Thursday, 31 March 2016

Race to Cradock - Slaapkranz to Loutebron.

The climb up the mountain didn't start immediately, we had 100 metres of flat road first. The ascent started off easily enough as we followed a jeep track but got steadily steeper with each pedal stroke. After a kilometre riding became challenging. Another few hundred metres and it was no longer an option. The Jokers grimace was upon us.

Casper was ahead and I saw him pushing his bike. I knew it wouldn't be long before he abandoned that method. It's one of those tracks where there isn't space for a bike and a bike pusher. The best method is to sling your bike over your shoulders and plod up the track, so I did just that. It was tedious I looked down and counted my steps making sure I didn't look up. The counting a distraction to pass the time. Not looking up is to prevent myself becoming despondent.

I know from previous experience (this was my 7th trip up the mountain) that it takes me just over 1000 steps to conquer the first section. That translates into 20 to 25 minutes. Some steps so short that I only progress a few inches at a time. At some point I estimated that it is about the equivalent of walking up the stairs of a 55 storey building - with your bike on your back!

There are sections where the shrubs encroach on the track and you have to shift the bike around or twist and weave to avoid the bike becoming snagged in the gnarly bushes.

Somewhere along the way I passed Casper who was taking a breather. By the time I had counted into the 900's my arms were cramping and my shoulders throbbed. Just when I thought I couldn't go another inch the track kicked up defiantly. I had been waiting for this... 1010, 1011, 1012... You can do anything for a minute I reminded myself and plodded up the last scratchy bit of the track.

I plonked my bike on the ground and took a breather. A minute later I had the bike back on my shoulders and was making my way up the next section of portage.

It is without question the toughest portage of the Cradock race. It takes almost an hour to get to the top. This is followed by a long winding descent to the district road on the other side.

As we started on the descent I heard Casper muttering. At the next gate I found out what the problem was. He rides with a dropper seat post and it was toast. It isn't on any weight weenies list of things to put on your bike as it comes with a weight penalty. But it makes the tricky descents a lot more fun. He had earlier mentioned that he was looking forward to the descent off the back of Bonthoek. The previous year we had watched with wide-eyed envy as Tim James rode most of the way down the treacherous track off the back of that mountain. A year of stewing had Casper eager for a similar attempt. Alas, it was not to be. A few kilometres short of this quarry his seat post had spewed out all it's oil and collapsed completely. A piece of tape wrapped around the post in an attempt to keep it extended had no useful effect.

Casper is tall. Very tall. He also has a body geometry that is dominated by legs. His legs are so long that it appears he is made up of 90% legs with the remaining 10% comprising arms with a head placed on top like a cherry plopped on top of an ice cream. As a consequence he has a really long seat post. When that really long seat post collapses he looks hilarious on his bike - Think Kermit the frog on a kids tricycle. I saw the humour in it, Casper didn't. He also didn't appreciate my suggestion that we wait until we got to the Bonthoek farmhouse before attempting a repair. I couldn't blame him as it was going to take us nearly 2 hours to get there. He could freewheel most of the way off the mountain so for the next 20 minutes it really wasn't a problem.

As we rounded the mountain we saw Fjord and Anthony passing below us on the district road. They were 12 minutes ahead. As we hopped over the last fence to get on the district road Casper grabbed a chunk of wood and stuffed it between his saddle and the top tube of his bike frame. It was a temporary fix that would get us to the Bonthoek farmhouse. I got a sense that he wanted to make the quick fix a little more permanent. I think he got a sense that I wanted to get a move on and that he could sort it out at the farmhouse. We didn't discuss it. Casper was at liberty to take as long as he wanted just as I was at liberty to ride off toward the start of the next mountain portage at Loutebron. I execised that liberty and after a while I saw Casper scurrying after me.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Race to Cradock - Slaapkranz

Anthony and Fjord should be made to attend a class or two of race etiquette as taught by Tim James. Tim has the decency to look exhausted after a good spell of riding. Anthony and Fjord looked a little too chipper for my liking. They looked like they were about to set off on their first ride of the week. I past them as I entered the kitchen of Slaapkranz. They were on their way out.

Anthony had been lingering at the support station for 45 minutes. I think he said he had been fiddling with his tyre. He mentioned that he had arrived as Alex was leaving. The race register showed that Alex had left 40 minutes prior to our arrival. By the time we left it would put us almost an hour behind him. We were 1/6th of the way into the race and already an hour behind. That would translate into almost 6 hours by the time we got to Cradock... Gulp!

' the time we got to Cradock' - I had already had a mind shift. Thoughts of getting to Cradock had respawned. I was tired, but no longer sore. There was still a lot of work to be done but it no longer fazed me.

Stepping out the door of Slaapkrans one is immediately faced with a tough portage. But the 'fun' doesn't stop there. The mountains in this part of the country are big. The Eastern Cape highlands are majestic, and lumpy, very lumpy. The next support station was 100 kilometres away. It's not your average weekend road bike outing of 3 or 4 hours of social trundle that ends with a big frothy cup of coffee at your local Mugg and Bean. I expected it would take us 8 or 9 hours to get there. The task is daunting particularly after a 105 km 'warm-up'. It is best tackled by breaking it up into more manageable sections; Get over the Slaapkranz mountain, get through Loutebron, portage over Bonthoek mountain, stop for water at the empty Bonthoek farmhouse, get to Rossouw, tackle the big uphill grind out of Rossouw, quick stop at the intermediate support station at Moodenaarspoort, finally roll on to the support station at Kranskop.

Sounds simple enough until you step out onto the lawn at Slaapkrans and catch sight of the scar that runs up the side of the huge mountain squatting behind the farmhouse. When you are tired it looks a bit like Heath Ledge, lipstick scribbled over his face, is grinning at you. It's a scruffy and daunting route up the mountain.

1pm. Our 15 minutes was up. It was time to take on The Joker.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Race to Cradock - Chesneywold to Slaapkranz

A condition of leg fatigue and exhaustion that arises from taking an extended period of rest whilst engaged in cycling activity. "I have picnic-legs after that coffee stop"

synonyms: Spongy legs, wobbly knee'd , feeble knee'd

The route out of Chesneywold leads to a tar road that heads north toward Barkly East. You follow this road for a few kilometres before turning on to a gravel road toward Rytjiesvlakte. Before the tar, not long after leaving the house, the farm road kicks up. My legs weren't happy. I had developed a sharp pain on the inside of my right leg just above the knee cap. If I had managed to catch up to Casper I am sure he would have told me it was a pain in my lower vastus medialis or some other muscle by some equally meaningless name. Science is for classrooms and doctors rooms. Out in the middle of nowhere I had no need of fancy terminology. I was sore and I could point a finger at the offending muscle group. Latin and/or Greek are not prerequisites for feeling pain.

I pedalled up the tar road trying to stay in touch with Casper and did a rather pathetic job of it. The gap was getting bigger. Turning onto the gravel road I stopped to give my legs a breather. Casper disappeared from sight up ahead.

The travel agreement between myself, Casper, Alex and Janine was that the car would leave Cradock on the Thursday morning and any stragglers in our group would get uplifted from the trail or be left to make their own arrangements to get back to Johannesburg. It was only Monday morning and Cradock seemed a long way off. I got back on my bike and got to the task at hand.

A few kilometres later I was passed by Janine. She had made a remarkable recovery since Chesneywold and looked strong. I asked her where Tim and Fjord were. She said the last time she saw them was on the tar road. Apparently they were going too slow for her. A short while later she had reeled in Casper. The first steep climb of the day was the perfect opportunity for a walk. As I dismounted Fjord pedalled by. I asked about Tim. Fjord said Tim was just behind and was feeing bleak. Fjord clearly wasn't. He pedalled up the steep climb passing Casper and Janine, who were both pushing their bikes.

At this stage I was really sore and figured the best I could hope for, come Thursday morning, was to to picked up next to the tar road near Baroda a short distance the wrong side of Cradock. A proper finish seemed an impossibility. I scratched around in my pack and found some pain killers which were quickly administered.

Halfway up the climb I stopped and looked back. I could see Tim behind me. He was stationary and was slumped over his bike. He was having a worse time of it than I was. Mercifully the painkillers were starting to take effect and I felt a whole lot better than Tim looked.

By the time I got to the Kapokkraal farmhouse I had caught up with Casper. Janine had already started on the portage and could be seen carrying her bike a few hundred metres ahead. There is a little known sneak up the valley to the right and I was sure it would allow us to get ahead of Janine. I could see from the distinctive tread pattern of Alex's bike that he had employed the cunning sneak. To cut a pathetic story short we crested the nek a few hundred metres plus some behind Janine. I'm sure the sneak works for someone as strong as Alex who can ride stuff that has me walking. I'm quite happy to let Alex have exclusive use of that sneak in future.

As proof of her fallibility Janine went a little too left over the other side of the portage which allowed us to get slightly ahead of her. That situation was quickly reversed when we trundled through the bush to get to the Spitzkop farmhouse ruin only to see Janine pedalling off a few hundred metres ahead of us. It seems everyone except me, and Casper by association, knows that there is now a perfectly rideable track off the mountain.

We set off in hot pursuit and only managed to catch Janine 15 km's later at the gate of the first checkpoint at Slaapkranz farmhouse. It was 12:45. We were still on schedule but the soggy conditions, which didn't seem that bad, had taken their toll.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Race to Cradock - Chesneywold

Chesneywold farm is an intermediate stop on the race. It's not mandatory to stop there, but it's a great stop. The kitchen table normally runneth over with all manner of treats. In winter the warmth of the anthracite stove chases out the chills. I have spent many hours over the years thawing out in that kitchen as Minkie plied me with hot tea and good food. Minkie is taking on legendary status. Her husband, Christo, passed away a few years ago and she has taken up the challenge of farming herself. A former police officer she had now resigned her job and is farming full time. It is obvious that this new role agrees with her. She glows when speaking about the farm. It is clear that she has found her true purpose. It's great to see.

Arriving in the summer months is a real treat. The valley is alive, the frosts of winter that coat everything in a monotone wash of white a distant memory. The trees heavy with leaves rustle in the wind as you ride by. You can smell the earth freshly turned by the plough while in other fields, that lay scattered along the base of the valley, the first green shoots of rye grass and oats press through the soil and soak up warmth of the morning sun.

The exhaustion from the long climb over Bottlenek pass was soon forgotten, supplanted by the simple joy of riding my bike through this special place. As tempting as it was to settle down and enjoy the stop, it hadn't slip our minds that we were racing.

Dismounting I reminded Casper that we were on the clock. We had 15 minutes to get water, drink tea and get what food we could manage in that time. We surprised ourselves with our efficiency. Water bottles were filled while the kettle boiled. In 10 minutes we had drunk our tea, swallowed a plate of good food and eaten our full of home baked bread smeared with butter and coated with an array of toppings. Casper stood up and said it was time to leave. The three people we shared the table with made that an attractive idea. Tim, Janine and Fjord had arrived only 5 minutes behind us. Fjord looked strong, Janine less so. Tim was looking a bit ragged. It was hard to tell if he was exhausted or feeling fine.

Tim has the ragged look down pat. You can never judge his ability to ride a bike by the way he looks. Ray Sephton, a Freedom Trail stalwart, was at Rhodes when we arrived. I chewed the fat with him for ages. It was good to catch up. The subject of Tim came up. Ray recalled a time many years ago when Tim arrived in Rhodes during a race en route to Cape Town. Tim was so exhausted that Ray had to help him to his room. A few hours later Ray found an empty bed and Tim was already on his way. He is a tough competitor. But I knew that in recent years he has had digestive problems that manifest in the first day of a race. Last year I watched him battle with nausea during both the Race to Rhodes and Race to Cradock.

I asked where Coen was. Tim replied that Coen had stopped.
"Stopped," I asked, "Where?"
Stopped for good was the reply. Apparently Coen had a problem with an elbow that had swollen and made it too difficult to ride. It was a pity. Coen is a tough guy, and a nice guy to boot. There's a funny English idiom right there - 'to boot.' I wouldn't ever think of kicking Coen. 'To boot', for the non-anglicised, means 'as well'.

The last riders on the trail were seated around that table. Alex and Anthony had foregone the pleasures of Chesneywold and had pushed past. If Casper and I didn't get a move on we were going to be the race sweepers. We hopped on our bikes and dashed down the driveway intent on putting distance between ourselves and the current sweepers.

Race to Cradock - Rhodes to Chesneywold.

I rode my first Cape Epic ten years ago. It was in the era of 'The Cape Epic presented by Adidas'. With the Adidas tag came a noisy German character who would yell at the riders in the start chute in order to gee them up for the task ahead. Waiting for the start in Knysna was horrible. The speakers were far too loud and compounding the problem was Mr Noisy yelling for everyone to "Put your hands up in the air..." I remember the sense of relief when the race finally got underway.

Mercifully, the start of the Race to Cradock was nothing like that. Glenn in his quiet mannered way simply announced, "Okay, it's 5 o'clock, I'm not going to start you, so you best be on your way." With that low-key send off, feet pressed against pedals and we started to reel in the first of the 574 km's that lay between us and the finish.

The roads weren't too squishy, but neither were they hard packed. We had to choose our lines carefully to avoid occasional slush. It was still dark and, riding in a bunch, the combined effect of our lights did a good job of illuminating the road ahead. The start was brisk. Anthony and Alex were up ahead at the start of the first climb. Casper and Janine were close on their wheels and I followed a short distance behind. Tim, Coen and Fjord brought up the rear.

Casper had asked me before the race if Janine was likely to tag on to us. I assured him that as far as I knew she wouldn't. She's the sort of rider who formulates a plan and sticks to it. It was highly unlikely that she would deviate from her plan to tag along with anyone. Besides, I added, I'm a stronger climber than her and we would open a gap on her on the first climb. I told Casper that he better make sure he was riding next to me at the top of the climb and not next to her. Hah! Janine topped out ahead of me and Casper was riding next to her. So much for me being the stronger climber. And it wasn't the last time that day that Janine was going to rub my face in the 'stronger climber' comment.

For the next 20 to 25 kilometres the three of us rode around each other. I fared less well than the other two on the wet road surfaces. They seemed unperturbed by the occasional wobble that resulted from skimming over snotty patches. These occasions had my fingers reaching for brake levers while they sailed on seemingly oblivious of the dreadful harm that was sure to befall them. The only harm that befell anyone was me falling behind and having to work harder on the climbs to catch up.

Soon after starting down the Sterkspruit valley we came across Anthony stopped next to the road. He had problems with one of his tyres not sealing properly. I must confess that it made me chuckle. Last year his race progress had stuttered due to tyre problems. He eventually threw in the towel in the Stormberg where he made his way to the closest tar road and thumbed a lift. What were the chances of the same thing happening this year? He wasn't even riding the same bike. He was riding his wife's bike this year. He had recently bought a new inflator and after a quick look I determined that it was faulty. I took mine out my bag and handed it to him before heading off after Casper who had pushed on. In no time at all Anthony was at my shoulder and handed back the inflator. Then, without obvious effort, he slipped ahead of me and was soon out of sight. I envied the ease with which he rode. I was already hurting.

By the time we reached the turnoff that would take us up the Bottlenek climb Casper and I had finally managed to open a gap on Janine. I stomped on the pedals eager to make good on that small advantage. We weren't too concerned about her in terms of the race. Not because she was a slower rider; clearly she wasn't. We simply wanted to stay ahead of her so that we knew we were travelling at a reasonable pace. Janine had already told us that she planned to ride a 60 hour race which meant she would be pushing for Kranskop that night before bedding down for a few hours. She would then push to Hofmeyr the next day and push for the finish on day 3.

Our strategy was to ride nonstop with a sub 56 hour ride in mind. We actually had three plans in mind. The first was sub 56. I have always wanted to finish both the Cradock and Rhodes races in fewer hours than my age in years. I have thus far failed to achieve that goal in either race. I am now 56 so that was our primary goal. We also thought the existing record of 48 hours was in reach. Our most optimistic plan was to finish in 45 hours - a plan I still think is possible in dry conditions.

The climb up Bottlenek went okay although not as easy as I remembered it being the previous year. After going over the top the distance to Chesneywold seemed to run on for a few kilometres too many. We arrived at the farmhouse to find Minkie about to head out to tend to her farm. I had reckoned on reaching Chesneywold by 09:30. It was 09:25. We had 5 minutes in the bag. First order of business was to get the kettle on. Nothing refreshes an Engelsman quite like a good cup of tea.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Race to Cradock. Getting to the start line.

The caffeine coursing through my veins finally relented at around 1 am allowing me to get almost three hours sleep. Note to self - don't drain two or three plunge pots of coffee the night before a big race.

The alarm squawked vulgarly, it was still very dark outside. It was one of those mornings where the excitement of the day before had somehow leached out during the hours of darkness making one wonder how this had ever seemed like a good idea. The rain had subsided sometime during the night and the stars had an annoying hint of cheerfulness about them. So too did Casper.

The night before I had packed and repacked my race kit. I had vacillated between a lightweight backpack, a smaller Camelbak, and no pack at all. The decision hinged on what made it easier to carry my bike up the mountains and what served as the better headrest for roadside naps. The thought of the bike frame digging into my neck and shoulders put paid to no back pack. The stronger shoulder straps of my backpack seemed more attractive than my Camelbak. After all the toing and froing I went full circle and ended up where I started; I put everything back in my lightweight backpack.

The gristle and grease that I had preordered the night before were delivered to the breakfast table and were washed down with a hot mug of tea. I tiptoed through the mud in the car park on the way back to my room. I had overheard a comment from one of the ladies in the kitchen that the roads in town were still a little squishy. What exactly does 'a little squishy' mean? Come to think of it, what does 'in town' actually mean? Rhodes isn't big enough to to qualify as a town. On the drive down we had decided that the new definition, superseding the British definitions which revolve around Church buildings and Cathedrals, is whether a place had a McDonalds. No McDonalds = not a town. Rhodes, therefore, was definitely not a town. That it didn't even have its own fuel station put paid to it being a village. So at best, it might be a hamlet. It has, as far as I can tell, only two main roads with a half dozen interlinking streets - all gravel. The place is barely one square kilometre in area. That being the case, how much store can you place on 'the roads in town are still a little squishy'? And, if the locals are given to such excesses as describing the place as a town, how much value should I be placing on their description of 'squishy'? The parking lot at The Rubicon where we were staying was squishy. If this was the standard of squishy then we were in trouble. I knew from experience that the parking lot was always worse than the roads so remained hopeful.

Back in my room I managed to stuff my non-riding kit into a hold-all and dropped it at the bakkie. With less than a minute to go I joined the others who had gathered in the parking lot. We had a solid collection of competitors. Alex Harris looked skinny and in perfect race condition. Anthony Avidon looked buoyant. Tim was mysterious, as always. Fjord Jordaan was an unknown and we had not had a chance to get acquainted on account of him having driven halfway back to East London the evening before to get a new wheel. Janine Stewart was in race shape and had a determined look about her. Coen De Bruin seemed unaffected and looked like he was about to head out on his daily ride. That left Casper and I. Casper looked eager to get on with the ride. As for me, I simply felt resigned to getting the job done. The experience and strength of the other riders in our start batch was not lost on me. This was going to be a tough race.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Of tortoises and hares.

The Race To Cradock delivered a race that contrasted two different strategies. Anthony Avidon and his ilk made up the hare brigade while Casper and I fell squarely in the tortoise creep. Alex was a hybrid tortoise with hare tendencies.

The hare's moved quickly between support stations and enjoyed bedding down for good sleep between efforts. The tortoises forewent sleeping at support stations to move continuously down the trail with the occasional power nap next to the road.

The standout hare for me was Anthony Avidon. His speed on a bike is simply phenomenal. He easily rode about 33% faster than us. On day one he had tyre problems and had a faulty Co2 inflator. I gave him mine to use and rode off. In no time at all he had inflated his tyre and was alongside me. After giving me my inflator he rode off at speed and was soon out of sight. He is the fastest rider I have come across on the Freedom Trail.

If you look at the times to Slaapkranz you can see the different speeds of the riders. At that stage no one is sleep deprived and you can see who the fast riders were. If Anthony didn't have tyre problems I have no doubt that he would have beaten Alex to the first support station. I arrived there with Casper. We caught up to Janine a few hundred metres before. Anthony and Fjord were leaving as we arrived and Alex had left 40 minutes before. The rider register and revealed that Anthony had arrived 45 minutes earlier. If the race was simply about speed I would have been looking to ride hard to hang onto 4th or 5th place.

It is the endurance format of the race that makes it interesting. I can't ride fast but I make up for it by riding long. A consequence of riding long is riding even slower when fatigue sets in. It's a tricky calculation figuring out how to take on the faster riders. You need to catch and pass them when they stop to sleep.

When you have a good appreciation of your strengths and weakness you are able to custom build a strategy that will prevail over the multi-day format of the Freedom Challenge events. Tortoises need to be self sufficient for power to run their lights and trackers, and phones as they cannot afford the luxury of being Eskom tethered. That means using a dyno-hub or replaceable batteries.

Another key is efficiency through support stations. My plan allowed 15 minutes to move through support and interim stations with one or two 30 minute stops further into the race. Our shortest stop was just 10 minutes at Chesney Wold where we managed to get tea and a good chunk of food into our bellies. It helps that the support station hosts are tuned into the needs of the racing snakes and do what they can to facilitate a fast turnaround which is greatly appreciated.

As it turned out, I was able to hold Anthony at bay. Mostly because he wasn't racing anyone but himself. Like me, he was looking to race his age. Fortunately for me he is one year older.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Put your wheel on the line – It's Race to Cradock 2016 time.

The Race to Cradock (RTC) is the first Freedom Challenge event of the year. It's a great way to get the show on the road. Although, at 600km's, it is 100 km's longer than the Race to Rhodes (RTR), it is a faster race. I expect that the winner to Cradock this year will roll across the finish line at least 10 hours quicker than will the winner to Rhodes in June. Unless the weather intervenes significantly. In which case the margin will be even bigger – Bad weather in June trumps bad weather in March.

Last year, in the first edition of RTC, we saw how fast riders were able to cover ground. The transition times we had become accustomed to were blown away. A fresh pair of pistons out of Rhodes are a heck of a lot faster than a pair of secondhand legs that have been dragged over the Maluti's.

The added bonus to RTC is the lack of disparate strategies. RTR happens at the same time as the Race Across South Africa (RASA) so you have the short haul specialists riding alongside the real gladiators. The Cradock event has no such split. The goals and challenges are all the same. The talent is undivided. If you want to test your endurance mettle against your peers then it's the perfect event.

I anticipate the winning time will be under 48 hours. 48 hours is the key. It's tantalisingly short enough to invoke a nonstop strategy. Nonstop in that riders won't sleep at support stations but may power nap next to the road. Getting from Rhodes to Romansfontein requires a good 3 day effort for the average rider. I imagine bacon and eggs will be slipping down racing snake gullets as some riders cover that distance in a little over 24 hours.

But don't be overly distracted by the racing snakes. Enjoy them for the freak show that they are. Remember, endurance racing snakes can be found in specialty deli's rather than in family pack portions on supermarket shelves – they are in the minority. Fun and excitement abounds with every start day.

The navigational challenges of RTC are a lot easier than RTR but there have been some real pearlers on this section over the years and I don't expect that this year will be any different.

Oil your chain or stock up on popcorn. Whatever your involvement, it's going to be entertaining to the max.