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.