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

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