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)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Big Ride

No caption needed
The night before the ride began, my sleep was packed with restless dreams about what was to come. (Not quite as bad as Carl who dreamed he could not navigate past the first turn-off!) Slaapkrantz was heavenly, a little lie down in the afternoon and a full eight hours of sleep.

Krantzkop changed all that. We had heard there was a rider from the batch behind who would make his way to us - doubling up the first two stages. We calculated that he would arrive around midnight.
Ghost riders

Now the farmhouse is a thick walled building with springy wooden floors which creaked incessantly as we walked throughout. There were three bedrooms, two of which had four beds in them. This late arrival would have to sleep in one of them making it a lottery as to who would get disturbed. To add to that, we left the outside light on making the rooms rather bright throughout the night.

On track
I tossed and turned. Every little noise sounded like a rider arriving and I lay there ears straining expecting a hesitant push on the door to the room. Gritty eyed, I eventually got up at 3:30am for a 4:30am departure. In the subdued early morning conversation, it appeared we'd all been affected by the expectations!

Endless gates
Our hosts had left pre-cooked oats, boiled eggs, bread, jam, cheese and the like for our breakfast. They stayed off the property and like all good sensible people, they refused to come and cook for the early morning lunatics.

I tried, I really tried to turn the oats into something that did not jam my throat like wet concrete. The boiled eggs might as well have been sponge balls for all the ease at which I tried to eat them. I should have copied Leon and eaten leftover lasagna. It was early, I was tired and in truth, not very hungry.

Early morning mists
We finally switched off the outside light realising that no other rider was going to arrive before daylight and we left in the utter dark, pierced only by our bike lights.

We cruised through the next sections despite the dark with only a minor glitch at a farm which was quickly rectified. The pre-dawn mist and ghostly light was just enough to negotiate some final fences before we hopped onto a farm jeep track and rode towards the N6 tar road close to Jamestown.

Breakfast again
It was time for some breakfast. My mind still thinks of Freedom riders as some sort of mutant version of hobbits. Before 12:00, we've had about six breakfasts.

I was looking forward to this stretch. Four of us had slept out at a farm called Gouevlei in 2009 and it would be good to see the terrain without wind, driving rain and snow. The other part of my mind dreaded the section to Brosterlea. I had the feeling it would prove to be endless and undulating.

On the way to Brosterlea
The newly graded section was soft going but after the nth hill, it eventually hardened up and made the riding a little quicker. I was feeling so tired at this point. So I set my sights on not falling below 10km an hour and pedaled onward. I remember being absurdly pleased at staying at around 12km an hour.

About 12km from Brosterlea I saw one of the riders riding back towards me which was surprising as none of us had felt the need to retrace steps. Usually we waited at some point.

Panoramic vistas

'Rare' sighting of sheep
It was Jonathan from Batch A who had fallen ill and stayed at Brosterlea to recover. The big man had picked up some virus of sorts and was simply unable to push his bike, let alone ride it. He was now rejoining the race and would see whether he could stay with our Batch. It was great to add a riding buddy to the mix and he kept me company, stopping only to photograph a headless puffadder.

Company of hobbits
I struggled into the farm feeling terrible. Shoes off and I padded into the lounge and dropped to the floor. I remember fiddling in my pack trying to get organised - for the life of me, I don't know what I was doing but there may have been a cup of tea involved.

It's a gate...again
The curry and rice was served with aplomb and I smashed two servings. I also scaled some leftover sun tan lotion from Annie. Not to eat... I remembered to lube my bum which had taken some strain on the 18km stretch. And so it went on. A jumble of activities without any coherent plan.

Weltevrede water
The style
Yet when we hit the road for the next stretch, I was a different person. We blew through the Emdale farm section and this was a real highlight of riding. It was interesting, technical and such varied terrain. Then it was onto the Stormberg portage.

Historic Blockhouse
This we negotiated easily finding one of the styles quickly and descending down to the blockhouse in quick time. While those who had not seen this piece of history explored it, a train came through giving us a couple of blasts as it shot through.

Vegkoppies was negotiated and we seemed to just be moving really smoothly through section after section. A short break as we left the tar, with a bit of a top up on Allsorts and it was onto the gravel road again. On this section a bakkie came roaring up to us and we were greeted by Race Director, Glenn Harrison and his passenger, Robbie McIntosh who had withdrawn due to illness.

Beautiful veggie garden and smiles
A brand new farmhouse, still in the stages of construction provided us with a top up of water before we hit the final stretches before Romansfontein. We had a quick catch up on the race news and were particularly interested in the progress of the guys racing to Cradock. Glenn predicted that Alex Harris would join us for breakfast in Romansfontein and I expected Mike Woolnough (now teamed up with Casper Venter) to catch us at Elandsberg.
Jonathan hanging in

Nothing ever works out the way we think on this race.

Jonathan was hanging in and on the last stretch, we fell a little behind the others. I can now announce that for the first time and probably only time, I towed him.
Always time for a snack

As we finally reached the turnoff to Romansfontein, the rest of group were waiting. Only 800m from the farmhouse, they still chose to wait. It just epitomises the spirit of the group and the nature of the riders to take these adventures.

We had ridden 130 km and it had been wonderful.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Three portages and a storm

Early morning above Slaapkrantz
Now we had a day behind us, we all felt a little more comfortable as a group. Stewart and Annie had established that I did not particularly want to ride alone and I had established that they were happy to ride with anyone else. We had a laugh at the courtesies and assumptions and the group decided to tackle the next morning's three portages as a unit. Then we'd decide on the strategy for the rest of the stage.

There's always a fence
Life is so easy when living out of a small backpack. The shirt I wore that evening was my riding shirt for the next day. My shorts had been washed and sun dried and that was it. Day One repeated - no frills, no fuss.

We left at 5am reckoning it would be light by the time we needed to do serious navigation. It was warm and when we reached the hike-a-bike section, we were all sweating profusely. It would get worse!

The gradient got steeper (registering 34% at times) and the path narrower and more rutted. I had my bike on my back and it was no easy feat preventing the bike from hooking the stringy bushes and trying to place my feet directly in front of each other - it's hard to balance that way. Try it. (I now know why models mince down runways, they are trying to keep their balance as they cross feet in front of the other.)

We reached the top as the sky lightened, took a breather then tackled the next section. We opted to contour around and it was easy and quick, picking up a path which virtually took us to the jeep track.

Descending from Slaapkrantz portage
As we rounded the corner, there was a spectacular weather front over the mountains in front of us. We needed to make sure we were ahead of it on the next two portages. With Slaapkrantz safely negotiated and no errors, it was on to Loutebron. The real struggle for me on this section was matching the map and the surroundings. The old adventure racing maxim "Always know where you are on the map" was not playing out and I was loathe to commit until I was sure. Fences had appeared that were not on the map and the route plotted on the map did not fit the terrain.
Beginning Loutebron

Stewart and I studied the maps and watched the other riders disappear over the crest. Eventually we decided to follow and see where they went. Relief. They swung towards the spur we had identified and all was right with the world...until we reached the path and hiked our bikes up another steep jeep track. Swinging bikes up and onto backs creates for some interesting niggles and stiff muscles. Sweating again, we eventually summit-ted and ran straight into a fence.

Loutebron farm house way below
Snack rewards on reaching the top
Going back to basic nav eventually sorted us out. Align the map, use the compass and while doing this, turn 360 degrees. The jeep track showed itself where it had snuck across some grass. Gotcha!

We barreled along until we reached the split that would lead us to the saddle and the treacherous descent to Bontehoek. There is something very special about sitting at the top of the world, looking back on what you've negotiated with a bicycle. Riders who refuse to pick up their bikes and hike can never aspire to these views and the deep rooted pleasure at pushing through physical boundaries and limitations.

Promised snack and water break at Bontehoek

Secret valleys
Finally we reached the district road and set off for lunch at Moordenaarspoort. I had come off the mountain feeling incredibly upbeat and happy. Within minutes, my head did itself in and I plunged right down into a cesspit of negativity. I couldn't change into granny gear (an absolute necessity) and when I manually forced it, it clattered so badly, I thought my chain wouldn't last. Close to tears, I fiddled with the cable adjuster which made no difference whatsoever, The rest of the group had disappeared up the road and I was on my own.

Finally I had the good sense to prod at my derailleur and sort of straighten it - at least that's what I think I did. It probably only needed millimeters of adjustment but it worked. My head did one of those spinning thingies and my happy mood was back. To add to it, the group waited for me at the junction and off we sped to Roussouw.

Welcome lunch stop
Moordenaarspoort was so close and already I was disinterested in my snacks. The only thing I was enjoying were the Licorice Allsorts. I had not remembered that 7km of the 14km to lunch were uphill and severely so. But then again, the next 7km were downhill and fast. Life and the race were peachy.
Riding into the storm
Thick butternut soup, several fresh rolls layered with butter filled the spot. Anke - all of 7 years old - had painstakingly prepared a gift for Annie and I. A book of drawings and stickers. I'll have to post pictures of that too. It survived the next few days of rain and sun and is safely back in Johannesburg with me.

Dark clouds were looming in the distance and it seemed that we would ride away from them as we left the farm. The wind picked up and one could see the distant hills slowly disappear behind a veil of grey as the rain took hold. I'd been counting the time between lightening and thunder and it was definitely getting closer. A mere 7km from Moordenaarspoort, we were well and truly caught.

Lashing rain and winds
It was a sudden, violent onset of lashing rain, storm winds that threatened to knock us off our bikes, lightening and great peals of thunder. The rain gear was hauled out and we briefly contemplated continuing which would have been into the storm's teeth. There were some farm buildings off to our right so we scampered down the hill trying to hold a line as the wind and rain buffeted us, almost unseating me. An empty barn was our salvation and we waited out the worst of the storm shivering but sheltered.

The Barn
As we'd anticipated, the storm moved on and we ventured out again, our sights set on Krantzkop, 30 odd kms away. But all had changed.

From hard packed dirt roads, we now had soggy spongy tracks to negotiate. In the forty minutes of rain, the roads had become soft and forgiving, sucking our tires into the mud. Nowhere was easier.

Storm's aftermath
Weather especially violent weather can be exhilarating. The suddenness of the storm, the massive squall that accompanied it and now its aftermath of rivulets is part of the game. It's a fundamental part of riding this event and it's to be embraced in all its difficulty and its beauty. Somehow, between all of us, we found some rhythm and managed to power our way through the mud, the pools of water and still find something epic about our adventure.

Still smiling
As we hit the district road some 6kms from our destination, we were all astounded at how we were only managing a speed of 12km/hour on a slight downhill. Needless to say, we opted to walk the short climb up the nek.

The turnoff to Krantzkop came quickly. Too quickly for Craig who shot past and ended up at the farm at the bottom of the hill. It was quite comical seeing him way below us, puzzling out how we had got to the farmhouse.

Once we were all ensconced, the guys built a large fire and all our wet gear steamed quietly as we ate our fill and prepared for the Queen stage of the event. One hundred and thirty kilometres to Romansfontein.

After the storm