Saturday, 31 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - Roller Coaster Time... But It's No Fun Park

The bumpy part of The Munga starts as you leave Fraserburg. Apart from a 60 km section of road that flanks the Tankwa Padstal it was going to be a bit lumpy for the balance of the 400 km ride into Diemersfontein.

The road kicks up immediately after leaving Fraserburg and you get to test your gears and your headspace -the landscape a stark reminder that you are riding through an arid part of the country. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the next water point at Celeryfontein was a good climb out of Fraserburg but it is actually at a slightly lower altitude.

All the while I was threading my way along farm tracks I had no issues with tiredness. As soon as I hit the Sutherland district road my eyelids got heavy. It was only 7 km to Celeryfontein Farm but it felt like 100 km. I struggled through every one of those 7 km. I knew it was time to grab a power nap. The more I thought about the prospect of sleep the longer It seemed to take to get to the farm.

I arrived at the farm and had a snack. Sthembiso was there and one of his wheels was looking rather rickety - a couple of broken spokes had it resembling a Pringle chip. His next chance of getting access to a bike mechanic was in Sutherland which meant he had to nurse his bike through the next 63 km.

My original plan was to flop onto the lawn and have a quick nap. 30 seconds after arriving at the water point I knew that was a bad option as I was immediately set upon by horse-flies. Fortunately the farmer had a spare bed indoors and I was able to hunker down for 35 minutes without the risk of being sucked dry by the pesky flies.

By the time I returned to the water point tables set up in the shade of some big trees on the lawn outside the farmstead I was in 4th place. Jeannie and Heinrich were still up front with Rafeeq and Sthembiso almost 2 hours behind them. By the time I swallowed a coffee I figured I was nearly 45 minutes adrift of the 4th placed rider. I also knew that Kevin Benkenstein and Tim Deane were close behind. I expected that the leading pair would get to the finish without being challenged for positions 1 and 2. The real tussle was going to be for positions 3 through 7. It was time to get a wiggle on if I didn't want to fall out of contention for a top 7 finish.

The moment I left the oasis of Celeryfontein and got back onto the district road that would take me to Sutherland I knew it wasn't going to be fast and giggly. We had ridden through some hot and dry country but this section took the cake.

A satellite view of this part of the country looks like a sepia-toned image with a distinct lack of vibrant colour. On the ground the same reddish-brown colour dominates the landscape.

To add another layer of despair the road was rough and care had to be taken with the riding line to avoid rocks and rough sections.

Sutherland is about 200 metres higher than Celeryfontein which doesn't sound so bad except for the big drop to a river crossing (dry as a bone) which adds significant altitude metres. And it's lumpy. You end up climbing many hundreds of metres. It's nothing like climbing up through the trees at Sabie or Barberton, there is no pretty. It's a slog through a mountainous desert on a dusty gnarly road.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - The Quest for Coffee and Eskimo Pie

After my alarm went off I lay in the ditch for another 5 minutes savouring the simplicity of my life as it existed in that moment - It was me and my bike with no purpose other than pedalling it down the route. All I needed was something to drink every now and then, a morsel or two of food each day and a little sleep from time to time.

The morning was unfurling as I got back on my bike and headed off to get some coffee at the next water point. About 10 km short of the farm that was hosting the water point Sthembiso passed me like he was being chased by a pack of hunting dogs. I didn't expect him to pop up at that point. I had heard that Brandon had exited the race and I knew that Kevin, Rafeeq and Tim Deane were close behind but hadn't figured on being caught by Sthembiso. I added him to the riders on my "Ridar".

I caught up and started chatting. That seemed to settle his mania. I told him that I thought he was going at an erratic and unsustainable rate and that he should pace himself carefully. He told me that he was carrying a 30 minute penalty for not signing the register at a Race Village so needed to press ahead as Gerald Cele was close behind.

As we chatted it seemed there was uncertainty over his classification in the race. The previous year the Development category was capped at 26 years of age and I hadn't heard anything to the contrary. But I had been told that Sthembiso was racing in the development category this year even though he was older than 26 and I told him to take it easy and defend his lead. It was his race to lose. We arrived at the water point together and I finally got the coffee I had been obsessing over for the last 4 hours.

I remember passing the farm last year when it wasn't a water point. I stopped and got water from the reservoir next to the road above the farmhouse. The farm yard off to my right at the bottom the hill seemed asleep among the trees. It became just another place to get water from a reservoir lacking any connection with people.

The Race Village and farm stops are real oases. You get more than water and food - you get to meet the people of the Karoo. The isolation you feel while riding through that part of the world is extraordinary. Outside the towns and water points it is likely that you won't see a single person including people in cars. It's that remote. As you roll down the endless dusty roads it's hard to imagine people living there. The land seems desolate and devoid of life. Yet, enter a farmhouse or town and that perception is quickly dispelled. The vibrancy for life that you experience is magic. The pulse of life very real. We were treated like kings being served coffee and snacks with infectious enthusiasm.

Reenergised I left the farm and knocked off the 43 km to Fraserburg in under 2 hours and wasted no time in going into JJ's Kafee as I had done the previous year and bought an Eskimo Pie ice cream. It was every bit as delicious as the one I had last year.

I topped up my water bottles and headed out of town. Sthembiso caught up a few kilometres the other side of town. He didn't hang around and rode ahead. Even so, he must have made a few navigation errors as I caught up to him a short while later. He hadn't stopped for water in Fraserburg and asked how far we had to go to get more water.

One of the race rules for The Munga is that you should have capacity for at least 2.5 litres of water. Sthembiso had lost one of his bottles so was down to a little over 2 litres. It's enough, but you need to make use of every opportunity to fill your bottles. Last year I started with only 3 bottles and lost one along the way. I wasted a lot of time walking across the veld to fill my bottles at reservoirs. This year I had 4 bottles and suffered no losses so managed without a single reservoir top up. It saved a lot of time and anxiety.

It was already mid morning which meant I had been on the go for almost 48 hours. It was hot but that had become my new normal and I gave it no attention. With 400 kilometres to the finish my focus was simply on getting to Sutherland just over 100 km away. I had yet to finish my audiobook so popped the headphones in my ears and spent the next few hours on Mars.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - Loxton ...or Not

Arriving in Loxton we signed in at 02h34 - two hours after Vaughn Roux and an hour and a half after Heinrich Visser and Jeannie Dreyer who arrived together. The most obvious thing in the race register was the entry "-SCRATCHED-" next to Vaughn Roux's name. Although it's a race it's never nice to see someone pull out of the event. Vaughn is a tough competitor and had captured our attention as he blitzed ahead of the field. It seemed like there was no stopping him. He had experienced hand issues during Freedom Challenge earlier in the year and it had returned to plague him again. All endurance riders experience hand issues, mostly in the form of numbness, but not as bad as Vaughn. To make matters worse he is a surgeon and his hands are the tools of his trade.

Heinrich and Jeannie had yet to sign out so that put Rafeeq and I in the same place as the race leaders. All that separated us at that moment was 90 minutes of sleep.

The plan was to eat, shower and grab a quick nap. Eating and showering went to plan. Sleep was another matter. We had indicated our intention of taking a short nap and were directed to a disused building that had a shower and then a couple of huge rooms with mattresses and blankets tossed on the floor. Perfect, I thought. Unfortunately my room was next to the bathroom and the geyser made a loud noise as it reheated. I contemplated turning it off so that I could sleep. After 20 minutes it reached operating temperature and quietened down.

That's when I heard the mosquitoes. There were hundreds of them. I turned my light on and saw them buzzing all around with a few more squadrons congregating on the wall above me. As much as I tried I couldn't ignore them. I even tried pulling a blanket over my head and made a point of burying my good ear in the pillow. Partial deafness it seems is no defence against the irritating whine of a mosquito let alone a flight of them.

After 20 minutes, with sleep out of the question, I got dressed and went in search of coffee only to be told that instant coffee was my only option. The one extravagance of The Munga is the availability of great coffee. Most Race Villages and water points had espresso machines and I had become fussy. Instant coffee checked no boxes for me. I knew the next water point would have good coffee and was happy to wait until I got there. I signed out at 04:14 and headed into the night.

I had been in Loxton for an hour and 40 minutes and all I managed to do was eat and have a shower. I had wasted more than an hour. Heinrich and Jeannie had left only 50 minutes ahead of me.

I rode 10 kilometres out of town and with sleep beckoning lay in a ditch next to the road. I set my alarm for 20 minutes and lay back. It was peaceful. Perfectly peaceful, not a single mosquito in my vicinity. Sleep came quickly.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - On a Dark Desert Highway.

After leaving Pampoenpoort Rafeeq and I rode alongside each other and chatted. We weren't solving the worlds problems or devising a strategy to save the rhino or win the race - just small talk about this and that.

60 km is a long way to ride considering how far we had ridden and how little sleep we had had. 50 km of the remaining distance to Loxton was on the same nondescript district road made even more monotonous by riding it at night with the glow of our headlights defining the boundaries of our "world". When the chit chat ran out I resorted to listening to music.

I have an eclectic mix of music on my phone. Some recent and some nostalgic spanning some four decades. Over the years some of the music on my phone has taken on special significance in relation to my riding.

A Freedom Challenge favourite is Beautiful Dawn by James Blunt. Those racing hard are always out and about hours before the first hint of light traces the outline of the eastern skyline. Barring inclement weather the waking of the eastern sky is a harbinger of a warm sun that will both see off the iciness of the night and chase away the wee hour sleep monsters. The lyrics in that context make interesting reading:

"Beautiful dawn - I'm just chasing time again.
Thought I would die a lonely man, in endless night.
But now I'm high; running wild among all the stars above.
Beautiful dawn - melt with the stars again.
Do you remember the day when my journey began?"

Another song that now has a strong Freedom Challenge connotation was playing as I crossed over the Schurfteberg on the Race to Craddock earlier this year. I Wish It Would Rain Down by Phil Collins, was playing as the heavens opened and soaked me to the bone. It was an amusing coincidence and I am reminded of that thunderstorm every time I have heard that song since the race.

A new song connection was made as we rode into Loxton - Hotel California. Some of the lyrics had me smiling:
"On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair."
"Up ahead in the distance I saw a shimmering light. My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim, I had to stop for the night.",
"We are all just prisoners here of our own device",
"You can check out any time you like but you can never leave".

As the lights of Loxton beckoned we were directed off a good tar road and routed through a farm that presented the scratchiest part of the race. We stopped a couple of times to reconcile the GPS directions with the featureless veld that lay ahead. Obeying the GPS we forged ahead slowly scanning the bush with our headlamps until a jeep track, or rather the remnant of what might have been a jeep track, appeared in front of us. We scribbled through the bush, over dry river beds, along fences, around buildings, through a farm yard around a dam or two and eventually emptied out on a tar road a few hundred metres from the appointed Race Village at Die Rooi Granaat in the middle of town.

Arriving 6 minutes faster than the previous year I had finally managed to make up the time lost on day one. I was just over halfway through the race. My ambition to finish 10 hours faster than the previous year was going to be challenging.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - Onward to Pumpkin Fritters at Pampoenpoort

The route out of WP5 had us winding along farm tracks. By the time I had stopped to open and close a handful of gates it was dark. Looking back I could see the lights of the riders behind me. That's not to say they were particularly close. The Karoo is big country. The air is clear and the landscape in places so flat you can see forever. Out there you get to appreciate the fullness of the platteland saying; "The land is so flat you can watch your dog run away for a week!"

I pressed on eventually reaching the district road that would take me to the next water point at the farm Pampoenspoort and then on to the third race village in Loxton. I dropped onto the aero bars and got into a good rhythm. On the good surface the kilometres got ticked off in good time. But there's the rub of it. A good road with zero navigational challenges equals good speed but it's less likely to engage you mentally. No mental stimulation leads to sleepiness. After a handful of kilometres I could feel that I was getting drowsy.

I looked behind to see if anyone was close. If I could ride with someone to chat to it would help keep me alert. I couldn't see any lights. I slowed down and got back to listening to my audiobook. That was good for about 15 minutes before I started nodding off. Looking back I could now see a few lights. I decided to keep moving forward at a moderate speed and wait for the riders to catch up. I pedalled along steadily and was eventually caught, not by Tim or Brandon as expected but by Rafeeq Safodien. He was flying. We fell into a good pace and although we didn't chat much it was good to have someone around. In no time at all we were at the Pampoenspoort water point.

It was after 11 pm and the water point was in full swing, never mind that we were only the third and forth rider to pass through. Mother and daughters got the espresso machine hissing away and pointed us in the direction of some food which included pumpkin fritters. I wolfed down at least half a dozen pumpkin delights before it occurred to me that it was a little excessive if not greedy. I was assured that there were plenty to go around.

By the time Rafeeq and I left the farmhouse the riders behind hadn't yet made an appearance. We had 60 km to get to the next race village and set off intent on banging that out as quickly as possible.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - Water Point to Water Point.

Skirting the Smartt Syndicate Dam I was 420 km into the race. I felt okay even though the temperature had once again ticked into the 40's. I wasn't hammering along as I had resolved to survive the heat of the day and make good use of the cooler nights.

It served no useful purpose to remind myself that I had 670 km to go. My thoughts were fixed on the next water point. That would become my approach for the duration of the race - one water point at a time.

The next water point was in fact an unofficial one at a farm. The owners, the Steenkamps, are enthusiastic about the race and supplied ice cold water to all the riders and made a point of filling their massive pool/reservoir so riders could cool off. I knew it wasn't that far beyond the dust bowl dam and pressed on eager to get my full of cold water. I arrived at the farm and was greeted by name - they were watching the race tracker on their iPad. More than that, they remembered that I had done the race the previous year. I found Brandon stretched out and fast asleep under the thatched afdak.

I too could have parked off under their lapa all afternoon but knew it wouldn't serve to get me any closer to Wellington. I needed to keep my momentum.

The next section through to water point 5 (WP5) brutalised me last year. I called it the "jeep track from hell". A year ago the 70 km from Britstown to WP5 took 7 hours and arriving there I lay on the grass for another 90 minutes. Fortunately I was on a better frame of mind this year and I had a pleasant ride through to WP5.

They had a selection of sandwiches on offer as well as an espresso machine. I gobbled a couple of sandwiches and poured 2 strong coffees down my gullet. Brandon arrived a short while later and as I was leaving Tim Deane pedalled in. I was waiting for Tim to make an appearance. He is serious competitor and I had him tipped for a top finish. The aspect of Tim that exceeds his toughness is his niceness. He is a really lekker guy. He had pipped me to the finish post on the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa earlier in the year so I knew I had to put in a massive effort if I wanted to stay ahead of him. To be honest, I expected that I would finish behind him as he has an impressive adventure racing pedigree so a race like The Munga is right up his alley.

I scuttled off with about an hour of daylight left very much aware that I had both Brandon and Tim on my tail. Up ahead Vaughn Roux was about 30 minutes ahead of Heinrich Visser and Jeannie Dreyer. That put me in 4th place about 90 minutes adrift of that pair with two racing snakes on my tail.

Racing The Munga 2016 - Taking a Trip to Mars

Last year it took me forever to ride from Britstown to Loxton. It's a 190 km stretch and I think it took me almost 17 hours. I seem to recall that there were 3 or 4 power naps in the mix. If I wanted to shave 10 hours off my overall race time from last year then nailing this section was pivotal. Particularly since I had yet to make up the deficit from day one and was leaving Britstown a few hours later than the previous year.

The 30 minute nap I had just had stood me in good stead. I had also downloaded an audiobook and it was about to step up and do duty. My book of choice was The Martian. It ticked 3 important boxes. Firstly, the story line was technically interesting and peppered with enough humour to keep me engaged and hopefully awake. Secondly, the narrators voice was lively - dull and boring is tasty candy for eyelid tuggers. Lastly, it was over 10 hours long.

The Martian was an excellent choice of book. Particularly in terms of solitude and the landscape I was riding over. I felt like I was part of the story. Talking of solitude, apart from Erik Vermeulen in his Pajero the only other vehicle I saw in that entire stretch (apart from my fellow competitors) was the motorised bicycle of a guy who was on fence inspection duty.

In addition to the audiobook I also had many hours of music stored on my phone which would be called upon from time to time.

I rode out of Britstown on the tar for a few kilometres before the route had me riding up a sandy jeep track. It wasn't fun but I knew it wouldn't go on for more than a few kilometres. It was the perfect time to get into my audiobook.

Ahead lay the Smartt Syndicate Dam. Most people refer to the dam simply as the Syndicate Dam but I like the full description with the Smartt prefix. I simply enjoy the irony of the name. The original Dam was built over 100 years ago with grand plans for it to support 1800 hectares of irrigation. Their idea was to grow wheat and lucerne to support the establishment of a breeding centre for sheep, goats and horses. In practice it peaked at less than 300 hectares given the unreliability of the water flow of the Ongers river.

Today it's a red dust bowl - there isn't a single drop of water in the dam. The surrounding landscape is barren and drier than Bill Murray's humour. Even if you close your eyes into a narrow slit and turn your imagination on full-blast it's impossible to imagine green fields of lucerne and wheat swaying in the wind. It was much easier to imagine I was piloting a Mars rover over the surface of a dusty rocky strewn planet.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - Taking Stock.

I arrived in Britstown to the care of Renato Sabbioni the Race Village lead. He handed me a couple of ice cold flavoured milks and ordered me a Coke on ice. It was my intention to fill my bottles, grab some food and head out again. The milk and Coke disappeared in no time at all.

I found Brandon Stewart in the quad readying himself to hit the road was looking spick and span. With him looking so clean I became aware of how grubby I looked. The dust of the last 24 hours had amalgamated with the sunblock on my arms, legs and face leaving me looking like I had been well basted with a dark brown marinade. All that needed doing was to pop me in the oven. The oven was ready and waiting. The sun was nearing its zenith and the mercury was already ticking toward 40 degrees. Another hot afternoon lay ahead.

Brandon gave me directions to the hotel pool which seemed the method of choice to both cool down and clean off. The water was so cold it sent my back muscles into spasm.

I returned to the quad and noticed that Kevin Benkenstein's bike was still there. I was pleased that I had managed to reel him in. The breakfast buffet was still operating so I grabbed a plate of scrambled eggs, a couple of rashers of bacon and added a slice of toast for good measure. I also ordered a pot of tea to round out my breakfast order.

No sooner had I sat down I realised that my eyes were bigger than my belly. I struggled to poke food down my throat. I think I managed a quarter rasher of bacon, two flakes of scrambled eggs and a corner of toast. I was 391 km into the race and I still couldn't stomach a decent meal. To add to my woes I started feeling nauseous. That probably had something to do with the Coke and milk mix slopping around in my belly. I asked for a room and flopped onto a bed for quick nap.

As I waited for sleep I did the maths. Before the race I had made a list of the riders who I was sure would beat me. My list had had 12 names. That being the case I was hoping that I could at least finish 13th. As I lay on the bed I realised I was well within the top 10, thanks in part to a number of race contenders pulling out of the race due to heat stress or injury.

After a 30 minute sleep I no longer felt nauseous. I filled my bottles, drank my now cold tea, lathered myself with sunblock and headed out. But not before I had checked to see that Kevin's bike was still propped against the wall in the quad. This was a race after all and I was pleased to be in the mix.

Racing The Munga 2016 - Crossing Paths

As I lay there I became aware of a vehicle approaching. I saw the glare of lights and the rumble of tyres on gravel and thought it was a car. Within seconds I became aware of the unmistakable thrum and pop of mountain bike tyres moving over hard gravel. A silhouetted figure crouched low behind a bright LED light whizzed past. I didn't know who it was but was keen to catch up and ride along with them. The early hours of the morning are the perfect time to have company. The small talk helps while away the hours and keeps the sleep monsters at bay.

I caught up quickly and introduced myself. My riding companion did the same. I had finally made the acquaintance of someone I knew by reputation only. Firstly as an outstanding cyclist and more recently in relation to his name appearing on the list of doping cases on the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport website. That was a few years ago and his ban had since expired. Still, there are critics who persist in turning the hate-churn handle.

I wasted no time in bringing up the matter of his ban. His answers were forthright and, in my opinion, honest. People fascinate me and I find myself asking all manner of questions. As we rode through the morning we chatted about his introduction to mountain biking, marriage and kids and the new life he is forging for himself since moving on from being a professional cyclist.

The Munga falls squarely into the genre of ultra-distance cycling. These long events, while requiring you to turn your legs over endlessly, also push you into an interesting mental space. While you keep tabs on your competitors you also keep checking and rechecking your own motivation for being on a bike. In this regard you bring your life experiences into the race. It gives it context and purpose and hopefully the motivation to press through your moments of doubt. Read through Kevin Benkenstein's race account you'll see how he leaned heavily on his past -

As the day wore on and we approached the second Race Village at Britstown I fell back and was left to ride into town on my own.

The nature of the race is that you pass some riders and some pass you. Occasionally you get to ride together. The company is always great even if you don't actually say anything. At the very least the other riders give you a gauge to measure your pace and progress.

The hours spent riding together into Britstown that morning left me with the impression of a man who, like me, enjoys riding his bike. Just like me he has a wife and kids, holds down a job and faces the same challenges of providing for his family. The person who rode off ahead of me was more than a tarnished reputation. He was a flesh and blood man riding his bike just like I was. He was a man whose company I enjoyed, albeit briefly, and would be happy to sit around the table and share a meal with. The history that trailed behind him had no place in that desert. It was of no import. We were just two guys pedalling our bikes in the harshest of conditions in the hope of making it to the finish in Wellington.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - Getting into Race Mode

My best guess was aardvark. Under a clear sky without a breath of wind it was dead quiet save for the snorting and snuffling coming from the bushes close by.

It was almost 4 a.m. After a day of being buffeted by a merciless wind it was good to lay back in the roadside ditch and enjoy the Karoo night. I had left the first race village 90 minutes before. Behind me I had left the bulk of the race field. There were only 6 riders ahead of me and there were a handful that were sure to follow. But at that moment I was completely alone. There were no lights, bike or otherwise, visible in any direction. I had doused my lights and lay back drinking in the peacefulness and solitude of the night. The race proper had begun.

It might seem odd to think that I was already 250 kilometres into the race and yet felt like the race had just started. Without doubt my legs and body knew I had been riding hard for the last 16 hours, but that had been with and around other riders. The first objective for every rider was to cover the 222 km to Van der Kloof Dam. For a handful of riders that was not their reality. A handful more never ventured beyond the dam.

The Munga is a hard race. It is set at the hottest time of the year through an inhospitable part of the country. Don't misunderstand that last statement, the landscape is brutal, the people on the other hand are friendly and helpful beyond belief. To traverse 1086 km inside of 120 hours might not look too difficult on paper. In practice it is unbelievably hard. It is not the sort of race where you bang out an 8 hour effort and then put your feet up and share a few beers with your mates before tucking up for 8 hours of sleep. The clock is always running, even while you sleep. To make the cutoff you need to focus on keeping your momentum. That means moving through race villages efficiently. Efficiently means forgoing your regular dose of socialising and sleep. It's a luxury the race format does not afford you.

This year the race leaders arrived at the dam well after midnight. Last year the first rider was in by 10 p.m. I myself had hoped to be out of the race village by midnight. As it turned out I only arrived at 01h50 and left at 02:14. I was already more than 2 hours behind my self imposed schedule. Even so, I needed 5 minutes to unwind and start thinking about the task ahead.

The aardvark was close but I didn't want to turn my light on lest I disturbed it. I was content to lay there looking up at the stars while it scratched around.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - A Friend in Need.

I left the first water point on my own. Ahead I could see a pair of riders battling into the wind. The race rules prohibited drafting except for the first 222 km section up to Van der Kloof Dam. Most riders were taking advantage of the rule exemption and were toiling into the wind in small bunches where possible. I tried to close the gap and hook on to a back wheel. Half way across the gap my left leg cramped. I managed to ease the cramp without stopping but in easing off I lost ground on the pair ahead. After 10 minutes I slowly increased pace aware that a knotting cramp was a mere muscle twitch away. The battle of cramp verses pace was to go on for the next 5 hours. 

The next opportunity for water was at a farm shop at 96 km and I was counting down the distance kilometre by kilometre. I couldn't bear to think beyond that. The second official water point was at 170 km and the thought of riding that distance in the heat was simply depressing. 

I figured I was well into the back half of the field. Every now and then I would pass a rider sitting in the shade of a tree. A few people rolled by me as I took a couple of breaks. At the top of a climb I saw an ambulance on the side of the road. I could see the medics mingling with 3 riders, one of whom I knew well. 

Philip Kleijnhans, seeing me go passed yelled out to me, "What are you doing back here? I really thought you could finish in the top five."

Before long Philip was on his bike and riding alongside me. I explained how I was battling with cramps and he told me that his knee inflammation had returned and he thought it highly unlikely that he would manage to finish. With that he pulled in front of me and started powering into the headwind. I tucked in behind him and we made good progress. Every now and then I would sit up to ease a cramp and Philip would slow up and wait for me. 

A particularly bad cramp had me far back. The farm shop was only a few kilometres away so Philip rode ahead. I caught up with him just short of the shop after he had taken a dip in a reservoir to cool off. I bought a Coke and 4 bottles of water. Philip waited outside while I filled my bottles. It was just after sunset. I turned my lights on and headed up the road. The next water point was 74 km away. It was still hot and it was going to hard work. Once again Philip took up a lead position and hammered into the night. I sat on his tail happy for the help. At no stage was there any suggestion that I should take my place at the front. 

10 kilometres short of the water point, after pulling me for 75 km, Philip was hurting. He told me to go ahead. I put my head down and made good progress passing a number of riders on the way. Philip had helped me through a particularly hard section of the race and I am grateful for that help. What I hadn't realise was the full extent of the assistance. It would become apparent once I arrived at Van der Kloof Dam. Signing in to the race village at 01h50 I was surprised to see that there were only 9 riders ahead of me. 

Racing The Munga 2016 - An Inauspicious Start.

Whatsapp 15:05
> "Man it's hot. Just stopped at a farm school to get some water. But not before hurling my guts out. The bottles are so hot it doesn't get absorbed. I must have puked out a good litre of liquid. Taking 5 minutes to let my stomach settle then into the scorching wind again. Going is very slow into the wind. Going to be a long haul to Van der Kloof dam. Still have 170km to get there. Only done 50 so far in 3 hours."

Although I had only been on the road for a few hours I was trashed. When asked about the weather conditions Alex tweeted:

> "Desperate. Strongest wind I've ever experienced down here. And block head wind. 40+ degrees. 7 scratched already I think."

One of the teachers had given me a chair and I sat up against a shady wall castigating myself. Sure it was hot, but that was no excuse. I was one of the most experienced endurance riders in this race and had made a rookie error.

We all know that in order to stay hydrated you need to drink. And I was drinking - a lot. But there is a big difference between drinking fluids and rehydrating. I'll get to that just now.

I had publicly declared my intention of riding a 75 hour race (I had ridden 85.5 hours the previous year) and I was off to a bad start. At the 40km mark I was comfortably in the top 20 in a field of just over 80 riders. That changed by a few positions when I slumped next to the road in the shade of a tree and took a breather. A dozen riders passed by, many asking if I was okay. I wasn't dying but I knew I wasn't coping that well. I got back on my bike and soldiered on trying to figure out a plan to fix the situation. When I spotted a water tank next to some buildings I turned off into the school and was directed to a tap. Two mouthfuls of cool water and the urge to void my stomach could no longer be ignored.

The problem was my choice of drink. It's simple science and something I had read about back in the early 80's in Tim Noakes book Lore of Running. Fluids enter your stomach and make their way to your small intestine where they are absorbed.
As the sugar levels in a fluid rise their mobility through your system and absorbability decreases. One way to counteract this is to lower the temperature of the fluid. With the temperature in the 40's and 4 hours to get to the first official water point hydration fluid temperature was not something you could control. The other way to counteract the lack of absorption was something I could control, the contents of my bottles. I normally ride with plain water or water that has a zero sugar electrolyte added. For some arbitrary reason I had started out with 4 bottles filled with sugar saturated sports drink. The hot sweet liquid was merely slopping around in my stomach and wasn't getting to the part of my plumbing that could draw it into my system. As I sat in the shade one rider after another trickled by on the road. I emptied all my bottles and refilled them with plain water and then joined the slow procession snaking its way toward the first water point which was 12 km further up the road at the 62 km mark.

Riders were making use of the shade offered by the occasional big tree. I did too. It felt good getting out of the sun even if it was for only 1 minute at a time. A few kilometres from the water point a saw a rider in a blue and white top standing under the shade of a tree. I figured it was my riding friend Janine. Before I could catch up she was back on her bike and pedalling. I couldn't catch her and was happy to simply match her pace into the water point. We sat in the shade of a tree with 10 or 15 other riders and drank as much cold water as we could manage. There wasn't much chatter going on. There wasn't much to say. We were all struggling and it wasn't necessary to give that suffering voice.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Munga 2016 - back on the start line.

It's only mid morning in Bloemfontein and already it's 35 Celsius.
The small voice in my head asks the inevitable question, 'Why are you doing this?'

A tussle rages within my cranium as both protagonist and antagonist raise their views. The antagonist speaks of reason. The protagonist purports to be purpose.
The antagonist speaks with a clear voice while the protagonist is found mumbling albeit in a seductive tone.
There are times when the antagonists voice swells and drowns out the protagonist. But the protagonists voice, like a bass drum beats a steady cadence that is always present in the stillness between doubts.

It helps to remind myself that
there is no such thing as cycling conscription and even if there was you could be a conscientious objector and serve out your time pottering around the garden or lazing by the pool.

I've got nothing against gardening or swimming. But I have to say that the sky above Sutherland on a clear night trumps them both. There are easier ways to get to Sutherland but I've got my bike here so I may as well use it.

The antagonist within rolls their eyes at the stupidity of that statement which is obviously devoid of sound reason. There's the thing about antagonists, in order to survive they need to be paired with a protagonist. Without purpose, without goals that birth doubt, the antagonist is silenced.

Should be fun listening to them sparring all the way to Wellington.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Durban Dash Up 2016 - Final Thoughts.

After 36 hours on my bike I appreciated the low-key finish that is typical of endurance cycling events. The field is stretched out so far that organisers and supporters watch the trackers and time their trek to the finish to welcome in their specific 'gladiator'. I returned the following day to see in the balance of the finishers who, having all slept over in Heilbron, managed to finish within a short while of each other. 

Finishes like this, devoid of fanfare and blaring music, as well as the absence of a paid hype-master on the microphone, are just my cup of tea. It means you know everyone who has come to see you finish. They are not there by chance and they are all genuine in their praise. I was moved by the number of people that took the effort to schlep down to the finish line to see me finish my race. I won't list them, but you guys know who you are. I extend a hearty thanks to one and all. 

So what did I make of the race? It's hard, but probably not hard in the way you would imagine. The cycling is not the hard part. The hardest aspect of the race is staying awake. 

If you have never done a really long ride you might think that riding nonstop for 36 hours is an insane idea. It's actually not that hard, particularly if the weather conditions are okay. People often ask how I do it. The answer? You must just have the desire to do it. Once the thought has been planted and desire takes root the rest flows from there. 

Riding nonstop is a choice. If you want to do the Durban Dash, Up or Down, then you can opt to stop over once or twice and enjoy the hospitality of a B&B host and let the darkness pass while snuggled up in fresh sheets with your head cradled on a soft pillow. And what's not to enjoy about that? 

To Andy Masters, thank you for your unwavering commitment to getting events of this nature off the ground in SA. They are interesting and a lot of fun. They also attract a great bunch of likeminded cyclists. 

Lastly, the million dollar question - would I do the Up ride again? 36 hours is not fast enough. I think I can do it in 32. 

Durban Dash Up 2016 - Vereeniging to Thaba Trails

Twenty minutes after leaving the garage shop I was on the outskirts of Vereeniging. Traffic was light and it was cooling down. I knew the route to the finish was flat and with a slight tailwind it should be fast. 

After calculating the distance I had ridden I realised that I had overestimated the distance to the finish by 10 kilometres. It occurred to me that if I put in a solid 90 minute effort I could crack 36 hours. That meant averaging over 25 km/h. I was up to the challenge. After all, I had been at this for for over 34 hours so another hour and a half wasn't that much of an ask. I had worked too hard and too long to be denied the satisfaction of cracking 36 hours. 

Traffic was light and the wind held. My headspace, body, and bike synced into a comfortable routine. I entered a state of flow. If it's not a term you are familiar with you might identify better with the term, in the zone. I rolled along at over 30 km/h without much effort. 

20 km from the finish I saw a familiar smile. A riding buddy, Gavin George, and his wife Juliet were parked next to the road. They took a few snaps as I rode by and then headed off to the finish to await my arrival. 

At one point, when crossing over the R59, I had to cycle into the wind and my progress dipped below 20 km/h. I kept one eye on the time and another on the intersection up ahead that would get the wind back in my favour. Crucial minutes ticked by. It was going to be tight. 

By the time I had ridden through Eikenhof to Kliprivier Drive it was 4:50 pm. I still had 3 km to go. It was predominately downhill to The Mall of the South and then it was a short sharp climb to the finish at Thaba Trails. I set myself small targets. 2 minutes to the traffic lights, then another 3 to the bridge. That would give me 5 minutes to  grind up the last climb to Thaba. As I turned off Kliprivier Drive into Thaba Trails I could see Andy and a small gathering waiting for me a hundred metres away in the parking lot. It was 4.57 pm. I had done it, I was going to make it in before 5 pm. 

Monday, 10 October 2016

Durban Dash Up 2016 - Scampering to Vereeniging.

The turn toward Vereeniging couldn't have come soon enough. The sun beat down on me and I was tired. I wanted to get it over with. 

That part of the country is ugly. The countryside is littered with the remnants of human endeavour. It's as if the sticky residue of human failure had settled in the grease trap that spans the Vaal river around Sasolburg, Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging. There are abandoned buildings, piles of rubble, scars in the earth from past schemes where land rehabilitation was never on the cards. Perhaps some of it was from mining or farming ventures that failed, or perhaps they flourished for a season before they moved on simply left their mess behind and moved on to decimate some new piece of ground. I figured it would be softer on the eyes, at least for a few short months, once the rain came and tossed an obscuring mantle of green weed over the human debris. 

The road ahead, a frayed black ribbon draped over the dusty and disfigured landscape, was littered with an endless stream of cars, taxis and buses. I kept a watchful eye lest two vehicles converged on me from opposite directions. A bicycle has the status of a rodent when the road becomes too narrow for two vehicles +1. It behoves the +1 to rather be prudent than cling to ones right of way. On the upside, sleep monsters don't thrive in these conditions - I was wide awake. 

I crossed the Vaal river into town and entered the normal fray of urban traffic. At least now there was some semblance of order and predictability and the road was wide enough to navigate without the risk of becoming roadkill. 

I kept a lookout for a shop. My eyes were hungry for ice cream, crisps and a bottle of water. I was almost through town when I spotted a garage shop off a street to my right. I threaded through the traffic and made my way to the shop. 

The shop was cool thanks to effective air conditioning. While tempted to linger inside and enjoy the coolness I knew it would be a trap. I grabbed what I needed and sat on the pavement outside. 

It was almost 3pm. It was still hot and I was hopeful that the temperature had passed its zenith. I wasn't sure of the distance to the finish and thought is was about 60 km. That being the case I wasn't going to finish before 5 pm. My audacious goal of finishing in 34 hours had lapsed. My 36 hour goal meant a 5 pm finish. At least I should make it before sunset which was my softest goal. I ate my ice cream, munched on my crisps, and filled my water bottles. Sitting on the curb in the heat of the day, watching the ebb and flow of life through the surrounding shops and roads, 60 km seemed a long way off. 

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Durban Dash Up 2016 - Once More unto the Breach

Shakespeare was obviously an endurance cyclist. Why else would he have written:

...thou and I have thirty miles to ride yet ere dinner time - Henry IV Part 1, Act III Scene 3.

I had more than 30 miles to ride before the sun went down but in the Bards day dinner was midday. 30 miles would get me to Vereeniging where I could stop and get a lunch snack before pressing on to the finish. 

The brief stop with the agitated shopkeeper did little to keep the sleep-monsters at bay. The side wind had intensified and the road continued to be boring. The scruffy verges teased. I was desperate for a power nap but there simply weren't any options. 

Up ahead I could see a bend in the road. It was a good sign. It meant I was getting closer to the turnoff to Vereeniging which would put the wind at my back. Unfortunately the bend meant I would be riding into the wind for the next while. 

Rounding the bend I could see the gloomy edifice that is Sasolburg. It glared down on me from the horizon. Maize fields gave way to open land. The settlement of Coalbrook was visible on the slopes below the brooding ogre.  

The change of scenery should have put some distance between me and the monsters tugging on my eyelids. Alas, it didn't. The lugubrious atmosphere that surrounds Sasolburg is enough to wipe the smile off a court jester. 

I saw an abandoned building a few hundred metres from the road. I rode over and gave it the once over. It was situated in the middle of a huge field that had recently been burnt and was good distance from from prying eyes. Once inside I wouldn't be seen from the road or from the houses in the distance.

I propped myself up against a wall enjoying the shade offered and closed my eyes. I was out of the sun but not out of the wind or out of my imagination. The wind swirled around the enclosed space. My brain swirled around what might happen if someone snuck up on me while I was asleep. I was surrounded by building debris. It wouldn't take much to incapacitate someone with a brick or two while they slept. In less than 5 minutes I was back on my bike. 

The turnoff that would turn my wind foe to friend was only a few kilometres away at Coalbrook. I knew it would be a mixed blessing. While keen to get the wind on my side I knew the road traffic over the next 35 km to Vereeniging was going to be hectic. Once through Vereeniging it would be easy going to the finish. But first, I needed to get to Vereeniging. 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Durban Dash Up 2016 - Heilbron to an uncharitable place.

The ride from Heilbron through to Vereeniging was going to be tedious. The 52km stretch of road from Heilbron to just short of Sasolburg where you turn toward Vereeniging is straight and boring. Add traffic, a crosswind, and a road without a rideable verge and it's not fun. Apart from the first 18 km which is a gentle climb the rest is mostly flat. Did I also mention that it is boring? 

The landscape is completely uninspiring. I guess the drought hasn't helped but I suspect the grimness is not so much the result of drought as the farming methods employed. That part of the world is maize country. Being pre-planting season the fields were barren. Some had been ploughed while others were post-harvest scruffy from the last season and were waiting for the first rains before their turn with tractor and plough. 

What really stood out for me was the condition of the road verges. Normally you would expect there to be some form of grass from the edge of the road to the farm fence. There wasn't a blade of grass to be seen. The verges were a tangle of dead weeds. Winter had taken care of them. 

I concluded that maize farming was to blame for the scruffy verges. It is fair to conclude that the strain of maize grown in those fields were genetically modified. That's an easy conclusion as most commercial maize in SA is of a GM variety -

Anyway, you might have noticed how clean maize fields are. They are generally free of weeds...and grass...and anything else that isn't maize. Clever guys in white coats who hang out in laboratories have created maize varieties that are weedkiller resistant. Farmers plant maize and when it gets hip high they spray the fields with glyphosphate (Roundup - the same stuff you spray your driveway and paving with) that kills everything except the maize. When they spray there is always a little drift and the weedkiller is carried over the fence and makes short work of any plants growing on the road verge. The first species to grow back in these conditions are weeds. Lots of weeds. A good example being khakibos. 

I've got nothing against maize farming or khakibos but it makes it impossible to find a good spot to have a 10 minute nap. The road verges offered no comfort in bedding (simply nowhere soft and friendly to lay down) or privacy (no cover offered by the scraggly remains) 

A roadside shop halfway to Sasolburg gave me opportunity to have a break. I went in and got a can of Iron Brew. It cost R11. I gave the shopkeeper R20. He asked if I had R1. I didn't think I did so told him to keep the change. He didn't like that idea. I didn't fancy lugging R9 in silver coins so I told him he could use it to help a needy person. The shopkeeper became agitated. He reached into his cash register and gave me R10 and told me not to worry about the R1. If he wasn't going to accept my charity I wasn't about to accept his. I checked my pockets and found a R1 coin which I handed over. 

I walked outside a little perplexed at his reaction. He followed me out and explained that he didn't believe in charity. If somebody wanted something then that had to work for it. He went on to explain that he would never give anything to another person. He would rather burn something than give it away. 

    "That's why we have so many beggars!" he added. 

I was keen to get on with my ride and didn't engage, I just muttered occasionally. With my cool drink finished I straddled my bike in the hope that he would stop talking. 

    "When a beggar gets R10 his profit margin is R10. He does nothing for it!" he continued. 

He kept on about the evils of charity until I was out of earshot. 

Durban Dash Up 2016 - Reitz to Heilbron

I was cold leaving Reitz and the climb out of town was welcome. Jason, still on the phone to me, was scouting ahead and giving me his take on the landscape ahead. The fog persisted so it was interesting to hear him describe the landscape around me. I remembered it from my last couple of rides but could see none of the landmarks. When the road flattened out he commented that it was getting very boring. That according to Google Street View. I told him that it was worse than that. Visibility was seriously curtailed so it was even more boring than he knew. 

We kept up the chatter for a long while before Jason decided it was late enough to track down a spot for me to have coffee. He said Google indicated a bakery in Petrus Steyn town and he was sure they would be open. He was going to phone them. When he called back it was to tell me that the tannie who answered his call told him the bakery was no longer in business. It was early and I imagined she didn't enjoy getting a call that early on a Saturday. Unperturbed Jason kept looking. He called me back with good news. There was cafe in town and he called and confirmed that they did serve coffee. "Although," he cautioned, "I'm not sure what kind of place it is."

The fog eventually thinned and the lingering mist was burnt off by the rising sun. I rode into Petrus Steyn under a clear morning sky. I didn't have to find Jason's proposed coffee spot as the first petrol station in town had an operating coffee machine. I grabbed a quick coffee and headed off toward Heilbron. 

Steve gave me a call and we tried to figure out where the rest of the riders were. John and Heather were last tracked near Kestell and not moving while Ted was last seen almost in Reitz but his tracker had also stopped updating. Kevin was last seen at The Border Post and Kenneth was nearing Winterton. My immediate concern was Ted. He was still within striking distance. I had to keep moving if I wanted to win the race. With Teds tracker not updating the speculation started. Steve suspected that Ted was through Reitz and his tracker wasn't updating. 

10 km short of Heilbron Andy pulled up. I didn't need anything and just stopped for a short chat, although I did share some of my fruitcake with him before he dropped a bombshell. As he was leaving I wanted to confirm that Ted was still 60 or 70 km behind me. He chuckled and said, "No ways, he's in Petrus Steyn!"  Then he drove off. 

I couldn't believe it, Petrus Steyn was a mere 38 km behind me. Ted was closing on me and closing fast. I scampered into Heilbron and met up with Andy at the KFC where I ordered a breakfast bun, coffee, soft serve ice cream and a Coke. When I questioned Andy again about Teds whereabouts he chuckled and apologised. He'd got the place names mixed up. Ted was still in Reitz. It seems that Ted hadn't fared too well in the freezing fog and was taking a timeout to thaw out. 

My closest competitor was 84 km back. I could relax. The race was now mine to lose. I had a little over 120 km left to do. The wind was picking up and it was getting warm. I'd been in the go for 29 hours, this wasn't going to be a doddle. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

Durban Dash Up 2016 - Reitz for Coffee...or not!

Jabbering away to Jason while I rode certainly helped me stay awake. We tried to figure out how far back the ever present Ted was. It seems Ted had opted to take a tar section rather than the gravel road "short-cut". But, instead of going left at the bottom of the dam toward Phuthaditjhaba he had opted to head West toward Harrismith to get onto the M5. Some people may think it was an odd route choice but no so I. The distance difference is negligible. But the biggest advantage is that it's a lot easier to say "I headed toward Harrismith" than to say "I headed toward Phuthaditjhaba." Yes, I had to Google how to spell that. It's not a name that sticks and I don't know how to say it properly either. 

We worked out that I had a lead of 60 km on Ted. It wasn't a big lead. I was 380 km into the race which left me a little over 220 km to go. I hoped that I could average 20 km/h to the finish. I would need to stop a couple of times so that would add at least an hour. But Ted would also need to stop so the stoppage time wasn't important. I had at least 11 or 12 hours of riding. I reckoned Ted could close me down by 10 minutes per hour. A 60 km lead equated to about 2.5 hours as the route between us wasn't too arduous. The "science" indicated that if Ted and I kept moving at our relative speeds (him 10 mins per hour faster than me) I should pip him to the finishing post by 30 minutes. I'm not sure my methods qualified as science. In fact, they were anything but that, but the processing of this dubious data kept my head in the game and before long a saw a road sign the indicated that I was a few kilometres shy of Reitz. The fog was so thick I was well into town before it was obvious. 

Jason did a quick check on Google Maps and said I should find a garage shop open even though it was only a little after 4am. I was sceptical but he was fairly certain because the images on Google Street View gave him a sense that it was a 24 hour convenience store.  He was right. I got excited at the prospect of a cup of steaming caffeine - warmth and wakefulness. 

First thing I saw as the doors slid open was a sign on the coffee machine, "Out of Order".  I was tired and cold and unimpressed. My next coffee opportunity was 40 km away in Petrus Steyn... hopefully. 

I wandered around the shop and settled on a bag of Lays Salted Crisps, a can of Iron Brew and a Magnum ice cream. From coffee to ice cream - yeah, very weird. But the eyes want what the eyes want. 

I sat out on the front step of the shop overlooking the forecourt. It was busy for 4:30 am. A couple of young men, clad in farming fatigues, arrived in their Hilux bakkie, bought something and headed out to start their day. As I sat there I became aware of how cold it was and how inadequately dressed I was for the cold. Just then a youngster (mid teens) arrived on his bicycle. He was barefoot and wore short pants and a button up cotton shirt. He greeted me then ran into the shop to buy a litre of milk. Milk in hand he hopped on his bike and headed off into the dark streets of town. 

I got Jason back on the phone and told him my sorry tale about the lack of coffee and how cold it was getting. At his suggestion that I put something warmer on I told him there was long climb just the other side of town and that was going to warm me up. Being the responsible citizen that I am I deposited my empty can and packets in a  forecourt dustbin and got back on my bike. My next opportunity for coffee was a good few hours away.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Durban Dash Up 2016 - Really cold and boring

The section from Kestell to Reitz is a tad under 70 km. It's not particularly challenging, mostly flat and fast... kind of.  It's always flat, but it's only fast if the weather is good and you don't have 19 hours of nonstop pedalling under your belt. 

Less than 1 km out of town I rode into thick fog. Visibility was down to 30 metres. Normally not an issue as, unlike a car which covers almost 30 metres per second at 100 km/h, I was trundling along at a mere 7-8 metres every second. I had all the time in the world to take evasive action should it be required. Although I'm not quite sure what there was to evade, except boredom. The thing about boredom is that it is a massive challenge. Sleep monsters thrive on boredom. Hemmed in by fog all I could see was the road ahead. The occasional road sign, reflecting bright from my bike light, was as exciting as it got. It's really hard to stay focussed when there is no mental stimulation (there are no navigational challenges on a 60+ km stretch of straight road) and nothing visually distracting to keep your mind going. On a clear night you can see the stars and generally see the skyline. If the moon is up then it's a visual feast. 

Before long I was "nesting". 

That's not a word that you'd be familiar with in context with cycling, I just made it up. When I start nodding off on the bike I instinctively start scanning the bush next to the road looking for an ideal spot to have a quick snooze - that scanning action is what I call nesting. I tried fighting the urge to sleep by turning up my music and singing along but that quickly became monotonous and annoying. I eventually stopped at a farm gate and lay on the ground and closed my eyes. 

In the distance I could hear two owls hooting. My shoulders ached so bad that I couldn't get comfortable enough to nod off. While I tossed and turned I could still hear the owls. For some reason my mind turned to a book I had read a few decades back - 'I heard the owl call my name.' In that book a young vicar who is suffering from a terminal illness is sent to work among the people of the Kwakiutl Nation in British Columbia. One night he hears the owl call his name which, according to tribal belief, foretells of imminent death. Shortly after hearing the owl call his name the vicar is caught in a landslide and dies. The owls now had my undivided attention. I listened carefully and was glad my name wasn't "whoooo". Thoughts of presaging owls and death by landslide pushed the sleep monsters back. I took advantage and pressed on toward Reitz.

The hordes were soon swarming and once more I found myself  nesting. But what about the aching shoulders? Perhaps, I thought, if I tried laying flat on my back my shoulders wouldn't hurt. I found another short driveway leading to a gate and lay flat on my back. The silence was absolute. I could have heard an ant walk across the ground. Then the crazy thoughts returned... If I was sound asleep would I hear a face biting jackal creeping up on me? Do jackals even bite faces, I wondered, or is that more the style of a hyena? Certainly no hyenas around but I was fairly certain there was a jackal behind every clump of grass. Not surprisingly sleep evaded me. At least I got to rest my eyes and exercise my imagination. After a 10 minute break I was back on my bike. 

It was getting really cold. My Garmin indicated 3 Celsius. I was still in short gloves and shorts with a lightweight windshell. I wasn't keen to layer up. I find it a lot easier to stay awake when I am cold. Adding warmer gloves, another jacket, and leggings would simply encourage the sleep monsters. As it was, I wasn't coping too well with those beasties. 

Visions of frothy-mouthed jackals kept me going for another 10 km before, once again, I caught myself nesting. I needed a new tactic to stay awake. It wasn't quite 3 am but I needed someone to talk to. My son Jason pulled the short straw. 

"Hey Dad, what's up?" 

I could hear that I had woken him from a deep sleep. I explained my need to make small talk and he was game to chat. We jabbered away while he made himself a cup of tea. Before long he had his laptop open and was tracking my progress. 

Monday, 3 October 2016

Durban Dash Up 2016 - Into the Dam Mist

I knew it was going to get nippy when I passed below the Sterkfontein Dam wall. The cold cascades over the wall and fills the valley below. But that problem was 25 km away which would take me about an hour. Once there I was prepared to quiver for 30 minutes or so as I was sure it would warm up as I climbed out the valley and over the next ridge. In the meantime I was looking forward to an hour of easy riding. Ted's imagined snores energised my legs. 

Just around the corner from The Border Post I ran into the first mist of the night. In places it was fog. The difference, as detailed in an earlier blog from this year, is visibility. At times I could see no more than 50 metres ahead. Approaching cars, which would be visible for many kilometres on a clear night, appeared out of the murk and were gone in the blink of an eye. 

My breathe fogged up which is usually an indication that the temperature had dropped into single digits. I checked my Garmin and sure enough it indicated a temperature of 8 degrees Celsius. I don't trust the temperature of the Garmin when the sun is out because it's on my handlebars and basked in sunlight. As a consequence it over reads. But some folk love it - "Hey dudes the ave temp today when we went for our 100 km ride was 55!!!!!!" 

Yeah, whatever. Unless you typed that from a hospital bed, while you were being infused with a fire hose, it never happened. As the sun was asleep I was inclined to believe the reading especially since it also felt chilly. Sub 10 is cold but I'm accustomed to riding in subzero temperatures. I had warm gear but it wasn't yet required. My core was warm and my fingers were still fine even though I had short fingered cycling gloves on, so I pressed on.

The temperature did drop a little more as I passed below the dam but it was still comfortable. As expected the temperature rose and the mist cleared as I climbed up the ridge on a gravel road that would get me onto the N5. 

At the junction with the N5 I stopped for a quick snack. I initially planned to sit down and enjoy a quiet 10 minutes. The trucks rumbling by in an endless procession meant that quiet was not an option. Then I thought of Ted and his fast Cyclocross machine. After barely 2 minutes I was back on my bike and pedalling. 

Even though it was around midnight the trucks kept rolling by. Many of them hooting or flashing their hazard lights in greeting as they passed. I guess I was an odd sight. After all, I was headed to the tiny settlement of Kestell that has a main street barely long enough to hang a street name and I'm fairly certain no one goes there on purpose. 

As I trundled along I was struck by the activities that continue long after the sun goes down. These trucks were delivering all manner of goods from cheese and milk to tractor parts. As I pedalled along I got a glimpse of the work done by these corpuscles that move along the darkened veins of our country while we sleep. 

None too soon I arrived in Kestell and made my way to the filling station to top up with water. The shop and forecourt (forecourt makes the place sound a lot more impressive than it was) were shut up tight as a drum but the ablution block was open. A passing taxi stopped and disgorged its passengers at the same time I arrived. I used the tap located on the wall near the ablutions to top up my bottles while tapping along with the music that blared from the taxi. The passengers were friendly enough and before long they had shoehorned themselves back into the mobile disco and headed off up the road. 

Before long the only sound was the gentle popping of gravel on bike tyres as I cut across some open ground to rejoin the route that would take me through to Reitz. 

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Durban Dash Up 2016 - Estcourt to almost halfway.

I left Estcourt on a little used road and headed northwest paralleling the N3 national road. 20 kilometres later the road ended and I turned west, crossed the N3 and headed toward the Drakensberg. My route over the next few hours would take me through Winterton and on to Bergville where I planned to stop and get some dinner. 

I had sufficient water so opted to ride through Winterton without stopping. Exiting town I saw Ted just ahead of me. He must have stopped. 12 hours into the race and only 1 minute separated us. This time I got to see exactly how much faster his bike was than mine on the downhills. On the first climb out of town the gap stayed at one minute. With every successive downhill he would increase that gap by 30 seconds or more. By the time I rolled into Bergville Ted was out of sight. With my thoughts now on dinner he was also well out of mind. 

There is a Caltex garage at the far end of town that has a small Maxis restaurant. I have to admit that I don't have a nutritional plan on long rides. I allow my eyes to shop for my belly. The eyes ordered a soft serve ice cream, a toasted cheese and ham sandwich combo (combo = add coffee) and a pot of tea. The tea/coffee/ice cream combo had them a tad confused. The confusion cost a few minutes and it was a good half an hour before I was back on my bike. But not before I shed my rain jacket and replaced it with a cooler wind shell. Sunset, and therefore cooler conditions, was 30 minutes away but I knew the big climb that loomed was going to keep me warm. 

The next checkpoint was at The Border Post, 45 km away at the top of Oliviershoek Pass. A phone call confirmed that Ted had pushed through Bergville and was a good 45 mins ahead of me. I passed Amphitheatre Backpackers, which was last year's checkpoint, at 7:10 pm which put me an hour and twenty minutes ahead of my time from the previous year.  At 7:30 pm I started on the 13 km climb up the pass. It starts off okay but kicks up in the middle before easing off near the top. Andy passed me when I was halfway up. He told me he was going back to Bergville to fetch Paul Erasmus who had pulled out of the race after battling with tyre problems since early morning.

I pulled up at The Border Post (taking its name from straddling the border between KZN and the Free State provinces, not between South Africa and Lesotho) a few minutes before 8:30 pm. The big climb of the race was now behind me. I couldn't find Liz but I did find Ted. He was exhausted. The climb had hurt him and he was getting ready for some shuteye. They didn't have rooms available but they did have two caravans and Ted had staked his claim to one of them. I'm guessing Paul would be take up occupancy in the other when he arrived with Andy. 

I wondered back toward the main building and found Liz. Owing to the lack of milk I had a cup of black tea which, while not my usual fare, was surprisingly refreshing. I cracked open my checkpoint box and stuffed my pockets with fruitcake and biscuits. It was going to be a long night and I wasn't expecting to find any shops open until after sunrise. I figured that the garage at Petrus Steyn, 180 km away, would be my first chance to get something other than water. A garage at Kestell, 60 or 70 km away had a tap so water was covered. 

Andy arrived back at 9 pm as I was leaving. I told him I had work to do. It was time to make hay while the sun wasn't shining. In other words, I had to put some distance between me and Ted. I thought Ted would sleep for at least 3 hours which meant that I should be in Kestell before he got going. Ted was playing a vital role in my race. Having him around was helping me maintain momentum. 

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Durban Dash Up 2016 - Mountain Bike verses Cyclocross Bike.

A few kilometres north of Old Halliwell Inn I rode through Currys Post. The stretch from there toward Mooi River was the section that made me settle on my mountain bIke rather than my road bike. With rain forecast I did not look forward to battling through mud on that dirt road section. In practice it didn't work out that way. 

We were running tracking apps and a quick phone call established that Ted had left Halliwell 10 minutes after me. I didn't know at that stage that he was riding a Cyclocross bike. I hadn't given any thought to his choice of mount. As I rolled off the tar onto the gravel road I realised that my fears were ill founded. There had been rain in Currys Post but not recently. The road was hard packed, smooth and fast. Just wet enough to prevent passing cars from throwing up clouds of dust. 

Ten or fifteen kilometres after leaving Old Halliwell I heard a bike behind me. It was Ted. So much for a mountain bike being faster over gravel. Ted pulled up next to me and we had a quick chat. He stopped to remove his jacket and I continued riding. I did more than continue riding, I rode faster than before. Ted closed on me in no time at all. I simply couldn't match his downhill speed. There was bike envy for sure. Added to that, I had finally realised what was wrong with my bike that needed attention. 

The bottom bracket (for the non bike techies that is the bearing unit through which the pedal axle passes) was creaking. I realised that I would have to stop and sort that out. My more immediate problem was a fast disappearing up ahead - Ted. I pushed some earphones in my ear holes and got some music running. Partly for distraction and partly to drown out the noise of the protesting bottom bracket. I kept in touch up the final climb before the drop into Mooi River but when I crested he was nowhere to be seen. 

I was initially planning on making a quick stop in Mooi River but as I turned into town I could see Ted about a kilometre ahead on the climb out of town. I had enough water to get me through to Estcourt so didn't stop. 

As I started the climb the noise from the bottom bracket could no longer be ignored. There is a collar on the left hand crank that is used to take up bearing slack. This collar has a pinch bolt to lock it up. The pinch bolt had come loose which caused the collar to tighten up against the bottom bracket bearings. The noise was caused by the protesting bearings. The collar was too tight to loosen by hand so a rock had to do duty as a hammer. It worked. 

It was nice to ride a bike that no longer squealed like a rusty gate with every revolution. Although I couldn't swear to it, the cranks seemed to turn with more ease. The other problem was still ahead. Far ahead. I could see a good distance ahead and there was no Ted in sight. Out of sight out of mind - I got on with executing my race plan without the distraction of Ted. 

I pedalled into Estcourt early afternoon and was surprised to find it all abustle. Certainly busier than the last time I was here. To be fair, last time I rode through in April it was sometime after midnight. Dave and Dawn Bell also rode through here in the wee hours and I remember Dave telling me about a garage shop that served a great cup of coffee. Last year I stopped at the first shop I got to and there was no coffee and the selection of treats was rudimentary. I decided to go in search of Dave's better option. I was almost through town when I spotted the shop. Sure enough they served coffee. I bought a coffee, a bag of crisps and a litre of water to top up my bottles. The coffee was okay, the cup less so. It leaked all over the counter. Fortunately the shop owner arrived back from mosque just in time and rushed over to give me a new cup. We got to chatting. The obvious question arose, "Where are you going?" 


"I mean now, today."

"Jo'burg. Maybe not tonight but I will be their tomorrow afternoon."

"Oh, be safe." He walked off.