Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Posted by Velouria Posted on 14:30 | 1 comment

France 2011

Few hill climbs stack up to the experience of climbing Mont Ventoux - the Giant of Provence. No other hill quite prepares you for the challenge of climbing 1600m in 23km, from the forested lower slopes around the town of Bedoin, to the moonscape of the upper slopes. Right from the beginning you are aware of the challenge that awaits you, as the mountain is visible for miles around, and dwarfs everything around it.
Pit stop and refueling
 Eight kms to go
Almost there!
There are 3 routes up this monster, but the traditional and hardest route starts in the town of Bedoin, which has spawned an industry catering for crazy cyclists wanting to emulate their heroes on the slopes of this famous mountain. Names like Schleck, Contador, Armstrong, and Jens are still visible on the road, and it's not hard to imagine the battles that occurred on these slopes for cycling's ultimate honour. And some guy called Jaap.

Shortly after leaving Bedoin all thoughts of emulation are banished, and survival is the only thing on most people's minds. Quitting is not an option, and so the only solution is to slog on up hill, from mile marker to mile marker. While it helps knowing how far you have gone, each mile marker also lets you know what the average gradient is for the next kilometer, and seeing 12% is enough to dampen the toughest of spirits. In an effort to copy their heroes and lift the spirits of their loved ones I couldn't help but notice the tiny writing on the side of the road in pink lettering encouraging Nick, Jan, and someone else. These weren't big Tour de France heroes or expert hill climbers - they were just normal people riding up a very abnormal mountain. By the time I had reached the top I felt like I knew those three people intimately, or at least shared a common experience with them.
Proof that we made it!

Mont Ventoux

Bike route 1093281 - powered by Bikemap

It is with slight embarrassment that I say this - once we got to the top of Mont Ventoux, Yolanda proceeded to descend like a Russian submarine down the descent to Malaucène, and if it wasn't for a struggling camper van maxing out at 80km/h and slowing her down, I would have serious egg on my face!

Post ride swim - helmet and all
Apart from the challenge of Mont Ventoux, we also did some other rides around both Provence and the Pyrenees. France is a cyclists dream destination, the views are spectacular, the people are friendly (contrary to what you might have heard - perhaps they are only friendly to cyclists), the motorists are unnervingly courteous, and the roads are well marked. Definitely a must do holiday for any cycling fan.

Mental note - stay on the right!
Yolanda's steed for the day
Lavender, with Mont Ventoux in the background
Lunch in Sault
The bottom of the Col de Marie Blanque
The climb up the Col de Marie Blanque
Yolanda in heaven, lavender and a view in one
Not bad going on a Pick n Pay Special
Two kms to the top
Bike hiring scheme in Pau

Col de Marie Blanque
Bike route 1115935 - powered by Bikemap 

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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Posted by Velouria Posted on 16:03 | 1 comment

Sani2C 2011

When Little John asked me to ride Sani2C with him he unknowingly unleashed an internal discourse inside my brain. I'd always been under the impression that the South African mountain biking scene was divided into two mutually exclusive camps - those who do the Cape Epic, and those who do Sani2C. With the Cape Epic happening in my back yard, I naturally fell into the former camp with 4 unworn Epic Finishers shirts in my cupboard. What would happen if I said yes to Little John's offer? Would the mountain biking world as we know it cease to exist? Would we all be doomed to road bikes forever? The only way to find out was to take him up on the offer.
Bikes secure, ready to go!
In what was becoming a fairly well practiced ritual (4th time in 6 months) we boxed our bikes, packed our bags and climbed on an aeroplane. A stop over in Durban allowed us to see what we had left at home, and as it turned out Little John's obsessive dental hygiene regiment was severely impeded because his wife had forgotten to pack his toothbrush. As long as that was all she had forgotten to pack.
Our accommodation in Underberg.
A car trip later and we found ourselves at registration in Underberg, and already I had several problems, the first being that I did not have enough space for all the goodies and free stuff that they dished out at registration. And I'm not talking about an event T-shirt and a pair of socks either. My second problem was my lack of suitable riding attire. I had assumed that since the race is in Natal, and that Durban is in Natal, a quick check of the weather conditions in Durban would suffice when deciding on what cold or wet weather kit I should bring. Just like the Swazi Frontier, my trusty arm warmers were my only protection against the elements.
Little John putting his mechanical skills to the test.
Stage One
We had managed to secure a B seeding which, on the plus side, meant we got to start 10 minutes after the leaders. The downside was that this was at 7:10am, and in Underberg the temperature at 7:10am is somewhere between "I can't change gears because I can't feel my fingers" cold and "Is that a snoticle on my upper lip?" cold. At least I had my trusty arm warmers. Another downside in starting in the second group is that the second group is usually filled with riders who feel they should have been in the first group, and so start the race like the dogs of war are after them. This has never been my favoured approach to racing, but I do know that the enthusiasm is short lived and that sanity will eventually prevail, and so it was that after about 30 minutes of riding Little John and I found ourselves off the front, and slowly catching some of the slower A riders.
Where vanilla milk comes from.
On a particular piece of nicely manicured single track that Sani2C is renowned for I got a bit of abuse. From a girl. I thought I was flying through the single track, on the edge of my abilities, narrowly avoiding trees and doing my best to stay upright in the slippery, muddy conditions when I heard the sound of snoring behind me. That was followed with cries of "I'm falling asleep at the back here", and "Girl rider coming through". The final insult to my technical skills was the offer to attend a skills workshop hosted by the cheeky girl herself. My ego wasn't totally deflated though, as this isn't the first time I've been invited to a skills workshop by a female mountain biker, and I suspect it won't be the last.
An eight on the Smile-o-Meter.
It IS a smile - ok!
It doesn't take long for the ethos of Sani2C to sink in - it's not about hardcore technical sections with impossible climbs and life endangering descents. It's all about the smile factor. Farmer Glen and his team go out of their way to put together a route that will bring a smile to the face of the most seasoned mountain biker. And there were plenty of smiles, from the ear to ear grins of people crossing the floating bridge, to the smirks of amusement at the names of each section of single track.
Forgot where your bike is? Good luck!
Stage One accommodation.
Little John and I had a good day out and finished in 37th place, which gave us plenty of time to get down to the real business of the Sani2C - enjoying the hospitality of the farmers from Ixopo at MacKenzi Country Club, and drinking as many Clover Vanilla Milks as my system would allow. And to make my life even more difficult, we got more free stuff that I had to find place for.
Our tent. The boxes positioned to prevent any accidental touching.

Stage Two
If there is a Holy Grail of mountain biking in South Africa, the first half of day two of the Sani2C has to be it. The 25km descent into the Umkomaas valley along sections with names like "Wow" is an experience that I'll never forget.
Our good result from Stage One had promoted us to the A group with all the big boys (and girls) of SA mountain biking. With our promotion came a 6:30am start, and once again I was grateful for my arm warmers. A fast start ensued up to the first section of dual single track, and in a move that is worthy of an article in a Psychology journal, Farmer Glen made the right side of the single track much shorter than the left, and for the rest of the race whenever we were faced with similar decisions, every single rider took the single track on the right. Pavlov's classical conditioning in action, except mountain bikers are a little easier to train than slobbering dogs.
Lube - John's fixall tool of choice!
The other amazing thing about Farmer Glen is that he keeps popping up on the side of the route. We would easily pass him 4 or 5 times on a stage, sometimes he'd be there cheering us on, other times he would be with shovel in hand smoothing over some unwanted bump on the trail, always full of enthusiasm and a big smile to match.
Farmer Glen's chosen mode of transport - no wonder he is everywhere!
After the unforgettable descent into the Umkomaas valley we found ourselves amongst the racing ladies. While Little John will deny it, I'm pretty sure the crash he had was because he was focusing on things other than the trail ahead. Thankfully the only damage was a bruised ego and a lost water bottle. We were back on their wheels in a flash as we slowly meandered our way through the Umkomaas valley, crossing several rivers along the way, knowing that the only way out was up. The exertions of Stage One started to tell, along with some poorly maintained bicycle components and we slowly started slipping back through the field.
John Wakefield "working" on his bike
(i.e. watching Gavin work on his bike)
I also had to take on the role of parent in our team, as by now Little John had become Grumpy John, and so I had to apologise to all the friendly farmers and their wives and children that were on the receiving end of his one word orders like "Coke!", "Water!" and "Banana!" at the water points. Grumpy John was scoring a solid zero on the Smile-o-Meter and it was with much relief that we finally crossed the finish line in Jolivet to the welcoming sight of vanilla milk and jam doughnuts.

Decision, decisions.
Sani2C is all about the attention to detail, like the free beers dished out as we waited for the shower, the light each rider is given in their tent, the baths of ice cold vanilla milk, water and juice dotted all over the camp, the assortment of snacks to be had between meals, the meals themselves. And all the while you are quite aware that the event benefits the people of the region quite significantly, and just what it means to them. Farmer Glen really does have something special going with Sani2C.
All day lunch - what a bargain!

Stage Three
The last stage of the memorable event was billed as a quick dash to the coast through some sugar cane fields and a nature reserve. For once, my arm warmers weren't needed as we once again started at break neck speed. With everyone avoiding the left hand single track option, the bunch was quickly strung out when disaster struck for the front guys. As the sun slowly rose above the hills and into their eyes they failed to see a log sticking out from the undergrowth, ironically on the right hand side of the trail. By the time we passed the log there were several riders pulling themselves together with rather bewildered looks as they stared at their pretzel shaped wheels.
Little John looking like a race snake!
We once again found ourselves riding with the racing ladies, Little John once again slotted in behind the last lady while I went to the front to hurry our little group along, conscious that any mistake or blunder could result in another invitation to a skills clinic. It was Little John that made the first mistake (once again I think his thoughts weren't where they should have been) as he had the "almost crash" of the weekend. An "almost crash" is the beginning of a spectacular crash that doesn't quite work its way to completion, luckily for the crashee, and the crashee is able to walk away with nothing more than a racing pulse, wide eyes, and a sheepish grin. It was such a good "almost crash" that it brought smiles and comments from the ladies around us. Good thing Little John's wife didn't forget to pack his lucky socks! I shouldn't have laughed so loud, as moments later I had my own "almost crash", although nothing nearly as spectacular as Little John's, and with no other spectators.
With the last serious climb of the day done, the leading ladies having ridden away from us, we were left with 25km of sweeping sugar cane road to the finish in Scottburgh when Little John decided to turn on his invisibility cloak. Never before have I ridden with someone (including The Tourist) who was so good at disappearing when it was their turn to come through and share the work load on the front. The only reason I knew Little John was still on my wheel was every now and then he would bark out instructions or directions. The worst of all was that his directions often contradicted those of the route markers up ahead!
The longest row of porcelain toilets ever! 

The elation of crossing the Scottburgh beach to the cheers of the supporters is short lived as the last 3kms of the race head back up the hill, on tar, to the finish at Scottburgh High School. Little John had hung in there, and we finished just behind the winning ladies, who, in a nice gesture came up to us and thanked us for all the work we did (and entertainment that Little John provided). All that was left of the 2011 Sani2C was for us to shower, back our bikes and collect our finisher's top, before heading back to Durban. We thought we'd cap the weekend off by watching the Sharks beat the Bulls, but as it turned out I had to watch a rugby game where I wished both teams had lost for playing so badly!

There certainly is a place for both the Cape Epic and Sani2c in South African mountain biking, and they don't need to be mutually exclusive. If anything they compliment each other quite nicely in that they are two very different events, with different challenges and different rewards. Thank goodness, otherwise we'd all be riding road bikes right now!

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Posted by Velouria Posted on 14:34 | 1 comment

Panorama Tour 2011

When the Earth was made, each geographical region was given an option to select a special feature that would make it unique. Cape Town chose Table Mountain, Johannesburg went for gold, Bloemfontein forgot to hand in their request, and through a clerical error, the Lowveld's request for a single hill was misinterpreted as a request for hills. All surplus hills were delivered to the Lowveld with the result that you'll be hard pressed to find a flat piece of tar longer than 200m.

It wasn't until after we had entered the 2011 Panorama Tour that we got hold of an atlas and looked up exactly where White River is that we realised just what we were in for. Hills, hills, hills. After getting a wake up call at the Grape Escape when my partner out climbed me I vowed to not let that happen again. The solution was a two pronged approach - a rigorous training program, focusing on hills and time in the saddle, and a diet loosely based on the nutritional habits of the Dwarf Hotot rabbit.
Team 5339.co.uk finishing another stage.
After an epic plane/road trip up from the Cape we arrived in White River, our lungs already gasping in the thin air. The only positive was that we had brought the Cape winter weather with us, and instead of temperatures in the high 30s, we could look forward to sub 20C temperatures and miserable drizzle and rain for the entire event.

The feature that makes the Panorama Tour unique (apart from the over-abundance of hills) is the two-man team concept. Much like the trend set in mountain bike races like The Cape Epic and Sani2C, the team concept adds a new dimension to bike racing. Interesting tactics come into play, but nothing is more important than being stronger than your partner. The benefits include an easier ride up the hills and the chance to look around at the stunning scenery while the only obligations are an encouraging push here and there and doing a bit of work on the front when the situation requires it.
Tastiest Chelsea bun ever!
Stage One's route description was sufficiently vague enough to give the impression that the organisers had miraculously found 113km of slightly undulating road around all the bigs hills of the Lowveld. As we would slowly come to realise, route descriptions were an obvious weakness of the organising committee. I have volunteered my services for future events, and as a start I would like to offer this description for Stage One: A lung busting climb to the hotspot followed by a life threatening downhill. Some legs ripping rollers before an Alpe d'Huez like climb, with a run in to the finish that will have you wondering how you can ride more uphill than downhill on a route that starts and finishes at the same place!
The snacks made everyone forget about the hills!
Team 5339.co.uk were slightly humiliated on the first stage, with several mixed teams leaving us for dead, as well as the social MTN teams of current and former professionals. The only positive being that I had regained the stronger partner title. The girls had a much better time of things, stopping at all the water points making sure they got good value for their money, and made some friends from the East Rand in the form of the Psycle Maniacs.
The Panorama Book of Horror - not for the faint hearted!
According to the aptly renamed Panorama Book of Horror, Stage Two would be a comfortable, fast 80km ride heading out towards Nelspruit with a few gentle hills on the run in back to White River. The reality was slightly different: A blisteringly fast departure from town down a road more suited for mountain biking with potholes the size of small family cars, followed by a leg numbing climb before another speed wobble inducing series of downhills to the outskirts of Nelspruit. From there it is a balls-to-the-wall race up 20km of short sharp climbs to the welcoming sight of the finish.
Kruger snackpack - holds 3 beers perfectly
Team 5339.co.uk had a much better day out, mainly thanks to the lack of hills in the early part of the stage, and finished a handful of minutes behind the leaders. Our egos were restored as we rode several minutes into the mixed teams, and our place on GC looked a bit more respectable. The girls had given up any notions of racing, and instead were enjoying the tour part of the Panorama Tour, stopping at water points and taking in the scenery and making new friends.
An elephant with a fascinator
With the short fast stage behind us we headed off to the Kruger National Park for a rapid game viewing trip. After several false alarms, and boring bird sightings (both mostly Yolanda's fault) we hit the jack pot and saw some elephants and kudu AT THE SAME TIME. With the whole world interested in Princess Beatrice's fascinator, the elephant tried to get in on the action. Looking like strange German tourists in tights we had lunch on top of a rock outside Skukuza, before slowly heading back to civilisation.
Where are the animals?
While the Panorama Book of Horror tried its best to downplay the severity of Stage Three, we had mastered the ability of reading between the lines in order to know what lay in wait for us. The first half of Stage Three was the same as the last half of Stage one, in reverse. All the torturous uphills were now going to be lightning quick downhills, and vice versa, and then we would be faced with the murderous climb of Long Tom Pass. The last section would be the reverse of the first section of Stage Two, so once again we would be dodging swimming pool sized potholes as we tore our legs off up the climbs back into White River. Throw in some pouring rain and thick mist and Stage Three promised to have the adrenalin flowing (I quickly made sure my life insurance was up to date!).
Beer and a tractor certainly beats Game and a bicycle!
By now, Team 5339.co.uk were starting to find their legs, and after a hell raising descent into Sabie in blinding rain and near impenetrable mist we found ourselves (rather suprisingly) with the lead bunch. Riding our own pace up Long Tom Pass in zero visibility we reached the welcoming left turn a couple of minutes behind the leaders and then then tried to motivate a rather lethargic bunch to chase them down. We ended up doing most of the work and paid the price as we ran out of legs on the climb back into White River. Once again, the girls had a good day out, enjoying the pizza and vodka on offer at the last water point and finishing with their new best friends - the Psycle Maniacs.
The ladies in their time trial outfits - made them 7.84 seconds faster!
The Panorama Book of Horror was exceptionally kind about the 20 odd kilometer time trail that lay ahead of us for Stage Four, but we knew better by now. And to make us a little homesick, the weather had once again turned foul. The ladies started quite early on, and had a good solid ride to cap off a great long weekend of racing riding. Team 5339.co.uk set off with the afterburners glowing, and blitzed the first half of the course, my fear of riding downhills temporarily cured by the atrocious conditions of the previous day. Just when I was starting to do some sums about our overall time disaster struck and I punctured. With the precision of a Formula 1 pit crew we had the wheel off, tube out, new tube in, tyre pumped and wheel on in a matter of seconds (probably about 180 to be precise) and the chase was back on. The welcoming Chelsea bun capped off a great weekend's worth of racing.
Tour over - home time!
All that remained of the Panorama Tour was the packing of bikes into boxes, stocking up on avos and macadamia and cashew nuts, and a long drive back to Johannesburg for a plane trip back to the flat roads of Cape Town.