Friday, 11 December 2015

Racing The Munga - Bloemfontein to van der Kloof Dam.

With a minute to go before the start of the race I glanced around at the other forty three riders. Like me, many of them were checking their GPS's or having a quick look at the race summary booklet to check (for the umpteenth time) the distance to the first water point or rider support station. As a nonstop single stage race we had 1076 km's to cover. There were 5 rider support stations en route and another 10 or so water points scattered amongst them. The first objective would be to cover the 219 km's to get to the first rider support station at Van der Kloof Dam which straddles the Free State-Northern Cape boundary. I'd never heard of it before. In fact, I had never heard of any of the places we would be riding through as we made our way through the Northern Cape. Except for Sutherland, but only because it features on weather reports (typically one of the coldest places in winter) and is home to the South African Astronomical Observatory. This was a trip into the big unknown of the Great Karoo.

At midday, under an overcast sky, temperature mercifully cool, we set off. Within a few kilometres we were riding down our first gravel road. The people in front of me snaked all over the road — the first corrugations. Switching across the road looking for the sweet spot would become an all too common experience during the race. Some roads simply didn't have a good riding line and you settled for something just short of awful.

Thirty kilometres into the race, now riding on a farm track, I was on my own. I figured I was just south of the halfway mark in the field and was okay with that. While not the slowest rider in the race I was far from being the fastest. If I wanted to finish in the top ten I would have to ride this race my way. That meant riding as long as possible and sleeping as little as possible. I had a tentative goal of riding as far as the halfway mark at Loxton, 585 km's away, before looking for a bed. However, uncertain of what lay between myself and that goal I was happy to flex whichever way it took to survive this ordeal. A firm strategy set against spongy route knowledge is bound to throw up a few surprises. I set a pace that would serve to keep me ticking over for at least 36 hours.

Less than two hours in I rolled in to the first of many sandpits. It was not unlike the well trampled sand at the top end of a Durban beach. In places there were no ways around the wretched stuff as the track was hemmed in by freshly ploughed lands. Ahead of me I saw Tim Brink pushing his skinny wheeled Gravel Bike through the thick sand and thought wryly that he may well have preferred a fat bike at this stage. In any event, I rode up on the grassy edges where I could and eventually ended up plodding through the sand. Sand cleared, I saddled up, pointed my bike in the direction of the purple line on my GPS screen, and headed off toward water point 1.

Water point 1 consisted of a few tables next to the road. On offer were muffins, energy bars, chocolate bars, soft chewing jellies, bottled water, and Coke. This would become the staple offering at all the water points. While filling my bottles I chatted to Alex. He informed me that the first group had come through this point having averaged 25 km/h. Looking down I could see I had averaged 20 km/h. The lead riders were already 30 minutes ahead of me. I was impressed, but not perturbed.

We were riding through big country — wide open and flat, you could watch your dog run away for a week. The downside is the unobstructed prevailing headwind. Everyday, from 2pm through to 7pm we faced a strong wind that blew in from the West. Every time the road or track turned to meet the wind head on my speed would bleed off by 10 km/h. It didn't help knowing that our journey was a continuous line running SW. The wind was to be a constant foe.

Just before sunset I came across the first of many Puff Adder's. The brute was stretched out across my riding line which forced me to rattle over the corrugations to pass on the other side of the road. I made a mental note to keep a keen eye out while riding as well as doing a proper reconnoitre before settling down to snooze next to the road as and when the need arose.

As day gave way to night I stopped to setup my kit for night riding. Properly rigged, I set off. With the wind abating and temperatures beginning to drop, I was able to get on with the task of ticking off some kays. By this time we had a measure of what to expect. The big kilometres were taken up with gravel roads with occasional farm tracks used to link up these gravel roads. Up ahead I saw the flashing lights of an ambulance. It was a safe to assume it was out next water point. Although the ambulance looked a short distance ahead I rode another 15 km's to get there. It had been 100 km's since the last water point. This was another reality we had to get used to — huge distances between water points Fortunately, I had stopped at a farm shop earlier.

Topping off my bottles I stuffed a muffin in my mouth and set off to crank out the last 60 km's to the first support station. Just before midnight I saw the lights of the town up ahead. I rode across the dam wall that spans the Orange River and entered the Northern Cape. The town lay just ahead. An honest climb on a tar road emptied out into town and the first support station. It was 00:11. It had taken me nearly 2 hours more than anticipated. But I hadn't figured on the delaying effect of the head wind. All told, I was pleased with my progress.

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