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.