Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Posted by Velouria Posted on 16:43 | No comments

Trans Baviaans 2014

August in the Western Cape heralds in the beginning of spring. The fruit trees start to blossom, the cold morning nip begins to ease, and the days start getting noticeably longer. August is also the harbinger of doom, suffering and missed training opportunities, because August is Trans Baviaans month. A gentle ride from the time forgotten town of Willowmore, through the Baviaans Kloof Nature Reserve, to the seaside surf Mecca of Jefferys Bay - 230kms of breathtaking scenery, body pounding corrugations and leg crippling climbs.

Pondering the pending pain
With Old Man John officially retiring for the second and final time, Captain Craig and I had the enviable task of trying to find a replacement. After going through thousands of applications, from mountain goats to former professional bike riders, we settled on the somewhat risky option of Halfway Warren, better known for his inability to finish bike races either due to mechanical or physiological failure. Essentially, he was the combination of Captain Craig's questionable mechanical durability, and my disposition to regurgitate my stomach contents, all rolled into one bike rider. Above all, Halfway Warren had the right ratio of fun to raciness to qualify to ride with The Pink Fluffy Monsters. We might have lost Old Man John as a team mate, but he'd taken over the backup duties. Seven years of riding Baviaans had prepared him well for what lay ahead.

This certainly isn't the school hostel
In this modern era of Garmins, Strava and social networking, it has become rather difficult to successfully pull off a secret training campaign. What is the need of a secret training campaign? Forget about the competition, this is intra team skulduggery. In any team race, it's not about being the strongest member in the team, it's about not being the weakest member. Being the weakest member in the team usually means an early and prolonged solitary visit to the pain cave. And I'm not talking about dancing around the entrance. You go right to the back, like a kid in the naughty corner, and you usually don't come out.

First road trip stop. The Riversonderend pie shop
Back in the day you could easily fib about how much riding you were doing - knock a couple hours off the reported duration of your rides, fake illnesses, or have unexpected work commitments. The more creative you were, the more chance you had of your team mates buying your subterfuge. Come race day you could show your hand and hopefully the bluffing worked. Unless you rode with even sneakier partners. Nowadays, the second you finish a ride, your statistics are automatically plastered all over the internet for anyone to see, which only serves to motivate your team mates to train more. An arms race of one-upmanship. It takes careful planning, cautious use of technology, and subtle ruses to effectively convince your team mates that you haven't seen a bike in ages. And this year Captain Craig emerged as the master of disinformation.

Second road trip stop. Halfway had a dodgy Wimpy omelette. We smelt it for the rest of the weekend
After a night spent in luxury compared to our traditional hostel accommodation, we slowly made our way to the start. In what must have been a misunderstanding, the organisers hadn't seeded us this year, and so we had to start with the ordinary folk, segregated from the race snakes. After Wikus's usual pre-race mumble, the 11th Trans Baviaans got under way to the cheers of the 7 locals who had turned out, and the 300 plus backup drivers. The Pink Fluffy Monsters quickly made our way through to the front group, something we've become quite accustomed to in recent years. Our pre-race talk was of riding with our brains this year, avoiding the front of the group, and taking it easy for the first 100kms.

A collection of colonial memorabilia
Once the front group has established it's always good to see who is there. We spotted the usual contenders, and couple of pretenders, and our old friend - The Beast - a man mountain of a bike rider. We had poached Halfway from The Beast's team, and now we had to deliver on the smack talk we'd been spurting for the past few months. As big and as strong as The Beast is, he has an Achilles heal - hills. In a move aimed more at sending a message than causing total destruction, Captain Craig upped the pace on a small climb, causing The Beast to get dropped like a bag of hammers. And suddenly there was one less team in the lead bunch to worry about.

The Pink Fluffy Monsters
Our HotChillee friends, Dylan and David, were also present in the lead bunch, and with five of us wearing the same kit, we could sense the slight confusion all the HotChillee kit was causing, given that the maximum allowable team size is 4. Cyclists aren't known for their intellectual abilities, especially when hurtling along with oxygen deprived brains, and this again was evident when 3 or 4 donkeys decided that the other side of the road looked like a better option. In a scene that had all the makings of this video, the donkeys crossed the road, through the middle of bunch. Chaos and pandemonium ensued, along with grown cyclists shrieking and howling like children at the determined equines. For a brief second, the level of testosterone in the bunch plummeted with all the high pitched squealing and arm flapping, before returning to its normal argy bargy levels.

The Pink Fluffy Monsters had done everything right so far, avoided burning too many matches, stayed out of trouble and generally ridden with more brains than brawn - a rare thing for this team. And then disaster struck. I punctured. I hoped that the liquid sealant in the tyre would plug the hole, but judging by the amount of sealant covering my legs it was sealing anything but the hole it was intended to seal. A quick shout to Captain Craig, a plug and a bomb later and we were back on the go, about 2 minutes off the lead group. Captain Craig and I chased back alone, and just as we we were beginning to wonder whether Halfway was indeed a double agent for The Beast, he appeared around a bend and gave us a much needed helping hand onto the back of the bunch. Crisis averted, for now.

Team 15 in 9th place at checkpoint 2
We whizzed through the first compulsory stop, grabbed some supplies, and were back on the road in a flash - we'd talked about how we wanted to minimise our stops, and so far things were going according to plan. We also took just long enough to let the main contenders get a gap on us, leaving us to ride at our own pace for the next 40kms - a crucial section with 4 big climbs that can make or break the whole race. At precisely four hours and six minutes, I felt the first onset of cramps. And I don't cramp. The last time I had cramped was after 10 hours on our Big Day Out. I hoped this was just a friendly reminder to keep eating and drinking. But these were more than just reminders. They were passengers, companions, silent accomplices. Nagging and pestering me when I least expected it. Calves, quads, hamstrings. Nothing to do but suck it up an keep on going.

The Monsters crossing a river
Just as we were cresting the big climb, my nemesis made an appearance. As the strength slowly drained from my legs, my stomach started to churn like a washing machine on pre-wash. Captain Craig and Halfway Warren were champions, taking turns to push my sorry body towards the fourth checkpoint. After a masterful tactical vomit and some soup and bread, we were back on our bikes and tearing off down the hill, taking a mere eight minutes to attach lights, lube chains, restock on fluids, and expel the evil in my belly.

Chasing back on after a puncture, Captain Craig's 46 tooth chain ring causing some pain
With me firmly camped out in the pain cave, it was great every now and then to get a visitor. Halfway Warren popped in for a few minutes earlier in the day, but didn't stay for long. Every now and then I'd step out for some fresh air, hoping to leave the cave for good, but knowing it was just a brief departure. On one such excursion, I was quite surprised to find Captain Craig getting comfortable in my cave. While he kept me company, Halfway took a massive turn on the front into the ever present headwind as we made our way to checkpoint 5. Halfway wasn't pink, or fluffy, but he certainly was a monster!

Old Man John's backup station. A study in efficiency
As we rolled into the checkpoint, we were greeted by Old Man John, and any thoughts of him getting old or slow were quickly banished. He was one step ahead of us, anticipating our needs, predicting our whims. Old Man John was as efficient as the SARS help desk in tax season, getting us back on the road in less than 3 minutes, much to the envy of all the other backup crews there.

A place for everything, and everything in its place
With the penultimate stop behind us we set off towards the NeverEnder - a hill, much as the name implies, that just goes on and on and on. Not particularly steep, but just enough to suck the life from your aching body. Captain Craig and Halfway Warren gave me the honour of setting the pace. It was either that, or pushing me later when I popped again. Staring at my heart rate monitor, I found that 152bpm was the number I could hold. One beat more and I was aware of the Grim Reaper's presence. One beat less and it felt like I was coasting. Pedal stroke after pedal stroke we climbed that hill, not a word said between the three of us, yet we moved in almost perfect synchrony. We rolled into the final checkpoint as the last glimmer of twilight faded.

Glad it's over
Old Man John was on form again, and we were back on the road in the blink of an eye. By now Captain Craig had well and truly left the pain cave, and in a severe case of long distance white line fever, was continuing his love affair with his dinner plate sized 46 tooth chain ring, much to the discomfort of Halfway Warren and myself. Grit your teeth, ignore the pain in the legs, and do everything you can to hold onto the wheel in front of you. With Halfway and myself worried about the approaching lights from behind, and Captain Craig focussed on the finish, we ate up the final kilometres in no time, despite the discomfort of some very unwelcome single track.

Another fantastic sunrise in JBay
The Pink Fluffy Monsters finished in 9h36, claiming 10th place and were the first placed 3 man team. We were also the first unseeded team, the first team team in HotChillee kit, and the first to finish 4 bottles of wine later that evening. In the eleven times that I've done this event, despite having had several bad patches, this was the slickest ride we've done. While everything didn't go according to plan, we had fun, went to some dark places together, and emerged from the ordeal as mates, which, ultimately, is the reason why we ride.

A true team effort, in everything we do

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Posted by Velouria Posted on 14:02 | 1 comment

Transkei 2014

Sometimes it's not about speed, watts per kilo, winning times, heart rate zones, or bike weight. Sometimes it's just about riding bikes, sharing experiences, looking around, enjoying the journey and having fun.

Our merry team of Transkei adventurers
Some local fauna and flora
Perhaps I am getting old, but sometimes I think we forget why it is we cycle. Why we fell in love with this ridiculous activity in the first place. We focus on training programs and race rosters, worry about our weight and Strava segments, secretly stalk our competitors for signs of weakness (or so I've heard) and completely forget about the simple things. The sense of freedom and independence. The spirit of adventure. The companionship of friends.

Action beach shot
A stroll across a river
Acting as guinea pigs for Cape Cycle Tours (Captain Craig's day job), we headed off to the Transkei's Wild Coast for a week of bike riding, relaxing and basket buying. Our adventure would start in Morgan's Bay, and end in Coffee Bay several days later. In between that, we had free reign to do as we pleased - ride bikes, afternoon naps, sundowners on the beach - anything and everything to forget about the outside world.

Long, pristine golden beaches
We're rather quick to pack our bags and head off to exotic places all over the world, and yet we have some amazing places right here in South Africa. This was my first trip to the Wild Coast, and I had no idea what to expect. Somewhere in the back of my mind I imagined bananas and pineapples growing wild, but that was as far as my expectations went.

A boat trip sure beats a swim
The route was rather simple - keep the sea on the right, and keep pedalling until you get to the next overnight stop. Generally this involved riding on golden beaches, metres from the roaring ocean, with occasional detours inland to avoid obstacles. Low tide allowed us to ride quite easily on hard packed beach sand and make fantastic progress, but unfortunately, the tides change. High tide had us riding in the softer sand higher up the beach, and if you weren't a master of riding sand before we started our adventure, you quickly learned a soft sand riding technique that worked for you. Even if it involved walking. And we all walked at some point. Progress was measured by counting river crossings, objectives were limited to a suitable place for the next snack stop, and the schedule was to the nearest change of tide.

The view never gets boring
Another picture postcard view
Nothing fazed us - taking 7 hours to ride 35kms was 7 hours well spent. Crossing a "shark infested" river on the incoming tide at night (a few Zambezi sharks were spotted several years ago) was just another story we'd have to retell over a couple of beers.

A surreal sunset
Need a snack break? Then stop and have a snack break. Want to look at the view? Then stop and look at the view. Don't want to swim across a river? Then wait for Captain Craig to steal a canoe and ferry you across.

The local cows keeping a watchful eye on us
Captain Craig guessing the river depth
From the endless beaches, to the lush indigenous forests, from the friendly locals and cheerful kids, to the quaint hamlets and farm animals - every twist and turn promised something new. Nothing got old, nothing got boring.
Cuddling at the Hole in the Wall
Post ride snacks with a sublime view
And after each day's riding we'd talk about the riding, recalling the day's adventures, recounting tales to our non riding partners over a few beers and some good food. The river crossings, the soft sand, the cows on the beach, and the non-existent pineapples. Bike riding how bike riding was meant to be.

Beer, and the best peanut butter and jam sandwich ever!

Friday, 18 July 2014

Posted by Velouria Posted on 10:03 | No comments

London to Paris 2014

For my first overseas event as a HotChillee Ride Captain I had the privilege of riding their flagship event - London-Paris. Being a Ride Captain is a serious undertaking requiring special skills and talents, with the added responsibility of looking after hundreds of cyclists out on the roads of a foreign country. While on bikes. With sponsored goodies. Basically, a cycling holiday in a far away land with some like minded people. A serious undertaking indeed.

A cycling holiday
But back to the sponsored goodies. (Anyone remember Wayne's World). Feeling like a kid on Christmas day I couldn't wait to see what Father Christmas (aka The Bull) had organised for us. There were things that I couldn't wait to try out, new Lemarq kit with my name on it, pristine white Shimano shoes and a dayglo green Lazer helmet. Then there was some new stuff - Sportique's range of warming and cooling creams - that I wasn't quite sure how to use, or where to apply. Nothing worse than discovering on race day that warming cream shouldn't be applied to "sensitive areas". I am however a firm believer in Sportique's bum cream Century Riding Cream - tried and tested. We also received new Garmin GPS units, and at the risk of sounding like an old age pensioner overwhelmed by technology, I was a little apprehensive. I'd just mastered the previous version after several months of trial and error, and now I had a new techno gadget to play with. But play with it I did, and it really is an amazing little gizmo. I felt like such a local being able to give the names of roads and towns that we were riding through.

A bag full of goodies
After a quick ride to the local coffee shop with some fellow Ride Captains to make sure the bikes were in perfect working order, we headed off to registration. As the riders steadily rolled in it was great to see all the new faces, and recognise a few familiar ones here and there. From race snakes to weekend warriors, seasoned veterans to rank amateurs, the excitement was palpable. London to Paris is an opportunity for normal everyday people to live the lives of the professionals for 3 days, enjoying rolling road closure and full mechanical support but without the scrutiny and pressures of supporters, reporters and grumpy team managers.

The start of my first London to Paris
I'd been assigned to look after Group 5, along with Steely Dan and Whisk. We weren't the speed demons or the celebrity racers, but we were a tenacious and determined bunch of guys and girls focussed on one single objective - getting to Paris with as much fun as possible. We'd leave the Strava KOMs for the front groups, and instead focus on trying to be the most awesome group on the road - all for one and one for all sort of thing. After several months of hype and build up we were ready to finally unleash our inner racers, each of us a little worried that we hadn't trained enough, or had one too many pork pies in the run up to the start. None of that mattered now, our only goal was to get to Paris in one piece. It was time to put behind us the weeks and months of training, the early mornings and the missed social occasions, and go bike riding. For the next 3 days we had a new family - admittedly, a rather large and extended family in all shapes and sizes. What we lacked in raceyness we made up for in brawn, beauty and bravado.

Best bike shed ever

Stage One was a testy 160km affair from Imber Court to Folkstone, with almost as much time spent standing about in lay-bys as we spent winding our way through the English countryside. As a South African, we love to whinge about anything, from the cost of bike parts to the latest performance of our sports teams. With this in mind, it was reassuring to discover that the state of some of the roads we travelled along was well below what we're used to back home. I'm quite sure there are still some Group 5 riders lurking at the bottom of potholes or stuck at the side of the rode with pothole induced catastrophic bike failure.
Is there a better place to ride?
The highlight (or lowlight) of stage one was a short stretch of tarmac up a steep little rise, known to locals as The Wall. This over-hyped hill struck fear through the peloton, and as we approached it a silence fell over the riders. From the build up you would have sworn we were in for an Alpe d'Huez type climb, and for some it may well have been their Alpe d'Huez. With guts, determination, and the occasional Hand of God we made it, not only slaying the hill, but slaying some demons too. As we twisted and weaved our way through the quaint English lanes towards the coast we got some time to chat to our fellow riders. On the bike we're all just bike riders, united in our objective of getting to Paris. Every rider has a unique story - when they started riding, why they started riding, why they are doing London-Paris. As we chatted the miles whizzed by, our confidence increasing and our nervousness ebbing away. In 160kms we'd gone from a ragtag bunch of strangers to a group of like minded cyclists, a third of the way to Paris.

Quiet contemplation
Stage Two from Calais to Amiens promised another day of great bike riding - 170kms of rolling farmlands through North West France. While the profile resembled something like a seismic graph during an earthquake, Group 5 was all smiles at the start. We were now cycling in France, on pristine French roads, with friendly French motorists and amazing French scenery. What was there not to smile about - perhaps the fact that we'd lost a Ride Captain - Whisk - to the same pressures of the outside world that we were all trying to forget about. In his place we'd inherited James, a diminutive L2P veteren, certified ginger and all round nice guy. As we left Calais, each rider slotted into their position in the peloton, their familiar little spot in the coordinated fluidity of the bunch. The speed machines near the front, the conversationalists in the middle, and the gravitationally challenged towards the back. Much like the riders, the Ride Captains had their spots too. James up front setting the pace and abusing the radio, with Dan and myself at the back, bringing up the rear, helping with punctures and mechanicals and occasionally applying a helping hand.

Myself and Dan, keeping an eye on things
While the riders in Group 1 tend to think that they are the real racers, the riders in Group 5 displayed way more determination and grit as they battled their way towards Amiens. As the day wore on, the hills got a little steeper, the legs got a little heavier, but the smiles got bigger. Not even a brief downpour could dampen our spirit as we rode between the poppy lined wheat fields, through picturesque French villages, and rolling farm lands. And despite the tired bodies and tired minds, the group was starting to show the signs of a well oiled machine, a cohesive unit moving as one. And because we had such a good time on our 170km adventure from Calais to Amiens, our protective motorbikes and lead car gave us a few extra scenic kilometres around Amiens for free. C'est La Vie.

The roads of Northern France
Stage Three dawned bright and early for Group 5, and even if the prospect of reaching Paris should have had everyone feeling elated, there was a slight sense of melancholy hanging about. This was the last day of our adventure, one last time to forget about the real world and enjoy our time on the bike. The amazing thing about cycling in France is that the scenery just gets better and better, from tree lined avenues to the rustic churches. Much like the scenery, so too were the riders just getting better and better. Rachel who couldn't go downhill was now a descent queen, Simon who couldn't go uphill resorted to pure power to conquer the climbs, and Mark who thought he belonged in Group 6 finished strongly with his Group 5 companions. Each and every rider had a similar tale to tell, from conquering their doubts, to overcoming injury, from arriving at registration without shoes, to having the airline lose their bicycle. And yet here we were, within spitting distance of Paris, 500kms behind us.

Despite the rain, still smiling
And what would a HotChillee London-Paris event be without rain? To meet our expectations, Mother Nature saved the worst for last, and belted us with rain, wind and cold for the final 50kms into Paris. And despite the conditions, rolling up to the Arc de Triumph, on a bicycle, with 400 other cyclists was truly spectacular. Riding the fabled cobblestones of the Champs-Élysées like the pros we all watch on TV in July was a dream come true, and not nearly as easy as they make it look. As we crossed the finish line, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, to the cheers of family and friends, our cycling epic finally came to an end. We started as 50 strangers with a distant objective, and finished as 50 friends with a shared achievement, some great stories, and a common bond.

We made it
Thanks to all my fellow riders, Ride Captains, HotChillee crew and organisers for making this a fantastic experience, and I can't wait to see everyone at the next event.
The finish line, in Paris.

Ride Captains getting ready.

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