Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Posted by Velouria Posted on 12:17 | No comments

Around the Pot 2018

It's not often that a race comes along that has the ability to fill one with such emotion. Not the "Why-did-I-enter-this-race-I'm-going-to-die" sort of emotion - we'll get to that later - the "I-don't-want-to-tell-anyone-about-this-event-because-it's-amazing" selfishness that filled us after last year's race. This is a bike riding event run by people who get bike riding. Things just work. Everyone is a rock star. And there is a burger and beer at the finish.

Dane the Limpet
The selfishness comes in that with the inevitable growth of an event, the very things that make an event unique are lost as the event scales. So I tried not to tell anyone about The Around The Pot 100 Miler. But someone spoke, breaking the secret pact we'd all sworn to keep and come race day this year, registration was mass of race snakes, weekend warriors, endurance addicts and sufferfest seekers. And their families. And their friends.

My first concern was that there were real bike racers in attendance this year, and it wouldn't be a procession to the podium like the previous year. And then I worried about the things that brought us back. Were there going to be roosterkoek at the halfway point? And choc chip cookies at the water points? And a cool vibe at the finish? We'd find out in the 160kms that lay before us.

Dane the Yo-Yo
As usual, Captain Craig and I rolled up to the start line minutes before the gun went. Not because we were trying to be cool and act all pro-like, but because our time management skills tend to be a little haphazard. We needn't have worried, as the motor-paced session through the neutral zone from the previous year had been replaced with a looking-for-parking cruise down the N2. Slow enough to not warm up, and fast enough for 400 mountain bikers to think they were World Tour roadies riding in a peloton, but with the bike and bunch skills of the Open seeded group at a local PPA race.

Thankfully, it wasn't long before we hit the dirt, and all hell exploded. SchleckChute's being deployed all over the place and before long the front group consisted of just a handful of lean, mean, muscled athletes. And me. I haven't felt so out of place in a long while. Not because I wasn't lean, mean or muscled, but because I was hanging onto wheels like my life depended on it, gasping through my gaping mouth, snot dripping off my face, while it looked like everyone else was still nose breathing. Now I knew exactly what Hector felt like last year.

As I dangled off the back, steam coming out of my ears, Captain Craig had an important job to fulfil. No sitting on the front and pulling everyone along this year. He was on rescue duty - every time the bunch accelerated over a climb, I'd slip off the back, and Captain Craig would have to slowly but surely guide me back on. Only for it to happen again. And again.

Captain Craig on rescue duty
Things eventually settled down when a select bunch rode off the front, and I was finally able to follow the wheels, rather than chase them. I was that guy. The wheelsucker. The limpet. The bike rider who sits in the slip, avoids the front at all costs and offers no help. Not because I didn't want to help. I just couldn't.

I'd like to say that I found a set of legs and that I started to come right and ride a little better, but there was very little change in my riding. Instead, it seemed like the others were starting to fade. Starting to enter my world. Little signs of weakness here and there - a gap opening over the top of a climb, one partner giving the other a gentle push back onto the bunch. Even Captain Craig would disappear for a secret gel at the back of the bunch every now and then. It was these little signs that gave me hope and got me to hang on a little longer. Knowing those around you are suffering too almost makes the suffering bearable.

The pont
With almost a hundred kilometres done we got to the part of this race that makes it so unique. The checkpoint at the Malgas Pont. And this is where prior knowledge comes in handy. The clock stops as you enter the checkpoint, and starts once again once you've crossed the river and checked back in. And since it didn't look like we were going to be able to ride away from the other teams in the group, we were going to have to be sneaky in order to gain time. So we zipped into the checkpoint before the other teams, gaining a handful of seconds. While everyone else was enjoying the ceasefire in hostilities as they filled their water bottles and their bellies, waiting for the pont, Captain Craig and I were hatching a master plan. After crossing the river, we'd hang near the back and give the bunch a handful of seconds headstart. We reckoned 30 seconds would be good enough to defend, and easy enough to close once the race was on again. Except we made one little mistake.

Smiling, moments before telling The Thighs of Thunder our plan
We happened to share our plan with Mike Posthumus - the original Thighs of Thunder, Destroyer of Drivetrains and Crusher of Souls. An ally like that would make our plan almost foolproof. Except we messed up. We changed the plan to accommodate Monster Mike and his ample thighs, and before we knew it, we were giving the bunch 2 minutes and committing ourselves to "just 30 minutes of effort, through and off". And if there is one thing that is guaranteed to make me pop, it's riding through and off.

Mike "Thighs of Thunder" Posthumus
Everything went well for about 15 minutes, as five lonely riders attempted to claw their way back to the bunch that was no longer visible up the road. We each took our turn for the greater good, driving the pace on, urging the legs for more. In my head, warning lights were flashing, sirens were blaring. Meltdown was imminent. There was about to be a reactor breach, followed by a massive explosion. I took one last look at the Thighs of Thunder before finally deploying my SchleckChute in an attempt to minimise the devastation and destruction. And within seconds, Captain Craig had done the same as he embraced his new responsibilities of looking after me. Whether he could have hung onto the Destroyer of Drivetrains' wheel is a debate for another time, but it felt good knowing that I had company.

My Not-So-Happy place

As we backed off, my legs came back to me, and rather surprisingly I found myself repaying Captain Craig's earlier efforts in looking after me. The Cape Cycling Tours Train was back, and we started to make good progress, occasionally picking up a rider or two from the bunch that we'd long since given up on, but never caught sight of any of the other teams that we were racing.

With the finish line looming, I burnt my final match and any hope of salvaging our sneaky plan seemed to vanish completely. I hastily gulped down a gel, hoping for one final miracle before we crossed the line. And it happened! Just as my legs were coming back, we caught sight of the Pure Savage guys ahead of us. Perhaps there was something to race for after all. Something to make the suffering and pain all worth it. With one final push, we drove towards the line, embracing the burn in our legs, hoping beyond all hope that we had done enough.

Yoki the Yeti, looking a little worse for wear. Just like me.
We crossed the line to little fanfare - we were forth on the road, but the time gaps still needed to be calculated. And eventually we got the word - we hadn't made it onto the podium. The fleeting hope we had was quickly replaced with disappointment, and annoyance as our plan had been solid, we'd just messed up the execution of it.

When the final results were published the next day we noticed an anomaly. We weren't on the results. Anywhere (given that I'd ridden in my wife's cycling top by mistake, I even checked the mixed team results). A couple of emails back and forth between the organisers and the timekeepers and they eventually found us - in third place in the men's team competition. A bittersweet reward for a poorly executed masterful plan.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Posted by Velouria Posted on 20:37 | No comments

The 36One 2018

We've all done things that we regret. There are those things that we'll regret to the day we die. Things like backing Sony's Betamax in the video recording format wars, or insisting that 27.5 inch wheels were the future of mountain biking, or getting that tattoo of a dolphin on one's shoulder after a late night out. And then there are things that cause short-term regret. Like having garlic mushrooms for breakfast, home dyeing your hair, or trying to grow a moustache for Movember. And somewhere in between those two extremes lies the regret I suffer from every year when I enter The 36One Challenge.

The regret isn't immediate. It builds slowly in the months preceding the event, occasionally punctuated by waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat from a particularly bad flashback. As the race nears, so the regret increases - and I get angry at my past self for being so brave and confident and naive and stupid. And it's not like this is the first time my past self has thrown me into this situation - this was the fifth consecutive year that current me has had to deal with the mess past me has created. I'm beginning to think that past Dane is quite a vindictive guy.

Captain Craig and I have had several long and in-depth conversations about this, trying to understand why we keep coming back to this race. Superficially, we'll be the first to admit that the food is pretty good. Ostrich sosaties, date balls and pancakes are enough to win over most people, but we don't just do The 36One for the food. Getting a good result could also be part of the problem, but that's not our motivation for coming back year after year. Often while riding, we just want to get to the finish, regardless of the result. So it's not that.

We do feel honour bound - we have our cycling rules that we try to live and ride by (you should see the size of the rulebook for our BigDayOut). And one of those rules is that we believe a title should always be defended. It's a noble, honourable rule, and it shows that a victory wasn't a one-hit wonder. It also gives challengers the opportunity to race against the current title holders and test their mettle.  But that's not the reason either.

I think we're attracted to this race because it just ticks so many of our boxes. It's long. Really really long. It's super tough - Klein Karoo tough! And it's so well run. Dryland really gets what mountain biking is all about. In the 5 years that we've been doing The 36One, it's grown from an event with a budget gazebo and almost as many riders as there were marshals to the defacto test of endurance mountain biking in this country with start chutes and neutral zones and food stalls and all the other things you'd expect from races that barely last 3 hours.

As The Tortured Souls stood on the start line, the months and months of regret started weighing on our shoulders. What were we once again doing here? Why were we willingly going to put ourselves through the sixteen plus hours of suffering that lay ahead of us? What adversities would we face this time around (and when I say that, I'm generally referring to the creative and innovative ways Captain Craig comes up with to add complexity to any ride that we do)? Perhaps this explained why I felt the uncontrollable desire to wet myself, despite going to the toilet every five minutes.

While we reflected on all the life decisions we'd made to get us to this point, we couldn't help but wonder about the future that lay ahead of us. A future where The 36One was no longer part of our race calendar. Captain Craig and I had signed a blood pact - this was our last 36One for the foreseeable future. We'd definitely be back, but we just needed a break. Time to do other events. Meet other people. See other things. With that in mind, we'd hoped that the buildup to the 2018 36One would be perfect. Lots of training. Plenty of sleep. A robust race plan. And a relaxing drive through to Oudtshoorn on race day.

The reality was that life happens. An outbreak of listeriosis in my household ruined my buildup to race day, although there was a brief moment where I embraced the possibility that I might die. Anything was better than the fate that awaited me in Oudtshoorn. Family obligations kept us both awake. Half of me viewed this as insomnia training for the long cold night that lay ahead. The other half of me stressed that I was going to fall asleep on the bike. And as for that leisurely drive to Oudtshoorn, we only left Somerset West at 10:30, with a looming box hand-in deadline of 4pm. The very same box deadline that we'd previously missed. Thinking back, I think that might also have been the year where Captain Craig's light didn't work, despite the repeated reassurances that they were fully charged and he'd tested them thoroughly. To counter the argument that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, Captain Craig didn't bring one light or two lights. He brought FOUR lights this year! Back to our road trip - roadworks, stop-go's, and slow cars couldn't prevent our determination to make it to Oudsthoorn on time, and we sneaked into registration with 30 minutes to spare. More importantly, we handed our boxes in with plenty of time. A whole 5 minutes!

The gun went and it was quickly apparent who the contenders were going to be. Four teams gathered on the front, and for a change, The Tortured Souls were not setting the pace. We'd had discussion after discussion about how we were going to take the first half of the race easy, hide from the wind, never go into the red. And despite every urge to sit on the front, we were channelling on our inner road cyclists to stay focused and just sit on the wheels. For 45 minutes we stuck to our plan. No closing gaps, no setting the pace, no turns on the front. And then the road went up, and before we knew it we were off the front with a 20-metre gap. I looked at Captain Craig, he looked at me, and just like that the racers in us came to the fore. We were not going to give up that gap without a fight, whatever the consequences!

A working light!
At waterpoint 1 we had 4 minutes, and at checkpoint 1 we had a 10-minute lead. We'd also picked up a stray. A solo rider who we thought was along for a free ride. And even worse, a Pure Savage rider. At first, Waldo lurked at the back, being polite and letting us set the pace, occasionally coming through to take a quick turn on the front. But I started to notice something - he was only coming through when the road tilted slightly up. Nothing steep - just on the false flats where the gradient was between 1 and 2 percent. More worryingly, when he did take a turn on the front he'd slowly and methodically make me want to murder him. Always riding just a tad too hard for my liking.

After the amazing ride that I'd had last year where I felt virtually indestructible - much to Captain Craig's dismay, it was quite a new experience having to deal the emotions and thoughts of going through a bad patch. And I had many, many bad patches. Occasionally I'd synchronise a bad patch with Captain Craig's bad patch, and occasionally I'd synchronise a bad patch with a false flat and Waldo's thighs of doom.

We hit the halfway mark in good time and made quick work of getting ready for the 180 kilometres that lay ahead. Read that again. We were halfway and STILL had 180 kilometres ahead of us. Captain Craig fiddled with his lights - some intricate plan about having the right light on the bike for the descent of Rooiberg, still a distant 80 kilometres away. I spent my time putting on some warm clothing - some gloves, some arm warmers, and a windjammer. In an attempt to look all matchy matchy (if we can't ride fast, we can at least look like we're fast), I'd borrowed a windjammer from Captain Craig's wife. I thought a windjammer was a windjammer was a windjammer, but over the course of the next 6 hours, I learnt a lot about the design and fit of a woman's windjammer. For starters, the bottom of my belly was always sticking out, and no amount of pulling and tugging could convince the windjammer to remain in place. Secondly, there seemed to an excess of material in the chest area, and on the odd occasion that I went fast, the windjammer would turn into a drag chute, billowing and flapping in the breeze, and more importantly, slowing me down unnecessarily. It wasn't all bad though. We did look fast, and it did keep me warm, and without trying to sound all weird, it smelt rather nice. Unlike the rest of me. Despite putting on deodorant that promised 48hr protection, 8hrs of wallowing in my own grime and sweat was enough to defeat the scientists responsible for my deodorant's "unique formulation".

Back out on the road, I suffered an almost immediate bad patch. I couldn't blame Waldo this time - we were on a steep climb and my legs were uncooperative. To make matters worse, we'd gone from being the guys who were hunting down the lights up ahead, to being the riders that the lights behind were hunting down. With over 200 kilometres in the legs, these moves play out in slow motion, often taking hours for the pass to happen. This was no different. Sixty kilometres and 3 hours later, from first sighting to passing, a group of riders eventually caught us. For a minute, Waldo felt obliged to stick with us, but we could tell that he wanted to return to his own kind - the solo racers. And as he disappeared up the road, Captain Craig and I were finally alone once again, riding our own pace, racing our own race.

We weren't super racey, but we still made good progress, and before long we crested the dreaded Rooiberg climb, feeling somewhat disappointed that it wasn't as difficult as we'd remembered. We'd just started the descent of Rooiberg when Captain Craig's lights played their final card and promptly died. But Captain Craig was prepared for this and had a spare light! A minute or two later we were on the go again, ready for the descent. Just as I was about to get into my groove, Captain Craig stopped again. Literally fifty metres on from the last stop. He'd dropped his chain. Not a dropped-his-chain-and-was-able-to-fix-it-in-a-flash kind of dropped chain, but rather a dropped-his-chain-and-got-it-stuck-between-his-pedal-and-chain-blade kind of dropped. I was prepared to make myself comfortable while he broke the chain, got it unstuck, and then rejoined the chain, but thankfully, after some careful analysis, a skillfully placed tug on the chain was all that was required to sort it out. No more than two or three minutes lost.

The awesome threesome
We got to the bottom of the descent and began the arduous task of ticking off the miles to Calitzdorp. For the second year running, I popped spectacularly on this stretch and just as the gels and jelly babies I'd crammed down my throat were kicking in, Captain Craig popped too. I still held out hope that we might be able to hold onto our first place, but we had to be a little strategic going forward. No long stops. No pancakes. No tea. No chatting. And in probably the most coordinated we've ever been, we flew through the checkpoint at Calitzdorp in record time. We dumped our lights, had some snacks, serviced a free body and hit the road. Out of sight - out of mind.

The last leg of The 36One is a true test of character. It's lumpy and hot and never-ending and it takes its toll on both the mind and body. During another of my frequent bad patches, I commented on how the particular hill was so bad, to which Captain Craig, a man of few words on the bike, replied:

"It's all bad. This bit is just terrible"
That was it. I'd found my angle for this blog post. As I started to construct things in my head we caught a glimpse of two riders closing in on us rapidly, and my mood dropped. I was on my limit - there was no way I could mount a counter-attack should the team behind us catch us. But we still held out a slight hope that if we could get over the hill, down the other side, speedily refuel at the water point and stay out of sight, we might be able to hang on to first place.

But that hope was shattered as while I was pouring cup after cup of ice cold coke (that's another thing - why is there ice in the coke at 4am when the temperature is in single digits?) down my throat one of the riders chasing us pulled into the water point. And then it was restored when, after allowing the icecream headache to subside, I could process what had happened. We'd seen two riders. One of them had just caught us. He was a solo rider (it just happened to be Martin Dreyer, which explained a few things too). The other rider was a local commuter. With a bag on his back and a bike that weighed a tonne and was still riding faster than we were. The commuter was on his way to work and was not part of the race. We still held out hope!

One last time

Our twosome was once again a threesome, and once again the new guy was hurting us - even if he had no intention of doing so. Our little posse made good progress, and before long pulled into the final water point. It was suddenly Martin's turn to stress - two solo riders were rapidly approaching and he asked if we wouldn't mind helping him defend his overall placing. With twenty kilometres of the 2018 36One left, and retirement from this event beckoning, I thought we could lend Martin a hand. For the first time in hours we were actually racing someone again, AND, I had the legs to back up this desire to race. The final move of my 36One career was to guarantee Martin his place (side note - Martin asked me to slow down ;) ).
Crossing the finish line for me is always a bit of a letdown. It's the wake-up call that the bike ride is over and that it's back to reality. Despite the bad patches, the sore bums, the tired legs, riding bikes is still fun, even when it hurts and this was no different. We'd survived another 36One, while at the same time getting a good result. But just as the race has to end, so too does our participation in this event. At least for now.

Another successful adventure with Captain Craig
P.S. As I write this, entries for 2019 have opened, and the good news is that Captain Craig and I are still retired. Our resolve is strong, despite the many doubters out there.

What does that little red button do

Friday, 9 March 2018

Posted by Velouria Posted on 10:23 | No comments

The BigDayOut 2018

midlife crisis

(mΙͺdlaΙͺf kraΙͺsΙͺs  )
Word forms: plural midlife crises 
countable noun [usually singular]
crisis that may be experienced in middle age involving frustrationpanic, and feelings of pointlessness, sometimes resulting in radical and often ill-advised changes of lifestyle
If racing bikes is the epitome of where modern cycling is, with all the shiny machines, techno gadgets, and flashy kit, then The Big Day Out is all about adventure, discovery, endurance and camaraderie. And maybe a cover for four oldish guys each having their own version of a midlife crisis.

Still inspired and motivated by the mammoth Birthday Ride that Richie Porte and Cameron Wurf did in 2012, The Big Day Out has taken on a life of its own. There is a selection committee. We have route planning sessions. And now, we even have themes. But the point of it all is still the same - mates on bikes having fun together, exploring our beautiful countryside, doing something out of the ordinary.
In its fifth year this year, we wanted to do something special. And not just special in the sense of riding a ridiculously long way, but make it about something. We toyed with the idea of an offroad Big Day Out, we considered a Big Day Out of Everesting, but then it hit us. What is the one topic of conversation that seems to dominate most social gatherings these days? The water crisis, showering with a bucket, not being able to flush the toilet, the smell of grey water hanging in the early morning air, and the lengths people will go to fill their pools and water their grass. And so The Damn Dam Big Day Out was born - a factfinding mission on bikes to check out 5 dams dotted around the Western Cape.

As is customary, the BDO committee considered inviting a few new outsiders to join in on our adventures. Added to this, Halfway Robertson hadn't got the memo that sympathy eating during his wife's pregnancy should end with the birth of their child. At the risk of living up to his nickname, he graciously bowed out of the 2018 edition before the riding even started, but not before helping with the selection process. A short list was drawn up, invitations were sent out, and acceptance was subject to the submission of a haiku.

Now we just needed a perfect day to ride bikes. And this is the difficulty comes in. My idea of perfect and Captain Craig's idea of perfect are somewhat different. I like a hot windless day for riding bikes, Captain Craig prefers it slightly cooler. In the end, life got in the way and we had to settle on a day, regardless of the weather. It wasn't an ideal day, but it wasn't bad either!

As we gathered on my front lawn at 4:30 in the morning, there was an air of trepidation, anticipation and nervousness (and the wafting smell of grey water in the morning). Four hundred and eight kilometres, 5 drought-stricken dams, and 4 passes lay ahead of us. The newbies were barely able to conceal the panic.

The first dam on our route was Steenbras dam. Built in 1921 (with some extensions in 1928), it was the main source of water for the City of Cape Town for the first half of the twentieth century. We didn't actually get to see the dam, but we saw the sign to the dam next to the gate that prevented us from seeing the dam. So we know it's still there. And we got to see an impressive view of Cape Town still sleeping.

Back on the road, we made good progress as the first hints of sunrise started to appear, despite the nagging headwind. Spirits were still high, conversation was flowing, and the kilometres were slowly ticking by. As we neared our next dam the road got a little lumpy, and the first signs of weakness within our merry squad were starting to appear. With 100 kilometres in the bag, such signs were to be expected.
A post shared by Tim Brink (@tim.brink) on
And then we saw it. Or what used to be it. The desolate, dry, dusty imprint of where Theewaterskloof Dam used to be. Like a kick to the crotch, it takes your breath away and brings tears to your eyes. If you didn't believe there was a water crisis up until now, the sight of our biggest dam with barely any water in it is enough to make you "shower" with wetwipes from now on, rip up your grass, and fill your pool with concrete.

A longer than anticipated stop in Villiersdorp for breakfast happened to coincide with my several attempts at repairing a puncture. Not the finest demonstration of my bike maintenance skills, but I was grateful that there were so many people with such enlightening advice. With our stomachs full, my rear tyre finally inflated, and the temperature slowly picking up, we set off for Franschhoek Pass and the safety of being on the "right" side of the mountains once again.
A post shared by Tim Brink (@tim.brink) on
One of our new recruits has always had issues with Franschhoek Pass. Right from the first time I met him. Despite the rather favourable conditions, the result was still the same. Tim imploded. Several times. And there is nothing worse than being that guy, living in a world of hurt, trying to get over a deceptively long climb. We've all been there, and while three of us were glad to still have legs, we knew the demons well that Tim was fighting with each pedal stroke.

Euro pro wannabee
After what seemed like an eternity, we crested the climb to the welcoming view of the Franschhoek valley, and in a flash, the downhill drag racers were off. Tim's recent ordeal a thing behind him, and Captain Craig only too happy to be descending the pass in the daylight. Myself and Mike, the more risk averse in our quartet made out way down at our own pace (this is the polite way of saying that we suck at going downhill). In the distance, our next dam beckoned.

Tim in 2013, still hating the Pass
The Berg River Dam is the new kid on the block and was the first dam in South Africa to be designed, constructed and operated in accordance with the guidelines of the United Nations World Commission on Dams. As far as dams go, it's unimpressive. It has all the usual features. A wall, an overflow thingy, and one of those towers that they use to suck the water out with (which must have been doing a very good job as most of the water seemed to be missing).

The Berg River Dam
It was around this point that we discovered that Tim's belly and my tyre were both having issues. Rather similar issues actually - they were both venting large amounts air, impeding our progress. Luckily, my issue was easily fixed by a quick detour into Paarl for spares. Tim's belly was not as easy to fix, and he had to make the dreaded decision about withdrawing from the BDO. Rather on this side of the mountains before we headed back over into NoUber territory.
A post shared by Tim Brink (@tim.brink) on

As we parted ways, the three remaining BDOers quickly popped into Wemershoek Dam. Another completely unremarkable dam made even more unremarkable in that we didn't actually get to see it. But we saw the gate with the dam's name on it. And rumour has it that the dam is also rather empty.

With 200 kilometres done we hit another big climb - Captain Craig's dreaded Du Toitskloof Pass. And while Captain Craig was cursing his decision to once again ride BDO, Mike had secretly found a set of legs and was putting them to good use up the mountain. It might also have been the copious amount of snacks and supplies that he'd been transferring all morning long from his overstuffed pockets into his always beckoning mouth. Snack Monster Mike.

Stopping for a nature break tells you a lot about a cyclist. The real experts can "go" while still riding along - those are the can't-waste-a-second, no modesty, I-wish-I-was-pro kind of guys that don't care if they urinate on half the peloton, as long as they look cool. Then there are Stop n Drop guys - when the urge hits them, they'll stop wherever they are, whip it out and do what needs to be done. No time for pleasantries. It's a bodily function and it's happening now! Lastly, there are those guys who treat a nature break like a space shuttle launch. Everything has to be perfect. The wind direction, the slope of the ground, the protection from onlooking eyes, the view, a place to optimally lean your bike up against. And if any one of those parameters isn't within bounds, the launch is cancelled and the countdown is reset. Snack Monster Mike is one of those guys. We literally spent our entire Big Day Out looking for the perfect spot to wee.

The desolate looking Brandvlei dam
Cresting Du Toitskloof Pass is a mixed blessing - the climbing is over and a beautiful descent awaits us, but we're still going in the wrong direction from home, and the only way back to the "right" side of the mountains is over another pass. But we'd come this far, and despite being two hours behind schedule, we would continue on our adventure. We had one more dam to see.

A fun descent, a relatively quick stop for water and before long we were heading towards Rawsonville. An impromptu stop for snacks turned into a late lunch, with no one in any real rush to get going again. It was here, at a rather nondescript petrol station in Rawsonville, surrounded by curious onlookers and amused bystanders that Captain Craig probably had the best idea of his life. I've been lucky enough to be have experienced a couple of his good ideas in the past, like the time he thought it would be fun to ride some new looking single track in Jonkershoek, despite the no entry signs and logs across the trail. It turned out we'd just entered the new downhill track. On cross country bikes. And the track was still under construction. It's the closest I've come to having to change my cycling shorts! Then there was the time we went for a quick ride with one bottle of water and came back 6 hours later because Captain Craig wanted to "see where that road went". But this was different. Snack Monster Mike and I had bought some cokes and chocolate milks, feeling rather proud of ourselves when Captain Craig came towards us with an ice cream! Sheer genius!! I can safely say that was the best ice cream I have ever eaten in my entire life. No ice cream will ever elicit the emotions of that Rawsonville petrol station ice cream. Ever!

We had a short 7 kilometre trip to make to our last dam before we'd finally turn for home. The Brandvlei dam is actually two dams side by side, separated by a wall. When the dam is full, the wall is submerged, and it looks like one massive dam. As you can imagine, there is no danger of that happening in the foreseeable future. The only other interesting thing about the dam (apart from a warm water spring that feeds it) is the name of the river it is on: Holsloot (maybe that's just my juvenile brain taking over again!). Seeing the Brandvlei dam up close, a once massive expanse of water, looking so empty, was another jolt to the system. We are going to need a lot of rain to fill these dams up!

With the final dam of our journey ticked, we had 130 kilometres to go. More importantly, we wanted to get over Bainskloof Pass before sunset, and that was 60 kilometres away with roughly 2 hours of sunlight left. And we still hadn't officially had lunch. In a rare display of urgency, both Captain Craig and Snack Monster Mike put aside their desires to fill their bellies, and we made the collective decision to get up and over Bainskloof as fast as we could. Well, as fast as anyone can with 280 kilometres already in the legs.

We pushed on through Slanghoek, hoping the headwind would drop and the ice cream would kick in, but neither happened. The wind picked up and as our energy levels started to dip, Snack Monster Mike showed us a secret snack spot (obviously). Some life-saving coke and some water later and we were ready for the race against the sun.

The secret snack spot
But first, Snack Monster Mike had to wee. He could have gone at the secret snack spot, but something wasn't quite right there. He could have gone on the side of the quiet valley road, but something was quite right there either. He eventually found a spot, and as Captain Craig and I were dismounting to sympathy wee, we could see by the look in Snack Monster Mike's eyes, that something wasn't quite right. Thankfully, a bit of cajoling and some rapid improvising did the trick and the old gate posts of Bergsig Estate met his exacting needs for a wee stop.

Back on the bike, I was suffering from a bout of white line fever. We had an objective, something to race against, and that was enough to numb the pain and give the legs something to aim at. And what a spectacular race it was. Us against the Sun. With the towering mountains on either side keeping an eye on proceedings. It's moments like this that we'll remember forever. The colour of the peaks in the fading light. The moon making an appearance just as the sun was about to dip below the horizon. The melodic squeak of Captain Craig's pedal.

Snack Monster Mike still able to wave
We summitted Bainskloof as the light started fading, and all that stood between us and dinner was a frantic dash down the twisty windy bends of the pass. Like kids, we were riding bikes and having fun, soaking up the freedom and enjoyment that only a bike ride can bring. Three hundred and forty kilometres in, and we were still having a good time!

The top of Bains
Dinner in Wellington consisted of a Steers Burger of Regret and a milkshake. No gourmet dining - this was eating out of necessity. As we hopped on our bikes for the final time, Snack Monster Mike informed us that he had to wee. Again. We convinced him that we'd stop out on the road, away from prying eyes, under the cover of darkness, and we set off into an annoying headwind.

The Burger of Regret
Between the three of us, we had one commuter light, two flashy white lights, and two flashy red rear lights. Our missing companion Tim had been the light guy (while he never did finish The Big Day Out, he managed A Fairly Decent Day Out with 280 kilometres in the bag, despite the stomach demons). Thankfully, the moon was almost full and it did a great job of keeping the total darkness at bay.

The next 40 kilometres were done in near silence, one pedal stroke after another (except for the squeak). It felt like we were flying along - we had the wind in our faces with limited visual cues for us to gauge our speed against, but reality sunk in when I snuck a peek at my Garmin. It might have felt like we were whizzing along in the low 30s, but the reality was that we were barely holding 25km/h. Our final 68kms went from taking us 2h30, to somewhere over 3h30.

View from the supporter's car
And yet there is something special about just riding along in near total darkness, listening to the noises around you, and talking to the voices in your head. Your entire world at that very moment consists of a small puddle of light, the two guys nearby, and whatever thoughts you're able to summon to keep you company, and at the same time numb the pain.

With just over 30 kilometres to go, we were once again surprised by the appearance of The Big Day Out fans. My wife and son taking the time to find us and escort home. It was also around this time that I was banished from riding on the front - my white line fever not being appreciated by my fellow companions. It was also around this time that we remembered that we'd promised Snack Monster Mike a wee stop 45 kilometres previously. Our enquiries revealed that he did still need to go and that he hadn't pulled a euro pro wannabee move and gone while on the bike, much to our disappointment.
A quick wee stop, 3 rolling hills and the quiet roads of Somerset West later and we rolled back into my street. The same street we'd left in the dark 17 hours previously. We'd gone on a day-long adventure, seeing some pretty cool, and some pretty heart-wrenching things, and we were back where we started. Normal people had gone about their normal lives, and we'd done something special. From afar it might look like a midlife crisis, but I prefer to believe it's just a continuation of a lifelong passion for adventure. The day we lose that passion is the day we'll have our midlife crises.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Posted by Velouria Posted on 11:22 | 1 comment

The Double Century 2017

On the surface, The Coronation Double Century might be a 12 man team trial over 202kms of winding roads through the Overberg. But scratch a little deeper, and you'll quickly discover the intricate and complex nature of this yearly pilgrimage. A psychologist's wet dream into the inner working's of the minds of endurance athletes of all shapes and sizes.
The scientific papers that could be written about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or Survivor's Guilt could fill several editions of The Journal of Psychology alone, but what really interests me is the range of emotions before, during and after that I (and hopefully others) experience.
It is said that basic emotions evolved in response to the ecological challenges faced by our remote ancestors and are so primitive as to be ‘hardwired’, with each basic emotion corresponding to a distinct and dedicated neurological circuit. Being hardwired, basic emotions (or ‘affect programs’) are innate and universal, automatic, and fast, and trigger behaviour with a high survival value.
Robert Plutchik identified 8 basic emotions, and I'm quite sure I experience each and every one of them in various measures:

Mumblings of Double Century plans and strategies begin almost as soon as the saddles sores and aching legs from the previous edition have recovered. Things that can be done better, riders that need to be "convinced" to ride with us, improvements to the after party. We scheme and conspire for months on end, convinced that we're finally going to get it right. As race day approaches, the anticipation of the sufferfest that awaits is almost palpable. In the final week before the big day, we go from "I can't wait to race bikes in Swellendam over 200kms" to "I really don't know why I do this to myself every year". And yet somehow, we make the start line each and every year!

For me, the biggest surprise of the day is seeing who is going to be the first rider to pop. None of us wants to be that guy. It's a long and often lonely ride to the finish, and then there is the year-long stigma of being the guy that tapped out first. So, for the first hour of racing, we're not really racing the teams around us, we're shadowboxing with each other, taking our turn on the front and giving it almost everything, but secretly holding something back and hoping that someone else is going to crack first.
Captain Craig is never on my list of guys who are going to crack early on. He's the master of digging deep and holding a wheel, so when he came past me (backwards) pedaling squares after 40 minutes I thought he was kidding. A look over my shoulder a few seconds later and he was gone - our team captain relegated to a day of trying to beat the sweep vehicle and control the demons in his belly. (He was successful with the first challenge, not so much the second)

As we descend deeper into our own worlds of misery and suffering, the strangest things bring us joy. A bite of an energy bar, the slight shift in wind direction, the overtaking of another team. While racing bikes as fast we can is fun, it's not joyful. It's the things that happen while we're hurting ourselves that bring us joy.

I've never been so happy to see a complete stranger standing on the side of the road dishing out water and coke. My whole survival depended on this stranger (who also happened to be our backup) to get me home, and for those 5 minutes where I was being fussed over, I was happy. A kind of primitive and primal happiness. Happy to be alive. Happy to be riding bikes with mates. Happy to have full bottles.

We're a team of journeymen, a motley crew of renegade bike riders that gather for just one day. We come from different towns, different provinces, different countries, and yet somehow the stars align on race day. For 5 hours we're a team. A collective greater than the sum of the parts. We ride hard. Sometimes too hard. Giving it everything. And then it's all over. We go our separate ways, the team disbanded for another year. We might bump into each other here and there, but for most riders, we won't see each other ever again. And that's sad.

In the oxygen starved environment that is the HotChillee Racing pace line, the weirdest things can fill you with anger and rage. Someone dropping a gel sachet. A slower team not moving over to the left. Your own teammate subjecting you to 480 watts of torture for 5 minutes. These things rattle around in your head, taking on a life of their own, and before you know it, you're stomping the pedals with fury. I like that sort of anger. It's a powerful motivator to push through the pain. To take one more turn on the front. To squeeze the last remaining energy from my legs.

And then there is the bad anger. The anger that brings out my Hulk. This doesn't happen often, particularly when racing bikes, but when it does I just feel like giving up. Giving up on the race, and giving up on cycling in general. Cycling is supposed to be fun, especially at our level. We're just weekend warriors in search of glory. Cycling is our escape from the 9 to 5 routine. So when one team takes things a little too seriously, crossing the line from racing hard but fairly to blatantly cheating, the bad anger starts to boil inside me. What annoys me most is that a team whose name I cannot mention cheat by drafting us for 30kms, despite our protestations, and then step onto the top step of the mixed podium and celebrate their "victory". Are they so morally bankrupt that this is acceptable to them? Do they wear that medal with pride, or is it a dark reminder of the depths that they will go to in order to win?

Going into this year's Double Century I was confident of my fitness and form. I wasn't in peak peak condition, but I was solid. The speed was there. The endurance was there. The motivation was there. It was going to be a good race. And then we got news that Nic Dlamini would be joining us as our rent-a-pro. My world came tumbling down. Gone are the days of Nic riding on restricted gears, pumping out a cadence of 130 plus in order to keep up with us. He's now a lean, mean racing machine with a particular talent for crushing the souls of amateur riders with his abundance of watts that many of us can only dream of. Suddenly, I was fearing for my well being. The race had gone from an unbearable sufferfest with mates to a potential death ride on board the Nic Dlamini Agony Express.

And he didn't disappoint. Without looking up, we all knew when Nic was near the front as all our numbers would go haywire. Like the instruments of a plane flying into the Bermuda Triangle, things on our cycling computers just didn't make sense. The speed would shoot up, heart rates would max out and the watts were off the charts. We were going way too hard, and we all knew it, but we were powerless to stop it. Instead, eleven riders would cower in fear, waiting for the next Dlamini drubbing.

With the advent of things like Strava and GPS tracking, it's relatively easy to get an idea of your team members' fitness and form. But it's not a perfect science. Come race day, each member of the HotChillee Racing team places a certain amount of trust in the rest of the team that they've done the hard miles. Being the optimists that we are, we like to believe that everyone is in tip top condition, but until that gun goes, you never really know what sort of ride it is going to be. Are we all talk and no walk, or are we going to surprise ourselves and everyone else with a good ride?

The opposite is true as well - will my teammates step up when we need them most? Will they give everything for the cause? And the answer is usually yes. Whether it's closing the gap after a dead wheel, or riding me back onto our train after I got dropped on the downhill (again), there is always a teammate that answers the call. Someone punctures and in a flash a wheel is offered (although we suspect there was a selfish component here as Tim no longer had to endure the hiding on board the Nic Dlamini Bullet Train). It's probably this feeling that keeps bringing me back year after year to the Double Century. A twelve musketeers sort of vibe.

Again, the team that I cannot mention. They went from a morally dubious bunch of bike riders to everything I hate about cycling and cyclists in the space of 3 seconds. I've played several sports over the years, I've raced at various levels, in various disciplines, and not once in the 34 years that I've been riding bikes has anyone ever punched me. But that all changed when I asked a member of the team that I cannot mention to give me some room so that I could rejoin the HotChillee paceline (that they had been wheel sucking for 30 kilometers). I got an expletive filled rant followed by a punch for my efforts.

Where did cycling go wrong that this is seen as acceptable behaviour? Or is this just a reflection of modern society and how we interact with others? Is this the example we should be setting for tomorrow's generation? Cheat, swear and punch your way to victory? In a fun ride? I'd hate to see the response in a situation where the stakes are a lot higher.

As for my actual race report, The Double Century is a difficult race to report on when you spend half the time dropped from your own team. And the bits where I was part of the team are shrouded in a haze of suffering, or blurred as images of my life flashed before my eyes.

This is what I wrote on The BikeHub:
1. Start
2. Stare at the bum in front of me while chewing bar tape everytime Nic Dlamini was anywhere near the front.
3. Pretend to take a turn on the front, but I was actually too shattered from Nic's 5 minute motorpace session that I was actually recovering while on the front
4. Repeat 2 and 3 about 15 times
5. Pop spectacularly
6. Ponder the meaning of life and what series of bad life decisions had brought me to this point
7. Water point 1
8. Repeat 2 and 3 about 10 times, but this time there was no popping as I was number 6
9. Water point 2
10. Pop again - about 2kms out of the water point
11. Make a million deals with the muscles in my legs if they could just get me to the finish and not wage a violent war whenever I tried to pedal
12. Curse any uphill, no matter the gradient
13. Repeat 11 about 37 times
14. Finish, vowing to race in a mixed team next year!
(15. Two days later start thinking about doing it all again next year!) 

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