Thursday, 7 April 2011

Posted by Velouria Posted on 21:15 | No comments

The ABSA Cape Epic - 2011

Two great events happen in the world of South African cycling in March - the roadies get their chance on the second Sunday of March to participate in The Cape Argus, the biggest timed cycling event in the world, and a couple of weeks later it is the chance of the mountain bikers to take on the toughest, most prestigious mountain bike stage race in the world - The ABSA Cape Epic.

This year I was on the other side of the candy tape, a Cape Epic spectator virgin, and I had no idea what to expect. Being a participant in the Epic is rather easy - there is a huge pool of knowledge out there with plenty of people eager to offer advice on training, equipment, nutrition, strategy and almost any other aspect of mountain bike stage racing. To be ready come race day you have to put in the training, make sure the bike is in good working order, and have a solid relationship with your partner - not much else can go wrong once the start gun goes off.

An early morning start for the foreigners
In comparison, being a spectator virgin is much like meeting your future in-laws for the first time. You don't really want to be there and would much rather be riding your bike, but it's one of those things that everybody has to do at least once. You don't know what to wear and inevitably regret your wardrobe decisions - do you wear a finisher's shirt from a previous Epic to show that you were once hardcore too? Do you rather choose an event shirt from another event to show off your versatility? Do you wear an ordinary shirt but make sure everyone can see that you are a cyclist from your legs? Do you run the risk of wearing something that will keep you warm at 6am, but by midday will have you sweating like a Pom on the London Underground in mid-summer? You're unsure of the correct etiquette - do you only shout for teams that you know, or just the teams that look good, or the teams that are struggling and need all the support they can get? Do you jump up and down and scream like you've just won the Lotto when you see your team, or do you instead employ a polite golf clap reserved for hallowed places like the 18th green at Augusta? Are vuvuzela's still all the rage, or is inflicting auditory damage on innocent bystanders so 2010?
Robin - cool and calm, Russell - about to sh*t himself!
And then there is the equipment - do you bring a chair to pass away the hours as you wait for your team that you'll have to haul across the countryside? Is it acceptable to bring a book and read while the front half of the field whizzes past? Do you bring an SLR camera with a four foot lens for that perfect photo, or just a point-and-click and adopt the strategy of taking stacks of photos with the hope that at least a few will be of sufficient quality to make the day worthwhile? Did you charge the camera batteries, or are you going to suffer from acute electrochemical failure just as your team comes into view? What shoes do you wear - do you wear flip-flops and run the risk of blisters and severe chaffing as the Epic organisers are under the mistaken impression that the spectators are as fit as the riders and enjoy the challenge of walking vast distances between the designated parking area and the actual spectator zone, or instead opt for Everest grade hiking boots and look like a missing member of a Kingsley Holgate expedition? And what about food - do you get up extra early to make sandwiches from old bread and left over mince, or do you run the risk of death by Delhi-Belly from the half-cooked greasy burger on offer at the finish for the price of an entry level mountain bike?
A very happy mountain biker!
These were some of the dilemmas that faced me, and while I did receive some tips and hints from my 4-time Epic supporter veteran wife, I think she deliberately stopped short of spilling all the beans. Becoming a seasoned Epic supporter is a rite of passage that one must do alone, and is a test of one's character, endurance, emotional stability, perseverance, navigational acumen and resourcefulness. You feel the scrutiny you are under from the other spectator veterans as they see if you have what it takes to join their ranks. It's hard work, but being part of the Epic experience makes it all worthwhile, even if it entails standing on the wrong side of the candy tape.
Completely shattered

Friday, 18 March 2011

Posted by Velouria Posted on 11:22 | 1 comment

The Argus - 2011

The annual Cape Argus Cycle Tour is more than just a bike race, it is a Cape institution. Like pilgrims to Mecca, it attracts cyclists from all over  South Africa, and once a year cycling takes over the streets of Cape Town.

Often called the Fun Ride World Champs, it is the yardstick by which all cyclists are measured. Forget about the Tour de France, or Paris-Roubaix - win The Argus and you have a lifetime's worth of bragging rights. It's the one title seven times Tour De France winner and former World Champ Lance Armstrong so desperately wanted to win before retiring but could only manage a lowly 9th place. It's the one blemish in an otherwise outstanding palmarès.
Lance could only manage 9th place in 2010.
The Cape Argus isn't just a 110km bike ride - it's an experience that starts the previous week with Grape Escape and Argus Mountain Bike Challenge. With those out of the way, it's off to the Life Cycle Expo for registration, although registration is only a small part of what happens at the Good Hope Centre. The Expo caters for those last minute must have purchases, the impulse buys, the "ride you fastest Argus ever" supplements, and the "never to be seen again" discounts. It gives each cyclist the opportunity to suss out the competition, to show off their (freshly) shaved legs, and to be the center of attention for 30 seconds as they receive their race pack. For one week, it is all about the bike.
The secret is out.
The 13th of March dawned - Race Day, and after two years of rather atrocious weather, we were greeted with possibly the best cycling weather the Cape has seen in months. While this is great for cycling 110kms around the Cape peninsula, us locals feel a little hard done by. We've had to endure months and months of howling South Easters, and now all the visitors to the Cape think we have perfect weather all the time, and that we live in a cycling Utopia. Well, we don't, and we've certainly had to pay our dues to the cycling gods.
Our puncture competition opposition dishing out the pain.
From I-FELT-the-FORCE on the Hub.
From our usual parking spot near the SARS building (they are open at 5:30 in the morning, and will let you use the toilet - our tax money hard at work) we got ready for what would be our 15th Argus in a row. While the nerves might be a little calmer than they were in 1997, several nervous visits to the SARS building were required before I headed off to line to join the Not-So-Young-Racing-Snakes category, who this year had the honour of riding with the racing ladies. The air was crisp and smelled of the sea, punctuated by the smell of the Porta Potty's and excessive deodorant. I'm pretty sure several Sub Vet riders saw this as an opportunity to pick up a hot racing lady. The only catch being that many of the racing ladies were probably faster than most of the Sub Vets.
Another Argus start.
At 6:24 we were off, and at roughly 6:32 we had our first crash in the bunch. Nothing serious, but enough for the air to be filled with the smell of brakes, melting rubber and bruised egos. Twenty minutes later we had another crash on the Blue Route and the smell of rotting garden waste from a nearby tip was blended with grazed skin and testosterone, but thankfully no one was seriously hurt. This would be the pattern in an otherwise uneventful circuit around the Peninsula - everyone watching everyone else, and the rest of us only too grateful to still be in the bunch.
When roadies crash, they crash properly.
We rode up Chapman's Peak like it was flat, the fresh sea smells mixing nicely with the body odour of the rider in front of me and before we knew it we were on the lower slopes of the dreaded Suikerbossie. A haze of bacon and eggs and boerewors rolls hung in the air as we rudely whizzed past the spectators enjoying their breakfast. With the usual suspects all around me - Craig, Marius, Zayin - we made it over the top after a brief 30 second scare as we scrambled to get onto the wheels ahead of us, but we needn't worried - the race was going to go down to a sprint finish 14kms away in front of Cape Town Stadium.
The Sub Vets and Ladies sprint finish
As the dedicated riders that we are, Craig and I decided to get some TV time for our sponsors by going to the front and taking a turn. It sounded like a great plan until we actually got to the front and realised just how much effort was required, and also noticed that the TV cameraman was more interested in filming the scenery of the coastline than the two 5339 riders on the front. Our turn done we disappeared back into the obscurity of the bunch, now just interested in getting to the line in one piece. Just when we thought there was nothing more to worry about, Craig had a slight tumble, safely falling on top of a hay bale and another rider. A short scramble later we were back in the bunch and crossing the finish line in a time of 2h49:59.
Apparently he didn't lose a bet!
The Dulux ladies had been rather coy about their target time, downplaying any suggestions of a personal best. A quick two-women time trial later they managed to cross the line in an amazing time of 3h30, convincingly beating most of the names on their list of nemeses (Nadine, The Runner, and Lexi).
The Famous Argus Cool Down Beer Run.
Craig and I embarked on our post Argus cool down, which entails having a beer in Kalk Bay, another in Glen Cairn, lunch and a beer in Noordhoek, pushing some struggling cyclists up Chapman's Peak, one last beer in Hout Bay, and pushing some other struggling cyclists up Suikerbossie. It's at the back where the true Argus is ridden - the weekend warriors relying a little too heavily on muscle memory and regretting the lack of training, battling the wind, the gradients, their ill fitting cycling shorts, their heavy and poorly serviced bicycles and each other - all with grit and sheer determination. To us it's just a medal, but to them it is an achievement and that is why we all keep on coming back for more. Bring on 2012.
Two cyclists who got rather side tracked in a pub in Glen Cairn.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Posted by Velouria Posted on 16:41 | 1 comment

The Grape Escape - 2011

Every year during the month of March, the Cape becomes the unofficial capital of cycling in South Africa. With events like The Cape Argus Cycle Tour, The Giro del Capo, The Argus Mountain Bike Challenge, The Tour de Boland and The Cape Epic you'd be excused for thinking that everyone's needs were catered for. Meurant Botha of Dirtopia fame didn't agree, and saw an opportunity for a mountain bike stage race through the winelands of the Western Cape, geared towards the average weekend warrior who wanted to give stage racing a go, but didn't want the commitment or have the budget to attempt some of the other stage races on offer. And so the Grape Escape was born.

Meurant Botha, with Dr Evil aspirations, promised an "achievable route that would incorporate the best features that the diverse terrain options present". This is code for "it's going to be tough, and you are going to hurt, but you'll have fun and will soon forget the pain once you get your medal at the finish". Any final delusions that this was going to be a sedate bike ride through the farmlands outside Cape Town where dashed when word got out that the likes of Kevin Evans, David George, Burry Stander, Christoph Sauser, and Karl Platt would be lining up with the rest of us weekend warriors. After several rounds of creative brainstorming and voting, I dictatorially chose the team name Blind Melons for our latest adventure. To confuse the pro's we had a B team wearing the same kit as us - some mates doing their first ever stage race, calling themselves Team Tired Raisins (we quickly renamed them to the Wrinkly Raisins). One year ago, one member of The Wrinklies was doing his first MTB race - the 25km Argus MTB race.

Stage One - Big Bay to Nelson's Creek

After a 2h30 car trip from Somerset West, several border crossings and time zone changes later we arrived at Big Bay with a handful of minutes to spare before the 9am start. The sun was already blazing away and rather uncharacteristically, there wasn't a breath of wind as we snuck into the back of our start chute. Team Wrinkly Raisins had been in the start chute for hours, and had hopefully out-psyched our competition. Our immediate goal was to beat John and Pieter - John being the weaker half of Team Heading for Divorce at Wines2Whales.
It was a long road trip to get to the start
The stage started off with a 8km neutral tar section which was great - that was 8km less that I would have to chase Craig for. The only risk being the riders around us - putting a whole lot of mountain bikers together in a big bunch is a recipe for disaster and it was no surprise when several riders went down before we had even left the tar. As soon as we hit the dirt the bunch stretched out and the racing started. Team Blind Melons were flying, passing riders left and right as we made fantastic progress from the back of the bunch, the matching 29ers loving the flat fast course. And then disaster struck 5 minutes after leaving the tar. Craig nicked something as we rode under a railway line, past a pair of red high-heels. As we were bemoaning our bad luck and fitting a tube, The Wrinklies came past us - they were going to have to fly the flag today - we had heard about another unofficial competition and were eager to compete, after already claiming the prize for the earliest puncture on the stage.
Is there a better backdrop to cycling than this?
With only bragging rights up for grabs, this unofficial competition centered around punctures. Three points for a side wall cut, two points for a puncture in a slime tube, and one point for a puncture in a standard tube. Convincing strangers to part with their tubes is worth an additional point. Bonus points would be given for creative approaches to fixing the above mentioned punctures. The rules were strict though - no intentional tyre sabotage would be accepted, just the general riding conditions on route. With less than an hour of riding done we were well placed with 11 points and no spare tubes left. The competition was fierce as riders lined the side of the route, pumping, bombing and patching away like crazy. In a stunning piece of creativity, Craig managed to bag us an additional 7 points as he somehow managed pop his tyre off the rim, in the process leaving an 8cm side wall cut and puncturing our last tube. After asking roughly 200 riders if they had a tube for us and receiving nothing but blank stares rider #1257 kindly donated his tube to our cause. With two gaiters, a bit of swearing and lots of pumping we finally got going again, now right down amongst the back markers.
The Professor, me, Craig, and the Race Snake, all representing
By the time we made the first water point they were about to pack up and leave, all the coke was finished and the water was luke warm from the 40C+ temperatures. We grabbed a spare tube and some duct tape from our dedicated (and somewhat disappointed) supporters and set off on our merry way, trying to make up some lost time. As we raced on to the next water point, our supporters raced to Chris Willemse Cycles to buy a new tyre, just in case. Meurant was right - this was a race for the whole family!
Duct tape ingenuity.
We'd barely left the water point when we scored another point, and I've put in an appeal for additional points for variety and creativity - unlike the previous punctures this one was a snake bite. As half the field once again passed us, snickering and chuckling, we fixed the puncture and headed off, again. After a long an uneventful 20 minutes we stopped again, this time to do some running repairs on the side wall tear which involved the liberal application of duct tape to keep everything together. As we got going again, thinking we were clear leaders in the puncture competition, we passed Christoph Sauser flapping and waving his arms about, gesticulating wildly, and directing some angry Swiss words towards a flat wheel. Suddenly the competition was on, and this was one race the skinny Swiss rider was not going to win!
Hot, tired and grumpy, but winners of the unofficial puncture competition.
The next 30kms of tar and gravel gave us little opportunity to puncture, but we did catch The Wrinklies who were starting to take after their team name as they started to feel the heat. At least some serious embarrassment had been avoided. With opportunities now few and far between, we made good use of a patch of thorns when riding through a vineyard to once again score 3 points. As luck would have it, we had chosen quite a good spot to stop, and I had some time to sample the different grape cultivars, much to Craig's annoyance as he fixed the puncture on his own. I would have thought that he would be an expert by now, but he still needed some guiding assistance which I reluctantly offered, tearing myself away from the tasty grapes. Thanks to rider #1133 for donating his tube to our cause and scoring us an additional point. Two minutes up the road we passed the devious skinny Swiss, still waving his arms about, fixing another puncture. He was good, and was not going to go down without a fight.
Glad Stage One is over!
From there on in the race was rather uneventful, and we actually had to pedal for more 20 minutes at a time and before we knew it, we crossed the finish line at Nelson's Creek, all chances of a top performance gone, but with the coveted unofficial puncture award safely in our hands.

Stage Two - Nelson's Creek to Boschendal

With the adventure of Stage One behind us we decided to get down to some serious bike racing, and once again managed to sneak into the back of the start chute with minutes to spare. Have I been hanging around Craig for too long that I now too faff and fiddle as much? In a haze of dust and sweat we set off eager to avenge the misfortunes of the previous day. The route promised to be a little more exciting than the previous day's and would once again favour the big wheeled 29ers.
The pre-race faff with minutes to spare to the start!
I set the pace for 40 minutes as we weaved and snaked our way through the field. Craig then took it upon himself to dish out 2 hours of pain and suffering as he drove us on towards the big climb of the day. We caught Hector (aka The Professor), another Hermanus local who is starting to look a lot like Laurent Fignon and let him tag along in our little posse. We also caught John and Pieter, and although they had over an hour on us from the previous stage, we were eager to get one back on them.
The Pro's
The route was fantastic - a little bit of everything, and probably the closest you will come to an Epic stage without actually doing an Epic. There were certain sections where Meurant could have competed with Dr Evil, but instead thought of the riders and chose the easier option. The riding was good, the route was well marked, the water points were well stocked (banana bread, peanut butter sandwiches, biltong, banans, ice cold grapes - I'm bringing a lunch box next time for take aways) and there were plenty of marshals along the way. The same could not be said about the locations of the spectator points which were pretty much kept a secret, except for a select few. We did eventually spot our support crew with about 10kms to go, shouting and cheering us on as we whizzed by.
David George waiting to pounce!
With the finish line at Boschendal almost in sight we started to slow, but the combination of white line fever and the urge to beat John got us to the finish line in good time. The demons of the previous day had been laid to rest.
The Dane Train
The Wrinkly Raisins had a long day out, but finished in one piece, although there were reports of an emergency visit to the pharmacy for bum chafe related products.

Stage Three - Boschendal

With maximum temperature for the previous two days reaching well into the 40s, the promise of cooler weather for the final stage of the Grape Escape seemed to be to everyone's liking. Once again we snuck into the back of the start chute with minutes to spare, and after a half hearted apology from Meurant for lying about the route distances, we were once again racing (I thought mountain bikers were supposed to be tough!).
Two Niners off to the race.
Today was Nelly's birthday and I'd really hoped that we'd be able to have a good ride, but as the race unfolded I was convinced my bike had been sabotaged - try as I might I just couldn't get her going and my legs felt like sacks of gooey cheese. Craig proceeded to extract revenge for the Grape Incident of Stage One and cranked up the pace as I desperately tried to hang on for dear life, hoping my legs would wake up and decide to actually participate in the race.
It's hard to smile after three hours of Craig Pain.
Christoph Sauser's bad luck from day one had rubbed off onto his Epic partner, Burry Stander, and he yo-yo'ed around us for the early parts of the stage. I felt under a bit of pressure as I took a corner with several guys all following my line, including Burry. Would he approve? Before I could ask him he was gone, effortlessly speeding away from us weekend warriors.
You'd swear he wasn't on the front.
As the stage wore on, a strange thing started to happen - we started to catch and pass riders. My legs weren't feeling any better, and I was still having to bite down on my handlebars just to keep up with Craig, but we were once again going forward. Perhaps the exertions of the previous days were catching up with those around us, or perhaps they had gone out too hard too early. Whatever it was, it gave me a glimmer of hope that something could be salvaged from Stage Three. And then the near impossible happened - we caught a glimpse of John and immediately my legs went from gooey cheese to stodgy pâté, and my jaw tightened on the handlebars - we had a target to chase down!
Still got lock jaw from biting the handlebars.
With 10kms to go we caught John and Pieter, and after some silly roadie talk of us all riding to the finish line together humming Kumbaya, we dropped them like a bad smell in a wind tunnel. By now my legs were starting to wake up a little and we went in search of  targets, quickly catching and passing several more riders on our way to the finish line. We managed to avoid some embarrassing finish line handlebar entanglement and safely crossed the line for our best placing all weekend, collecting another well earned medal.
The Professor, Craig, me and Little John.
The Wrinkly Raisins put in another good performance, enjoying the route and amenities on hand, finishing just in time for lunch to the cheers of their supporters. I hope to see them regularly at events in the future, and a collection is being put together to fund some new shorts for one half of the team...
The Wrinklies - all smiles and ready for the next challenge.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Posted by Velouria Posted on 16:56 | 1 comment

Attakwas 2011

My memories of the Attakwas 2010 event were a little blurred by the Epic-ending crash of my prospective Cape Epic partner, and I wasn't sure I wanted to venture all the way out to Oudtshoorn to take part in South Africa's toughest mountain bike marathon event. With the Bicycling Omni-Motion 24hr still lurking in my legs (and head), I was also quite skeptical of my form, and really wasn't in the mood for another suffer-fest.

In a moment of madness (or weakness) I entered the Attakwas 2011 - I think the promise of a free event T-shirt was all it took to change my mind, and possibly a long weekend away in Herold. With the entry fee paid, I set about trying to find some form on the bike, only to feel rather fat, unfit and decidedly slow. Added to this, all the buzz on The Hub SA was about tyre choice, training programs, riding conditions, race strategy and a bit of smack talk. I was beginning to wonder how much I really wanted that event shirt (which they give to you BEFORE the event, at registration).
Etienne, with me lurking on the right
Photo thanks to Debby Champion
As is always the case, a keen eye was kept on the weather forecast - perfect cycling conditions require an exceptionally rare combination of factors. It must be warm, but not too warm. It must be dry, but not dusty. It must not be windy, but it also must not be windless. Tail winds are preferred, except when climbing steep hills in the heat - then a gentle, cooling headwind is desired. The drive to Oudtshoorn was done in the pouring rain, which did not bode well for the event. Thankfully, as we headed further into the Karoo the weather started to clear and race day promised to be one of those rare days of perfect bike riding weather.

Since we were staying in the quaint hamlet of Herold at a place called Over the Mountain I had to get up rather early on race day. I was rather tempted to roll over and rather enjoy a couple hours of extra sleep than to start the process that would end in upwards of 6 hours of suffering. My masochistic streak won in the end and at 6h40 the Sub Vets set off on our 121km journey towards the coast.

Route thanks to nathrix™ ® from TheHubSA
Attakwas is a race of two halves - the first half is a rough, brutal, off-road, technical, hilly affair, while the second half is a rough, brutal, dirt-road, non-technical, hilly affair, with water point 3 being the transition between the two halves. The plan was a simple one - survive the first half with my limited technical skills, and then take advantage of Nelly the Niner's love for dirt roads on the second half.

The race turned out to be a rather lonely one, and I often found myself in the middle of nowhere with no one around and only my thoughts for company. Occasionally I would catch and pass someone I recognised (and occasionally I would catch and pass someone who I knew and didn't recognise). The former included Etienne, a 100Miler teammate,  Tree John, my Swazi partner, Baviaans Backup Freddie, and crazy Anton Bosman from the 2009 Bicycling Omni-Motion 24hr event on a single speed rigid fork bike (it took me over three hours to close the 10 minute gap he had on me, making full use of my 27 gears and 3 inches of front suspension).

The latter included Rob Dormehl, one half of Osama B's from the Swazi Frontier. We rode together for around an hour, along with Hanlie Booyens, sharing the pace setting (although in the photos I am on the front), and it was only when looking at the photos afterwards did I realise who my fellow pace setter was.
Rob Dormel, Hanlie Booyens (hiding behind Rob) and me
From Photo Dynamix's album on Facebook
I had heard that the silver medal cut-off was 6hr30, so when we got to within 40kms of the finish with 2 hours to go I was confident my little threesome would easily make it. At 20kms to go and just over an hour I was pretty sure the silver was in the bag. And then the wheels fell off up a particularly steep hill, with the sun scorching down, and the air thick and humid, with stench of something dead. I remember that smell from last year too, and had to wonder if perhaps this was a hill that often killed cyclists, as it was busy killing me. At least I had the water points to look forward to, with the Attakwas water points easily winning the prizes for the best stocked, most enthusiastically manned water points in any race that I have done. Burgers, donuts, fruit, gels, juice, coke, ice cold damp towels, chain lube and big smiles.

One of the 6 buildings in Herold
I limped on trying to find some legs when a fellow Somerset-Westian, a knight in shining armour by the name of Deon, offered me his slip stream and towed me for several kilometers towards the final downhill, and the awaiting finish line. I crossed the line in 6h20, a little tired and weary, but chuffed with my ride, only to be told that the silver cut off was 6hr15 (only 13 non-UCI riders qualified, or just 2% of the field). It didn't really matter - I was still quite chuffed with my 18th place (of non-UCI riders), and only to glad that the pain and suffering from a rather long and torturous day out in the saddle was over.
Our guest house - Over the Mountain
My decision about the 2012 edition of this race still needs to be made - perhaps a few memories need to fade before I'll commit to another Attakwas.