Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Posted by Velouria Posted on 13:10 | 2 comments

Wines2Whales 2012

Team Starsky and Hutch once again reformed for 2012's Wines2Whales in an attempt to actually get from the Wines in Somerset West to the Whales in Hermanus after the now infamous Wines 2 A-Soggy-Cricket-Pitch-in-the-Middle-of-Nowhere 2011 edition. A more juxtaposed team would be hard to find - Red John being a tiny, light weight, short distance, road racing, hill loving cyclist, and me - a gigantic, "big boned", long distance, mountain biking, flat road oaf. Much like Asterix and Obelix, C3PO and R2D2, or Jay and Silent Bob, we made for an unlikely combination.

All ready to roll!
(Jacky McClean / Newsport Media)
The other aspect that makes this race stand out from the various stage races we do is that our wives also team up and take part in the aptly named Team Pinky and The Brain. And unlike the members of Team Starsky and Hutch, no one really knows who Pinky is, and who the Brain is. I suspect they take turns, depending on exhaustion levels, sun exposure, and general well being.

My preparation for the race included rereading my blog entry from last year's race to mentally prepare myself for what riding with Red John entailed. If anything, all I achieved was to relive some memories I'd safely managed to bury deep inside my subconscious - the pain and suffering that such a small guy can dish out on a bicycle is the stuff nightmares are made of.

Stage 1

Like a prisoner on death row, my date with destiny eventually arrived - and on race day morning Red John was looking lean, mean and determined. To make matters worse, we had the likes of Robbie Hunter, Burry Stander, Christoph Sauser and several other serious looking race snakes hanging out in our start chute. The Pain Cave awaited, and I was going spelunking on a solo adventure into uncharted territory.

The dam crossing
The first 30 seconds went well, and then the road started going up. Unlike last year where I gallantly (stupidly?) refused to hang onto Red John's pocket, I quickly swallowed my pride, set aside my principles, and took up what would soon become a regular position of hanging onto Red John's left rear pocket. Just when I thought I couldn't sink any lower, a photographer appeared out of nowhere to capture the moment. My humiliation was complete, but at the same time, this was certainly one of the better ways to ride up a hill.

Post race snacks
We made steady progress while I secretly hoped a Cycling Faerie would deliver a fresh set of legs, and before long we were approaching Water Point 2. After the serious tongue lashing I got last year for stopping at a water point for some coke, Red John had me promise that I would not stop this year - unless it was over 30C. You can imagine how glad I was that not only was it over 30C, but Red John had also dropped a bottle and needed to stop to refill his remaining one. There is something about drinking coke when your vision is blurred, your lungs are on fire, the snot is flowing freely from your face, and your legs feel like bowls of week old custard that makes it taste so good. I could have stayed there all day, but by some miracle Red John was able to coax me away from the happy place I was in and back into my Cave of Pain.

Riding like a pro
With Hans se Kop and Magic Mountain behind us, the portage of Gantouw Pass had me plumbing new depths of patheticness and self pity as I stumbled along, bent over double, pushing, carrying and heaving my bike up and over the endless slope of ankle breaking boulders. And just when I was about to give up - Red John was there to carry my bike (perhaps he is the Cycling Faerie). I didn't mind the photographer now, gamely snapping away at the scene in front of him - my need to survive overriding any feelings of shame.

Smiles all the way
Once back on the bike, there were signs that I was leaving my cave as my legs recovered somewhat. We made good progress up the remaining climbs, over the monstrosity in the Eikenhof dam and onto Oak Valley to finish in just over 4 hours in a rather disappointing 29th place overall and 11th in our category. It had been the toughest day on a bike in a while for me, but as Red John said - a bad day on the bike still beats a good day in the office.

While Team Starsky and Hutch were up front "racing", Pinky and The Brain were pulling some seriously hardcore moves of their own, ripping up the single track, bombing down the descents, and in the process impressing none other than Farmer Glen with their bike skills. The newly renamed Team finished in just over 7 hours, and more importantly 10th in their category.

Stage 2

This promised to be the fun stage, with gentle climbs, loads of single track, some innovative scaffolding constructions and fantastic riding. The only thing I hadn't counted on was the pace from the gun - once again we were nearing warp speed in the neutral zone and my poor old diesel engine just couldn't keep up. Thankfully I was not alone - there were several partners in the same boat, and I considered reviving the Suffering Epic Partner Union - whereby if there are enough of us weaker partners sticking together, the stronger partners will have no choice but to slow down. Thankfully it wasn't needed, as I eventually found a reasonable set of legs and was barely able to hang onto Red John's wheel.

Another early morning start
Just as we were starting to make good progress disaster struck as Red John collided with a solid branch, flew into the air, did a somersault with a 180 degree twist and came crashing down to earth. On the gymnastics floor it would have been impressive, but throw in a bike, some rocks and branches and it is a dangerous move. He ended up damaging some ribs, and although he didn't say a word at the time, every bump, root, rock and rut had him wincing and groaning. But it didn't slow him down.

Racey Red John
After the disaster of Stage One where everyone passed us, Stage Two was the opposite. We gradually moved up through the field, rather surprisingly doing most of our overtaking on the climbs (and without me hanging onto my favourite left pocket). Red John still did the lion's share of the work on the front as I perfected my aero tuck making myself small enough to get into his slipstream. As a cycling coach, Red John was trying some interesting motivational techniques on me, but I soon had him figured out. He would yell out that we had to get past so-and-so before the next single track, and I would dig deep, donate a kidney and make a move on Red John's designated team. We passed some ladies teams like this, some mixed teams, some vets, some sub-vets, but when Red John told me to hurry for the upcoming piece of single track and I couldn't see anyone either in front of or behind us I was onto him. He'd need some new tricks from then on!

And we're off
We finally hooked up with another team and shared the work well. I even got a chance to contribute for the second time that day, but mostly Red John represented Team Starsky and Hutch on the front. We flew down the single track at Lebanon, through the culvert under the N2 that was designed for dwarves as I had to put my head flat on my handlebars to avoid scraping my head on the roof, and on towards the final Water Point of the day. As is customary, I was told to ride through, but as I saw Red John stopping I couldn't help myself and had to delight in the pleasures of ice cold Coca Cola. We were heading for home, and slowly opening up a gap on the guys behind us. I could hear Red John grunting and groaning over every slight obstacle, but he hung in there and we finished in 2h52, in a much improved 22nd place overall and 9th in our category.

Team Pinky and the Brain - aka
Meanwhile, Farmer Glen's new favourite team, the recently renamed Team were having a tough time. Not because of the hills, or technical single track, but because of the testosterone hanging thickly in the air. It seems that chivalry is dead at the back of the field (and from an altercation on day 3, possibly at the front too) as slower, less skilled men on bikes would refuse to let the faster, more technically adept ladies through. After several frustrating hours behind unskilled overweight middle aged men, the ladies eventually finished, and despite the hardships of the day were in good spirits. It's not every day that you get personally welcomed home by Farmer  Glen at a bike race.

Our home away from home
Stage 3

I awoke on Sunday morning to a raging chest infection - my post nasal drip had finally capitulated into something vicious. But I couldn't really complain - Red John was sporting the latest in designer corsets, having spent a rather restless night doped up on Myprodol for his aching, strapped up ribs. Standing on the start line, I was quietly confident that we'd have a decent day out. Two minutes after the start that confidence was shattered. There'd been a robbery in my tent, with the perpetrators making off with my legs, one of my lungs, and most of my prefrontal cortex. I was pedalling with spaghetti legs, gasping for air like a stranded sardine and making some really bad bike handling decisions.

Prawns and mousse - the good life
I knew we were in trouble when first the regular crowd we'd been riding with vanished off ahead, and then slowly I was passed by the guys with hairy legs, then the guys with saddle bags, then Camelbaks, and finally the baggy shorts brigade. I'd gone from race snake wannabee to weekend warrior in the space of a few kilometers. And my source of motivation had his own demons to deal with - the Myprodols were wearing off and his ribs were taking a beating. I was truly useless - I rode into obstacles, hooked my handlebars on branches, bashed my head on trees, was always in the wrong gear at the wrong time particularly on the tight uphill hairpin switchbacks, and picking lines through technical sections that didn't exist. On any other day the riding would have been fantastic, but I just wanted it all to end. Suddenly a good day at the office seemed way more appealing.

The quiet before the storm
With the first half of the stage behind us, the hilly second half awaited. We persevered on, Red John once again doing all the work as for the first time that day we started passing people. The baggy shorts brigade, the CamelBacker corp, the saddle bag squadron and finally the hairy legged legion. We were back to racing the ladies and the mixed teams, and Tennis Playing Pete. Red John was offering up his back left pocket with free abandon, ignoring his ribs completely, and I was making full use of the offer each time. I was well aware that I was that guy that everybody hates - the guy getting the free ride while others suffered - and I didn't care.

Red John, in his natural habitat - going up a hill.
(Jacky McClean / Newsport Media)
For the first time this race I announced to Red John that I'd be stopping at the water point for coke, and despite his mild protestations managed to gulp down several cups of the life giving liquid before we hit the trail again. Some fiddly twisty windy single track and a few climbs later and we were at the base of the dreaded Hamailton Russell climb. One last time Red John offered me his pocket and we motored up the climb. From the top of Rotary we could almost smell the finish as I willed an attack of white line fever - I wanted to get this stage over and done with.

Some speedy descents, some flowing single track and a trip across the Onrus beach and lagoon and we were finally finished. After waiting a year we'd gotten to ride the last stage of Wines2Whales, although the sooner I could forget about it the better. Team Starsky and Hutch finished in 26th place after 3 days of racing - a little disappointed but glad to have ridden some of the best mountain biking trails in the Western Cape. Red John was the epitome of Rule 5, and I don't think I've seen a more courageous 75kms on a bike than I witnessed that day. I'd still lying under a bush somewhere in the Overberg if it wasn't for him.
Almost on cue - a whale waited for us at the finish
Team Pinky and the Brain had had another frustrating, testosterone fuelled battle with the riders around them and when I eventually caught sight of them approaching the bridge over the Onrus lagoon I saw a side of my wife that I hope to never see again. She was riding like a woman possessed, driving the pedals hard, with a look of sheer determination in her eyes to get to the finish line before the teams behind her. If I ever see that look from her again and she is not on a bike I'm heading for the hills. Things are about to get nasty. In contrast, Nadine was on the receiving end of the suffer stick, but was hanging on, gritting her teeth and giving it her all to keep up with her partner. And I'm told that at least she still had pride and was able to stick to her principles - she refused the offer of a pocket, determined to ride the whole Wines2Whales unassisted. Another Wakefield honouring Rule 5.

Pinky and The Brain racing for home
All in all, another good weekend was had by all, and Wines2Whales is slowly maturing into another top class South African mountain biking event.

Dirt, blood, and a big smile

Friday, 19 October 2012

Posted by Velouria Posted on 15:44 | No comments

The Swazi Frontier 2012

Several intrepid mountain bikers set off from the Cape for a cross country adventure in search of some of the best mountain biking Southern Africa has to offer. And as much as we'd like to believe that we live in mountain biking heaven with the fantastic trails in Stellenbosch, Grabouw, Somerset West, Durbanville and Tokai right on our door step, it is the tiny Kingdom of Swaziland that was our destination for mountain biking nirvana in the form of the Swazi Frontier. Judging by the smiles of the mud covered faces each day, it's difficult to find another event that comes close on the smile-o-meter.
Annabelle's first Swazi adventure
This is in part due to the eagerness and passion of the event organisers - Brett and Lesley, and in part due to the superb landscape they have to work with in Swaziland. There is no shortage of leg burning climbs, knuckle whitening descents, sweeping switchbacks, and never ending panoramas that the route follows as we traverse the north western corner of Swaziland. The attention to detail, both on the route and in the general event organisation is quite impressive, and should be the template from which all other events operate. Throw in a bit of what the locals call Swazi time - the laid back carefree nature that things will happen when they're ready - and the friendliness of the locals and you've got an event with a truly unique flavour.
The Kenyan Crickets flanked by the Grasshoppers
Unlike the other representatives from the Cape who had mistakenly flown up a day early or had forgotten their passports behind (Swaziland is indeed NOT part of South Africa), The Flaming Marshmallows (consisting of Captain Craig and myself) had a rather uneventful trip via Johannesburg, through the border post at Oshoek, and on to the race registration at Hawane Resort. We'd heard that the Kenyan Grasshoppers of David Kinja and Davidson Kamau were going to be back and rumour had it that they'd spent the entire year attending every course on navigation and map reading that they could find. They were now pretty much unstoppable. With first place practically sealed, we were eager to see if there were any other up and coming Kenyan Crickets that might be reducing our podium aspirations to just third place. Enter the duo of Vincent and George - smaller and skinnier than their mentors, but just as lethal when the road starts going up.

The Swazi Frontier consists of 3 stages, each unique and so very different from each other that together they pretty much cover all aspects of mountain biking. Stage One is The Killer and if there is any particular skill that you haven't yet mastered, it will expose that weakness and have you on your knees begging for mercy. The 60km route would take the leaders just under 5 hours to complete. The climbs are brutal - literally - there is a climb called Too Brutal that even has the Kenyans crying like girls, while inducing serious bouts of sense of humour failure amongst the rest of the field. Friends have been known to swear at each other, and wives call their husbands childish. The downhills are just as treacherous - taking you to your limits, and then gently nudging past them. No matter who you are, you're always riding a little too fast, throwing caution to the wind and loving every second of it. Like a scene from Alice in Wonderland, dessert comes first in the form of tough technical yet extremely rewarding descents and is followed by Brussels sprouts and cod liver oil in the form of unridable climbs in the midday heat. Only in Swaziland could they get away with this because the good parts are just so darn good.
Captain Craig chilling at Maguga Lodge
With 15kms to go in Stage One, The Flaming Marshmallows were in the mix with both the Kenyan Grasshoppers and Crickets, and the first mixed team of Phil and Jane just behind. I'd drawn the short straw this year and so I was trusted with the dreaded responsibility of navigation. Having been a pilot I thought this was going to be a stroll. Until I had to read a route direction in size 6 font while doing 35km/h down the side of a rocky mountain with my eyeballs bouncing around my skull like balls in a pinball machine. It's a miracle we didn't end up in Tanzania - lost to roam the plains of Africa forever. I did however make two crucial mistakes that day in an attempt to outfox and out navigate the Kenyan competition. The rather generic direction to turn left at a grassy junction cost us in excess of 15 minutes and any chance of a strong finish. But it didn't matter. Yes, it's nice to do well, but after the sweeping switchbacks of Heenen's Staircase, the intimate singletrack next to a river of The Brown Crocodile and even the loose and precarious climb of Baboon's Back, the adrenaline and endorphin fix more than made up for 15 minutes of bundu bashing and Brett cursing.
The pool at Bulembu - 2010
Sun shining in 2011
 Back to its former glory in 2012
Another thing that sets The Swazi Frontier apart from other races is the intimateness of the event. With only 90 teams taking part, it's easy to share stories and listen to tall tales while sharing a beer overlooking the finish line and cheering in those teams that have yet to finish. Much like outcomes based education - everyone at Swazi is a winner, whether you shave your legs and count calories, or are carrying a few extra kilos around the middle, a few more in a bulging CamelBak and only ride in baggies. This is an event where we're all just mountain bikers.

Stage Two is The Queen Stage - the stage where a little bit of climbing is rewarded with hours and hours of downhill, some stunning scenery, and between 27 and 43 river crossings (depending who you ask, and after how many beers you ask them). To put a slight dampener on things, Mother Nature had finally answered the forester's calls for rain and by the time we left the inspiring town of Bulembu it had been raining solidly for 14 hours. The riders from the Cape were licking their lips - finally we had something familiar to make up for the effects of altitude and give us an edge. The Kenyan Grasshoppers and Crickets rocked up on the start line looking like they were on an Arctic expedition wearing ALL their kit - arm warmers, leg warmers, wind jammers, under vests, winter gloves - the lot.
The rain settling in for the night
The pace was furious up front and before long we found ourselves overtaking the lead motorbike. A yelled warning of "WAAAATCH OOOOOOUUUUT FOOOOOR THEEEE TREEEEEEEES" from Brett had me rather confused - we were riding in a forest with hundreds of trees. The warning could have been a little more specific. Until I collided with a tree hanging over the route at chest height while hurtling down a forest track at 40km/h. In what could have been a life altering accident, I somehow managed to stay upright, despite being shot backwards after coming to a abrupt halt. The only thing I had to show was a small flesh wound on my arm, and racing pulse, and a wounded ego. Later on I heard that while I was the first victim of the tree, I certainly wasn't the last, and in comparison I got off rather lightly.
My Swazi tattoo - thanks to a stray tree
By this stage, Captain Craig and I were in 4th place, chasing our Cape cousins and the over dressed Kenyans as we crisscrossed the river in the Mganda valley when disaster struck. In addition to riding with no back brake, Captain Craig broke a chain which gave the leaders a gap on us as we fiddled around in the dirt to put it back together. As we left the Mganda valley behind us and the safety of the river, we found ourselves having to navigate the uniquely Swazi sticky red mud of death. It's like jam mixed with super glue and baby poo. All forward motion is halted as the mud clings to anything it touches, eventually clogging up anything that is supposed to turn. As I waited for Captain Craig after a particularly punishing patch, a local took one look at my bike, shook his head at said "Eish - it's time to throw in the towel". But we're better than that, and we persevered on.
Little John getting put back together again, also indicating their  planned position for the next day
Just when it looked like we'd be settling for 4th place with 5kms to go we came across the Arctic Kenyans bent over in a huddle. A rather strange scene greeted us - I saw a shoe cleat, what looked like spoke spanner, a broken chain and a rock which was being pounded against the other items. This was our chance for a podium! But that is not what Swazi is all about. Without hesitating I gave them my chain breaker and a quick link and then set off to make use of the two minutes head start we'd get over them up the final climb of the day to Piggs Peak Hotel. With only a quarter of the hill behind us, the Kenyan Express came storming past us like we were out on a recovery ride. To see these guys in action is quite amazing - the effortlessness and fluidity with which they climb is impressive. We eventually rolled into Piggs Peak in 4th place behind our Cape cousins and the Kenyan Snowmen - covered in mud from head to toe with aching legs and burning lungs, but with massive smiles - the luxuries of the hotel awaiting us.
Making Swazi Soup in the Piggs Peak hotel room bath
After a scrumptious dinner, a few beers and a good night's sleep we once again awoke to the pouring rain. There is nothing worse than leaving the comfort of a warm bed for a cold wet saddle for the start of Stage 3 - The Playground. In the past this stage was more like a transitionary stage between Piggs Peak and Maguga Lodge, but with all the changes made it turned out to be my most enjoyable stage of the event. The lead group were off at a furious pace, but before long things were starting to go pear shaped. People are very quick to criticise the guy that leads the whole group astray, and while I didn't get any shouts of appreciation when navigating correctly, I sure did get a lot of abuse for missing one or two (or three) turns. After that, I changed my navigational strategy - I'd rely on Phil and Jane, and if they weren't around, the SCPS - Swazi Children Positioning System. Captain Craig was once again showing us just how hard core he is by again riding with no back brakes. Apart from the odd fall at high speed he managed to survive the stage in one piece - mostly.
Making Swazi Soup at Maguga Lodge
Before long it was the usual suspects were at it again - the Kenyan Grasshoppers were asserting their dominance, leaving the Crickets, our Cape cousins, the incredibly strong team of Jane and Phil and us to dice it out. Our Cape cousins were in 2nd overall, and so when we came across them fiddling with a loose cleat The Flaming Marshmallows stopped to offer help. If anyone had a chance of dethroning the Kenyans, they'd need all the help they could get. By the time we got to the water point, Captain Craig was having cleat problems of his own, but in his usual tough and carefree manner chose to ride on, effectively pedalling with one and a half legs as he rode away from our little posse. It was around this time that we entered The Playground - goat track blending into jeep track, traversing dongas and ravines, picking virgin lines to avoid the obstacles that the trail threw at us. Score a 10 out of 10 on the smile-o-meter. None of us wanted it to end. Of the three days of riding in Swaziland this was the highlight for me. But like all good things that end we eventually left The Playground and popped out on the Maguga Dam wall and had a short sharp climb up to the lodge. The Kenyan Crickets were back on their preferred terrain and disappeared from sight as The Flaming Marshmallows crossed the line in 3rd place.
Racing in luxury
All that remained was to clean up, pack away the bikes and get ready for the 4th stage. Unlike the previous 3 stages, here the back markers hold the advantage and it's the race snakes that suffer. The Swazi Frontier once again exceeded expectations - the fantastic, raw mountain biking, the friendly locals, the enthusiasm and passion of Brett and Lesley and the like minded fellow cyclists - all combine to create an exceptional event and I'm pretty sure The Flaming Marshmallows will be back again next year.
The first out of category climb of Stage 4

Monday, 1 October 2012

Posted by Velouria Posted on 16:42 | No comments

My Movie Debut

In the run up to my failed World 24hr MTB Championships attempt in Canmore, Canada, a friend of mine put together this video as a marketing video in my fruitless search for sponsorship.

Dane Walsh, Ultra Endurance Cyclist from Fluffy Owl Films on Vimeo.

Ironically, 4 days after doing the shooting for the video I got the following mail (dated on my birthday):

At least now I have an awesome action video. And let me tell you - I can now appreciate just how hard it is for people to sound coherent and intelligent when placed in front of the cameras. Riding a bike for 24hrs is much easier than trying to talk sense for 5 minutes.

Thanks Theunis

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Posted by Velouria Posted on 19:19 | 5 comments

Trans Baviaans 2012

The farewell tour
Once again, three middle aged men made the pilgrimage to Willowmore in the Eastern Cape for the small matter of a bike race. Not just any bike race - the 9th edition of the Trans Baviaans mountain bike  race. The usual crew of Captain Craig, Little John and myself were all together for one last attempt at a top five finish - Little John is slowly starting his transformation from wannabee race snake to leisurely weekend warrior, shifting his focus from 5am tempo rides to 5pm sundowner rides, from riding flat out to riding flat roads, from clocking up 25 hours a week on the bike to clocking 25 hours a weekend with his family.

A clean bike is a fast bike - even if you have to clean it in the rain
In what has become another Baviaans tradition, we spent the night in the Willowmore School hostel, listening to the nervous restlessness of the first timers, hearing them clomp up and down to the toilets at all hours of the night, burying our heads under our pillows as they got ready for the 10am start at 5am in the morning. With our beauty sleep ruined we finally got up, put out our kit and supplies for the day and wandered off to breakfast.

Start line nerves from the old man
I've discovered a new party trick that works especially well in the crowded dining hall of the Willowmore School hostel - find a rather nervous looking individual and strike up a conversation about the race, without giving too much away. Offer some advice, tell them not to worry too much and let them know what a fantastic event it is. Eventually he'll ask how many times I've done the race or what my best time is and this is where I love watching people's facial expressions. They range from total disbelief to wild skepticism. In a way I'm a little hurt that no one takes us seriously, but generally when your team name is Walla Walla Weasel Whackers, I really shouldn't expect anything less. Out of respect for Little John's retirement race, I'd opted not to name our team the usual name of Soggy Bottom Boys.

Captain Craig and I - chilling in the start chute
With 10am fast approaching, we packed our supply boxes for later in the day, put on our kit, stuffed our pockets with supplies and tools, and headed off to the start line. It's not often you get to see the impact an event has on the local community, but as Trans Baviaans has grown, so too has the involvement and interest from locals. In what used to be a one horse town where if you ventured too far away from the local hotel you might never see your teammates again, the whole community comes out to support the race, lining the recently swept streets and cheering wildly. In a week where many needlessly lost their lives in the Lonmin mine shootings, it was refreshing to see South Africans of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds coming together in the name of sport.

Winners of the "Kleintjies" race - one lap around town
The local race snakes about to start their 2 laps around Willowmore

After another mumbled race briefing by Wikus the organiser and a much improved rendition of the national anthem, we were set on our way for the 230km ride to Jeffrey's Bay. A lead bunch immediately formed and so began the cycling poker. For the next three hours there was bluffing, double bluffing, peeking at the cards of others and a bit of underhanded dirty tactics. All the cycling tricks in the book were used, from glass pedaling on the front to wheel sucking on the back, from upping the pace when "The Biggest Cyclist in the World"™ had a mechanical to surging on the hills - everything to get some sort of advantage over the rest of the bunch for the second part of the race.

Little John working on his race face
In the blink of an eye we had done 105kms in 3h20 to checkpoint 2 - Little John fighting with the big boys on the front of the bunch while Captain Craig and I dangled off the back as we took a bit of strain through the countless water crossing as the bunch surged to get back up to speed on the exits. Any hopes about not getting wet feet or a soggy chamois were dashed on the first crossing. As the day wore on and the temperature started to rise, I think many riders in the bunch were only too glad for the regular cooling of feet, legs and bums.

Little John was the only one doing the "YMCA"
The strategy from checkpoint 2 onward is simple - ride a constant, steady pace from checkpoint to checkpoint. Make the most of the good patches, and survive the bad patches. Little John, much like a fine wine or smelly cheese just seemed to get better with age and the responsibility of setting the pace fell to him. If there ever was a point to be made in the 26 vs 29 inch wheel size debate, Little John was coming out fighting for the little wheels as he made his teammates on the bigger wheels work rather hard to keep up. With his hairy legs and baggy shirt, his cycling bandanna and retro helmet, he certainly looks the part of a weekend warrior, not the race snakes which we found ourselves amongst.

ET phone home?
A solid ride to checkpoint 3 had us arriving in 10th place overall. A quick change of bottles and some salty potatoes later and we were on our way, heading towards my nemesis - The Mother of All Climbs. If something can go wrong for me at Baviaans, this is usually the place where it happens. I've had a massive side wall cut in my tyre, I've bonked so badly that Little John had to push my bike as I tried to stumble up the hill, I've developed stomach issues and had to take a moment to purge my stomach contents. All I wanted was an incident free leg of 28km up to checkpoint 4 at Bergplaas.

Lights on, downhill awaits
Shortly after leaving checkpoint 3 we found ourselves in 8th place as the two leading teams came past us in the wrong direction - they had missed the checkpoint. I felt for them, as Little John and I had pulled the same move in 2007. Not only do you end up riding an extra 10kms, but doubts and cracks begin to appear in your mind. It wasn't long after that move that I found myself walking up MAC. Little John set another superb pace as we approached the climb. Much like meeting your in-laws for the first time - it's not something you want to do, but it is inevitable - we started climbing. I kept waiting for the ninja of death to strike me down, but the further we made it up the climb without the ninja of death making an appearance, the more confident I became that I could finally banish my MAC demons.  It certainly helped the spirits that we caught and passed 3 teams on the climb, and in a symbolic gesture of thanks for all the times Captain Craig has had to deal with my self destruction on this climb, I was even able to give him a slight push.

Team 333 - aka The Walla Walla Weasel Whackers - in 5th place
As we approached checkpoint 4, Little John adopted his father voice and demeanor and barked out orders to his younger teammates about the schedule of happenings for checkpoint 4. I was tasked with getting life saving soup and bread rolls for the Weasel Whackers, while Little John would get our box. Captain Craig got a pass, and was told to do whatever it is he does. A cup of coke, some soothing bum cream and the life saving soup later we were ready to leave. With a pit stop more commonly found in a Formula One Grand Prix we'd been able to climb up the leader board, and we found ourselves in 5th place as we signed out of checkpoint 4. Out of habit from when we used to be slow, we'd attached our lights at the stop, but at the rate we'd been riding, we'd only need them several hours later.

Trying to look fancy for the camera
As we were leaving we caught sight of "The Biggest Cyclist in the World"™ and his team, and this provided us with some added motivation to make use of the fantastic descent down the other side of the MAC. It wasn't long before we found ourselves back on the valley floor with another team for company. Little John and I shared the pace making as we drove on towards checkpoint 5 at Hadleigh, determined to make the teams behind us work hard if they wanted to catch us. I also knew that we'd never hear the end of it if Little John did all the work on the front as we loafed at the back. Sometimes the bigger picture needs to considered, despite the consequences.

Little John in the zone
We flew into checkpoint 5 where we finally met up with our support - my very capable and experienced wife. A quick bottle change, some fluid and snacks and we were back on the route in 5th place - Jeffrey's Bay was almost within sniffing distance. Just the small matter of the Never Ender climb stood between us and the downhill to the finish.

Captain Craig sporting the new trend in cycling - calf warmers
The roadie in me appreciated the tar section out of Hadleigh before we turned off onto the road to Humansdorp. Captain Craig navigated the flooded Gamtoos River crossing on his bike while Little John and I chose discretion over valour and walked through the thigh deep, ice cold waters. And then the Never Ender began. Little John immediately went to the front and set a perfect pace and the two 29ers slotted in behind. Thank goodness there were no photographers to record the rather embarrassing situation. We made good progress up the Never Ender when disaster struck. I had been taking a bit of strain with Little John's relentless tempo and in an effort to get a boost I took a Gu. Next thing I knew I was projectile vomiting like a newborn baby. There is nothing quite as funny as watching the awkwardness between two grown men deciding how to react to a teammate who is ejecting a troublesome Gu as fast and as violently as possible. To my credit, I was able to do all this on the bike, with only a marginal decrease in pace. I was however quite disappointed that I'd been unable to break my run of reverse gastric emptying.

The Weasel Whackers crossing ANOTHER river
Once the awkwardness had subsided a little, and my teammates had realised that I was going to live, Little John resumed the pace setting as we neared the top of the climb with the sun slowly sinking below the horizon. After lugging the lights around for several hours, we were finally able to use them. Still in parent mode, Little John told Captain Craig to turn his light on, despite it not being quite dark enough. He would later tell us that Captain Craig has a reputation for falling over in broad daylight, and he wasn't going to take any chances with him in the semi-darkness. As we approached the unmanned checkpoint we saw the tell tale sign of some lights stalking us from behind. Try as we might we could not hold them off, and as we arrived at checkpoint 6 we found ourselves in 6th place with 30kms to go.

Sunset at checkpoint 6
Organised chaos in the backup vehicle
A quick stop, some ego pandering from my wife, some last minute snacks and we were off - the Jeffrey's Bay lights beckoning in the distance. Captain Craig was finally taking strain - he'd been threatening us with stories of poor form all ride long and after 8 hours of showing little weakness we didn't actually believe him. One last river crossing followed by a leg busting climb, and it would be a cruise into the finish. Or so I thought. Captain Craig caught sight of a pair of fast approaching lights, and in the most rapid onset of white line fever I have ever seen, went to the front for the first time all day and proceeded to rip my legs off. As he powered his way towards Jeffrey's, the regrets started. I regretted the push I had given him near the top of MAC, I regretted all the times I had gone to the front to help Little John, I regretted the speed sessions I had missed because of the rain, I regretted not choosing running as my sport of choice.

The Walla Walla Weasel Whackers - 6th place overall and first 3 man team.
We never did see those lights behind us again. As if it wasn't bad enough, Captain Craig caught sight of the team ahead of us, and although I didn't think it was possible, managed to up the pace even more. I don't recall too much of the final 10kms, except for Little John's rear tyre, and the pain in my jaw from biting down on my handle bars. I didn't know if we were catching the team ahead, and I didn't really care right then. I just wanted the pain to stop. Thankfully, the finish line put an end to the pain and suffering - we'd crossed the line in 6th place in 9h28 - less than a minute down on the guys in 5th. An added bonus was that we were the first 3 man team.

And with that I shook Little John's hand for the 6th and final time (I also had to endure a man hug). Captain Craig had finished his 5th Baviaans, and I was on my 9th. As they say though - the band has to break up before they can have a reunion tour. Perhaps the Walla Walla Weasel Whackers will be back again next year with the original line up of Little John, Captain Craig and myself, or perhaps we'll hire a session cyclist to fill the void for a couple of years.

Additional photos from The Nature Gym, Photo Dynamix (1, 2, 3)