Saturday, 11 July 2009

Looking back, I can only smile...

As you have probably deduced from Mike’s blog, things got pretty nasty out there and the race ended up being a lot harder than we were expecting. The tandem really made things hard for us and every day we wrestled with it to get through the stages. It was mainly because it was so heavy, I guess and the fact that tired legs and heavy bikes don’t work well together.

We were expecting to struggle on the portages but actually made up time on the others over most of the portages (except Stettyns). Mike would play mule up front with the bungee attached to his backpack and I would push, pull and wrangle from behind and the technique worked really well as long as the bush wasn’t too thick or the trail too steep. When things did get steep or bushy, carrying was the logical option.

We also had a slight advantage on some of the more technical downhills, where the tandem with its long wheel base and grippy tyres enabled us to ride where others were walking. (We didn’t gain much in time but definitely had more fun on these bits)

The uphills are what really nailed us though, those long, grinding, granny gear climbs that went on for k’s at a time. Where the others were spinning in granny at 5-6km/h we were working really hard to maintain 4-5km/h and it was less effort to just walk at 3-4km/h. Everyday had plenty of long climbs and when the weather turned bad and the surfaces became wet and muddy, things got even slower. Thick sand was also not kind to the tandem – we would approach sandpits looking for tyre tracks that floated over the top, only to try and follow them and suddenly come to a dead stop. The weight of the bike and riders meant we instantly got bogged down and had to walk.

The fact that we had to walk so much is what ultimately led to the injuries. Eventually Mike’s knee/ITB was so bad that it hurt him while riding or walking and he really had to grit his teeth for us to keep moving forward. His determination impressed me and I was amazed at how he pressed on every day and often late into the night. Some days though we just had to stop short and rest. This usually worked out well enough as the following day we would have good legs again and play catch up by putting in a long day. On more than one occasion, by stopping short we actually dodged some of the bad weather which was an unexpected bonus.

Our technical problems with the hub were due to the failure of 3 of the 5 bolts that hold the left side of the hub together – the bolts sheared off and this created enough play to upset the shifting mechanism housed in the hub and to allow oil to start leaking out. This meant we lost our bottom 7 (easy) gears and rear brakes (due to oil spilling onto the back rotor) Unfortunately this meant a long walk up Swartberg Pass and cautious descending down into Gamkaskloof. On the flipside, we got to really take in the views of the surrounding, snow dusted peaks and we even had time to build a snowman. Thanks to everyone involved in the rescue mission to get the spare back wheel to us – Johan, Gavin, Steven and Tim – it was great to finally have a working bike again and we had no further issues after that. I would use exactly the same geared hub again in the future, it never froze up in the cold and performed flawlessly in all the mud, where others were struggling with incessant chain suck, bent hangers and mangled derailleurs. The only ‘maintenance’ we performed was to spray off the mud now and again and lube the chain. (If I had to guess at what caused the failure, I’d say that the high loads being applied when we were (briefly) hammering across the rough, corrugated roads outside Willowmore may have had something to do with it but then again, it could just have been bad luck...)

After finishing this year, I came to the conclusion that despite the challenges of doing it on the tandem, this race is just hard. If you want to try and race it, it's going to hurt and you will have to spend most of the time camped well outside your comfort zone. (hats off to Tim for his remarkable effort, he really put himself through a lot of hardship to do what he did.) I also realised though that if you were to ride it a stage per day, it could be a totally enjoyable undertaking. We had some great days where it was a real pleasure to be moving through the remote countryside on a bike. Even bad weather couldn’t spoil the fun on these days.

We also met many interesting people along the way and it amazed me how they have chosen to live their lives in some of the most remote parts of the country, taking nothing for granted, surviving off the land and yet seem totally content in doing so. We experienced real country hospitality and genuine friendliness from all of our hosts and it often made it harder to leave the next morning.

We both found that during a typical day on the trail, one goes through many ups and downs, both physically and mentally. During those times when you are really hating it, you just have to keep going, knowing that the feeling will pass and things will improve again. On the tandem you can sense when your partner is going through a rough patch like this and then it's up to you to dig deeper and work a bit harder or try to be more positive, knowing that when you are struggling, your partner will do the same for you. When you are both struggling at the same time, it’s really hard but that sense of mutual responsibility keeps you moving forward, however slowly. I think the best moments for us coincided with the times when we both felt strong at the same time – on these days we rode well together and were really enjoying ourselves.

Highlights of the trip for me were riding across the top of Black Fountain on those brilliant singletracks; relaxing at Slaapkranz after a short day’s riding (with Andre the farmer and his dog Jesse); the day after Stuttgart when we just managed to sneak over Struishoek as it was getting dark (great nav. Mike) and our 2nd last day riding from Montagu to Trouthaven, when we were joined by Steve and the entertaining duo of Marnitz and Carl. Actually there were many more highlights along the way, every day had its moments. There were moments of bleakness too: the long, dark and freezing cold night riding into Chesneywold; those old railway tracks before Brosterlea; the toothache at Romansfontein, the sore knees from pushing big gears; fixing a puncture in the freezing rain; the seemingly endless sandpits around Anysberg…..

A week has passed since we finished and getting back to normal life has been interesting. My thoughts are always drifting off to something that happened out on the trail and I just can’t seem to get enough food in. I’ve only had one night of decent sleep so far, waking up a few times during the night seems to be the new norm. I’ve also had to resort to a few urgent power-naps at strange times of the day to keep going. I guess it will all pass and things will eventually get back to how they were before.

But things can never be exactly as they were before. There are so many memories and moments from the ride that will crop up as reminders of better or worse times, so many new people met along the way whose words and ways stick in your mind and so many places that we passed through on our little adventure that inspire you to go out and discover even more…..

Thanks Mike for the adventure and for being a fun riding partner. Well done for keeping going when it hurt and for keeping the blog going through it all so that the fans at home could share it with us.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Last Word

Back at work going through my email - doesn't compare to being on the trail.

As hard as the ride was this year I have not been traumatised sufficiently to declare "NEVER AGAIN!" Far from it. We had a big undertaking this year and were brutalised by our non-compliant mount, but as I sit here I am already mentally planning my next Race Across South Africa.I would love to do this race again - on a normal bike. The difficult portages of the Umkomaas and Vuvu valleys as well as Stettynskloof are just begging to be revisited and I can't wait to hack my way through them again.

But where to get the time again? The race is only 3 weeks long whereas the training and preparation steals 6 months of your life, tearing you from loved ones, friends and work. This time is hard to factor in to your day to day existence.

Now that we are out of the saddle I have stopped taking anti-inflamatory's and now all the aches and pains are evident. They are remnants of the battle behind and the victory gained in the face of adversity. Every twinge is a sweet reminder of where we were and what we were doing just a few days before. You have to love this race. It teaches you so much about this great land, its people, oneself and your fellow competitors. Years of gained experience crammed into a few short weeks.

My brother also rode this year finishing yesterday. Now when I chat to him about Vuvu, Mahlekhalonyane, Osseberg or any of the many previously unknown places along the way he too will be able to visualise the exact location and relive the beauty and challenge of passing that way.

To all of you who read the blog/posted comments or SMS'd us along the way - thank you. Blogging is tough work when you are exhausted. Knowing that it held some value to people following the race made it all worthwhile.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Final Day

Today all we had to do was get through Stettynskloof and then make our way through to Wellington to cross the finish line. For those of you who are not familiar with the Stettynskloof portage, it is a completely natural 7 km rocky valley where there is no activity except the occasional team who come through to remove the alien Hakea that have invaded the valley. The natural vegetation includes millions of proteas, river reeds and a whole host of fynbos varieties. It looks beautiful until you start moving through it. There is an ill defined path that runs about half way up, after that you are on your own. The bush is so thick in places that it can take 20 minutes to cover 20 or 30 metres. We got off to a bad start when the rocky terrain disagreed with my gammy leg. I had barely covered 500 metres before being reduced to a whimp. Glenn did an amazing job today. He basically moved the tandem through the kloof on his own. He alternated between pushing it and carrying it on his shoulders while I limped along behind. Hauling it up the steep final climb was an awesome feat.
While in the valley we detoured to have a look at the Shackleton air crash site. To see all the debris scattered about is a bit eerie. People died here and the mangled remains of something built to fly lying in a remote valley is sad.
We exited the 7 km valley in about 8 hours 30 mins and took another 3 hours to the finish where David said a few kind words and Earle Wakeford ( I rode with him in 2007) presented up with our finishers blanket.
The race is over and a tandem record set. The job is done. We rode it a few days slower than we should have but perhaps that is better as the bar has been set low enough to entice the next pair to have a crack at beating it.
Glenn has been a great riding partner. It takes a special combination for two people to slog away at a race like this for 21 days. In our case it worked well as not a single word was uttered in irritation or anger over the whole race. They say that if you can ride a tandem in a race and remain friends afterwards then you are truely friends. After a 21 day race of this nature that makes your friendship really special. Thank you Glenn for making this possible.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Day 20 - Montagu, McGregor, Kasra, Trouthaven

Just over15 hours today, 165km. Leaving Montagu this morning I was stuck by the number of lit dwellings on the farmlands. We have become accustomed to seeing lights at intervals exceeding an hour and sometimes for 8 or 9 hours. After dropping down Ouberg Pass yesterday ( a continuous 20km + run ) there has been a dramatic change in the landscape and weather. It is noticeably warmer and the short scrub typical of the karoo has been replaced by mass cultivation, particularly grape vines. Francois had mechanicals today. His rear axle seized up. Yesterday he got a bike shop to sort a few things out on his bike and it seems they got it a bit wrong. Last I heard he went to find the closest farmer to get some tools to sort it out. As I write he has yet to rejoin us.
We have been joined by Carl, Marnitz and Steve. They caught up with up last night and we are travelling together today. Steve got his bike sorted out in Willowmore and joined the others and has been riding with them since. Carl and Marnitz have called a truce and are now riding together and enjoying their ride.
Leg is better today after good rest and sleep. I iced my ankle and knee and strapped the ankle and am actually enjoying the riding today - for the first time in many days. We are riding much faster today and attacking hills that we previously would have walked. Mostly because it is now less painful to pedal than walk.
Looking forward to finishing tomorrow.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Day 19 - Finally some sleep in Montegu

By the time we arrived in Montagu at 11h30 this morning we had been on the road for over 30 hours. We had only covered 220km since leaving Die Hell at 5am yesterday. We lost precious time struggling with the damaged hub which was only sorted out by the time we had been on the road for 11 hours. Going up Die Leer took longer than single bike as expected. Our run from Rouxpos to Anysberg was frustrating as the jeep tracks often ran along stream beds which the tandem just wallows in. The long walk in and out of Die Hell with a crippled bike was felt in my legs and ankles in particular. We arrived at Anysberg nearly 3 hours later than expected. Glenn had done all the front work up to that stage and opted for the rear seat on the way out of Anysberg to Montagu. I only managed 2 km's before it became apparent that neither my legs nor arms were up to the job. At this stage Francois suggested a 10 minute power nap. Setting the alarm for 10 minutes we lent back on our packs and feel asleep instantly. Waking up we continued our assault on the most uninspiring jeep track you could hope to find. The total length of the track in and out of Anysberg is 66 soul destroying km's. By the time we found better riding my right leg was wasted. My ITB was screaming for mercy and the tendons in my ankle were so sore they rendered the leg useless. Glenn had to dig deep and drag my wasted carcass into town. Our 30+ hour effort reduced to entertainment for onlookers rather than a cunning tactical manoeuvre. Instead of catching a few hours sleep and heading onto the final support station of the race we have accepted that we will have to take an extra day so have stopped to lick our wounds.
We will leave "all nighters" to the pro's in future. But hey, how many people do you know who have witnessed 2 sunrises on a single ride? It is Glenn's birthday today so that was my gift to him. We are currently sitting in a time-warped 1980's era Wimpy in downtown Montagu wondering "What were we thinking?"

Day 18 - Die Hell, Rouxpos, Anysberg

It is now 3 in the morning. We have been moving since 5 yesterday morning. We are sitting around the table debating the merits of pushing on to Montegu another 6-7 hours up the road. We have been moving for 22 hours already and are a bit tired. We got a slow start this morning with the tandem still crippled. Glenn impressed up with his skills going up The Ladder. For a large part of it he hoisted the bike on his shoulders and walked up the near vertical face. At about 1pm we found Tim James next to the road with our new back wheel. We got it on but didn't have the right tools to fit the disk rotor. We rode to the next support station without rear brakes where Tim promptly got to work modifying the disk so we could make a plan. He ground off a few bits and on it went! All this while we got some food into our mouths. Thanks Tim. Thanks to to Gavin Dex in Jhb for getting the wheel shipped at short notice. Big thanks to Steven Thomas for collecting the wheel and getting it to Tim who then drove it through to us. Thank you Tim. And a thank you to Johann Rissik for getting the rescue underway.
We have lost a day with the hub failure and it looks unlikely that we can get it back. Riding here has been hard work. Lots of sand and constantly having to change riding lines has added few hours to our travelling time.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Day 17 - Prince Albert to Die Hell.

Took us 10 hours to cover about 65km today. That did include 1 hour of parking off in the sun drinking tea and later stopping to make a snowman. Our bike is wounded. The hub is not working. We don't have the 7 low gears so have to walk every uphill. To make matters worse the hub is now leaking oil which is getting on the rear brakes rendering them completely useless. The downhill sections today were hectic so we stopped a few times to clean up the rear disk. To do this we scoured them with fine mud whick we then rinsed off. Worked well.
We wanted to push on to the next support station after this one today but when the gears packed up we had to change our plans. Unfortunately there is no cell reception where we are so could not communicate our intentions. Thank goodness Francois rode on ahead and got it sorted. He arrived just before the info office closed. They had made no arrangements for us to stop for the night even though this is supposed to be an official support station. Another race office short coming. This is not a place you want to arrive at to find it in darkness without a clue of what to do next. This place is wierd. Once you enter the gate you ride for nearly 15km down a jeep track through thick vegetation to the info office that keeps normal working hours. They only had lunch packs for us and no breakfast or drinks. Fortunately I have tea, coffee, condensed milk and half a dozen packets of instant oats so we are well set.
We are hoping to get our spare rear wheel tomorrow which should have been shipped from JHB today. The last thing I did was give Johann Rissik the details of what needed doing to make it possible. When he drove off that was our last contact with the world as we left Vodaland. We are hoping to get an early start to get out of this hole via Die Leer so that we can get the bike sorted. After wallking every uphill today we are desperate to get moving and get done with this race as soon as possible. As soon as we have cell phone reception we can see what happens next to fix the bike. I am hopeful that all relevant parties will pull a rabbit out of the bag and we can get on our merry way sooner rather than later.

Musing from atop a mountain pass

10h30 Tuesday 30th June. Here we sit on top of the Swartberg Pass drinking coffee. It it amazing how your race can suddenly change. 24 hours ago we were mapping out our final assault on the finish. Today we are chilling in the sun with the finish tucked away in the back of our minds. Our "trusty" Rohloff is broken. We have instituted a rescue plan but it will take time to take effect. In the mean time we are relaxing for the first time since the race started. The mountains around us are truley majestic, regally draped in snow.
The 3 of us travelling together (us and Francois) have come to the same conclusion - this race has not been fun. There has been an hour here or there that we enjoyed but overall it has been arduous. The tandem has been harder than we imagined and the weather has been tougher on us than in the 2007 race. Add the new tougher routing of the race and I would have to say that a par finish to my day 21 finish in '07 would be a day 23 finish.
The race for the podium is over. Tim is chilling this morning after a great race. Andrew has clinched an impressive 2nd spot in the cycle event while he waits for the paddling leg of the Extreme Triathlon. Sure there are clouds over the adherence and application of race rules etc. but the race director needs to tidy those up. We are just hoping to finish to law down a tandem record for others to aim at. Behind us Carl and Marnitz are engaged in there own personal battle for bragging rights. Francois summed it up in 4 words 2 days ago. "this rubbish must end!" (ed. One word changed to make it suitable for sensitive blog readers). I think this sentiment resonates with most riders at this stage of the race.
While I am rambling on I must tell you a little about the changing country side and the economic realities of farming. We have come across no wealthy farmers. At best they live normal middle class lives. There was a time when a livestock farmer could make a living off of 1000 hectares of land, and that in the good grazing areas. The carrying capacity of farms in the Molteno/Cradock region with good grazing is 1 hectare per sheep. As we moved south it changed to 3 hectares per sheep and in the Willowmore area it is 5-7 hectares per sheep. In the 1 hectare per sheep regions the farmers were suggesting that 5000 hectares is the viable size of farm to make a living. So when you need more hectares per sheep you need so much more land. That would explain why the occupied farm houses are many kilometres apart.
Coffee is done. Now to amble along and sleep in Die Hell tonight.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Day 16 - Willowmore to Prince Albert

172 km day in 14 hours. Better than the nearly 20 hours it took us to do a similar distance yesterday. Given the terrain and weather conditions today was rather pathetic. The day was good and the route flat. But we do have a handful of excuses. Firstly, we are seriously sleep deprived. Blogging instead of sleeping doesn't help but the 'fans' are demanding.
Secondly, riding the beast is hard on the butt and regular butt breaks are necessary.
Thirdly, riding up front is hard work when every inch of the riding line has to be carefully picked and ridden, particularly at night when it is hard to differentiate between sand, mud and the good stuff. It takes about 5 minutes for your shoulders to start cramping. It feels like someone is pushing a blunt knife into your shoulder blades. I have piloted the bike for over 5000km in the last 6 months and it still works me over. Nursing my ITB problems in the past week has meant Glenn has had to captain the beast for the best part of each day. Today he was feeling a bit off colour so I took control for the last 4 hours and my shoulders and neck ache.
Lastly, the Rohloff hub our secret weapon for trail reliability failed! This must be a world first. These things are supposed to be bullet and bomb proof. We have lost 6 gears in our range of 14. We have 1 and then 8 - 14. So we can crawl up hills or ride flats and downhills. Johann Rissik the 'go to guy' in Prince Albert leapt at the chance of fiddling with a legendary Rohloff and rinsed and filled the hub with new oil. Will see how that works in the morning. Hopefully all will be good. Failing that we need to make a plan to get our spare one out of the store room back home and onto the bike. Going to make tomorrow a rather long day if it aint fixed. At worst it will give us a good excuse for the longs days and extended walking sessions.
The right knee is still very sore. By the time I get into the support station I hobble around in pain. But only a handful of days left so must just suck it up.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Day 15 - Cambria to Willowmore

19 hours 45 mins! Today we started at 04h30 with the objective of getting to Willowmore which is the support station beyond Damsedrif. It is a long double of 175km that should have taken about 16 hours. A gentle rain fell for the first 8 hours and we squelched through sticky wet clay for the last 25km. To add to our troubles my knee started hurting badly at the 70km mark leaving us to struggle along for the balance of 105km. We eventually rode into a freezing cold Willowmore at 15 minutes after midnight. Now to catch 40 winks and ride the 170km across to Prince Albert in the morning. My butt is tender, my shoulder is sore and my leg aches something horrible and I can barely walk on it without wincing. Today was incredibly tough.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Day 14 - Bucklands to Cambria

12 hours today. Battled to get going but finished feeling strong. Weather was great today. In places it was hot enough to have just a short sleeved riding shirt on. Big haul out of the river valley, 400 metres of climbing in 3 km. Ride across and down the osseberg was awesome. Glenn's technical skills are impressive. I just sat at the back and made a point of not looking at the track. The last bit through the river valley includes wading through the river no less than 11 times in about 5 km. Once my feet are cold and wet the fun runs out.

Day 13 - Toekomst to Bucklands

Today was in total contrast to yesterday. We were on the road for 11 hours today which included a 45 minute lunch stop as well as a 45 minute siesta next to the track. The track side snooze was unplanned. We stopped riding and I sat down resting against my back pack enjoying the warm sun and promptly nodded off.
We started the day with the stars bright against a cloudless canopy. The temperature was well below zero but the wind was not blowing for a change. The surface had dried out and it was possible to ride. Only snag being that we had no riding legs! We just trundled along slowly making sure we got to the next support station before dark.
Glenn has a swollen knee from his fall the other night as well as toothache which he has been suffering from for 4 days now. My knee was a bit sore today and my butt is really uncomfortable in the saddle. I have even started using anesthetic cream to stop the pain and it helps a bit.
Well riding today we found a Kudu stuck in a fence. It had obviously tried to jump the fence and got its back leg trapped in the top 3 strands. There were signs of it trashing around trying to get free. By the time we came past it just lay there exhaused. Francois freed its back leg and we left it to recover.
I heard a funny riding account that is worth passing on. Dave Barr is riding with the batch A riders that we are moving with. A few days back he raced ahead to get to a gate to open it so that the others could simply ride through without stopping. He overlooked the fact the the gate was paired with a cattle grid. While he was fiddling with the gate to open it, the others simply rode through the grid opening much amused by his antics.