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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A hidden gem near Wellington

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)

The Race Dinner

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

Travelling heavy

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

Travelling light

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!

Behind the scenes

I've mentioned the kind individuals who helped me out on the trail but there were others behind the scenes who helped to get me to the start line and were supporting me all the way. Taking a perfectly good Giant XTC1 29er and converting it into a functioning singlespeed proved quite challenging in the little time available (I only got confirmation of the entry 3 weeks before the start...) Wanting to try out the dynamo hub and charger further complicated matters as it meant having to build up a new wheelset in time. The problem of sourcing a reliable singlespeed hub was solved when Grant Walliser of International Trade stepped in with a very generous offer to supply components and clothing from amongst the brands he imports. As the Hope agent for SA, he supplied a Hope Pro II Singlespeed hub, an absolutely reliable, truly 'fit and forget' piece of equipment. The freewheel buzzed away happily and it never gave any trouble throughout the trip. I also used a set of Hope Mini hydraulic brakes and was impressed by their fade-free performance on some of the longer, rougher downhill sections (some of these descents went on for 15km). On the clothing side, in addition to all the base layers and other warm gear, my primary outer layers were a Polaris Vortex jacket and a pair of Hoss Ponderosa 3/4 length baggies. The Vortex jacket has a windproof front and sleeves and packs up nice and small for something that warm. I think I was the only rider in baggies (there should be a category for 'Fastest Ride in Baggy Shorts')but I chose them for comfort and extra warmth - having my knees covered kept me warm without needing seperate knee warmers. They were pretty tough too, surviving many fence crossings, gate scalings and thrashes through the bush looking none the worse for wear. Thanks Grant, your kit worked really well and I'll be using it and recommending it in the future.

To build the wheels, I approached Johan Bornman from Yellow Saddle Cycling. While waiting for the actual parts to arrive, he got busy sourcing the correct spoke lengths and suitable rims and then got stuck into the building as soon as was possible. Thanks Johan, those wheels took an absolute pounding out there but they survived without a single broken spoke and are still running true - a job well done.

My mate Rob, from Resonate Audio in Cape Town, gave me a stack of music to load onto my phone for the trip. I hadn't ridden with music before but figured that it might be useful to pass the time on the longer stretches. In the end I used it on selected stretches. It proved a real bonus because when I hit the shuffle button and put my head down, the upbeat tunes kept my legs turning and my mind engaged, making the time and the miles pass quicker. Thanks Rob, those tunes did the trick.

Keeping a blog going was one of the bigger challenges during the ride. After a long day you just want to eat, shower and sleep! Having to take pictures during the day and summarise the day's events every night, sometimes meant sacrificing 30-60min of precious sleep. Not always having signal at night sometimes meant only getting the blog out the following day. I have to thank a friend of mine from Waterval Boven, Claire Taylor, for posting the blog for me every day. I would email it to her from my phone and she would post it up for all the followers. Later when I got the phone set up to post directly to the blog, she would edit and check it or rotate a picture if need be. Thanks Claire, with you in charge, I knew the message would get out and the followers would get their daily fix.

There are others as well who helped before, during or after the ride in some or other way (thanks Dean and Gill for fetching me in Cape Town and for everything else) I guess what I'm trying to say is that even though this event is an individual pursuit, it would not be possible without the help of others and their involvment makes it all the more memorable for me - so thank you all!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Fun and Games

Sitting here nibbling on yet another snack and wondering how long until dinner, my body is still stuck somewhere in race mode. The body clock also has'nt quite reset itself to normal sleep patterns and a daily routine but on the whole I'm feeling fine and easing my way into normal life again. My thoughts return constantly to the trail and I'm finally able to reflect back on this year's race and the crazy adventure it turned out to be!

I had fun. Yes, even though the day's were long, the nights were cold, the headwinds blew and the sand was sometimes thick, when I think back, I remember plenty of moments when I was smiling, actually racing, covering ground efficiently and trying to chase down the front runners and sometimes even getting it right. Going out on a singlespeed meant I was always going to be in a one-horse race, just me against the clock but when I realised that by putting in a few more hours a day, I could keep up with the other guys, it became a game to see if and for how long I could hang on. And that was the whole fun bit, focusing on the game being played kept my thoughts positive in spite of the bad weather, late nights, punctures, headwinds - those were just the daily curveballs you had to deal with which kept it interesting and kept us honest. Making up ground on them was hugely motivating and losing ground just as disappointing.

After the initial hard days and cold weather had taken their toll on me, I started to stabilise and recover and when the weather started improving, it made sense to try and push hard to get back on track and maybe even have a few days in reserve for if the weather changed suddenly again. Thus began the other little game of 'chasing the sun' With the sun setting in the west, you're usually always riding into the sun in the afternoons on your way to the Cape. The portage sections act as obstacles along the route that slow you down and you'll always be quicker through them in daylight, so I would race to get over these portages before sunset and then ride on for a few hours into the night. On so many of the days, my focus from the time I woke up was on the last portage section I needed to clear before sunset that day and along the way, I'd be checking time and assessing how long I could afford to stop for snacks or lunch, all based on how many hours were still needed to get to and over the portages. I chased the sun to get off the ridge at Tinana Mission, again to get over Bonthoek before dark, raced across the plains through Hofmeyr to try and get through Elandsberg with enough light, again to clear the Struishoek portage near Pearston and later to get through the sandy jeep tracks of Anysberg and the tricky powerline track at Coeniesrivier in the light. Each time I came up short, wishing for even just 30min more light to make it easier. Sometimes it was because my top speed on the singlespeed was just too slow, other times because the hills had been too steep and I'd had to walk more than anticipated. Often the wind or riding surface had played a role - I still got through them all in the end but sometimes sacrificed precious sleep time in the process. On the final day up the Stettynskloof portage, I made it out the kloof with about 20min of light to spare - this was a seemingly small detail but this had been my goal since 3:30am that morning and I'd been chasing hard to get there so it felt really good to crest the ridge and find the road in daylight for a change, a small victory which made the last 30km to the finish seem easier.

I had a fairly good idea of the route after last year's tandem ride but there were some new sections this year which I attempted in the dark for the first time. Navigating in the dark makes things much harder and also slower, so if there was a new section that I needed to get through in the dark (in order to make it to a set goal for the day) I would attempt it before dawn, so that if I got it wrong, at least I could wait for daylight to solve the puzzle, rather than get it wrong at night and have to sleep rough (and cold). I got through the new Mjikelweni section near Tinana Mission like this and did the same on the Stormberg section near Molteno (although I probably wasted about 30min here following the wrong jeep track) as well as the Trappieskraal section after Kasra but it backfired horribly on the Perdeberg section after Bucklands and cost me at least 5 hours and effectively a whole stage that day! This was quite a psychological blow at the time because making up the lost time was not easy on that part of the course where the stages get longer and harder. The only way to really keep moving then was to focus on interim goals for the day - "get to Dam se Drif by 11:00am" or "get to Willowmore by 18:00" - getting there on time or ahead of schedule would be a boost and all of a sudden I was thinking positive thoughts again and the chase was back on.

Many people have asked me what the physical/mental split is for a race like this. Obviously the physical component is massive and there's no way your body will cope if you haven't done any training. It's hard to peg the mental component though because it's equally massive, you go through so many psychological highs and lows every day and being able to control and stabilise them is often harder than just turning the pedals. I found that on the days when fatigue didn't overwhelm me and I could generally remain in a positive frame of mind, even the really big days felt manageable and the time in the saddle passed quickly. On other days when I was very tired, I often struggled to complete the shorter distances and they seemed to drag on forever. I would almost say that the mental part is bigger than the physical but you can't neglect either of them if you want to finish in one piece.

Sometimes during the longer, monotonous sections, it was hard to keep focused, especially after a long day with a tired body. Then there were other games I resorted to to keep me alert - trying to guess what was on a road sign from behind, bleating at sheep or mooing at cows and seeing how they reacted (the Eastern Cape merinos are an unsociable lot, Angora goats in the Camdeboo are quite inquisitive, the cattle around the Darlington Dam are quite friendly and the Alpacas near Montagu are obviously Spanish so they didn't understand me at all!). I also listened to music playing on my phone sometimes, it really worked well when I needed to keep going at a higher intensity but sometimes I preferred to ride in the quiet of the night or the pre-dawn stillness (especially after having ridden in strong, noisy wind all day). Other times, I'd come across a humourous sign and be giggling about it still hours later. Strange as this behaviour may seem, it was all part of the fun and games and helped keep the mind positive and the wheels turning.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Winding Down

I've been looking forward to getting back home to Waterval Boven, to relax, recover and reflect on the happenings of the last few weeks. But instead of winding down quietly, this weekend has been a celebration with friends. Birthday gifts, braais, watching WC soccer, dogs, bikes, trails and good times! I've been overwhelmed by all the congratulations and questions, the interest in the race, my bike, my gear, its been amazing! Unlike last year after the tandem ride, when I couldn't get back on a bike for 4 months because of injuries, this time I've been psyched to get riding again and being able to do that with all my riding mates, on my local trails, has been great, the perfect way to unwind.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Many thankyou's

Driving back from Cape Town yesterday, through the vastness of the Karoo, I began to appreciate the scale of the ride. At the start, your focus is very much set on the first few days and in effect that's the best way to tackle such a big event - break it up into little chunks and slowly nibble away at each piece until pretty soon you're there. Each little chunk comes with it's own surprises and challenges and learning to deal with them is a big part of this race. But even though it sometimes feels like you're all alone out there, there are many friends and willing helpers along the way. A few of them bear mentioning: Jim at Ntsikeni - I was dead on my feet when I arrived here just after sunset on day 2 and feeling the pressure of being a bit behind schedule but Jim, a veteran of many Cape Epics, calmly advised me to stop, rest and regroup and that there was plenty of time to start charging later. Thanks Jim, you were right, the rest worked and the easier day afterwards gave me more valuble recovery time, just the platform I needed to start pushing harder. My hardest stage was definately the stretch through the Moordenaars Karoo from Willowmore to Prince Albert. 14 hours of toil and sweat later, it was a welcome sight to see Johan Rissik at the side of the road with coffee, rusks and encouragement. The remaining 2 hours flew by and while I caught up on some sleep in Prince Albert, Johan got busy tweaking the chain tensioning setup and effectively sorted out the niggling chain problem for me. Thanks Johan for your expertise and for taking the trouble to help me out. Mike Woolnough, my tandem partner from last year's race, was always just an sms away and kept me informed of the weather and what the other racing snakes were up to - thanks Mike for your help and encouragement, especially through some of the longer pushes. And then there was my bike... I came to depend on it every day to carry me over great distances and it tirelessly did just that without so much as a creak, crack or moan. A trusty companion, an impressive machine, it really opened my eyes to the benefits of the 29er platform - thanks to the guys at Dragons Sports for the Giant XTC1 29er, a bike I would happily use again and would recommend to anyone looking for a solid 29er machine. Last but not least, thanks to all the followers of the blog and tweets and to all those sending me SMS's of support and encouragement - knowing you guys and girls were watching meant I was never alone and I drew comfort and motivation from this. If this is starting to sound like a goodbye, don't worry, there's still much to tell and over the next few days I'll also report back on what kit I used, what worked or didn't and also some backgound info and responses to the questions I've received.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Day 16: Kasra to Diemersfontein

145km/17hours. The final day, starting from Kasra at 3:30am, the initial jeep track portage in the dark went slowly when my left shoe started falling apart. Duct tape and cable ties kept it together but I had to stop often to fiddle with it. Once on the bike, I had to plug a stubborn puncture but as the sun came up, I got into a better rythym and raced across to Trouthaven. Once there, I had a quick meal and refuel and got going towards the dam wall to start the final Stettynkloof portage. The kloof is about 8km long and spectacularly beautiful and I was lucky to have good weather too. I started down the path at midday and got to the halfway mark in about 2 hours, but then slowed a bit when my shoe started falling apart again. The new firebreak at the back of the valley was a welcome sight as it meant an easier passage along the second half of the kloof, although the final climb out is still as steep as ever! Topping out of the kloof at 17h30, I had some daylight to spare, but got a puncture within the first 50m and after another plug fix, the light was almost gone. The last stretch includes some steep cement tracks that I had to push up and a long uphill on tar to get up the Du Toit's Kloof Pass. I had a snack break on the way up and then also got a bit lost dropping down through the forests thanks to the vague route narrative! But at 20h20, I finally rolled across the finish line at Diemersfontein, tired after another long day in the saddle but elated and happy to finally be there. A small group welcomed me in, and after some food in front of a roaring fireplace, David presented me with the finisher's blanket and congratulated me on the new singlespeed record: 15days 14hours 20min.