Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Let's make it a stage to remember

And so the weather gods did.

We left Stuttgart upbeat and ready for the last 70km of which the last 18km were promised as "all downhill". Yeah right, heard that one before.

Typical Karoo scrub
I had been really worried about the Garstland Kloof because waaay back in 2009, we'd struggled through the clay mud and with all the rain, I was convinced it would be a replay of the same. It's a gradual climb up the narrow valley with a couple of farms along side the road. In front of us were mountains and it was difficult to identify which would be our Schurfteberg portage.

My legs were feeling better - not fast - but not as tight so I was happy. We had a tailwind which made the going pretty hot and we'd regroup under the shade of the odd tree that leaned over the road. We reached the bad memories of 09 (Yes, I still recognised it such was the trauma!) and rode comfortably over it. There was really no mud to speak of despite the downpours of the night before.
Mmm Yum

Tricky operation
You know you've reached the end of the valley when you practically ride into the last farmstead. As I pulled up to the others, Leon was attacking a prickly pear bush with a stick and a pen knife.He swat the fat fruit or poke at it until it dropped then stab it with the blade. Using both as tools, he slice off the prickly outer skin and hand us all slices of the insides. I wasn't sure about this but tasted some anyway. It was surprisingly sweet.

Thus fortified, we pedaled on to the gate in the fence. It's quite easy to make a mistake here and many have done so. Leon remembered his error clearly from the previous year and my maps read: Go through gate!"

So we did.

View from below
The track appeared and on we rode to the ruins at the base of the portage. As we got there, black clouds bulged over the ridge and the wind had a distinct chill and smell of rain. Undeterred, we rode onwards and I saw to my relief the ominous black cloud move off over the ridge and the sun come out exactly where we were going to ride. "Great timing," I thought.

I have two photos taken in 2009 which are framed. The one is from the bottom of the portage beside the small lake and the other from the top, looking back and over the ridge into the Karoo with a dusting of snow. I had looked forward to taking a repeat for months already. So I got my picture of the lake and the mountain looming above then pedaled off after the others.
Sheeting rain

As we hit the base of the mountain and began to climb, the black clouds rolled in and within minutes, a grey sheet of rain descended the mountain and dumped on our heads. Howling wind made it difficult to pull on rain jackets and to pack away phones and camera. Eventually, packs were on and we began the slow plod with rain driving in our faces one way, then pushing onto our backs another. Once again, I was reminded of the distinct lack of waterproofing that my seldom used jacket offered.

View from the top
We were probably half way up the climb when the clouds rolled away and the sun came out, blazing down on us in our jackets. In moments, it was hot and humid and the only one smiling was Jonathan who hadn't bothered to put on a waterproof shell at all.

Jackets on
This was my only low point of the race. For some reason, I struggled here. I felt exhausted, legs heavy again and I just wanted to put my head down on the handlebars and sleep. Of course, this is also when the negative demons come out to play and the old mantras of being useless, not up for this physicality and other rubbish roamed around my thoughts and dragged me into self pity.

I reached the gate barely able to speak but I was still determined to take my photo looking down the hill. So while the others moved onto the saddle where we would have a brief picnic. Jonathan and I messed around with photos. (I've combined the two pics from above at the bottom of this blog).

The tuna moment
Then I pushed my bike wearily to where the rest of the group lay sprawled in the warm sun, drying off kit and eating. Finally, I could eat my Pringles which I'd carried all the way from Elandsberg. Leon swopped me a spoon of tuna for some chips and we made a type of tortilla. OMG. If I hadn't been so tired, I would have mugged him on the spot and torn his tuna sachet from his grip. I had this intense craving for this magic food and yet stupidly, had never packed one for emergencies.

Jonathan to the rescue with an extra sachet. Using his spork, I inhaled the contents and my world was was intact again. I was really surprised at the lift it gave me as it wasn't that long ago that we'd eaten well at Stuttgart. Never mind, it was exactly what I needed to get going. Oh, that and the technical downhill that followed!

Karoo vistas - descent looming
It was magnificent riding all the way to bottom of the valley and we were in great spirits. It was a fast downhill that made your wrists and calves ache and our speed continued onto the dirt road from the farmhouse.

A strange recollection now was my Garmin which started beeping incessantly. Eventually I figured out there was some dirt or mud jammed in one of the buttons which eventually washed out with the next downpour which came on us with the same rapidity as the dissipation of the previous one.

We were helter skeltering down the road constantly looking over our shoulders at Schurfteberg and when the valley started to blot out, it was time to whip on the waterproofs. Except for Jonathan. It seemed that everyone was trying to beat the rain as three bareback horseman came galloping up the road clearly trying to get home before the rain started in earnest again.

Soggy roads
There is a tough little climb on this road which under normal circumstances, would slow your momentum. Today, we were going nowhere. The heavens opened again creating rivers of water that rushed down the road making its own gullies and forcing us to keep our heads down. If that were not enough, it began to hail.

In the small window that was created by my jacket hood and the angle of the road, I watched the white stones bounce crazily before being swept away by the torrent. As we reached the top of the climb, the entire road surface was covered by lakes of water around which there was no riding.

It was exhilarating despite the cold from the wind which drove the rain through our layers. I loved it.

We began the descent hoping that the ruts beneath the layer of water wouldn't be too bad when Leon broke his hangar. We managed to shout the word above the wind and saw a farmhouse not 300m away. Perfect.

It was the farm called Jakkalsfontein, one of the last surviving historical farmsteads. It had an old fashioned bell pull which summoned a rather surprised looking inhabitant. Too wet to go inside, we gratefully took his offer of coffee while Leon expertly replaced his hangar. Despite the hot coffee, we'd all chilled down with the wait and when we eventually set off, this time chasing the veil of rain, it was a teeth chattering affair until we reached the bottom of the hill.

Time to leave the RASA route and make our turn towards Cradock. Only the Swaershoek Pass awaited us along with the promised 18km of nirvana downhill.

The rain had softened up the surface of the road so it became a slog and when we reached the pass, only Leon and Craig rode it. For the rest of us, a headwind, the slope and general fatigue from the weather meant a push to the top.

Top of Swaershoek Pass
Once there, the wind howled through the gap so we didn't hang around long. In the distance we could see Cradock and the light was beginning to fade. A downhill can't be enjoyed in the dark so we put our heads down and sped down the hill. Yeah, yeah, it was all of 18kms of downhill. It began with a steep drop down to one level, then gradually became less steep but the descent never wavered. It was only as we hit the tar road that would take us across the Fish River to our lodge, that the road finally leveled out.

What an awesome way to finish any event. It was almost dark when we arrived but to a warm welcome from Glenn and Meryl of the race office and the other riders who had finished.

How does one end off a tale like this? I'm not sure what is fitting. Perhaps the real measure is whether I would do it again.

Hell yes!


Monday, April 13, 2015

Double Up

From when the race was announced I had it in my head to double up the last two stages. It would make it 140kms but I figured there was a remote chance I would be fit enough to handle it. Or, on the other hand, I might be so tired, I'd regret it immensely and opt to stop after 70km at Stuttgart.

Second Breakfast
The event so far had been a lot of deja vue. Memories from 2009 were like they had happened yesterday. I had suffered quite a lot angst from Moordenaarspoort (as we covered the segments that had been RASA demons) all the way to Romansfontein where I could finally put it all behind me.

Way back then, eight riders had arrived at about 8:30pm at Elandsberg surprising Margaret who had expected four and much earlier. Chief among our group was Carl Crous, fondly known as The General. He was keen to double up from Eandsberg through to De Doorns bypassing Stuttgart. Doug and I were happy to go with him, proper little soldiers that we were! It was absolutely worth it and I still remember the energy and excitement we felt as we walked into the support station that evening having completed our first double stage.
Clouds building all around us

The ride from Elandsberg to Stuttgart is fast especially the first 30km or so. We had debated the time for departure and eventually compromised on 4:30am. After another restless night of dogs barking and mind tossing, I was happy to get up and get moving, fatigue notwithstanding. At that hour, there was only porridge which would probably last all of an hour or two but that was not my biggest problem.

Lactate had built up in my legs and they were heavy and turgid. Nevertheless we all sped off and I was just off the back, with Jonathan an easy companion. He was upbeat as he started to feel more like his old self but wanted to stay conservative. Any little climb would push me further back but I managed to make up time on the flats and downhills.
Soggy roads

The immense storm of the night before had not affected the roads too badly and they were firm under our wheels. What we had not anticipated were the culverts (cement water drainage across the road) which were running as shallow streams.

Jonathan and I came around the corner to shouts from the others. Leon had ridden straight across, his wheel had slipped on slime sending him skidding through the water to the other side. Luckily he semi-aquaplaned and only had minor roasties to boast about.

We crawled across and even so, my front wheel washed out and I just managed to correct it and reach the dry road on the other side. There were several of these obstacles on this section of road and they were treated with the necessary respect.

Sun tan lotion - wishful thinking
It was still dark as we reached the tar road to Cradock and it was disconcerting to see a road sign announcing it was only 60km to the town. We were really going the Long Way Round.

It was still dark when we reached the road, slap bang in the middle of a stop&go section. The sky should have been lightening by then but ominously, clouds were building on the eastern horizon suppressing the gray light of pre-dawn.

Craig endeared himself to the race office by mistakenly dialing Meryl's number and asking her why she had called him. One of those classic moments of confusion.

Bum break
At one of the myriad gates, I discovered my rear tire was too soft and I sincerely hoped this was the cause of my struggle to keep up. Alas not. It helped once it was pumped but not to the extent I had hoped. As always, the group waited for everyone to catch up and we made our way through a game park hoping to spot some game but equally hoping it wasn't a charge by an angry rhino.

The game we did hear was depressing and nauseating. As we exited the game park, we could hear a lion making its trademark coughing sound. Moments later it was joined by another until there was an incredible cacophony of lions. It was coming from the farm across the road and in my heart of hearts I knew it was lions for canned trophy hunting.
Stuttgart break

For an animal that is rapidly disappearing from the wild, (in 50 years, lions have gone from 450 000 to a mere 20 000) to breeding them for sport was sickening.

We left the area as quickly as we could, feeling quite disturbed. There remained only one potentially tricky bit of navigation which entailed sticky mud as we forded the Pauls River but we sailed through that and were soon on the last stretch to Stuttgart.

Sunny spot
Once again, we fell behind on some of the hills as well as stopping to take pics of a tractor seat perched on the side of the road. It felt soooo much more comfortable than my bike saddle at that moment. Finally we arrived at the farmhouse which entailed: stretching, water top ups, opening and closing of boxes and only removing the Allsorts, catching up on the semi-finals of the World Cup Cricket with SA vs NZ, eating vast quantities of venison pie and salad, lubing bums and bikes and drinking tea. All of this in an hour.

There really wasn't a rush as we would finish that day, no matter what. We still aimed for a daylight finish and there was plenty of time.

The weather gods had other ideas.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

More storms, mud and a tail wind

Romansfontein has a special place in the hearts of the RASA riders. Somehow it epitomises a haven, a place where you will be cared for, it's a home from home. We rolled in there and made ourselves immediately comfortable washing bikes, drinking coke chased by copious amounts of tea.

Aasvoelberg in the distance
I think I had the same room as in 2009, it was certainly in the same area of the house but there are so many offshoots and nooks and crannies and spaces for riders to bed down, who can be certain. The ghost rider who did not arrive at Krantzkop was expected to make an appearance this night and Stefanie wisely decided to allocate a single room off the garage. It was miles away from me and probably guaranteed not to disturb the others in their rondavel.

There was a process of sifting through other peoples leftovers in their boxes and I scaled some sour jelly tots. My own biltong, trail mix and droe wors were put back into the common pile. I took some of Craig's soft Woolies biltong instead and topped up my Allsorts and easter eggs. I think I may have also snaffled some cheese wedges.

I had a neat pile on the floor of my room which makes early morning packing a breeze and the various gadgets were plugged in for charging. Will had showed Leon and I the path out of the farm which was all well and good in the daylight. In the pitch dark, it's another story altogether.

That night a huge storm rolled in with lightening, great echoing rolls of thunder and of course torrential rain. All I could think of was the racers who would be out in the middle of this and whether they would find some shelter. I ran through the route in my head trying to visualise the various options of farmhouses along the way. Not conducive to falling asleep. I had also opened my window a crack and every little noise sounded like an animal or creature trying to get in.
One of the landmarks

At 11:43 my GPS beeped at me. I fumbled for the lamp switch but it did not work. Thinking I had knocked the plug askew, I groped for the overhead light - nothing. The power was off. I had to leave my GPS plugged in case it came back on so for the rest of the night I had this regular beeping reminding me of the problem I was going to have the next day.

Ironically, Romansfontein was the first decent night's sleep I had on RASA 2009 but this time around, a good night's rest eluded me. Tiredness was beginning to accumulate. I was looking forward to the Aasvoelberg portage and navigation but dreaded the long district roads into Hofmeyer.
Wrapping up before the descent

4am eventually arrived but without courtesy of Eskom. Miraculously, Stefanie managed to produce the best breakfast of the trip on a gas ring and amidst a plague of miniature frogs. It was an egg frittata with cheese grillers sliced into it. Tasty! (Maybe it was frogs?)

It had stopped raining but was still dripping and threatening more. We opted to avoid the farm track and rode around on the district road. I had yet to wake fully and was disconcerted at the speedy pace set by Stewart as he hauled us along the gravel.

Bike wash
I spotted the black outline of the Aasvoelberg in the unearthly grey light of pre-dawn only to find out it was a copse of trees covering the road. Eventually, as the sky lightened and we arrived at Gunsteling gate, there was the mountain. We took a few minutes to orientate ourselves and I showed the others the path we would be taking.

Trying to stay ahead of the rain
No mistakes and we popped up at the gate at the top which would send us on our way down again. There was a pumping wind on top and we pulled out windproof layers before beginning a long descent to valley below. The descent is steep and wrists and brakes are saved by the berms built to stop erosion so I could afford to pick up speed knowing I would be forcibly slowed. The tail wind pushed unmercifully and it was exhilarating.

Reaching the Karoo proper
Or it was until we reached the mud. At first it flicked off like angry bees but in the lee of the berms it collected and reached out its sticky arms to coat wheels and jam derailleurs. Bummer. Having experienced this before, I managed to clear the mud with a stick enough to be able to lift my bike off the track and push it amongst the rocks and grass. After I rejoined the track, I walked next to the bike to keep weight off it and so came to the first of many gates.

From there the gradient dropped off again which seemed to keep the mud at bay and we rode all the way to the bottom stopping eventually at the river for an extended clean up. I hate getting my feet wet but here there was no real choice. I joined the others and waded in and used the river's flow to get rid of what I could.

 Pie Shop
I was really disappointed in our descent. I had looked forward to it despite its previous gnarly nature being tamed by an over zealous farmer grading the track. As we left the river behind, the soft road surface was tedious and it was really hard to find a rhythm. It was my turn to be towed by Leon for a couple of stretches and yet the road climbed ever so gently to Vlekpoort nek. Under normal circumstances, it would be an easy ride but not this day.

My GPS had long been switched off and I found it immensely disconcerting to be unable to track distance but then, it was always a surprise to know we covered large chunks of kilometers when we stopped at junctions.

A bike shop?
Miraculously, the roads to Hofmeyer were hard and fast helped by the still present tail wind. We formed an efficient echelon and in no time, we were at the pie shop. Pie, salad, chips, coffee and coke. The owners were kind enough to also provide us with a hosepipe to get rid of more of the mud.

Fueled up and shoved along by the wind, we reached the Elandsberg portage, notorious for catching people out. It had its claws ready again this year but not for us. The track was so well defined from the gate, I had trouble believing we were right but fragments of memory popped up and some Google earth images lodged in my head finally convinced me.

Tiger line to jeep track after the fence line
Once again, we had no problems and we picked up the jeep track that would lead us to our next support station at the base of Elandsberg. We arrived in great spirits to be greeted by an enormous boerbul called Jasper. We gave the bikes another wash and also washed his
slobber off us then piled into the tea.

I had begun to feel the effects of the previous four days and my legs were heavy with lactate. Despite propping them up, they were uncomfortable and I would pay the next day for not having done a good stretch and a bit of massage.

Race leader, Alex Harris finally caught us and impressed us with his efficiency. He checked his race box, selected his snacks, ate his meal and blew out again in an incredible 15 minutes. I snagged his unwanted Niknaks.

Almost at the support station
The best dinner of race was served up - chicken curry and plenty of it. Then we all fell into bed to the sounds of another storm brewing, catching up to us and then venting its fury. Warm and dry, I spared a brief thought for two riders who were expected to arrive in the next couple of hours - Mike Woolnough and Casper Venter.

Elandsberg saved its spite for the two of them and you can read about it here. The tale of Mike and Casper's race is extremely entertaining and gives one another perspective.

(If you click on the pics, you can view them as an album and in larger format)