Monday, July 23, 2007

Lessons & Observations on a roadie-ride

It was perhaps more than just a little arrogant to think that you could do a roadie ride marketed as "South Africa's toughest" if you've only been on your roadie bike once after the Argus tour. But you've been on your mountain bike a few times since the Argus, the Jock was on your to-do list for quite a while already, and you had to go find out if it was really as tough as everybody said it was ... and there was another sucker (the Mummy) who was up for the challenge, so ... what the heck, enter the ride & see what happens. How tough can 150 kays be anyway?

You were about to find out.

Some lessons & observations from the past weekend:

- If you take your bike for its only training ride in months a week before a biggish event, and you discover something like the shifters are not working, don't expect the bicycle shop to be able to fix it for you there and then. Not if you don't have a decent overdraft facility, anyway.
- Have a friend like Mamparra who can change the only gear that you will be able to use on the front chain ring, from the big to the small blade. That's good enough for Jock.
- Knowing that Barberton is somewhere in Mpumalanga is not good enough. Instructions pulled from the Internet telling you to continue for 146.2 kays, and then turn right, somehow would make more sense if you had a roadmap of the area, or at least knew where Barberton fits into the bigger picture. Especially since there was no Dirt Rider at the destination already, whom you could phone for directions.
- There're a lot of roadie bikes to be seen during a roadie-bike-weekend.
- Don't leave your fleece & wind jacket behind in Barberton when you're leaving for Nelspruit at 5 in the morning, if your start is only at 7:30. Even if The Mummy says it won't be so cold. What does the Mummy know about the weather in Nelspruit at 5:30 in the morning, anyway? ;)
- Be nice to other mountain bikers when you share a mountain, a single-track or a Noon to Moon with them, 'cos you don't know when you will bump into them at roadie-events. Was great to see the familiar faces of Big Daddy Rob & girlfriend (fiancée) Lisa on the bus on the way to Nelspruit.
- Sitting in an empty classroom waiting for your bunch to start, isn't any warmer than outside, but at least there's other people to share the cold with.
- Getting a slightly above average Argus Tour time, still doesn't make you an above average cyclist by anyone's books: you will still start in the very last bunch for the Jock.
- Nelspruit is cold 7:30 in the morning.
- The bunches start out very slowly. It's no use to try and get ahead of them, though, they will catch you. They always do. So stay with them. Sittt. Stay.
- Maybe you must take your roadie bike out more. What a pleasure to ride such a responsive bike!
- If you see a notice saying "Dangerous Downhill: Concentrate", get down on your bike, find the nearest slipstream ('cos you mos don't have a big blade) and slingshot yourself from slipstream to slipstream with a huge grin.
- Note to self: definitely take road bike out more.
- Boulders is 7 kays of climbing at Suikerbossie's gradient. The steep part of Suikerbossie, that is. You can't get your heart-rate up, because it's like pushing weights in a gym. It would probably have been more fun with a Granny Gear.
- The bicycle shop and Mamparra and Dirt Rider and everyone else were right: you won't need your big blade for this race.
- If you start in the last bunch, don't lose the bunch, otherwise you solo the rest of the race.
- Note to self: learn to climb, so that you don't lose the bunch on Boulders.
- Boulder's downhill matches the uphill in every respect ... maybe even exceeds the climb. What an exhilarating downhill! WOW! W-O-O-W!!
- Going down the bends on Boulders on a roadie bike trying not to touch the brakes while marshals are trying to flag you down, can be as much fun as a single-track at night. Maybe even more.
- "Dangerous Downhill: Concentrate" is your new favourite road sign.
- If you've done 100 kays and there're still 50 kays to go and you're hungry, eat. Don't think that you'll finish just now and eat then. You'll finish much later than expected and will have to eat at some stage anyway.
- Cycling the last 20 kays into a headwind slightly uphill all by yourself is not fun.
- If you discover a week before the Jock that your roadie bike's odometer's battery is flat, and the bicycle shop can't replace it for you, and you therefore decide to fit your Suunto's bike pod on the roadie bike because it was just lying around in a cupboard somewhere, then calibrate it before the ride.
- Road cycling is hard work.
- "Give me my chocolate" - the new national greeting? Who taught these kids to beg? Who gave them sweets, thinking they are doing them a favour, and creating an expectation that who-ever passes by will have sweets to hand out? Where did they learn to try to push cyclists off their bikes and obstruct their way if they don't stop and give them sweets? (This is something that I've seen in the Drakensburg, in the Wild coast, even on the Argus Tour this year.)
- You cannot possibly allow a girl being pushed up the last uphill 400 metres from the finish, to beat you. No matter how tired you are. She's allowed to beat you if she can get up there on her own, but you simply cannot allow her to be pushed faster than what you can cycle ... so you'll have to chase them. Keep some energy in reserve for that.
- Road cycling is not for sissies.
- Road bikes are so clean after an event!
- Some races you'll keep coming back to. Sabie Shenanigans is on my to-do list for next year. The Magalies Monster and the Induna ... I will be back next year for the awesome single track and the exhilarating downhills. The Mnweni marathon, Wartrail, a weekend of Rogaining - great events; I'll keep going back for the views, the vibe, the people, the challenge. Sprint races presented by UGE events - I will keep going back for the fun and the adventure and the speed. The Argus tour - may be expensive for Gauties, but the vibe will keep people returning for more. 94.7's on my doorstep, so I will do it as long as I have a road bike.
The Jock? Been there, done that.
That said, that downhill after Boulders ... I might return for that. I will train a little more if I do the event again. But then again, I often say that about other events too and never do the extra mile of training.
- Roadies are a strange bunch of people. Discussions after the event was about the vets' tour next month, about a particular team's position after this race, about what roadie-thingy they're doing next, about beating a guy from another team ...almost like they're punishing themselves ... there's no discussions about the great piece of single-track of the morning, or cycling through plantations or banana tree tunnels or orange orchards or next to canals or over dodgy bridges or through surreal rock formations, or the near blow-out on a downhill, or about the horrible technical climb that they managed to do without unclipping, or about crossing the river or bunny-hopping an obstacle or pringling a wheel or showing off newly acquired scars or the fun they had that morning ...
- Note to self: appreciate your mountain bike buddies more.
- Another note to self: Take roadie-bike out more. It is excellent training, it's great riding such a responsive bike, and riding it more often will prevent sore shoulders, neck & wing-stubs the morning after a roadie-ride.

Well, and is it South Africa's toughest race? I can't say, really. I haven't done any of the toughest races to have anything to compare it with. It can't be compared to mountain bike-events like Induna or Magalies Monster; it's much harder because of the nature of roadie rides: a much higher intensity for much longer without technical distractions. It's not comparable to adventure events like Wartrail or Mnweni: the attraction of these events (for me), is exactly this: the low intensity and the variety. It's not comparable to the Argus or 94.7; anyone can get on their bicycles and do these distances - and they do.

Distance-wise and climb-wise, even wind-wise, a Double Century may be longer and harder, but it's a team event, so you will never lose the bunch, and you'll never have to take the headwind on all on your own ... and if you pick your team members carefully, you will never be the slowest person in the team, so you will never ride at a high intensity for too long. :)

So: I still don't know if it is South-Africa's toughest road race. But I did learn one thing: road cycling is not for sissies!

And I think I am one. :) A sissie, that is. So I'll stick to mountain biking, for now.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007


Lessons, musings & other random thoughts about the Wartrail

Roughly the plan work as follows: enter some ridiculous event, stress about it, and then a week before the event, enter something even more ridiculous so that you forget to stress about the original event. So on the only training-run for the Mnweni-marathon (which was the stress-reliever for Swazi), Sam came up with the idea of doing the Wartrail: a triathlon, kind of. But we would do it the whoosie-way (well, as whoosie as a race like this would allow, at least): Liz would do the 60-odd kays of mountain running, I would attempt the 135 kays of mountainbiking, and she would paddle the 60-odd kays on the Orange River.

So I started to train in all urgency for this event: I rode as many D&D-rides as I could fit in, with the odd Induna or Magalies Monster thrown in for good measure. I was, after all, part of a team, and I had to be able to go the distance to not let them down. There were three all-girl-teams entered, and we were looking forward to a weekend of fun.

A week before the event, though, a dark cloud appeared on the horizon: Lisa circulated an email suggesting that her team (Lisa, Lobby & Daleen) would make mincemeat of the other 2 all-girl-teams. The war race was on!

This was not good news for team AR Chix, as our whole game-plan was focused around just one thing: to make the cut-offs and get an official finish. The team was in trouble and we had to change our game strategy somewhat. Each one did her bit: I took my bike in for a service to see if Mike could make it any faster, Samantha decided that a K2 was faster than a K1 and that I would paddle with her, and Liz Google-earthed the area to get as much knowledge of the routes as possible.

I even attempted to do some paddling-training with Weazul one Saturday morning before an orienteering-event (I had to learn to read a map as well), but that ended up being a sightseeing-tour in search of the island-crocodile (but that's a story for another time.)

Then it snowed in the Eastern Cape (and in Joburg) and WeatherSA's website didn't predict good things for the weekend. We tried other weather-sites for a friendlier prediction, but all of them were very specific about icy weather in the Eastern Cape.

The mountains surrounding Lady Grey were white with snow – snow lying on the lawns - when we joined the Big-bakkies-loaded-with-bicycles-and-boats influx into the small town late on Friday afternoon.

The hikers would leave at 4:30 on Saturday morning. We were planning to see them off, and then be back in bed by 4:40-ish. Tweet had some marshal-duties at the first checkpoint, however, and it didn't take much to convince us to go with … so within 5 minutes of the invite we were on our way to the runners' first checkpoint – with bakkie until it could go no further, and then a little over 2 kays on foot through thick snow and with a full moon to light up the way. Our checkpoint-duties included attacking the camera-crew and all the incoming hikers with snowballs (which disintegrated as soon as you threw them). Later, on our way down, we could see the silhouettes of the last two groups on a snow-laden ridge with the sun rising behind them.

Life was good.

Camping that night in Balloch – the snow glistened in the still-full moon while we waited for the hikers to come in. Huge campfires & a lamb-potjie brewing in the cave.

The next morning we had to outcycle a developing snowstorm :)

By the time we reached the top of Lundean's nek, it was snowing in Balloch where we camped the previous night. The temperature was dropping very quickly - it was already way below zero, if the frozen bladder-mouthpieces & frozen chocolates was anything to go by. From there it's a 14 kays downhill to the first checkpoint with the icy wind in your back - the bicycle just wanted to GO - WOW!

Having a very bad reputation with navigation, I was determined to not get lost this time. The instructions were very clear: Every time the road splits, keep right. So, there was this split in the road. The right one was closed for road works. The map clearly indicated that I must go right – so I did. And I saw bicycle tracks – well, at least 2 bicycles' tracks. Climbed up a very steep hill, and then some more. Kids asking me "Waar gaan jy?"
"To Majuba's Neck, can I go this way?"
"Ja, net om die draai," came the reply.

So I went around the corner, higher and higher. To a T-junction that wasn't indicated on my map. Stay right, were the instructions, so I turned right and climbed some more. No bicycle tracks any more. At last saw someone, asking for directions.

"What, am I in Lesotho?"
"Where's South Africa?"
"that way"

Around a few corners I could see the other cyclists far below – what an exhilarating feeling to
(a) know where I am and
(b) have to go go downhill to where I'm supposed to be!

Life was good.

The stretch between 80 and 120 kays was straight into an icy headwind, it was not fun. Sometimes the wind would be from the side; it would blow me from the left side of the road where I was cycling, to the other side of the road. Peddle back to the left side, just to be blown back to the other side again. I could see 2 cyclists ahead of me, but just couldn't catch them. Waited a few minutes for someone from behind to catch up with me while I raided my backpack for chocolates, but then gave up and fought the wind on my own again.

Life was not so great then.

At the next checkpoint I realised that I lost my map, so I waited for the next cyclists to come along. We cycled together for a while, with Adrian urging me to go faster - did I look, by any chance, like i was ABLE to go any faster, i wondered. But he kept insisting that I "race" the girls - as far as going at 10 kays an hour could be considered "racing" ... with the icy wind now from behind, I succumbed, but the break-away didn't last long - Dalene and Lobby outsprinted me on the last hill - there just wasn't anything in my legs left!

So now the AR girls (Dalene, Lobby & Lisa) and the AR Chix (Sam, Liz and myself) were tied … with Liz coming in a few seconds before Lisa, and then Dalene & Lobby coming in a few seconds before me. The whole race came down to the paddling leg.

My Suunto recorded a temperature of –3 degrees inside the tent on Monday morning. There was ice all over Sam's sleeping bag … frost gathered your jacket as you do morning-camping-things. Adrian shortened the paddle-leg because of the cold, so we could start an hour later.

To the amusement of those around us, we almost tipped the boat before the start. The water that comes from your paddle on the up-stroke, froze on our life jackets...Sam had a collection of icicles on her peak - very pretty. We had to get out of the boat a few times to get off rocks & sandbanks, & the thought of tipping the boat in that water was quite scary. For the first 2 hours in the boat we couldn't drink anything, because the bladder-mouthpieces were frozen again

The gorge was beautiful, and we paddled with Ugene, Lobby & Dalene & Vicky & a few other boats, solving the world's problems until someone would get stuck on a sandbank … then it's your turn to get stuck on a sandbank, & the others would catch up again. A few rapids & bubblies to test your balance.

By the time we could see the finish a kilometer away, my arms felt like they would break off. The boat was getting tippier as we got more tired, and we were in real danger of tipping the boat. The water levels were very low, so we zig-zagged across the river to avoid sandbanks, paddling much further than intended – the end just didn't come any closer! Then Ugene's boat tipped for no apparent reason, we got stuck on a sandbank one last time, and then finally Alex sprinted us to the finish … where he spectacularly tipped his boat just as he crossed the line.

The paddle very sensibly finished at a hot spring, so we jumped into the warm pool to thaw the frozen toes & hands before prize giving & the long drive back.

The slogan on a coke light can say: "Here's to living life light". There was only one can on coke light left in the cooler box, so we shared it, toasting the event and life in general: "Here's to living life."