There’s really not many factual aspects of the ride that aren’t covered pretty thoroughly across these two pieces. But they do fall short in terms of this blog – being semi-official accounts for other purposes, neither really capture my feelings or experiences of the 600. That’s a gap which I’ll attempt to address now, hopefully without repeating too much of what’s already been said.
For what may be the first time ever, I found myself not needing to sneak around the house at 2:50am when the alarm woke me. I could bang and crash around as much as I liked because Yoli and Ben had already gone away for the weekend – in fact that was part of the ride plan. We’d rented a beach house in Onrus for Yoli and her parents that I would be aiming to reach for my sleep stop. At 473km into the ride, it was an extremely bold plan. In perfect conditions it was a tough but marginally possible target. But with the strong winds forecast for the day it was already looking on the foolish side of bravery.
I was also a little worried for Theunis too. Having not exactly discouraged him from having a crack at the 600km, it wouldn’t really very good form to drop him and push on hard. As it transpired though, that problem never even remotely arose. The first point we found ourselves trailing behind the main group was climbing Bains Kloof, and it was entirely down to me not Theunis. We left the Wellington control as a group, but within meters of pulling away from Peter Muller’s car my rear wheel punctured. If there is such a thing as a good time for a puncture then it’s at a control. But even with access to tools and a workshop pump the delay put us 10 or 15 minutes behind.
We made reasonable pace up the pass though, and a very decent speed through Slanghoek. By the time we reached Peter’s 2nd roadside control we’d caught up most of the riders again, aside from Chris and Derek who were charging along up front. Emmie, Thys and Gerritt were kitting up and pulling out pretty much as we pulled in. We drank coffee, ate, and regathered ourselves with the rest of the guys before rolling out. From Rawsonville the wind and heat steadily picked up. As we turned right onto the R60, I could see my water bottles would need a refill before McGregor. I suggested to Theunis we quickly stop at the padstal just up ahead, and we both grabbed a quick coke and some cold water. What was left after filling both bidons went over my bandana and sun sleeves.
We were back on the road a few minutes later, and riding with ice cold arms and head made for a wonderfully comfortable next next few kilometers. Finally I seem to be learning how to manage heat without fading. The headwind was more troublesome, and yet again it was me rather than Theunis holding us back – at least a couple of times leading up to the last climb over to Robertson I fell off the pace. We caught up with Nico and Eugene just before the start of the town, but they chose to stop for lunch whereas Theunis and I pushed on to McGregor before eating. I’d expected to see the guys who were ahead coming back past us as we slogged our way into the heat and the wind, but they were only just leaving the control as we reached the town and pulled over for food. Peter’s stint as safety driver was done at this point – needing to get back to his family for the weekend. He stayed and ate with us though before we all rolled out again.
This was perhaps the one control where we lingered a shade longer than we should have, but my glutes needed a rest. They’d been bothering me most of the morning. After a quick phone call with my coach Erica, we decided that lowering my saddle a couple of millimeters was worth a try. Whether the effect was real or in my head, it worked a charm and the problem never re-appeared. Sadly the wind was not so easily fixed – and as we turned right back in Robertson again, the rest of the leg to Bonnievale was spent battling. It had a leveling effect on all of our speeds too, we caught Nico and Eugene up front, and soon after, Daniel and Gerhard caught up with us. We rode into the Bonnievale as one group of six. All of us having ate lunch already at various places, we opted for the Spa in the middle of town for a quick control stop. A typical supermarket Audax stop – water, snacks, energy drinks or cokes. And on our way again. Sadly my prediction that we’d have a crosswind for the next stretch proved hopelessly wrong.
Once past the Stop/Go section around 10km out of town a pattern developed which would be painfully repeated for the next 65km to Bredasdorp – big rolling hill ahead, dropping to low gear and crawling up at a snail’s pace fighting both slope and headwind, followed by too short a descent, and then the pattern repeated. Again, and again and again. It was uncomfortably the slowest and toughest 74km I have spent on a bike ride of any kind. I lost count of how many short breather stops we took at the top of the many rollers – it was at least 3 or 4 though. On one of these I was seriously flagging and needed most of a bottle of coke and a whole Pronutro bar to get some energy back in my legs.
Theunis too found his energy reserves exhausted over the last 10km into Bredasdorp. We were now already past the 8pm to 9pm arrival I had hoped we’d arrive in Aghulas. Audaxing is all about adapting or throwing out plans depending on what a ride throws at you, and that was clearly needed now. Neither of us could realistically push on another 40km without taking fuel on board, so instead of making for a bowl of pasta at the accommodation in Aghulas we opted for a dinner stop in Bredasdorp. A Spur served up just what was needed in the form of burgers, chips, and multiple coffees. Henri Meier tried to refuse us paying for his food, just as Peter had done earlier in McGregor. But we insisted – it was a completely inadequate token of gratitude for them driving safety for us, but at least it was something.
It was getting chilly as we headed out of the restaurant for the last short stretch to the tip of the continent. We may have looked odd as we stuffed newspapers under our cycle jerseys as we kitted up, but in the absence of a gilet it was a surprisingly effective substitute. No wonder Tour riders are often seen grabbing a paper from the crowd at the top of a climb to ward off the cold of a fast descent – it works! Compared to the previous section we were now fairly flying along – I took a rare glance at the stats on my Garmin a couple of times as we rode through the darkness. Our average speed was picking up again, now around 16.5km from what I recall. It wasn’t great, but at least we’d be at the control before midnight.
Along one part of this long straight road my lights kept picking up pairs of little twinkling diamonds in the road – they were the eyes of frogs, hundreds of which were sitting or hopping in the road. It was rather hard to avoid running them over in places. Somewhere further on we saw an equally strange sight – coming towards us were what were clearly bike lights. My brain was obviously foggy by now from the day’s exertions because they were alongside us before I could make sense of who on earth would be out riding at this time of night. It was of course our fellow Randonneurs – Emmie, Thys and Gerrit were making back up to Bredasdorp for their sleep stop.
Despite the late hour and my desire for a rest I was rather sad when we finally saw the lights of Struisbaai ahead – this had been a wonderfully serene and peaceful stretch in stark contrast to what had preceded it. I know I’ve often commented on how much I love the night time riding of Audaxes, and this leg was up there with the best of them. We’d been concerned over the narrowness of this piece of road when planning the route, but in the dark quiet night it had been simply delightful.
I was beginning to fret somewhat about how we would find the house at Stormsee – the flash of the Aghulas lighthouse grew closer and closer before I remembered I’d had the foresight to stick a Waypoint for it on my Garmin. We were scouting around the complex and car park when a door opened and a friendly face peeked out – clearly we’d not been nearly as quiet as intended. It turned out there was no need to worry anyway. All of the riders who had arrived ahead of us were still awake, variously showering, chatting, eating pasta, drinking beer, and generally relaxing. Nico, Eugen, Thys and Gerrit hadn’t been far ahead of us on the road, so it perhaps wasn’t surprising they were still up. Derek on the other hand had arrived 7 hours earlier – in fact he and Chris had been the only riders to get there in daylight and manage a selfie at the lighthouse as proof of passage. It was very sociable of him but I did wonder if he’d regret passing up the chance of all that sleep.
The pasta Nico’s wife Valerida and her sister laid on for us was tasty, filling, and with perfect with a beer in hand. Daniel to my left looked seriously shell shocked – in fairness though, I suspect most of us did. I couldn’t help noticing that Theunis passed up both food and beer, opting just for a couch and a coffee. It was a worrying sight. We’d stoked up pretty well in Bredasdorp, but I doubted it was enough to do more than fill the hole we had dug in our energy reserves. A small part of me was still considering sticking to my plan and pushing on to Onrus before sleeping – but by now it was a very small part of me. It would be a minimum of 7 hours more cycling, alone, through the night. And by the time I arrived there, it would be daylight and I probably would be beyond sleeping. Reluctantly I abandoned the plan, and accepted Nico and Valerida’s kind offer of a towel for a shower, and a spare bed.
I’m not sure any amount of sleep has ever felt as short as the 45 minutes I managed to grab. It felt quite literally as if Valerida was waking us up moments after my eyes I had close. My phone confirmed otherwise though – it was 1am, we’d had our full allotment of sleep. It wasn’t nearly enough, but it would have to be. The control close time was 1:41am and I had no desire to put myself behind the clock before we even started the remaining 260km home. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed pasta with my breakfast coffee, or will be likely to again, but there in that moment it was just what I needed. Something warm and comforting before braving the dark and the cold. I encouraged Theunis to try some – but he was already on the way to the bathroom to throw up before I even had time to press the issue. The signs were not good, but despite his obvious suffering he kitted up and we wheeled out the front door as the other guys were starting to get themselves ready too.
We had time, and now wind with us, so we meted out a steady but not too taxing pace. Before long, Derek, Eugene and Nico passed us – but on the long straight road back to Bredasdorp, their blinking tail lights continued to be visible up ahead for the whole stretch up to the outskirts of town. In the quiet of the morning, I could sense Theunis gradually recovering strength as we rode along. We pulled into the 24 hour Engen in the middle of town before 4am, well ahead of the control close time. In the fluorescent glare of the garage shop we sat there like so many zombies, stuffing our faces with an assortment of junk snacks and drinks. I got some well deserved flak from Eugene about the toughness of the route so far – but at least from here we’d have the wind behind us most of the way home.
Dawn was just breaking was we rode silently through the town of Napier. We’d already crested a couple of decent sized rolling hills in the 10km or so after Bredasdorp, albeit with much less effort thanks to the helping breeze at our backs. Whether it was tiredness, or actually real, each roller after Napier seemed to get bigger and longer than the last. As the hills stacked up one after another, Theunis confidence that we were looking at the last before the turn to Stanford gradually subsided. To be fair though, as we reached the bottom of the dip beneath a particularly evil looking monster, he did in fact call it correctly – it was big, but it was the last. After the long grind to the top the 4-way stop was clearly visible at the foot of the wonderful snaking downhill ahead.
We stopped a couple of hundred meters after the turn, at the top of a short sharp incline. We sat munching snacks and chatting for a few minutes – but mostly admiring the view. The boundary where rolling Overberg pastures gave way to fynbos clad coastal mountains was below us. And just beyond it was the majestic sweeping rise of the Akkedisberg Pass. It slightly surreal to be feeling eager to get down there and start climbing it after all of the painful hills which had slowed our progress since Bonnievale, but the feeling was there nevertheless. It lay there before us like some heavenly gateway to the coast beyond, and it was begging to be climbed. It didn’t disappoint either – the herbal scent of the fynbos hung on the air as we wound up through the stunning scenery.
With a last couple of ramps, the worst of the hills were behind us. We rolled down to Stanford, swung right and headed towards Hermanus. With the wind behind, there was no breeze to deflect the rising heat of the day. It was still somewhere around 8am, and already uncomfortably warm – with no clouds in the sky, it was clearly going to be a scorcher. Without uttering a word, both Theunis and I had exactly the same thought for breakfast. In the middle of Hermanus we swung left and headed for Savannah Cafe. French toast and bacon for both of us, coffees for me, and milkshakes for Theunis. Not only had I missed the overnight stop with my family in Onrus, I was now missing breakfast too – I felt rather guilty. At least I knew that Yoli of all people understood that on a long and tough Audax you must make decisions in the moment to maximise your chances of finishing – and right now, food was that decision.
We at least had a plan to say hello at the Engen in Onrus – or would have, if I had sent the SMS that we were leaving the cafe to the right person. Instead though, I sent it to Nico – yet more evidence of my fatigued mental state. As a result, Theunis and I stood waiting for 10 or so minutes longer than expected until Yoli and Ben drove up the road. It was lovely to see them, but all too brief. We were ahead of the clock, but not by much, and needed to keep pressing on. In theory with the tailwind we should make good time, but the heat could be a factor as we rode into the middle of the day. Daniel joined us whilst we were waiting – it was disappointing to see him alone though. Gerhard had pulled out with a bad stomach. With is own ambitions on PBP, I knew what a bitter blow that must have felt. It served as a reminder that our ride was still far from in the bag.
We pushed on, but were barely out of the garage forecourt before Nico, Eugene and Derek came alongside too. Everyone’s differing speeds and breakfast stops and ours had averaged out and we were six on the road again into Kleinmond, about an hour up on the clock. My temptation was to stop briefly and push on, but the guys clearly needed a bit longer, so we sat eating ice creams and chatting. Time was still on our side as we headed out again, but there was that faint ticking of a clock again just as it had been on LEL heading south back into England. I knew I was feeling strong, and Theunis seemed to be in great shape too – we needed to capitalise on that and keep moving.
On the rise up from Pringle Bay we had the joy of some company in the form of Peter, Adele and family – not just keeping an eye on our safety, but also snapping photographs and sharing the odd word of encouragement. It was a great feeling and clear evidence that we were close to home. Not so close to be past all danger though. I did panic somewhat when a badly maintained lavatory door in the Strand Caltex locked itself behind me. Visions of missing the cutoff time trapped in a loo flashed through my mind, fortunately the moment was over quickly as one of the pump attendants came to my aid. More potential trouble surrounded us through Strand itself in the form of some of the most absent minded and downright abysmal driving I’ve ever seen. It was as if every driver was drunk, had sunstroke, or both. I guess in the end though the fault was our own for trying to ride through one of the most popular sections of Cape seafront in the middle of scorching hot Sunday. What else do you expect but distracted idiots in cars?
It seemed somewhat strange that the final 30km were along roads so familiar to me – quite literally ridden 3 or 4 times a week sometimes. I don’t ever remember riding them in such searing heat though. Add to that a severe case of hot-foot and I was seriously uncomfortable. I doubt Theunis was felling any better, but he was definitely somewhat stronger as we pulled out of Stellenbosch with just two remaining hills between us and the final control at the Klapmuts BP Garage. Having never experienced hot-foot before, I had no idea to alleviate it. Fortunately, Henri Meier and his greater experience in cycling matters came to my rescue at the stop. He doused both feet with cold water as I sucked on an ice lolly and downed one final Sterrie Stumpie bottled milkshake. Those last 10km were the first time I dared to allow myself to believe – with my previous 600km ending in a DNF, I just hadn’t dared to jynx this ride.
Somewhere before the final left turn back to Vrede, Nico swung across from the other side of the road. They had opted for the longer but flatter route past Vrede to Klapmuts. He was concerned for Daniel and Derek, both now seriously suffering from lack of sleep and in danger of nodding off at the wheel. We discussed what was legal in the way of assisting them, Nico opted to ride alongside to keep them awake, with Henri available on the motorbike a far enough distance behind to not be actually helping, but still be available in case of emergency. My concern was for Nico – it was a generous and selfless act, but one which could cause him to miss the cutoff himself.
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600km, are you mad?
Sane individuals do not decide on a Thursday that they will enter a ride in two days’ time which is triple their previous longest distance (202km). Normally at the very least, their friends would talk them out of it. Sadly in this case fellow Wannabee, Theunis Esterhuizen, had asked exactly the wrong person for advice on whether he should ride i.e. me! As someone whose sanity when it comes to cycling has often been questioned, I of course encouraged him to come across to the dark side.
And dark side it was at 3am Saturday morning, as 11 hardly individuals gathered to tackle the distance, in spite of a not exactly inviting weather forecast for the weekend. Two of the riders had travelled down from Gauteng for the event – both looking to notch it up as a qualifier for Paris-Brest-Paris in 2015. We also had a larger than normal send-off committee too, with some riders’ family joining at the start, Peter Müller as safety driver for the morning, and Wannabee club-mate Hendrik Vermaak– who had pitched up at this unearthly hour to wish us all a good ride.
The cutoff time for a 600km Audax is 40 hours. Under normal conditions this is plenty of time for a leisurely ride, a few enjoyable food and drink stops, and 4 or 5 hours sleep somewhere around halfway. With the first blasts of a strong East-South-Easter already slowing our progress up Bains Kloof it was clear that may not be the case today. Theunis had not just picked the wrong person to ask advice about tackling the ride, he’d also picked completely the wrong 600km for his first Audax experience. At least he wasn’t alone – two other brave madmen had also picked this to be their first long distance adventure, one who had clearly lost all sense and was riding a full suspension MTB with knobbly tyres.
Even with wind, we made good progress into the 3rd control point at McGregor, around 180km into the ride. And despite Eskom’s best efforts, the cafe our safety driver had pulled up at managed to feed and water us with a superb cold platter and iced coffees. For a further 20km back to Robertson we continued to make good pace, helped by the slight downhill gradient, but then things changed. The roundabout at the end of town will be familiar to every recent DC rider, and it marked two significant milestones on our ride too. It was the point at which Theunis crossed into the unknown – every meter beyond that point marked his longest ride to-date. Rather less exciting was that it was also where we swung into both the heat of the day, and the full force of the headwind. From here on, as we slogged along the beautiful lane flanked with flowers and vineyards, our progress became markedly slower and tougher. Part way down this stretch a few of us hopped under lawn sprinklers to douse of the worst of the searing heat.
The 4th control point at Bonnievale was around 228km into the ride, and the last stop for food and water this side of the 5th control at Bredasdorp. Peter Nolan had kindly checked the Stormsvlei road conditions for us as far as the N2, but we’d omitted to ask him quite how lumpy this stretch was. Into a full headwind, the rolling hills were punishing. But they were nothing compared to what awaited us the other side of the N2. The sign indicating 50km to Bredasdorp was handily sited in the bottom of one of these monstrous rollers, with nothing but rising tar ahead. It would have been enough to break the spirit of even the hardiest of Randonneurs, so quite how Theunis managed to keep pushing on in spite of the harsh conditions was remarkable. We both had low spots on this section, but luckily they didn’t coincide. Mine came first, and was fixed with a double sugar hit of Coke and Pronutro Bar. Theunis’ came towards the end of the stretch. He was clearly short of fuel so we opted to pull into Bredasdorp Spur for huge plates of food and multiple coffees and milkshakes. We bade goodbye here to Henri Meier at this point too – he had kindly come out on his BMW motorbike to ride safety for us on this long and lonely section.
The worst was over for the first leg – we were 300km into the ride, with a flat 40km to go until the 6th control at Aghulas, and some very welcome time off the bikes. It was around 11:30pm when we pulled into the control, a wonderful beach house in the Stormsee complex, kindly laid on by one of our other riders, Nico Coetzee and his family. Not just a bed, but also showers, pasta, beer, and coffee. There’s very little more a Randonneur could wish for just over halfway into a ride. Except for extra time. The wind had robbed us of 3 or 4 hours by this stage. The control close time of Aghulas was 1:41am. Our brevet cards were already signed, so in theory we could leave after the control closed, but it’s a risky strategy – one serious mechanical, and the rest of the ride becomes a battle against the clock on tired legs. So we took the “sensible option”, which was to opt for 45 minutes sleep before heading out again. Only in the world of Audaxing can sleeping for less than 1 hour out of 40 be called sensible!
It was obvious Theunis was battling with the idea of getting back on the bike – seriously nauseous, unable to face pasta for dinner or breakfast, or even keep a coffee down without chucking up. I’m not sure who was most surprised to see him mounting up, but he was there still pedaling as we headed North again back out of Aghulas. By now it was cold, with a slight drizzle in the air. But at least the wind was behind. A group of us were close together on the road by this stage. We watched the blinking tail lights of 3 riders ahead pretty much the whole way back up to Bredasdorp, and were a single group again by the outskirts of town. We rode into the Engen together and all 5 of us sat like zombies in the shop eating snacks, and drinking coffees and Sterrie Stumpies. It was just before 4am, and the sight of cyclists was clearly rather amusing to the few locals who stopped in to fill up their cars. I’m not sure they believed us that we were riding back to Stellenbosch, or that we had left there the morning before. Why would any sane person want to do that?
Our group fragmented again on the rolling hills through Napier, and on to the 4-Way stop where the route swung left over Akkedisberg Pass and down to Stanford. Theunis and I pushed on to Savannah Cafe in Hermanus for a proper breakfast, whereas Nico, Eugene and Derek opted for a food stop in Stanford. By the time we reached the official control point at Onrus though, speeds and stops had averaged out and we were one group again – also joined now by Daniel, who’s riding partner Gerhard had pulled out around Bredasdorp with a bad stomach. It was a bit before 11am as the 6 of us turned left past Arabella and on to the familiar coast road home through Kleinmond. Well, familiar to most of us that is, but a first for Nico. Perhaps his enjoyment of it was a little diminished by the fact that he’d been sat on the bike now for more than 30 hours.
Just an Argus or so to ride, with a bit over 7 hours to do it in, and only 2 control points left – Strand and Klapmuts. Easy right? The problem of course is built-up fatigue in legs, body, and especially brain. Peter and Adele Nolan and family joined us around Pringle Bay and were a great source of encouragement, especially as the coast road was now busy with early Sunday afternoon traffic. They also snapped some great shots of our group riding up and over to Rooi Els. By this stage we were 550km into the ride, with under 60km to go.
We lingered a bit at the Caltex on the way into Strand, and it was only when Eugene remarked that we wouldn’t be home before 5pm that I realised how close we were running the clock. One significant incident, and all of the effort of the last day and a half could be for nothing. For Theunis, it would mean no medal and not being able to say he’d completed a 600km Audax. For a few of us though, the consequences were even worse: a DNF of a Paris-Brest-Paris qualifier, meaning we would have to come back and do it all again next April. It didn’t bear thinking about, so Theunis and I stuck our heads down and pushed on. On the two nasty little hills out of Stellenbosch on the R44, Theunis was pulling much more strongly than I was able too, arriving at the BP Garage a minute or two ahead of me. Henri Meier had joined us again, to see us over the last few kilometers. A great comforter to ward off the threat of a mishap at this late stage, and also a source of relief for me as he poured cold water over my feet and alleviated a nasty case of hot-foot that had been building up the last few hours.
It was a beautiful evening – so close to home, and with more than an hour in hand, it was actually possible to relax, look up and enjoy the scenery bathed in an orange evening light. A lot of thoughts go through one’s mind on the last couple of kilometers of such a long ride. As I swung left onto the R304 and the finish at Vrede Wines came into view, I’m willing to bet I know what was going through Theunis’ mind just ahead of me on the road.
“I’ve done it!”
Those were the exact same words I heard him whisper under his breath on his first DC as he crested the top of the last of the three bitches. Now, 3 years on and 3 times the distance, I hope he shouted it out loud this time though. His official time for the 609km was 38 hours 43 minutes – mine was around 7 minutes longer. Not content with seeing us off, Hendrik had returned to congratulate us at the finish too. As we both sprawled on Vrede’s tasting room steps, Henri Meier came in too followed by the remaining group of 4 riders. 10 riders out of 11 home within the cutoff time, an astonishing effort given the conditions. It’s hard to imagine how the 1st rider, Chris van Zyl, had managed to complete the course in a shade over 26 hours – but he is the South African record holder for Paris-Brest-Paris.