Monday, 22 August 2011

Posted by Velouria Posted on 16:27 | 7 comments

Trans Baviaans 2011

For the ninth time in succession I made the pilgrimage to the dusty little one-horse town of Willowmore in the Karoo for the queen of endurance events - The Trans Baviaans. Once again, I had dragged my faithful sidekicks - Captain Craig and Little John along for the adventure, with Little John starting his 5th escapade from Willowmore to Jeffery's Bay.

After 5 years of perfect conditions through the Baviaans Kloof, Mother Nature decided to show her angry side and had unleashed a spate of bad weather over the Eastern Cape, with the result being that the rivers in the Baviaans Kloof were barely passable on a bicycle, and completely impassable in a vehicle. Rather than pull a Pied Piper of Hamlin move and lead 1200 cyclists to a cold and watery death, the organisers put Plan B into action - code named "LangsBaviaans" (for the 2 english readers out there - "Next To Baviaans"). While we wouldn't be going into the Baviaans Kloof, we would riding one mountain range over to the right. The positive being that my nemesis hill - The Mother of All Climbs - was no longer part of the route. However, a new hill affectionately dubbed The Father of All Climbs had been found to spice things up (and give me sleepless nights).
Captain Craig, wearing all his branded race gear.

After spending a noisy night in Willowmore Primary School's hostel, and being woken up at 4:30am by some very eager cyclists (bear in mind the race only starts at 10am) The Fire Breathing Rubber Duckies (formerly known as the Soggy Bottom Boys) were ready for the 235km trip that lay ahead. There was a fresh, chilly wind blowing, but thankfully the threatening rain clouds had disappeared overnight. Little John was given the honour of being the team captain to commemorate his fifth Baviaans adventure (and hopefully avoid any of the grumpiness from 2010). This wasn't just a token gesture - along with the title came some tasks and responsibility.
Little John looking nervous, flanked by his merry men.
An elementary seeding system was introduced this year, and our 7th place from 2010 ensured that we cracked the nod to start at the front of the race for a change. It also gave us an opportunity to suss out the top guys, psych out some buddies, and steal some camera time. Our kit got a couple of "Go home roadie" chirps. Little did they know that in true roadie fashion we also had newspapers stuffed under our jerseys to keep the cold tail wind out.
We're at the front!
After an interesting interpretation of our national anthem - Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika - the race got under way, and almost immediately the biggest guy on a bicycle I have ever seen - he made his 29er look like a BMX - and his partner shot off the front of the lead bunch. There wasn't a reaction at all from the bunch, and if anything it had the opposite effect - the bunch sat up - everyone trying to hide from the wind and not do any work up front. Enter the Fire Breathing Rubber Duckies.
Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika performed by the Willowmore Wailers.
With a massive bunch of wheel sucking mountain bikers on our wheels Captain Craig and I took turns on the front, enjoying the open road, the tail wind and the beautiful Karoo scenery. After an hour and a bit a couple other teams came forward and helped out with the pace setting, and some moves started to go off the front. This was what we had been waiting for - time to thin out the bunch and get rid of the hangers-oners. Careful not to get into trouble with Little John we followed a good move that looked set on going away when Little John broke his chain. Just as in 2009, it felt like the entire field came past us as we tried to figure out how to fix it. In reality, we were probably only at the side of the road for about 5 minutes, but by the time we were rolling again the bunch was long gone. Now Captain Craig and I had no choice but to set the tempo and make sure Little John was protected on his Little Bike.

Langs Baviaans

We raced through checkpoint 1 after catching our first target, and up ahead we could see several other teams - encouragingly acting as carrots. With the skill of true roadies we'd figured out a move on overtaking the slower teams that would prevent them from hooking onto to our wheels. Little John was the key, and would fly past as we crested a hill or bump, and then Captain Craig or I hop across at pace. We're both convinced that Little John would make an excellent roadie - we're just not sure what will be easier - getting him on a road bike, or getting him to shave his legs.
The roadies on the front!
(Click for big view of the awesomeness)
By the time we reached the second checkpoint we were lying in about 15th place, having made up a good few positions. We needed a quick stop to maintain our advantage and close in on the teams ahead of us when Little John failed in one of his captainly duties - he'd lost the little token that was marked at each checkpoint. This was a 20 minute penalty, the last thing The Fire Breathing Rubber Duckies needed. Thankfully Captain Craig kept a cool head and found the token, lying on the ground and averted a potential morale sapping disaster.

Slowly but surely we were closing in other teams, and at the same time closing in on The Father of All Climbs. Almost on cue, my stomach started acting up, and only through the expert encouragement and motivation from Little John (never before has a coke been so intimately described) and some welcome pushing from Captain Craig did I reach checkpoint 3 in one piece. Another motivating factor not to get off and walk was the fact that I couldn't really walk. In an amateur move akin to wearing underpants under your cycling shorts to your first Argus (come on - you've all done it!) I had bought new cycling shoes the week before. While they did their job perfectly when riding, they chaffed like crazy when walking, and by the time I got to The Father of All Climbs I could already feel some blisters from the walk around the parking lot back in Willowmore.
I didn't realise we were towing THAT many people!
(Click for big view of the awesomeness)
A quick purge of my stomach contents, 500ml of coke, some soup and a bun later and we were ready to conquer the rest of The Father of All Climbs. By now we had caught "The Biggest Cyclist in the World"and it was rather encouraging to see him walking up all the climbs. My legs felt great, my stomach was under control and the top of the climb was beckoning. A rather disappointing descent later and we arrived at checkpoint 4 in 12th place. A lightning quick stop including some expertly peeled Patensie oranges and some coffee for Little John and we were on our way again - the Never Ender ahead of us. We briefly lost Captain Craig as he got lost IN the checkpoint, but a few minutes later we were on our way again. I was paying the price for trying to race "The Biggest Cyclist in the World"™ into checkpoint 4 and was having a (another) bad batch - thankfully not stomach related. Calling in some favours from several years ago, Captain Craig graciously offered a pocket for me to hang on to while the Gu kicked in.

As the sun slowly set we could make out the lights of several teams ahead of us and we dropped a few gears, put our heads down, and rode like the wind catching and passing 4 teams along the way. Our professional backup driver (and my wife) later told us that we put in the 3rd fastest time on this leg, only 2 minutes slower than the eventual leaders. Another lightning quick transition, some raised voices in the direction of the backup driver (nothing that flowers couldn't fix later) and we were on our way, eager to make up some more ground when disaster struck.
The Duckies approaching the finish
Little John collapsed in a heap right in front of me, with our two bikes getting tangled up together. On closer inspection the little wheels from Little John's bike had disappeared down a hole and he'd come to an abrupt stop. Fearing a buckled wheel, broken fork or some other race ending damage, we slowly extricated Little John from the hole and from his bike. Apart from the handle bars being slightly skew, everything was fine with his bike. It was only then that someone asked if he was ok, and thankfully a little thing like a hole wasn't going to stop Little John from getting to Jeffery's for the 5th time.

We'd lost sight of the team in front of us, but there was no sign of anyone behind us either, so we rode a steady tempo into Jeffery's Bay, finishing the 2011 LangsBaviaans in 8th place as fireworks lit up the sky, in a time of 9h47. Little John had joined the Five Finisher's Club, and we all agreed - this was our best ride at Baviaans, even if it wasn't our best time or placing.
They need a bigger board for our team name!
After teasing the Man Mountain about his descending skills (if I can go faster than him downhill he deserves a bit of teasing), he paid me a compliment (I think): "For a skinny guy you're quite strong". I didn't tell "The Biggest Cyclist in the World"™ that I was only too glad to see the back of him before the Never Ender ;)
Fire Breathing Rubber Duckies done.
Little John has officially retired from the Trans Baviaans, but just like Lance we reckon he'll be back. As they say - you have to retire in order to make a comeback. (Some reading for you Little John). After all - it will be Captain Craig's fifth, and my tenth. Imagine the party afterwards!

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Posted by Velouria Posted on 15:22 | No comments

The Nav Challenge 2011

Just when you though mountain biking couldn't get more exciting, along comes an event that tests not just the strength of your leg muscles and your technical ability, but also your ability to think and plan at the same time. The 2011 Nav Challenge took place in Hermanus, mostly up the Hemel and Aarde Valley and pitted teams of two against each other. For the sake of inclusion, the event is also open to our poorer cousins of endurance sports - the joggers, so a big, diverse field is guaranteed.
Maximum points after the abseil near the old Hermanus harbour
The concept is simple - get to as many checkpoints as possible in the allocated 3 hours to collect as many points as you can. The further the checkpoint is from the start, the more points it is worth (or, as it turns out - the better hidden it is, the more points it is worth). To keep the joggers happy there were two point systems in place, and this time the joggers were favoured over the mountain bikers. Personally, I feel that if you forget your bike at home you should be made to suffer the consequences.
What is it with girls and maps?
Our team, the Head Banging Billy Goats, had a distinct advantage in that we relied heavily on local knowledge, some tips the guys who cut the singletrack, and several other teams with better map reading skills. The trick concerning the last point is to pretend you know where you are going, yet are not as fit as the team you are following. The only catch is that you have to chose the team you are following wisely, as several teams spent more time studying their maps than actually cycling.

One of the other more interesting approaches involved intricate plotting, distance measuring, note taking, marking of bearings, and then once on the bike relying on gut feel to find the checkpoints. Needless to say, such a strategy doesn't work that well, and we made sure not to sneakily follow this team.
Verf Meisie coming through!
We had the privilege of competing along side the Ladies classification winners from the previous event, and pick up vital tips and hints. The boys did however chose the more risky approach of relying on brute strength and local knowledge to rack up points, while the girls (this time riding under the name of Die Verf Meisies) chose the tried and tested approach of targeting a couple high scoring checkpoints and then having some fun. Previously this included swimming in a dam, and this time it was fooling around on the canopy zip line.
Made it back with 1:13 to spare
With a little over one minute and 13 seconds left to the deadline, we made it back to the start/finish area, having collected a whopping 175 points from a possible 200. The three checkpoints that we missed didn't really fit in with our plan (or the plans of the other competitors that we were following). To our disgust we discovered that two teams of joggers had beaten us into 3rd place. We suspect a slight favouring of the joggers at this event after the complete domination by the mountain bikers at the previous event.
Fun for the whole family
Die Verf Meisies had done well, or so we thought, only for the organisers to make a clerical mistake and lose their result completely. It turns out they came 2nd in the Ladies category, once again showing the boys that perhaps sometimes brains do beat brawn!

All in all, the  Nav Challenge is a great event and adds new dynamic to the sport of bike riding. Nothing like a bit of navigation to create tension within a team. The Head Banging Billy Goats will definitely be back, and we'll be out to extract some revenge on the joggers. And perhaps we'll listen to the series leaders in the Ladies category next time they give us some tips and hints

3rd overall and first MTB team:
The Head Banging Billy Goats

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!