Friday, 18 April 2014

Posted by Velouria Posted on 10:39 | 5 comments

The 36One Challenge - 2014

It's not often that an event comes along that changes the scenery of bike racing so dramatically. Hell & Back, Trans Baviaans and the Cape Epic were game changers in their day, each setting the benchmark and ushering in a new category of mountain biking in South Africa. While only in its third year, The 36One Challenge promises to be one of those events. Coupled with Dryland's legendary event organisation and attention to detail, I'm quite sure this event is going to become one of those iconic events on our mountain bike calendar.

Another HotChillee road trip
What is The 36One Challenge? It's a 361km, non stop, mountain bike race in and around Oudtshoorn. It starts at 6pm on a Friday evening, and riders have 36.1 hours to complete the distance. The thing that makes this event so unique is that it caters for everyone, from the hardcore endurance race snake, to the average weekend warrior looking for that next challenge. If you're the antisocial type, you can do the full 361kms on your own, or if you have a crazy friend that you like sharing intimate details with at 3 in the morning you can do the full distance in a two man team. If the thought of spending most of the weekend on your bike terrifies you, you can opt for the shorter, but by no means easier, half option - 180kms - starting just before sunrise. And then there are the relay options - 2 or 4 person teams, taking on the 4 stages that make up the race, each stage a marathon on its own.

Why did I get myself into?
As the start date approached, I started to wish I been more diligent in my training leading up to the event. Suddenly 361kms seemed a lot longer than it sounded when we entered, 3 months previously. Once again, Captain Craig and I were partnering up and taking on the two man team challenge. The old adage applied - you don't have to be the strongest rider in the event, you just have to be stronger than your partner. With that in mind, the last few weeks before The 36One Challenge were filled with as much psychological deception and skulduggery as there was last minute training. The excuses were flying - sore backs, dodgy bellies, gammy knees - you'd swear we were two old grumps in an old age home awaiting the Grim Reaper.

Two guys posing under a sign like that? Thankfully it's a bar.
The worst part about doing an event for the first time are the unknowns. Not the known unknowns - every race has those and we know how to deal with them, the unknown unknowns. The things we can't even begin to anticipate. Thankfully, places like The Hub are a wealth of knowledge, but there is always that nagging feeling that you've forgotten something. With pensive reluctance we lined up on the start line, the uncertainty of the challenge that lay ahead playing on our minds. And then we were off. Unlike most mountain bike races where the start is a blur of dust, testosterone and snot, The 36One was quite a bit more sedentary. Team HotChillee were tucked on the back of the lead bunch, coasting along nicely, when out of the corner of my eye I saw something black and round flying through the peloton. I had a good chuckle, thinking that some sucker had just lost their light, until I looked down and realised that the sucker was me. I gave Captain Craig a yell, stopped, turned around and went in search of my light in the gutter. Not a good way to start a race with 355kms still to go.

With my light safely and, this time, securely clipped in, we set about doing what we do best - tapping out a mind numbingly boring tempo, riding our own race at our own pace. Slowly but surely we caught and passed riders who had been a bit too optimistic about their ability to ride with the race snakes in the lead bunch and before long we had them in sight again. Just as things were looking up, disaster struck again, and this time it was serious.

You think it's ridable?
Five minutes previously Captain Craig had received a warning as he overcooked a corner that tightened up on him. He made it through unscathed, and I'd hoped he'd learned from his mistake. But Captain Craig is Captain Craig, and such learning opportunities are often ignored as he is consistently pushing the limit. Usually it works out for him, but every now and then the limit pushes back. On a sweeping left hand corner, with Captain Craig carrying far too much speed, the limit gave him a decent shove. With a rain trench and small barrier fast approaching, I feared the worst. This was going to be another one of those situations where I'd have to describe to Captain Craig's wife just exactly how he had broken some body part, as well as wrecked his bicycle. And then a cycling miracle happened - moments before impact there was a loud bang and suddenly Captain Craig was flying through the air, over the small wall and trench, eventually coming to rest in a heap of bike and body, having used his shoulder, hip and knee to stop. On closer inspection we discovered his rear tyre had rolled off the rim, and somehow got him airborne before contact with the wall. Instead of burying a partner, all I had to do was assist in getting the tyre back onto the rim.

They want us to go where?
In a testament to Captain Craig's toughness, he didn't complain once over the next 16 hours about his injuries, although he was rather upset about the small hole in his cycling shorts. Our plan now for the rest of the ride was to finish, preferably in one piece, and to enjoy the remaining 320kms. Despite there being around 300 participants, we soon found ourselves all alone, occasionally catching a glimpse of a light up ahead, as we knocked off the kilometres under an almost full Karoo moon.

Almost go time
The one great travesty of The 36One Challenge is that while I suspect we are riding through some very scenic parts of the Klein Karoo, we do so mostly at night, following the small puddle of light in front of us. Our entire world was a 3x10 metre lens of the dirt road in front of us. Anything to the left or right didn't matter. For 12 hours, that is all we saw of the route we rode.

The pebble Captain Craig carried around for 320kms
After the initial excitement during the first few hours of the race, the remainder of the night time riding was uneventful as we rode from water point to water point - little oases of light, drink and snacks in the cold dark Karoo wastelands. And credit must be given to the people manning the water points in what felt like the middle of nowhere. No matter the time of night, we were greeted with smiles, enthusiasm and Klein Karoo hospitality, which made it very difficult to leave sometimes. I later heard that the water points became party points once the race snakes had all passed through, with offers of energy drink being replaced with offers of brandy. Sometimes I think we have this racing thing all wrong.

Must find the snacks!
While I can remember most of the ride quite vividly, I can't remember any of the conversations Captain Craig and I had, apart from the odd "How are your legs?". I suspect that is not because we don't have anything to say, but rather that we don't need to say anything. One look at Captain Craig and I can tell if he is suffering, if he is feeling strong, if the pace is too fast, or if he's been drinking and eating. Like an old married couple, we're comfortable in our silence. And in the middle of the Klein Karoo with no one else in sight, there is a lot of silence.

Things the back markers get up to after too much brandy
We made the halfway mark of 180kms in just under 8 hours. Having done more kilometres than there are left is always a milestone, even if we still had the tougher second half ahead of us. A quick stop and we were back into our routine, me on the front with my light on dim, and Captain Craig behind with his light switched off to save the battery. He probably rode 80% of the route on a combination of my light and the moon light - clearly his earlier near death experience hadn't rattled his confidence. Endurance riding is all about maximising the good patches and minimising the bad ones. My overeagerness to reach the halfway mark had caught up with me. I was on the edge of a dark and bottomless abyss, mashing the pedals with the coordination and finesse of a drunken sloth. While there usually is a light at the end of the tunnel, it often doesn't feel like it.

Last hill of the day
I emerged from my dark and lonely cave just in time to confront the big climb of the night - Rooiberg Pass. The good thing about climbing at night is that you can't see the top. The bad thing about climbing at night is that you can't see the top. Like an invisible taunter, the mountain slowly but surely takes its toll, one pedal stroke at a time, while the optimist in us hopes that each corner is the last. This game of shadow boxing lasted 40 minutes, before we finally crested the hill, only to be rewarded by a treacherous descent. When Captain Craig says he doesn't enjoy a downhill you have to know how bad it must be. With the climb behind us, we raced off to the final check point in Calitzdorp as the first hints of sunrise began to show. While I'm not much of a morning person, there is something special about watching the sunrise from the vantage point of a bike saddle. A renewal of sorts.

Captain Craig, his bloody knee, and an ice cold beer
We ditched our lights, stocked up on snacks, and set off on the remaining 80kms back to Oudtshoorn, thinking the hard work lay behind us. A quick glimpse at my computer revealed a slight problem. We'd climbed just over 4000m so far, but I vaguely remembered the organisers saying something about 5100m of climbing. That left us with the equivalent of two Rooiberg Passes of climbing left. At first I thought my computer was wrong, but as we made our way through the beautiful valleys and dales towards the foot of the Swartberg mountains, we soon realised that the only way out was up. It was around this time that Captain Craig put in such a vicious attack up a climb that I was convinced he was attacking me, and not the two riders we'd recently caught and passed. Perhaps my deodorant was starting to fail as the temperatures were now in the low 30s, or perhaps my squeaky pedal had finally gotten too much for him.

After our mid afternoon nap, waiting for Hector
As we crested the last big hill with my tongue dragging behind me, we caught sight of a small group of riders in the distance, and in a flash my white line fever kicked in. Despite Captain Craig's best efforts to kill me on the climbs my legs were feeling great. Throw is some targets up ahead, 40kms to go and the objective of finishing in under 17 hours, and I was like a hyperactive buffalo after 3 espressos. While we caught and passed the riders up ahead, I also rode Captain Craig into the ground and before long he popped like an egg in a microwave. Thankfully the final water point was nearby with much needed coke and snacks, and while he could have spent several hours there, we were soon on our way.

A rather broken looking Hector. Just an average day for a rhino.
As we entered the outskirts of Oudsthoorn my bum finally gave in. The uneasy truce between my saddle and it now a thing of the past. Thankfully, the remaining kilometres were all on tar, which after the adventures of the previous 16 hours felt like velvet. And just like that Team HotChillee crossed the finish line. There were no high fives, no congratulatory hugs, or scenes of jubilation. We were relieved it was over, relieved we'd made it despite our early mishaps, and relieved to still be talking to each other.

2nd placed team
The 36One Challenge is the toughest "normal" race I have ever done, and while it's hard going at the front of the race, it's the average rider that I admire the most. The guys and girls that take anything from 22 to 29 hours to finish, through the heat of the day (and some of them a second night of riding) And take nothing away from the riders who did the Half - that in itself is an impressive achievement. Finally, I think the spirit of The 36One Challenge is summed up by the winning 4 man team - a bunch of guys more suited to the front row of a rugby scrum than to the skinny, lycra-clad world of mountain biking. Each team member accepting and conquering the challenges presented to them.

The Two Man Team podium

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 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