Sunday, June 26, 2011
Sunday, September 26, 2010
I spent the last few days with a group of like-minded riders touring a section of a new route along the eastern escarpment. They all started at the beginning up in Haenertsberg (near Tzaneen) but I only joined up with them in Kaapsehoop and rode the last 2 days through to Bulembu in Swaziland. I'd scouted this section of the route for them as it's close to where I live. The riding was varied, with sections through open grasslands, through forests and along wetlands. (We even had some tar right at the end to get to the Josefsdal border post.) There were 2 back-up vehicles for medical support, to carry our baggage and meet us along the way for lunch and refreshments. The trip was the first recce of a proposed new route and there will most likely be tweaks to the route for the future, all in the name of improving the riding. (For more info on the route and the rest of the trip, check out Fiona's site here )
The main thing about this trip was that it was a tour and not a race. Of all the stats that were being recorded like distance, altitude, ascent and descent, time was shifted to the back of the queue - taking time out seems to have made the biggest difference - the lack of a clock ticking meant no pressure to get to the end as soon as possible. There was also no marked route to follow and getting there took a combination of map reading and following GPS tracks. The riders often stuck together to figure out the navigation. Snack breaks or picnic lunches were savoured, not rushed through in order to keep racing along. We also tended to be more observant of our surroundings and the terrain we were riding through, stopping to take photos of the incredible views or when animals, birds or interesting trees were spotted along the way. At the end of the day everyone shared the day's experiences over dinner and the comeraderie built up as the tour went on. By the time we got to Swaziland, it seemed no-one wanted to go home and everyone was already talking about when the next time would be.
Touring is the patient approach to riding, where the journey is more important than the destination. It may require a slightly different mindset or a more relaxed attitude but it's something everyone should try because it's a whole new way to have fun on your bike.
Sunday, August 1, 2010
Today I had the pleasure of checking out a new riding venue in my local area. Misty Valley Lodge sits at just over 2000m altitude and offers great riding potential. At the moment, their beginner loop is not quite complete yet but already it offers some fun singletrack with a few technical sections and wooden bridges along the way. There's plenty of game to see out on the plains too which adds to the experience. This place is all about sweeping views and high altitude riding and there are plans to develop it into a real mountain biking destination - something to which it's well suited. (More trails are in the works and they also offer guided weekend MTB packages and other activities for the whole family - www.mistyvalleylodge.co.za)
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
The day after the race dinner, a group of us went out to sample some singletrack near Wellington. The Bains Mountain Bike Trails start on Welvanpas Farm just outside Wellington. We rode the White Route which climbed up through the vineyards before turning into a brilliant singletrack roller coaster, carving its way through the forests and fynbos. I lost count of the number of wooden bridges and stream crossings, probably because I was too distracted by the views of the towering mountains all around us. At times it was tight and twisty, then open and flowing, with ups, downs and switchbacks, the trail had everything that makes a mountain biker smile! (and it was almost all rideable on a singlespeed ;))
These trails exist largely due to the efforts of 2 local riders, Brett Rightford (the winemaker at Diemersfontein) and Pieter Van Wyk. Over the last 3 years, they've arranged the access and put together a trail network across a few different farms and in the process have created an amazing MTB destination. Pieter spends a lot of time out on the trail with a shovel and the amount of work put in is impressive. There are currently 3 routes: White - 18km, Yellow - 17km, Blue - 10km. Riders need permits which are available at the trailhead coffee shop and wine tasting on Welvanpas Farm can also be arranged as an extra. The area plays host to the Gravel Travel MTB event held annually. (Their soon to be launched website will have more details: www.graveltravel.co.za but in the meantime there's more info here)
Last weekend was the final race dinner at Diemersfontien in Wellington. It was a gathering for all riders who could make it and a reunion for riders from previous years. The evening was filled with tales from the trail, shared over good food and wine.
Sharing the experiences I had during the race with the other riders and listening to their stories, I felt privileged to be amongst such a unique and varied group of people. All the riders agreed that it was taking a while to return to normal life after the race, sometimes it’s the crazy appetite that won’t quit or your sleeping patterns that are still out of sync – whatever the after effects, being able to chat to other people experiencing the same thing definitely helps and deepens the overall experience.
I was also pleasantly surprised to be awarded the ‘Stone Saddle’ – a floating trophy presented every year to one rider. In my case it was for completing it on a singlespeed and being the ‘Gentleman of the Trail.’ The trophy itself is really classic, a mounted piece of rock, shaped like a bike saddle, which was found by Johan Rissik near Prince Albert.
The Freedom Challenge is an experience that can be life changing because it's not just a bike race from A to B but a journey that mimics the journey of life itself. It requires a strong sense of adventure, trust in your own instincts and resourcefulness but also a good deal of humility and a dependence on the kindness and generosity of others to complete it. Those that take up the challenge are all so much richer for the experience.
Each time I look at my Finisher’s Blanket or wrap it around myself on a cold winter’s night, the memories and stories come flooding back and I’m back on the trail again. It will probably always be like this and I’m not complaining……
Saturday, July 10, 2010
A chance meeting on the road between Nelspruit and Barberton the other day - a group of 4 friends from the Basque region of Spain, on day 1 of their two month long cycling holiday through SA, Swaziland, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. They were slowly making their way to Piggs Peak in Swaziland and I stopped for a chat and to feed them some oranges, bananas and to top up their water bottles. Aitor, Koldo, Ane and Anartz are all teachers, speak basic English and are on their summer break, pedalling through southern Africa. They plan to camp out a lot and will meet other friends along the way in Maputo. I was keen to join them untill I felt the weight of their bikes! Loaded down with racks and panniers for all their gear and even with these heavy loads (20kg) they are aiming to ride about 50-70km per day. I really admire their sense of adventure and eagerness to explore. We swopped email adresses so will hopefully be able to stay in touch - all the best for your adventure guys, I know you'll have a really great time!
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Many people have asked me about the gear I used for the race (apart from the 32x17) and how I managed to keep the overall weight down to 6 or 7kg. Well I learnt a lot from the the previous year when I rode with Mike on the tandem and afterwards spent a good deal of time scouring the internet to see what the latest, greatest and lightest gear available was. Having limited access to these products in SA meant shopping online through various online outdoor retailers and that in itself was quite a positive experience. (These guys clearly understand the meaning of 'good service')
I was aiming for a total pack weight of not more than 8kg - having to stand up a lot on the singlespeed meant keeping the weight on my back light to counter fatigue. I also wanted to put some weight on the front to balance things out. Light = fast, so it made sense to just try and minimize weight wherever possible. Biggest decision was what size backpack to use, too big and I'd end up taking unneccessary luxuries, too small and I wouldn't have enough space for even the essentials - in the end I settled for a trail running/mtb pack from British company Inov-8. Their Race Pro 18l pack weighs only 470gr and has a unique wrap-around bladder system which keeps the liquid weight low and proved to be very stable and comfortable.(www.inov-8.com) On the front I used a converted travel pouch of about 1.5l capacity - after a few mods and sprucing it up with a Giant logo, this was attached to the shoulder straps and waistbelt of the pack and carried my maps, narratives, toilet paper, snacks, more snacks, pump,lube, sunscreen, camera and sometimes the phone or tracker plus some more snacks. Smaller things like spare batteries, headlamp battery pack, multitool, some meds etc went in the waistbelt pockets but were not accessed often. The convenience of having all essential items up front in the chest pouch meant I only took the backpack off if I needed to stash or get to extra clothing layers or replenish food supplies from the main bag. In the end the backpack weighed in at just over 6kg (with water) and the chest pouch at its heaviest was never more than 1.5kg. I would use the same system again, with a few tweaks to the way the chest pouch mounts in order to better stabilise it.
I didn't need to use a map board but I did use a small pouch mounted behind the stem on the top tube - this usually held whichever device was being charged by the hub but sometimes also the tracker and even some snacks on occasion. The charging unit mounted directly onto the stem and was the size of roughly 2 matchboxes. I had a Petzl Myo XP headlamp permanently mounted to my helmet - the remote battery pack would either be stashed in a waitbelt pocket or plugged in and carried in my jacket pocket.
Clothing was divided into day clothes and night clothes. My night clothes were a pair of Capestorm furnace leggings, a Capestorm Puffadder fleece, a pair of lightweight polyester Solz overtrousers together with the clean second base layer that I would be wearing the next day on the bike. For my feet I had a pair of thin Coolmax socks and a pair of mid-calf length Sealskinz socks, if I needed to go outside I would put on my riding shoes. The day clothes were: legs - a pair of Sealskinz long socks (to just under the knee), my Hoss Ponderosa 3/4 length baggies and full length Endura leg warmers if it was very cold. On top - a sleeveless First Ascent base layer, long sleeve base layer (alternated between a First Ascent and Endura merino wool base layer) and a long sleeve Giant winter-weight riding top. If it was very cold, I would then wear the Polaris Vortex jacket to cut the wind and keep me warm and if it was even colder or wet, my Golite Virga shell jacket and pants. One of the main reasons I could travel so light was thanks to the compact shell layer - 100% waterproof, breathable and under 500gr for pants and jacket combined and I was able to stow both in the outside mesh pocket of the bag where they were easily accessible without going into the main bag. These items were probably a quarter of the bulk/weight compared to other riders I saw. In the event of more extreme weather, I could have put my night clothes on as well but thankfully never had to resort to this. A big saving too was not carrying extra riding shorts - the baggies have a thinly padded liner which I washed out whenenever possible, when it wasn't possible to do laundry, I used a pair of thin, seamless lycra briefs inside the shorts which worked well. (The worst was not being able to do laundry for 3 consecutive days because I was riding big days and there were no drying facilities at the support stations - not recommended! I also went to bed in my dirty clothes at Bucklands because I was only going to sleep for 2 hours, I stank and the sticky layers felt pretty horrible the next morning but once I warmed up, I forgot about it.)
On my head I wore either a windproof skullcap plus Buff around the neck or a Capestorm balaclava or a combination of all three. (I carried 2 Buffs and on warmer days used these instead of the skull cap and balaclava) There were a few days where I never took the balaclava off because it was too cold! Gloves were my biggest concern, so I had 4 layers to play with - a thin wicking polyester glove, thin latex-free washing up gloves, windproof winter riding gloves (rated about +5C) and Sealskinz winter mtb gloves. I used all 4 coming out of Rhodes, Brosterlea and Elandsberg but most of the time I rode with 2 layers and later sometimes without gloves when it was sunny. Despite the 4 layers, my fingers froze coming out of Rhodes, so there's still scope for warmer gloves or maybe mittens.... My feet were always warm though.
Night clothes and spare base layer took up a bit more than a third of the pack volume and was kept in ziplock bags. Then there was my first aid kit, (pretty comprehensive and maybe a bit bulky in hindsight but glad I had it), toothbrush, small electric shaver and the chargers for tracker and phone (which I decided to take with in case the hub and charger didn't work out) as well as a bag of bike spares (rim tape, bottle of sealant, bomb, cable ties, duct tape, a spare tube, chain links and later a whole spare chain) The top third of the pack was usually taken up by a large ziplock bag of food supplies for a long day - sandwiches from support stations, mini cheddar biscuits, more energy bars, chocolates, nougat etc and small ziplock bags with energy drink powder, recovery shakes etc. This was in addition to the food in my front pouch - I always made sure I had more than enough food in case I had to sleep rough or got held up by the weather unexpectedly.
One the bike, I had a spare tyre strapped on under the seat and a more complete tool kit inside a 500ml bottle in the other bottle cage. The toolkit contained 3x bombs plus applicator, tyre levers, chain break, multitool, patch kit with some large gator patches for sidewall cuts, tubeless plug kit, spoke spanner, spare valve cores and a short length of chain. I never weighed all this but it felt a bit lighter than a full water bottle.
So to sum up, I basically only carried one set of riding clothing with two sets of base layers which I alternated. When it was possible to wash and dry laundry, I would wash everything but if not, I would just wash base layers. The clothing I had was chosen carefully, either to save weight or perform a certain function and I was dependant on doing laundry quite often. In the cold I had to keep moving in order to stay warm but often when walking and pushing the bike up hills I'd get quite hot. If conditions had been much worse with continuous rain or snow, I probably would have gotten a bit cold (especially my hands) but apart from the first stretch to just beyond Rhodes, the cold was still managable. Carrying more weight wasn't really an option though, even with this relatively light load, my back and shoulders were sore after a long day's riding. This was only really in the first half though, later on my body had adapted and amazingly, I hardly noticed the backpack anymore!