Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Posted by Velouria Posted on 21:24 | 3 comments

Trans Baviaans 2013

At 10 o'clock on a cold, windy morning in the sleepy hollow of Willowmore, one of the highlights on the South African mountain biking calendar gets underway - the Trans Baviaans. For The Night Time Ninjas, the race begins several months before, and I'm not talking about competing with other teams, I'm talking about the intra-team competition.

Trans Baviaans #10
The objective is to give the impression that you are the weakest link in the three man team, while doing everything in your power to ensure that you aren't. The only rule is "There are no rules". Anything goes - secret training, strategic alliances, double crossing, faked illnesses, false rumours, doctored Strava uploads. It's a mental game that has you secretly spying on teammates' training progress, inflating body fat percentages, and doing some extra training on the rollers in the garage where no one can see. Come the race weekend all that changes - the gloves come off, the secrets are spilled and you talk up your game to convince your teammates that you are in peak form, finely tuned and ready to race. In a three man team you don't have to be the fastest, but you certainly don't want to be the slowest.

Red sky at night?
Part of my pre-race psychological warfare arsenal is to book our accommodation in the Willowmore Primary School hostel. Apart from being convenient and central, it has several characteristics that tend to get to Old Man John. There is seldom hot water, and for a shower addict this is apparently quite a problem. The mattresses are thin, the pasta meal is oily and stodgy, the wooden floors are noisy, the rooms are cold, the toilets clog frequently, and there is always at least one team that has to wake up at 5 in the morning and walk around making a noise like a herd of Nguni cattle.

No one reads these
Captain Craig added to the warfare by suggesting that we ride in the now infamous HotChillee Epic kit. While both he and I like the tight fit, OMJ has a serious aversion to anything that a rugby prop forward can't fit into. Even having a new bike didn't prevent additional attacks on OMJ - it might be new, it might be light, and it might be a 29er (finally), but it was a Silverback. Amazingly, OMJ took this all in his stride. Perhaps he had made peace with his place in the team, or perhaps he had a bigger plan.

Trial run fitting into the tight top
OMJ still thinking we were pulling a prank on him
The Night Time Ninjas rolled into the start chute with 10 minutes to spare, quietly confident that we'd have a good ride, and secretly hoping to improve on last year's 6th place. For a long 10 minutes we sat in the cold wind and watched the rain approach as we listened to a local rendition of the National Anthem before we were unleashed for the 10th edition of the Trans Baviaans.

OMJ showing off the latest fashions. Someone please call StyleMan
I could watch OMJ trying to get his knee warmers equal for hours
As usual, the first hour is like a road race - it's hard and fast, with the bunch doing its best to whittle out the free loaders and wheel suckers. Forget about saving heart beats and keeping the legs fresh, if you want to reap the benefits of riding in the lead bunch later on you've got to do whatever it takes to make sure you don't get dropped, while keeping an eye on your teammates to make sure they are showing the same commitment. With 80kms done, things were looking good - there was a select bunch moving along at a decent pace with a very welcome tailwind making life rather easy. Checkpoint 2 was approaching, and shortly thereafter the hills would begin. The sense of calm that hung over the bunch was shattered when Captain Craig called me over and mumbled about something being broken. A quick scan of the scene didn't reveal much - he was in one piece, and from what I could see, so was his bike (to be fair, his bike is always in a state of brokenness, but nothing seemed exceptionally bad). It was when he hit a slight bump in the road and his rear wheel bounced a foot to the left that I realised what he had said - his frame was broken. The irony was that I'd broken the same make of frame a year previously in exactly the same place, except mine had been a slight crack, compared to the clean break that was staring up at Captain Craig.

The last known photo of Captain Craig and his working bike
Too many pies?
Briefly, for 5 seconds, my heart sank. Our dreams of a podium were as broken as Captain Craig's bike. With that realisation, it was time to make a decision. Much like the Navy SEALs, and as much as we like to mess with each other, The Night Time Ninjas obey the unwritten code of "Leave no man behind". Despite his protestations for us to stay in the lead bunch, OMJ and myself dropped off the pace to nurse Captain Craig to the next checkpoint. Perhaps we could salvage our race once we got there. Maybe we could repair the break, or find a spare bicycle. Upon reaching the checkpoint we quickly realised that his bike was beyond repair, and it probably wouldn't last another 5kms. Our only hope was to find a spare bike. While the checkpoint offered coke, marsh mellows and friendly conversation, spare bikes were in short supply. OMJ gallantly offered up his bike but Captain Craig refused. I'm not sure if it was because he'd accepted his fate, or because he didn't want to ride a Silverback, but after a prolonged goodbye, only two thirds of The Night Time Ninjas left the checkpoint, not knowing if we'd ever ride together again.

You'd think after all these years OMJ would look a little more racier
We were now officially unofficial finishers, our race was over, along with our aspirations of a good result. The only thing keeping us going was that this was my 10th Trans Baviaans, and that I had to finish before 10am on Sunday to remain in the small group of 3 riders who have finished all the Trans Baviaans events to date. We plodded along like a car running on 3 cylinders, tapping out a good tempo, but lacking the raciness that we usually exhibit. We were catching the back markers of the lead bunch, and while we weren't really racing them, it did feel good to move back up through the field. After leaving Checkpoint 2 in unofficial 18th place, we arrived at Checkpoint 4 in unofficial 10th place which only reinforced our feelings of what could have been.

I know he secretly likes the hostel
With OMJ doing his first Baviaans on a hardtail 29er, and Captain Craig making friends with the officials at Checkpoint 2, the responsibility fell to me to pick the lines down Combrink's Pass. Having spent 6 years following my teammates, the sudden responsibility lead to some rather interesting decisions, the more interesting of which would get a running commentary from OMJ behind. Somewhere down the pass I hit something and lost some air in my rear tyre. An on-the-go inspection seemed to indicate that the tyre was ok, and that it was holding air. It just wasn't holding as much air as I would have liked. With renewed determination to get to the checkpoint at Kondomo to sort out the wheel, the Surviving Night Time Ninjas put their heads down and rode like the wind. The 17 different weather websites that I'd frequented in the days leading up to Trans Baviaans had all promised a westerly to south westerly gale which would be a tail wind for most of the ride, so you can imagine our surprise when we found ourselves battling a nasty headwind for the 20kms leading into Kondomo.

Wind. Lots of wind.
As I filled my tyre with air, OMJ filled his belly with whatever he could find - coffee, oranges, banana bread, and jelly babies, all washed down by several swigs of water. We said goodbye to our ever faithful backup and hit the road, having slipped from unofficial 10th to unofficial 13th place. The short stretch of tar was a welcome relief, and my roadie roots came to the fore, towing OMJ to the foot of the Never Ender - a long, gentle climb that acts like a slow poison, slowly wearing you down bit by bit, till you long to be put out of your misery.

Our backup, passing the time taking self portraits
I am the holder of a rather dubious record at Trans Baviaans - I have ejected my stomach contents on 3 different climbs, in 3 successive years. This year I was hoping that I could finally break my run of gastric elimination. With two climbs to go, all signs were looking good, I'd been careful in what I'd eaten and my stomach felt settled. As we made our way up the Never Ender I was once again getting abuse from OMJ regarding my choice of line, the hardtail 29er doing his tender bum no favours. Trying my best to limit the grumpiness, I was picking smooth manicured lines up the climb when I heard a massive grumble from behind. Thinking I was in trouble again, I looked over my shoulder only to see OMJ saying goodbye to the remainder of his snacks from the previous checkpoint as they exited via his mouth. While I know how awful it feels to be in that situation, I couldn't have been happier that it wasn't me.

Pre race nerves catching up with me
I also have to blame OMJ for what happened next. Because of his dramatic emergency stomach purge, I was a little hesitant to fall victim to the same fate, and neglected to eat. As a result, I briefly had a bad patch where my legs deserted me and I was pedalling in squares. Thankfully, this was quickly remedied with some Dutch mini Stroopwafles - the legs came back with the top of the Never Ender in sight and the Depleted Night Time Ninjas were back on track to make the final checkpoint before sunset.

As we rolled into Checkpoint 7, I briefly flirted with the idea of a quick stop and a dash to the finish in an attempt to crack the 9hr mark. As unofficial finishers it really didn't make that much difference, and since OMJ had vowed retirement from competitive bike racing after this year's Baviaans, I thought he might want to enjoy the last 20 kms.

Along with OMJ, his shoes are retiring too
We finally turned our lights on, and headed off towards the lights of Jeffreys Bay. After a fast a furious chase, we hooked up with another team as we hit the tar for the long and arduous grind to the finish. I don't think there is a worse finish to a bike race in South Africa - an uphill tar drag into a raging crosswind for several kilometers. Add a teammate who can't ride in an echelon (like most mountain bikers) and it made for a long and frustrating finish after the beauty of the previous 220kms. The Vestigial Night Time Ninjas crossed the line in an unofficial 11th place, in 9h04, a bittersweet Pyrrhic victory.

Finishing faces (1)
Finishing faces (2)
As we sat there, eating our Spur burgers, our thoughts turned to our missing teammate. No one had heard a thing from him, and we had no indication as to where he was. Our only hope was that he would use his wit and charm and hopefully by some miracle find his way to Jeffreys Bay.

Our missing teammate, his broken bike, and his transport for the previous 9 hours
Just after midnight we got a call that he was at the finish. By now the temperature had plummeted, the wind was howling, it was pouring with rain - generally not a good idea to be outside. As we drove to pick up Captain Craig we passed countless teams, slogging it out in the foulest of weather up the ridiculous tar climb to the finish. These are the real champions of Trans Baviaans, the unsung heroes. The guys and girls who spend many more hours in the saddle, fighting the terrain, their bikes, on the limit of their fitness. It's darker, colder, windier, yet they're out there. And they'll be out there again next year. Just like me.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Posted by Velouria Posted on 11:12 | No comments

Sani2C 2013

The astute readers amongst the vast following that this blog has (there are at least 4 regular readers out there) will have noticed that there was no 2012 Sani2C race report. For that I apologise, and before I get down to this year's event, I'd just like to share the reasons behind why I didn't dare make that post.

Everyone loves a cyclist
As with the previous year, I rode Sani2C 2012 with Little John. Unlike the previous year, I wasn't in great shape - a two week holiday in Paris combined with a bout of rather vicious Parisian flu meant that I went into the event quite short of form. For almost 3 days I followed Little John on our adventure from the Underberg towards Scottburgh, relying on muscle memory and experience rather than fitness and conditioning. I rode as if each pedal stroke was my last, giving it everything I had. To compound matters, I had discovered the night before we left for Sani2C that my bike was cracked. Literally - every pedal stroke could have been my last, and I was expecting a catastrophic life ending failure at any second. At the end of each stage I was both physically and mentally exhausted. But I was fine with that. That is what team racing is all about.

Look closely for the crack
With barely 20kms to go on day 3, after sticking to Little John's wheel like a remora suckerfish all race long, he sat up. To talk to a "pro". My theory is that anyone riding anywhere near us can't be that much of a pro. While Little John was blinded by the stars in his eyes, the people we had been racing each stage were slowly gaining on us. Had I suffered so much just so that I could witness Little John and his blossoming bromance with a B-grade pro? Like a rage-filled midget at a rock concert I finally snapped, and my mission wasn't to finish ahead of the B-grade pro or the chasing riders, but to ride Little John into the ground. To strike down upon him with great vengeance and furious anger. To crush his soul. With my legs on fire and my lungs screaming I mashed the pedals, each pedal stroke more violent than the last. My sight narrowed, the red mist descended and all I saw was the road ahead - I completely blocked out the spectators, the other riders, and everything else. Time for Little John to feel my wrath and fury. As the finish line approached I stopped and waited - a minute went by, and then another, and finally Little John made an appearance. While we might have crossed the line together, the smiles were fake and the back slapping was hollow - the anger still simmered below the surface. So much so that I was scared of what I might write if I were to do a blog post. What a difference a year makes.

Annabelle, born after last year's Sani
Little John, so named because he was one of the last mountain bikers in South Africa still riding an increasingly unfashionable old school mountain bike with 26 inch wheels, had finally upgraded to a 29er. We needed a new name, and Captain Craig came up with Old Man John - OMJ for short. We once again made the trek up to Durban, staying over in Umhlanga before heading off to the Underberg, somehow managing to cram 2 bikes and our luggage into the back of a Ford Figo. Nothing like abusing a rental car! After the usual chores of registration, putting the bikes back together, and repacking our gear for the event, we got a good night's sleep in the warmer than usual Underberg. A later start than in previous years meant that we could take our time getting ready, and after we'd loaded our boxes onto the trucks, we went for a quick warm up ride. I thought this would be a good time to put my gloves on, only to discover that I'd pulled a super amateur move  - I'd packed in two left gloves. I had three options - ride with no gloves, ride with one glove Michael Jackson style, or try to get the offending left glove to imitate a right glove. I went for option 3 initially, first trying the glove on upside down. That didn't work, so I then tried inside out. Still no luck, so I eventually settled on option one. No gloves (on my hands at least - I still had them in my pockets).

It's a rental!
After a fast start, OMJ and I settled into a comfortable rhythm, doing our own thing. I was determined to be a good partner, and so let OMJ set the pace. I quickly discovered that OMJ and his new machine were having relationship issues. He was trying to ride it like his old bike, and the bike was protesting. It's a strong man's bike, demanding strength and power, and OMJ was trying to gently caress and tease it up the hills, and as a result his legs were taking a beating. From a neutral bystander's point of view, it was an interesting battle to watch, and for once, I couldn't be blamed for inflicting the pain. Not yet anyway.

Old Man slippers!
Sani2C is all about the rider experience, from the manicured trails, to the free swag, the endless lunches to the infinite supply of vanilla milks. The water points are no different. And this year I was going to make a point of enjoying them. President Kennedy was probably thinking of Sani2C when he made his famous "Ich bin ein Berlinner" speech. I'd eat so many jam doughnuts each day that I think I was beginning to look like a jam doughnut too. Sometimes I'm surprised they didn't have to chase me out of the water points.

OMJ getting intimate with  his new steed
While there is always a rather laid back jovial mood at Sani2C, there was a slight mood of trepidation at the MacKenzie Country Club as night fell after the first stage, the weather forecast for the following day promised rain. And while we're mountain bikers and can handle most adverse weather conditions, stage 2 of Sani2C is the one stage where you'd like the weather gods to play nice. It is the reason 5000 cyclists make the pilgrimage to the Natal Midlands for the opportunity to ride down into the beautiful, unspoiled Umkomaas Valley. A 40km downhill with breathtaking views and frightfully fast descents. Any overnight rain would change all that and turn the descent into the world's longest slip and slide - a mudfest on two wheels. After a delayed start we inched our way on toward the Umkomaas descent to discover that is was as slippery as a bar of soap in a Pollsmoor Prison shower. It wasn't an uncommon sight to come around a corner and see a cyclist lying in a heap. And I'm not just talking about us weekend warriors, I saw plenty of pro's (both A and B grade) having little lie downs in the mud.

We eventually got to the bottom of the Umkomaas valley, having spent a lot time time riding, walking, sliding, and slipping. I personally wallowed in the mud 4 times. From there on it was an uphill slog all the way to Joliviet Farm, our next overnight stop. That was fine for us seasoned 29er riders, but quite cruel and nasty for OMJ and his new steed. I was still being the good partner, riding on his wheel, going along at his pace. Resisting the urge to race. I was having issues too, of the mechanical kind, and after breaking a chain that took two seasoned mountain bikers an embarrassingly long time to fix, was stuck with just my middle and large chain rings for the rest of the day. Rather me than OMJ. And just to show that no matter how badly you think your day is going we came across Red John lying in a patch of grass looking rather sore and annoyed. He'd had a massive crash and dislocated his hip. To show just how tough the guy is he'd ridden 8kms out of the bottom of the valley, dislocated hip and all, to where he could be airlifted to safety. Huge respect.

Modern day post stage prep.
With the end of the stage almost in sight, OMJ was fading fast, and I was forced to apply the hand of shame. It feels so much better dishing it out than being on the receiving end, although the receiver can be a bit demanding now and then. A couple ups and downs later and we rolled across the line at Joliviet farm - wet, cold, and covered from head to toe in mud. Everything took longer than normal, cleaning the bikes, showering, drying kit, and by the time the chores had been done it was supper time. TripAdvisor has several recommendations for the best place to get a steak, such as here and here, but if Joliviet were to ever get listed, the juicy, tender steak they serve for dinner would get 4972 five star ratings (and 28 no star ratings from some very envious vegetarians).

Team mates having an afternoon nap
Our agreed upon objective for this year's Sani2C was to finish in the top 100 after stage two, and we'd made it - position 49. Farmer Glen had introduced another fantastic idea in that the top 2 seeded batches would only start at 11am on the last day. Compare that to having to get up at 5am for a 7am start. I do have one complaint though in that the riders from the C batch showed very little respect and made an incredible amount of noise, so while we didn't have to get up at 5am, we were rudely awoken at 5am by the racket the rabble were making. I'd like to suggest to Farmer Glen that at next year's event a special area is set aside so that the A and B batch riders can enjoy a late morning snooze in peace and quiet.

The scariest 800m of the whole event
After 2 breakfasts, 4 cups of coffee, several visits to the toilet, 3 warm up rides and a mid morning nap we were eventually off - heading towards Scottburgh for the final stage of Sani2C. OMJ was once again doing battle with his machine, riding his bike like it was a contact sport - arms, legs and head flailing all over the place. At this rate it would be a TKO in the 5th round! Since the final day is relatively flat and fast, I hopped on the front to set the pace and offer some shelter to OMJ. Initially this worked out quite well and we made good progress, but slowly the memories from the previous year came flooding back. While I never set out to intentionally rain down fire and torment on poor OMJ, I realised that with 20kms to go he was either going to kill me, or go and hide in a sugar cane field and not come out. Our race was done, and all that remained was to get to the finish in one piece.

The view at the finish
Farmer Glen's other innovation for this year's event was a crazy stupid long floating bridge over the Scottburgh lagoon, and out into the ocean. As a sufferer of Gephyrophobia this idea had given me countless nightmares and sleepless nights. The added pressure was that my wife had successfully navigated the 800m long, 80cm wide bridge without incident the day before. Farmer Glen's advice to the race snakes was to ride on inside of the corners, to look ahead, and keep the speed up. He got two out of three right, and I suspect that was on purpose. DO NOT EVER ATTEMPT TO RIDE ON THE INSIDE OF THE CORNERS ON A FLOATING BRIDGE. Much to his disappointment I didn't end up taking a swim in the Scottburgh lagoon, I did however came far to close for my comfort.

The Crazed Wombats successfully navigated the bridge and the stage and finished in 51st place overall, another Sani2C safely completed. While his bike and I abused him, OMJ was in fine spirits at the end, and word on the street is that he was spotted doing some secret training on the back roads in and about Hermanus. I suspect Trans Baviaans is going to be the scene of his revenge grudge match between both him and his bike, and him and I.

The Crazed Wombats

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Posted by Velouria Posted on 15:52 | 1 comment

An Epic Tale

Not to be confused with this Epic Tale, this is an Epic Tale, HotChillee style.

Did you see those two guys up ahead who rode into each other?
Yeah - they were riding along quite happily until the guy on the left made a sharp right turn  into his buddy
Huh? Are you sure that is what happened?
Oh yes. Definitely the guy on the left's fault.
All I could think was that we'd moved up one place on GC

Moral of the story - you never know who is about photographing your post race analysis.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Posted by Velouria Posted on 06:35 | 4 comments

The Cape Epic 2013

As I sit here in a cold and blustery Winnipeg, I can't help but think back to the week long mountain biking adventure I embarked on a little over 3 weeks ago. That was when Captain Craig gave me a call on a Friday night asking if I was keen to do the Cape Epic. Not the 2014 edition, but the 2013 edition, starting in a mere 8 days time. Team HotChillee Infinity had lost a member with The Bull being laid low by an ill timed bout of pneumonia, and I was being asked to fill some rather large shoes (and some rather small kit - more about that later).

The finish line at Lourensford - so far away

The Cape Epic is the pinnacle of mountain biking not only in South Africa but worldwide, and before my brain had time to fully process Captain Craig's request, my heart had already answered - it's not everyday that an opportunity like this comes around. While my brain was calculating the various ways that I could possibly die in the forthcoming week, my stomach was quickly filling with butterflies. I'd missed these Epic nerves, the doubt, the worry, the uncertainty. And unlike most participants, I didn't have months of training to fall back on, the only thing I had was Captain Craig's belief that I was a capable substitute to The Bull. Before my heart got too carried away though, my brain did manage to insert one rule into the deal - we ride this Epic conservatively at my pace, with no expectations. The only hurdle remaining for my participation in the 2013 Cape Epic was to get the boss's approval. My wife and I had just bought a house and were due to move during Stage 6. I can't remember exactly what I promised, but I am completely indebted to her.

Daniel, Team HotChillee's youngest supporter
The remaining 8 days were a whirl of activity and action. The Fun Ride World Championships was no longer my season highlight and once I'd successfully navigated the 109kms of danger around the Cape Peninsula, all my focus was on getting ready for the Epic. I have a stage race bible specifically geared towards the Epic that DaisyWay Coaching put together after my first Epic. It serves as a checklist and refresher on what to expect, what to pack, and how to prepare for an 8 day bike race. On the training front, I managed to squeeze in two rides, totaling about 90 minutes. In reality, while I don't think those rides made any difference to my fitness, their real purpose was to give me some time to mentally get my head around my upcoming ordeal, away from the hustle bustle of work and life. Pure me time.

And so our Epic begins
I turned the rest of the stage race bible on it's head too - I bought new shoes and gloves with 5 days to go, I got my bike serviced with 3 days to go(a big thank you to William's Bike Shop - despite it being the busiest week of the year for bike shops in South Africa, you guys didn't blink when I brought in my attention needing bike), I got my fantastic looking but ill fitting HotChillee cycling kit the night before, and Captain Craig and I were still busy with shuttles to the local garage to get our new Continental tyres to seal mere hours before our 7:40am Prologue start at Meerendal.

An awesome way to start the Epic! (My eyes were tightly closed!)
Being part of the HotChillee Epic adventure came with several benefits - apart from the opportunity to meet, chat and interact with Stephen Roche (my roadie roots were in heaven just listening to some of his tales of life in the pro peloton) - we got to experience the organizational skills and support that have made HotChillee famous, which gave me time to frantically organise my life in the remaining days before our adventure began. In addition to the people working behind the scenes, we had real life soigneurs in the form of Hazel and Tony, and physiotherapist Jayne to look after us during the event. This was going to be an Epic like no other. We were also amazed by the support from friends and family, from the opening of homes, to wishes of good luck - all helping to offset the doubts that kept running through my mind.

Who said the Prologue was going to be easy!
Race day eventually dawned, and Captain Craig and I blitzed the Prologue course in and around Meerendal in a rather disappointing 116th place. Despite our no expectations rule, we were both a little surprised - we'd ridden hard and had expected a better result. Our loosely agreed upon goal of top 100 seemed almost unattainable. Clearly the level at the Epic had been raised since we last had ridden it. With the Prologue behind us, the 3 HotChillee teams convened at The Hammond House for a post ride massage, some final packing and some snacks before heading off to Citrusdal, where the real Epic awaited us (in reality, it was more like the HotChillee teams gate crashed a family Sunday lunch, left a whirlwind of chaos in our wake, and left when the food ran out but before we had to do the dishes).

In the zone
Every year at the Epic there is a stage that polarizes the riders, and in 2013 Dr Evil wasted no time in getting that stage out of the way. Stage 1 was tough. It was sandy. It was hot. But this is the Epic, and we didn't expect anything less.  Sticking to our one and only rule, we started right at the back of our bunch and stayed there for the first hour while we watched the cyclists around us taking unnecessary risks in an attempt to move up a place or two. By the time we made the first water point we had already gained several places - not because we were riding fast, but because those around us were riding like fools. We passed people with who had started too fast and blown, people with punctures, broken wheels and broken bones. You can't win the Epic on Stage 1, but you certainly can lose it. One of my few mountain biking skills was also coming in very handy - the ability to ride soft sand. That's not to say we didn't push our bikes - we did. For hours. When you see the tiny frame of Catherine Williamson doing the same but with blood oozing down her arm from a nasty looking gash we couldn't really complain. We're all in this together, we're all suffering, we're all pushing machines that were invented for riding. And this is exactly what most of the 1200 participants have been focussed on for the last 6 months (Tennis Playing Pete and myself excluded). This was why we do the Epic. This is what makes that Epic medal stand out from the medal you get from the ride hosted by the local charity around some flat manicured course you've ridden a thousand times.

Time to cool the feet
Why we do the Epic.
At water point 3 the announcer mentioned something about only 66 teams having made it this far. We couldn't believe it. Suddenly the message from Jayne to slow down and ride the Epic as an 8 day race made sense. We were flying. We were now doing better than we had ever expected. How could this be? We weren't riding hard. We were just two guys on bikes having fun, doing our thing, riding to our only rule. For years people had been telling us that to ride well at Epic you needed to ride conservatively, and in the naivety of youth we'd always dismissed their advice as old-timer stories from people who were out of touch with modern bike racing. Perhaps they'd been right all along. We finished the day in 63rd place - one of our best performances at the Epic to date in our third attempt at riding together. It all felt so surreal, so dreamlike, a feeling that would continue to grow each day.

Slow and steady
My tight, aero, well ventilated racing kit from Lemarq
The 3 HotChillee teams were decked out in cycling kit from Lemarq - designed especially for the 2013 Cape Epic. While we looked fast and professional, there were two slight oversights. Firstly, the sizing. Over the years I've learned that to get a figure hugging aero cycling top in South Africa I need to wear a small, so it was with a little trepidation that I tried on my medium HotChillee top. To call it figure hugging would be polite. I had to open the zip just to breath it was so tight. There was absolutely no room for weight gain or water retention in this kit. The second oversight was as a result of an attempt to keep the black HotChillee kit as cool as possible. Large semi transparent breathable sections were used on the rear of the shirts. Fantastic for riding in the African heat. Not so fantastic for riding in the African sun. After Stage 1, most of the HotChillee riders were sporting what I like to call Angel Wings. I made a mental note to include putting sunscreen on my back in my pre stage preparations after that.

One of many amazing sections of single track
My Angel Wings
Stage 2 was a transitional stage, a way to get from Citrusdal to Tulbagh via dirt roads and orchards. I would have consigned it to my long list of unremarkable Epic stages if it were not for two sections. The first being some meandering single track cut into a saddle between two mountains. It broke the mould for the entire day’s riding - it served no purpose other than to bring a smile to the faces of the riders. We zigged and zagged, bobbed and weaved, around boulders, through gorges, over rocks, in the middle of the Koue Bokkeveld, with no other sign of human life for as far as one could see. The second section was the crazy scary descent into Tulbagh - a 15km long technical downhill that scored a near perfect 10 on the smile-o-meter. I felt sorry for the people who walked sections of the Prologue - they were going to be in for a long day of hike-a-biking. Despite our general indifference to the stage, we finished in 69th place.

The Koue Bokkeveld playground
The great thing about being part of a group of teams is the comradery. Here was HotChillee’s founder Sven doing his first Epic along with roadie and Triple Crown winner Stephen, who had only been on a mountain bike 3 times before the start of the 2013 Cape Epic, and they were having a ball. Sharing our Epic experiences each day helped us forget about the bad bits, and remember the good ones.

Dinner with a Triple Crown winner
Evidence that even a World Champ needs a nap every now and then
Stages 3 and 5 were virtually carbon copies of each other, loops around town that went in search of the best mountain biking each area had to offer. Despite being significantly shorter than the transitional stages, I found them far tougher. In a good way. They suited our rule way better and we were able to do our own thing without being sucked along in the excitement and testosterone of the bunch. I was able to get my diesel engine going, steadily tapping out a pace as Captain Craig adopted the rather new and unfamiliar position of riding behind me. Slowly but surely The HotChillee Express would move through the field, catching and passing teams we’d waved goodbye to several hours previously, and in the process dishing out a psychological blow to any resistance that remained. We finished those stages in 51st and 58th place respectively - again, beyond our wildest dreams. At the back of my mind I had this nagging question - when was it all going to come crashing down?

Right now, nothing else matters
Like any marriage there are always ups and downs, and Stage 4 was divorce day. Another transitional stage of 121kms. Right from the start Captain Craig was pushing my buttons. We were going too fast, chasing wheels, and I was riding outside of my comfort zone. While I can ride there for a bit, I knew I was going to pay for any excess effort in 3 or 4 hours time. This wasn’t the plan. It wasn’t what we’d spoken about. If looks and thoughts could kill, Captain Craig would have been in a ditch at the side of the road very early on. After some harsh words and some marriage counseling, Team HotChillee Infinity had patched things up sufficiently and we reverted back to the plan. Slow and steady. Ride our own pace. Ignore everyone else. As we wound our way towards Wellington, things started to fall into place and the early morning argument started to fade from my memory. We were passing teams again, moving through the field, inflicting psychological hammer blows all over the place. Over Bain’s Kloof and into the single track of Welvanpas, Captain Craig on my wheel. Despite the early difficulties, we finished the stage in 54th place, the dream still was alive, and getting more and more surreal as each day passed. For the first time, I dared to think about the finish in Lourensford.

Our home for a week
The 11 o'clock HotChillee Express
Stage 6 was billed as the Queen stage for the 2013 Cape Epic. A 100km transitional stage from Wellington to Stellenbosch with 3000m of climbing. As a one day event this would be tough, let alone on legs that had already ridden 5 long gruelling stages. The air of trepidation hanging over the race village was almost palpable. Survive this stage and that Epic medal was virtually guaranteed. Right from the start I was in a very bad place. My lack of training was finally catching up with me, and while we were making good progress, I was heading deeper and deeper into unknown. Up until now I’d briefly encountered The Hand of Shame on my back as Captain Craig would gently push and nudge me along, but today I wholeheartedly embraced it. The Team HotChillee Infinity marriage was once again rock solid. Apart from 25 minutes in the middle of the stage, I remained firmly entrenched at the back of my pain cave. In attempt to get more power to my legs, parts of my brain were shutting down - I was reverting to head nods and hand signals as a means of communication, and despite the massive amounts of support Team HotChillee had on the side of the road yelling our names, my facial recognition centres had completely shut down. To all those supporters - I have no idea who you were, but your shouts of encouragement went a long way to preventing me from adopting the fetal position under a bush, wishing the torment would end. That, and the thought that as much as I was suffering here towards the front of the race, how would the other HotChillee team of Jan and Alan be coping? In comparison, I’m sure I was getting the magic carpet ride. Despite the hardships of the day, we finished with another amazing result - 53rd - which just reaffirmed that I possibly wasn't the only person out there suffering. That was confirmed when the leading women’s duo crossed the line with Yolande Speedy (we went to school together) sporting a broken clavicle and two broken ribs. Time for me to man up a little.

And just like that, the adventure is over
Captain Craig and I, enjoying the moment
With one stage to go, there was suddenly talk of a top 50 finish. This was completely against the rule that had got us this far. We were lying in 52nd place overall with a short 54km stage remaining. I doubted we could make up the 5 minutes required, and instead convinced Captain Craig to settle for just beating the team ahead of us - Team Loutrans - with whom we’d done battle before at the TransBaviaans and come off second best. One thing counted in our favour - we were now riding on my local training routes - we’d need any advantage we could get. Right from the start the racing was furious - my heart rate was the highest it had been since the Prologue, and looking back, I whacked several of my personal best’s on Strava. And that was even before The Hand of Shame made it’s appearance. We passed Team Loutrans very early on and now my sole objective was to get to Lourensford - my driving motivator being a bath in the Victorian bath in our new house. Retrospectively, I should have noticed it but at the time I was too focussed on the bath - Captain Craig had merely paid lip service to the agreed upon plan and was doing everything in his power to get me up the hills and closer to that mythical top 50 finish. He pushed and pulled and encouraged me every inch of the way, and despite a rather nasty fall almost within sight of the finish, used every ounce of energy he had left to get us across the line as quickly as we could go. All I wanted was that bath. As we crossed that line we couldn’t afford to celebrate just yet. When Team Loutrans eventually made an appearance 5 minutes later I thought that was it. The Epic was over. We’d ridden a fairy tale of a ride, had a ball of a time doing so, and hung out with the best teammates and support crew one could hope for. What could be better than that? And then Captain Craig got the SMS - our daily update on our placing. Team HotChillee Infinity had finished the stage in 59th place, but more importantly, we were 50th on the general classification. It’s not often that a fairy tale has a fairy tale ending.

Immediate relief after crossing the line
Team HotChillee celebrating after the SMS
To all the people at HotChillee that made this ride possible - thank you. To the (often faceless) supporters, family and friends that cheered us on along the way, that sent us messages of encouragement and support - every little bit helped us through, especially during the darkest moments. To the other HotChillee riders - well done on a fantastic ride, and thank you for the camaraderie and conversation - it was an inspiration having you guys around. To our support crew - thank you for indulging our every whim, for tolerating our porridge brains, and for enduring some rather dodgy camping conditions, all in the name of making our lives easier off the bike. You guys are the real champs. To Captain Craig, thanks for that phone call, and for getting me through this adventure, Hand of Shame and all. Lastly, to the friends that helped my wife move house - we’ve named the rooms in our house after each of you and you're welcome to stop by anytime - thank you.

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