Some mad-cap friends, a hit-and-miss 10-week training programme, a crash-course in racing in the dark, and a sense of humour is enough ammunition to tackle the Trans Baviaans 24-hour mountain bike challenge, as rookie rider Neill Erickson shares …
RACE DAY – 18 August
A buzz of nervous anticipation was felt in the breakfast hall and then it was down to the start area to take the bags to the trucks, where the local brass band was leading the drummies.
And then we were off, about 450 mad riders with 224km’s to go!
The aim was to slipstream the bunch until the 1st stop. The pace was fast. After about 30km the groups had spread a bit and the tempo and heart rate eased slightly.
After a brisk 23.5km/h average, we were at the first check point – 50km. Two minutes later, off again but now on our own – the field had split up.
This section of road is very corrugated and a bit tedious. Occasionally teams caught us and the urge was to climb in behind but we thought it best not burn ourselves out. After a further 25km, we took a short planned stop to get the butt off the saddle and access some food.
Yes food, now this was scientific. The heart monitor was set to alarm every 20min to remind us to eat and drink – it’s essential to prevent dehydration or bonking. The science went like this. A jelly baby takes 20min to suck (and keeps the throat moist) so a stage of 2.5 hrs = 7JB’s + pieces of dried mango & few roasted salted mixed nuts per ½ hr and a baby potato. The juice in the camel pack contained all the electrolytes and list of other stuff which you needed a year’s med school study to understand. We also carried some energy bars and gels, just in case.
In this area the farming communities sporadically lined the route to give us support. We would move to the side of the road, put our hands out and have a moving hi-5 with the kids. One of the highlights of the ride was the uninhibited squeal of delight as I stooped particularly low to include a tiny girl at the end of a 7 kid line up.
The next stop and check point was Geelhoutbos after 107km and almost 5hrs of cycling. Our first PnP bag to refill food and drink was much needed as we’d run out of juice. I grabbed a delicious chocolate muffin, took a short stretch and then went off again.
This is where the beauty and fun part of the route started – water crossing and mountains. We had completed half the distance and I had my only energy gel of the ride, so I attacked the pass taking timeout at the top to appreciate the awesome beauty and to regroup. Mike got his smile back on the 275m descent over 6km – heaps of fun (max 72 km/h). This stage, although only 18km took 01h19 and got us to Doornkraal at roughly 16h00.
We were going better than expected and 1 hour ahead of schedule and decided to stop longer than planned – by this time the muscles knew they were on more than a casual outing. Here we stopped to put on lights & get some warmer clothes and food. And so with stomachs full and smiles on our faces the next stage awaited – the 2 fangs (short steep climbs) and the Bergplaas mountain – a 480m climb over 10km.
Imagine this setting: no-one else in sight as we quietly made our way through buffalo and rhino territory in the late afternoon shadows with the surrounding mountains displaying the ever changing sunset moods – what a privilege! We were now probably half way time wise. Not wanting to be heroes, when the going got tough, we got off and pushed, but still cycled most of Bergplaas. We reached the top as the sky was burning in a display of red and orange rays reaching from behind the silhouetted undulating depth of mountains – awesome!
But there was still another 2km of gradual grind till the summit. The lights came into play as the light show behind us disappeared and left nothing besides your breathing and a patch of LED illuminated road. We had entered into the next phase – night riding.
Bergplaas was the major stop. Warm soup and rolls and a mass of bikes and riders all vying for a share of the scarce available dim light. I had my own bag for all my paraphernalia. Picture this – wet shoes stuffed with newspaper, dry socks, shoe covers, cotton tights to go over the cycling leg warmers, windbreaker (to go over the 3 layers already worn), balaclava, full finger gloves (to go under existing cycle gloves), and not forgetting one helmet with 20W downlighter and 12V battery plus makeshift fastening device which I decided to take along after all – for the Bergplaas decent. Due to detailed planning & well rehearsed activities this entire stop took only 3.5 minutes – NOT – I’m amazed we only took 35 minutes!
Lights blazing, we set off like chokka boats in a sea of absolute darkness, and gathered a following of about 8. Tjaart’s lights were reasonable, so I told Mike to stay next to me as his lights were not great. Now there is a 2km slight descent until the start of the 5km hectic descent, which has a rutted surface, tight turns and no barriers to prevent certain death if you happen to go off the sheer edges. Here’s the twist, because all vehicles stay clear of the edge, this is the smoothest ride – how’s that for tempting? This was the absolute and uncontested highlight of the entire event. Whooping and hollering in delight as we cranked it down a pitch black Bergplaas on the edge at 40+km/h.
In less than no time the entourage, including Tjaart, disappeared and our unison screams of delight echoed in the still valley night. Regrouped at the bottom and headed for Komdomo, our next stop.
The reception at Komdomo was fantastic – also another highlight. Family and others making us feel like we were heroes and had just won. Well 174km is something to get excited about, it was already the furtherest single distance any of us had cycled. Some hot, hot chocolate, a concoction energy drink, specially requested chicken bun, stretching and 40min later we were like Willy Nelson – on the road again.
After a short 3km tar section reprieve we encountered the next challenge – the 17km long “never-ender”. After sitting for 180km on a small saddle, you want to stand once in a while to relieve the butt pressure, and stretch the calf muscles, but you had to peddle to keep moving and the legs were not keen to stand and peddle.
We saw 2 cyclists at a Y-junction stopped ahead. They had waited for us and were studying the instruction book (which we had mistakenly left in the car at Willowmore) because not only was this a physical and endurance challenge, it also entailed orienteering from the book. I could spend the next page telling you about how we decided not to follow the disappearing cyclists ahead and take a left fork. Suffice is to say when we saw the checkpoint lights, we let out screams of delight and relief!
A little nibble and we were off again, teamed up with the two cyclists and their book. Only 22km to go – we were almost there! Through farm gates, down a steep overgrown farm track to an unmanned self check in point, over a marshy drift, then up a steep hill – we had to push near the top. Then there were J-Bays lights in the distance. Mike warned that it wasn’t over till the fat lady sung. We carried on cycling and J-bay stayed in the distance. This is what spinning class prepared us for – peddling yourself silly but going nowhere.
We dipped slightly, the lights disappeared and a wide, proper dirt road appeared. Going along on autopilot, Tjaart and I suddenly wiped out in mud patch. Here we were on a dark deserted road 10 or so km’s from the end at 1 o’clock in the morning and we had our first drama – It really wasn’t over till the champagne cork popped!
At 01h17, we reached the end and still felt strong. The three of us came in together to cheers from our wives, clapping from the small crowd and our team IMCOR as our names were announced over the PA system.
15 hours and 17 min / 73rd out of 133 finishing teams / very chuffed with ourselves.
My wife now sleeps with an ultra athlete.
Click here for part 1