Thursday, 18 November 2010

Posted by Velouria Posted on 13:38 | No comments

Wines2Whales 2010

For the first time since my second Argus way back in 1998, Yolanda and I were going to ride together, and this time it wasn't just going to be a little trip around the Cape Peninsula. It was going to be a 3 day stage race from Lourensford in Somerset West to Onrus. That's 230km of bonding. Craig and Bonte (Team Finding Vino) would be doing it as well, and the event promised to be a great weekend away. Wines2Whales, here we come.
A bunch start!
That was until we got word of some competition. Our spies had been busy monitoring the Western Cape cycling scene, and something big appeared on the wires. Another couple with high ambitions had entered, and neither Yolanda nor Bonte would tolerate losing to this couple. And so the intelligence work began. Many favours were called in, information was gathered, Facebook accounts were monitored, results were scrutinised, acquaintances were interrogated, and plans were formulated. We knew when and where the opposition would be riding, how far their training rides were, their mental state, their strengths and their weaknesses. All this was done in absolute secrecy - something any intelligence operative would have been proud of. After several refinements and iterations we had a plan to beat the Wakefields, aka Team Heading For A Divorce.
All smiles
With our Plan safely locked away behind triple reinforced stainless steel doors, and two killer guard dogs employed on 12 hour shifts, we set about getting fit for the challenge that lay ahead. For Yolanda, this generally included looking out of the window, seeing a threatening cloud in the distance, and going back to bed. With only a couple of weeks to go she upped the training, both quality and quantity, and actually got on a bicycle. This was all part of The Plan, in case the Wakefields had infiltrated our cycling group and had spies reporting on her progress. While Yolanda was busy training, I was frantically trying to discover the race commissar's weakness. While I am not at liberty to discuss these details, the results speak for themselves, as both Finding Vino and The Bizweni Benders managed to get an A seeding.
A hearty meal for a stage racer
Race day eventually arrived, along with some rather foul weather, but mountain bikers are a tough lot and welcomed the thick sticky mud and slippery conditions with open arms. After a hearty breakfast of chocolate Pronutro at the Bokomo Breakfast Zone, we headed off to the A bunch, hanging with the likes of Christoph Sauser, Burry Stander, Conrad Stoltz and Dan Hugo.
Stage One
Stage One was going to be a bit of a brute with lots of steep climbs, some technical descents, and some tight singletrack as we made our way from Lourensford to Grabouw Country Club, for a total of 70kms and just under 1500m of climbing. Yolanda rode like a star - fearless in the face of some rather slippery conditions and attempted everything. A couple earth shattering tumbles later (and some rather sore looking bruises) we rolled across the finish line narrowly beating Team Finding Vino in a time of 6h22. Our bodies had survived, and more importantly so had our marriage (even if there were parts where we weren't speaking to each other - because apparently it's my fault when Yolanda falls on a slippery root or rock). I had earned massive brownie points by carrying my bike up the wagon trail, and at the same time pushing Yo's bike - this single act possibly saved our marriage.The many months of hard training had paid off, as Team Heading For A Divorce finished in a whopping 7h11. Barring any major mechanical difficulties, the overall victory would be ours.
Chatting to the enemy (mind games at work!)
What a view (except for the half naked cyclist)
With the riding out of the way, Yolanda quickly settled into the chore routine - showering, snacking, getting a massage, mixing juice etc. She especially enjoyed setting up "The Nest" - the tent we would be sleeping in. We would use the other tent to store all our stuff.
Stage Two
Ready for Stage Two
Stage Two had us hooking up all the best singletrack mountain biking in the Western Cape - OakValley, Thandi and Lebanon, into a 75km loop. I was a little nervous because I wasn't sure I would be able to stay on Yolanda's wheel. It turns out that she is quite a downhill maniac, especially when it comes to technical singletrack. Not a single person caught or passed us when she was in full flight, and I had to work hard to keep up with her. We had a couple of issues - an inconveniently placed root resulted in Yolanda having a rather heavy crash (which again was my fault). That was shortly followed by the longest puncture repair ever as I tried to fit a tube. Team Finding Vino passed us after we had been stationary for about 20 minutes, and Team HFAD somehow also sneaked past us. I suspect they did so on their bellies, leopard crawling through the long grass to maintain the element of surprise. It was only much later when we caught them that we realised we'd been passed by them. 
Close to being finished
In the spirit of W2W, we had come up with a rule that said there was to be no pushing of the ladies by the guys. We were going to ride at their pace. However, there was a escape clause, affectionately known as the Nadine Clause - if Team HFAD happened to be challenging for position on a stage, then pushing would be allowed. And that was exactly the situation Yolanda and I found ourselves in. We had started 10 minutes before Team HFAD, and when we recaught them we still had to get a 10 minute gap on them to stand any chance of beating them on the stage. It was like old times again - instead of Russel, I now had Yolanda to push, and we made good progress in the final 18kms, but unfortunately only managed to make up 5 of the required 10 minutes and finished in 5h52. Well done Team HFAD. Team Finding Vino also had a last minute puncture and lost out on the stage victory by a mere 40 seconds. A cynic would suggest that the circumstances of Team HFAD's victory were a little suspicious - both the opposition teams suffering punctures. A complaint was lodged and the race commissar is still investigating.
Up bright and early, ready for Stage Three

Stage Three
Stage Three was the final push towards Onrus, an 85km route with some great downhill, and a bit of a sting in the tail. With Team Finding Vino leading on GC, our two teams stuck together to provide a mental deterrent to Team HFAD. We were a little shocked to see them at the first water point - once again they had ridden 10 minutes into us, and once again we had to invoke the Nadine Clause. That was the last we saw of them as the ladies rode like champs up the many climbs, spurred on by the desire to claim the bragging rights. I was also made to look like an amateur again by Yolanda on some fast singletrack as she raced away from me (Coach - if you're reading this - we need to work on my skills!). With Onrus in sight, Teams Finding Vino and The Bizweni Benders flew past some dedicated supporters , all smiles. It had been a perfect day's riding. Or so we thought. With a couple hundred meters to go, Bonte had an altercation with an unforgiving Milkwood tree, the Milkwood winning and Bonte adding to her collection of scrapes and bruises. We crossed the line in 5h44, and then had the agonising wait for Team HFAD. Ten minutes eventually passed, giving us another stage win, and Team Finding Vino the overall victory.
Team Heading for a Divorce - still together and smiling.
All in all, a very enjoyable event - well organised with a great route and fantastic vibe. This race is everything that the Epic is not, and I hope it stays this way. Plans are already underway on how to beat Team HFAD next year - our operatives are hard at work. Owning the Wakefields again will be a challenge, but we're more determined than ever.

The Bizweni Benders and Team Finding Vino - in matching 5339 kit

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Posted by Velouria Posted on 20:09 | 6 comments

Swazi Frontier 2010

In a small land locked country on the south eastern tip of Africa, roughly the size of Wales and better known for things like the Reed Dance and being the last absolute monarchy in Africa, is an event that captures the very essence of mountain biking. How this event hasn't received more publicity is a mystery. The country is Swaziland, and the event is The Swazi Frontier.

Swaziland, here we come

After hearing some fantastic stories from several sources, I composed the best suck up letter ever, promising the naming rights to my first born, and large sums of money and other favours, should I get an entry. (I have kept the letter, and will be using it as a template for similar events. I haven't yet told my wife that we'll be having a rugby team of children). I also bribed some past participants into putting a good word in for me. After several nervous weeks I finally got the email - I had cracked the nod.
Svalbaard in kit form
The next challenge was to find a partner. With Craig preferring the company of older men, I was left to either find someone of a similar level as me, or someone who was brave or mad (or both). After exhausting the former options, I had to resort to the latter, and thankfully I didn't have to look to far. Enter Tree John - best known for his lack of skill at avoiding trees. I made a couple promises, about riding sensibly blah blah blah, and suddenly, Team Goat and Guru was born (I am the goat, as I go uphill well, and John is the downhill guru, provided there aren't any trees).
The old movie house
After months of planning the logistics, Team Goat and Guru and Team (feel the creativity in the name) set off on a country crossing adventure. Hermans to Somerset West, Somerset West to Cape Town Airport, flights up to Johannesburg, hire car to Pretoria, sleep - the junior team got relegated to the caravan by a rather grumpy Little John (of Little John and his Merry Men fame, the other half of Team, road trip to Oshoek, fighting with obstinate customs officials, lost customs forms, missed turnoffs, before finally arriving Hawane Lodge in the pouring rain. Us Capies know all about the rain, and aren't scared of a bit of mud and gunk, but throw in a bit of lightening and thunder and we become quivering wrecks - looking for the nearest bed to hide under. The other concern was that the sum total of my wet weather gear consisted of a pair of arm warmers (once again, Team providing us with bad advice, telling us how hot Swaziland always is).
The T-shirt doesn't lie
Team 443222.mtb.gears on the podium

Stage 1 was a "gentle 60km ride through some beautiful surroundings, with a bit of climbing near the end" - to quote Brett, the event organiser and finalist for The Most Understated Route Description award. Unlike the Epic where Dr Evil goes to great lengths to put the fear of God into you many months in advance, Brett just lets the trail do the talking - up, mist, long grass, wild animals, trees, dam wall, down, stile, down, river crossing, waterpoint, up, up, up, trees, down, down, down, river crossing, forest, up, up, mud, up, trees down, waterpoint, up, up, up, down, tar, finished. Something like 64kms with 2100m of climbing for a total riding time of 5h25 through some of the best riding I have ever done. Team came in second, losing some time on the last climb.
But is it art?
Derek and Cliff - all smiles after Stage 1
In an effort to try to be inclusive, and to stop being a control freak, I had delegated the role of navigator to Tree John - that way he had some control over where we went and how fast we did it, and I had to follow him. That was the idea anyway. It became quite apparent that Tree John wasn't happy with this designation, and did his best to sneakily dispose of our route maps when I least expected it. After having to ride back up the trail to hunt for our cards for the third time, Tree John finally made a plan and stuck them down with a mouth full of half chewed PVM Energy bar. I always knew those bars were good for something. Thankfully, we were able to navigate by following others most of the time, but this comes with its dangers - several times we followed teams off into the great unknown.
Little John hates a dirty pool
The rest of the afternoon was spent soaking up the atmosphere, chatting about the fantastic riding, gorging ourselves on the tasty food, fiddling with bikes, and napping - all in the old mining town of Bulembu, now an AIDS orphanage.

Stage 2 dawned with the rain pouring down. Resisting the urge to climb back into bed after a hearty breakfast I once again put on all my wet weather gear - a sole pair of arm warmers, and got ready for what promised to be a 60km mud bath. At the Swazi Time of 7am we set off, braving the elements, the mud, and Tree John's navigational skills (Swazi Time is very much like African Time - just a little more random and unpredictable). With the odd slip here and there, mud in the eyes, ears, nose and mouth, wet bum, caked bikes and big smiles we progressed along one of the best day's riding I have ever done, made even better by the weather. We climbed, we flew down hills, we got lost, Tree John staked a claim to a particularly slippery piece of land, we crossed rivers, we crossed rivers, we crossed rivers (something like 32 times), we got stuck in mud, Little John broke a chain, we raced pigs (the pigs won), we high fived kids, and eventually crossed the finish line at the Orion Piggs Peak Hotel in a little over 4 hours. Team 8008.dodgy.giant, and in particular Little John, lost time as the mud brought their race to a sudden stop, but managed to hang onto a third place.
Certainly beats an Epic tent!

We weren't the only ones to fall victim to the mud, with the truck carrying everyone's bags getting stuck. The result was that 180 cyclists walked about the hotel in nothing but towels. All in all, the Unofficial Piggs Peak Toga Party went down well, with no reports of wardrobe malfunctions. Several riders even achieved minor stardom as other hotel guests clamoured to take photos of people in towels with funny tan lines.
Bike wash geniuses.
The mud had been particularly brutal on the bikes, and for the first time I experienced what can only be called "Collective Bike Repair" - where a whole bunch of people work on a whole bunch of bikes - often not their own, for the general good of everyone. Karl Marx would have been proud.
The Collective at work

Stage 3 was to be a 60km affair with 3 major climbs. The weather was finally playing along, so the arm warmers weren't needed, and I swapped them for a pair of sunglasses. After a slightly relaxed start, we found ourselves in the lead bunch. Just as we were settling in, as happy as a Swazi pig in Swazi poo, Little John of Team sent the entire lead bunch down the wrong road. We watched despondently as first the mixed teams, and then the baggy shorts clad mountain bikers whizzed past us. The only consolation being that now we had some targets up ahead of us, and there is nothing I like more than something to aim at.
The finishing venue - Maguga Lodge
I'd given up on Tree John's navigational skills, and had to find other reliable sources of navigational info. The obvious option was to follow the tracks ahead of us, but there was a certain risk in this. With people like Little John doing the navigation up front, who knows where we might end up. A far more reliable source is what I call SCPS - Swazi Children Positioning System, and involves scanning the route up ahead, and then heading off towards the largest group of Swazi children on the side of the road. I'm still working on a business plan to commercialise my new positioning system, so watch this space.
We came down that mountain
Tree John had finally found some legs, and was making me work hard. While not as technically challenging as the previous days, the riding was still top notch, and as an added bonus we got to see the scenery. We also got a hint of just how warm it can be, and were more than grateful for the cooler weather we had experienced. We enjoyed some steep climbs, sweeping descents, a swing bridge crossing, angry Swazi cows, emaciated Swazi dogs, friendly Swazi supporters, beautiful panoramas, swamp crossings, flowing cow tracks, and a fast tar descent to finish off at Maguga Lodge in a little over 4 hours, securing 7th place overall. As Ricky Bobby says - "If you ain't first, you're last", and the Kenyan team of David and Davidson (or Epic fame and good friends of Sarah and Benedikt) made sure they were first. Team 0002.isnt.bad secured a well deserved 2nd place with the defending champs - Bruce Turvey and Rob Dormehl of Osama B's - succumbing to mechanical issues and finishing in third.
A Kenyan showing off his technical skills during Stage 4
The rest of the day was spent packing, cleaning up, enjoying a few drinks overlooking the Maguga dam, and just chilling - we had Stage 4 to look forward to that evening, and a long trip back to reality the next day.
Little John working on his Captain pose.
It's not often that event organisers get everything just right, and yet some how, Brett and Lesley have managed this. Even when things go wrong, it just doesn't seem to matter. From the race briefings, to the route, to the food, to the accommodation - everything is just perfect. The Swazi Frontier isn't a race, it's a ride and an experience that is out of this world. Many thanks to Brett, Lesley and all the other unseen helpers that make the Swazi Frontier the event that it is.

Still no word on the name of my first born, but I expect a call any day now...

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Posted by Velouria Posted on 15:45 | No comments

Karoo2Coast 2010

For years I have had to put up with mountain bikers talking about a ride from the quaint little Karoo town of Uniondale, down some mountain passes, to Knysna. I have had to listen to the war stories, the tales of triumph and heartbreak, the accounts of steep cliffs, dangerous drops and atrocious weather. When asked how my ride was, I would mutter under my breath that I hadn't ever done the ride, and in an instant I would be excluded from the conversation and given that look. The look that says "You obviously aren't a real mountain biker."
The Route
But that all changed this year when we finally decided to enter the Karoo2Coast Mountain Bike Challenge. How hard can it really be? Apart from the odd bump here and there it is all downhill. On big wide roads. These mountain bikers are pansies! I had ridden the route in reverse in the 2007 Epic, and although Julian had suffered a bit, it didn't seem that bad. And surely the Epic route was the tougher direction to ride the route in anyway!
It's all downhill!
Along with the usual Hermanus contingent, we had a visiting Belgian physio/soldier/cyclist - Luc, who was eager to see just how tough us South Africans are. Bonte had once again used her amazing organisational skills to secure us accommodation in the school hostel, and Luc's first hurdle would be to survive a night with The (injured) Runner and The Greek in a tiny dorm room. After a few ground rules were laid down, I think they all got on like a house on fire. First rule - no snoring. Consequences - Death. Actually, that was the only rule. The Greek was particularly scared, and was only too grateful to have a very cute duvet with chickens on it to cuddle in the night as he made sure he didn't snore.
Our accommodation for the night
Race day dawned bright and early with The Greek bringing The (injured) Runner breakfast in bed. Those two do make a good couple. After breakfast and the usual pre-race pfaff we all headed off to our start chutes - the threat of bad weather having failed to materialise. It looked like a perfect day for a downhill ride to Knysna.
The Greek's duvet
And that was probably the last pleasant thought I had until I crossed the finish line 3h42 later. Craig and I had the pleasure of starting in the Elite bunch, with both of us downplaying our form - Craig blaming his island adventure, and me blaming all the racing I had done. At 7:30 we were off, and I was quite nervous - whenever a large bunch of mountain bikers get together in a bunch on tar bad things are bound to happen. Barely 100m from the start and I almost had my first crash, and in return sending Craig sideways into some other innocent bystander. Luckily no one went down. Shortly after that 2 riders did go down - but it was on the other side of the bunch far away from us.
Rent-a-mechanic as The Greek and The (injured) Runner look on.
As we hit the dirt at the bottom of the first climb the race exploded and the front guys were off. Craig and I were stuck behind some riders whose own perceived ability and actual ability were on opposite ends of the spectrum. I weaved my way through the traffic, thinking Craig was right on my wheel - Team 5339 ripping up the course. The reality was that Craig had bust his dérailleur at the start of the climb and was on his way back to the start to either look for a new dérailleur, or a new bike. I should probably look behind me every now and then.
Nelly got her own special place to sleep
After some ups and downs I found myself in no man's land - there was a group up ahead that were getting away from me, and a group behind me that weren't quite catching me. I plodded along at my own pace when I was eventually caught by Jarryd just when I needed someone to pick a line down Prince Alfred Pass, and he was the perfect person for it. Unfortunately he punctured not long afterwards and I was all on my own again. I finally got some company in the form of Tiaan Erwee, another Helderberg local and together we rode well up the never ending climb towards Buffelsnek. The bunch finally caught us, but nothing changed - Tiaan and I stayed on the front and did all the work while we towed the rest of them along. It's the burden of riding a 29er, and I am slowly coming to accept it.

We were picking up riders who had been dropped quite regularly, and one of them happened to be Hector, a Hermanus local, and my future DC teammate. It was rather bad timing for Hector, because as soon as we had caught him my little bunch decided to drop the hammer and the gaps started to open. I had to go around several riders to stay in the bunch, with Tiaan falling victim, and Hector barely hanging on. It wasn't long before the elastic broke, and Hector was off the back.
Luc - the sun burnt Belgian
Things pretty much stayed the same, 29er on the front until we reached the last hill. I had descended quite amazingly, and was looking good to get over the climb in good shape when my legs decided to call it a day. They just wouldn't go and I slowly found myself going backwards. By the time I got to the top of the climb the bunch was gone and I was left to limp home to the finish line on my own. Never before have I hated riding on flat tar so much - it just didn't seem to want to end. I finally finished in 3h42, in 30th place, having had one of my hardest races in a long time. Karoo2Coast certainly isn't easy, and it certainly isn't downhill. I was sore all over, and a little disappointed that I could stick with the bunch, but that's bike racing.
Still smiling, despite over 6 hours of trouble
After what seemed like an age, The Greek crossed the line in fine form, shattering his personal best and comprehensively claiming the floating trophy. With The (injured) Runner out of action, his win seemed assured, but as is often the case, a new contender stood up and put her cards on the table. Bonte finished a mere 20 minutes behind The Greek, and while he basked in his amazing victory, I couldn't help notice the fear and worry in his eyes.
The Greek receiving his trophy
As for the others - The (injured) Runner had done 250km in a little over 3 hours, and was looking as fresh as a daisy. He did complain of a sore bum, but that is to be expected over such distances. Yolanda had a disaster of a ride - her dodgy Specialized equipment letting her down, although she swears it was her mechanic's fault. Craig, once again, got beaten by pretty much everybody. It's happening at such a regular occurrence that it doesn't surprise anyone anymore. Yolanda was more than happy though - Craig's mechanical skills were put to good use on her bike. Just a pity his own bike doesn't get the same level of care. Luc got his money's worth and enjoyed the scenery and the race atmosphere. He also now admits that all Belgian cyclists are wimps and that South African's are slightly crazy (despite us telling him that The (injured) Runner and The Greek are not true representatives of typical South Africans).
Podium girls, fame, groupies.
The Greek has arrived

Monday, 20 September 2010

Posted by Velouria Posted on 11:35 | No comments

Stanford Finishing Photos

Some nail biting action photos from the finishing line in Stanford.

Winding up the sprint

The lunge for the line

All by myself 

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Posted by Velouria Posted on 19:06 | 1 comment

Staalwater 2010

As the poster boy for this Staalwater MTB Challenge I had an obligation to attend. Thankfully, the organisers had set up a course that favoured my strengths, and decided to keep the technical stuff to a minimum. It still wasn't going to be easy - we had loads of climbing to do, and it looked like it was going to be flat and fast.

With Karoo2Coast just around the corner, this was to be the last dress rehearsal for The Runner and The Greek, and an opportunity for either of them to gain the upper hand in the psychological war games. We were all expecting big things from this race.
Another reminder - I am the poster boy
I was a little disappointed to see that some of the big guns had rocked up again, and were likely to ruin my poster boy day in the sun. Equally distressing was the fact that I had competition from 3 other riders: my Baviaans team mate John, Marius the Pansie, and Henning, a local Somerset West rider.

With a turnout that far exceeded the size of the start shoot, the long route set in a flurry of riders. The quicker riders eventually made their way through the traffic and a nice little bunch formed at the front. The old saying "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" applies here - I thought I was doing well, sitting comfortably in the bunch, feeling good when all hell broke loose. In slow motion. Four riders just rode away from the rest of us, and no matter how hard I tried I could do nothing about it. Two hours of chasing followed, with mixed results.
The Greek, having a pre-race stress about the integrity of his carbon Giant

We managed to catch one of the leaders, also on a 29er, and so there were 3 riders chasing the 3 leaders, with us being chased by John and Marius. A catch 22. I wanted to stay away from the guys behind us, but I didn't want to kill myself trying to catch the leaders, and give Henning a free ride. Thankfully, the course was very 29er friendly, so Henning was practically removed from the equation.

The Runner, adopting an interesting warm-up routine
The status quo remained until the first water point, and the sharp little hill that followed it. We lost the other 29er early on, with Henning next to go. In the interim, Jarryd, a downhill demon and future Double Century teammate, had been dropped by the leaders and was about 100m ahead. With everything looking great, it was around this time that my legs decided that they were no longer interested in cycling, and were going on strike. To make matters worse, all three of the guys I wanted to beat had now joined up, and were working together to chase me down.

My only hope was to get over the climb with a slight advantage, and hope that some more 29er  friendly roads would present themselves. While my wish wasn't granted exactly, I got the next best thing - some technical downhill. John was able to ride across to me, but the others struggled, and before they could close the gap the hallowed 29er friendly road appeared and John and I were able to open the gap. Things pretty much stayed like this until the finish - we could see third place, sixth and seventh could see us, but there wasn't a lot that any of us could do about it.
Third placed Jarryd looking cool
With Caledon approaching fast, John got a serious case of white line fever, and I had to hang on to his rear wheel for dear life. Just when I was about to pop, the cycling gods smiled on me once again, and John dropped his chain on a steep little uphill. Doing the thing that Alberto Contador should have done, I waited for John. (That's what it appeared like anyway - the truth was that I would have walked that hill anyway.) In return for my generosity, John didn't sprint me for fourth place. We had ridden the 60kms in 2:14, and were only 5 minutes behind the leader. Being old also has its benefits as I was the first SubVet across the line (and the first 29er, but there are no prizes for that).
Both the ladies beat the boys
Back to the main attraction - The Runner vs The Greek. We were expecting fireworks, with thousands of spectators turning up to see the action, drama, and suffering. What we got was one of the biggest anticlimaxes in the history of cycling. Sadder than Lance Armstrong's return to competitive racing, more disappointing than Jan Ullrich's attempt to win a second Tour de France, less riveting than watching a Dennis Menchov interview. It was a total damp squib. The Greek and The Runner had declared a truce and rode together. Something about The Runner suffering from an old ITB injury he picked up back when he was an up and coming endurance runner, training under the watchful eye of Arthur Lydiard in a bid to smash the Comrades up run record.
The deserved winner of the trophy, flanked by the two losers.
Bonte had gone to great effort in securing a trophy for the main attraction, but given the outcome, it was decided that she should receive it as she comprehensively beat both of them. Whether this stunt by The Runner was just another salvo in the psychological duel with The Greek remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, this burgeoning rivalry will keep us gripped for many years to come.