10th September 2016, Cape 300km
I’d already resigned myself to the fact that in all likelihood I would be riding most of this 300 alone. In fact I’d said as much to Yoli the evening before. Neither Gerhard nor Theunis were riding, and everyone on the signup sheet was a faster rider than me. So it came as no surprise to see the blinking tail lights of the main group slowly shrinking ahead of me as the gap between us widened. It was 4am, and I was completely alone in the dark – the civilization of Franschhoek was still 15 or 20 minutes riding ahead. I reminded myself that this would be my reality for two whole weeks if I take on TCR next year, so I’d better get used to it. South Africa may have something of a reputation for being less than safe to cycle alone but, from reading rider accounts from past TCR editions, the deeper you ride into the Balkan states the more you enter similar territory. Reports of bike jackings at home feel all too close, but whilst riding overseas may feel safer, in truth it’s possibly as much of a case of ignorance being bliss. I knuckled down and focused the only thing which belongs in the mind of an endurance cyclist, turning the pedals to inch me along the kilometres ahead.
And then the lights came – the unmistakeable broad yellow glow of a car behind. Except this one did not whoosh past me and disappear into the dark of the morning. They stayed constant, along with the low menacing rumble of it’s engine. My heart, already beating harder from the exertion of cycling, now jumped into my throat. I could still just about make out the tail lights of the group ahead and, subconsciously, I felt my pace pick up. Maybe if the driver behind thought I was too close to the group, they’d leave me alone. It was a forlorn hope though – the headwind was strong, and even the fresh burst of adrenalin wasn’t going to give me the pace to cover the gap solo. I can only recall a few of the many thoughts that rushed through my head in what felt like an eternity, but was probably just a few seconds. First of them was what to do when the guys pulled in front of me and jumped out of the car, which felt inevitable. The bike was insured. Hopefully just giving them what they wanted would be enough and they’d leave me relatively unharmed. I wanted to look around to see if I could figure how many of them there were, but I knew it was a bad idea – the headlights would blind my vision, and my frightened face looking back would probably just egg them on. Mixed in with the other thoughts, I was kicking myself for not having a tracker on me with a panic button (SPOT Trackers are definitely on my call list before the next Audax). But top of the pile was hoping that whatever took place in the next few minutes, I’d see Yoli and Ben again safe and sound later on today.
And then an odd thing happened – or rather an odd nothing happened. I carried on focusing on the only thing an endurance cyclist ever can, pedalling. And minute by minute the lights of the town in front grew steadily brighter. A faint inner voice (which would have made Yoli proud) just told me to trust my angels and deal with whatever happened. Although even as time moved on, I wondered if they had some plan to mug me closer to the town so they could slip away quickly to wherever they lived. There really wasn’t much logic to that though – there’d be significantly more chance of someone spotting them under street-lights, especially as the population would be slowly waking up.
And then another odd thing happened – or rather an odd thought happened. My assumption for the last 10 minutes or so had been that whoever was inside this vehicle was out to harm me. Was it possible they could actually be keeping an eye on me? Perhaps it wasn’t a car at all, maybe it was a police van? Even more I wanted to turn around, but I stuck to my guns and rode on. Surely no one cares enough about a random stranger to crawl along behind them in the small hours of the morning just to watch over them? Except in South Africa it seems – for as we reached the few workers houses on the outskirts of town, the glow of the lights swung left and I heard the crunch of wheels on gravel. As the car tooted it’s horn, I did finally look around – to see that it wasn’t a car at all, but a battered white farm bakkie. It’s rear end wore the characteristic sag of a suspension worn out from too much hard work. Presumably the occupants were on their way home from work, or a night out, or who knows where. I saw the weathered face of the driver, as he leaned out of the window to wave at me before driving off between the houses. I can still see that face as I’m writing this now – not the angry face of an attacker wielding a panga which I’d expected to see, but rather a cheerful old man who’d randomly decided to take a little longer getting home so he could watch out for me. It’s a face which reminds me how our assumptions can be challenged in this country of contrasts. I wonder if he knew how much he’d scared the shit out of me, or how much of a lesson I’d also learnt in those brief few minutes. Assumptions – they truly are the mother of all f… – well never mind, you know the saying.
Neither my ride, nor my lessons were done for the day either. Starting the climb over Franschhoek Pass I was surprised to find myself in company again. I was back riding with Richard and Adele. They had struck me as possible riding partners for the day – both had ridden considerably faster than me on the previous 200km brevet but perhaps, this being a longer ride, they’d drop back to something closer to my natural riding pace. I’d seen a rider as I passed the BP garage at the start of town – but in the dim light, had mistaken it for Wimpie. By the time I turned in front of the Huguenot Monument, they’d caught me back up and we were all riding together. It was nice to have the company and the conversation to distract from the rigours of the climb, and the cold and the drizzle which had slowly crept in.
Even as we chatted though, my second lesson was already beginning. The evening before, as Yoli, Ben and I were on the way home from an early dinner out, an ominous scratchy feeling began to develop in my throat. I knew it was the precursor to a cold, but hoped it wouldn’t fully set in before the ride was over. The early ramps of the climb were the first signs this hope was false. My breath was laboured, my chest felt tight, and the gradient seemed to have doubled since last we rode this way. I had a strong sense that I should turn back before getting over the pass, and almost spoke out to say so. But for some reason, I remained silent. It was a bad call – the further I got from home, the harder it would be to get back if I did needed to abandon. Such negative thoughts don’t get much airtime in my head though when riding – whether by lack of sense or stubbornness, I pushed them out of my mind and soldiered on.
It was bitterly cold and damp at the top of the pass – which made it a surprise to see that the lead group had chosen to wait for us. I saw Henri Meier in the lights of our bikes – a good friend of many Audaxes, and someone I knew did not enjoy a needless wait. So I could imagine his frustration at shivering up there whilst we took our time. I needed to get some warmer gear on for the descent, though, so I urged Henri to push on and not wait any longer. He didn’t wait for me to ask twice, whilst the others lingered, he did the smart thing and got moving again. Even if I had kept up on the descent (which was unlikely) there’s no way I’d have stayed with them along the open road once down. As it happened, I didn’t manage to keep up with Adele or Richard either, my natural caution taking over on the sharp bends of the pass, now a lethal glossy black with the coating of fresh rain.
Adele actually turned back to shepherd me into their group again as the pass unwound over the small bridge and along the stream at the bottom. But I knew the pace was higher than I could sustain, and dropped back to ride solo again for the last 15km into Villiersdorp. The headwind was now quite strong, and although the rain was light, it was persistent and cold. My resolve started to falter and I realised that, combined with the cold which I was also now brewing inside, my chances of a successful ride were not good. I didn’t feel especially bad, but there was just no energy in my body to battle both the elements, the ride, and some kind of bug. I thought about my family as I slogged my way slowly into the town, heavy clouds shrouding the mountains all around, unleashing diagonal shards of rain that bounced off the grey tarmac ahead and sloshed under my wheels. Collapsing through fatigue or illness was, admittedly, rather unlikely, but it wasn’t worth the risk – at least not today. My decision was made, and as if to confirm it the heavens opened up fully and soaked me through before I could reach the shelter of the garage forecourt. This was just not my day to be on the bike. Now the only problem was how to get home. A problem I had made considerably more difficult by ignoring my inner voice 25km back and pushing on over the pass despite knowing I wasn’t well enough to be riding.
Luckily – my third lesson of the day was not just able, but willing and enthusiastic to come and rescue me. And that lesson is, of course, the power of great friends. The friend in this case being my riding buddy Theunis. He answered “yes” almost before I’d even asked the question. Giving up not just his Saturday morning to come fetch me – but also the mountain bike ride he was about to start. I did check with Yoli before calling Theunis, but I already knew how problematic it was going to be for her to come out. Not only was her day already hectic, but her Mini was not the ideal rescue vehicle for bike, me, and possibly Ben as well. I was a little surprised to neither feel awkward nor reluctant in sending Theunis a message – we know each other well enough that he wouldn’t hesitate to say “no” if he couldn’t do it, and he also knows I’d do the same for him should the need arise.
It was a great relief when the cafe across the road from the Shell garage opened at a little before 8am. I’d sat on a pile of logs in the small, cold, garage shop long enough. Without any coffee to warm me (their machine was broken again) I was now shivering in my damp clothes. The Galleria cafe was both literally, and figuratively opposite – it offered up a wood burner which, with a little effort by the staff, was beginning to roar nicely, and a large cup of hot chocolate to get the fire inside going again. In the remaining half hour or so it took Theunis to arrive I had time to reflect on my morning. There’s always disappointment in a DNF. But, as is often the case, you learn as much from the rides you don’t finish as those you do. Unusually though, aside from not starting a ride when unwell, the lessons of today were not really cycling related. South Africa sometimes feels like an unlikely place for me to call “Home”. But I’m not sure there is a better word for a place where a random stranger will look out for you in the middle of the night, or a place where a good friend will drop everything to come pick you up when your plans falter.