Friday, 9 October 2020

Ultra Endurance Cycling - The What, How and Why

The sleet stings my exposed fingers which is odd as I've lost most of the feeling in my hands. I crouch over the handlebars sheltering the brake lever from the wet as I wind the insulation tape around the twig. It'd be easier if I could get it dry. The effort of getting up the mountain has my inner layers soaked in sweat and then the storm front that pounced on me toward the top of the pass has finished the job. 

I've got the stick wedged in tightly and the tape is holding it in place. I twist my head so my helmet light shines in the joint between the brake lever and the body. Sweat runs down my forehead and stings my eyes. I blink my eyes into focus. That looks like it might work. I pump the brake lever. It's spongy but the back brake grips and releases. That'll have to do. 

A few hours earlier I was sitting in front of a crackling fire. A shower and the embrace of a duvet just steps away. 

"Are you sure you don't want to stay?" the owner had asked. 

Before walking into the the warmth of the guesthouse I'd already made the call to restock and head up Swartberg Pass. I've fallen behind and have to get to Die Hel before sunrise. 

I lean on the handlebars and close my eyes for a minute. I'm exhausted and between the howling wind and driving sleet what little energy I've got left is draining fast. The closest shelter is three hours away. Maybe more if this storm doesn't let up. 

I've been making my way to Wellington  from PIetermaritzburg for the last 10 days but the journey that led me here started 12 years ago

Like many South African cyclists I've done my fair share of MTB multi-day races. Races like the three day Sani2c through to the nine day JoBerg2c. Obviously one's pedigree would be  called into question if you hadn't done the ABSA Cape Epic. I'll freely admit to having done a couple of those in the days when you started in Knysna and over the course of seven days threaded your way across to Stellenbosch. 

I was and remain a middle of the pack rider. I don't have the speed, strength or technical prowess to propel myself onto the podium. However, when I entered a few 24 hour MTB events I was surprised when I managed to win. It seemed I had the stubbornness that enabled me to keep trucking when my body was tapped out. 

When the Freedom Challenge popped up on my radar back in 2007 it immediately piqued my interest and over the next few years transformed my cycling ambitions. Now speed, strength and technical ability were reduced to a  subset of the skills required to prevail in events where tenacity, strategy and general toughness were more highly prized. In the case of the Freedom Challenge the ability to self navigate without the use of GPS is the most basic requirement.  

The Freedom Challenge which was first staged in 2003 wasn't the first ultra endurance bike event in the world. The Great American Bike Race now known as the Race Across America (RAAM) held its inaugural event in 1982 but it's a road race.  

The next significant MTB event was the Tour Divide first staged in 2007. It starts in Canada and finishes 4418 km later at the Mexican Border after traversing the Rocky Mountains. 

Over the last decade ultra endurance events have mushroomed. Recent additions to MTB/Gravel bike racing are events like Race to the Rock in Australia which hosts it's 5th annual event this year and the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan is in it's infancy. 

Locally we also have The Munga or The Munga MTB to give it its full name. The Munga has been going for 5 years. 

These races differ from stage races in that once the clock starts it only stops when you cross the finish line days or weeks later. The tick-tock doesn't stop even while you're sleeping. 

What does it take to survive an ultra endurance MTB race? For the sake of this article I'll focus specifically on two local events — The Freedom Challenge and The Munga MTB. 

These races while similar are not the same, even though The Munga has its DNA rooted in both the Tour Divide and The Freedom Challenge. The popular South African version of "unsupported" differs from other international events, and that's not a bad thing. If you enter some of the overseas unsupported races you could unwittingly disqualify a fellow rider and possibly yourself by giving them a sip of your water or even by riding with them along the route. The definition of Solo and Unsupported in those races is taken to the extreme. There is sound reasoning behind it. However, here at home we have a strong sense of the Good Samaritan rule where fellow cyclists are able to assist each other along the route even when a race is defined as unsupported. Furthermore, both The Munga and The Freedom Challenge have race office organised check points where food, showers and beds are available as required. Given our geography and the paucity of food and accommodation along the race routes it makes sense to have events loosely described as unsupported apart from Race Office approved and provided support. This being the case these two races don't fit the Bike Packing genre. In short, Bike Packing is when you have to forage for food and accommodation as you go along sometimes having to make camp and cook your own food. That means you need to carry food, a stove, sleeping bag and a tent or bivvy. None of these are required for our local events. You can sleep rough if you like but that's mostly by choice. 

Let's deal with the structural differences. The Munga follows a route dictated by GPS routing. The Freedom Challenge on the other hand has a route  and at times a route suggestion that's marked on maps and described by narratives. No form of GPS is allowed. 

So you're interested in giving one of these events a bash. But which one? There's something about the gravity of each that makes them either more or less attractive based on your race pedigree. I'd recommend both to anyone who asks but practically speaking the self navigation and multi-week fatigue of The Freedom Challenge makes it an obvious extension for Adventure Racers. For Epic type riders the format of The Munga is a stepping stone to new adventure. 

If we ignore the navigational differences   the skills required to survive and thrive in these races are largely the same. 

First up is cycling ability. Obviously you have to know how to ride a bike but you also need to be fit for purpose. Meaning your training should be specific for building the fitness required for ultra endurance events. That is, your training efforts should lean heavily toward the lower zones. Smashing out Neuromuscular or Anaerobic efforts  might feel like you're toughening up but it's toughness without purpose. I've stood shoulder to shoulder with professional road cyclists in the start chute. They've been half my age, single digit BMI and have spend countless hours training in the upper zones. When the race starts they lean on their training and are soon out of sight. Almost without exception I catch them in a handful of hours when they are spent. I'm not better than them. I'm just better prepared and tuned for this genre of racing. 

Your training efforts should be in and around the Endurance zone otherwise known as the "all day pace".

Without the physiological adaption that takes place in the lower zones your body isn't able to tap into fat reserves. Three or four hours into a race everyone has exhausted their glycogen reserves. Those athletes who can tap into alternative energy reserves are able to keep going. 

When I first started these long events I hurt. The sort of hurt that brings you to a halt. I suffered from hand, ITB, Achilles and knee problems. Unfortunately you can't pop along to the local gym and fix these in a few weeks. Putting your body under stress for days and weeks at a time requires that you have deep physical resilience. This takes time. When you understand that there is no shortcut to onboarding this toughness you appreciate the benefit of adopting an incremental approach. If you think you can go from three hour coffee rides to riding forty hours non stop you're going to discover what it's like to breakdown physically. The lesson you want to avoid is how to recover from overuse injury. 

Toughness is an innate characteristic. Suffering to achieve a goal is not attractive to everyone. If you've chased someone up a climb until your vision has started blurring you've entered the suffer zone. But short term suffering is not the same as the unremitting fatigue you'll need to endure in a multi-day race. You'll have to be able to resist the urge to stop when every muscle in your body is waving a white flag. Don't confuse this with the genuine need for sleep.

Unlike one day races you are unlikely to be racing ultra endurance races every other weekend. In fact, it's unlikely that's you'll do more than a handful of events every year, probably less. You are going to expose your weak underbelly several times in successive events until you develop "race feel". It takes a long time to make peace with the idea that you can have a five minute timeout in the shade of a doringbos while racing. 

The fact that ultra endurance racing is a  skill developed over time is underpinned by the correlation of the average age of the competitors. It's not uncommon to see the field packed with over 40's. There are very few youngsters who do well. The young riders who do excel have earned their stripes and have deep respect and understanding of this genre of racing. 

Self sufficiency is a vital skill. There is no team car or waterpoint every 20 kilometres. Having loads of kit is one thing. Knowing what kit to take on which event is crucial. For example, if you are going to be climbing over games fences or carrying your bike you'll want your bike to be as light as possible. That means carrying stuff on your back. But if fence climbing and portages aren't part of the route then it makes sense to put your kit on the bike. Fine tuning your equipment for the task comes with experience. You need to take enough to survive the worst but not so much that you carry kit you never need. Gone are the days when you would typically lug around over 10 to 15 kg's of kit. These days it's closer to 5 kg and often less. 

It would also behove you to know your way around your bike. There are no bike mechanics or sweep vehicles milling around to help. Even if there are mechanics at support stations they might be 100 kilometres away. At some point something is going to go wrong and you will have to make a plan. That said, you'll need to know what minimum spares and equipment you'll require to get your bike back into working shape. It might mean that cable ties and duct tape become your don't-leave-home-without items rather than energy gels and snack bars. Once you have the right equipment make sure you know how to use it. I've seen people forlornly staring at their chain breaker or inflator wondering how it works. Things go wrong all the time but it doesn't mean your race needs to end. Knowing how to fix a puncture, change a shifter cable, repair a broken chain, swap out a derailleur jockey wheel, change brake pads or convert your rig to a single speed are essential skills. The list of what can go wrong is endless. I've seen some catastrophic failures but I've also witnessed the ingenuity of experienced endurance mountain bikers.


As said earlier, speed and technical ability are not the touchstone skills that ensure success. The mental aspect of endurance racing is what matters the most. It's difficult to distill out the critical aspects but if you've spent time chatting to a good endurance athlete you'll see that although they may come across as laidback they have a good grasp of the skills required. They often don't appreciate just how much they know because they have ingrained those skills into the way they think to the point that it's obvious—to them. Spend time with these athletes and you'll appreciate their breadth of hard earned knowledge. 

The question that comes up time and time again is why we suffer through ultra endurance events and then go back and put ourselves through it again and again. I've pondered this question at length and there's no simple answer. 

For some, doing an ultra endurance event is a once off on their bucket list—do one and hang the medal on the pegboard in the garage. It's something they perceive as hard and by achieving it they get to underpin their self worth. I get that. After all don't we all want to be our own hero? 

For others it's deeper than that. It's the domain of the endurance junkie. It's as much about self challenge as it is about self discovery. Ultra endurance pushes you to the edge. It's about nudging  oneself to the limit and beyond. That limit is often imposed on us by our own perceptions. As we break through successive barriers we see ourselves evolve. As we expose layer after layer there are moments of disappointment and failure. We push ourselves to expose and then confront our own demons. Rather than being dissuaded these moments are analysed and plans made to avoid a reoccurrence. It's about riding further, sleeping less and taking on ever tougher challenges in suboptimal conditions. It's a drug. But rather than creating a distorted fantasy it shapes our new reality. 

Why keep coming back? Because there's more to give and more to gain.

"A man does not climb a mountain without bringing some of it away with him, and leaving something of himself upon it." Sir Martin Conway. 

We do hard things because they are hard. You come to expect that you'll be stripped bare, shaken up and reassembled. If you get to the point where you are no longer transformed by the experience it's time to look for a new challenge. 

While threading through rural villages on the Freedom Challenge I have been asked countless times "Where are you going?"  I respond variously depending on my daily or ultimate destination sometimes customising my answer to suit my perception of their geographical understanding. That's the answer of my head. While curled up in a ditch in the Karoo or trudging through a winter storm on Swartberg Pass at midnight my heart's answer would be, "I'm am already there."

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

The cockerel didn’t crow this year

If I said it was a weird year I'm fairly sure there wouldn't be any dissenting opinions. 

2020 is a year that will go down as a watershed for the world as we knew it. The rise of authoritarianism across the globe dressed up as concern for the well being of global citizens juxtaposed against the acceleration of the "age of outrage" as I like to call it has left us questioning our stance amidst these tsunamic onslaughts—I'm not sure if that's an actual word but I was reaching for a word that did justice to these particular facets of 2020 life. I'm not suggesting one or the other of these pivotal phenomena is right or wrong but I find myself in the maelstrom of the confluence of these events. My business has suffered and as a consequence the people I employ and care about have suffered. That's a hard pill to swallow. On the outrage front I am continuously reevaluating my privilege and my attitude to others not like me—it's an uncomfortable but necessary evaluation and constant reset. 

But, as important as these issues are, this post is not about those events. It's about something far more arbitrary. It's about how the ebb and flow of life has been disrupted. The tidal change of summer slipping into winter. The long nights and short days yielding as warmth and budding trees splash colour over the starkness of winter. It's not that I don't like winter; bizarrely I normally do. Not for the cold that makes me appreciate my electric blanket or the manic scamper that follows the closing of the warm shower tap as towelling off and slipping on of PJ's, dressing gown and slippers happens at a pace that would be the envy of any fire chief. No, it's not necessarily the icy nights and desolate landscapes I miss. It's the adventure that has become synonymous with that time of year that I miss—It's Freedom Challenge season. 

For the last 15 years there have been two particular harbingers that Freedom season is approaching. Firstly the autumn winds blow eddies of fallen plane tree leaves around my garden and into my pool. Secondly, the sound of a crowing cockerel can be heard as it carries across  from an nearby smallholding. As the first buds appeared on the plane trees this year I was aware that I hadn't heard a  cockerel crow this winter. Perhaps I'd missed it as I'd spent more time on my indoor trainer or I hadn't been up early enough and wandered into the garden before work as I used to. Either way, it occurred to me that this was the first time  in more than a decade of winters that I hadn't heard the cockerel crow. 

With the Race Across South Africa rescheduled for October I gave it a seconds' consideration and then abandoned the idea. It wouldn't be the same race and besides, the weather would be much harder—you can layer up for the cold of winter but what do you do about the heat? I chose to ignore the fact that I race The Munga where the mercury nudges up well into the 40's. 

There are myriad reasons why doing the race this year and at this time of year is a bad idea but what to do when your adventure heart yearns for the solitude and magnificence of the mountains and wide open spaces. 

FOMO is a strange beast—it thrives in the absence of nurture or attention, it simply shows up unannounced dressed for a good night out. FOMO made me message Chris Fisher when I heard there were a few route changes. After all I like to keep updated on the route and was curious about the changes. At least that's how I initially framed it in my own head. The message was this, "Any chance I can buy a set of maps? Currently a 0.001% chance that I can do the race." From that message it seems clear to me that the idea of me entering the race was so remote that even before the message arrived on his device the idea had been discarded. Chris doesn't understand the statistical insignificance of a 0.001% probability and posted this on our race group, "Mike Woolnough is umming and ahhing about riding Freedom Challenge... who here wants to follow his dot? and WhatsApp antics? lets give him the push he needs !!!".

There were pushes and shoves with a number of people willing me on and while encouraging they didn't nudge the decimal place of the probability enough to the right to make me grasp the nettle. The next morning I popped into the garden just before sunrise and the decimal place of probability shifted 5 places to the right in an instant—I heard a cockerel crow. 

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Atlas Mountain Race - Registration

Registration for the race takes place at the Mogador Kasbah Hotel and Spa. That's 5km's from our accommodation. Practically speaking it would have been easier to have stayed at the Mogador but it was only identified as the race start venue after we had booked at Riad Bousskri. Roger tried changing it. He sent an email asking the Riad if they would waive the cancellation fee. Their response was immediate and emphatic—They deducted the full amount for our stay from his credit card. Later he got a message to the effect, "It's low season we need the money". 

As it turns out staying close to the Medina proved to be more of an authentic experience than staying at the hotel. The hotel would have been the same as staying in any 3 star hotel or Holiday Inn anywhere in the world. There is nothing uniquely Moroccan about it. 

The logistics with registration are challenging. Firstly, we need to get our bike boxes and bags to the Mogador on Friday afternoon. These will then be transferred to the finish venue. The truck doing that transfer, so we are told, will be leaving at 6pm on Friday. The race starts at 9am the following day. We are 5km's away so we can't simply tote our kit over to the the hotel. We can take a taxi but then we need to taxi back as our bikes will be back at the Riad. 

We come up with another plan. We organise a taxi. When it arrives we load our baggage and one bike. Another rider, James Dennis, is staying at the same Riad. He goes with the taxi. Roger and I scamper over to the Mogador on our bikes where James is waiting with our stuff. 

The ride over goes a lot smoother than our first attempt 2 days ago. It's hair raising riding on the wrong side (for us) trying to merge with the other cars, motorcycles and bicycles. We are getting used to the chaos and have mostly figured out which side we need to yield to when roads merge and how to assert ourselves in the traffic without the risk of getting pancaked. 

Registration isn't the slick organisation that we have become accustomed to with our 1000+ entrant races back home. There are only around 190 of us and it's a little slower than we are accustomed to but it's personal and everyone is chilled. The "race office" personnel consist of Nelson Trees the chief instigator, his mum and dad, his girlfriend and a handful of his buddies. I'm starting to develop a feel for this cabal of cyclists who go by the name bike-packers. They are really chilled. 

My first assessment of a bike-packer, in this race at least, is someone who rides a gravel bike loaded up with the full range of Apidura bike bags. They probably have at least one tattoo. There's a good chance that the guys have facial hair and a head of hair that is substantially longer than would be acceptable in a Wall Street boardroom. 

We move from station to station, registering, getting our individually numbered caps, pick up spot trackers, get our bikes inspected, pick up a brevet card and hand in our bags. That done we only have our bikes and the clothes we are wearing as we have handed in all our other belongings. We need to get back to our accommodation in this kit and return in it the next morning. I don't understand why we couldn't simply hand in our bags before the race start in the morning. Anyway, it is what it is. 

Registration done we are milling around waiting for Nelson to give the race briefing. While we wait I can't help noticing how athletic all the other riders look. I'm feeling rather intimidated. There's a guy in front of us who has a muscle that's drooping over his knee cap — I think the muscle is called the Vastis Medialis. I ask Roger if it looks normal. We can't decide. The guy moves his leg and the muscle snaps back into place. Darn, that's one gnarly set of legs. And there are a good number of legs like that scattered about the room. It turns out that droopy muscle guy is an ex pro-cyclist. My puny legs are getting a complex. 

Nelson is both eloquent and laidback. He gives us an overview of the race and explains that the cutoff for CP1 has been extended from 7am on Sunday to midday. The reason, he explains, is the route off the mountain is "a bit challenging, even in daylight. So if you decide to sleep short of the last 5 kilometre descent you'll have ample time to make your way down in the morning." 

Hmm. That's worth thinking about. CP1 is at 126 km. The race starts at 9am. It'll be dark at 8 pm. That's... 11 hours to do 126 km before dark... 11.5 km/h average. Otherwise sleep over and make it down in the morning. That gives you 27 hours to beat the cutoff. That's an average speed of 4.7km/h. Okay. It seems it's going to be an interesting first day of riding. 

Briefing done we pedal back to the Riad. It's going to be an early night. It's not that we need to bank any sleep. It's just that in our part of town it seems the best option for 3 guys dressed in spandex. 

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Atlas Mountain Race - Mystical Marrakech

Our Riad is exactly that—a townhouse with a central courtyard and a fountain. In pride of place in the centre of the courtyard is an orange tree laden with ripening oranges. Real ones not plastic —we check. Once through the front door the glumness of the area is instantly forgotten. The place inside is a comfortable haven. It is a scenario that will play out over and over during our trek across Morocco—the outside of buildings often appear neglected in contrast to the inside that is tidy and homely.

Ghislain welcomes us and we have the first of many cups of Moroccan tea—black tea infused with fresh mint. By default it's sweetened with many lumps of sugar. Fact: Morocco has the second highest per capita consumption of sugar in Africa. Our own nation, South Africa, comes in first.

Our first priority is to get local currency and SIM cards. Our host makes a line drawing of how to get to the Medina. The Medina is the central hub of Marrakech. The centre piece of the Medina is the Jama El f'na Market. It's an open air market from which radiates a myriad narrow alleyways that make up the bulk of the extensive central market.

Jama El f'na Market square is our quest. We consult Google Maps to get an idea of where we were headed. More a case of figuring out where we are so that we can make it back to our dingy alleyway. We make a point of getting our bearings and sizing our Google app to include the area we are headed toward as we will be out of WiFi reception as soon as we step outside.

We pop through the door and make our way down the alley. It's evening but you wouldn't know it. Marrakech seems to be in the wrong time zone. The sun comes up after 8am and it goes down after 7:30pm. This suits a town that only gets going midmorning and quietens down close to midnight.

I still haven't got used to the fact that they drive on the wrong side of the road. That's right, we anglophiles drive on the right side. That is, the left side, which is the right side. It takes getting used to when you have to cross a road or avoid scooters which zip up and down in an endless stream. Occasionally I just stop to methodically figure out in which direction I should be looking.

Our Riad is on the fringe of the Medina so it's not long before we merge with the throngs pulsing through narrow alleys. It's a mix of pedestrians and scooters. The scooters zip through the mob occasionally slowing to a walk to nudge through choke points. There's tolerance on both sides. As for me I'm getting whiplash trying to figure out where the next crazed scooter rider is coming from.

The stalls that line the alleys sell everything imaginable. Not only that, there are many of them that are carbon copies of a stall adjacent to them or even identical to a stall a few hundred metres away. It's far too easy to think you know where you are simply because you recognise a stall or a group of stalls. It doesn't work like that. It's not like being on a merry-go-round where you get used to the constant repetitive pattern. It's more like a train passing thousands of similar looking stalls. It's a blur of colours and smells. We resort to Google Maps on a few occasions to figure out where we are.

The stalls are packed to overflowing. I get that you can overstock with shoes, socks or brass trinkets as you will eventually sell them. There is no sell-by-date. But many of the stalls are selling fruit and vegetables. They're perishable. No one in their right mind is going to stock up on 5 tons of fruit and veggies in the hope of selling a couple of 5kg bags. Obviously there're people buying this stuff.

A familiar fragrance gets my attention. A guy eases through the crowd pushing a cart the size of a dining room table. It's loaded with litchi size strawberries. They look amazing. Not a single blemish. This epitomises my thinking about the volume of perishable goods that change hands on a daily basis. Strawberries won't wait for peak tourist season.

We make it to the central open air market place. It's packed out. Hundreds of brightly illuminated stalls fill the square which I figure is 300 metres x 300 metres. With the help of some tourists who are sitting at a cafe overlooking the square we are able to locate an ATM and a shop that sells SIM cards and airtime. South Africans will be interested in the low cost of data - 5 Gb cost me R76.

Local currency in hand and phones back online our next objective is food. The square is lined with an array of eateries. We settle for Taj'in Darna. I have no idea what to order so just go with the special. Before long an earthenware tajine is placed before me. The lid is lifted and I'm presented with a dish that is as Moroccan as it gets. A tajine is basically a stew of varying combinations of veg and meat slow cooked over coals in the earthenware pot. It's followed up with a pot of Moroccan tea. If I'd have added a Berber omelette to my meal I would have experienced the perfect Moroccan full-house. Omelettes, tagines and mint tea we're going to be the mainstay of my diet for the next few weeks. After paying for the meal and rectifying a "mistake" with our change we head back to our digs.

We return to the Medina the following day to meet with a family friend who has relocated to Marrakech from Cape Town. He runs a coffee roastery. We meet at a rooftop restaurant that is a customer of his. He is a great source of info for our upcoming trip. One bit of advice that sticks in my head is, "Watch out for scorpions, they are deadly."

As we look down from the top floor of the restaurant the Medina below looks like a construction scrap heap. It's hard to believe there's a mass of humanity making its way to and fro along the myriad narrow alleyways beneath that rubble.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Atlas Mountain Race - Welcome to Marrakech

The wing dips as we make our final turn into Marrakech Ménara Airport in Morocco. I've got a window seat and all I can see is an endless expanse of desolate brown. As we descend I see occasional patches of green that look like orchards. Olive trees I guess. Then there're huge expanses of plastic clad structures which I assume are green houses surrounded by barren ground. 

The town of Marrakech looms. It's unspectacular. The brown tones of sprawl melt into the featureless landscape. It's flat, dry, brown and completely underwhelming. Is this mystical Marrakech I ask myself? From the air it looks more slum like than mystical. To be fair I'm not well travelled and part of the reason I've come here is to break out from my shackled experience and see and do something different. Well... not exactly do something different—my bike is in the hold and I'm here to do a bicycle race across the Atlas Mountains. I'm probably the worlds worst traveller. I don't like flying and I dislike the unfamiliar even more so I'm really not qualified to judge. But still, I expected a little more from the Marrakech I've heard snippets about over the years. 

Disembarking we enter the airport building which is surprisingly modern compared to what I saw from the air. We (I'm travelling with Roger Nicholson who is also racing) collect our bags and go through security. In a city of 1 million people that attracts no less than twice that number of visitors every year you'd think the immigration officials would buy into the value of tourism. Not! While they are as surly as their American counterparts they don't mimic them for diligence. Our bags and bike boxes are shoved through an x-ray machine which seems to be a waste of time because the official manning the device is staring off into the distance in the opposite direction of the the screen he is supposed to be monitoring. 

We get outside and find a guy next to a transfer company banner holding a clipboard with Roger's name on it. Cool. Time to load up and get to our accommodation. Lots of foreign language banter between a couple of guys while we are ignored. 

The boredom is interrupted by a gendarme who walks over to a smouldering bin into which he pours a bottle of water. There's a heated exchange between the cop and an airport worker that ends with the worker taking the now extinguished bin and placing it with a collection of recycling containers 50 metres away. It seems the entrance door of the airport is not a good place to leave a paper recycling bin. 

Eventually we are escorted by a handful of guys to our waiting transport. Lots of hands help load our bikes and bags followed by expectant looks as we are about to drive off. This is our first experience of tipping expectations for unsolicited assistance. Apparently it's rampant in this town. We've just arrived and have no local currency so they get left behind empty handed. 

As soon as the first world vestige of the airport building is out of sight we are transported into another world. I expect to see Aladdin zipping past on a flying carpet. The traffic flow is best described as organic rather than structured and systematic. But it works. There are no honking of horns or scurrying to get ahead of the next car. Motor cycles, which number as many as cars, and cyclists are given space and there's a harmonious weaving of traffic at intersections. The road makes its way through the palace grounds and in a few places the traffic is shoehorned through a narrow space in the outer walls. Only one direction of traffic can go at any time and they figure it out without any aggro. Soon we are through the palace grounds and enter, what to my untraveled and unaccustomed eye looks a dodgy part of town. We are on a street with an assortment of little shops packed together. A bakery, a car parts shop, a motor cycle repair shop, a store selling airtime, cigarettes and various food items. All of these stores having no more than 3 metres of shopfront. A few men are clustered together sharing food. 

As I'm checking out the dodgy neighbourhood the taxi stops and the driver declares we are near our hotel. 

"I can't drive closer, you must walk." 

We unload our bike boxes and suitcases and stare down the dingy alley. Bike boxes aren't dainty wheelie bags. They are heavy and take some handling to wheel along. Roger and I head down the alley dragging our bikes and carrying our luggage in search of Riad Bousskri. It should be number 3. 

A Riad is a traditional Moroccan house. The term comes from the Arab word 'ryad' (meaning 'garden') but is applied to townhouses built around an inner courtyard or garden with a central fountain or small pool. Many now operate as boutique B&B's. 

We head down the narrow alley dodging motorbikes as we go in search of our boutique hotel. Number 3 doesn't appear. We are standing with our stuff staring both ways down the alleyway when we get a gents attention. 

"Riad Bousskri?" He asks. 

Roger nods. With that the guy grabs one of Roger's bags and heads down a narrower darker alleyway. The houses are built over this alleyway which makes it dark even though the sun is a few hours from setting. 30 metres down the alley the guy stops and points into a gloomy recess. We think it's a doorway. It's too dark to see. After some gesticulating the guy takes out his lighter and strikes the flint. He holds his lighter up to the wall next to a door. A small name plate appears out of the gloom. It seems we have found Riad Bousskri. 

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

The HeidelBay 545 - Part 5

It's 2am. We've eaten our toasted sandwiches and had coffee awful enough to ward off the most resilient of sleep monsters. The ride out of Vryheid is fast. Before long we are adjacent the rail line that runs from the coal fields in Ermelo to Richards Bay. The first train passes us. It's in a cutting below us and it's dark so we can't see it. I've no idea of how fast it's going or even in which direction. It seems this line is different from the one we followed to Volksrust. The coaches roll past smoothly and they go on and on and on. 

By the time the eastern sky shows signs of a new day the landscape starts changing from flat and fast to undulating. The railway line is fairly level thanks to endless bridges and cuttings. Apparently there are 65 bridges and around 14 tunnels between Richards Bay and Vryheid. Obviously we can't ride across the bridges so have to ride down below the bridges and then make our way up above the line when it goes through a cutting and even higher when the line is swallowed by a tunnel. 

The route profile shows a gentle glide slope from Vryheid to Richards Bay but the devil is in the detail. The 230 km's from Vryheid to the sea includes a few thousand metres a ascent. All made up of short steep climbs. 

We stop for a few minutes as it's getting light. A train comes past. It's then that we get to see just how long the train sets are. 4 electric locomotives pull 200 coaches. They come past so fast that they create enough wind to buffet and chill us even though we are a good 20 metres from the tracks. The line is busy. For the rest of the day we see trains heading to and from Richards Bay at regular intervals. The electric whine of the locomotives can be heard from kilometres away. 

We enter a valley where we spend the next hour and some plummeting down rocky descents followed by snail paced climbs. It seems the bridges are spaced every kilometre or less. At one point my chain drops off and ends up wrapped around my crank. I don't have my usual tool bag which went missing between the finish of The Munga and fetching my bike once back in Johannesburg. I don't have any chain links or my chain link remover. Merak and I manage to remove the crankset and untangle the chain and straighten out the twisted links. 

A short while later my back tyre is flat. I top up the sealant and pump it up. A while later it's flat. We pump it up again. A few kilometres on and once more it's flat. On closer inspection we find the tyre has a sidewall cut. I normally carry mushroom plugs for sidewall cuts but they were also in the bag that went missing. We try inserting tyre worms which work for a few kilometres before failing. Merak eventually suggests we insert a tube. That means getting all the thorns out the tyre. I don't like that idea as it's going to take forever. I have a basic tube patch kit with rubber cement and patches. We pop the tyre off, dry the inside with my buff, scuff up the tyre with the small square of sandpaper. I squeeze on a good dollop of glue and pluck the largest patch over the hole. We bomb the tyre and the patch holds. We're on our way again. 

After countless ups and downs we cross the Mhlahlane river climb up through Mbudle village and drop into Ulundi where we pop into the local Wimpy for breakfast. We're tired and the fun has long since worn off. Merak has an appetite. I don't and just force my food down. We've only got 113km to go but it may as well be 1000km. The incessant climbing has knocked the stuffing out of me and I know there's a lot more to come. We've been going for 28 hours. Any hope of finishing the ride in 36 hours has evaporated. You'd think that 113km's in 8 hours would be a doddle. I guess it would be if you'd had a good nights sleep. We've had a good nights riding. And it's getting hot... and humid. 

Without too much enthusiasm I get on my bike and we follow the GPS on a circuitous route out of town. Eventually we are back on the railway service road and the ups and downs are back in play.   Surely, we reason, the terrain must flatten out as we get closer to the coast.  Wrong!!!  

With around 50 km's to go we come across a crew chopping up rail carriages. There was a huge derailment in December 2018. They put it down to sabotage. Apparently the line was cut with a cutting torch and over 50 coaches were derailed. There are countless wheelsets scattered along the line. The crew is using cutting torches to chop up the abandoned carriages. We stop and chat with them. A couple of the guys are from Fourways in Johannesburg. Small world. 

We keep trundling along. On the outskirts of Empangeni/Richards Bay we come across kids playing in the road. One of them is riding a bmx bike and takes delight in racing us up a steep hill. He wins easily but not without nearly running over a small tot who is watching the action. A swerve at the last moment and an embarrassing scene is averted. The kids are delighted with their friends victory. We smile politely and creep on up the climb. Soon we are away from the settlement and into a pine forest which empties into the town of Richards Bay. The last 15 kilometres are flat and fast albeit through traffic on main roads. 

We make it to the waterfront and head down the water break to the finish at the end. Our families are there but Niven popped down to the bank and has missed our arrival. It's 18:30. Our official riding time is 36h24. 

Niven arrives a few minutes after us and is as delighted as we are with our effort. 

Shortly after we see Werner Nienaber. He'd been waiting patiently at the end of the wrong water break. Its only when the pictures of our finish are posted on the Whatsapp group that he realises his mistake and he scuttles around to join us. It good to see him. 

HeidelBay is a good ride. It's as good if not better than a lot of official races. It crosses an interesting g part of the country and it can be customised to suit your requirements. We did it in a single effort but it could easily be divided into 3 or 4 days with overnight stops. It could even be ridden over a number of weekends starting at different places. 

We were lucky in that we got a good weather window in a season where rain is expected somewhere along the route. 

We did okay and I'm happy with our time. However...

Monday, 3 February 2020

The HeidelBay 545 - Part 4

The ride to Vryheid takes us away from the train track which has been our lodestar. We'll be riding district roads for this leg. We've done the first 60km's previously albeit in terrible conditions. Beyond that it's all new and we don't know what to expect. 

We make good progress out of Volksrust to Groenvlei and begin the climb up to the highest point of our route. A third of the way up we stop to eat the remains of the dinner we bought in Volksrust. Now that it's cooler we have regained the appetites that were MIA earlier. There's evidence of a lightning storm nearby but we can't figure out where it is. We simply see the occasional flash on the horizon in no particular direction. The cloud cover is light and we can see stars. I'm hoping it's far away and not along our route. Our last ride attempt spluttered out 20 kilometres further along this road near Utrecht. Im not keen for a repeat performance. 

Back on our bikes we continue our ascent. We both have the route profile page open on our Garmins. The line rises sharply off the page. I keep riding desperately waiting to see the elevation profile flatten out. It does briefly before kicking up even sharper. It's a long grind and we eventually top out at an elevation of 1965m. Niven has been waiting at the top of the climb. We feel bad for stopping to eat and keeping him waiting. It's almost 10pm, he has been on the go since before sunrise and must be tired. Sure we've been up just as long but I'd rather be pedalling than sitting around doing nothing waiting for a couple of cyclists to make an appearance. 

We chat to Niven who indicates that he is going to continue tagging along until we get to Richards Bay. That's his level of interest in seeing people do this route. He's as excited as we are to put down a good time. We roll off leaving Niven to pack and stow his lights and camera. 

Now that we are at the top of the climb we can see where the lightning is coming from. There's a storm directly ahead and by my reckoning it's near Utrecht. We can see the flashes of lightning but we can't hear the resultant thunder. That's a good thing. Merak and I keep moving with neither of us saying anything about the storm we are riding toward. The wind is blowing across us so I hope it'll move away and leave us alone. 

In our last attempt this section was muddy and we crawled along into a headwind while being lashed by torrential rainfall. This time the dry surface and gentle crosswind means we belt along at a good pace losing 400m of elevation in the process. It feels great to be moving along easily. It takes Niven 15 kilometres to catch up. As we approach the turnoff near Utrecht we can see lightning bolts and hear the thunder. The storm is directly over town 10 kilometres away. It's not good. I'm happy we'll soon be turning left away from town. As we approach the junction there's one last massive lightning bolt followed by nothing. Just like that the storm has blown out. 

We inch up the next climb. The lights of Utrecht are off to our right. We are now in unchartered territory. We are almost halfway to the coast. The route profile that Carlo provided us with shows we are on a gentle glide slope from here to the coast. But the numbers suggest there is more to it than that. We have climbed less that 2000m and the total climbing for the route is 6000m. Somewhere between here and the coast  there be dragons. Lots of dragons. 

The first dragon comes up soon enough. The top end of my cassette gets 18 minutes of solid workout to cover a mere 2.5 kilometres. Hmm. One dragon down, how many more? The ride into Vryheid uncovers no more dragons. By contrast it's a nice ride with a good number of rolling hills. Our original plan had us getting to Vryheid around 1am. We have made up some lost time and are in town at 1:30am. We find a garage shop and takeaway that is open. Niven's motorcycle is parked outside. 

Saturday, 1 February 2020

The HeidelBay 545 - Part 3

With our bikes liberated of most of the mud we continue down the road. I'm aware of the grinding of brake rotors as we slosh through puddles. I'm not trying to avoid the puddles because they present an opportunity to wash yet more mud off my bike. The downside is that more mud and water are being thrown up by the back wheel. I can feel it running down my back into my chamois. If my back looks anything like Merak's and Carlo's then it's an almighty mess. They look like ninja turtles with little brown shells on their backs. 

As we close on Standerton we are squeezed between the railway track  and a large settlement. Our jeep track disappears and we are reduced to weaving along a foot path trying as best we can to avoid the piles of trash. Every now and then we have to stop and carry our bikes over trenches that have been dug to drain water from the shacks toward the rail line. As soon as is practical we cross to the other side and find another jeep track which takes us into town. 

Carlo has his mind set on stopping at the Engen garage that has a shop and  an attached Wimpy. Arriving there he  convinces one of the fuel jockeys to let us use a fire hose to clean our bikes. To top off his bike clean he hoses down his shoes and squelches off to the Wimpy leaving Merak and I to go through the same cleansing ritual. 

Bikes cleaned, water bottles filled and Cokes stashed in our packs Merak and I look for Carlo. We find him seated at a table in the Wimpy. He is surrounded by a puddle of muddy water. A muddy trail evidences his walk from the door to the closest table. We look like we have just stepped out the ring of a mud wrestling match. I hesitate and Carlo waves me over.

"It's fine, I've spoken to the manager. We'll square up for the inconvenience." Eish. With this much mess we'll have to put that down as budget repayment on our credit cards. 

There are lengths of paper towel draped over our chairs. I plop down and ease my backpack off. In spite of my best efforts I dump a load of mud on the white tiled floor. I am aware of the looks we are getting. Everyone, I repeat, everyone is looking at us. The staff, the patrons and even the people standing in line for takeaway's. My Garmin is playing up and I need to get my spare from the bag on my bike. It takes me a few minutes to pluck up the courage to run the gauntlet of stares and snickers. As I walk back to my bike I am reminded of a description in the book My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. He writes about his sister Margot walking along trailing yards of scent. Except that I'm leaving behind a trail of mud. It's dripping off me. With every footfall bits of mud cascade off me like confetti at a hippos wedding. Fortunately most people seem to find it amusing. I don't. And neither do a couple seated a few tables from us. I don't blame them—we are a filthy raggedy crew. To make matters worse our waitron makes a mess of our order and our stay at the Wimpy is extended. 

Bill settled, penance paid and apologies offered we head back into the street to retrieve our bikes. The route out of town takes us through the 'burbs. We are soon reunited with our jeep track and bobble along toward Volksrust 88km away. It's a fairly flat section and even with a little mud it shouldn't take more than 5 hours. With over 100 km's under our wheels we can feel the gentle incline which isn't made any easier when we have to ride over long stretches of discarded gravel that has been left over from railway ballast cleaning operations. It's getting warm and Merak comments that he might have underestimated his hydration needs... again. Last time we attempted this section Merak ran out of water and I rationed him to one sip for every few kilometres. Those were the longest kilometres ever. 

Carlo is dropping off and we wait occasionally for him to catch up. We try riding slower but once you're grooved in an hours long rhythm it's hard to gear down. 50 km's out of Standerton where the train line heads into a tunnel we get to a tar road and wait for Carlo. We expect him to be one or two minutes behind us but after 10 minutes there is still no sign of him. Just as he comes into view I get a phone call to let me know that Carlo has pulled the plug. Sure enough, as he pulls up he tells us he has decided that he has gone far enough. He's also not feeing great and reckons he is still within retrieval distance from home. He has made a call and is happy to wait for the cavalry to come fetch him. It's a lucky break for Merak who fills his bottles from Carlo's Camelbak. With the Musketeers down to two we continue on. 

As the railway line reappears we have conflicting directions from our Garmins. Mine has us leaving the tar road and Merak's wants us to continue down the tar. The tar section would be a lot easier but knowing Elton's aversion for tar I opt for the harder jeep track routing. It's muddy and rough going so it must be right. 

We arrive in Volksrust at 5pm. That's about an hour slower than I'd hoped for. It's muggy and I'm exhausted. We make our way to the Wimpy. This time we order takeaways and sit on the pavement and do our best to eat. A quick calculation has us a little over a third of the way to the sea. We've still got 360 kilometres to go with 4800m of cumulative ascent to tackle. We've got a long way to go. Imagine standing on the start line of a race like 36One feeling this exhausted. 

Thursday, 30 January 2020

The HeidelBay 545 - Part 2

Shortly after the start the GPS directs us onto the railway reserve road. The weather looks like it might get damp but we're hopeful it'll just be light rain. They've obviously had recent rain because it's muddy and large puddles abound. For the most part we are able to route around all but the largest of puddles. We get to the first of many railway bridges which the HeidelBay veterans refer to as the 5 Arches Bridge. Here we find Niven who has deployed his drone and is filming us as we cross the river below the bridge. I've only ever Niven once before. I arrived in Ntsikeni late one night and Niven was still up and wandered through to the common area of the lodge. He is an avid supporter of the HeidelBay route and when he heard that we were going to give it a bash he asked if he could be a fly on the wall and record our trip. 

The track on the other side has deteriorated since I was last here and we get a bit scratched up getting around the fence. The track opens up and we empty onto a district road that takes us through Balfour. 

After Balfour we're back on a mucky track. In spite of our best efforts we have our first baptism of mud mixed with dodgy looking stuff. This scenario will be played out a number of times as we pass informal settlements along the way. I guess it's a combination of poor sanitation and the concentration of  animal husbandry that takes place on the periphery of the settlements.  

As we progress the frequency of muddy stretches and water puddles increases. Even when not wet the going is hard as we roll over sodden earth. Fortunately the terrain is fairly flat which allows us to move at a good pace albeit not without some effort. 

Approaching Greylingstad the jeep track is hemmed in by tall reedlike grass which whips against forearms with such force that it stings. We constantly switch sides on the jeep track to give one and then the other of our arms a break from the assault. When we get to Greylingstad we leave the jeep track and roll through town on tar before once again taking up position on a jeep track running parallel to the rail line. There's a settlement on the other side of the line and the rail ballast is doing a good job of allowing the watery waste to leach through. Our momentum is broken as we slow to pick our way around and through huge puddles of blackened water. 

Soon we are back on a good and dry district road where we head toward the grain silos at Val. The sky is clearing and it's a gorgeous day. Once through Val we rejoin the service road and it's a bit muddy. Then it's a lot muddy. At one point the GPS route directs us onto a district road but we duck back to the safety of the service road which although not easy sailing isn't leg ripping mud. 

I recognise the next set of silos up ahead where the original route was to the left. The route suggested by our Garmin's is to the right and I'm not keen to keep schlepping through the mud. I figure we can sneak around the left hand edge of the silos and rejoin the route on the other side. The plan goes well... briefly. 

We thread through the derelict remains of the rail siding adjacent to the silos and pop out at the entrance gate. So far so good. The proper route is less than 200m away on the other side of the railway line and we've managed to avoid the muddy road. A stationary train stands between us and where we want to be. I track around the fence of the silos hoping to find a road or footpath that'll take us back over the line. Merak and Carlo foolishly put their trust in my nav skills. 

The road heads away from the train line but I'm still hopeful that we will find a way back toward the line. All we find is a bus abandoned in the middle of the road. As we approach the bus the reason for it's abandonment becomes all too clear. It's bogged down in polisiehondmodder. The clay mud attacks our bikes and before long my bike is so clogged that the chain jumps off and the wheels are no longer turning. I look back toward the silos and suggest we get back there and find a way to cross the rails. 

Once again we pass the bogged down bus. I sled my bike along the road. The wheels are packed solid with mud and they aren't going to turn. After a while I stop and scrape off enough mud that I can ride. There is a meilie field that runs up to the silo perimeter fence. A quick check confirms there is a jeep track running adjacent to the fence. I drop mud laden bike over the fence. Man it's heavy! 

I regain my bike and pedal around the meilie field until I'm ahead of the stationary train and close to the rails. Once back on the service road I ride ahead until I can see a huge puddle of water. It doesn't matter that it's murky at least it's a lot less muddy than my bike. The three of us alternate between scraping chunks of mud off our bikes and splashing dirty water over the liberated bits and pieces. 

It occurs to me that my plan to avoid a fairly muddy road resulted in us getting bogged down on a horrifically muddy road. In my attempt to save time I've flushed at least 30 minutes on this folly. 

Our bikes aren't in concours condition but at least the pedal bones are connected to the chain bones which are connected to the wheel bones. We've still got 30km to get to Standerton and the sun is well above the horizon. We saddle up and move forward. 

Sunday, 26 January 2020

The HeidelBay 545 - Part 1

The Wimpy Mega Cappuccino goes down a lot easier than the Streaky breakfast. The foods not bad but I'm struggling to get it down. We've been on the go for 28 hours and the combined effects of exhaustion, sleep deprivation and heat have suppressed my appetite. The ebb and flow of life play out on the streets of Ulundi. It's Saturday morning and the narrow pavement on the other side of the window is pulsing with life. 

We've only got 113km left to do of our 545km quest to ride non-stop from  Heidelberg in Gauteng to Richards Bay in Kwazulu-Natal. The route is mostly along the railway reserve jeep track. At Volksrust the railway line heads off toward Newcastle. At that point the cycle route deviates toward Wakkerstroom topping out at almost 2000m before dropping into Vryheid where it joins the rail line that runs from Ermelo to Richards Bay. 

The idea of the route developed over time. Years back I joined Kevin Davie on a recce ride where he wanted to see how far he could ride in 24 hours along the rail route to Durban. His ultimate goal was to ride nonstop to Durban. He figured that for our exploratory ride we'd have to get beyond Newcastle. We managed to get through Newcastle before the egg timer ran out. 

Shortly after I took Dave Bell for a spin along the route but before Standerton he'd had enough of rattling along the railway service road. It wasn't to his liking. Funny thing now is that he's a contributor and fan of the idea. Elton Prytz mapped out an alternate route that would end in Richards Bay. Niven chipped in and The HeidelBay 545 was born. Niven has the details here

113km to finish sounds easy enough but we are tired and we expect the next section to be as lumpy as our ride into Ulundi. I'm not looking forward to more of the same. This section of the route is described by many as being beautiful. It is stunning but I imagine it looks a lot nicer through the window of a car. 

I look across to Merak who is also chasing his food around his plate. 

"Why are we doing this?" I ask. 

Merak doesn't respond.

"Maybe we do stuff like this so that our mates think we are amazing?" I proffer. 

"That makes us really shallow," I add. 

We leave the why unanswered. 

This is our second attempt at doing the HeidelBay ride. Our first attempt in September 2018 fizzled out near Utrecht when we rode into the mother of all storms. That failure in some way is our unspoken why. We can't go 0/2. 

Our Heidebay challenge started opposite the Yesterday Today and Tomorrow guesthouse outside Heidelberg. Carlo had opted for a good nights sleep and had stayed at the guesthouse. As we stopped next to the road we saw him pedalling up the driveway with his overnight bag balanced on his handlebars. 

Merak and I unloaded our bikes and got them ready. I, as usual, wasn't well prepared and I picked through a bundle of clothes and equipment trying to decide what I should or shouldn't take. In the end I tossed it all back in my backpack. Rather too much than too little. 

Oliver was supposed to ride with us but he was down with lurgy and not in riding shape. It was his birthday so standing next to the road we celebrated his 18th birthday with cup cakes. At 06:06 we hopped on our bikes and set off toward the sea.