Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Ordinary Cyclist heads to Durban

The Durban Dash Down is a challenging ride. Even though 614km's, it's short enough in duration to be ridden without stopping to sleep. I finished third having covered the distance in 28h36. My moving time was 26h08. The non moving time could have been slightly less if the cashiers till at the KFC in Huilbron wasn't down. The other lengthy delay was at The Border Post (CP2) where the service from the kitchen was particularly slow. If I knew the food was going to be as bad as it was I could have left 30 minutes earlier. But the time off the bike helped to ease aching muscles and break the tedium.

I was reminded of why I don't like riding a road bike. My neck was in spasm before we got to Huilbron. I guess I'm just not conditioned to the setup. 15 kilometres of poor condition gravel road added to the challenge. That's all I will say about the race. I will leave the details for Dawn's account.

The two guys who won the race put on a superb display. They had planned it carefully, even doing some recce rides. They are both very accomplished riders. I was reminded that I am indeed a very ordinary rider—A title I am very comfortable with.

As much as I enjoy riding my bike I am not a fanatic. You won't find me getting up at 4am to crank out a good training ride before work. Cross-training sounds like an interesting concept but I don't have time and I like the idea of doing strength training but it also requires a chunk of time I don't have.

I'm like a kid in a playground. I'm never going to be the guy who swings the highest or spins the fastest. All the playground equipment needs to be played with. There are those who ignore the roundabout, don't even give the seesaw a glance, and are never found clambering over the jungle gym. For them it's just the swings. As for me, I'm happy to divide my time between all manner of distractions.

The result is that I am ordinary at most of my pursuits. But what I have learnt along the way is the value of tenacity. Take a chunk of that into an endurance race and you'll box above your weight every time.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Rockdale to Cradock

The sun rose as we approached the head of the valley giving us sight of our next challenge. The climb over Schurfteberg looks intimidating. The jeep track that leads from the ruin at De Hoek to the nek seems to wind up the mountain in an endless scribble. Fortunately it is easier than it looks. Even with our state of exhaustion I knew it wouldn't take more than an hour if we walked the whole way. Momentum is the key. About halfway up Casper took a break and I moved ahead of him. By the time I got to the summit he was a few hundred metres behind. That suited me perfectly. He is so much faster on the downhill sections so it made sense for me to keep going. We could regroup at the bottom.

The descent off Schurfteberg is spectacular. The track hugs the mountain for a couple of kilometres before spilling out at the farmhouse gate in the valley below. Casper caught me at the last gate and we rode together toward Jakkalsfontein. That section is flat and fast with a little bump in the middle. Last year we cruised up the bumpy bit motivated by a menacing storm that was on our tail. This year there was no storm to inject that degree of urgency so we ended up walking a few hundred metres.

While walking I turned my phone on and had a look at the race chatter. It seemed that Anthony was close behind and some were speculating as to whether he would beat us to the finish. The one entry that caught my eye was posted by my brother "Looks like we might have a dash for the line between Masper and Anthony."

I hadn't read any of the posts up until then. It seems that Casper and I had been given the collective name of Masper.

Back on our bikes we cruised down to the district road that would take us to Cradock. As we turned north toward the Swaarshoek pass we knew the cruising for the day was over. Firstly, the wind had picked up and was blowing into us. Secondly, some thoughtless official had decided it was a good day to do road maintenance. Ahead of us a grader was turning hard corrugations into spongy gravel.

As the road tipped up the wind increased. Casper and I kept craning our necks to see if there was any sight of Anthony. Eventually Casper told me not to wait for him and that I should go ahead. I dropped my head and pedalled off into the wind which was increasing in intensity all the time. I looked down at my Garmin and saw I was only doing 6 km/h. I reasoned that it was a good 2 km/h faster than walking and I would be really annoyed if Anthony beat me to the finish because I had chosen to walk instead of ride.

The pace was so slow that I started to nod off. I stopped, hooked out my earphones and got some music streaming into my ears. After a while that started losing its effect. Fortunately I received a phone call from a telemarketer. It's the only time in my life where I have wanted to hear their sales pitch in full. At one point they asked if it was convenient to talk. I assured them that the timing was perfect. They then said they could hear I was busy. I assured them that I wasn't. What followed was a twenty minute conversation about all the benefits I would derive from their product. I made a point of extracting all the details I could. Looking back it does seem a little cruel. I can imagine the person on the other side of the line texting their family and telling them they had hooked a live one and that they should go ahead and book that cruise as the commission cheque that month was going to be enormous.

When the conversation switched to closing phase details and confirmation of interest I was near the top of the climb and had to wrap up the conversation quickly so I could focus on the job at hand.

Looking back I couldn't see Casper, who was round a bend and out of sight. More importantly, looking down toward the start of the pass Anthony was nowhere to seen.

All I had to do was ride the 20 kilometres down the Swaerhoek pass into Cradock. The road surface was dry and smooth. I expected it to take me 40 minutes.
I must confess to looking back every now and then to make sure Anthony wasn't catching me. As fast as Anthony is it is unlikely that he could be significantly faster on a good fast downhill. The likelihood of him beating me to Cradock was zero. But stranger things have happened. I want about to sit up and cruise. When my speed dropped I cranked away for all I was worth. My legs were on fire and it felt good.

Once on the final stretch of tar, with Anthony nowhere to be seen, I started to relax. Pedalling up to the finish I was met by Meryl and Glenn. It had been a satisfying couple of days. Alex had beaten me by 4 hours and Casper was a few minutes behind. Someone put a cup of tea in my hand and I settled down on the stoep to wait for Casper who arrived 15 minutes later.

Anthony arrived in due course followed by Fjord and later in the day by a very soggy Janine who had ridden over the pass in a lighting storm. Of our start batch, two had dropped out early, the balance had finished 1 through 6. All inside two and a half days. As expected, it was a tough but satisfying event.

Race to Cradock - Newlands to Rockdale

The first challenge was to cross the Pauls river. After seeing how full the Fish river was we expected it to be flowing a lot stronger than normal. You can imagine our surprise at finding the river completely dry. Obviously the water flowing down the Fish river came from further upstream.

As we reached the district road I noticed that my rear tyre was flat. That was the third time in less than 12 hours. I pumped the tyre and heard air hissing through an unsealed hole. My tyre had run out of sealant. Casper held my bike while I removed the valve core and squirted 50ml of fresh sealant into the tyre. Valve core replaced I pumped the tyre.

I gave the tyre a spin and noticed a huge thorn stuck in the tyre. The accepted convention is to leave the thorns and just ride. But this was a massive thorn. It had pull-me written all over it. One tug and one flat tyre later the wisdom of the accepted convention was reinforced.

Now I had a gaping hole that wouldn't seal and I didn't want the last of my tyre sealant to spurt out. Plugging a tyre is not that difficult. You thread the rubber worm into the appropriate tool and poke it into the hole. But, have you ever tried doing that on a barely inflated tyre? It's nigh impossible. I turned the bike upside down and had Casper stick his finger over the hole while I pumped it up. Once it was hard I was able to insert the plug. With the tyre repaired I started packing things away. I imagine I was less than efficient because by the time I had everything stowed I noticed Casper fast asleep next to my bike.

We were now on the new section of the route. I knew we had to ride 3.6 km's and then turn right and travel another 13 km's before we rejoined the old route. The 3.6 kilometres was easy enough apart from a close shave with a handful of buck who were intent on heading in the opposite direction. They were shoehorned onto the road by game fences on either side of the road and tired quickly of trotting ahead of us. They turned and flashed past us close enough that Casper and I gave each other a man-that-was-close look.

As we approached the 3.6 kilometre mark I kept a careful look out so that we wouldn't miss the turn. That turned out to be a waste of careful. The road ended in an obvious T-junction.

The road ahead was a gradual climb. Not excessively steep, just enough to bore you to sleep. It did just that. We settled in a drainage ditch and had a 15 minute nap. One kilometre later we were nodding off again. The sleep deficit had caught up with us, 15 minutes wasn't going to make a significant difference. We decided it was time to take this sleep thing more serious and dialled in 45 minutes. I think I managed to sleep 44 minutes and 50 seconds of that. When the alarm sounded it felt like we had only been laying in the ditch for 10 seconds.

With sleep banked we were able to get moving. We had an hour or two left before the sun came up and wanted to make the best use of that time. The darkness wasn't as significant as the threat of being overhauled by Anthony, who was probably already on the move. He had mentioned that he was looking forward to seeing the folk at Newlands for breakfast. Being considerate he was unlikely to get there much before sunrise. In spite of having left there a few hours before we weren't that far. It would take a fresh pair of legs no more than an hour to cover the same distance.

I figured Anthony would ride from Newlands to the finish in 6 hours. It was going to take us a few hours more. I hoped he was hungry and the breakfast table laden.

Rockdale is an unoccupied farmhouse about 9 or 10 kilometres up the Garslandskloof road that was available for our use. The thought of a hot cup of tea galvanised me into action and I sped off up the valley ahead of Casper to get the kettle on. I had been told the key could be located near the back door. Well, I couldn't find it. I tried the front door and had a similar Old Mother Hubbard experience. I tried the back door again and came up empty handed. I rode back to the gate as Casper arrived and told him tea was off the menu. I found out later that there are two back doors. Really!!!

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Baroda to Newlands

Big trucks passing at speed are intimidating when you have spent two days riding through areas so remote that many hours pass without seeing any vehicles or even people. We rode down the tar keeping an eye out for the rumbling monsters that lumbered passed at regular intervals. As they drew close we slowed down and moved well clear of the road.

The turnoff toward Spekboomberg offered relief from the trucks. We progressed along this dirt track without incident until we had to make our way between the outbuildings and staff housing of a farm. I followed Casper down a road that quickly became a little scratchy. I called him to a stop and after a short consultation doubled back and found the right track that would take us to the entrance of the game reserve.

A sign on the reserve gate warned people entering the reserve to watch out for dangerous animals. I can attest from personal experience that suchlike animals do in fact exist in that reserve. I had an uncomfortable standoff a few years ago in the dead of night. I wasn't looking forward to a repeat performance. My anxiety levels served to keep any thought of sleep at bay. I breathed a sigh of relief when the exit gate closed behind me.

Once through the reserve we had a short section of tar before the last dirt road that would take us to the new support station at Newlands farm. Five minutes short of the support station I started falling asleep. I tried walking a bit to stave off the sleep monsters but to no effect. You would think that you could force yourself to stay awake for just 5 minutes. After all, 5 minutes is nothing. In spite of trying to reason with myself I couldn't move forward. The power nap is the perfect solution for situations like that. But 5 minutes short of a support station - really! The only solution was to flip over and feed the monsters. I gave them a solid 5 minutes at the trough before we got back on our bikes and rode through to the house.

It was 00:50. The first thing we noticed was the array of bikes propped up against the back stoep. It seemed there was quite a contingent snuggled down for the night. The second noticeable event was meeting the support station host. I'm bad with names so I can't remember her name. What I do remember is the fast and friendly service we got. It was efficient and delivered with no fuss. In 15 minutes bottles and bodies were replenished and we were back out on the trail. Try pitching up at a strangers place in the city for 15 minutes the wrong side of midnight and see what the reception is like. The folk who man the support stations along the length of the Freedom Trail are cut from very special cloth.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Elandsberg to Baroda

Before I had completed a single pedal stroke I knew my bike needed attention. The back tyre was flat. Casper unaware of that bolted down the driveway like a kid after an ice cream truck. I pedalled after him and caught him by the farm gate. Before I could say anything he took off like a scalded cat. I shut the gate, inflated the tyre, and followed after him. He was long gone and well out of sight.

The ride from Elandsberg to the Fish River is predominately downhill and therefore fast. After a few kilometres I saw Casper's rear light flashing up ahead. The weird thing is that I couldn't work out how far away he was. It could have been anything from one hundred metres to many kilometres away. The road is long and straight in places and there is no way to get any distance perspective. As it turned out his light was 500m ahead and closing fast. I found him flat out next to his bike. My first thought was that he had been a little too gung-ho and had crashed. That idea did not excite me. As it turned out there was no drama, he was just chilling.

We pedalled along for half an hour before Casper suggested another nap and countered no objection from me. I really thought I was going to get it right this time.

Roadside power naps are very effective if you can fall asleep quickly. I can't, and it's a problem. Casper extracts maximum benefit. It's all well and good to set your alarm for 15 minutes if you can sleep. Laying there staring at the stars only wastes time.

How to power nap. The technique is simple. First, find somewhere out of sight. It would make me very bleak to wake up and find I am one bicycle short of finishing my race. We moved about 10 metres off the road among some bushes. Next, this is very important, place your bike on the ground facing the direction to intend traveling when you wake up. I cannot over stress the importance of this step. Legends of the trail have admitted to going the wrong way after a nap.
Now you need to find a suitable piece of ground. Storm water runoff ditches are best as they tend to have a layer of sand that can be moulded to suit. The slope also makes a nice backrest. If using a backpack then it doubles as a pillow. Once your alarm has been set - usually 15 minutes - simply settle down and enjoy. Hopefully the alarm is a rude interruption which means you managed to nod off. There isn't much to do in a ditch so you waste no time getting back on your bike.

Once again Casper slept and I didn't!

Thirty minutes later we were passing over the fish river. It was running hard. I think we referred to it as restless and menacing. It's the fullest I have ever seen the river. That was a tad troubling as we had to cross the Pauls river a little later and there was no bridge to keep out feet dry. One we reached the tar road we stopped and shared a can of Coke I had in my pack.
We took 10 minutes and lay next to the road and looked up at the sky. Stars peeked out between the patchy shroud of cloud that mantled the heavens. Every few minutes the quiet would be broken by 32 wheelers that rumbled by disturbing the peace of the dark night.

We were exhausted but it was the last thing on our minds. Out in the middle of nowhere we felt the privilege and raw pleasure of crossing that part of the country on our bikes while family and friends far away were tucked up in bed and fast asleep.

Race to Cradock - Elandsberg

We were tired. In the absence of a mirror I had no idea how I looked. If it was anything like Casper, then I needed a shower and a good nights sleep. Unfortunately that would have to wait until the following day.

We had one more checkpoint to go (Newlands) before the finish in Cradock some 130 km's further down the trail. Under normal circumstances it should take 10 hours to finish. But the circumstances were far from normal. Elandsberg is the forth checkpoint of the race. We had covered 440km's since leaving Rhodes the previous morning. So far we had been on the go for 39 hours during which Casper had managed a little shuteye and I had only managed to watch him sleep.

The prospect of heading out into the night didn't have us trenbling with excitement. We snacked a bit and had tea. Casper tucked into another custard. He then sat down on the couch and fell asleep.

I milled about for a while and was interrupted by the arrival of Anthony. I honestly thought he was destined to spend the night on the mountain after he headed up the wrong ridge. As it turned out he got to the top and saw our lights disappearing down the trail below him. He made his way down and was able to find the right track. It had rattled him a little and taken the wind out of his sails. His initial intention was to push through to Newlands which, at his pace, was less than 3 hours away. His unscheduled detours on Elandsberg had cost him a couple of hours. He decided that he would hit the sack and leave early in the morning and have breakfast at Newlands.

Alex was 3 hours ahead, Anthony was going to ground, and Fjord's last known position was in Hofmeyr. We needed to press on if we wanted to secure a second place finish.

We filled our water bottles, donned helmets and gloves and pushed our bikes across the lawn toward the garden gate.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Hofmeyr to Elandsburg

The ride from Hofmeyr to the Elandsberg support station is only 33 kilometres. Most of it is flat and doesn't take more than 3 hours - which is about how long it has taken me to write this account of those 3 hours! The tricky bit is the last 7 or 8 kilometres. The first section of that is best tackled in daylight. With a little over 2 hours of daylight left we headed out of town. The pesky headwind was still at it. The easiest way to get through the early parts of this section is to get your head down, stop thinking, and simply turn the pedals over as quick as you can.

Our 'quick as you can' was no match for Anthony's effort. He caught us quickly, rode alongside for a brief natter, and took off at speed. I focused on the road just ahead and got into a steady rhythm. If there's one chink in Casper's armour it was this - flat road riding, particularly when tired. It is the only time he grumbles about riding. He whinged about it the previous year on the same stretch of road. I wouldn't say he sucks at it, he just doesn't like it. I slowed up and waited for him to catch up. The road ahead was straight as an arrow for a few kilometres. As Casper drew up beside me I looked ahead and couldn't see Anthony. I turned to Casper, "Tell me Anthony has fallen off his bike. There's no way he can be that far ahead."
"He's £&@%#¥ gone!" was Casper's terse reply.
Anthony was indeed gone. That guy can put the hammer down. I figured we had seen the last of him.

I was watching the sun and doing the maths. It was going to be tight. At the very least I wanted to be on the jeep track on the second half of the portage before it got dark. Casper was tired and wasn't having much fun trying to coax more speed out of his bike. I was also tired but the fear of getting stuck on Elandsberg for the second year running was enough to galvanise my legs into action. I got a little tense. My eyes constantly switched between the road, Casper, and the sun.

The sun was touching the horizon as we left the dirt road to find the old wagon trail through the mountains. As tired as I was, I mashed at the pedals forcing the bike through the sandy patches and over the rocks. We had a few kilometres to 'safety' and not a lot of light left.

As I wound my way up the gnarly track I kept looking back to make sure Casper was still in touch. After pushing my bike up a rocky section I heard someone right behind me. It wasn't Casper. It was Anthony. It was rather surprising as I expected him to be through the portage and almost at the next support station. I asked him what went wrong. He was short on details but mentioned that he had gone left at the top instead of right. I had no idea what top he was talking about. He was also aware of the light constraint and pushed on. I was keen to see what line he took across the veld. I knew where to go but want to see if Anthony had a clean line that I could stash in my memory bank in case I had a future need to do the route at night. He assured me that it was straight forward. I wanted to see this straight forward line. Years back it was quite simple to cross the bush and find the jeep track that headed out of the valley. I had come through here years ago at night and had no problems. A few seasons back a series of heavy downpours changed all that. The valley floor is now scarred with dozens of dongas that you need to navigate through and around.

I was now playing piggy in the middle. I had Casper lagging behind and Anthony scampering off ahead of me. I wanted to keep both in sight. The problem being that Anthony showed more determination in getting ahead than exhausted Casper was in keeping up. At one point I could see neither Anthony not Casper.

The critical moment of the portage occurs as you cross a particular fence. If you stand with your back to the fence and look directly south there is a jeep track heading up a ridge just over a kilometre away - it shows as a red scar running up the face of the ridge. All you have to do is get to that scar and the rest is fairly straight forward. As I crossed the fence I looked up and could still see the scar in the failing light. I could also see Anthony picking his was across the veld. What I couldn't see was Casper. In my head I was screaming, "Casper move your backside unless you want to camp out here by yourself all night!" Hopefully my face and demeanour gave none of that away.

When I saw Casper riding down the ridge toward the fence I continued following Anthony. The first part of Anthony's line was no different to the line I normally take. I was keen to see what he did once he got to the first dongas. He disappeared from view as I slowed up to make sure I didn't disappear off Casper's radar. As soon as I was sure Casper had a good bead on me I followed after Anthony only to find him doubling back. He crossed another donga explaining that he was looking for the track. He found what he thought was a track but it wasn't and then he crossed yet another donga and found yet another track. All this time I was zigging and zagging desperately hoping that Casper had me in sight.

The upshot of all he uncertainty is that Casper closed the gap on us. Anthony found what he assured me was the right track and he pedalled off. I followed him for 100 metres before deciding that I would rather go the right way. Anthony was heading toward the wrong ridge. I tried shouting after him but he was already out of range. The scar heading up the correct ridge, now barely visible in the dull light, was a few hundred metres to my right. I got off my bike and walked a straight line across the bush. I shouted back to Casper to follow me. He looked a little perplexed but dutifully walked in my direction.

Once we were on the right track we took a minute to get our night lights sorted out. I couldn't see Anthony anywhere. I set my headlight to strobe and pointed it in the direction I saw Anthony heading. After a couple of minutes I gave up any hope of getting his attention and we set off up the track. I expected he was going to spend a miserable night on the mountain.

The track around Elandsberg mountain has deteriorated over the years. In places it barely looks like a track. Our navigation was spot on and 45 minutes later we arrived at the support station at Elandsberg farm. We were now 12 hours ahead of our time from the previous year. A sub 56 hour finish was still on the cards.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Magdala to Hofmeyr

Sitting in the inadequate shade of a scrawny thorn tree wasn't helping our cause. I was all too aware of the time constraints that faced us. A quick estimate had us at least 5 hours short of the Elandberg portage. Last year we had scribbled around before spending a miserable night in the cold and rain huddled under a bush while waiting for the sun to come up. I wasn't going to risk a repeat performance. Come hell or high water I was going to get through the Elandberg portage before dark. We hadn't been there long before Gavin, in the company of Alex, rolled by. It was all the motivation we needed. We mounted our iron steeds and chased after them.

Alex dwindled in size and was soon out of sight. Casper had no problem closing on Gavin while I struggled to get going. An hour or so later, just before the last house at Vlekpoort we passed Gavin who had stopped next to the road. I didn't stop to chat because it had started to rain. Fortunately the there was a barn a hundred metres ahead. Casper and I wasted no time in getting out of the rain. The drops were massive. The wind intensified driving the rain almost horizontal. In less than 5 minutes it was over. Not only had it stopped raining, the wind had abated. I filled my bottles from a tap behind the house that stood adjacent the barn and headed down the Vlekpoort pass.

The joy a riding without a headwind was short lived. As we bottomed out on the flat Karoo it picked up where it had left off. The next couple of hours were taken up with a mindless grind to Hofmeyr. There was one event that punctuated the tedium. My rear tyre had developed a leak. I pumped it up with a hand pump and it seemed to hold. I carry a CO2 inflator but seldom use it as the gas has an adverse reaction with tyre sealant.

Arriving at the pie shop in Hofmeyr we found the race office - Glenn and Meryl - were having walkabout time. I bought a bottle of Coke, a can of Iron Brew, and ordered a double thick milkshake. I knew the wind was going to be a factor on the long drag to the start of the Elandberg portage. We would need at least 2 hours to cover the distance. We had less than 3 hours of daylight left.

While we rehydrated Anthony rolled up. He said that Fjord was a little way behind. Meryl told us that Janine was also on her way from Romansfontein and was planning on sleeping over in Hofmeyr.

Race to Cradock - Romansfontein to Magdala

On our way out of Romanfontein we bumped into Gavin Robertson. He had started the day ahead of us. Without realising it we had passed him while he was asleep at Brosterlea. I recall seeing another bike but hadn't thought anything of it. He was as surprised to see us as we were him. His reaction was amusing. He said he had just spoken to his wife and told her that if he didn't get a move on he was going to get caught by Mike. As it was, that had happened many hours before.

Generally, the first big challenge out of Romansfontein is the Aasvoelberg portage. It takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to pedal to the start of the climb at Gunstelling farm. However, that morning, heading out of Romansfontein, we got handed a proper headwind that would keep us busy for the next 12 hours. The first hour and some got used up getting to the gate at Gunstelling.

Once at the gate I expected a few kilometres of flowing jeep track that head down toward the farmhouse. Alas, it was not to be. Someone had been playing with big machines. The results suggested that they didn't pass Farm Road Maintenance - 101. The work done on the road could, in Real Estate parlance, be described as a 'Renovators Delight'. Clearly some thought had gone into the remodelling. There were loads of water-bars that would serve to divert water away from the road and prevent erosion. These were huge, and unfinished, and tricky, and ultimately slow to ride. The road between these bumps had been ... I wanted to say 'levelled' but that would be an exaggeration. Let's rather say that a road had been 'torn' down the mountain. Actually, it wasn't that bad. But it was an unexpected and unwelcome surprise. The portage up the mountain on the other side of the valley was going to be hard enough without wasting time and energy picking my way down what used to be a wonderful descent.

The sun was nearing its zenith and it was warming up. We had been on the move for over 30 hours and the battle into the headwind hadn't helped. By impeding our progress it stifled stimulation and hastened the onset of tiredness.

On the far side of the valley where the jeep track turned to head up toward Aasvoelberg there were a couple of sheep pens and a water reservoir. We thought we would benefit from a 15 minute break in the shade of the reservoir. Damp ground around reservoirs, I thought, was exactly where snakes and other gogga's would hang out. I gave the ground a thorough scan before sitting. Casper, more of a country boy than me, went down like he had been punched by Mike Tyson. He was out in seconds. The sound of his snoring, carried across the short distance between us, resembled a cat purring.
Before I had a chance to settle I encountered my first gogga. The gogga then called its friends. They arrived in a swarm. Before long I had flies crawling all over me. I guess there isn't a lot to eat in the veld. I was probably the entomological equivalent of a McDonalds soft serve ice cream. I swear I could hear them licking me. It was a long 15 minutes.

The alarm roused Casper and we headed up the mountain. Chunks of it are rideable on fresh legs but, as Don Henley of the Eagles might have sung if he were mountain biker, "we hadn't had that freshness of leg since 19:59" the previous night. We rode a bit and walked a lot. The trick was to keep moving.

Our persistence paid off and quicker than expected we were over the nek and heading down the other side. The descent down the southern slope of Aasvoelberg goes on for many kilometres. If you like fast technical downhill riding, like Casper does, this is the perfect playground. As for me, not so fast, and not so skilled, I gingerly picked my way down the early steep sections while watching Casper get ever smaller as be bombed down the valley ahead. It's a long descent. I'm not sure of the distance but it takes about 30 minutes before you roll onto the district road near Magdala farm. There is no chance of nodding off on that section as the stimulation level is off the charts.

Sadly, the road section at the bottom is dreadfully boring. With a headwind it takes at least an hour of uphill grind before you drop into the Karoo proper. One kilometre of boredom later we were slumped in the shade of a thorn tree. Not ideal, but there wasn't a lot of choice. It was either thorn tree or cactus.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Stormberg to Romansfontein.

The run from Stormberg to Romansfontein went off without any snags. It was a simple matter of pedalling along and watching the miles slide by under the bike. We had been on the go for over 24 hours so were understandably tired. The section through Seekoegat started out well and soon became a bit of a drudge as the jeep track went on forever. I nearly lost Casper at one junction but he noticed me going the opposite direction and decided he would rather keep me company. After passing through a gate I couldn't get my right shoe to cleat in and noticed I had lost a cleat bolt. The under soles were packed solid with mud and grit so I decided it could wait until we got to the support station.

Turning onto the district road that headed to Romansfontein we were riding directly into the sun. Sleepy eyes and sunrises are a bad combination. Even so, we got on with the task, even walking one of the climbs pretending it was to stretch our legs rather than admit it was uncomfortably steep.

12 hours previous we had told the race office that our ETA in Romansfontein would be between 8am and 9am. We rolled up at the farmhouse at 9:12. Fortunately, breakfast was still on offer. Not only was it on offer, the kitchen was primed and set to express mode. We were still riding when Stefanie, hanging out the kitchen door, called across the yard asking us if we wanted fried eggs.

Will and Stefanie, the owners of Romansfontein, have been involved in the race at least as long as I have, probably longer. In my first event in 2007 I took refuge there after a miserable day in the snow. They understand the race and do everything they can to facilitate a rewarding experience. On top of that, it is as homely an environment as you can imagine. Stefanie laughs easily and often. She has a touch about her that makes you homesick. Will is really funny and possesses a sharp wit. He is always keen to help where he can. They understood that as so-called Racing Snakes we would be looking to get through the support station as fast as possible.

Will normally starts our conversations, "Hi Mike, what can I do to help?" No so this time. This time it went something like, "Hi Mike, what happened to Alex?"
My reply was, "Thanks Will. Can we just pretend for a moment that nothing happened to Alex and the reason we are here first is because we are the stronger riders?"
We both laughed as we knew the only reason we were ahead of Alex was because something had obviously gone wrong with his race plan.

While Stefanie put the finishing touches to a scrumptious breakfast Will scratched around in his bike spares box and found a cleat bolt which I hastily fastened to my shoe.

Between filling our water bottles and gobbling breakfast Will filled us in on the race happenings. The communication along the line of support stations is rather impressive. Apart from the tracking system, which is available to everyone, the farmers communicate with each other as well as getting constant feedback from the race office. Tim James it seemed was out of the race. Alex, Anthony and Fjord were hot on our heels and Janine only an hour or two behind them. After 29 hours, covering a distance of just over 300 kilometres, the gap separating the top 6 riders was only a few hours. We thanked Will and Stefanie and reluctantly hopped back on our bikes.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Stormberg.

The Stormberg station used to be a railway junction but the tracks that headed off west toward Steynsburg have been lifted and as far as I can tell the only active track heads north-south. Trains still stop there but only because there is a passing loop. A couple of times I have encountered locomotives purring patiently while waiting for the signal to switch to green. On this morning there were no trains to be seen.

The blockhouse adjacent to the railway line serves as a visual reference when coming off the mountain. There is no path. Once at the foot of the mountain you simply walk or ride across the flat-as-an-ironing-board stretch of veld toward the blockhouse. Both methods require a degree of diligence owing to the manifold burrows that litter the ground. I ride and as a result have staked claim to a few of them over the years.

As you approach the blockhouse you have 2 choices. Simply hop the fence and get onto the road and pedal off. Or, take a moment to appreciate the history of the place. The blockhouse is a remnant of the Second Boer War. Yes, there were two Boer Wars. The first one, sparked by inflated wagon tax lasted 3 months and 3 days from 20 December 1880 - 23 March 1881 and fizzled out after the British lost their appetite for a protracted engagement and, quite frankly, couldn't be bothered.

Then gold happened and the English bothered. The upshot of their new found bother was the Second Boer War which began in 1899. The wily Boers frustrated the English and had them resorting to all manner of tactics. One of their tactics was to built a chain of blockhouses - in excess of 8000 of them! The structures at Stormberg (there is a second and identical blockhouse a few hundred metres away) are remnants of the Robert's style - named after Lord Roberts. They are two storey stone constructions with machine gun platforms in one of the upper corners. You gain entrance through the ground floor. The upper floor was accessed via a ladder but there is no longer any evidence of these ladders. Rifle loop holes are built into the walls of both levels. Apparently these took about 3 months to build and were rather pricey at around £800. The cost of the Robert's blockhouse meant a little over 400 of them were built before they switched to corrugated iron structures which cost only £16 and took only 6 hours to erect.

A 20 minute ride along the race route brings you to site of the Battle of Stormberg at Vegkoppies. In December 1899 Boers from the Orange Free State overran the rail junction at Stormberg. This was a real nuisance for the English who were intent of securing rail access on their advance through the Cape Midlands toward Bloemfontein. A hastily assembled crew of greenhorns set off to relieve the junction. As it turned out it was a bad plan poorly executed. Nearly 700 Englishman were taken prisoner not to mention very lopsided casualty figures - 26 vs 8 in favour of the Boers. A short walk across the veld brings you to a memorial erected at the battle site. A short scramble and you are where the Boers took up position when faced by the advancing English troops.

In the quietness of the country side it is hard to imagine a raging battle that included over 4000 men, hundreds of horses and 15 artillery guns. The names chiselled into the stone memorial a stark reminder of the cost of war.

At Stormberg and Vegkoppies, pause, take time to look around. Then you will realise that you are neck deep in the history that formed this land we call home.

Race to Cradock - Brosterlea to Stormberg.

Not long after leaving Brosterlea the fog dissipated and we were able to trundle along without too much difficulty. We zigged and zagged at the appropriate junctions and were soon skirting around puddles and muddy patches on the jeep track beyond Enerdale farmhouse. I have ridden through there 6 or 7 times at various times of the year and it is always tricky. Where it's not wet it's sandy. Where it isn't sandy or wet it's heavily eroded. But the fun didn't end there. Sunrise was an hour or two away so it was still dark. Casper moved along without too much difficulty. The same could not be said for me.

I use a handlebar mounted light powered by a dynohub. That is supplemented with a helmet mounted head light. The blurb for the dynohub says it generates sufficient power at 15km/h to keep your light shining brightly. Not quite true. I suspect that that may be almost true for a 26 inch wheel. A 29 inch wheel rotates 10% slower. It's not significant but it does mean the light is not quite good enough at slower speeds where it tends to flicker. I have a spare battery powered light for situations just like that. Unfortunately, that light was on the fritz. As I wiggled slowly between interesting bits the inadequate flickering glow switched across my path with every turn of the handlebars making it hard to pick a proper riding line. Turning on my helmet light had the visual effect of flattening out the surface so that I battled to make out water puddles, sand patches, ruts, and dips. I had a torrid time of it. Casper got well ahead. Well, at least until his helmet light stopped working. A change of batteries had no effect and we concluded that water from the fog had infiltrated the gizzards of the light. On a positive note it did slow him down sufficiently that I didn't have to constantly charge after him. About two thirds of the way through that section Casper had sleep monsters tugging at his eyelids. We flopped down next to the road and I had the joy of watching Casper snore gently for 15 minutes. He has the enviable ability to fall asleep at will. I need to be falling off my bike before power naps come easily. Monsters banished we got back to the job at hand.

Arriving at the next farm we rode right past the pig slaughterhouse. The pigs in the holding pen were making an unbelievable racket. It wouldn't have taken much to convince me that 100 pigs had their back legs stuck in bear traps, such was the noise. The farmhouse is no more than 50 metres from the pig pen. Had me wondering how anyone could sleep through that commotion. We topped up our water bottles and quickly pedalled off.

The eastern sky showed the first signs of morning as we made our way toward the top of the Stormberg portage. Stopping to pass through a gate I looked back and saw red lights flashing across the horizon. They all flashed in sync and although hard to tell in the conditions it looked like they stretched out for many kilometres. I had no idea what they were. I thought they might have something to do with wind turbines that have sprung up around Molteno in recent years but I couldn't tell. By the time we got to the top of the ridge I could see that the flashing lights were mounted on power lines that strung out across the horizon, the purpose of which I had no idea. I knew what the power lines were for. But the lights?

We were able to turn our lights off at the top of the ridge and easily located and hopped over a style and portaged off the ridge and across to the blockhouse at Stormberg Station. The sun was up and the prospect of breakfast at Romansfontein looked like it might well turn to brunch if we didn't get a wiggle on.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Brosterlea.

We scuttled inside the cottage at Brosterlea and my first order of business was to get the kettle on. Last year we had arrived in the middle of a thunderstorm and the power had been knocked out. It was very bleak. This time, the glare of the room light stung our eye's and it was welcome. Steam curled out the top of the bathroom door where Fjord luxuriated under the hot jets of the shower. It was an altogether different experience. The only similarity was the presence of Anthony. Last year he was snuggled up under a duvet. This time he was preparing himself for bed.

Fjord and Anthony's strategy was to get some shuteye before pressing on. Casper and I were intent on glugging, gobbling, and going. I tossed a plate of food in the microwave and reheated it for Casper who had flopped down against the wall next to the bathroom door. Tea was made and served. Casper only managed a few spoons of food before Fjord, now showered and looking fresh, polished off the balance.
Tea in hand I contemplated my food options. Breakfast Muesli got the nod even though it was only 2 or 3 am.

The room was tiny and any attempt to shift positions necessitated some clumsy choreographed movement. Fed and watered there was little incentive to hang around in the confined space. Once outside Casper became rather animated, not unlike a street performing mime artist. I had no idea what had tickled his fancy. Try imagine the scene. We were standing in near darkness, the only light from a low powered fluorescent lamp. I was busy getting my gloves and helmet on. Casper was bent over double, mouth and eyes wide open, and he was pointing, with much exaggeration, at a bicycle. Ummm... a bicycle I thought, what's so special about that. We all had one. My apparent disinterest only served to spur Casper on. His level of animation ratchet up, his already lanky arm seemed to stretch out an extra few inches and his mouth opened to the point of almost unhinging. Bulging eyes implored me to show some interest. I took a step forward and saw what had him all atwitter. Freedom Challenge race numbers include the riders name. Casper's outstretched arm, thinned to a long pointy finger (think ET without the glowing blobby thing at the end) came to rest a few inches from the name "Alex Harris". Alex, it seemed, had gone to ground. A single pedal stroke from the door of that cottage would have us the race leaders. We briefly speculated on why he would still be there. Mechanicals? Illness? Sleep monsters? We had no idea but found it amusing that we would now be out ahead of him. He told us later that he had been swamped with sleep monsters and had struggled all the way to Brosterlea. The soggy conditions resulting from the fog put paid to any thought of having a power nap. He arrived an hour ahead of us and decided that 2 hours in the sack would be the wise choice.

We didn't categorise our choice as wise or unwise. In fact, we didn't really think about it. All we knew is that we wanted to get to Romansfontein for breakfast. With that objective in mind we bid Anthony and Fjord goodnight and hopped on our bikes and pedalled off into the fog.

Race to Cradock - Predikantskop to Brosterlea.

As we neared the top of the Predikantskop climb we got above the mist and while I hoped we had seen the last of it I knew the road dropped down a few kilometres ahead and the mist was probably up for an encore. Still, I was hopeful. There was nothing to suggest that mist lurked in the valley ahead. And why would there have been any evidence either way? In the city, suburbs, and peri-urban areas we are able to distinguish nighttime visibly based on how light is transmitted. It is fairly obvious when there is mist - street light, house lights, security lights etcetera show as a haze and in extreme cases mist blocks out the light that we expect to see. In the vast expanse of the Eastern Cape there are not a lot of lights. There were certainly no lights ahead of us and I had no expectation that there should have been any.

As the road dipped we dropped into as thick a mist as you can imagine. The road was steep and I struggled to make out a safe riding line. Before long I could see no more that 5 metres ahead. My headlight revealing little more than a blob of brightly illuminated water vapour, and even that was obscured by my clouded up glasses.

Casper, more comfortable in the reduced visibility was far ahead and I hoped he had remembered that we needed to turn right at the bottom of the hill.

I rode slowly, my left hand grasping a chunk of brake lever, my right hand desperately tried to keep my glasses functional and I started wondering about the mist. Or was it fog, what's the difference? I had heard it said that, aeronautically speaking, fog reduces visibility to under 1 kilometre while mist is less dense and reduces it to a few kilometres. Hmm... That all sounds a bit iffy unless you are pointing an Airbus A340 at a runway threshold. Closing at 260 km/h that distinction is significant. For terrestrial purposes the borderline is around 180 metres. At my speed, a paltry 15 km/h, I battled to see the road under my tyres! So this was fog. Bad fog.

The road flattened out and I started looking for the turn. The fog was so thick that it would have been easy to miss the turn. I made a point of riding on the right hand side of the road so that I would see it. A halo of light up ahead resolved into Casper. He was waiting at the intersection.

From the turnoff we climbed sufficiently for the fog to thin out so that visibility improved to almost 50 metres, as long as I kept my glasses clear.

So far we had managed to steer clear of the sleep monsters which was a good thing - the saturating fog would have made a roadside nap as miserable an experience as you could image. Sleep monsters - falling asleep while riding- was a real possibility on the section leading up to Brosterlea. It is a long section of road that requires no thought. You simply pedal along for an hour or two. The lack of stimulation coupled with a lack of sleep the perfect recipe for nodding off. The fog added to the lack of stimulation with only the occasional road sign popping through the curtain of fog.

I am big on navigational detail. As I recalled that section it had two district roads coming in from the left and the right hand intersection at Brosterlea is a short distance after the second left. Well, I got that wrong. I now know that there are three roads joining from the left and the third is a long way from the second. Mercifully, Brosterlea was a short distance beyond the third. The distance between the second and third teased relentlessly. Hopeful glows turned into boring road signs. A left bend here a right bend there and an occasional reflective farm sign. But not a single visible light the whole way.

Casper and I weren't talking much. We were tired and were each doing what we could to keep the sleep monsters at bay.

At the point where tedium had me ready to poke my head through the spokes and give the wheel a good spin to cut off my own head, the sign we sought finally emerged. Minutes later we had our bikes propped up against the wall of the cottage at Brosterlea and thoughts of hot tea and food supplanted the misery of pedalling through the fog.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Kranskop to mist swathed Predikantskop

It had been a long day. Casper and I were tired. The food selection at Kranskop was more than adequate and certainly more than we could stomach. As I recall, Casper settled for a cup of tea and a carton of long life custard I had in my resupply box. My palette was also not up to traditional fare so I just had a couple of Weetbix, Banting style. Banting-style Weetbix I hear you ask - It's 100% carb's, how can that be Banting? It's considered Banting if you don't enjoy it ... Okay, I enjoyed it. Sorry Tim.

My resupply boxes were basic. In each I had a can of Coke, a small carton of Custard (Casper slurped his way through all of them), and a Chocolate Milk. I also had the occasional packet of Biscuits and some cheese wedges. The milk and Coke got the nod at every support station. They were tossed in my back pack and savoured en route.

22 minutes after walking in the front door we were headed out. It was now 22:15. We knew the stretch toward Brosterlea was going to be difficult. The first section is a little tricky and therefore interesting. Once we crossed the tar road we had as boring a section as you can imagine. Informed by past experience we knew sleep monsters lurked. What we didn't yet know is that the sleep monsters had invited a friend in the form of a heavy mist.

Before we had covered one kilometre we saw Janine's lights behind us. She was travelling alone and was no more than 30 minutes behind. She had mentioned that she was planning on staying at Kranskop for a few hours. We watched her lights turn away from us as she headed down the driveway at Kranskop.

If you haven't travelled the roads around that area you may wonder how we knew it was Janine. Firstly, the blue/white spectrum of Led lights are quite obvious in the otherwise dark nights. Secondly, we had only seen 2 cars in the previous 17 hours. The last one had been a farmer who had driven past a few hours earlier to check on who we were and what we were up to. That's how uncommon it is to see lights on those roads at night.

At the bottom of a long downhill we left the district road and proceeded to follow a Jeep track that wound through some farms before emptying on to another district road. A short distance later, as we made our way through a pedestrian gate that gave us access to a wetland we could see lights in the veld just ahead of us. It was Anthony and Fjord. Apparently Anthony had experienced more problems with one of his tyres. We got within a few hundred metres of them at one point before they found the jeep track that crossed the grassy plain and hightailed it out of there. We picked up the same track and followed them. It didn't take long to lose sight of them as they were moving faster and a heavy mist had settled.

Mist is a nuisance for me as I wear prescription glasses. Without them everything beyond arms length becomes a shapeless smudge. Initially the mist wasn't too bad and the occasion finger wipe sufficed to maintain adequate vision. By the time we had crossed the tar road and were headed along the corrugated gravel road that headed toward Burgersdorp the mist had reduced visibility to less than 20 metres. With glasses constantly fogging up I battled to find a good riding line. My fingers worked constantly like little windscreen wipers.

Riding while encapsulated in a small fuzzy bubble of light over a bad surface is not much fun. It's boring as there are no discernible landmarks to mark the passage of distance so you lose your sense of distance covered. I knew the road was fairly straight and climbed slowly before getting to the farmhouse near Predikantskop where it would switch to the right before snaking around a farmhouse complex before heading up the climb. Eventually, around midnight, the lights of the farm emerged through the fog. A few hundred metres later we were pushing our bikes up the steep incline that headed around the kop.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Moodenaarspoort to Kranskop

The stop at Moodenaarspoort is a great transition point. For some it's a welcome midday soup stop that comes after 2 tough portages. For others it's an end-of-day destination after a hard days ride from Rhodes. For the racing snake it signals the change over to nighttime riding. The race batches that started ahead of us hadn't ventured beyond this point on day one. The bicycle tyre tracks etched deep into the now dry mud we had just ridden over evidence of the wet and muddy conditions they had to contend with. We were lucky.

Kranskop is about 38 km's from Moodenaarspoort over fairly flat terrain. It takes a little over 2 hours to get there. The night was cool and there was no wind to hamper our progress. Alex, Anthony, and Fjord were up ahead and Janine, according to Farmer Danie from Moodenaarspoort, was just behind. It appeared that Tim's race had unraveled as the tracker had him many hours behind.

Night riding is either friend or foe. Some riders avoid it at all costs as it can be intimidating. I enjoy for a number of reasons. It's a lot cooler and I prefer riding without the blazing sun trying to melt me, which results in reduced hydration requirements. The speed difference between really fast riders and someone like myself is less marked, particularly if your navigation is on point. One of my competitive advantages is my route memory. I ride without narratives or maps. I don't know exact distances, and don't have measuring equipment on my bike, but have a good sense of distance and fairly detailed knowledge of close-up landmarks. Mountains are great landmarks until the sun goes down. After that, you need to recognise landmarks that fall within the reach of your bike light. Roadsigns, unusual shaped or coloured gates, reservoirs, windmills, and even odd coloured rocks become the night riders tools. Obviously these only work if you have done the route before. If not, then you need to be competent and confident with maps, compass and a go to constellation or two. Fortunately I had done this route many times.

The trip to Kranskop was fairly unremarkable except for one turn that Casper missed. He was riding ahead and skipped the turn. I made the turn and stopped. I could see him bombing off in the wrong direction. I set my headlight to flash mode and hoped he would soon realise that he was on his own. If not, he faced a 5 kilometre ride down to a t-junction that wasn't covered by the narrative. He would then be wandering the countryside while I ate dinner and made myself tea at Kranskop. Fortunately he looked behind, saw my light, and retraced his steps.

At 21:53 we rolled into Kranskop. We had a brief chat with Fjord and Anthony who were heading out as we arrived. 17 hours into the race, with Janine just behind, the 6 front runners were still tightly packed. It was a matter of who blinked first.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Loutebron to Moodenaarspoort.

The hike-a-bike portage that spans the Loutebron and Bonthoek farmhouses isn't terribly challenging, but it was our third big portage of the day. To be fair, it has some navigational challenges but if you know the line it's straight forward. Some people got it wrong this year, and my brother slept rough here a few years back when trapped by failing light.
When you're tired it's a schlep. The jeep track that winds up the valley is bumpy and some sections are badly eroded. We walked a number of sections before we even got to the climb proper.

I felt a bit tattered but wasn't surprised given the distance and terrain that lay in our wake. Casper looked less than cheerful. Certainly not miserable, just a little less chatty. Mostly because he was a few hundred metres behind. A few fence crossing and a steep bike-on-back section had us on the ridge overlooking the Bonthoek farmhouse that lay a few kilometres away in the valley below.

Word had trickled back that the track on the descent was in bad shape. Nothing new about that. The track has always been bad, particularly if you are a sub-standard technical rider like me. A 20 minute walk and we were in the valley. 15 minutes later we were flopped on the grass adjacent to the farmhouse.

Casper set about fashioning the chunk of wood that had been keeping his seat post from collapsing into a more permanent fixture while I filled our water bottles. We had made good time and still had more than an hour of sunlight so weren't under too much pressure to press on. 20 minutes later, the newly shaped saddle supporting stick now lashed to the seat post with duct tape, we rolled down the driveway heading for Rossouw.

We made Rossouw before the sun disappeared and watched it slip over the horizon ahead of us as we made our way up the tedious climb out of town. By the time we reached the top of the climb we had turned our lights on and rolled into the interim stop at Moodenaarspoort farmhouse as the western sky faded to black.

The last 58km's had taken 6 hours 30 minutes. That's a smidgen under 9 km/h average. For those unfamiliar with the route it probably sounds pathetic. Trust me, it's not. The back to back portages of Slaapkrans and Bonthoek have bruised many riders over the years.