Thursday, 25 August 2016

Posted by Velouria Posted on 16:33 | No comments

Trans Baviaans 2016

For me, the year is divided into two halves - before Baviaans, and after Baviaans. Before Baviaans is the dark winter of the soul, body and mind - if you're not doing long lonely rides in appalling weather, you're abusing yourself in the garage on the WattBike - an exercise that makes queueing at the post office seem like a pleasurable affair. Before Baviaans is filled with fear, subterfuge and regret. Fear that come race day you're going to be the weakest link. Subterfuge in that the odd white lie about your current form might induce complacency in your partners, and regret in almost everything else. Regret that you entered this race. Regret that you didn't try to keep some of that amazing form from summer. Regret in having that extra helping of dessert. Regret in missing those last fifteen minutes of cooldown on the WattBike.

Captain Craig, myself, and Last Minute Charles's finger

In comparison, after Baviaans is a new beginning. The weight and dread of the event has passed and you're left with mostly positive memories of yet another magical trip through the Baviaanskloof. The legs feel amazing, bike riding is fun again, and it feels like summer is just around the corner. Perhaps this is what keeps us coming back, over and over again.

Spot the Brick Layers
In hindsight, naming ourselves after the worst nuclear disaster ever was probably tempting fate a little, especially since this was my 13th adventure between Willowmore and Jeffreys Bay. Team Warm Fuzzy Kittens would have been more apt, but given our history of riding together, perhaps the name The Chernobyl Brick Layers is quite fitting.

Smiles before the storm
We finally lined up on the start line in Willowmore once again, and for the first time in ages Captain Craig and I were just a two man team, with no backup - our usual accomplices abandoning us like the captain and crew of the Oceanos. Thankfully, Last Minute Charles volunteered to undertake the vital role of dealing with our technical, nutritional, and logistical requirements. Our hopes were that the emotional fragility during the 2015 event would not be an issue, especially since Halfway would not be around to provide any much needed hugs.

Pre-race hydration and stategy session
My sole objective for this year's race was to avoid the nuclear catastrophe I'd had the previous year during the first 100kms. Even the consolatory KOM I got did little to erase the mental scars that I've been carrying around for a whole year. My secondary objective was to not be the weakest link in The Chernobyl Brick Layers. Again, the 8 hours of being the whipping boy in the team the previous year were still fresh in my mind.

Team number 9
After the traditional rendition of the national anthem before the start (and it really was a good rendition this year), 1200 slightly mental ultra endurance mountain bikers set off in search of the coast. The lead bunch quickly formed with the usual faces making an appearance. A noticeable change this year was the number of ladies in the front bunch, with all three mixed teams comfortably holding their own. The first 100kms were rather uneventful, except for the continuous hunting of a non-existent smooth line on the gravel road leading up to the Kloof. The choice was ultimately between loose road debris, corrugations, or dancing with the thorn trees on the side of the road. And being on hard tails, The Chernobyl Brick Layers found the going particularly bone jarring. Captain Craig and I had completely different approaches - he would ride on the front and pick his line, while I would do the same, but right at the back of the bunch, ala The Brick Layer BookEnds (probably a better team name).

Look mom - we're in the lead bunch!
We made Checkpoint 2 in one piece this year, my main objective successfully achieved. Perhaps it was the horrid headwind that kept the bunch honest, or perhaps my legs were hiding some sort of form. From now on though, the real racing started, and the answer to my secondary objective would shortly be known. The next 40 kilometres are key, and more often than not, I somehow manage to fall to pieces up the climbs of Baviaans Back, Fangs and MAC, usually resulting in me leaving a toxic splatter of nuclear waste behind the water tanks at Checkpoint 4. But this year was different. The legs felt good, the stomach was behaving, and Captain Craig was showing the slightest signs of weakness - a truly rare occurrence. And by slightest signs of weakness I mean that I was able to ride at one or two heartbeats below nuclear meltdown zone.

We rolled into Checkpoint 3, having made good progress with our steady pace, catching and passing several teams that either overdid the first 100kms, or underestimated the first of the climbs. While grabbing a coke (or two or three), we couldn't help overhear one of the motorbike marshals commenting about our bikes. Something like "These are the most unique bikes here. Totally old school. And hardcore. Hardtails - crazy. And check those forks. WTF. And look at the roadie cluster. Hahahahaha." We weren't quite sure what to make of all that. I'll give the "Hardtails - crazy" bit, but the rest? The Lauf fork is amazing, although it did come off second best over the corrugations. As for "the roadie cluster" - we both run 3x10 setups, mainly for the speed that the big blade gives us  - Captain Craig has a 46 - and the security that the 22 blade offers should things go pear shaped. Nothing like watching 1x11 guys spinning their legs like a bunch of epileptic hooligans. Certainly not oldschool, since I'd just gone to 3x10 earlier this year ;)

Old school roadie gears;)
Back on the road we were still moving up through the field, having put in a good effort up The Fangs when disaster struck. What started off as a minor technical issue quickly escalated into a full on nuclear disaster. Captain Craig's back wheel lost pressure, so we stopped and bombed it. But that didn't work. There was still a leak. A leak we could hear but couldn't see. We tried to convince our porridge brains to take control of the situation, but they were having nothing of it. We eventually located the hole - a tiny side wall graze, enough to allow the air to slowly ooze out. We should have just bombed it again, and let the wonder of Stan's sealant do its thing. But we didn't. We were treating this minor anomaly as a full on major incident. Our irrational brains decided that the best course of action was to fit a tube. So we popped the tyre off, and readied Captain Craig's tube. A 26 inch tube. For 29er wheelers. Square peg, meet round hole. With all the finesse of a gorilla with a 10 pound hammer, we finally wrestled the tube and tyre back onto the rim and bombed it all once again. While all this mayhem was occurring, team after team came flying past us, rubbing salt into our already raw wounds!

Riding for the Rhinos
After what seemed like an age - 10 minutes in a bike race like this is an age - we were going again, the Mother of all Climbs ahead of us. My last decent climb of that hill was in 2013, ironically when we were reduced to a two man team after Captain Craig broke his frame. We assumed our usual formation, side by side, in silence, as we inched up the climb. On a personal note, I was hoping to end my streak of pukiness, and so when we got to the KOM flags near the top of the climb and I hadn't needed to purge my stomach contents, I took it as a sign that our luck was changing. However, I always forget about the last little run into Checkpoint 4 - a horrible little uphill drag that seems to take an age. To add to the torment, the annoyingly persistent headwind was back, and so too were the first signs of trouble brewing in my belly. If I could just make the checkpoint in one piece, I'd be good enough to make it to the finish.

Yup - those are bar ends! Old school!
We rolled into the checkpoint and chatted with a few of the teams that had past us during Puncturegate. Those sort of chats you have with your neighbour where you try to be friendly, but you're not actually friends (even if you are, this is a race and everyone's the enemy). While Captain Craig nursed his back wheel, I went about nursing my belly. And I don't mean my usual visual burp trick behind the water tanks - Coca Cola! With our lights attached (Captain Craig has a theory - we have backup lights at Checkpoint 3 and proper lights and Checkpoint 4 - perhaps we should be bold enough to have backup lights at Checkpoint 4 and proper lights at Checkpoint 5 - either way, we'd certainly be motivated enough to make Checkpoint 5 in the light!) we set off after the teams in front of us. Our hope was to find a nice little group and share the pace making, particularly given the relentless headwind. But our hopes were dashed. Not only did we not see a single other team for the next 30 kilometres, the wind seemed to have upped its annoyance factor too.

The view up MAC
(Captain Craig wasn't suffering that much!)
Checkpoint 5 was almost upon us when we finally spotted some targets - Maza & Sipho - our nemeses from this year's 36One. While Last Minute Charles took care of our bikes, and I stocked up on some more coke, Craig entered into negotiations with the RMB guys. If we rode together for the next leg, we'd stand a better chance of catching some of the teams ahead. In principle, everyone was on board with the plan and we set off for the Neverender. However, as soon as the road went up, the RMB guys started to ride away from us - our agreement in tatters. Again, our hopes of catching those ahead of us started to fade. But we did have one trump card up our sleeves. Like the safety instruction manual at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, few people actually read the race booklet that we get at registration. Most of the booklet is filled with rather meaningless info about time penalties, food at checkpoints and the correct way to mount your race number. However, hidden amongst all superfluous info, like a diamond in a haystack, is a very important tidbit. Something along the lines of "At the fork in the road, go left". On the surface, it's nothing earth shattering, but miss that one turn and you'll be lucky to ever see civilisation ever again. And, you can bet that some first timer team will accept the challenge of exploring the great unknown. So while The Chernobyl Brick Layers didn't actually catch and pass anyone, we'd moved up 4 or 5 places by the time we got into Checkpoint 6. We'd also ridden our way back across to the the RMB guys, Captain Craig dropping mini nuclear bombs all the way up the Neverender.

The MAC, in pretty decent condition.
With the lights of Jeffery's Bay almost visible on the horizon, we had one last leg to go. Our thoughts now were on how we were going to ditch the RMB guys - the fragile alliance now over. I set a steady pace on the front, trying to make life tough for Team RMB. One particular effort up the Mini Mac showed their team weakness while at the same time hurting Captain Craig. Now I'm not sure if I awoke the sleeping dragon, or if I triggered his desire for vengeance, but as soon as the we crested that final climb, Captain Craig reintroduced us all to his 46 tooth chainring. The RMB guys were bouncing around like hyperactive kids full of E numbers - their legs spinning at impossible revolutions. And still Captain Craig drove us on, The Chenobyl Brick Layers diving into the final single track first. And just as I was about to pop, we got our gap. Time to put on the big boy underpants and harden up. Through the twists and turns we held our advantage, eventually crossing the line in 9:39, and 17th place.

Now this is a bike race
Last Minute Charles met us with warm clothes, some snacks, and more importantly, some cold beer. Although we weren't entirely happy with the result, we were happy to have survived another adventure together. More importantly, we'd made it through lucky number 13 without a complete nuclear meltdown. I'm off to enjoy my After Baviaans - till next year.

Relive 'Baviaans #13'

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Posted by Velouria Posted on 10:29 | 1 comment

France 2016

Say what you like about the French, but when it comes to bikes and cycling, they get it. And I'm not just talking about the skinny lycra-clad pro wannabe cyclists. Anyone on two wheels is treated with respect, from those skinny lycra-clad pro wannabes, to crazy long distance randonneurs, from daily commuters to weekend warriors.

Quiet country roads, and hills!
Solo adventures in the French countryside
It's unnerving at first to have an 18 wheeler truck drive behind you for kilometers on end, grinding away in second gear as the driver waits for an opportunity to overtake. And by overtake, I don't mean the South African definition of give a warning blast on the hooter and then proceed at full speed regardless, passing with millimeters to spare.  The French definition of overtaking is the same for all road users - wait until the oncoming lane is clear, indicate, pull over into the oncoming lane, pass the cyclist/tractor/horse/camper van, indicate, return to lane. While we're begging for passing space legislation of just one metre, the French give 1.5 metres. Which is plenty when you see how narrow some of their roads are.

Emergency water stop
And it's not just about road safety. Cycling is part of their lifestyle, their culture. The easiest way to strike up a conversation with a French person is to do so with your bike nearby. For some reason, a bicycle is like a secret symbol or mystic handshake that opens the doors to an exclusive club. I've had whole conversations about cycling, the Tour de France, bicycles and bike riders with French people while not understanding a single word. These conversations usually involve lots of arm waving, some wild gesticulating at bicycle parts, a random French word here and there, and smiles all round.

TDF - fun for the whole family

Kids, firemen, foreigners
Glamour shot

Where else would an entire village come to a standstill in a carnival atmosphere? Entire communities celebrating the passing of the Tour de France. Kids on jumping castles, families lining the streets, local craft beer flowing.

Dane 0 - Tourmalet 1
The French take a pride in knowing that foreigners have travelled halfway around the world just to come and cycle in their beautiful country, and they've embraced this. Whether you're climbing the legendary climbs of the Tour de France, or just cruising the country lanes, you're a guest in their country and they treat you like one.

A family affair
All you need is a bike

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Posted by Velouria Posted on 19:59 | 1 comment

The 36One 2016

This is a stupid, stupid event. Nothing about this bike ride makes sense. It's ridiculously long, through dusty semidesert conditions, and it starts just as the sun goes down. And yet 780 people thought that this sounded like a good way to spend a weekend.

Crazy crazy stupid
After vowing, not once, but twice, to never ever do this event again, both Captain Craig and I were back for more self-inflicted misery. We had a team title to defend, although admittedly, neither of us were talking up our chances too much. We both prefer the understated approach of seeing how it plays out on the day - it's so far and so long that anything can happen.

Spot Team Lunatic Express
This year, Team Lunatic Express had built up a bit of a cult following, mainly because of Captain Craig (aka Captain Chaos) and his light antics of 2015. And while some of the things that my partner gets up to do cause a certain amount of stress, I generally tolerate most of it as it always makes for an interesting blog post or anecdote afterwards. Together, we're the perfect combo of Yin and Yang - one cautious and pedantic and the other footloose and carefree.

Team Lunatic Express
As the sun dipped lower in the sky, we lined up on the startline of the 36One Challenge with hundreds of similarly crazy minded cyclists. Unlike other normal events, the air was thick with apprehension and nervousness - some riders not entirely sure they would ever see their loved ones again. And despite having done this twice before, I was one of those riders - 16 hours of bike riding lay ahead of me. That's 16 hours for something to go wrong, 16 hours to ruin the race strategy, and more importantly, 16 hours for Captain Craig to come up with a unique way of either injuring himself or having to survive on barely serviceable equipment. And as I stood there, resisting the urge to go to the toilet for the 5th time, it was reassuring to see that each and every rider had their doubts, their demons, their worries.

The unofficial member of Team Lunatic Express - Halfway Robertson
Right from the gun 5 teams formed a little lead group at the head of the race. After taking a turn on the front, I settled into the paceline while Captain Craig spent some of his pent up energy near the front. This gave me a chance to suss out the competition. We had the skinny RMB race snakes riding a crafty strategy early on. There were the guys on orange bikes pushing the pace a bit, but looking to the rest of us for cues. And finally, there were the guys in orange kit lurking at the back, keeping their heads down, silently observing the small group.

It's a tough weekend out for everyone
An hour in and this small group was shattered on the first real climb, leaving the skinny RMB race snakes and Team Lunatic Express at the front of affairs. This left us in a rather tricky position - drive on to maintain the gap over the chasers with the risk of overdoing it, or stick to the game plan of riding cautiously for the first 6 hours. Few things in life bring Captain Craig as much satisfaction as dishing out a lesson in bike riding, and usually I'm quite happy to indulge him, as long as he doesn't overdo it. But something wasn't quite right. We're rather similar riders, both fond of pushing heavy gears, grinding our way up climbs, and cruising along with our diesel engines, and yet, for the first time in ages we appeared to be completely out of sync. It was a theme that would last the entire ride - when Captain Craig was feeling good, I was suffering, contemplating self sabotage, and as quickly as I'd recover, he'd fade, entering his own private hell of torment.

Finding beauty in negative spaces
With the skinny RMB race snakes starting to hurt me up the climbs I had to ask Captain Craig to back off. As simple as this sounds, it's usually quite an involved process, mainly because Captain Craig has the hearing of an 80 year old. What would normally be a quiet word is instead a broadcast for all and sundry to hear - "Craig, please slow down - I'm feeling kak". I often get the volume wrong the first time, and have to repeat myself even louder, further embarrassing myself. It's right up there with announcing to the world at the top of your voice that you're a Liverpool supporter, or that you think the Bulls look great in pink. Not cool.

Halfway giving the Eye
Captain Craig got the message as we eventually waved goodbye to the skinny RMB race snakes and settled into what we do best - cruising along at our own pace. We don't talk much, mostly because Captain Craig can't hear anything, and all I can hear is wind noise, thanks to my rather generously proportioned ears. Occasionally the outside world would intrude upon our little puddles of light, a frog hopping like his life depended on it, a rabbit running from an unseen monster, the mangy dog having so much fun barking at cyclists in the middle of the night, but mostly it was just us and a slowly setting half moon. As tough and as stupid as this ride is - these are the moments that keep us coming back for more - the quiet solitude, the shared silence.

Spectators come in all shapes and sizes
While I hate to admit it, the best aspect of riding in a team are the stories we have to tell afterwards. My partners are usually the stars in the drama that unfolds, from lights that don't work, to spectacular crashes. I'm the observer, the spectator to their antics. Not at this race. In a testament to how good the food at the checkpoints was, ranging from ostrich sosaties to koeksisters, banana bread to date balls, I broke a spoke not far after the halfway mark. And while I've been called a big guy in the past, the message was finally sinking in - this was the fifth broken spoke in 3 weeks. The cycling gods were subtly telling me to cut back on the Nutella!

Halfway enjoying the delicacies on offer
Nursing a wobbly wheel we continued to make good progress, taking turns to dip in and out of bad patches. During a prolonged stretch of misery, just as I was contemplating a silent protest to the unpleasantness that Captain Craig was dishing out, I punctured. Weight issues aside, the irony was that we'd just caught the skinny RMB race snakes again, having last seen them 6 hours previously. We quickly bombed the wheel and set off on the chase, only for the tyre to once again go flat. Time to pop in a tube. As I ripped the tube off my seatpost, green slime spurted everywhere. My spare tube had been on my bike for so long that it had perished and was literally crumbling in my hands. No problem - Captain Craig's tube would do the trick, except he didn't have a tube on him. So there we were, in the middle of nowhere, with no tube and no sign of help, as we watched the lights of the skinny RMB race snakes disappear up the road.

Post race story telling
A couple minutes later a herd of bicycle lights appeared further down the road - salvation was on its way. Or so we thought. Fifteen riders must have ridden past us without so much as an utterance of "Are you ok?". And they say roadies are the unfriendly ones. Eventually, the leading lady, Hannele Steyn-Kotze stopped to offer some assistance, but didn't have a spare tube. Same with Henning van Wyk - another old school mountain biker with proper race etiquette. Thirteen minutes later, while watching our race slip away, we eventually got a tube. Rider 307 - you are a rare find in this modern age.

Rider 307 - we salute you!
With my tyre issues solved, and adrenalin coursing through my veins, we set off in pursuit of our podium spot. Our rough estimate had us in forth place with about 100 kilometres to go. Certainly enough time to get back onto the podium. The only catch being that we still had the imposing climb of Rooiberg to deal with. To compound matters, Captain Craig's good patch was fading quickly and the memories of the previous year's climb were flooding back fast. In a classic example of "going slow to go fast" we backed off the pace completely and rode at a slow, steady crawl up the hill. One by one, we reeled in the lights ahead of us. Broken bodies with vacant stares greeted us as we plodded along, and as we crested the climb we caught and passed the skinny RMB race snakes. The race was back on!
A frantic decent and a mad team time trial later we rolled into Checkpoint 3 just as the sun was rising. Captain Craig ordered me to get some tea, and when I told him to get his own damn tea, he told me it was for me. Apparently I ride quite well after a good cup of tea. We scoffed down some food, sipped on the tea, ditched our lights and hit the road as soon as we could, hoping to maintain our advantage over the skinny RMB race snakes. The final 80kms are brutal, but we figured that if we could hide out of sight we'd have a good chance hanging onto third spot.
Almost winners and worthy opponents - the skinny RMB race snakes

We plodded along, slowly conquering one torturous hill after the another, knowing that if we got to the final 40kms of flat farm and district roads, there'd be almost no chance of any skinny race snakes catching us on our preferred race terrain. With white line fever that lasted for around two hours we slowly hoovered up any riders ahead of us in the last desperate bid to improve on our overall standing. The town of Oudtshoorn eventually emerged from the mid morning haze as we finally crossed the line in 16h53, utterly spent and in dire need of a refreshing beer. In the background, through the hurt, sweat and grime, the announcer was going on about the arrival of the first team. Through the disoriented murk we eventually figured out that he was talking about us - Team Lunatic Express. Despite our (my) mid race wobble, we'd come back strong enough to defend our title. Suddenly it seemed all worth it, and that beer tasted extra good!

The skinny RMB race snakes of Maza & Sipho in 2nd, and Team Lunatic Express in 1st
In previous years I've always been hesitant to commit to doing this crazy stupid event again, but I am already thinking about next year.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Posted by Velouria Posted on 14:23 | 1 comment

The Big Day Out 2016

In just its third year, the Big Day Out is already becoming an institution in the local cycling community. As the summer temperatures pick up, so to do the murmurings about this crazy ride.

Essentially, there are three rules for the Big Day Out:
  1. It has to be a obscenely long ride
  2. It has to be a near perfect day
  3. It's by invite only

Plotting a route is no problem as we're spoilt for choice when it comes to amazing places to ride. Finding the perfect day entails watching the long term weather forecasts on countless websites and spotting a day with very little wind. The catch is that such days are often accompanied by temperatures in the high 30s to low 40s - Captain Craig's worst nightmare! Finally, the committee reserves the right to invite additional riders. Applications pour in from all over the globe, and the committee diligently sifts through all the motivations, considering the merits of each and every one. A short list is compiled, and the committee then votes. To date, no suitable candidates have made it past the vote. Until now. Halfway Robertson wrote a very moving essay expressing his desire to join the Big Day Out. Terms like "greatest accomplishment", "legendary status", "burning desire" and "give my life meaning" littered his prose. He even wrote a poem. In Haiku.

the road goes upwards
conversation stops, puff, pant
the silence of hills*

Application accepted.

The Big Day Out 2016
The original objective of the Big Day Out was to ride further than we'd ever gone before in one day. That meant something in excess of 365kms. In two years of trying we were unable to achieve this - the first year being scuttled by severe heat and a nasty headwind, and the second year ending with a broken derailleur. Third time lucky.

Bikes packed - ready for a Big Day Out
The day kicked off at 5am and we made good progress for about an hour before the wind started picking up. Every single weather source had promised that the wind would not blow, and yet here we were battling into a stiff gale 40kms into a 369km ride. At our current progress, we'd need a week to make the route! In addition, the first 180kms are supposed to be easy, just gently knocking off the kilometres before the temperatures get too hot. Instead we were slogging away at a snail's pace into a gale, our legs and minds both taking strain.

We finally made Wolseley feeling rather worse for wear, already the doubts about successfully completing the Big Day Out lurking at the backs of our minds. But if there is one thing all three participants of the Big Day Out are good at, it's persistence in the face of adversity. A short stop, a quick grumble, and we were off again - secretly hoping the cycling gods would smile on our endeavour and do something about the wind.

As we started the scenic climb up Bainskloof Pass, our prayers were answered. The wind was now a tailwind, and for the first time that day we got a hint of just how warm it was going to get, much to Captain Craig's dismay. There is something special about riding up Bainskloof - the twisty road, the imposing mountains, the lure of the crystal clear pools down below, and the isolation. Apart from the odd car, it was just the three of us in the middle of nowhere, riding bikes.

Before long, we rejoined civilisation as we descended the pass down into Wellington. A quick stock up on much needed fluids, and a chance to get our heads around the big climb of the day that lay ahead of us - Du Toit's Kloof Pass.

The main climb of the day would take us just short of an hour as we trudged uphill in the midday heat. The mercury climbed steadily, eventually settling at 40C, as we now longed for the cooling gale from earlier that morning. Halfway up the climb we passed the halfway point for the day, and while this would normally be a reason to celebrate, knowing that another 184.5kms lay ahead was enough to dampen even the most optimistic of us. We were also faced with another tough decision - once we went over the top of the pass there was no short cut home. We were committed to 175kms. We didn't think twice.

An interesting thing happens when you ride on unknown roads in the heat - you're always on the lookout for water as you never really know when you'll find that next oasis. As we descended the pass, with at least 30 kilometres to go to the next town, I caught sight of a tap. At that very moment, nothing else mattered apart from what that tap meant. Sustenance, survival, happiness.

Mixed emotions from Halfway Robertson making the halfway mark
Halfway Robertson, having passed the halfway point of our Big Day Out, got a serious case of burger fever and dragged the two senior members through the Molenaar River Valley on towards Rawsonville, and our scheduled lunch stop. In hindsight, Rawsonville was possibly not the best place to expect a meal worthy of the Big Day Out. After scouring the main road for gourmet establishments, we had to settle for the best out of a long list of dodgy choices - Nikki's Take Away. The only saving grace was the price of the soft drinks - R6.00 for 500ml! I felt like we were back in the Nineties (although some will say that the entire Rawsonville is stuck in the Nineties). After wolfing down a burger that we knew we would encounter again, we set off for Villiersdorp, 69kms away.

I think there is unanimous agreement when I say that the next section was the worst section of the day. It wasn't the toughest section of the day, nor was it the hottest, but I think it fell into that zone of self doubt. We'd done 220 kilometres, and despite only having 150 kilometres to go, we still couldn't see the end of the tunnel. As we slogged on, with the temperature hitting 37C at 5pm, our spirits started to waiver. And just as our shoulders were sagging and our heads slumping, the quaintest little farm stall appeared. With a tap! What followed was surreal, and must have appeared quite comical to any onlookers. Captain Craig and Halfway Robertson proceeded to worship that tap like it was some ancient life giving deity. And in return, the tap blessed them with a cooling, refreshing elixir. Suddenly, Villiersdorp seemed possible again, and we started to believe that we'd make the final 80 kilometres.

Just as things were looking up, Halfway punctured - a reminder that despite only having 100 kilometres to go, we still needed some luck to go our way. With the puncture fixed we made our way to Villiersdorp up Rooihoogte Pass, the taste of Nikki's burger returning to remind us of our earlier indiscretions. Just 85 kilometres to go.

The emotions of a Big Day Out
The sun was sitting low in the sky as we headed towards Franschhoek Pass, our last big climb of the day. By now, each man was in his own private hell, dealing with his own demons. From numb toes to cramp, from sore knees to aching hands, each of us plodded our way up the climb, one pedal stroke after another. After an eternity in purgatory we reached the top, and as we witnessed a spectacular sunset, started to believe that we'd make it.

We each drank at least 23 bottles of fluid
 It's on rides like these that you learn a lot about your mates - their character, their vulnerabilities, their stubbornness, their determination. Verbal communication gives way to body language and subtle gestures. With one look you can communicate a thousand things. Perhaps Halfway's Haiku had been prophetic!

The final pass of the day - Helshoogte - lay ahead of us as the final rays of light faded. One last push and the end was within touching distance. With 17 kilometres to go we pulled in for our final snack stop of the day. As we wolfed down some much needed replenishments to the bemused stares of several onlookers, we got into a conversation with an inquisitive bystander. Given that it was well past 8pm and dark, his comment was that most cyclists do their training in the morning. You can imagine his reaction when we told him that we'd started our ride at 5am in the morning. Instant hero status. For a brief moment we felt like rock stars, or professional sportsmen, with our very own groupie. But we couldn't wallow in stardom for long, as the final stretch awaited us. A stretch that I ride home from work each day, with three annoyingly brutal little climbs.

As we counted down the climbs and the remaining kilometres, our bums point blank refusing anything to do with our saddles, our hands throbbing and our toes numb, we were joined by an escourt. My wife slotted in behind us, headlights blazing and hazards flashing, like a mini parade through the dark streets of Somerset West.

Homeward bound
The final few kilometres, through the same dark streets we'd started this adventure on 15 hours previously, seemed to take an age. The conflicting sentiments, the sense of achievement versus the level of exhaustion and discomfort, dampened what should have a celebratory procession. But that was ok. It's what the Big Day Out is all about. And we'd finally done it!

While any thoughts of doing a Big Day Out any time soon will be quickly silenced, I'm quite sure we'll all be back for another day of making memories with mates on bikes. Applications open in January 2017.

*Actual poet is Steve Airey

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Posted by Velouria Posted on 13:00 | 4 comments

Oak Valley 24hr 2016

For two years I have lived with the memories of pulling out of the 2014 Oak Valley 24hr after nine hours. For two years I have wondered if I made the right decision at the time. And for two years I have tried to avoid the thought of ever doing a 24hr again. Thankfully, I had a very good reason to skip the 2015 Oak Valley 24hr - the addition of a little endurance athlete to our family.

A photo posted by @amarider on
As entries open for Dirtopia's 24hr, so too do the queries as to my participation. This year, I remained strong and determined to sit out another year, giving my confidence some more time to heal, as well spending more time with my young family. All went well until a morning in mid November where some friends successfully managed to convince me otherwise. They had thought of everything - how I could get the miles in without being an absent parent, how my wife (my backup and secret weapon) would receive additional support during the event, and how the little endurance athlete would be looked after for the duration of the event. In a moment of weakness I caved to their well laid out plans and sent the email to The Coach - time to get fit for a 24hr event again!

Back doing what I love
Needless to say, The Coach was less than impressed. Eight weeks is barely enough time to get ready for The Argus, let alone a 24hr race. But, being the miracle worker that she is she devised a training program that the devil would have been proud of. And just to show that she isn't the devil, she even gave me the week off between Christmas and New Year. The rest of the time I spent touring the roads of the Boland for hours on end on my own, clocking up an inordinate amount of kilometres.

In the zone, tapping out the laps
The easiest part of a 24hr event is the training - lots of long slow rides with the brain disengaged, letting the body toughen to the distance and acclimatise to the heat. However, as the event gets closer and closer, the mind starts to kick in. All the self doubt, the fear, the memories of the pain and suffering come flooding back, and somehow you need to harness the deluge and channel it into something resembling a plan for race day. Things to do. Things not to do. What works. What doesn't work. For several weeks the plan rolls around in your head, consuming more and more of your thoughts the nearer the event gets. Very soon you're dreaming about the 24hr, until the night before, when you most need to sleep, you lie awake running scenarios over and over through your mind.

Given the week Meurant had endured, we thought he could do with a drink!
The secret to a good 24hr race is the quality of your backup. It's not about the quality of the equipment, or the awesomeness of their camp setup. It's about having a mutual understanding of the goals and what needs to happen to achieve them. I'm lucky in that my wife is probably the best 24hr backup person I know (and I'm not just saying that because I'm married to her). And this year my backup had backup in probably the second best backup person I know (I'm not married to her though). Together, my backup crew put on a formidable show, tending to my every need. From nutrition, to hydration, from timekeeping to motivation, they had everything covered. All I really have to do is pedal, they do all the brain work. They are sympathetic when they need to be, and cruel when the moment requires it.

My feed station (the gin belonged to the backup!)
Race day dawned to clear skies and the prospect of temperatures in the high 30s, with a chance of rain overnight. We rocked up at Oak Valley an hour before the start, and set up our meagre support station. The less creature comforts there are, the less temptation there is to stop riding to enjoy them. A quick race briefing from Meurant, who'd probably had the worst week imaginable with the Simonsberg fires destroying not only indigenous fynbos and farmland, but also some of the best mountain bike trails in the Western Cape, and we lined up for the Le Mans style start. I always chuckle at the commitment and dedication some racers put into their run - it's almost like they do special training for the start. I, on the other hand prefer a far more sedate shuffle - after all, you should only really run when there is something life threatening chasing you!

Round and round
The first couple of laps are always a challenge, not because of the effort required, but because you have to hold yourself back and not get caught up in the mayhem of the racing relay teams. Us solo riders are in this for the long haul, and any over exertion is going to hurt us later on. It's really difficult to ride slowly when your brain is telling you it wants to race. I have a strict "no info" rule for the first six hours - I don't want to know where I am, who is ahead of me, or how many laps they've done. For me, the first six hours are all about finding the rhythm of the course that is sustainable for the following 18 hours. I put down markers - how long it takes to clear the first single track, how long it takes to get to the top of the big climb, how long the descent takes, and after six hours I have a good idea of the times I should be hitting each and every lap from then on. It makes for a rather boring race report, but doing lap after lap after lap at the same consistent pace is something that I'm good at.

A mixture of sweat, dust and snot
After six hours the contenders had been separated from the pretenders. There were several of us jostling near the top of the leaderboard. Marius, fresh off his maiden 3rd place the previous year. Lance, his collection of podium places showed his 24hr pedigree. Philip, a 68 year old who just happened to have the surname Erasmus - legendary in endurance events. And Jochen, a complete unknown and finally someone to take over my original nickname of "Who is that guy?". While my brain turns to porridge on the bike when it comes to basic decision making, I am somehow able to perform amazing mathematical calculations. I can figure out gaps to competitors, the amount of laps it will take to pass a rider ahead of me, or the number of laps I'll do at my current pace. I also able to build up a mental image of where everyone is on the course at a given time, and where I am able to make up time on them.

Competitors sharing the bum cream
While I'm playing make believe with imaginary bike riders in my head, the backup crew are doing an amazing job of keeping my going. Often, I'm not sure if I've actually conveyed my wishes to them, or if it's just a conversation I've have had in my head, yet whatever it is I've wished for will miraculously appear at the end of each lap. On one occasion, three-quarters through a lap, as I was feeling the first twinges of cramp, I made a mental note to remind the backup crew that I needed Rehydrate on the following lap. I then reached down to my still full bottle and took a deep gulp of what I thought was water, only to discover the cramp banishing taste of ice cold Rehydrate. Not only did my backup address my current needs, they could foretell my future needs too! (That, or I'd simply forgot that I'd been given a bottle of Rehydrate).

Marius trying to find his happy place
Friendly faces and words of encouragement do wonders to lift the spirits, and it is always great to hear the comments, both out on the course and in the pit area. Captain Craig made an appearance to offer backup to the backup's backup, as well as support and assistance. And even though we weren't riding together, he still felt the need to hassle me about the length of time I took taking on supplies and snacks in the transition area!

The winner of the hardcore prize!
There are three parts to a 24hr race. The two daylight sections, and the night section. Apart from just being dark (obviously), it's completely different to racing in the day. It's about consolidation and recovery. It's about laying the platform for the final 6 hours of racing. As the night wears on, the course gets quieter, and the nature of the trail changes too. Things look different. Holes look deeper. Trees look closer together. Rocks look bigger. Yet this is the time when I most enjoy 24hr racing. It's just you, your bike, the small section of trail illuminated by your light, and your thoughts (along with the odd frog and field mouse). It was during these dark hours that I came to a realisation. There are two things that make me happy during a 24hr event, and they are both related to lube. The first is a freshly lubed chain which makes the bike feel like a new bike. It's quiet, and it shifts easier, and somehow that eases a burden we all carry - the fear of mechanical failure. The same applies to the second thing - applying bum cream. Whatever aches and pains you might have seem to melt away with a fresh application of bum cream. Your bum naturally feels better, but so too do your legs, and feet, and hands.

And so begins another lap
Solo 24hr racing is both an ego boosting activity, as well as an utterly humbling experience. It's pretty cool to knock up an insane amount of laps and receive the admiration of many of the fellow riders out on the course, but at the same time you quickly learn which riders you can chase, and which riders it is best to just yield the track to. If you're that kind of guy that has issues with ladies riding up and down hills faster than you, then this probably isn't the sport for you.

The grime was the only thing holding my legs together
By sunrise, it had come down to a two horse race. Marius had popped spectacularly and lay huddled in his tent, wishing he was anywhere but at Oak Valley. Lance had endured a bad patch or two, and while still in 3rd place, was several laps off the pace. That just left Jochen "Who is that guy?" Waldherr, who was still going strong, stubbornly knocking off lap after lap. (I did some serious Facebook stalking after the event and it turns out Jochen is no stranger to 24hr racing, having come 6th at the European 24hr Champs, as well as consistently placing near the top of the leaderboard at other 24hr events.) I had a two lap lead over him, but that's not a margin I felt comfortable with given the amount of racing left. My strategy was to mark Jochen lap for lap, until there was no way he could close the gap. In the process of marking him we started chatting. He was out in South Africa on holiday, visiting his girlfriend, and had ridden Attakwas the week before. You could see he was quite hardcore - he was riding a 26 inch hardtail MTB - probably the only rider of the 600 strong field on a little bike. It's seldom that you get to ride side by side with the competition in a race and have a leisurely chat about all sorts of stuff - again, the beauty of 24hr racing.

The backup station I never got to see
The clock slowly wound down, and as I got the the point where Jochen couldn't catch me, I stopped and chilled with my backup. We'd had a near perfect race, and despite there being times when I was scared of my backup (being told that I had better finish a bottle on the upcoming lap, or else!) I was extremely grateful for the outstanding job they did in managing me, even though it turned out that they lived a secret life when I was out on my laps - the wine flowed, they enjoyed juicy looking steaks with salad and even got in a few hours of sleep. Somehow, they managed to hide this all from me, removing any temptation there might be to stop "for just 5 minutes".

The little endurance athlete on the podium once again
As I completed my last lap, I was greeted by the little endurance athlete in our family. Although he didn't quite understand what all the excitement was about, I could tell he was rather taken by the spectacle. All the bikes and people and danger tape!

Lance, the little endurance athlete, myself, and Jochim "Who is that guy?"
A big thank you to Dirtopia for another top notch 24hr event, and congratulations to each and every rider who took part in making this the premier 24hr event in South Africa. To my fellow solo competitors, well done on another weekend of good, tough racing. It was brutal out there! To my backup, and my backup's backup - thank you for another superb effort. You are the envy of many. To The Coach - I didn't mean all those nasty things I said about you on those long and lonely rides. Thank you for getting me into tip top shape! Lastly, to my bike, thanks for working like a dream and not giving a moment's trouble, despite my bum no longer wanting to have anything to do with you.

Well done bike

Some stats: 32 laps, 355kms, 8250m of climbing. Approx 45 bottles of fluid on the bike. 8 litres of Coke. 4 chocolate Sterri Stumpi's & 3 Coffee shakes. 10 Rehydrate sachets. Copious cups of tea and coffee, and 2 sips of a Gin and Tonic. Results