Not a fluke

Cape 600km, 17th March 2017

With no Argus for me this year my March riding highlight was the Cape 600km Audax. With near perfect timing, my Niner RLT9 rig was complete in close to it’s planned final TCR form the week before.  And just to top things off, we’d be riding a new variation on our regular route, with around half of the Randonneurs – myself and Theunis included – taking a novel ant-clockwise option on account of the wind forecast. There was much to look forward too. Heading south out of Stellenbosch towards the coast, we powered along aided by a fresh tailwind as the sun sank slowly over vineyards and The Cape peninsula to our right. Elements of my full rig drew a few comments over those opening kilometers, in particular the aero bars fitted by William’s Bike Shop just days before. Rather less envy was shown towards the bulk of my luggage. Overkill for the ride ahead, but a valuable test of how the full setup weight of close on 19kg would handle on the road.

Predictably, Theunis and I were riding along by the time we pulled into the Gordon’s Bay BP garage for a 10-minute pit stop – the fast guys already stretching ahead. Persistent bouts of drizzle showered us as we made our way along the coast road. Despite the familiarity of the undulations, by darkness the oft ridden road became a totally new experience. As the dark night robbed us of our vision, so our other senses burst into life – strong wafts of salt air and the smell of seaweed filled out nostrils. The magnificent views may have gone, but there was no doubt of the vast expansion of ocean brooding unseen beside us.

We stopped often – Kleinmond, Onrus, and finally Stanford. It wasn’t so much that we needed anything, but a warm cup of tea is hard to resist on a soggy night of riding. It took us a couple of attempts to actually leave Stanford. The first of these getting mere meters down the road before a strengthening blast of rain sent us scurrying back to the shelter of the Caltex garage forecourt. A police patrol pulled in as we gathered our resolve – clearly amused at the sight of a pair of mad, bedraggled cyclists out riding at 2am. They checked in on us again a few kilometers along the ride, after we finally managed to get rolling again.

The brief lull which had lured us out though didn’t last, heavy rain lashing us as we laboured our way up Akkerdisberg Pass. As we crested the top though we left both the sea and the rain behind us. The wet tarmac ahead glistened like a black mirror in our headlights, but the storm had passed over. Fogged up and covered in spray, my glasses were near impossible to see through so I stashed them in a pocket. It was a mildly terrifying descent, near blind to any hazards in the road, I clung on to Theunis’ flashing tail light, only getting moments warning of each curve as it veered right or left. Eventually though, the pass bottomed out and the spray lessened. A quick wipe of the glasses, and vision was restored again.

I’ve made no reference so far to how the full Niner rig performed for one simple reason – I hardly noticed it was there. Despite it’s heft, it seemed to roll effortlessly along soaking up the distance. Nowhere was that more apparent than along the next stretch of sizeable rollers to the town of Napier. I recalled battling this especially brutal section from our PBP qualifier in 2014, but we seemed to charge along it – racing down it’s short descent, and barely losing momentum on each rise. In no time we were sat on a wall sipping cokes as the quaint Overberg town around us slumbered on.

Hopes of breakfast in Bredasdorp were dashed by our unexpectedly early arrival – nothing except a garage shop was open as we pulled in, literally hours ahead of schedule. We grabbed snacks and drinks before turning South towards L’Agulhas and the turn around point. The forecast proved correct in it’s warning that the wind would not be kind along this stretch. Regularly swapping turns at the front, we slogged along the flat coastal plain with no shelter or respite from the battering cross wind. At some stage on this tough 40km  we passed two of the tail riders from the faster group coming back up. They had let sanity prevail and given up trying to stick with the insane pace of the lead group who’d already passed through.

Eventually our effort was rewarded and we reached the southernmost tip of the continent. Still hungering for breakfast, we paused briefly for the obligatory selfies before returning back up the road to the only place we found open. Another garage (of course) but this time one with a proper cafe serving decent cappuccinos and even more decent cheese and bacon toasties. So decent in fact, I couldn’t resist second helpings of both. We sat their enjoying both the food and our progress – 250km on an overnight run of 12 hours, punctuated with many stops. Considerably quicker than our usual pace, and yet both of us still felt fresh and in great spirits.

Those spirits took another battering on the way back up to Bredasdorp though. The subtlest shift of wind direction twisted the crosswind to our heads rather than backs, and yet again we slogged along the featureless salty plain. Only this time the slight relief of the downhill from the town was reversed into a steady crawl back up. It was cruel punishment, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed by a brief stop for coke floats at the Wimpy in town. It was good that we did too. We knew that the 60km to Swellendam would see the wind predominantly behind, but the terrain and rising heat as we headed towards midday made for heavy going.

The landscape pitched and rolled, if anything more than our previous route across this section via Stormsvlei. As we crossed the exact half way mark we stopped to grab a picture, and literally minutes further along the road saw Richard Baufeldt coming up the other way. We’d debating for some distance at what point we would meet the clockwise riders, but to do at bang on half way was altogether rather bizarre. Somewhat further along we met the rest of their group – Markus, Bernie, and Derek. It was already clear that the wind, terrain, and dehydration were much tougher on the direction these guys had taken – in fact so much so that none made it further than L’Agulhas before abandoning the ride. All would return a few weeks later though for a successful completion of the route.

Finally, we looked down a long downhill stretch to the N2 below us. A short blast down between then golden fields, a couple more lumps on the rather busy section of main road, and we were soon putting our feet up, sipping a very welcome beer, and waiting for steaming plates of pasta. We both felt far too shabby and disheveled though to mess up the interior of what was a rather smart establishment, so we sat at the tables outside.  It was very tough to leave – had it not been so early in the day, we’d have been tempted to look for somewhere to settle in for the night I suspect.

The final four hours of our riding day took us across the so called “three bitches”, named by DC riders for their harsh sting at the tail of that ride. They were no easier in reverse, with 350km already in the legs. The worst though was an innocuous looking drag up the final hill before Ashton. It appeared to be near flat, but completely sapped the last energy out of my legs and I crawled up it, relieved when finally the wheels broke free and we started the long fast descent into town. I recognized this stretch from the Tour de Boland a few weeks earlier.

We decided to aim at Robertson for a sleep stop – and with no more than 20km to go, I’d normally have reasoned against Theunis’ suggestion to stop in Ashton. But I didn’t have the energy to argue – it was easier to accept the milkshake he was handing me and enjoy it. And probably a better idea too anyway in hindsight, since it put back some much needed energy for the last few kilometers.

Our arrival in Robertson was timed to perfection – the low sun which had been in our eyes for the last hour was just setting behind the hills as we pulled into town. Rather less perfect was our choice of day – Saturday a busy public holiday weekend. Finding somewhere to sleep became a story in it’s own right.

Technically, our departure from Robertson at around 12:30am was out of time. It was a calculated risk – having already validated our cards hours earlier, we eked out as much sleep as we possibly could before pressing on. It was unlikely we’d still be out of time by the next control, but we didn’t take any chances and pushed on for the next two and a half hours at a solid pace without stops. With no mishaps or mechanicals we pulled into the familiar Total garage in Rawsonville around 15 minutes ahead of the control close. We’d made up around 45 minutes and were fully back on track, an achievement we celebrated with double coffees and the remaining delicious toasties made for us by the kids at the children’s home.

Slanghoek valley in the dark is always something of a missed opportunity, but with a fresh wind behind it flew by anyway. We sailed out onto the R63, but as our wheels ate up the remaining distance to Wolesley it was impossible not to comment on the obvious – coming back was going to be a much less pleasant affair. And sure enough, after yet more garage coffees, any desire we had for more suffering was not disappointed.

The wind was heading up to gale force as we tried to ride out of town – at times we were being pushed back almost to a standstill. I vaguely remember one or both of us laughing hysterically at the comedy of it – in between bouts of swearing at the weather gods. Eventually, after numerous swapping of lead rider, we turned off to Bains Kloof. Wind buffeted, swirled and ripped around us as we climbed the pass, making us wobble at times but never really holding us back. Once over the top though, things became rather more serious.

Ahead Theunis was standing, pushing down on his pedals with all his might – but his speedo was reading 8km/h. That wouldn’t be abnormal for Bains Kloof, except he was trying to ride down it at the time. So strong was the wind, I’d actually dismounted for fear of being blown completely off the road. As we edged our way down the pass, a highly amused rider coming up passed us. With the same wind at his back, he was easing along at well above 30km/h, despite being the one still climbing.  It was a farcical piece of cycling comedy that I doubt any of us will witness again.

We sat enjoying Steers milkshakes (or maybe coffees, I forget) at the bottom of the pass in the town of Wellington. With 35km left to ride, and time in hand, it was a moment to be savoured. For my part, the bike had been flawless and, despite the distance, the 600km had felt not quite effortless, but certainly not that hard either. For Theunis though, this was a somewhat bigger milestone. In his own words, “completing this a second time proves that my first one wasn’t a fluke“.

The remaining few kilometers through Paarl and back to Vrede were an enjoyable Sunday morning ride. We passed many weekend club rides and solo riders out enjoying the sunny day, and remarked how probably none of them would realise we weren’t simply doing the same. Aside from my oddly overloaded bike, nothing else about us looked out of place.

I’d contemplated ringing Nico to warn him we were nearly home. It wasn’t needed of course – he’d kept an eye on my tracker, and was waiting at the finish with cold beers and a congratulatory hug. With a relaxed pace, many stops along the way, and showers and a decent sleep, we still managed to finish an hour inside cutoff and feeling fresh. Job done.

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