection.

It's all about objectives

Race weekend snuck up on us, and before we knew it, the race strategy conversation had begun. This is the next area where things can go horribly pear-shaped very quickly. Having a strategy that works for everyone is challenging, but again, some advice I got years and years ago still rings true. I was lucky enough to get an entry for the 2007 Cape Epic, and while the race was tougher than anything we'd done before, many teams didn't make the finish not because they were incapable physically, but because somewhere between Knysna and Somerset West on a dusty patch of dirt in the middle of nowhere, two teammates had had a bust-up over something stupid. Maybe it was spending too much time at a water point, maybe it was riding a little too fast up a hill, or a little too slowly down a hill, but tempers had frayed and that was the end of the dream. Not only did teams not finish, but friendships were wrecked. And that's where Erica Green's advice came in - set objectives for the team. Not where you want to come or how well you want to do, but what sort of team you want to be afterwards. Do you still want to be on speaking terms with your partner? Do you still want to be friends? With that figured, everything else follows, including the good results.

Three kilometres in and the team is still together! (And smiling)

The Charles Milner medal captures that team strategy. We need to ride at the pace of the slowest guy. We need to look after the guy with the dodgy hip. We need to support and encourage the first-timers. We need to ride this race as a team. Twelve people aligned around a single objective.

Up, up, and away

Race day finally dawned on us, and no matter how many times you've lined up on a start line, there is always a nervous excitement in the air. Different riders express this in different ways. Some get quiet and contemplative, running through everything in their minds one last time. Some just soak up the atmosphere and revel in the challenge that lies ahead. And some just spend an inordinate amount of time visiting and revisiting the porta loos. Each to their own.

When the gun finally goes, everything just melts away, and it's time to get down to business. The first hour is usually spent just sussing out the team. Finding your place in the hierarchy, and figuring out what normal feels like. What pace are we riding at? How long are we spending on the front? Who is the best person to ride behind? That last one is crucial to a good ride. Pick a guy who forgot his deodorant and you're in for an unpleasant ride. Same applies to the guy with cycling shorts that have seen better days - no one wants to stare at see-through cycling shorts for 7 hours. And my worst - ending up behind the guy who's 3 feet tall and offers absolutely zero drafting benefit.

Always be a team player!

Just as Team Oryx had figured this all out, we hit the first climb. Nothing like a climb to expose those whose lack of Strava uploads had nothing to do with secret training, but in fact, just represented a lack of bicycle riding. We cruised up the climb as a team, the stronger riders diligently riding at the pace of those slower riders. As we crested the climb, I took my turn on the front, a little 15-kilometre pull to the bottom of the next climb. And in those 15 kilometres, the physical state of the team had changed quite a bit. It was here, at the bottom of the climb that The Hand of God made its first appearance. This isn't a sinister cheater move performed by a short South American, but rather a kind, caring, supportive hand resting on a rider's lower back, gently pushing that rider up the hill. Nothing signifies teamwork quite like stronger riders pushing weaker riders uphill. The Hand of God does however have a sinister cousin - The Vicegrip of Death - when a rider reaches out and grabs the pocket of another rider. While it looks very similar to The Hand of God, it feels like that rider isn't just holding onto your pocket, but has in fact climbed into your pocket, and you're now trying to cycle while carrying the weight of the rider on your back. And, with The Hand of God, you're in control - you can stop pushing whenever you want to catch your breath, stand out of the saddle, or change skinny cycling arms, while with The Vicegrip of Death you're completely at the mercy of the guy in your pocket, and sometimes it requires some very harsh words to get the rider to climb out of your pocket again.

Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic!

With the second climb behind us, I took another 32-kilometre turn on the front as we headed towards Montagu, and the first water point of the day. I think the team was having a good time, but whatever fun they were having behind me wasn't filtering up to the front. Nor were there a lot of offers from others to take a turn, which was ok. At least this way, I didn't have to endure deodorant failure or seethrough shorts, although it was like riding behind a 3-foot midget with no drafting benefit.

Like a Kirstenbosch Concert, but without the grass, or the concert

We rolled into the water point, and then something strange happened. Something that I've never seen in my 18 years of riding this race. People got off their bikes and SAT DOWN. Like we were on a picnic ride. Just without the picnic blanket, the pâté, and the MCC. Instead, we had Coca Cola and a secret stash of cramp tablets that got passed around. The cracks were starting to appear in Team Oryx's tough facade. Fortunately, the organisers give each team 30 minutes at the water point, and it was quite clear that we were going to use every second of those 30 minutes. I was just hoping that Captain-Craig-of-the-broken-hip was paying attention and would give me more leeway next time we sped through a water point at Trans Baviaans.

I've still got 4 minutes and 27 seconds of sitting to do

With 118 kilometres in the bag, we set off for the next stop. Fortunately, I had a couple of companions help out on my next 45km turn on the front, from a Captain-Craig-of-the-broken-hip, to Too-many-watts-Kris and Enthusiastic-Jack-Russell-JP. This section is all about keeping it together, and I've learned this lesson the hard way over the years, pulling an Eskom multiple times as my lights went out. I didn't want our newbies to experience that on their first Double Century - we have to save some action for next year.

When sitting in the dirt is more comfortable than a bike saddle

I usually start thinking about how to write my race report during the event, taking note of all the action. But as we cruised towards the next water point, I was starting to get worried. I didn't have anything to write about, for two reasons. The first reason that, by and large, we were having an uneventful ride, and secondly, whatever action was happening, was happening behind me, and I wasn't seeing it. But I knew my trump card lay ahead, and I hoped the final 40kms would give me enough to write a race report.

Yup. Team Oryx is still there

We rolled into the next water point, and once again Team Oryx enabled picnic mode, but with a few modifications. I don't think there was as much sitting down, but there did seem to be quite a lot of weeing. Much like the repeated visits to the porta loos before the race, it looked like the same thing was happening again. Was it nerves because of what the final 30kms had in store for us? Was it because of the panic slurping of too much juice in the hope of finding some extra energy for the legs? I don't really know, but it made for interesting viewing. And then the cramp tablets came out and were passed around again. With our 30 minutes almost running out, Team Oryx hit the road for the final slog to the line and that Charles Milner medal that awaited us.
What do you mean you didn't bring a chair?

On any normal day, the final 40 kilometres of the Double Century route would just be a lumpy bike ride between Bonnivale and Swellendam, but with 160 kilometres in the legs, those final 40 kilometres are a sufferfest, characterised by 3 nasty hills. It's on these 3 hills that your Double Century strategy is put to the test - if you've overdone it earlier, these 3 hills are a long and lonely escapade through the Valley of Despair. This is where teams fall to pieces. Where friendships are ruined and dreams are crushed. But Team Oryx had a plan - if you had extra watts to spare, use them pushing someone up a hill. It can be quite tricky figuring out who needs a push, and again, clear communication is key. Except when Captain-Craig-of-the-broken-hip tells you that he needs a push, and before you can change your mind, or change your gears, he's engaged The Vicegrip of Death and climbed into your back pocket once again.

The waiting must be killing Captain-Craig-of-the-broken-hip

There is a saying that adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it, and nothing sums that up better than the last 30 kilometres of the Double Century. Seeing a rider pushing a weaker or more tired rider up a hill is one thing, seeing a rider pushing a rider pushing a weaker or more tired rider up a hill is another. And Team Oryx revealed their character, conquering the hills as one. Inch by inch we ticked off the climbs until we had the final hill to the line remaining. A hill that passed in a blur as the finish line came into view. 
The Hand(s) of God appeared to me on a hill outside of Swellendam

Achievements in sport (and in life) come in many shapes and forms, and it's not always about winning or coming first. Sometimes it's about doing cool things and having an adventure with old friends while making new ones. Thanks to everyone in Team Oryx for a memorable bike ride around Swellendam, and for giving me the chance to add another special medal to my collection. 

You get a medal, you get a medal, you all get a Charles Milner Medal!

Lastly, while twelve people crossed the line together, two unsung heroes people made a ride like this possible. Thanks to Natie and Jodi for doing the thankless task of backup, for providing ice cold coke, some reassuring words, and the occasional shoulder to cry on. 

Thursday 18 August 2022

Posted by Velouria Posted on 23:26 | No comments

Trans Baviaans 2022

They say that half the challenge of any race is getting to the start line, and the other half is getting to the finish line. I don't think I ever really appreciated just what this meant until the 2022 Trans Baviaans race. Maybe it's because the world is still a little messed up, or maybe it's because I'm getting older (or maybe it's both), but riding bikes doesn't seem to be as simple as it used to be. Life seems to be throwing out curveballs, like the plot twists in an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

This still brings on bouts of PTSD

My journey to the 2022 Trans Baviaans began with a frantic email to The Coach, sometime in early June. While we've been together for almost 15 years, and she's worked miracles in the past, this time I really really needed her very best work. One of those "in case of emergency, break glass" kinds of training programs that I'm sure every coach has, just waiting for the right crisis to appear. And what was my crisis? Well, for the first time in forever, I'd gone on a summer holiday to Europe and NOT taken my bicycle along. I'd lulled myself into a false sense of security, as we'd been quite active, walking all over the place, but my first ride home revealed the panic - I could barely make the 17kms to work, let alone the 226kms through the Baviaans Kloof.

The Coach delivered. It was something that resembled my training programs of previous years, but upon closer inspection, I could see the subtle sprinklings of pain and torture staring back at me from the Excel spreadsheet. This is what I'd asked for, and now I needed to do my bit. Which is definitely the harder part - actually doing the training!

At any team event, you don't need to be the fastest in the team, you just don't want to be the slowest. Being the slowest is a guaranteed one-way ticket to Destination Doomed. In my panicked state, I thought my ticket to Destination Doomed was bought and stamped, with Captain Craig logging some impressive miles on Strava, and Snack Monster Mike spending far too much time riding his bike in his garage. I was going to be that guy. The slowpoke that everyone waits for. But then Snack Monster Mike informed us that he too was spending a month in Europe, and he too was not taking a bike along. And just like that, Snack Monster Mike was the proud new owner of a stamped ticket to Destination Doomed.

Snack Monster Mike. Snacking.

But, since we're nice people, and we have a certain standard to live up to (and, I really don't want to spend more than 12 hours riding Trans Baviaans!), Project "Get Snack Monster Mike Fit" commenced. And the best way to get fit is to commit to an event. In our case, that was Around The Pot - a gentle little gravel ride of 160kms through the rolling hills of the Swellendam Overberg. This should have been an easy ride, an adventure through the endless Canola fields of stunning yellows and golds. For about 25 minutes, this held true, until it started to rain, turning the hardpacked gravel into sticky slimy gooey mud. A race that was supposed to help Snack Monster Mike find some form turned into a race that broke Snack Monster Mike's psyche and soul, and 3 days after the event, I got the dreaded "We need to talk" Whatsapp. Snack Monster Mike was out. His excuses were a little bit feeble - he couldn't make Trans Baviaans because his kids were playing chess, his mother needs company, he's been away from home a lot etc. But we understood. Snack Monster Mike didn't want to be number 3. The slowest guy in the team. The guy with the ticket to Destination Doomed.

Snack Monster Mike is already thinking of how to get out of Baviaans

So, The Fuddy Duddy Buddies were down to two riders. But that's not the end of the pre-race tribulations. With Snack Monster Mike's late (and dubious) withdrawal, I was still confident that I had the upper hand on Captain Craig. And so was he. Until, with 10 days to go, I got sick. Not a slightly snotty nose and annoying cough kind of sick - an aching-body-kill-me-now-man-flu-from-hell kind of sick. The wise thing to do would be to laugh this whole adventure off, and try again next year. But that's not an option when you're one of two guys who have done every single Trans Baviaanns event. This is not how my 17-year streak ends. And so, I bought and stamped my own ticket to Destination Doomed - we weren't going to be racing this year, we were going to be surviving. One kilometre at a time.

Fields of Gold 🎵

You might think that this was the end of our misfortune in the run-up to the 2022 Trans Baviaans. And you would be wrong. Throw in a last-minute accommodation crisis, a broken rear wheel, and a front fork that's definitely making the local bike shop's Name and Shame Instagram feed, and you'll see why The Fuddy Duddy Buddies just wanted to start the race. Nothing else could go wrong. Right? Right!?

Over the years I've teased the race organiser Wikus for his low-budget public address system - I've lost count of the number of inaudible race briefings that he's mumbled out into the cold Willowmore morning air. But, like everything, change is inevitable, and Wikus has embraced technology. Not only does he have a PA system that is audible, but the race briefing is now also streamed on the INTERNET. Like it's 2008! If only Wikus would embrace technology when it came to providing an accurate weather forecast for the race. "Geen reen en n tailwind" (no rain and a tailwind) are words every cyclist wants to hear. Except, none of the 14 weather apps on my phone gave anything near a forecast like that. In hindsight, to be fair, Wikus was 50% correct with his weather prediction. Unfortunately, it was the wrong 50%.

Wikus and the new PA system

The only people more interested than cyclists in the weather forecast are probably pilots, and for the week leading up to the event, every decision about the race is filtered through the weather forecast. What to wear, what to eat, what to pack in your boxes, what lube to use, how hard to pump your tyres, when the backup driver should expect you, whether you'll be able to watch the rugby etc. Despite the weather forecasts from my 14 apps, I wanted to believe Wikus. Believing Wikus made for an easier ride. Believing Wikus gave me hope. The slightest glance at my weather apps just guaranteed my journey to Destination Doomed.

And the rain?

I like to think that I am a clever guy, but I know for a fact that there are at least 400 people more clever than I am. This year, 1215 people entered the Trans Baviaans Race. A whopping 200 sensible people didn't even make it to registration. They paid their entry, but just like Snack Monster Mike, had a list of reasons why they weren't even going to bother travelling to Willowmore. Of the people that made it to Willowmore and registered on the Friday, a further 100 wise individuals chose not to even start the race on Saturday morning. They'd paid their entries, booked and paid for their accommodation, gone to registration (and probably endured Wikus's race briefing), handed in their boxes for the 3 checkpoints along the route, eaten all the pasta carbo loading meals on offer, and then the next morning, upon looking at their weather apps, and more importantly, out of the window, decided that this whole Trans Baviaans thing was a kak idea. What. Absolute. Geniuses!

Smiles of fear and panic!

At 7am, those of us with lesser IQs rolled down to the start line. Why a 7am start? Well, when you get to the age of Captain Craig and myself, every opportunity to at least start with the Elites and Pros is one more year that we can deny our actual ages, and pretend to be young and fast all over again. That, and the fact that we'd rather pretend to be Elites than face the alternative - starting at the ungodly hour of 5am like the rest of the field.

We forgot Snack Monster Mike

With Wikus's "Geen reen en n tailwind" still ringing in our ears, we'd chosen our kit for the conditions that lay ahead. Normal gloves, an undershirt and a wind jammer with arm warmers should be more than sufficient. Except, the "Geen reen" part of the prediction was completely wrong. Fifty per cent is a pass, but it's still bad enough that your parents have "The Talk", and I'm quite sure there were a few cyclists that wanted to have "The Talk" with Wikus. It was pouring down outside, with very few signs of stopping any time soon. It was then we made a decision that probably saved our lives. We each grabbed a rain jacket. Better to have it and not need it than to not have it and need it. This was probably the most fortunate decision I have ever made in my life, and certainly prevented my trip to Destination Doomed from turning into a trip to Destination Death.

The gun went at 7am sharp, and for about 13 seconds, The Fuddy Duddy Buddies were competitive. Elbows out, jostling for position in the bunch, fighting over which wheel to follow. Just 13 seconds. And then Captain Craig and I sat up and waved goodbye to the Elites and Pros, possibly for the last time in our racing careers.

Captain Craig still sees the funny side of things

It's hard to recount the next 4 hours. Words cannot describe the conditions, the emotions, the sensations. It wasn't long after the start that we started losing all feeling in our hands, our ears, our feet. Our hands weren't just cold, they were frozen. Completely numb. No feeling whatsoever. We would have to visually confirm where our hands were still on the handlebars, and that our fingers were indeed on the brake levers. We could not determine this by feel. Things we take for granted, like changing gears, or reaching for and drinking from our water bottles were impossible. It was bad. I've done some crazy things over the years, but I don't think I've ever been so close to my limit as I was on that cold and wet dirt road in the Klein Karoo. As I toyed with whether we were being brave or being stupid, rider after rider appeared from the front, having turned around and heading back to the warm comforts of Willowmore. With each rider that we passed, it felt like we were leaning more and more towards the "being stupid" side of the spectrum. While I didn't say it at the time, if Captain Craig had voiced a strong opinion about turning around, I don't think I would have put up too much of a fight.

It was way warmer than the -2C from earlier!

Cold hands are one thing. Mud-filled eyes are another. I'm quite sure I spent most of those first 4 hours gingerly peering out of one mud-filled eye as I tried to blink and wipe away the mud in the other eye. Forget about finding the smooth fast line on the dirt road, my only criteria while peering through one half-open mud-filled eye was to be ON the road. Anywhere on the road. Captain Craig figured out that if you look at your bottom bracket, the mud didn't fly up into your eyes. It still flew up, but instead of flying into your eyes, it covered your helmet and your hair, and you STILL couldn't see where you were going. But at least you could see. 

Selfie mud face

It's strange what thoughts go through your mind in conditions like this. I remember thinking that I know that I am an eternal optimist because even while riding with lumps of ice for hands and mud-filled eyes, I couldn't help but think - as kak as this mud was, at least this wasn't the sticky slimy gooey mud from the Around the Pot. Always a silver lining. I also remember, after looking at Captain Craig's mud-soaked face that I'd missed a trick. I should have called us The Muddy Fuddy Duddy Buddies.

Making time to take photos!

Apart from the mud and the cold and people pulling out around us, those first 4 hours weren't too bad. In previous years, those first 100kms have dished out a different sort of pain. A race snake, on the limit, tasting bile, about to pop sort of pain. A pain I'd gladly swap for some mud and cold.

The least grumpy I have ever been after 160kms

With the acceptance that my journey to Destination Doom was a sure thing, the way we behaved at waterpoints changed significantly. Gone were the Formula 1 style 6.45-second transitions that Captain Craig is so fond of, and in their place were the leisurely, take-your-time-to-enjoy-all-the-snacks style transitions that gave Snack Monster Mike his name. Fiddle and faf and eat and fiddle and eat and faf. It's a kind of racing (if you can even call it racing) that I haven't done in ages. The value-for-your-money sort of approach to bike riding. And obviously, if you are spending over an hour of your time at the waterpoints enjoying everything on offer, any expectation of a good result needs to be adjusted. Any team that drinks a beer at the halfway mark is certainly not that concerned with their overall time.

You can sit and eat snacks?

This ride was not about doing well. This ride was not about setting records. This ride was about survival. About keeping the streak alive. About enjoying the scenery. About indulging in the offerings at the water points. About having another adventure with Captain Craig. I would have been happy with a top 50 finish (actually, I would have been happy with just finishing, and having all my fingers and toes in working order). So you can imagine our surprise when we crossed the line in 9th place overall, and as the 4th Elite Men's team. The secret to this success wasn't about riding fast. It was about just riding. About persevering. About avoiding the guy collecting the tickets to Destination Doomed.

Of the 1215 people that entered, only 550 people finished. Just 215 teams. The 215 most hardcore teams you will find in South African mountain biking. This was an event where making it to the start was a challenge, but making it to the finish was a life-changing adventure. Will I be back? Of course - I am now the only person to have finished all 18 Trans Baviaans events, and I think I am well qualified to say that this is definitely the toughest edition of this fantastic event yet.