Sunday, 29 January 2017

In memory of Andrew Bradford

Thursday I woke to the news that a cyclist out with friends for an early morning ride had become the latest victim of a hit and run incident. The news updates that unfolded during the day prepared us for the worst. Friday morning the news was bleak, he hadn't made it through the night.

Tragedies like this sadden us. Those of us who ride are shaken to the core. But this was worse as it was close to home. Not only was it just up the road, but I know most of the guys riding in that group including the victim.

The story is carried as 'another cyclist has been killed on our roads' and online forums pour out sympathy for a 'fellow cyclist'. There's nothing wrong with that but to me, and others who knew Andrew Bradford, he was so much more than that.

When you have spent time with a person, when you have ridden with them and shared a joke, things are different. They inflate becoming so much more than just a fellow cyclist or a tragic statistic - they take on texture and become real people who, like us, are sons, husbands, fathers, and friends with a multiplicity of achievements, ambitions, dreams and failures.

I have followed Andrew's exploits over the years as he embarked on one adventure ride after another and have even raced against him. He, like me and a couple of guys he was riding with on Thursday morning, was one of a small group of riders who have ridden the Freedom Challenge.

Our last encounter was during an endurance race last year. When our paths crossed we took time out to chat. In the context of the race we were adversaries, but in our shared passion for riding we were fellow travellers.

What happened on Thursday morning was more than an accident. Andrews life was taken as a direct result of the reckless choice of an individual who, after colliding with him, fled the scene.

I am left with a feeling of profound sadness over Andrew's tragic death. Alex Harris summed up how many of us feel when he wrote: "I am a man of faith and serve a mighty God. A God of miracles and mercy and a God who is a father. But I can't pretend to know why things happen or understand the reason."

I echo the closing words of Alex's post, "The world is short of one less decent human being today. Andrew was an amazing husband and awesome father. A model man and quiet mentor. So sorry friend, but there is no more traffic where you are now. Don't hold back!"

Alex's full post can be read here:

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Racing The Munga 2016 - All Done

Once I had made sure I was good for 3rd place I had dropped out of race mode. In doing so I had also lost my race routine. My usual morning routine includes switching my dynohub charger over from running my light to charging a power bank. When hooking up the flat power bank that had been powering my GPS through the night I would connect a fresh power bank to the GPS to keep it going through the day. Having forgotten to switch the batteries I was now sitting on the wrong side of Wellington with no idea of which way to go.

I swapped the cables around and rode ahead slowly while waiting for the GPS to power up. When it came on and I selected the route it was confused, it had me many miles away. I gave it a few minutes to figure out where I was. Thankfully it got back up to speed just before the first critical turn. From there on it got me to the finish without any further drama.

After traveling 1086 km with just 3 hours sleep I crossed the finish line where family and friends gave me a heroes welcome. I certainly wasn't a hero but they made me feel like one. Alex draped the number 3 medal around my neck and that was that. The race was over.

It had been an incredibly satisfying race. I had set out to finish 10 hours faster than the 85 hours it had taken me in 2015, and here I was at the finish line just inside of 73 hours. I had exceeded my own expectations and I suspect the expectations of a lot of other people who were following the race.

That I had finished 3rd overall and second in the men's race was of less importance. Those statistics are a blunt instrument with which to dissect ones achievement.

People say that even entering a race like The Munga makes you a champion. That's not true. What makes you a champion is starting a race like The Munga and taking yourself to your limit and then a little bit beyond. That being the case, I have to say I was followed to the finish line by a few dozen champions and even a few champions that didn't even make it to the finish. I would count myself least among all The Munga champions.

There were riders who finished in front of and behind me whose personal achievements eclipsed mine. They suffered more and dug deeper. I am a seasoned endurance rider and knew what to expect from the race. Sure, day one was a shocker but there are always days that push you to your limits. The trick is to know how to survive those tough times. I've survived a good number of days that I would never like to repeat and I suspect there will be many tough days ahead in future events.

To all those riders who came away from The Munga with a sense that they had exceeded their own goals and expectations I salute you and extend my deepest respect and congratulations.

Racing The Munga 2016 - Bush Pubs, Rock People and Cowboys on Camels.

I had 72 km to get to the finish at Diemersfontein Wine Estate in Wellington. Apart from a few kilometres of gravel out of Esselfontein the rest of the route was on tar.

The first challenge was to survive the mayhem of Saturday morning traffic in Ceres. After the freedom of scribbling all over wide gravel roads for 1000 km I had to concentrate on keeping to the frayed edge of the road.

Not too soon I was climbing out of town and the traffic thinned out. Up ahead I could see another mountain biker out on his morning ride. At that point the road had widened and there was enough space to ride side by side inside the yellow line. I caught up and we chatted until he reached his destination at Olive Rock.

It was getting hot and the route had flattened out. I didn't mind the heat as much as I did the tedium. The lack of stimulus had me nodding off. Every kilometre became a challenge. I started looking around for somewhere to get a Coke.

At one point, on the approach to the Bainskloof Pass, I stopped to give an oncoming vehicle the right of way over a narrow bridge. As the car came abreast of me it stopped. The driver had obviously stopped earlier and spoken to either Heinrich or Jeannie on his way over the pass as he knew about the race. We traded stories for a few minutes before he moved on. Just before he left he told me I could get something to drink at the Calabash Bush Pub which was just around the corner.

A few minutes later I was walking through the yard of the bush pub trying to figure out where I could order something. There was no obvious entrance. I eventually found someone and they were able to exchange a handful of coins for a cool can of Coke. It transpires that they had suffered a massive fire a few weeks earlier. Fires and thatched roofs don't go well together.

The next job was to tackle the 14 km climb to the top of Bainskloof Pass. The gradient isn't too challenging but I was tired and I knew the reduced speed was going to have me struggling with sleep monsters rather than leg fatigue. And then something weird happened. Instead of nodding off I started seeing things that I knew didn't exist. I could see people in all manner of poses leaning up against the walls of the pass. As I got close they would disappear to be replaced with normal rock formations. It wasn't the first time I had had that experience.

Earlier in the day just before the Race Village at Esselfontein I saw a cowboy sitting on a camel. He was waving his hat at me. I knew it wasn't real but the more I stared at it the more detailed it became - getting closer I could see he wore a checkered shirt. And he was huge. As huge as a tree. As it turned out it was a tree but I didn't know that until I was 20 metres away.

After encountering dozens of 'rock people' I finally reached the top of the pass and was keen to reap the reward of my efforts. That reward came in the form of a 14 km descent into Wellington.

With the added stimulus that came with speed and tight switchbacks the 'rock people' were now a thing of the past. I made good time into Wellington. All I had to do was follow the route as it wiggled through the backstreets and on to Diemersfontein. On The Munga you don't wing it with the Navigation. The rules are clear, you follow the route as supplied. It would be a doddle, or so I thought. With 5 km to go my GPS turned off.

Racing The Munga 2016 - Last Race Village.

The route threaded between the vines of the farm Uitkoms before heading up the Bo-Swaarmoed Pass. It's only 3 km long and although not too challenging I walked the last kilometre. I could have ridden it but I wasn't in a hurry and it would have be a proper grind as the gearing on my bike 1x11 setup was more suited to the flat and fast sections of the Karoo.

Topping out I got back on my bike and made the best of a good tar road section before picking my way through the vineyards and grasslands to the last Race Village at Esselfontein Farm.

The guys manning the station were full of energy. I guess the station had only just opened with Jeannie and Heinrich having passed through a short while before. Nevertheless, they were in Energiser Bunny mode and had the stove and coffee machine fired up as soon as I walked through the door.

We were sitting around the table chatting when someone said something that at first made no sense to me - "You know you could still win this race?" I guess I had a very obvious 'Huh!' expression my face. They went on to explain that Jeannie had battled with a tyre problem and her and Heinrich had only left the support station a short while before I arrived. I turns out that a 'short while' was more than a handful of minutes and I had already been there for 20 minutes. They also commented that Heinrich was exhausted and that I looked fine. I might have looked fine but my legs and body were very aware of the 1000 kilometres that lay behind. A quick look at the tracking site confirmed that Heinrich was well out of reach so I asked for another cup of coffee and enjoyed their company for a while longer.

Racing The Munga 2016 - Leaving the Desert Behind

As a rule, the Karoo doesn't let go without a fight. To escape its clutches I needed to get to the Karoopoort Pass 40 km from the Padstal. This year I was lucky - the road surface had been recently upgraded and was in perfect condition, there was no headwind, and the sun wasn't up yet which meant it was still cool.

I tucked up tight on the aero bars and treated the 40 km as a time trial. I escaped lightly. Later that day the temperature soared and together with a nasty headwind made the going very difficult for those that followed. I was fortunate to get through that section of the race while the Karoo slept.

I was climbing up the Karoopoort Pass as the sun peeped over the horizon. A short while later, approaching the settlement of Matjiesrivier, my phone started beeping which meant I had signal. I dug the phone out of my pocket and called my friend Steve who is an avid race dot-watcher to ask him how far behind the next rider was. He was already on his bike doing CycleLab Club marshal duty so he wasn't near a computer to check the race tracking site. But he told me the last time he looked I had opened a 40 km gap. That was exactly what I wanted to hear.

Since leaving Sutherland I had no idea where anyone was except for Rafeeq who I last saw 40 km out of town. Since then I had been running blind. For the best part of 10 hours I had been riding flat out covering almost 200 km. I had just over 100 km to the finish so I knew that barring a major catastrophe I'd done enough to secure a 3rd place finish.

I sat up and pedalled along at a more sedate pace. Now that the pressure was off I was able to take stock. First thing I noticed was that my backside was really sore. Tucking up in the time trial position for hours at a time is really great for speed but your rump takes a hammering. Riding over on a section of tar I also noticed that the dust had dried my chain out and it was making a dreadful noise. It was time to stop and lubricate. Bum and chain got a liberal dose of their respective grease.

I spent a few minutes standing quietly beside my bike. The landscape had changed dramatically in the last 45 minutes - Karoo scrub had given way to vineyards. And with vineyards come people. After the wide open expanse of the Karoo with the sparse distribution of houses it was odd to see dozens of dwellings clustered together on the valley floor.

A passing car, radio blaring, reminded me that isolation of the last few days was now a thing of the past. The closer I got to the finish the more I would be sharing the road with other vehicles. I had mixed emotions. I wanted the race to be over but the experience of the last few days had become a sort of micro-existence of ride-eat-sleep which had its own comforting rhythm. I had no idea what news was dominating the headlines or which national team was playing who. If there was another Brexit or Van Rooyen weekend special going down I didn't know anything about it and didn't actually care. That was a different world and was of no importance in my world as it existed in that moment

It was nice to have the pressure off and enjoy a quiet few minutes but something was missing. At first I didn't know what it was and then it suddenly dawned on me. I was missing the sound of mountain bike tyres rolling over gravel. That sound had been my constant companion for the better part of 67 hours. It was the sound of progress. The sound of getting closer to the finish.

I could see the Bo-Swaarmoed Pass a few kilometres up ahead. It was going to be a bit of a grind getting up but I knew it was mostly downhill from there to the next Race Village at Esselfontein Farm just outside of Ceres. I hopped back on my bike and pointed it toward the Pass.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Racing The Munga 2016 - Tankwa Karoo Ahoy!

In no time at all the road flattened out signalling the end of the Ouberg Pass. I knew from the previous year that there was a climb to get to the next water point. I was obviously in better shape this year as the race flags planted at the gate of the designated water point came into sight without me being aware of any appreciable ascent.

I made my way down the driveway to the farmhouse and found my host's (Host +1 rider who had withdrawn from the race earlier and had made his way down the trail and was roped in for host duty) relaxing around a fire. They were surprised to see me as they expected I would take a lot longer. In no time at all they had a coffee in my hand and a roosterbrood, liberally smeared with delicious jam, stuffed in my mouth.

The setting was idyllic - a cool star studded night with no wind and the inviting crackle of a warming fire. Not for the first time in the race I wished I could put my feet up and enjoy the rich embrace of platteland hospitality.

I lingered longer than planned but riding out of the farm I was still alone in 3rd place without another rider in sight. I picked up where I had left off and pushed hard to make good on my advantage. I had 70 km to the next water point and I was set on going as fast as I could to make the best use of the night hours. I had covered this section in daylight in 2015 when it was unbearably hot. With the sun many hours away from peeping over the horizon I found the cool night to my liking.

Whenever I stopped to open a gate I looked back to see if there were any bike lights behind. So far I couldn't see any. I knew there was a ridge up ahead which, once crossed, would have me heading down to the flat and harshest part of the Tankwa Karoo. It would then be a 40 km pedal to get to the next water point at the Tankwa Padstal. Walking up the ridge I finally caught sight of a pursuing light
on the plain below. They were still a way back, I estimated about 10 km. Too close.

After going through the last gate at the top of the ridge I dropped onto my aero bars and rode like there was no tomorrow. The jeep track wasn't perfectly smooth but I was able to maintain a good pace which I kept up for the better part of two hours. Powering along I had a big smile on my face. This section in the heat of the day had worked me over in 2015. With the night temperature sitting at 20 celsius I ticked the miles off with ease.

Pulling up to the iconic Tankwa Padstal while trying to remember what the arrangements were for nighttime arrival I saw a guy with a flashlight signalling to me from a building adjacent to the shop. I was intrigued, how did he know I was coming? There was no cell phone signal and yet here he was ready and willing to wait on me. A tug on the generator pull start had the coffee machine sputtering away while he dished up some food and prepared me a pancake. On inquiring I was told that Jeannie and Heinrich were almost 2 hours ahead.

I asked him how he knew I was coming and he said he could see my lights. I asked him to show me. He walked outside and pointed into the darkness, "I could see you there", he said. It turns out he saw me coming for the best part of an hour owing to the flat open terrain.

I decided this was the perfect opportunity for a quick power nap as the next 40 kilometres was going to be flat and tedious. I was also expecting dreadful corrugations but the road I had ridden in on looked like it had been upgraded. I hoped the road works extended all the way along that torturous road.

I didn't know how far back the next rider was and as there was no cell phone reception I had no way of finding out, but a 60 minute heads-up would work. I asked to be woken if there were any approaching lights. I put my coffee aside, set my alarm for 15 minutes, and curled up on the floor. In a matter of seconds I was asleep.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Racing The Munga 2016 - Getting My Flow On

Just short of the Ouberg Pass that would have us plummeting off the Roggeveld Mountains Rafeeq slowed up. He muttered something about being either tired or cold. My advise to him was to stop short of the top as it makes sense to leave a small climb section to warm up on before the descent which was bound to cause chill. I've made the mistake of stopping to rest on a downhill section once before when I was cold. It's not a mistake I am in any hurry to repeat.

I started down the pass on my own. It's an exhilarating 10 km ride dropping over 800 metres off the Karoo plateau. In daylight the views are spectacular. As it was pitch black I had no views to admire. That's not to say my mind was a blank canvas, far from it.

The Munga, like most races, hands out finishers medals. But these are not your common or garden variety that you toss in your "I Did It" box. No, The Munga medals are hand crafted things of beauty. They are Russell Scott masterpieces, spartan in design and individually cast in steel to reflect the genesis of The Munga. It's the kind of medal you want to possess. More than that, they are individually numbered. My first goal was to secure a second medal.

Last time out I got medal number 9 and was really chuffed to finish in the top 10. Looping over the last climb and dropping into the start of the Ouberg Pass, 58 hours into the race, I was placed 3rd. All of a sudden 3 looked like a much better number than 4 or 5 or 6 or 7. If I wanted to snap the elastic attached to Rafeeq, Tim, Sthembiso and Kevin then this was my opportunity. I was fresh and night riding is my playground of choice.

I'm not a great technical rider but you wouldn't have thought so had you watched me thread my down those mountains. It was a real buzz. There is a condition known as Flow or being In The Zone. Per Wikipedia - "It is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does."

There was no question about it, I was in The Zone.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Racing The Munga 2016 - Heading Out of Sutherland

At 7:36 PM I had been at the Sutherland Race Village for 2 hours. In that time I had eaten, showered, and managed to get 90 minutes of shut eye. I was feeling great. All that was needed was a quick coffee and I would be on my way to the finish via Race Village 5 in Ceres. I still had 293 km to bang out but in the context of the race it seemed close enough to touch. As I entered the dining area I saw that Tim Deane was getting his gear together. We chatted briefly before he announced that he was heading out. I poured the coffee down my throat, signed the register and followed him out the door. 

The race register revealed that the leading pair of Heinrich and Jeannie had left 3 hours ahead of me, and Rafeeq, in third place, had a 22 minute gap. I also noticed that Tim had only arrived a short while before so was treating Sutherland as a quick pit stop. Sthembiso was still in the building and Kevin had arrived short while before and had yet to sign out. 

As I rode out of town just behind Tim the cogs in my head started turning. My assessment of the race based on the info on the race register was as follows. Heinrich and Jeannie were going to finish 1 and 2. The next clump of riders vying for third spot were: Rafeeq, Tim, Kevin, Sthembiso and me. The other 4 were all strong riders and every one of them a faster and stronger rider than I was. I would have to pull a rabbit out of the hat if I wanted to beat any of them to the finish. 

After giving this some thought my attention was diverted. I suddenly realised that I had left Sutherland with only half a bottle of water. My normal practice is to fill my bottles before I do anything else when arriving at a water point or Race Village - you can make do without food but can't survive without water. When I arrived in Sutherland I figured it would be silly to fill my bottles while it was still hot and I would rather fill them with cold water just before leaving. Being distracted by the presence of Tim it had completely slipped my mind. I wondered what my chances were of finding a reservoir to fill up. The difficulty with that option was that it was getting dark and unless a reservoir fell squarely into the arc of my bike light it was going to be almost impossible to find one. 

While mulling over my predicament I saw a bicycle light up ahead. I increased my pace and caught up. It was Rafeeq. In catching up to Rafeeq I noticed that I had pulled an appreciable gap on Tim. I figured that Tim was probably a bit fatigued. In fairness we all were but I probably had the upper hand in that situation having just had a good sleep. 

I had caught up to Rafeeq at the top of the gentle climb out of town. I was surprised how quickly I had closed on him. He must have signed the register and then taken his time to head out. Once I had caught up he was spurred into action and had no difficulty in setting a quick pace which I was happy to match as it was putting more distance between me and Tim. We barrelled along tickling off the distance with ease. 

I had the race distances stuck on my top tube and worked out that the next water point was only 69 km from Sutherland. Half a bottle of water wasn't a great deal but it was well after sunset and the temperature had fallen significantly. I also knew that the route over those 69 km was predominantly downhill. At the speed we were going it was going to take just over 3 hours to get there. I make a point of doing my training rides with little or no water so wasn't too fazed. I put the water situation out of my mind and focussed on the riding which was fast and exhilarating. 

The mountains were delicately outlined in the fading light. It was a beautiful evening and I looked forward to making the most of the clear cool night that lay ahead. 

Monday, 9 January 2017

Racing The Munga 2016 - Of Chess and Endurance Racing

There are three phases to a game of chess, the opening, the middlegame and the endgame. The same can be said of racing The Munga. The opening phase is critical in developing your race plan. Your family and friends may want to high-five you for being the first to arrive at Race Village 1 (RV1) but it's not as important as ensuring you are in the game for the long haul.

Unlike chess, there are no standard opening moves. If you wish to push the chess analogy, assume that you are playing black. Your opening moves are dictated by white. White in this case is not your competitors but rather the weather. You need to play the game according to the conditions on the day. That is not to say you arrive at the start and wing it. If you are racing it helps to have a strategy. My plan was to arrive at Van Der Kloof dam before midnight but the weather conditions meant that wasn't going to be mine or anyone else's reality. Fifty kilometres into the race and doubled over puking into a garden I knew my priority was simply to get to RV1 with enough gas left in the tank to grab a meal and head off toward the next race village. My time of arrival at RV1 was of little consequence. The conditions were brutal and I knew the whole field was going to be equally affected.

I am of the opinion that you don't need to sleep the first night as it is the freshest you will be for the duration of the race. We knew the days were going to be hot and probably windy. That being the case it makes sense to make the best of the cooler, and hopefully, less windy nights.

In chess the opening phase is considered over and the middlegame commenced once the pieces are developed, the centre is controlled and the King is protected. The middlegame of The Munga commences the moment you step out the door of RV1. By refuelling and moving forward without stopping to sleep you join the ranks of the racers. You can be fairly certain that, no matter how long you took to get to RV1, by moving through you will be in the top 25% of the field.

If you push through after a gruelling 222 km with the intention of banging out a further 170 km before breakfast/brunch, you fall squarely into the "Racing Snake" category. The next trick is to translate "intention" into "reality".

Middlegame is where the excitement and freestyle aspect of the game plays out. Middlegame strategy in chess is complex and involves a mix of tactical manoeuvres that result in piece attrition. Competitor attrition during The Munga is not necessarily the result of direct competitor interplay but it happens and it plays a huge part in the final outcome of the race.

If you want advise on a solid middlegame strategy then make it simply to stay in the game. Don't be one of the riders that goes home early. By all means be aggressive but a thoughtless do or die strategy for a race of that distance and duration will be stacking the odds against yourself. Look at the numbers from this years race - The last finisher was well inside the top 50% of the number of riders that started.

Another way of staying in the game is to ride your own race. Too many riders get caught up in the excitement of the chase, particularly on the first afternoon. It's not a one day race - ride to survive. I am happy once the mania of the start settles down and I am riding on my own at my own pace. It's as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. Don't let someone else get inside your head. If your head gets soft, your legs follow.

Middlegame tactics play an important part. The most obvious tactic revolves around when to sleep and for how long. In this regard there are opportunities to play a few mind games with those you are racing against. You don't have to sleep at race villages. Designated water points and a clearing next to the road in the middle of nowhere can do just as well. But don't get caught up in trying to get too cute with the mind games as they can just as well backfire. A comfortable bed is always going to be more refreshing than cuddling up with scorpions and spiders in a ditch. When making tactical decisions let your first thought be, "I must stay in the game".

Chess endgame theory revolves around the movement, exchange, promotion, and dominance of the pieces left in play after transitioning through the middlegame. It is the phase where the game must be carefully controlled to produce the desired outcome.

Arriving in Sutherland, through a combination of tactics and competitor attrition, I found myself in 4th place. With only 293 kilometres between me and the finish line in Diemersfontein the middlegame was over. I needed to eat, shower and bank 90 minutes of sleep before executing my endgame.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Racing The Munga 2016 - I get to see SALT and a Good Measure of Grit.

As I got closer to Sutherland the dirt road eventually gave way to a paved surface which made the riding easier, although still with a good measure of climbing. I guess the road services the South African Astronomical Observatory outside of town.

In 2015 I rode into Sutherland in the middle of the night so apart from the brilliant view of the stars overhead and the continuous ribbon of road ahead I saw nothing else. This time, arriving late afternoon, I could see the South African Large Telescope (SALT) building perched on top of the mountains as I rode by on the road below. It's an impressive structure that couldn't be accused of blending into its surrounds. To be fair, it would be hard for anything to blend into that austere landscape.

The irony of the high tech eye on the universe driven by a thirst for knowledge juxtaposed against the setting of the parched Northern Cape Karoo wasn't lost in me. They were odd bedfellows indeed but the perfect viewing sky above Sutherland draws scientists from around the world.

I was drawn to Sutherland for different reasons. Mostly because my GPS route demanded it, and also because I knew the next race village in town held out the promise of food, shower and a bed.

The last few kilometres are an easy downhill into town. That is if you can ride. While freewheeling along I saw Sthembiso up ahead. His bike and him had traded places. He had his bike hoisted onto his shoulders. His wheel had finally collapsed and he was footing it.

While competitors, we were also fellow travellers and it saddened me to to see him reduced to walking along the side of the road. Sthembiso had every reason to be despondent but that's not what I saw. I saw a man who radiated determination. A man who accepted the challenge and was going to overcome.

It wasn't far to town, less than 2 kilometres, but walking comes a very distant second to freewheeling downhill. I arrived in Sutherland a good 20 minutes ahead of him.