Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Posted by Velouria Posted on 15:49 | 1 comment

2014 Cape Rouleur

After spending last year's event in the front seat of a lead car, I got the opportunity to take part in this year's Cape Rouleur as a Ride Captain. That's like the guy who drives the luggage van at the airport being promoted to pilot and told to have fun, while being responsible for the safety of all the passengers. A tall order, but one that I looked forward to. My first order of business in my new found position was to meet my fellow co-pilots - Flash, Captain and DT, and then the people we'd be sharing the road with over the next couple of days.

As the riders slowly trickled into Franschhoek, a sense of nervous excitement started to build. Many of the riders had endured some rather damp and soggy hours in the saddle during the recent inclement European winter, in the hope of arriving in South Africa with some semblance of form, and were eager to measure their progress against their fellow competitors. The tell tale sign as to a rider's origin was the colour of their skin, with the pasty, pallid Europeans sticking out like sore thumbs.

To seed the 150 riders into their appropriate groups based on ability, the Cape Rouleur starts with a rather vicious 7km time trial. And to make the Europeans feel slightly more at home, the heavens had opened just before the scheduled start. With the locals wearing all the kit they owned in a bid to stay warm and dry, and the Northerners running around like ducks in the rain, the riders set off in batches on the out and back course, in order to set a time that would determine their fate for the next couple of days. Ride too fast and you'd spend 3 days rubbing shoulders with the racing snakes, biting down on handlebar tape and chasing wheels, while if you took it too slowly you'd get the scenic option and be in contention for the "Most Cycling" award. Get the speed just right and you'd end up in the Goldilocks group - Group 2 - the social racers' group. We'd race hard, but get plenty of opportunity to look around and enjoy the magnificent surrounds of the Western Cape.

Lovely weather for ducks
With the time trial behind us, Group 2 lined up on Monday morning in the streets of Franschhoek, a rather diverse collection of riders. We had bankers and orthopaedic surgeons, cricketers and celebrity chefs, and lots of people "involved" in private equity. We also had the honour of hosting the racing ladies, which not only upped the level of competition in the group, but also made Group 2 the best looking group out on the road. The riders of Group Two also had a wide range of skill levels, ranging from the seasoned veterans, to the and complete novices, and all those in between. Yet this didn't seem to matter as today we were cycling companions, united by our common passion of sleek, two wheeled, racing machines.

Those Magnificent Men (and Women) and their Racing Machines 
Stage One was a warm up, both in terms of riding as well as the scenery, as we eased into the routine of the coming days. A nice long roll out of town at a comfortable conversational pace, followed by 20kms of helter skelter lung burning racing, before returning to the more sensible pace for the trip back home. All this was interrupted by a very civilised lunch stop each day to refuel the legs and chat about the stage so far. Gentleman (and gentlewoman) racing at its best. The added bonus being that we did all this with rolling road closure in a safe and controlled environment, managed and organised by the very capable ThinkBike marshals (aka Our Guardian Angels).

Some of the ThinkBike Marshals that kept us safe, along with Stephen Roche
While the wind caused some havoc during Stage One, there was another silent assassin that was stealthily creeping through the peloton, causing chaos, panic and confusion wherever it struck. A particularly potent version of Gastroenteritis was doing the rounds, and no one was safe. Toilet paper became a valued commodity, being traded in dark corners and shady locations, and it wasn't unusual to see riders carrying their own supply of baby wipes in their jersey pockets with a rather concentrated look on their faces.

Stage Two dawned with the mountain goats licking their lips - we were leaving behind the flat lands of the Swartland, and heading into the hills. Those that had avoided The Plague so far were in for a tough day out, with 3 big climbs to look forward to, and some rather spectacular Overberg scenery to distract them. After only one day of riding, the changes in Group 2 were quite visible too. The riders were more confident and more cohesive - working as a well oiled machine as we ticked off the miles. The nervousness and uncertainty of the previous day a thing of the past. As further testament to our Goldilocks status, Stephen Roche had decided to ride with us. If ever there was an opportunity to learn how to ride a bike, now was the chance.

Group Two Ride Captains taking a breather
Once again, the racing ladies didn't disappoint in the timed section, which set everything up for a very interesting final stage. Up front, our new resident Triple Crown winner was mixing it with the best Group 2 had to offer, and despite carrying a few extra winter kilos (much like Flash, our pregnant Ride Captain), Stephen's skill, power and agility were on display for all to watch - if you could keep up. After regrouping, catching our breath, and stocking up on fluid, we had one more challenge for the day - rolling into Franschhoek ahead of Group 1. The only thing standing in our way was Franschhoek Pass - a 7.6km climb at an average gradient of 5%. With determination and sheer will power, each and every rider in Group 2 turned themselves inside out to get up that climb as quickly as possible. Being the first group to roll into Franschhoek made it all worth it, bragging rights, Häagen-Dazs ice cream and cold beer being our reward.

With the cycling over, it was time for the post race feast
Stage Three was the queen stage - a monster 208km stage again finishing with a climb up Franschhoek Pass. The day started with a scenic sunrise ride through the winelands of Stellenbosch to one of the most beautiful roads in the Western Cape, the road from Gordon's Bay to Rooi Els, before giving everybody one last chance to race. The ladies racing was down to the wire, with several speedy women still vying for top honours - a handful of seconds separating the top contenders. With one kilometre to go in the timed section there was still everything to race for, when, in the blink of an eye there was a touch of wheels, a blood curdling yell, and the smell of burning brakes. Two riders went down in the chaos, one rather seriously. In a display of bravery that will leave most men cringing, Genelle did a quick survey of the damage - phone, bike, body - in that order, without once wincing or flinching.

After a welcome lunch break at Arabella Golf Estate which saw the medics working overtime, we were off - the remaining 80kms of the 2014 Cape Rouleur ahead of us. We'd all switched into survival mode, ticking off the kilometres one by one, whilst doing our best to enjoy what was left of the stage. Things weren't all bad, as there was still a constant buzz of chatter, a sign that while the bodies might be tired and sore, the riders were still having a good time under the African sun. One last time over Franschhoek Pass, a speedy descent and the finish line awaited the men and women of Group Two. We'd survived an amazing adventure on the roads of the Western Cape, enduring some diverse weather conditions and The Plague, enjoying the scenery and the company of the riders around us. We started off as fifty-something nervous bike riders, but ended as fifty-something accomplished cyclists, united in conquering the 2014 Cape Rouleur.

A gaggle of Ride Captains
A big thank you to all the crew who worked tirelessly to make this a special event, to the other Ride Captains for showing me the ropes - DT, Captain and Flash - I hope my piloting skills were ok for a baggage handler, and to all the guys and girls that made Group Two the Goldilocks group - thank you all for reminding us what a beautiful country we live in and for sharing 600kms of bicycling heaven. I hope to see everyone again at the next HotChillee event.

Some of the very capable crew that looked after all of us

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Posted by Velouria Posted on 08:24 | 3 comments

2014 The Big Day Out

After my rather disappointing 24hr effort, I was left with the feeling that the season would slip by and I would be left with out a defining highlight. When I read about the antics of Richie Porte and Cam Wurf I just knew this was the redemption I was seeking. An epic adventure. A ridiculous all day ride. And I wanted to do it with someone. Finding someone who would ride with me on something like this excluded just about everyone that I know, except Captain Craig. If there is one guy that likes spending vast amounts of time on a bike almost as much as me, it's him.

Once we had agreed on doing something truly monumental, we had to iron out the details. What exactly would a monumental ride be for us "normal" guys (the mere fact that we were discussing this precluded us from being called normal)? Richie and Cam had done 403kms, but they are professional bike riders, so we settled on 250kms as a starting point. But that just didn't sound monumental. That would be tough, and hardcore, but we've 250kms before. We had to go further. It had to be over 300kms, and the thinking was that if we're going to go that far, why not go a little bit further. The furtherest I have ridden in one outing is 355kms, twice, at 24hr events. We had to top that. So we settled on 356+kms.

Captain Craig came up with a route, starting at my house and finishing at his house, and going through 11 towns around the Western Cape, over 5 passes, and through some of the most scenic countryside the Western Cape has to offer.

With the route organised we just had to find a day worthy of our endeavour. Scanning the long term forecasts on WindGuru and yr.no we spotted a likely candidate. A Wednesday with almost no wind, and a maximum temperature of 35 in the shade. We had our epic route, and an epic day to match.
At 5:44 we set off, not too sure if we would reach our goal, but keen to enjoy a day out on the bike where heart rate zones and Strava segments didn't matter. Riding bikes for the sake of riding bikes. Almost immediately we were struck by the realisation that 356kms is a long long way. An hour in and we were less than 10% of the way. Very quickly our approach changed from knocking off the miles to achieving mini targets - top of a climb, the next town, a coke stop etc. The less we thought about the kilometres, the quicker they passed us by, and with the beautiful scenery all around us to distract us, this was rather easy.
Almost immediately, we realised that WindGuru might have been lying to us. We had been promised a near windless day, yet we were toiling into a stiff headwind as we made our way from Stellenbosch to Franschoek. The wind got worse as we started the ascent of the Franschoek Pass, and for a brief moment we considered changing our route (and effectively wimping out). After careful consideration to Rule 5 we persevered on with the original plan.
Our first stop of the day was in Villiersdorp for a top up of water, after 86kms of riding. So far it felt like every other ride, we were still well within our comfort zones, and despite the horrid head wind, we were having a good time. We were already riding on virgin roads - although we had previously ridden in the area a few times during the Cape Epic. Before long we had knocked up 100km, and just like that, the wind dropped. The depressing part was the realisation that we still weren't even a third of the way into our big ride.
Our next stop was in Worcester, 140kms in, which on it's own would be good day's outing. When comparing it to what we still had to do, it seemed like a warm up ride. By now we were starting to feel the heat, as it picked up over 30C for the first time. Some coke and snacks in the air-conditioned comfort of the Shell Ultra City gave us a brief respite, before we set off to tackle the remaining 210kms.

By now we were riding from town to town, coke stop to coke stop, slowly accumulating kilometres. The scenery and surrounds became more important than the average speed and heart rate zone. We hit the bottom of Bainskloof after 6 hours of riding, with the temperatures in the high 30s. The sparkling water in the river below, much like the Sirens, were speaking to Captain Craig, luring him in with promises of relief from the heat. And much like Jason, we resisted - we had our journey to complete.
The relief of reaching the top of the climb was twofold - not only had we done most of the climbing for the day, we had also crossed the halfway mark. It's quite amazing to realise the psychological impact little milestones like this have. We were now homeward bound. And our first order of business was to stop for lunch in Wellington after enjoying the descent off Bainskloof. Nothing better than a Gatsby, a chocolate SteriStumpi, and a coke.
The temperature was now above 40C and still climbing, and if Captain Craig has one weakness on a bike (apart from descending - apparently), it's the heat. And since I'd asked him to come along on this ride, I felt I owed it to him to make sure he survived. That's the level we had dropped to - survival. One pedal stroke after the next. We were now no longer riding side by side and chatting, it was a return to our familiar Epic position of me on the front, and Craig behind, riding a steady tempo.
On the stretch from Wellington to Malmesbury we began to realise just what we'd gotten ourselves into. The water in our water bottles was like tea, our mouths were constantly dry, and the sun was baking down on our backs. We felt like chickens in a convection oven, the heat radiating off the tar and cooking us from below. By some miracle, we stopped at a wine farm before attempting Bothmanskloof Pass for Captain Craig to cool down, and for us to refill the water bottles. I turned my back for a second, only to be greeted with Captain Craig practically lying under a tap and dousing himself in water. After clearing my throat several times, and looking longingly at the hill, he reluctantly got the hint that we actually needed to continue on our ride. With bottles filled and core temperatures chilled, we set off to tackle the climb.
And about a kilometre later we found ourselves standing on the side of the road in 47C heat fixing a puncture. You might be able to spot a bit of grumpiness on Captain Craig's face ;)
With the puncture fixed, we made it to the top of the climb with a mere 125kms to go. Fifteen kilometres later and we made Malmesbury - a little later than planned - and had another welcome coke break.
Despite having done 240kms, the section of road the I loathe and fear the most in the Western Cape still awaited us - the soul destroying strip of tar from Malmesbury to Durbanville. There isn't one outstanding reason why I detest this road so much, but it is the sum of several small factors that work together to make this road The Highway to Hell. The surface is rough and uneven. It's a gentle drag uphill for most of the way. It's pretty much dead straight. It's directly into the prevailing wind. And there is absolutely nothing of interest to look at. If there was one stretch of road that could derail the big day out, this was it. But we hadn't come this far to let some road get the better of us. It took us an hour to do 25kms, and another hour to do the next 20kms, and in the process we gave up on 356+km. We were just too shattered and short on time that we opted for a short cut. Without that short cut, we would have had to call off the rest of the ride.

And just like he always does, Captain Craig came good as my legs started to protest by violently cramping. The only positive was that the nausea I was feeling from drinking too much coke was no longer my biggest issue. As we left Durbanville behind, the wind dropped and the sun dipped towards the horizon. It really was quite magical. With Table Mountain now almost within touching distance, we set off towards Blouberg and the Bike Path (people around here refer to it as if it is the only bike path), and our way to get through the tangle that is Cape Town's roads. We got onto the Bike Path, and I felt a change - my legs seemed to revive a little, and our mood lifted. Suddenly, we weren't riding a 356+km ride any more, we were just riding. In the City. On bikes. With all sorts of other people out and about exercising and enjoying the very best that the Cape has to offer. We wound our way through the City, and out towards Captain Craig's house.

We didn't quite achieve our intended goal of 356+kms. We did something more. We had an amazing day out, riding bikes because we can, and enjoying the very best that the Western Cape has to offer. We saw some amazing scenery, shared the road with some courteous and considerate drivers, and watched ordinary people go about their business, all from the comfort of our saddles.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Posted by Velouria Posted on 23:06 | 1 comment

Oak Valley 24hr 2014

After my previous disappointment with the state of affairs of South African mountain biking at the 2013 Wines2Whales, it's refreshing to know that there still are a few events left on the calendar that hark back to the days of when it was more about the experience, and less about cost of your bike. Dirtopia's 24 hour races have always been such events and after some declining numbers in the past few years, it was great to see a massive turnout at Oak Valley.

No caption required
As I crossed the finish line at Stromlo last October, I vowed to never again ride a 24hr competitively. I'd had a good run and I'd proved everything I needed to prove (mostly to myself, as while there are other competitors in a 24hr race, ultimately you're just racing yourself). And yet late one December night, like Santa Claus sneaking around a house to eat the cookies and deliver presents, I found myself tiptoeing towards the study, making sure my wife was still sound asleep, to enter Dirtopia's 24hrs of Oak Valley. While I'd committed to enter, I still had an escape clause - I was just going to have fun, do a few laps, and drink some beer. Ride the single speed. No racing. My back and hands have still not recovered from the beating they took in Australia, nearly 3 months later.

The curse of the Number 1 board
Looking back, I think I'm addicted more to the training for 24hr races than the events themselves. They give me an excuse to spend large parts of my weekends on my bike, often alone, just enjoying the splendor and beauty that the Western Cape has to offer. I've been to places that I wouldn't otherwise venture, taken roads not because they go somewhere, but because they look interesting. There is something satisfying about uploading a 180km ride to Strava, knowing that no amount of KOMs or kudos will match the reward of the ride itself. In a way, this is much the same as 24hr riding - the personal sense of accomplishment that can't be captured by words and segments. It's a drug you have to experience, and once you do, you just keep on coming back. And perhaps that was why no one was buying my "just for fun" line - they knew me better than I knew myself.

Ready to roll
While I hope never to experience the real thing, I think countdown to a 24hr is much the same as the countdown to an execution. Initially, it seems so far away, as if it isn't even real, yet slowly but surely the days tick by, until before you know it, it's the only thing on your mind, consuming your entire reserve of mental and emotional strength. A big, nasty, insurmountable obstacle. With usually a very painful outcome. There is nothing on the other side, no Monday morning, just it. It gnaws away at you, looking for weakness, trying to wear you down. You worry. You sleep less. You stress over the minutest detail. Deep down, you hope that by ignoring it, it will leave you alone, but that just intensifies its power. And then the day dawns.

Up and away
In the short time of 4 weeks, I'd gone from "having fun and drinking beer" to full on race mode. It came as a bit of a surprise to me - I thought I was stronger than that. And yet it surprised no one else. Much like my repeated retirements, everyone else was able to see that I wouldn't be able to resist the lure of racing. And it wasn't because of the fame, the podium girls, the mega contracts or fast cars. I race because that is who I am. What I am. The one thing I can do well on a bike. 24hr racing.

Going for Gold
Come race day and there were some familiar faces, and some new ones. After the pleasantries of the race briefing and the traditional Le Mans start amble across the rugby field to our bikes we were on our way. A 24hr certainly isn't won on the first lap, or the second or third, and it takes a mountain of effort not to get caught up in the racing with the teams and other over zealous riders. You have to ignore the youngsters flying past you, resist the urge to show them that you too can ride a bike fast, and tap out a steady pace. While there are riders around you, you're essentially alone in a race of one.

Not sure who is having more fun
In a rather unexpected move, I'd been given the Number 1 race board. I prefer the comfort and safety of anonymity, of being the underdog, yet here I was with a massive bull's eye on my back. My biggest concern was being able to do the board justice. To live up to the expectation. With barely a quarter of the first lap done, my bike let out a toe curling screech, like the bats of hell had just been released. I frantically looked around to see if I could spot the offending bike component, but isolating a murderous squeal on a moving bike while navigating some single track is not a skill I've acquired. The wailing continued for a few more minutes, and then, like a mortally wounded demon, there was silence. I managed to convince myself the pending apocalypse had been stalled, and that everything was ok. Until I switched down into my granny gear. Pedal pedal, drop the chain. Curse at the mechanic. Stop. Put the chain back on. Pedal pedal drop the chain. Stop. Turn the thumb adjusters. Curse at the mechanic's unborn children, his mother and his dog. Put the chain back on. Pedal pedal drop the chain. Use some words I'm a little embarrassed about now. Stop. Put the chain back on in the middle blade and grind up the hill frantically trying to figure out what went wrong. And then I saw it - a badly bent chain blade from a chain ring bolt that had decided to work itself lose, and in the process unleash the wrath of the titans on my poor granny gear.

Searching for that zone
I persevered a few more laps, abusing the very legs I was hoping to look after, while in the background my ever supportive wife and excellent pit manager (the same person) was trying to come up with a solution. A few laps later I was pulled over to the side by members of the Basin Mountain Bike club and they proceeded to replace the offending chain ring. While I can't claim that the stop was with the efficiency of a Formula One pit crew, the eagerness and willingness to help was greatly appreciated. I'd lost 8 minutes, but more importantly, I was once again riding a fully serviceable bike.

The offending chainring.
A few more uneventful laps went by, slowly laying a foundation, trying to be as consistent as possible. And while everything was going smoothly, I was struggling to get into a rhythm. My laps were a little inconsistent. I was aware of some aches and pains. Not riding aches and pains. Something else. I first wrote it down to a sugar drop, and after a few swigs of Coke I was on my way. But the feeling persisted. A monster headache, a sore jaw, blocked ears. What was going on? I was lying in second place, 15 minutes down, having done 13 laps. Exactly where I wanted to be. Yet not feeling like I could do this for another 15 hours. As I sat eating my supper, my heart rate racing, I had to make a decision. And it wasn't whether I wanted tomato sauce on my chips. Should I continue? Was it just in my head? We've all heard the stories about that guy who decided to race while sick. Was I going to be that guy? I've made some tough decisions in the past, like which colour Salomons to buy, or how high my socks must be on a road ride, but nothing has been quite as tough as deciding to pull out of a 24hr. I knew what the right decision was, but it came with baggage, unanswered questions, and a large dose of remorse.

The Team - Bike, Rider, and Manager
With me feeling rather sorry for myself, the racing continued. Pieter Erwee put in a phenomenal ride, leading from the front, collecting laps like a magpie on a rubbish heap, to eventually end on 33 laps (or 380km). The Other Lance, having learned his mistake of going too hard too soon at both the 2012 Double Century and the 2013 Oak Valley 24hr finished in a well deserved 2nd, with newcomer Ray van Breda just behind in 3rd. In the ladies, Tracey Lentin showed that age is no obstacle, narrowly beating Melinda Griffiths.

The race of one
With its new slot, the addition of the very competitive schools section, and a fabulous venue, Dirtopia's 24hrs of Oak Valley is certainly the trendsetter for 24hr events in South Africa. Not only is the racing good, but the atmosphere both out on the course and in the camp site is amazing - mountain bikers escaping the hustle bustle to ride bikes, drink beer, and forget about city life for a couple of days. And you know what - I'll be back. And I'll be racing, even if it is just myself.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Posted by Velouria Posted on 17:41 | 11 comments

Coronation Double Century 2013

Unseasonal weather, year end functions, flash floods and the turning on of the Christmas lights mean only one thing - it's Coronation Double Century time. Another crazy South African invention, right up there with the Kreepy KraulyDolosse and Pratley Putty, the Coronation Double Century is a 12 man team time trial over 202kms, with over 320 teams participating, that tests everything from fitness and endurance to friendship and one's sense of humour.

Team HotChillee
After the breakout performance in 2012 where Team HotChillee narrowly missed out on a spot on the podium, we came back fitter, stronger, and more determined to leave our mark on this monument of South African long distance road racing. We scrutinized the palmarès of several cyclists, handpicking riders from various disciplines and specialities that would contribute positively to the team and get us closer to that podium. And then we got the news. HotChillee had secured the services of Team Sky's Ben Swift. Once word got out we were so inundated with CVs that we had to turn riders away. We weren't just looking for guys that could ride bikes - Team HotChillee is about racing hard, but it's also about making friends, having fun, and not taking ourselves too seriously.

Ben Swift, and evidence that pro's do carry saddle bags.
Apart from Ben Swift, this year's team had a unique flavour to it. We had several seasoned campaigners, an iron man, a handful of rouleurs, a few triathletes, some race snakes and a talented youngster by the name of Nicholas Dlamini. Take note of the name, as I'm sure we're just seeing the beginning of something very special. Together, we had a near perfect combination of speed, strength, experience, and eagerness of youth. Unlike other teams that begin their DC preparation in early May with training rides and weekends away, Team HotChillee has a "rock up and ride" approach. We all know what is required and go about our preparation in our individual ways. Our first training ride together is often the ride down to the start line.

Nicholas Dlamini - a super exciting talent on a bike
I was more than aware that I wasn't in the greatest of shape, struggling to find some form after my Australian adventure. Rather than waste my time on some last minute secret training - I spent the week leading up to the DC clearing out my pain cave, making sure it was as comfortable and cosy as possible, as I came to terms that I would be spending a fair amount of time lurking in the shadows at the very back. Once I had made peace with my destiny, a sense of calm washed over me and I was ready to race.

Last minute strategy consultations
Team HotChillee had a 7:09 start time - 3rd last. By the time the top teams are lining up, the carnival atmosphere that hangs in the air for the earlier teams has dissipated, and a sense of quiet determination replaces it. We all know what we're in for, what we've got to do, and how it is going to feel. There is a mutual respect amongst the top teams - bitter competitors on the bike, and mates off the bike - we let the cycling do the talking.

Race line nerves - old hat for the pros.
In retrospect, it was a miracle that Team HotChillee even made the start line. An incident that will forever be referred to as as The Great Sock Mutiny threatened to end our DC without a single pedal stroke. In order to look like a true racing team, Captain Craig had issued each team member with a pair of (second hand) HotChillee socks. The only problem was that these socks barely covered our ankles, and in the age of almost calf high socks this is not acceptable. And to make it worse - our pro was lucky enough to escape the short sock fate that awaited us - something about contracts and obligations. Amidst allegations of Captain Craig being an undercover UCI sock regulator, a compromise was reached - stretch the living daylights out of the short HotChillee socks and next year we'd have UCI legal long HotChillee socks. Crisis averted. Barely.

Team HotChillee's template for next year
After an inspiring introduction by Paul Kaye, Team HotChillee were off, led out under the guidance of Ben - our level headed euro pro with as much talent as the rest of the team combined. We were not going to start too fast, and instead, aim to finish strong - a particular weakness in recent years. By the time we'd left the city limits of Swellendam my vision was already beginning to narrow, my entire consciousness focussed on the wheel ahead of me. All that mattered were the 11 other individual bike riders around me and how we coordinated our efforts together to work as a well oiled machine, slicing through the cold morning air.

I think Ben might be drafting me
The first hour is always the worst - it is the hour when your fears and doubts nag away at you the most. The hour when you haven't quite found your spot in the pain cave and made yourself at home. How much longer can I keep this up? Will I be the first to drop? Are we starting too fast? And just when the team was settling down to business, Halfway Warren broke a spoke. There were unconfirmed eyewitness reports that claimed to see him putting his foot into his spokes, but given the fact that Halfway Warren didn't finish last year's DC and that he had a score to settle, I find this difficult to believe. He tried to ride on valiantly, but a few hundred metres later any dreams of losing his nickname vanished as he punctured. Suddenly, Team HotChillee were down to 11 riders with 170kms to go.

Ben keeping an eye on the Dan the Iron Man
Despite losing Broom Wagon Warren we continued to make good progress, catching and passing several teams ahead of us before the climbing started. Ben, Jarryd and the other mountain goats set a steady pace, which for us bigger guys is still pretty much flat out, as we wound our way up Tradouw Pass. In previous years I've marvelled at the beauty and the scenery, but this year it was all business and hard work. Dan the Iron Man, like a fish out of water, was getting up to things that only a triathlete could, dropping back to rescue dropped teammates that we'd given up on. I half expected to see him come running past me after donating his bike to Broom Wagon Warren.

Captain Craig getting some advice in the picnic zone
From the back of my pain cave I really wasn't noticing much, apart from the wheel in front of me. Ask if I saw the guy riding in the tutu dress, or if I witnessed Captain Craig's bottle dropping harakiri incident and you'll get a blank stare from me. However, ask me to describe the back wheel, cluster and riding style of a member of Team HotChillee and I could spend hours recalling the minutest detail. Alistair looks like he's wrestling an alligator - in the saddle one moment, and out the next. And then there's Nic's restricted junior gearing rear cluster. In order for him to keep up with Ben Swift (with a surname like that, Ben was always destined to be a fast cyclist, or a fighter pilot) he spins his legs at such a cadence that small vortices are visible on either side of his bike. Imagine trying to ride in your 14 sprocket at 82km/h down the other side of Op de Tradouw Pass - that's a cadence of 164.

Not many people can say they've had a Team Sky rider touch their nipples.
Broom Wagon Warren can
With the 3 hour mark approaching, we pulled into the compulsory picnic zone at Ashton, having covered the 115.6km in 2h58. The opportunity to regroup, refuel and revise our strategy was welcomed by all, some a little more than others. The entire team, except for Broom Wagon Warren, was back, and as we waited for Lieuwe to conclude some important business, all thoughts were on the remaining 84kms. We'd been solid this far, but we needed to keep it going. Give as much as you can for the team, and then give a little bit extra. Creep a little further into the cave.

A jubulent Team HotChillee
In what felt like a repeat of previous years, things started going wrong almost as soon as we left the picnic zone. We dropped our backup almost immediately, followed shortly by Hector the Hulk. A sudden surge and Captain Craig found himself staring at a gap that he couldn't close and suddenly we were down to 9 riders with 70kms to go. Doc Dylan was the next to wave goodbye, and I was hanging on by a thread. As we overtook several slower teams and their backup vehicles in a rather harrowing experience, I had a moment of inattention and found myself gapped by my team. I did everything I could to close it, pedalling with muscles I didn't know I had, desperately calling for more power from the engine room. But none was forthcoming. Ben looked over his shoulder and volunteered to come and rescue me - but it would have been futile. I waved him away, resigned to my fate of limping the remaining 55kms home. I watched the 7 remaining Team HotChillee riders winding their way cautiously through the back markers as they headed for the line. It was now up to Ben, Nic, Dan, Jarryd, Lieuwe, Alistair and David to finish what we'd all started.

Post race, pre prize giving chilling
As I slowly emerged from my cave I realised that I still hadn't seen our backup vehicle. I wasn't concerned about my own well being - I would get to the end eventually. I was worried that our race snakes up ahead could find themselves in difficulty without any support. Somewhere behind us in the chaos and congestion, our backup vehicle was stuck, having to fend off attacks from inexperienced drivers and cyclists alike as they tried to weave through the disorder and pandemonium. The only thing I could do was hope that Broom Wagon Warren's earlier sacrifice would be enough to appease the cycling gods and that we'd be spared any additional misfortune. The closer I got to the finish without seeing Team HotChillee on the side of the road, the more I believed we stood a chance.

As I entered the finishing arena I caught the announcer listing the provisional results. Some team in first, another in second, and then I heard it - Team HotChillee in third. They'd done it. We'd done it. Something us average, everyday guys had been dreaming about for years. Twelve guys who'd never ridden together before as a team, from all over the world, with differing backgrounds, cultures and upbringings had united on race day behind a single goal and achieved it. Each and every member had contributed. And while the result is special, I think the commitment and camaraderie displayed by Team HotChillee will be my enduring memory of this year's Coronation Double Century.

The podium
A big thanks to everyone who made this weekend possible - Sven and HotChillee, Captain Craig, our backup crew of Bonte, Yolanda and Michelle, and everyone else behind the scenes. To our imports - Ben and Dan - it was great riding with you and we hope to see out in South Africa again. And to the rest of the team - thank you and well done. Now lets aim one step higher.

Lieuwe mixing his fake fur

Nicholas playing golf not nearly as well as he cycles

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Posted by Velouria Posted on 15:42 | 4 comments

Wines2Whales 2013

After the mutual dissolution of Team Starsky and Hutch - Red John was looking for a real race snake that could match his climbing prowess and I was looking for a partner that would let me stop at the water points - I was left wondering who I could ride Wines2Whales with. Enter Halfway Warren. Our new team, The French Toast Mafia, promised to be a halfway house for those a little low on form, slightly overweight, and in desperate need of some last minute training before the upcoming Double Century.

Where is the wine?
The Wines2Whales Race was going to be our adventure - enjoy the beautiful Western Cape scenery, stop at the water points, and drink beer afterwards. We had no expectations of grandeur - my lungs, legs and technical skill were still somewhere in Australia, and Halfway Warren had been spending far too much time on a road bike. Our only goal was to finish.

Come race day we were seeded in A, and as we lined up in our start chute we both noticed an odd vibe. We're both quite used to hanging out with the race snakes on the road that take themselves far too seriously, and it felt like were lining up for The Funride World Champs. You could almost taste the haze of testosterone and leg rub that hung over the start chute. Halfway Warren and I managed to find a relatively safe spot at the back of the pack, away from the once over glances and pretty posers. Without too much fanfare, the gun went off and we were racing. For about 5 minutes. That was how long The French Toast Mafia could hang onto the A bunch. To be fair, it really only one member of The French Mafia that was dragging his lungs up the climb, sweating like a drug mule at Australian Border Control, and cursing his Christmas pie addiction. Me.

Before long, we found ourselves riding completely on our own, caught between two bunches. It felt like we had the whole course to ourselves. No congestion, no testosterone, just open trails and scenic views. The reason I started mountain biking in the first place nearly 20 years ago. With Lourensford less than 5 minutes from my front door, we often take the spectacular beauty and the quality of the riding for granted. Much like a person seeing his life flash before his eyes before dying, I was appreciating any and everything that could take my mind off the suffering. And we weren't even halfway.

Check out The French Toast Mafia at 1:21

And then it came into view. Like an oasis in the desert. A life saver. A morale booster. A safe haven. I'd heard the rumours about the wealth of treasures to be found at Wines2Whales water points, but much like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster I'd never seen them with my own eyes. I was like a kid in a candy store - jelly babies, mini doughnuts, baby potatoes, sandwiches, coke, bananas. And if you thought I was bad, you should have seen Halfway Warren - I was convinced he was going for the "How many baby potatoes can you fit in your mouth at once" award. He got so carried away with those baby potatoes that he offered me one caked in thick layer salt. I could feel the moisture being drawn out of my system as I choked and gagged on the toxic carb bomb, but unlike previous years with Red John, I could just have another coke.

Completely staged for the camera. I was never in front of Halfway Warren at any time on Stage 1
We continued on our way, losing a tit for tat battle with a couple of guys on singlespeeds on the climbs. My shame was now complete. And the downhills weren't much better. I was suffering from a severe case of brain inertia - the inability to make decisions about where to point the bike when faced with upcoming obstacles, often with the results that I simply rode over or into things in front of me. This is in stark contrast to Halfway Warren's obstacle avoiding style. He is so paranoid of puncturing on rocks that he tries to avoid them all. The result is that he swerves all over the place, and I'm convinced he probably rode an extra 10kms because of his rock avoidance paranoia. I eventually gave up trying to follow his line.

We limped over the compulsory portage up the Gantouw Pass, cursing the early pioneers and their choice of escape route from British persecution as our legs started cramping. Cyclists are not built to carry bikes on their shoulders while walking up a mountain. A lot more single track, a bit of climbing, and a swarm of bees later we crossed the line. We'd made our goal - we'd finished in one piece. Time for beer.

Our home away from home
Stage two dawned on us with the fact that The French Toast Mafia had been demoted a group. Which was great. More time to get ready, less argy-bargy, and a more relaxed starting pace. In complete contrast to the previous day, things felt so much better. The legs felt good, the heart and lungs were behaving, and I felt like I was once again riding my bike, not wrestling it. Before long we'd ridden off the front of our group, Halfway Warren on the receiving end of my overnight form. At one point I asked an innocent question and in return I just got the silent treatment. I thought I'd really pissed him off. It turns out that he did reply to me, but only in his head. He lacked the energy and ability to verbalise his thoughts. He swears that the hay fever pill he heard me take before bed was to blame! From there it was into the single track, once again all on our own - just two guys riding bikes and having fun.

The French Toast Mafia, in our HotChillee kit, enjoying the gentle start of Stage 2
As we settled into our rhythm I started noticing things that I'd been oblivious to the day before. Like Halfway Warren's riding quirks. Apart from his rock paranoia, he has an uncanny habit of unclipping his inside foot around corners. He claims it acts as a mix between an air brake and a counter balance, but from behind it looks like he is using it as an indicator. Very considerate of him. And his love of camera men. I don't think there was a camera man that didn't get some sort of crazy pose out him.

My brain inertia of the previous day was gone and my legs just continued to get better. And then it hit me - white line fever. For the second time that day Halfway Warren went quiet as we sped towards the finish line, my body and bike working together in unison for the first time in a month. Throw in parts of the 24hr course and I was on autopilot. The short stage meant that we had plenty of time for beer drinking, navel gazing, and spotting up country folk. The compression pants were the easy tell tales, but with a bit of practice we spotted a few other signs. Exotic race Tshirts, ghastly looking recovery drinks, and of course obsession with position, time and seeding. Sometimes I think the race for 63rd position is fiercer than the race for the podium.

A super slow mo of The French Toast Mafia at 2:49
The final stage dawned on us - I'd once again taken my hay fever tablet and hoped that the legs would stick around for another day. Another gentle start with some rolling hills, and before long The French Toast Mafia were back at the front, opening up the gaps on the climbs and losing some time on the technical descents. The first half of the race whizzed by in a blur, Halfway Warren sticking out his leg all over the place, as we approached the midway water point of the day. In a reversal of Red John's role, I was now having to drag my partner out of the water points as it turns out he is his own worst enemy. Too much time spent at the water point means that Halfway Warren consumes too much, and that means that 10kms later he'll be leaving little surprises all over the place as he purges his overflow valve. Not so nice if you don't know it's coming.

Ironically posing 3 months prior with a protea bush that would send me tumbling on Stage 3
With the scent of the sea filling our nostrils we could almost sense the finish line, and I could feel the onset of white line fever starting when disaster struck. Several teams took a wrong turn up a hill, and realising our mistake turned around to race back down to the missed intersection. In the flash of a second the team in front of me locked up brakes, blocking the whole trail, leaving me nowhere to go but into them, at 31km/h. I flew through the air like a rag doll at a dance a marathon, the contents of my pockets flying in the opposite direction, and came to rest quite heavily on a quartzitic sandstone outcrop, neatly disguised by a fynbos bush. Before I'd even come to a complete stop, the protagonist and his partner were ready to head off down the hill. While I don't mind crashing - it is a consequence of bike riding - I was quite annoyed that Team 431 showed zero empathy and saw this as an opportunity to move up one place in the standings. With barely a concern for my well being or an apology for riding like total beginners, they sped off.

And just like that, a red mist descended. I flew down that mountain, adrenaline pumping, my belly filled with rage. Halfway Warren later told me that he was concerned about what I'd do if we caught the offending team. We did eventually catch them, and luckily for them I'd calmed down sufficiently that instead of there being a cyclist fight, I just mumbled something obscene under my breath.

Nothing says manly like cyclists fighting

With the adrenaline wearing off, I was suddenly quite aware of just how sore my wrist was. Holding on to the bars was difficult, and braking was near impossible, which explains why I washed out on one corner, and rode into Halfway Warren on another. To add insult to injury, Team 431 repassed us, racing as hard as they could for 56th place, eager to drink their recovery drinks and don their compression pants as soon as possible. The irony was we had 10 minutes on Team 431 as they had started in A and we were in B.

With the sea in sight, the enthusiastic support of my wife filling our ears, The French Toast Mafia crossed the line, glad to put the day's adventures behind us. Halfway Warren had been a great partner, dishing it out as well as receiving his fair share of suffering. And despite some near misses, we achieved our goal - we finished.

I learnt a few things at this year's Wines2Whales:
  1. We live in a very beautiful part of the country
  2. There's more to mountain biking events than positions and times
  3. Beer is the only recovery drink anyone should ever need to drink
  4. Halfway Warren has a porta loo phobia
If mountain biking is the new golf, what's the new mountain biking? Is it time to invest in a cyclocross bike?

Thursday, 24 October 2013

My road to the WEMBO World 24hr Solo Mountain Bike Championships didn't begin in April when I said goodbye to my friends and family in favour of spending any and all free time on my bicycle, clocking up the miles on the roads of the Western Cape. It didn't begin last year when Meurant Botha from Dirtopia and Gavin Rossouw (one of SA's top 24hr racers) managed to talk a hole in my head after winning our local 24hr event for the 3rd time, that I needed a new challenge. It began one wintery September day back in 2006 when I couldn't find enough friends to enter a team into our local 24hr event. In a moment of madness, I decided to go it alone and entered as a solo rider. Solo 24hr racing was the stuff the hard tough men of mountain biking did, not something a roadie and part time dirt lover would ever consider.
My first solo 24hr race in 2006

Come race day and I was regretting my moment of bravado - I was so far out of my comfort zone that I was looking for any excuse not to line up on the start line. The real solo riders had pit crews, mechanics, masseuses, coffee machines, spare bikes and all the comforts. I had my wife, a flimsy green gazebo, a Raleigh MTB, and a friend with a skottle braai. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that was my race strategy right from the start. I found a rider going at a pace that I could handle, and I followed him. When he swapped bottles, I swapped bottles. When he ate, I ate. When he put on lights, I put on lights. When he stopped to sleep - well, I was still feeling good and kept on going. Imagine my surprise when, at around midnight, it was announced that I was the new race leader. Now what? Who did I follow and copy now? How do I defend a lead for 12 hours? I valiantly tried to hold on, but 6 hours later Gavin passed me, correcting the temporary imbalance in the universe, and restoring order. I finished in second place, having clocked up 55 laps and 355 kms, but more importantly, I’d joined the club of those hard tough men.
Finishing my first solo 24hr in second place

Over the years I’ve done several 24hr races, faring better at some than at others. My first win was special, as was defending the title a year later. Racing Tinker Juarez (a former 24hr World Champ) in Johannesburg was a highlight and my first test against a legend of the sport.
Tinker and I going head to head

Lining up on the start line at Mount Stromlo, a cycling nirvana on the outskirts of Canberra in Australia, for the World 24hr Solo Mountain Bike Championships reminded me a lot of my first race. I felt so out of my depth. There were guys with full pro sponsorships, fancy pit areas, entourages of supporters, nutritionists, armies of mechanics and several race bikes. I had my wife, a $8 lawn chair, my trusty farm gate of a 29er, a South African flag, and my snacks and supplies in the back of our hire car. I might have felt like an amateur, but at least I looked racey in my Go for Gold sponsored kit.

Our modest pit setup
On the start line, rubbing shoulders with the hot shots

There were 270 entrants for the world champs, but in the only category that I was interested in - Male Elite - there were 27 riders from 8 countries. We each got called up to the start line, and somehow, I ended up next to 3 time World Champ Jason English. I’d read about him and seen him on YouTube and here I was, rubbing shoulders. The next few minutes were all a blur, and before I knew it we were off - racing. The 24 000 kms I’d clocked up in training during some of the foulest Cape winter weather had all been for this moment. I’d sold my car, missed birthday parties, and turned down that extra helping of dessert. I was in the form of my life, and I was ready to see where I fitted into the global 24hr racing pecking order. Using the same race strategy that had served me so well all those years ago, I quickly found someone to follow and slowly started knocking off the laps.
Early laps, concentrating on the wheel ahead

A lap at Stromlo was 16.9 kms with around 320m of climbing. And it was like nothing I've ever raced on before. There are no free sections. Every single metre of the lap has to be earned. A lapse in concentration anywhere and your race could be over. To emphasise the point, a rider had died on the course the day before the event. And it was brutal - 8 laps in and I couldn't feel my hands or feet. None of these manicured, smooth courses that us South Africans seem so obsessed about. This was real mountain biking, with no chicken runs, escape lines or dumbed down sections. The only way was through or over. There wasn't a section longer than 20 seconds where you could take one hand off the bars to eat and drink.
One of the many twisty rocky sections

Like most 24hr races, I was ultimately racing myself - my mind in a constant battle to retain control over my body as it slowly fell apart. The cold dark laps in the early hours of the morning are the worst. You become your own worst enemy, searching for an excuse to give up, wanting just one more minute in the lawn chair under the blanket before heading out. And yet once you’re out there nothing else matters. You’re alone with your thoughts, riding your bike, worrying only about the obstacles ahead of you, illuminated by the small puddle of light from your bike light. This is why we ride bikes. This is why I travelled 10768kms to the other side of the world. Much like the people who climb Everest, we do this because we can.
The DaneTrain in action

As South Africans we’re conditioned to hate the Aussies, and try as hard as I might, I struggled to find an Aussie that I didn’t like. Complete strangers offered all sorts of support, from backup mechanic services to just keeping my wife company in the early hours. Out on the course it was much the same thing - polite Aussies asking for track or getting out of the way when they could. The few European riders could learn a thing or two from the Aussies about trail etiquette.
The drinks container

With sunrise, the end seemed just a little bit closer. By now it was all about discomfort management. On the climbs my bum would be aching, on the technical sections my hands and feet would throb, and on the fast descents my back would seize up. Slowly but surely I inched towards my target of 20 laps, gradually moving up in position. With an hour to go I was in a rather fragile looking 12th place, being hunted by the riders behind me. Yolanda, my nutritionist, mechanic, press lady and general motivator, managed to get me out for one last lap, having convinced me that the guy hunting me down was only 7 minutes behind me. In a Herculean effort I gave it everything I had left, ignoring the pain as best I could, knowing that if I could get to the final downhill section with out being passed, 12th place would be mine. With little over 8kms to go disaster struck. I could no longer ignore the pain in my back and I had to get off my bike to stretch it out. And yet my hunter still didn't appear.
Sometimes I really hate my wide handle bars

I made it to the final downhill, and then the finish line, and to my surprise found that I had ended in 11th place. More tellingly, there had been no hunter - the challenger had been unable to get out for one last lap. I'd ridden 21 laps in 24:17, for a total of 354.96kms. The similarity to that first 24hr race wasn't lost on me. I'd given it everything I had - I'd discovered new depths to my pain cave, places I didn't think existed. I found out just how far I could push my body, and it finally broke within sight of the finish. There were no unanswered questions, no what ifs, buts, no maybes. I now know where I stand on the global pecking list, and I have a new appreciation for the guys at the top.
Some of the local spectators

A friendly ex-South African offering advice and directions
The last remaining challenge of the day was to get showered and cleaned up. While normally it takes 5 minutes for a decent shower - that was how long it took me just to put my underpants on. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered I had them on back to front. That was just something I was going to have to live with - I had neither the desire or the inclination to spend another 10 minutes sorting this problem out. We packed up our meager backup possessions into the hire car and set off in search of some fast food and the comfort of our apartment bed. This was the beginning of my retirement from 24hr solo racing.
Night riding, deserves a quiet night

I'd ridden 354.96kms and climbed 6700m. I'd burned 19658KCal (or more than 7 times the daily recommended intake) and consumed 2 bottles of Game, 22 bottles of water, 2 litres of chocolate milk, 1 litre of strawberry milk, 7 large lattes, 9 cokes, 3 bottles of Lucozade, 2 boxes of slap chips, a tub of soup, a bowl of oats and a Gu.

Finished, and content