806km – 1st Dec, 21:36 – Sutherland (arriving RV4)
Blasting down the last of the hill we roll out into brightly lit town streets. In front we see cyclists coming and going, and the tell-tale fluttering flags and blinking lights of the RV. My fatigued brain takes a few moments though to piece them all together and figure out the path into the checkpoint. As we approach it becomes clearer, a drop kerb leads to an entrance into a small courtyard at the back of the hotel which is hosting us. With differing needs, T and I head in opposite directions – I’m desperate for food and sleep, but first I need to find out if we took a wrong route in and will have to ride back. For T, it’s his bike which needs the most urgent attention so he lingers outside to seek out the mechanics.
By the time we next see each other I’m sat at a table wolfing down an enormous plate of extremely tasty bobotie – just the kind of tasty, easy to eat food I need at that precise second. Sat opposite is the race masseuse who we last saw working on riders in Britstown, and together with a couple of other riders at the table we’re swapping news and updates. The medics who strapped my foot had already passed on the news that the chap with Shermer’s Neck in Loxton had scratched, and it’s sad to hear that the other rider in the neck brace at breakfast had also been forced to retire. Together with stories of the rider’s with buggered knees and achilles that the masseuse has worked on, The Munge is beginning to sound more like a battle for survival than an actual bike race. Against this backdrop, and despite our battered condition, it’s somewhat surprising to find myself thinking that T and I aren’t actually in bad shape. We’re both still here, and neither of us has any doubts about riding on. And the good news is, we won’t have to back track either – our route into town was correct, so tomorrow we get to continue without penalty. The long, steep, and somewhat sketchy downhill of Ouberg Pass awaits us. Something we have both decided is best enjoyed in daylight – not just from a safety perspective, but also for T who has never seen it before. So I head off to find a room as T goes to check back with the mechanic.
Next to the sign-in tables as I collect my room key is another table of jumbled wires and charging devices. I have a memory of a guy in Loxton in clear in distress because one of his batteries has been removed by another rider. It was almost certainly accident with so many of them looking identical, but still a major setback at this stage of the ride. I’m pretty sure the rooms will have at least one free power socket, so deciding not to risk a similarly unlucky outcome I trudge off down the long corridor in search of our room. As I do so, I’m suddenly cold – not just chilly, but full on teeth chattering, shivering all over freezing. Sutherland is perched up at the edge of a high plateau, and is known for being one of the coldest places in the country. The exertions to get here must have masked the drop in temperature with nightfall but now, combined with my depleted energy levels, it’s icy fingers pierce deep inside me. I’m very grateful to find our door, and that inside is a proper, comfortable hotel room with decent looking beds and piles of blankets.
After the absolute minimum of chores (teeth, contact lenses, chargers) I collapse onto the bed and huddle down under the warmth of every layer provided. My need for sleep is significantly greater than my interest in a wash anyway, plus I’m too tired to figure out how to keep my bandaged ankle dry and have no intention of chancing my luck to get it strapped again tomorrow. I do feel a shade guilt though, lying there partly clothed and completely filthy, slowly soiling the crisp, clean linen. Even with the pain surging through my knees and glutes, I’m almost asleep when T gets to the room. News of his wheel is not hopeful – the mechanic does not have the Specialized bearings needed to fix it. We’re going to have to ride on and trust to luck tomorrow. Luckily it’s just a slight grating noise at present, so possibly it’s not too serious yet. As T does the decent thing and showers off, I fall fast asleep enveloped in a cozy blanket of my own dirt and stink.
Fuck! Really, we have to get up again?
In truth, by endurance ride standards it’s a properly long sleep, but it still a wrench back up from the depths of my dreams when the alarms start ringing around the room. We want to descend Ouberg in daylight though, and we don’t want to miss out on some cooler riding time getting there. So the plan is to set out a couple of hours before sunrise to cover the ground to there, hence it’s dark and early as we gather our gear up and head back to the canteen.
Talk around the breakfast tables still revolves around Ouberg Pass and how tough today’s leg will be. But it’ll be light well before we get there, and my memory of driving it is not nearly so bad as the fearsome status it seems to have acquired from hearsay. I share this thought with two girls who are kitting up and readying to ride. The night air is still cold, and their makeshift attempts to add some extra warm layers create the impression of a couple of vagrant astronauts more than long distance bike racers. I’ve avoided glancing in any mirrors of late, but I’m pretty sure ‘vagrant’ is also a style I’ve been wearing for some time now. Before they depart we discuss the distance and time to the next leg. I throw out the idea that even our worst legs haven’t really exceeded 16 to 18 hours, and although tough, this is somewhat shorter in distance. So maybe a 14 or 16 hour day. They seem cheered by this, although none of us really have any clue what awaits. At least the breakfast is hearty. When we finished up last night all that was promised was more heated up bobotie, which would have been fine, but instead we’ve got toast, mushrooms, and bacon – I think- although my memory here is a bit patchy. Whatever we did actually eat, we’re definitely not hungry when we also roll out into the dark and cold of the early morning air.
806km – 2nd Dec, 04:14 – Sutherland (leaving RV4)
For some reason my recollection of visiting here with Yoli and Ben proves only partially accurate. My memory of Sterland is spot on – it’s garden full of telescopes on our left . The protective covers over these are so big it looks a bit like a neatly sculpted arrangement of portable toilets, each enclosed by their own tidily pruned hedges. The part of this area I’d completely forgotten though only becomes evident once we turn right off the tar road and back onto gravel – yet another significant climb. And not just a small ramp. It seems (which I must have failed to observe before) that Sutherland sits in a deep bowl,. Having torn down the tar road into the hollow last night, we now have to battle our way back up the other side. By the time we crest it’s lip, we’re sweating, dawn has broken, and the GPS is reading over 1,600m of elevation again. Worse still, which I had remembered, is the dismal state of long patches of the road from here. What was already bone shaking on my Navara’s bakkie suspension is, at times, pure torture on our battered bodies, limbs, and backsides. The open, green pastures and hillsides bathed in the morning light are simply sublime – but riding through them is as much fun as being tossed around on a sadist’s roller coaster. Left and right I swerve, trying to find a smoother line. Up ahead, I can see T doing the same. Neither of us is having much luck finding one. Every time I cross the road I take a second glance behind. I’m not sure why, but some demons in my head keep telling me to be careful of straying into the path of some charging farm vehicle. Although at this hour of the morning, only two or three pass us by the time the route turns left off the district road and onto a farm track which rises gently up to the edge of the escarpment that has been to our left as we’ve been riding.
This part I also vaguely remember. The farm Yoli and I stayed on was near here, although there’s no sign of the small herd of game which they had on their property. Perhaps it’s not the exact same spot, the landscape around here is quite samey for long distances. Or perhaps the few wildebees, and other bokkies have been moved or lost to predators. Either way, the farm track and low scrubland is gorgeous, and very different from the dry, dusty Karoo. There’s much more water up here resulting in a lush, rich green landscape – all around us the farm dams are full. With the sunrise the day is getting warmer, and when we stop to ditch layers Cecil and Nicki catch us once again. We exchange stories briefly before they push on, quickly opening a gap between us as fatigue and the steady slope slow T and I (well me at least) down to a crawl.
The route varies from well-defined, decently surfaced farm road, down to rocky and bumpy track – at least one short section being steep enough to convince us it was just as easy to walk. It was also considerably further to the pass than I’d remembered. But where the path rose it also fell, one section a wonderful snaking blast down to a muddy wetland area of reeds and marsh. On at least one or maybe two occasions we snaked through delightful clusters of farm buildings before finally the trail led us up to an abrupt arrival at the very edge of the escarpment itself. Quite literally one moment we were bowling across another section of scrubland, and the next moment we turned a corner and were stood staring at a vast, vertiginous drop down which a thin line in the distance could be seen twisting sharply down. This is no gradual, rolling drop onto the flat plain below – the land here falls away in a sheer drop of close on 1000m, and we were stood right on the edge, The deep void in front made my knees wobble, and it was a relief to step back a few paces as we grabbed photos. It’s hard to find words to sum up the majesty and humbling enormity of the view spread out before us. Below us lay the last piece of Karoo we’d cross before being back on home turf of the Cape Winelands. Rather dauntingly, that last piece is also one of the driest and harshest pieces of the entire ride – The Tankwa Karoo. And soon enough, in the heat of the day, we’d be cycling across it. But first things first, the not insignificant matter of getting ourselves and our bikes down the pass in one piece was the immediate task at hand. T was eager to get to it but, not being much of a descender, I was more than a little edgy at the prospect.
In spite of the nerves I end up setting off first – my wheels instantly gather pace as I stand and shift my weight back to counteract the severe gradient. I’m desperately trying to limit my braking, especially given the loose rocks and gravel on the opening, steep pitches. After a handful of switchbacks the road rolls out across a somewhat flatter stretch, almost a promontory jutting out from the sheer cliff now above and behind us. Swinging left the road drops down again and T and I catch our breath on the next right hander, admiring the views and exchanging wide grins. Despite being more than out of my comfort zone, and using way more braking than I should, I’m also having a blast – in between moments of terror, that is. The descent is long, very long, and we stop a number of times to take photos, and each time exchanging completely superfluous observations about what a stunning stretch the road it is. By the time we roll down to the foot of the final long straight section my Garmin numbers indicate we’ve dropped 985m since the top. It seems the claims of a thousand meters of descent were only fractionally exaggerated.
In my mind, I’ve created an image of the legendary boerie rolls and hospitality of waterpoint 9 directly at the foot of the pass. In reality it turns out to be considerably further away than this, in fact 20km or more. The terrain here is deceptive – superficially it looks as if we are crossing a dead flat, largely featureless plain. But now and then the road suddenly opens to reveal a valley deep enough to completely hide a riverbed, trees, houses – even whole farms. The moment you climb up out of the other side, it’s gone again – not so much as a thin separating crack visible in the flat plain behind. I remember this curious aspect of the landscape from driving it years back in the Navara. Once again, I find myself wondering whether these features helped to develop or further the commando tactics of the Boer soliders in the war against the British. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect, or deadly terrain for ambushing a column of marching troops. And sure enough, the reason why for kilometre after kilometre there is no sign of WP10 is that it too is hidden in one of these invisible clefts scoured out from the rock and sand. We’re almost on top of it by the time the fluttering flags come into view.
868km – 2nd Dec, 09:07 – (arriving WP9)
There’s a rather different feel to waterpoint 9, but it takes my weary brain some time to figure out what it is. White painted walls, surrounded by parched orange sand, for a moment I could almost imagine we’ve ridden all the way to some Greek island – my body certainly aches like we’ve pedalled that far. But that isn’t what’s different. We’ve already gratefully received and eaten plates of segmented oranges served to us where we sat, almost downed the first coffee, and are chatting to our host who is busy braaiing wors before the reality becomes clear. This water point isn’t a farm but rather a guest house specifically rented for the race. Our hosts are friends of the organizers and have travelled up from Cape Town for the weekend to look after us. Whether they have a background in hospitality never becomes clear, but based on the five star service we receive it certainly seems likely. The only time T or I leave our seats is to wreak havoc on the ablutions. The rest of the time our every need is brought to us – regardless of how much we protest that we must come and help. I forget every tasty delight, but I’m sure some farm of banana bread or cake finishes us off good and proper. If it weren’t for the rising heat and wind, and thoughts of the punishment ahead I suspect we’d have idled away the rest of the day in this tranquil spot.
868km – 2nd Dec, 10:08 – (leaving WP9)
The flags are bent near double as we ride back up to the gravel road, flapping wildly more than fluttering. At least the gravel road swings left across the freshening wind rather than directly into it. Soon after we leave the gravel and return to farm track again, and a little beyond that we become hopelessly confused at an intersection of paths by a gate. Only once through said gate is it clear we are off track, but backtracking it takes a few moments to locate the real route. Judging by the tyre tracks heading in all directions, we weren’t the only ones to have navigational doubts at this spot. The correct track turns out to be much less well defined, although all the more delightful for it – a snaking path alternating between loose rocks and river sand, occasionally surrounded by low bushes where an actual river bed was traversed. It’s gorgeous, and considerably more green than any description of the Tankwa Karoo that I’ve ever read. Rather less lovely though is the state of my ankle. The rapid changes in direction and terrain, and the consequential short bursts of acceleration are exacerbating an already painful injury. The building heat of the early afternoon saps every ounce of energy and, and combined with the pain from my foot, my spirits and confidence begin to fade. I’m battling to keep up with T, and I doubt it’s doing me or him much good my trying. At a short rest stop under a shady tree by an old farm building I tell him he must push ahead if he wants. I’m not sure if I can make the final waterpoint at all, or how long it will take me – especially since one of the nastiest climbs of the whole race is now staring us in the face.
In fact, we’re about half way up that climb before T does pass me. I forget if we were both walking at this stage, but neither of us manages to pedal the whole way to the top. The surface is an uneven and loose mix of rocks and boulders, it’s narrow, and there’s an unpleasant drop off to the right. Neither of us know the actual name of the pass, but by the top we’ve given it our own name – Ooofok Pass. The smaller, ugly, upward sibling of the wondrous Ouberg Pass from earlier today. It really is a farm track designed purely to connect two areas separated by a high, narrow ridge in the landscape. At the top, where T is now sat, it swings sharp left and descends in a near mirror image in both gradient and path to the track we have just battled up. T is both a more technical rider than me, and in considerably better shape in terms of his nerves for the descent. I end up walking the loose, slippery rock strewn surface of the first few hundred meters and only mount up once the riding becomes a little less sketchy. By the time my wheels are running free, he’s far ahead. Just an occasional flash of yellow from his jacket signals his presence, and those become less frequent and eventually stop altogether as the track disappears down into snaking ravine.
The ravine instantly becomes one of my favourite sections of the whole ride – absolutely deserted apart from me and a quick flyby from one of the ER24 bakkies, who give me a handy water top as they stop to check in on me. What makes it so perfect is it’s just the right combination of technical for me. Even as tired as I am, I can let the wheels flow around the sweeping curves, dips, and crossings. But above all this it’s a stretch of pure, scenic beauty. I remember never wanting it to end but of course it does end, abruptly at a farm gate. And what lies beyond couldn’t be more of a contrast – a flat, dusty, somewhat dismal and heavily corrugated farm track. At least there are still some surrounding rocky hills to add to the view but, worryingly, one of these seems to lie in our path. It’s still far ahead, and perhaps it’s imagined rather than real, but I’ll swear I can see the tiny yellow dot of T’s jacket crawling slowly up it.
As if the looming incline were not bad enough, the heat is now intense, and the route seems to be slowly swinging into the rising wind. After the last wonderful, but all too short section, it’s all a bit too much for the spirits. I pause briefly beside some sprawling low trees and try to find some shade to eat the very last of my snack bars. The branches are thin and wiry, not much more than tall shrubs which barely offer any respite from the burning hot sun. So far, a diligent regime of sunscreen has largely protected me from it. But as I try and chew on the dry cereal bar, one aspect that I have totally failed on becomes painfully evident. Despite liberal applications of lip ice, the inside of my lower lip is now burnt to blistering. No sunscreen can stay on the inside of your mouth for long, and it is now suffering after hours of abuse from riding along, open mouthed and sucking in suck in air. In my pocket is a bandana, which I put over my neck and pull up so that it covers my whole mouth. I’m not sure if will keep off the glare, but I need to try something.
With no desire to hang around any longer than it takes to polish off the last crumbs of the bar and make these clothing adjustments, I set off again – wearily, and without much pace in my legs. The climb begins almost as soon as I get moving – another rider who passed whilst I was stopped is already most of the way to the top. I forget whether I managed the whole climb pedalling, or walked any of it – I suspect the latter given the state of my right ankle. Either way, it wasn’t steep or long and I was soon bouncing my way down the other side, taking in a view that finally resolved in my mind exactly where we were. I knew we must be approaching the R355 – famed for having the longest stretch of gravel road in South Africa without any towns. But for the life of me until this point, my brain could not assemble the jigsaw of landscape and past memories of this area. From the high vantage point though, I could now see the road a few kilometers in front, stretching from right to left, running parallel to the foothills of the Cederbeg mountains, the silhouettes of which climbed up to the horizon. It would have made for a relieving sight, signalling how close we were now to the last RV and home, except for one unwelcome factor that was impossible to ignore. Wind!
The route flattened out into yet more badly corrugated farm track, which was now becoming a flat, featureless battle into the rising gale that was swinging ever more into my face. Coming towards me I spotted the outline of an oncoming motorbike that looked unexpectedly familiar. As it drew near, I recognised it fully as friend, club mate and fellow Randonneur, Henri Meier. He’d decided it was a lovely Sunday for a spin, and has already caught with Nico this morning at Ceres, and T just now at the padstaal I’m approach. It seems I’m one of the last “hellos” on his journey to see how we’re getting on. It’s pretty self-evident, but he confirmed that the earlier riders had a wonderful tail wind which had now swung around to hamper our progress. I find myself looking longingly at the top box on his bike. I know inside will be some form of supplies or treats, but that he will not offer them unless asked. As tempted as I am, we’re so close to the end now that the thought of breaking the rules on outside support is unthinkable. Regardless of whether anyone ever found out, I’d always know. So we swap a few more final pleasantries and he heads off. I think he mentioned knowing another rider in the race, but I forget whether he was off to see them also.
It’s hard to imagine how deep ones spirits can fall over such a short stretch of road, but in the barely 10km to the Tankwa Padstaal the unrelenting wind sinks me close to rock bottom. Combined with the punishing corrugations, at times it feels like I’m pedalling frantically just to stand still. After what seems like an absolute eternity I eventually see the flags although, as with WP9, they’re not fluttering. The howling wind has them bent double and threatens to tear them from their mountings. As I swing left into the driveway, the forceful blasts pick me up like a leaf and hurl me the last few meters into the parking lot without so much as a pedal being touched. It’s impossible not to think about cycling back out against that later. But first I need food and drink, although I’m not actually sure which building to go into.
938km – 2nd Dec, 16:16 – (arriving WP10)
The leftmost building turns out to be the actual waterpoint. I quickly down several cokes, ditch my gear, and rest my legs for a few moments. But as my thoughts gather, I realise I need to eat proper food here and also gather some supplies for the road ahead. It’s only 40km to the end of the most exposed section, but in this wind that could take hours. With some kit re-arrangement I can squeeze a couple of cans of cokes and some chocolate bars in my pockets for a quick energy supplement along the way. I head back outside and across the parking lot to the restaurant and shop to stock up before they close. Somehow, in the process, I walk right past T, into the bar, and only spot him in the café section of the shop on my way back. He looks pretty much how I feel – wrecked. Rather worse for T though, he’s not managing to get any real food down. I manage to polish off a massive cheese and pineapple burger with fries, but his remains largely untouched by the time the staff clear our plates away. He’s beyond eating anything more than ice creams and drinking sodas, easy on the mouth and stomach I guess if not exactly real food. They were delicious all the same.
The owner of the padstaal turns out to be a real character – regaling us with amazing facts and stories. With alarming accuracy, he tells us the group entering will be geology scientists or enthusiasts, most probably German. Every aspect of which turns out to be correct. Although to be fair, apparently this region is something of a mecca for anyone with an interest in rocks and such like. The owner himself has undergone something of an alternative lifestyle transfomation on buying the padstaal – now living without TV or mobile phone, preferring instead to read books, newspapers etc. In his own words “If someone needs me they ring. If I’m not in, there’s no answer and they ring back later“. When he puts it like that, it makes you wonder how (and why) our lives have become so needlessly complex – slaves to gadgets which literally never leave us alone. One thing he says above all though will be burned into my mind forever. We’re discussing the wind, and assessing a forecast that shows it’s likely to rise to gale force into the night, with no chance of respite until early morning. He doesn’t quite agree with my assessment of ‘horrible’ though.
“It’s not horrible at all, it’s wonderful. The wind brings us life here, as we speak the wind turbines are charging our batteries wonderfully“.
At this point he disappears into a back room, and emerges with a massive smile on his face to announce that the current power being generated is 35A. Orwas it 35V, or 35W? I forget exactly, but either way it’s clearly a very pleasing number to him. All of the words are spoken by the padstaal owner, but from where I sit it feels like a voice has come to me from somewhere else. For parts of the ride, I have felt that presence which Alex spoke of at the start – be still, and I will find you. But this feels like that higher force has found a actual voice to speak directly to me. Our personal battles in this wind may seem horrible, and they may yet stop us from finishing the ride, but all of that is temporary and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. That same wind is the very force which allows this oasis to be here in the first place. As families with car loads of excited kids pull in, the beers and sodas will be cold, and the ice creams will be frozen – all thanks to this wind. Somehow, that simple realisation breathes new life and strength into me. I can ride out into this wind, and I won’t rail against it. Instead I will enjoy it for what it really is – a force of nature that gives as much as it takes away.
938km – 2nd Dec, 18:06 – (leaving WP10)
There’s one last pleasure and surprise as T and I are kitting up to ride out. Friends and club mates Desiree Naude and Michel de Clippel have also come out to say hi, and congratulate us for getting this far. It’s a hell of a boost to realise how many friends are following and supporting us, and Desiree gets some great video clips of us slogging along the very first stretch of road as we leave the water point. I mention the need for them not to drive too close as dark approaches, so we don’t get any benefit from the light of the car headlamps. It’s unnecessary though as the they have to get back, and so only drive alongside us for a handful of meters as we get underway again. From there on, the road rises and falls but the wind only rises. We swing across the road a number of times trying to find smoother lines, mostly unsuccessfully. Riding on into the fading light, the headwind becomes a full blown gale exactly as forecast. By this point, I’ve long since given up looking at my Garmin in the hope we’re nearing the end of this piece and the junction with R356. Clearly my maths or understanding of the distance is way out. Worse still, the howling gusts are becoming not only impossible to pedal against, but dangerous to even stay mounted on the bike during. It seems ludicrous now, but both T and I find ourselves walking on an almost dead flat piece of road. And not just a short piece to get a breather. We trudge along for kilometer after kilometer. At times, I’m actually leaning into the maelstrom just to keep myself and the bike upright. We see the ER24 guys again at some point, who comment that up ahead the road does swing right and out of the wind. It’s the point I’ve been hoping for, but at this pace it feels like it could take forever to get there.
I cannot stop my mind from doing the calculations. The cut-off line when we started today was 10 hours behind us, but has been gradually edging ever closer. By around midnight it will pass the padstaal we’ve just left behind, and the time with us is now already 9:30pm. We’ve almost made it across The Karoo, but that beast we wondered about on the journey to the airport is stalking us in the dark of this night. As hard as we’re trying to escape, it’s throwing itself into one last desperate attempt to haul us back and devour us in the vast, beckoning emptiness behind. As if to emphasize the madness, the hillside in front to our left is lit up orange, engulfed in an inferno of bush fires raging out of control in the wind. It’s beginning to feel like we could actually stall here, simultaneously on the verge of success and at the the edge of hell. It takes every ounce of faith to keep plodding on, and believe that any amount of forward progress is worth battling for. It would be so easy to just give up, but neither of us came here for ‘easy’. Quite bizarrely, a light hearted spirit even starts to prevail between us – we find ourselves joking and laughing at the cruelty of it all. How much more can this race possibly throw in our path to try and break us?
Shortly after we join merge with the R356, we begin to curve around the long awaited rightward swing in the road. If anything though, it seems to push us even more into the path of the wind. Only as we edge into an unexpected feature of this part of the road does the wind lessen. Somehow my mind had totally erased a fairly significant, snaking climb. By this stage, we’re either too tired or walking has become too habitual for us to fight much of it. We mounted up some way back, but at some point we dismount again for the last part of the incline. At the top though, we do finally reach the small cluster of houses around the junction with the R46. Exactly how long we’ve been riding again I forget, but our wheels rejoice with a burst of speed and singing freehubs as they roll out onto the first tar road since Sutherland. Rather oddly, a couple of riders are sat down on the verge at the corner of the junction. Both T and I check whether they are OK as we pass, but T must have been more attentive to their response. When they signal all is fine to me, I just take it they’ve decide to bivvy down for a couple of hours – an odd spot to do so, but it is late and it’s been a real battle to here. I find out later that T learnt one of them, Dave Mitchell, is now suffering too much to be able to continue. A devastating blow so close to the end. His wife is sat there with him waiting for the ER24 guys to arrive. We’ve crossed each other’s paths fairly often, but the last time we spoke at much length was WP3 on day two.
After a brief swing left on the tar, and then right back onto farm track, we spot the flashing red lights of the medic’s vehicles running parallel to us along the main R46 from Ceres. Although at this stage, I still haven’t heard the full story of who they are heading out to assist – or maybe this was the point at which T shared it with me. When we first see the red lights they are high up ahead of us – signalling something both of us know all too well. There is a final, long and steep gravel climb before we can begin to think about Ceres and RV5. The one saving grace is that the wind has completely died off, or the mountain side is sheltering us from it. Either way, it’s now a perfectly still and tranquil night. Perhaps buoyed on by the thought this is the last serious hill, or the improving weather, our spirits lift and conversation becomes noticeably more light hearted and jovial. We’re grinding slowly along, but despite the many aches and pains of our battered bodies, neither of us looks remotely interested in more walking. In fact it’s only the very last, fairly short but steep section that we do end up dismounting for a short way. At the top, we come back onto tar – but we know from the stories passed on at WP10 that we need to keep a watchful eye out for a left turn ahead where the route leaves the road onto farm track again.
It turns out the tar stretch is rather longer than suggested though. Initially it weaves through what in daylight must be a majestic cutting across the top of the hills, after which it rises and falls through several short, rolling dips, before finally arcing left to bring us in sight of what must be the lights of Ceres far off in the distance. Except at this point, instead of heading straight to the town, there is our left turn – a massive detour of yet more farm track. Many blog reports describe this as one last, cruelly harsh blow, but that is not at all how I feel. Despite the late hour, how long we have been on the road, and the sense of an ever encroaching cut-off line, I have absolutely no desire to take the direct route into town. The tar may be smooth and fast but, after so many kilometers riding across the desert, it feels alien. The gravel of the track we turn onto feels familiar, natural, even comforting as my wheels trundle and bump down a long, pitch dark avenue of trees. I’m so lost in thoughts that it takes me some time to realise I’m only following a single headlight beam. I’ve been sailing along alone for the last few minutes. Turning back, I can’t even see T’s light initially, and when I do it’s stationary – I think. Actually, it’s more weaving around left and right than static, but it’s certainly not moving towards me at any speed. Bugger! With enormous reluctance, I mount up and slog my way back up the hill to where he is. When I reach him it’s immediately clear he hasn’t had a crash, but the situation turns out to be almost as serious.
991km – 3rd Dec, 00:34 – (deserted woodland trail, alone)
“My front wheel is fucked – the bearings have totally gone.“
“But you had it serviced before the ride right, I remember you mentioning it. It surely can’t have gone” I reply.
“Yep, they were supposed to. But look at this”
What he shows me does not look promising. There’s enough play in the wheel that it almost sways far enough to touch the inside of each fork. It’s definitely not safe to ride – especially off-road, on steep and twisting downhill trails, which is what lie ahead of us. T is clearly devastated at the prospect that a shoddy service by his bike shop might cost him a ride that he has had his heart set on for years, and has battled the last few days to get so close to the end of.
At some stage we try ringing race HQ but, luckily I guess, neither of us can get a signal, and when we do there’s no answer. The lack of any outside contact forces a decision that otherwise we almost certainly wouldn’t have taken. Rather than me riding on and T waiting miserably beside the road for a safety vehicle to end his ride, we decide to ride on. It’s extremely risky, with the potential for a nasty accident if or, as seems more likely when, his hub finally gives up and seizes or explodes completely. We also debate me riding on ahead to the RV and sending help back. But that is not really an option either. Sometime around WP9, we discovered that T’s tracker batteries had died and we haven’t been able to get replacements from either the waterpoints or safety vehicles since. Race HQs visibility of T’s location is entirely based on the belief that we are riding together. If we split up, he’s totally alone – trying to navigate an occasionally tricky descent, on a dark hillside, with a totally buggered front wheel. Not to mention his GPS isn’t the most reliable of models when it comes to shitting the bed at the worst possible moment. Richard had two of them fail in quick succession before even reaching RV2. The safest (or rather least terrible) option is for us to stick together, and hope that T’s wheel lasts the next 40km. And then, as if we didn’t have enough to worry about, one last challenge presents itself. T is battling to stay awake. Which, given we have now been awake for close to 24 hours, is pretty understandable. Although I have to confess at that exact point in time, it does make me want to punch him.
That exact point is another backtracking slog uphill to a route turn I had missed. Concentrating on a steep descent at night, with rudimentary technical skills, whilst simultaneously watching a GPS screen is pretty hard. Doing so whilst also trying to look out for a riding buddy who may or may not be about to fall asleep and crash into you, or pitch over the edge of the track, is darned near impossible. We’ve come too far, and T is too good a mate for me to actually punch him – although that would probably have been as effective as the option I end up choosing. Instead of physical violence, I come up with a strategy for which I’m still embarrassed and don’t feel I’ve really apologised enough to him for. I begin to verbally abuse him, calling out rude names, questioning his manhood, and whether he really did actually do any Vasbyt in his army training. He begins to get angry at me, really angry. But the whole time I carefully gauge my distance so that I’m just out of range of him punching me. Not that his steering is accurate enough to be able to head towards me anyway – each time we take a corner he sweeps around in a wide sliding arc, as if he’s steering his whale watching boat against a turbulent tide. It would be funny if it didn’t look so darned dangerous. It’s slow progress, but it is still progress. My mind turns back to mental calculations and as the numbers fall into place it dawns on me that we still have plenty of time. The cut-off line may be approaching more rapidly than either of us would like, but we still have until midday Monday to reach the finish line – which is only around 70km away from RV5. Worst case, three hours of easy cycling will see it done. And we’re not that far now from Ceres, we ought to get there with enough time to sort T’s wheel, refuel, have a quick nap, and be back on the road again well before 9am. I start to smile as I shout the message into the darkness behind me:
“We’ve still got this T”
I’m still talking him through the numbers when, as if to confirm everything I’ve been explaining, the track suddenly ends and we roll out onto a streetlit, urban tar road alongside some kind of sports fields or light industry. Somehow, against wind, mechanicals, and doziness, we’ve made it to the outskirts of Ceres. I immediately drop back and cross over to T, simultaneously apologising, patting him on the back, and laughing out in joy. We’ve made it, or nearly, we just need to get the RV now and get T’s wheel fixed.
The first part of that turns out to be fairly straightforward. Neither of us are quite oriented on our path into Ceres – we’ve confused what we think are familiar landmarks with a road on the other side of town coming in from Prince Alfred Hamlet. Impossible of course given where we have come from, but our brains are too tired to override features we think we know from the logic of where we must actually be. Only coming up to the main road from the opposite side of town dispels our flawed reasoning. A quick right and left across the wide, deserted road and we’re at the gate of Pine Forest Resort. But it takes some navigating to find the actual RV, nestled at the very back of the resort. Only the sight of bleary eyed riders coming out of chalets to mount their bikes confirms we have found the location, although we still need to be directed across an arching footbridge over a river, to the RV building which lies behind trees on the other side.