Thursday, 8 May 2014

Posted by Velouria Posted on 15:51 | No comments

Panorama Tour 2014

Once a year, in a far flung corner of South Africa, several hundred intrepid road cyclists gather for the annual Panorama Tour. White River is transformed from a sleepy hollow village to a hub of cycling activity. Despite this being the Tour's ninth year, the locals still aren't accustomed to seeing so many lean, lycra clad people riding skinny wheeled bikes in one place, and it's not uncommon to receive a strange look, or overhear a whispered comment wherever you go.

The only flat section of road in Mpumalanga
It takes a special kind of person to tackle the challenge of the Panorama Tour, usually falling into one of two categories (and occasionally both). The first is the mountain goat - that special breed of cyclist that weighs less than a 6 year old, looks like they could do with a hearty meal, and usually stands around 5 feet tall. Then there are the sufferfest addicts - those cyclists that relish the challenge of spending hours in the pain cave, surviving on mental strength long after the physical strength has been sucked from their bodies, pushing their limits further and further in a desperate attempt to stay in the peloton for just one more hill. And that is what the Panorama Tour is all about, hill after hill after hill.

Our trusty steeds, having survived the trip in one piece
It's quite obvious that Captain Craig and I don't fall into the skinny mountain goat category, and despite being above average climbers in the thicker air of Cape Town, the thin mountain air of the Lowveld clearly shifted us into the pain warrior category. Having ridden this event several years ago, we knew what the 4 days ahead had in store for us. Knowing that we weren't in great race shape thanks to our crazy adventure at The 36One Challenge we agreed to ride with our brains and not rely on brawn. Follow the wheels, stay out of trouble, and save the legs for hills.

Nervous apprehension
Stage One is supposed to be a gentle introduction to the hills and dales around White River, but due to the poor condition of some of the roads, an alternate route lay in wait for us. A route that included far more hills than I was prepared for. Shortly after the gun I knew that I was in for a world of suffering as I struggled to stay with the bunch in the neutral zone. Just as I was getting warmed up and ready for a comfortable ride in the peloton, a crash at the front caught Captain Craig and myself out and so our torment began as we chased the peloton for 15kms. The only benefit to riding on our own was that we got to see the potholes coming, rather than be suddenly surprised by them. If the route we were riding was the better option, I'd hate to see the state of the roads on the original route. Each patchwork collection of potholes was usually followed by several abandoned bottles, and a little further on, one or two forlorn looking cyclists frantically fixing punctures.

Spot Captain Craig.
The Voracious Llamas (our team name - we don't take ourselves too seriously) probably had 30 minutes of easy riding in the safety of the peloton before we headed down a mountain pass. I did a decent job of conquering my fear of going downhill fast and managed to not lose too much time to Captain Craig, but I felt a growing fear in the pit of my belly. As it was an out and back route, I knew were would shortly be going back up the pass, and although I was hoping my climbing legs would make a miraculous return, I secretly knew I'd left them behind in Cape Town. At the bottom of the climb we immediately jettisoned some of the larger guys as I tried my best to hang on to the bunch. Slowly but surely the mountain goats ripped the bunch apart, leaving a small group of riders caught in no man's land. Looking around, I saw my the familiar figure of Red John. But something was wrong. Instead of me hanging onto his reinforced pocket, he had a new tag along - Anriette Schoeman - the Pocket Rocket (I don't think she got that nickname from hanging onto pockets, but it did seem quite apt).

Red John and the Pocket Rocket (The Voracious Llamas in the background up the hill)
As I dangled off the back of our small bunch, trying everything to awaken my comatose legs, all the while suffering like a sled dog, the haze of pain would clear and I'd catch a glimpse further up the road. I'd see cyclists hanging onto their partner's pockets or gladly accepting the Hand of Shame. As I looked around for my partner, hoping that a similar service would be extended my way, I finally caught sight of him. On the front. Driving the pace. He was the reason I was dangling. The reason I would vomit a little into my mouth with each acceleration. The reason the snot was dripping from my face and making a mess of my bike. I gave everything I had to stay in contact up that climb, and as we crested the top, Captain Craig and I jumped across to a small chase group, leaving our companions behind. Up ahead we caught sight of a largish bunch which would offer us some safety and protection, and the promise of an easier ride to the finish.

Purple Harry. At times I felt like a Hippo on a bike!
For the second time that day we chased, Captain Craig doing most of the work while I tried to recover. We soon made the junction, and I looked forward to some quiet time. My partner however wasn't as content to sit back and enjoy the scenery. Like bookends on a bookshelf, there was a HotChillee rider at either end of our little group, one riding with brains, and the other relying on brawn. With 20kms to go Captain Craig finally peeled off the front and gave me The Look. Not the Armstrong-Ullrich Look, but rather the "I did too much on the front and my legs are finished" Look. I'd be lying if I said I didn't derive a slight bit of joy from that. The Voracious Llamas continued to toil away, knocking off the remaining kilometres. I'd also be lying if I said I didn't enjoy dishing out the Hand of Shame to the now well cooked Captain Craig - given the state of my legs, I doubted I'd get many similar opportunities on this Tour.

Stage Two was billed as a rest day - a gentle roll down to Nelspruit, with a few bumps back up to White River - the perfect day to convince my legs that going uphill wasn't so bad. After a far more sedate neutral section the racing got under way and almost immediately I realised that once again my legs weren't going to come to the party. Between my fear of dying at the bottom of a pothole the size of a small European country, and my inability to ride up hill, I again found myself dangling off the back of the bunch. Thankfully, Captain Craig was paying attention, and came back to offer some assistance. Not a pocket or the Hand of Shame kind of assistance, but some silent nurturing up the hills until we were able to mount a real chase on roads more suited to our physiques. We made it safely back to the protection of the herd, although I could sense Captain Craig wasn't looking forward to having to repeat this too often.

The reason we ride!
I tried to make a concerted effort to look around and take in some of the beautiful scenery of Mpumalanga during a respite in the pain and suffering. We hit the 50km mark just outside Nelspruit with an average of 39km/h, and from there on there was only one way back to White River - up. My legs performed admirably, given the poor form they were in, and we were able to ride in the second group on the road - the group containing the leading contenders for the mix category including Red John and his Pocket Leach Anriette. While I was quite envious of all the people hanging onto pockets, I also found some new admiration for the racing ladies. As tough and as hard as I was finding it, you could tell that they were having just as tough a time, digging deep into their reserves of happy thoughts and memories in an effort to numb the pain. Hanging onto a pocket isn't a magic carpet ride - they're only doing that because they are already on the limit.

My view for most of the stage
After what seemed like an eternity of conquering hill after hill we made it back to the sanctury of the finish line and our rewards for the day's efforts - the tastiest chelsea bun you'll ever taste. Despite the Tour being halfway done, the Queen stage awaited. If I'd suffered so much on the easy day, what was the following stage going to bring? As tough as I was finding the riding, The Voracious Llamas were doing well - top 20 on the general classification, and top 10 in our category. The real question was whether we could hang on to those positions.

Stage Three dawned to near perfect weather after a thunderstorm the night before. We lined up for the start, looking around rather tentatively, wary of the hills that lay in wait for us. After a rather sedate start things began to pick up as we approached the first climb of the day. For the third day running, I'd left my climbing legs behind, and I was once again relegated to dangling off the back of the bunch. This didn't bode well for the big climb later on, but right now, that didn't matter. We'd deal with that challenge when it came around. Using every muscle in my body I somehow managed to stay in touch with a fair sized bunch as Captain Craig once again set the pace on the front. I'm not sure he felt the dagger stare I was giving him, as I wished all sorts of evil things upon him. As my legs started to weaken I encountered the click that no cyclist likes to hear. The click that happens when you ask for just one more gear and the gear shifter responds by letting you know that you are already in the easiest gear. The click is usually followed by the stare of disbelief - the look back at your rear wheel to confirm that the shifter isn't lying. The reality is that the shifter never lies, and no amount of looking at the gears will magically invoke an additional one. It came down to a duel between my brain and my legs - my legs wanting to throw in the towel and my brain determined to hang on to the back of the bunch. While it could have gone either way, my brain eventually won as we crested the top of the climb. A small victory for now in the larger brain versus legs battle.

Smiling at the start, before the suffering began
Our reward was a fast and furious descent into Sabie, and as much fun as the descent was, we all knew what lay in wait for us - a 9km climb up the feared Long Tom Pass. The early slopes lulled me into a false belief that I might have found some climbing legs, which was dramatically shattered by Red John and the Pocket Rocket as they attacked the other mixed teams. While I wasn't the first rider out the back of the bunch, I was an early casualty. Unlike the previous climb, Captain Craig dropped back almost immediately, and with some quiet words of encouragement guided me up the hill. Anything more than quiet encouragement would have been greeted with either a slap or industrial action like a go slow or strike. Other riders weren't as lucky as we had to endure the endless encouragement and motivation poor old Barry was on the receiving end of. Barry is certainly a far more tolerant partner than I am, although it was quite gratifying dropping him and his partner just so that there could be silence in the bunch.

Another day, another set of mystery legs
By the top of the Pass we were several hundred metres off the peloton, and it looked like we had a tough and lonely 50km ride ahead of us to the finish. We did have two things in our favour - we'd just hooked up with two riders in a similar situation, and we were on territory that I prefer - rolling hills. With the peloton in sight, we powered along, slowly but surely making up ground, until we were within touching distance. Feeling like pros, we worked away through the cars stuck behind the peloton, giving it everything we had. We made the junction, and the safety and security of the bunch, and promptly discovered that Barry had too.

We got the full French five finger countdown!
While life at the back of the peloton was warm and cosy, The Voracious Llamas knew the last few climbs on the outskirts of White River would be our (well, my) undoing. After once again successfully navigating the craters that the locals casually refer to as moderate potholes, we hit the hills and I went backwards almost immediately. Just as quickly, Captain Craig offered up The Hand of Shame, which I gladly accepted. While beggars can't be choosers, I have to say that Captain Craig was a bit miserly in the application of The Hand. If I am going to sink to such depths, I expect to get good value for my shame. As we limped up the climbs, oblivious to everything but the haze of pain surrounding us, I discerned a faint recognisable drone coming from behind. Barry! Or more accurately, Barry's partner. That was all the motivation I needed, and using the last remaining ounce of strength left in my spaghetti legs we clawed our way over the remaining climbs to the finish. Anything for some peace and quiet.

The final day of the Tour dawned, and as much as I hated the climbs of the previous days, Stage Four was the stage I really feared. A lumpy 36km time trial. Just over an hour of riding. Yet I knew that a world of pain and suffering awaited me. I'd rather ride for 8 hours in the middle of a Cape winter than have to endure the torture that lay ahead. Our plan for was simple - don't go out too fast, and hopefully have a good run to the finish. We had also lost a bit of time to Red John and the Pocket Rocket on the previous day's climbs, and we were secretly hoping that the flatter route would let us take back some of that time.

A snotty and sweaty Garmin
Starting 19th last, in near perfect conditions, we rolled down the start ramp. From there on it was pedal to the metal as we took turns setting the pace. Unsurprisingly, I still didn't have climbing legs, and despite my best efforts we lost a bit of time on the early climbs. By the time we hit the halfway mark I was starting to warm up, and for the first time in days was able to contribute to the team effort. After what felt like an eternity, with snot and sweat flying, lungs gasping and legs aching we crossed the line for the final time. While we hadn't lived up to expectations, we'd had a fantastic time racing bikes in some truly magnificent parts of South Africa, and an added bonus being we'd pipped Red John and the Pocket Rocket by 6 seconds, for 18th place overall and 9th in category.

Another finisher's medal for the collection
And just because he hadn't had enough fun riding bikes, we packed our bikes in the car and headed off to Sabie to ride Long Tom Pass - just because we could.

Finally, time to stop and look at the view
Homeward bound

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.