Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Stormberg to Romansfontein.

Although the wind was strong and icy we were counting on it pushing us toward Romansfontein. Exiting the blockhouse we would for the first time on the race have to wind at our backs. A funny thing happened during the ten minute ride toward Vegkoppies - the wind stopped blowing and a while later the rain followed suit. It seems you can't have everything your way - in our case it seemed we could have almost nothing our way. We still had to deal with the effects of the deluge - huge puddles and loads of mud. We picked our way through these obstacles as we went through the Stormberg battle site and arrived at the nearby farm house where we hosed our bikes down and filled our bottles. It was around 10am and we had been at this for 29 hours with minimal sleep. Having said that, apart from the spirit damping effect of being soaked to the bone for 9 hours we were in fairly good shape evidenced by our humorous exchanges. Casper laughs easily and has an infectious cheerfulness about him. We had commented on the toughness of the riding but neither one of us had complained or wished we were doing anything else. 
A short distance up the road we hit a climb with the worst mud of the whole race. It took us a good ten minutes to cover about 400 metres. Once through we wound our way through some challenging bits but were not reduced to walking. Once at the Molteno tar road I expected a fairly clean 20 kilometre run toward Seekoeigat and we had just that. At one stage Casper stopped briefly while I rode on slowly and once again he accused me of making it difficult for him to catch me. All a figment of his imagination, mostly.  
The Seekoeigat section through the farms was really wet and the going was slow. I never realised before just how long that section is. We were happy to see the district road and with sleep monsters tugging at our eyelids made haste to get to Romansfontein where we could get some hot tea for the first time since leaving Kranskop nearly 15 hours earlier. It had taken us 4 hours longer than we had anticipated. As such, the prospect of racing my age, while not impossible to achieve, got a bit tougher. We signed in and noticed that Alex had left Romansfontein less than 3 hours before we arrived. It seemed he hadn't fared any better than us through the rain and mud. 

Cold, dark, wet and windy.

Over the years Brosterlea has come to represent an oasis, a happy place in a challenging section of the race. I sort refuge from a snowstorm there in 2007 albeit only for an hour. Good food and mugs of warm tea reviving me sufficiently to push on. In 2011 on a recce ride the temperature plummeted below zero on the road there and we spend a night comfortably snuggled up in warm beds after a sumptuous meal sitting around the dining room table with our hosts. It's a great place with hospitable hosts. Arrive at midday and your resolve to ride on is truly tested. Arrive at 3:30am during a blackout expecting to push through and the reality is very different. It is an interim support station and as such you should expect nothing more than bread and water.
We found Anthony fast asleep drowning in plush pillows and swaddled in a fluffy duvet. In the other room, by the light of barely adequate emergency LED light we found a loaf of bread, margarine and peanut butter with some kind of juice. There was a kettle; with all the stuff needed to make tea, toaster and microwave oven but Casper had forgotten to bring a 6.5KVa generator along not to mention a litre or two of petrol - that's the price of packing light to race the trail. I normally carry a few fuel tablets and a metal mug but this time decided to lighten up. 
I nearly forgot to mention the yoghurt! There were 2 or 3 little yoghurts. This is the interesting part about this stop. Casper grabbed a spoon and peeled the foil lid back and dipped his spoon in to get a good portion. As he raised it to his mouth his frozen hands misfired and the yoghurt slipped from the spoon and splattered on the carpet. Without hesitation Casper leaned down and scrapped the yoghurt up with his spoon. Now he has contaminated his spoon I thought. Having recharged his spoon with the floor scrapings he simply popped it into his mouth and carried on like nothing unusual had happened. Waste not want not. That's interesting I thought and said nothing. 
There were three empty beds and they were exactly that - empty! Not a stitch of bed linen. 
Anthony woke up at about 3:45 and said the hosts had been told we were pushing through so they hadn't made arrangements for sleeping. He had initially set his alarm for 4am but with the storm he said he was going to get up at 5 instead. We decided a little nap for an hour while we waited for the storm to abate wouldn't do any harm. Casper found 2 bath mats and what looked like towels. I placed a bath mat on the bare mattress to protect it from my muddy clothes, carefully lay on it and covered myself with the tiny towel. The next hour was long. I was wet, cold and uncomfortable. We got up at 5, layered up in our soaking clothes and headed out into the rain. As we pedalled down the slippery road in the rain I commented to Casper that this was a lot more comfortable than the time I spent on the hard mattress. He concurred. Here we were pedalling down a muddy road in the rain just over 24 hours into the race and I had had about 10 minutes sleep. Casper had fared better on the sleep front. 
Anthony soon caught us and after a few pleasantries he rode off at the pace of a man who had spend many hours fast asleep in a cozy bed. By the time we got to Enerdale farm Anthony was out of sight. For the next few hours we trailed the twin set of tracks from Alex and Anthony. Alex wasn't that far ahead. According to Anthony, Alex had lingered at Brosterlea because of the storm and had only left about an hour before we arrived. We could see from Alex's tracks that he had a torrid time of getting through the mud and sand traps along the way. At least we had the benefit of daylight to pick better lines. 
We refreshed our water bottles at Weltevrede farm and began the slip 'n slide ride up the back of Stormberg. The wind had picked up and we were being lashed by regular squalls of rain. The ground had long since given up trying to absorb the rainfall and it ran down the track we were riding up. 
Cresting the ridge above the Stormberg station we made our way to the blockhouse intending to get shelter from the icy wind. The wind had picked up making the inside of the blockhouse unbearable. In fact it was probably the low point of the ride. We got back on our bikes and pedalled off through the rain grateful for the heat the effort produced.  

Monday, 30 March 2015

Headlong into the storm.

When we arrived at Kranskop at 9pm stars sparkled in the moonless sky. When we came out an hour later with Casper having added sealant to his back tyre to put the tyre issue to bed it was overcast and pitch black. To make it more interesting my batteries of my headlamp and my spare bar mounted light went flat. Entirely my own stupidity as I forgot to get new batteries before the race. Nevertheless I had a dynohub driven light and we cruised through the first two tricky navigation sections and crossed the tar road south of Jamestown. 
The ride from the tar road to Brosterlea is hard because it's boring. Sure there are one or two steep climbs but the navigation involves just one right turn. What makes it hard is that sleep monsters, like trolls, lurk under every bush particularly when you have been on the go for over 18 hours. The trickier the nav the easier it is to stay awake. The converse is also true. 
This stretch wasn't without points of interest. Ten minutes after leaving the tar we approached a car on the side of the road with its hazards on. Clearly the driver thought we were another car and had gotten out the car to flag us down. As we rode past we heard him say "bicycle." Clearly we were a huge disappointment. We did wonder at his chances of getting help on this road at midnight. Fifteen minutes later we came across two inebriated souls who were carrying what looked like a 5 litre can of petrol between then and assumed they had been dispatched many hours before to get fuel for the car. Clearly their skills at tracking down shebeens trumped their fuel sourcing skills. But they seemed to have fuel, could still walk after a fashion and were headed in the right direction. I remember thinking "if they hurry they might just make it to the car before the storm hits." They at least were headed away from the storm. We on the other hand were heading into the teeth of the beast. 
For the last four hours we had watched the lighting storm ahead of us build in intensity. It started as a distant flash and had over he last few hours grown until it filled the whole sky ahead of us. I told Casper I wasn't going to get worried about it until I could hear the thunder. The very next lightning bolt produced audible thunder. We rolled on as the storm wrapped its arms around us without a drop of rain falling where we were. Nearing Gouevlei we decided to "suit up" and not a moment too soon. That was the start of 9 almost continuous hours of rain. After an hour it stopped briefly. Casper had sleep monsters crawling all over him so we stopped for 15 minutes. I spent 14 of those minutes listening to Casper snore away gently as he vanquished the monsters. I envied his ability to sleep so easily. The rain started again and we pressed on. 30 minutes later I realised that Casper hadn't vanquished the monsters. He had in fact piled them onto me. With another brief lull in the rain I tried to get some shuteye myself. After a minute it started pouring again so I gave up any attempt at sleep and instead had a running battle with the beasties all the way to Brosterlea. We were tired and cold and spoke at length about how good a few gallons of hot tea would feel in our bellies. The turn off to Brosterlea was like a kettle watched. It seemed as if it would never appear. Finally, it showed in the glow of our lights and we scuttled off in anticipation of something warm. We opened the door to the Silos where we could see Anthony Avidon's bike propped and discovered to our dismay that there had been a power cut. Given the intensity of the storm we had endured it was hardly surprising. It was 3:30am and we were tired, cold and hungry. The storm outside had worsened and we were in no hurry to run outside and play. 

Easy night riding.

Out of Moordenaarspoort we had a gentle breeze that while neither hindering nor helping our headway had a pleasant cooling effect that allowed us to make good speed over the ground. It did occur to us that with Tim holed up in bed we were in second position on the race behind Alex as the only people who has pressed on beyond Moordenaarspoort on the first day. We weren't fooling ourselves that we were stronger than the mighty Tim James and counted ourselves lucky to to feeling strong on our bikes.
Casper still had problems with his tyre deflating. When it got too soggy I would ride on slowly while he stopped to pump the tyre. Every time he caught up he would accuse me of sprinting off and making it harder for him to catch me. I actually slowed to make it easier for him. It highlighted the benefit of continuously moving forward which it what characterises the way I ride. I told Casper he would have time at the next support station to sort the tyre out while I made tea and heated dinner. In the mean time he must just pump it hard.
45 minutes into this section we met with a car coming in the opposite direction. The road being narrow we pulled over to let the bakkie pass. It stopped next to us. Quite satisfied that it was just a pair of cyclists Casper and the farmer got chatting. I understood just about nothing of the conversation and Casper unwound it for me as we rode on. Apparently at a farm behind us someone had mistaken our lights for a suspicious slow moving vehicle and the news had been relayed via the farm radio network. They knew about the race and where we were headed. The week before they had lost 70 sheep to stock theft so were extra vigilant.
He said the farmer also said we were mad. No offence taken at that but the slow moving part did rankle somewhat.
Passing the old store and turning into the jeep tracks through the farms I stopped to phone home and check in with Meryl while Casper pumped his tyre. Meryl asked how strong we felt in a scale of 1 to 10. The easy answer was 10, we felt great. It was at that moment I saw the first distant flash of lightning on the horizon in the direction we were headed.
In spite of all the stops to pump tyres, chat to the farmer and phone home it took us just short of 2 hours to cover the 40 km's to Kranskop from Moordenaarspoort. We were on a roll!

Hunting trip out of Moordenaarspoort.

Since leaving The Bonthoek farmhouse Casper had been having problems with his back wheel. He would stop every so often and pump it up. Just before arriving at Moordenaarpoort he stopped to pump it again. I went ahead to the farmhouse and tucked into a plate of creamy butternut soup and a few cups of tea while Casper poured water over his tyre to see if he could find where it was leaking. When Casper joined me the hosts were surprised we had arrived so early and asked if we were pushing on to sleep at Kranskop. We had been on the go for almost 13 hours. With sunset the temperature had plummeted making it more conducive to cranking out some serious miles. Casper later confessed that he would have been quite happy to clock out for the day. My reply was that we would sleep when we got to Cradock. Casper merely rolled his eyes and continued spooning soup down his throat. 
Finishing, I rose from the table, thanked the hosts and told Casper he better hurry if he didn't want to get left behind. With that I went outside, grabbed my bike and make my way over to the cottage to use the bathroom, fill my bottles and refresh my chamois cream. Unknown to me, Casper came outside, didn't see my bike in the shadows, called out a few times, cursed me for leaving him behind and dashed out the gate and down the road in hot pursuit. I came out the bathroom to find Tim and the hosts looking bemused. "He has gone to hunt you down!" 
"Really?" I replied. "Thanks going to be very interesting because he is a lot faster than me."
Fortunately the hunt was short lived. I ride without maps and rely solely on memory. I figured Casper would have to dig out his maps and figure out which way to go. That would slow him slightly. That's exactly what happened. Getting to the first turn and unable to see me Casper sorted his maps and settled down for some night navigation. He confided in me later that he was very disappointed. He thought we were getting on nicely and really didn't expect me to pull a fast one on him. 
Turning on to the district road I could see Casper's lights a few kilometres up the road heading off at 90 degrees to my right. He obviously caught sight of my lights and came to a stop setting his headlight to strobe. Satisfied that he had seen me I made my way up the road and together we continued on our way to Kranskop 40 km's ahead. 

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Slaapkranz to Moordenaarspoort

The trip from Slaapkranz to the Moordenaarspoort emergency support station is only 57 km's but straight out the door you have to take on the back to back portage pair of Slaapkranz and Bonthoek. If you can knock off those first 22 km's in under 3h30 you have done well. 
Tim finished his lunch and scurried out the door while Casper and I settled into a routine that would continue through the next few days. The hosts would engage us in conversation and occasionally I would look toward Casper who would translate the gist of the chat. The hosts would often switch to English after realising I was a rooinek but that would only last a few seconds before they unwittingly reverted to Afrikaans.
Lunch eaten, bottles replenished we slide out the door at 12:50. At the bottom of the first portage which I refer to as The Scar we saw Tim a few hundred metres above us. I knew from previous experience that he was at least 25 minutes ahead. I swing my bike up onto my back and started the trudge up the mountain. It's was tedious. My shoulders and arms started aching and my thigh muscles burned but the best way to get up is to switch off your mind and keep plodding for the 30 minutes it takes. My mind was alert enough to spot a snake as it slithered past but I didn't break my rhythm. 
Having got up the worst of the climb Casper asked what the plan was. We could see Tim higher up on the mountain but I had no intention of climbing that high. We hopped a fence and contoured around to a nek where we hopped another fence and 
dropped down onto a cattle track. We could see Tim making his way down off the ridge in our direction. As the cattle track converged with the jeep track that would take us off the mountain we caught up with Tim. 
Out clever sneak around the top of the mountain had obviously played a role in closing the gap on Tim but he was also starting to look a little grey around the gills. 
The three of us settled into a comfortable and efficient rotation of opening and closing the gates on the way down to the district road. We had made good time crossing the first mountain and wasted little time in heading up the valley to take on the next.
Scrambling up the cattle track that leads to the last contoured ridge Tim slowed and soon Casper and I were hundreds of metres ahead. What we didn't know at the time is that he was busy donating the contents of his stomach to the mountain gods. 
We waited for him to catch up at the summit and trailed him down the mountain to the uninhabited Bonthoek farmhouse where we stopped to replenish our bottles. 
I scratched around for some rehydrate which I normally carry but came up empty. Casper gave him an effervescent electrolyte tablet which he added to a bottle and took a swig. Fairly soon Tim was on all fours desperately trying to not heave. I told Tim that he didn't look particularly legendary like that. 
We continued on to Rossouw and as Tim was feeling bleak we went to the Rossouw Super Shop to get some cokes. Don't be fooled by the fancy name. It is just a hole in the wall spazza shop. 
Tim couldn't finish his Coke and as we  started the grind out of Rossouw he told us to push on without him as he was going to go to ground in Moordenaarspoort until he felt better. We rode on without him and arrived in Moordenaarspoort about 10 minutes ahead of Tim at 18:40.

Friday, 27 March 2015

On to Slaapkrans

It had taken us 4h15 to get to Chesney Wold. Refreshed with tea and a selection of fine nibbles we were back on the road 11 minutes later. We knew Tim was only 5 or 6 minutes ahead and we were keen to keep in touch with him. The first support station was only 38 km's up the trail. With the first big portage of the race in this stretch we were hoping to cover the distance in 3 hours. Hitting the first steep climb of the day I changed into granny gear and my chain over shifted on the rear cassette and got properly stuck between the cassette and spokes. This was hardly surprising as I had only assembled the bike the day before I had headed down to the race and apart from not test riding the bike I had installed new shifter cables and a rear dérailleur and clearly hadn't got it perfect. After freeing the chain, not without some effort I might add, I ran through my mantra for figuring out which limit screw to adjust to prevent the chain jumping off again. Is it the H (high) screw or the L (low) screw? Before steep descents on roads there are generally signs reminding truck drivers to select an appropriate gear to use engine breaking to slow their descent. "Heavy vehicles engage high gear," I chanted myself. Quite clearly I had to turn in the H screw as that was the high gear. Half way up the climb the chain jumped off again. This time it took a full 2 minutes to free up the chain. I got out my multitool and gave the H screw a good number of turns. The funny thing is that the dérailleur didn't budge at all. Slightly perplexed I ran the mantra again - "heavy vehicles engage LOW gear."  Darn, I had messed it up and turned the wrong screw. I wound the H screw out a few turns to where I thought it might have been before my befuddlement and turned the L screw in a quarter turn. The dérailleur responded immediately and I knew the chain over shift was a thing of the past. 
Heading into the farm Kapokraal I was chatting away with Casper who was riding next to me when he came to a sudden skidding halt. I stopped about 20 metres ahead and asked what the problem was. Less than a metre in front of him lay a Cobra. It hadn't reared and just lay still on the ground with its hood slightly flared. It's yellow/orange colouration was beautiful. 
"That was close," said Casper. "That's the problem with only having rear brakes."  
The night before Casper had given his bike the once over before the start and all was in order. As he pushed his bike to the start he realised his front brakes were completely dysfunctional and they remained that way to the finish.  
After admiring the snake for a minute we continued up toward the farmhouse of Kapokraal. Allow me a digression here. I have since learnt that kapok is a name for a type of soft/slushy snow - if not, then someone can enlighten me. Anyway, in the race of 2007 I had never heard the word before. In fact, I didn't even know we got snow in South Africa. The first time I heard the word used in a sentence was while lying in bed at the Romansfontein support station. It was the early hours of the morning and Will and Stephanie's youngest daughter looked out the window in the sitting room adjacent to where we were still snuggled under blankets and declared in an excited way "Dit kapok!" Having no idea what she said  I asked Rowan in the bed next to me what that meant. He pulled his blankets up higher and answered, "It means we are going to have a bad day!"  We did!

Passing the farm house we started up the portage and could just see Tim a few hundred metres ahead. We took the low line along the wetland and made good time to the top. Cresting the ridge we made our way down to the old ruin on the other side. Casper had never seen the murals before so we spent some time looking at the paintings as well as marvelling at the ox wagon that is parked in the shed behind the house. 
I am always left with a sadness about the lifeless state of these abandoned houses and wonder at what they were like when people stayed there. I stand still and strain to hear the echoes of yesteryear. To hear the voices of families around the dinner table, kids running around the garden or special occasions like birthdays and weddings being celebrated. 
We exited the house through the old front door and found 2 herdsmen propped against the derelict walls smoking home rolled cigarettes. 

We picked up the old jeep track leading away from the ruin and 7 hours 20 minutes after leaving Rhodes we had covered the first 105 km's to arrive at the first support station. As we walked inside Slaapkranz farmhouse we found Tim tucking into a hearty plate of food. By checking the race sheet we had to fill out we noticed Alex had left more than an hour before. 

Rhodes to Chesney Wold

Leaving The Rubicon it was apparent that the three big guns were intent on getting on with the show. As we rounded the first turn down the driveway Alex slowed briefly, turned his head toward me and wished me a good ride - a nice touch. With that he was gone. By the time we had cleared town Casper and I were officially last in a race of 25 seasoned riders - being the inaugural Race to Cradock it was opened to only finishers of a previous Freedom Challenge event. By the time we reached the first climb it was still dark and we could only make out two riders ahead of us. Alex was nowhere to be seen. 
Crossing the Bokspruit river we caught up to Robbie. Just beyond the river the road splits and the race takes the right hand fork. Casper decided it would be fun to mess with Robbie. Robbie turned right and Casper sprinted up the left fork and shouted back, "Robbie, where are you going?" 
Robbie dutifully turned around and followed Casper up the wrong road. Casper chuckled before turning around and headed back the way Robbie had just come. Robbie did a big loop and fell in behind us. In truth it was really funny until we heard Robbies laboured breathing.  He hasn't enjoyed the best of health lately and he was wheezing like an emphysema sufferer. Safe to say we felt awful. 
Robbie stayed in touch for a few kilometres before the elastic snapped and we could no longer see him behind us. In truth we were concerned about him. We heard later that he battled through to Chesney Wold where he retired from the race. 
I had originally intended to skip the interim support station of Chesney Wold but gave in to the temptation of a good cup of tea as well as wanting to show appreciation for the effort Minkie makes in catering for the riders. We arrived to find Tim's bike propped against the fence next to the house. As we walked in we passed Tim who was on his way out. Minkie went out to see Tim off and we surveyed a table set with enough food to feed an army. But it was tea we sought more than food. Fortunately, I know my way around the kitchen and by the time Minkie had finished chatting to Tim outside and returned to the kitchen we were gulping down mugs of tea and tucking into the spread before us. 

Race start

Race to Cradock
As I sit at my desk back in my Johannesburg office I am not sure how to blog the 63 hour adventure I shared with Casper Venter. There is no merit is doing a day by day account as it ran as a non-stop film strip. There were no days as such. It was just light then dark and then it got light again and sometime later it got very dark and wet and we spent a few hours snuggled under a bush before it got light and then the sun peeked out briefly before it got dark and very wet and we arrived at the finish having covered a few kilometres short of 600 kilometres in just over 63 hours.  
I knew very little about Casper Venter before the race but it was no accident that he had been assigned a last batch start which is typically reserved for riders wanting to race the event hard. 
We arrived in Rhodes in appalling weather. The roads were snotty and everything looked and felt bleak. Walking into the building I met Casper for the first time. Apparently he had spoken to Glenn, the race director, and Glenn told him I wasn't fast but would just keep going so he should look to tag along. The big guns of Alex, Tim and Robbie methodically readied their kit while I flopped on a couch in front of the fire. Casper and I made some polite conversation. Just before lights out I spoke to Casper and asked him what his race strategy was. He said he had none but would like to ride with me. Generally I like to ride alone but Casper struck me as particularly congenial and I was immediately up for the company. 
The rain fell off and on during the night and by the time we got up at 4am it had stopped raining. I coaxed down some food and joined the other 4 at the low-key start. Glenn looked at his watch and as it said 5 o'clock wished us well. The race had started. 

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Arrived at the start

In Rhodes. As I lie here up to my neck   in a bath of hot water I can hear the steady rhythm of rain on the roof. 
I departed Johannesburg early this morning in the company of Alex, Tim and Robbie. These guys are well organised, meticulously equipped and psyched up for the challenge ahead. Their mounts make mine blush with embarrassment. Kilograms lighter and fitted with Tri-bars theirs look every bit the kit of athletes who know their craft. 
180 km's short of Rhodes the skies opened and continued sheeting down on us all the way to Rhodes. The 4x4 setting on the car came in handy as the dirt roads into Rhodes got snottier. The rain was accompanied by insane winds and spectacular lightning that rivalled any Highveld storm. 
We are all doing our best to convince each other that it will blow over by morning in spite of all weather apps suggesting this is just the beginning of 3 days of steady rain. Reports from down the trail attest to the extent of the inclement weather. I nearly fell off my bike earlier riding across the parking lot - they make really slippery mud in this part of the world. 
The 55 hour race-your-age just got a whole lot trickier. The worst part of the race for mud occurs within first 150 km's. After that it is challenging but less likely to have you sawing at your neck with a Leatherman. 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Almost ready for Race to Cradock

Friday morning. Tomorrow I load my bike into the car and drive down to the sleepy hamlet of Rhodes in the Eastern Cape. From there I will join the tail end of a steady stream of riders making their way to Cradock. Tail end in two ways. Riders depart Rhodes in small batches every day for four days starting yesterday. My batch on Sunday is the last. The last day is typically reserved for those who want to race hard and the race winner is most likely to come from that batch. I am without question the slowest rider in that batch so will be the sweeper right out of the start gate. My batch has two previous Freedom Challenge record breakers and winners in Tim James and Alex Harris. Then we have Robbie McIntosh known primarily for his exploits on a road bike (particularly in time trials) is no slouch on a mountain bike and if memory serves has partnered Tim on the Absa Cape Epic. The last of the racing snakes is Casper Venter. I don't know his pedigree but do know he is fit and fast. My only hope of company was Allen Sharpe who has had to withdrawn with an arm injury. 

The format is non-stop covering a distance just shy of 600 kilometres. There are support stations spaces roughly every 100km's and while they supply food, water, showers and beds they are entirely optional except that you must sign in and out at each.   

I rode the route last week over 6 days and it is fairly straight forward. As such, it doesn't play to my strength which is navigation. For example the route to the first support station entails just 7 turns - 4 left and 3 right. The others in my start batch are going to spit it out in no time at all. I expect I will be an hour slower than the fastest rider to Slaapkranz. 

Bike is finally patched together. It's looking a bit like an Oxfam hand me down but I have all confidence it will get the job down.