3am Eternal

Come on boy do ya wanna ride?

It feels good to be out early again, setting off well before dawn for a self made adventure. It feels good to be back to long training rides that start in the dark. Above all it feels good to be on the bike, and heading out to ride with friends – or to be strictly accurate for today’s ride, friend – since it’s just the two of us.

Morning you mad bugger” is Henri’s greeting as I roll into the forecourt of the BP outside the Lord Charles hotel.

I respond with something like “Morning mad bugger too“.

I gave up wearing a watch whilst riding some time back after a strap broke and the resulting fall took several chunks out of the bezel. So I now I have Time of Day configured as one of the data fields on the Edge 500 display. Checking down, it’s time.

3am – looks like it’s just the two of us, shall we roll?” I say to Henri.

He nods and the sound of whirring cranks and humming hubs breaks the silence of the morning as we head off. There’s a slight confusion over our initial route at the R44 lights, I swing to go right and Henri is heading straight on. Both ways will lead us to Sir Lowry’s pass, but there’s been a couple of bike jackings on the MTB trails at Schapenberg, and although no incidents yet on the road I was a little concerned about the area at such an early hour. We end up opting for the right turn to the R102 and onto the N2. It’s more direct, and will be deserted this time of day.

Neither way would help us with what we are hit with next – the infamous Cape Doctor head on, and in full force. We slog along the N2, battling into the South Easter, which is helpfully building in strength with each pedal stroke towards the pass. The local geography naturally funnels this wind along the hillside from Gordon’s Bay, so it’s always considerably stronger in the corner at the bottom of the pass.

It’s an extremely tough start to a 200km ride, and I’m immediately glad that the early start means there isn’t a bunch of us fighting for space to make our own speed up the climb. The wind makes it impossible to keep a clean line, and soon Henri and I are strung out in single file, him slightly ahead being the stronger rider, and me chugging along behind. I’m also glad for the decision to keep our bikes light, the weight saving on smaller bags and race day best wheels will be very welcome with the hills today. One small mistake on my part is soon apparent though, leaving my 11-25 cassette on has robbed me of the crawler gear that lets me spin lazily up the passes. That could hurt later on, this is only the first of several hefty climbs we’ll be taking on today.

I ducked out of the kids and parents play evening early last night to get home in time for a decent sleep. It didn’t really work though as I lay awake for quite a while thinking about the ride. One thing I did do on getting home was detour from my straight path to bed to make a last tweak to the bike. I’m very glad of the late change now. I fitted an extra light, my new Extreme Lights 1200 lumen MTB light, slung under the handlebar beneath my trusty Lezyne. The new light is well named – on high power it is extremely bright, so much so that oncoming cars are flashing us. I suspect seeing two dazzling lights coming at them, they are confused into thinking we’re a car that hasn’t dipped it’s brights. I adopt a strategy of sticking my hand over the lens, or dropping the light to low power when a car is coming so we don’t blind someone into driving off the road.

The pass winds and climbs ahead of us – the first ramp is steep and takes us tight into the corner under the mountain, directly into the wind. But at the end of this loop we swing back away from the hill, and are treated to both a wind behind us and also a stunning view of the lights out over Gordon’s Bay, Strand, Somerset West, all the way across the Cape Flats to the back of table mountain and the peninsula in the far distance. We’re barely 10km into our ride, and already the magic is beginning. It’s impossible to explain to anyone who hasn’t got up at such a crazy hour why it’s worth doing and what wonders you encounter along the way. It may be exactly the same roads we frequently ride but timing, as they say, is everything. And at this time there’s a fragile serenity that doesn’t survive the rush of trucks and cars as the day wakes up.

It’ll be easier soon“, Henri calls back.

He’s not wrong, as we swing back again to face the rest of the pass we are now tucked so deep into the hillside that only the occasional blast reaches in to disturb our progress. We’re still going up, but now we’re only working against the hill, and we’re soon alongside the concrete barriers that signal the last of the upward slope. The first pass is done, but cresting the top our shelter is gone and the wind returns, briefly upsetting our charge down the other side with a few blasts that send me wobbling across the lane. As we descend though we ride down below the wind, and are soon rushing along, fast clean lines, able to ride side by side without risk of knocking into each other.

The rolling hills after the pass involve more effort than I would like. My legs and lungs aren’t really settled in yet – and as usual, for the early stages of a ride, I feel like I’m laboring. I know the feeling will fade with the kilometers, but for a couple of minutes until we leave the N2, I’m not comfortable on the bike. For a moment my concentration is distracted with dipping my light, and I almost miss the turn. It’s only the sight of Henri suddenly disappearing in front of me, and a dark void opening on my left that alerts me. I grab large handfuls of brake and veer uncontrolled into the void, my lights immediately piercing through the darkness and lighting the start of the road into Grabouw. Even with the late and fierce braking the excess speed carries me wide through the turn and half way across the road. I laugh and comment to Henri something about needing pay more attention from now on.

The incident has broken the momentary slump though, and there’s a huge stupid grin on my face as we slide silently through the brightly lit but deserted streets of the town. I’m struggling to remember if we saw a single person in the actual town. As soon as it came up, so it’s gone again, and we’re leaving the orange sodium glare behind . The road after Grabouw rolls gently through farmland, and scattered either side is the occasional house or shop, spilling small circular pools of light for us to cycle through. There’s a few more people about here, mostly they look to be farm workers on their way to work. As the road starts start’s it’s slow snaking rise up to Viljoens pass,  we leave the habitation behind us and head on into the darkness of the open road, with just our own lights leading us on. Or at least mine are guiding us.

Switch your lights off” Henri calls across to me, and as soon as I do the world around us transforms.

An almost full moon hangs in the dark sky to our left, it’s pale blue light clearly picking out the forest either side of us. Instead of seeing a short stretch of road through a halo of artificial light, a dark sliver of tarmac now winds off far into the distance. I imagine hearing an owl in the woods, it would be the perfect accompaniment to the slightly eerie scenery. But there is none – just the faint whir of wheels and pedals, cranking up the pass. I can’t see if Henri is smiling, but I know I am. I wonder how many more ways this ride is going to delight us today – we’re hardly a quarter of a way into it.

Viljoens Pass is the smallest and most gradual of today’s climbs, and we’re soon at the top without any huge effort. We survive a nasty encounter on the way up. With ridiculously unlucky timing two huge trucks meet each other just as they are alongside us. The one on our side is centimeters from my shoulder as it hurtles past, luckily it’s by me so quickly that it’s side draft only cause me to wobble once it’s already gone past.

Darned that was close. We’ve hardly seen a car all morning, and those two trucks had to find us just there, together.” I say to Henri. My heart is pounding, and the word I actually used is not nearly as polite as “darned“. Fortunately it’s the only close shave we’ll have all day in terms of traffic, and it’s behind us.

We stop at a corner just over the top of the pass. I’d forgotten to start LocaToWeb, it’s a new live tracking application that I’m trying out in anger for the first time today. Yoli won’t be up yet, so it’s no big deal, it’ll be running from now so she can see how we’re getting along. I also stuff half a snack bar in my mouth.

Now for some fast speeds down to the dam” Henri says as we start off again. He’s already almost out of earhsot to hear me reply that he’ll be way quicker than me. I’m not exactly slow, but I’m still a cautious descender. My speedo might hit 60 or 65km/h on some parts, but it’s not going to be threatening 70 or above. After the fast descent it’s mostly flat or down to the dam, so we finally managed to pick up a decent speed, although our average was still significantly below the 25km/h Henri had been aiming for. I guess deep down, he probably always knew I’m typically a slower rider than that and the combination of wind and climbs have got our ride off to an even slower start than usual. We were soon coming up to the bridge across Teewaterskloof dam. Henri veered left for a moment, just long enough to allow him to then swing back right in a long diagonal line across the road to miss the slots in the expansion joint grates at the start of the bridge. A lapse of attention here can be rewarded with a wheel getting grabbed and locked fast in those slots.

We stopped in the middle of the bridge. The dawn light was just breaking, with occasional shafts of pale red light peeking through a grey blanket of low cloud. Despite the mountains all around the wind still pushes across the water ruffling up a steady line of waves. Both of us snapped pictures of the bikes, ourselves, and the view before grabbing a snack and mounting up to ride on. Ahead lay perhaps the most scenic part of the ride, the winding road left after the bridge up towards Franschhoek pass. The fynbos which lined the road threw off a wonderful herbaceous scent somewhere as we chatted about exactly how high the climb ahead was. I had it in mind it peaked around 900m. Henri made a mental note of his Bryton’s altitude reading at the bottom – I forget the exact figure to be honest, 160m? 220m? Something like that. We were still making good speed despite the gradual rise to the start of the pass proper. Having swung back, the south easter was now giving us a welcome push from behind.

Yet again we commented how worthwhile the early start had been – the pass was empty, perhaps two
or three cars in total passed us. Aside from that we had the tranquil beauty of the pass to ourselves as we slowly climbed up through the grey of the morning. Slower in my case than Henri’s, who managed to find time for a couple of quick photo and view stops on the way up. My sedate grind made for only one stop, but the view demanded it. Rounding one of the many corners I was faced with a sea of green fynbos, clouds scudding across the mountain tops ahead, and just a small patch of blue sky peeking through to give a glimpse of the weather that lay beyond the pass.

My legs were feeling the exertion as the last few bends unwound and the road straightened out ahead to the summit of the past. I knew on Strava later I’d probably be looking at a best time for climbing the pass. Without the luxury of dropping down onto the 28 tooth crawler gear I’d been forced to push a stronger pace than I’d otherwise have chosen. I knew later in the day that effort would come back to me in the form of tired and cramping muscles. But for now the sight of the top, the stunning views, and the immense satisfaction of cresting the climb were the only thoughts worth contemplating.

The prediction from that tiny patch of blue sky proved accurate – the view down into Franschhoek from just over the pass revealed a clear blue sky, not a cloud in sight. A total contrast from the still present covering of grey behind us down the pass. It was both beautiful and a little unnerving. It confirmed that not only would the temperature be picking up for the rest of our ride, but details in the valley below us proved that wasn’t our only concern.

Look at the water on those farm dams” Henri commented.

Yep, and see the trees around them too” I replied.

Both of these confirmed that the skies might be clear this side of the mountains, but the wind was no less strong.

That’s the easy part of the ride almost done then” I said. It was meant to be ironic, since what lay ahead was flat by comparison. But for every kilometer we now rode towards Paarl with the wind behind, meant another one back with the wind in our faces. Despite the absence of any more big climbs, the second half of the ride in the heat and wind was going to be every bit as tough.

Coffee and pitstop first in Franschhoek, then we can worry about that” I said, or something along those lines, and almost before the words were out Henri was a blur flashing down the hill. My Garmin was clocking around 65 after the first hairpin, but a combination of blasting sidewinds and roadworks urged caution, and I slowed down. The wind was scary, at times threatening to throw me into the ditch, or suck me across the road as it pulled back. I think I was down to around 45 at times on the descent in an effort to maintain control and not veer around too madly. Baboons lined both sides of the road as we headed towards La Petit Ferme, a big male sat slap bang in the middle of the lane. He barely even glanced at me as I flashed past. The time was somewhere past 7am, and by now there were several other riders out on the road steadily passing me as the made their climb up the pass in the other direction. Quite a few mountain bikers were out also – not knowing the trails around here, I assumed they must head off the side of the road somewhere on the pass behind me.

Henri was stopped just past the Huguenot Monument, chatting to a confused looking guy when I finally caught up to him. It seems he’d lost his riding companion, and was inquiring if we’d seen him. Unable to assist, we rode on down Main Road and discussed where we’d make our pitstop. The consensus had been that nowhere would be open and we’d make for the BP garage, but as we passed the regular Wednesday ride’s coffee stop I noticed their lights were on and the door was ajar. I pulled alongside Henri to see if he was interested.

The coffee will be better, and they do great pastries. Plus we’ll get a nice table to drink them at, and the water bottle refills will be free“.
It was all the convincing he needed, we swung around and headed to Sacred Ground for a very welcome caffeine fix. An as we walked in it was instantly apparent why they were open so early. Boxes of fresh baked breads and pastries were stacked everywhere, so much so that there was just one small table open in the corner for us to sit at. Having confirmed they were indeed open for coffee we placed our orders, grabbed a selection of pastries and some coke for the water bottle, and settled in for breakfast. The coffee was good, the pastries were better, but there was still more than 100km to be ridden and the only reward for lingering would be hotter and windier riding, so we headed back out. Our timing had been perfect, as we kitted back up a mass of mountain bikers were heading in for their morning caffeine fix – must have been around 30 of them, clearly a weekend club ride.

The wind found us as we threw legs over our machines at the kerb. This time a friendly wind that propelled us quickly and effortlessly out of town, past the BP garage which we’d expected to be our first stop. I’m sure one or both of us remarked at how much more pleasant our actual stop had been. We also notched up another to our count of BP stations – including our start point this was the third of the day, we’d commented earlier that if we weren’t careful it could become a series of short rides between BP fuel stations.

In amongst chatting about audax, LEL, PBP, qualifiers and pre-qualifiers, at Sacred Ground, at least some part of our conversation had been about what route we could take to make the route a full 200km for the day. That thread continued as we headed out of town to the right turn towards Paarl.

No discounts today, it must be a full 200 for our early start” was Henri’s assertion.

The problem was how to achieve that. The whole route on Google Maps had originally shown 193km, and by skipping the planned detour for water at the Shell garage in Villiersdorp we’d probably dropped another 15km or so from that. We were considerably short – if we took the most direct route home over Helshoogte we’d come up around 135km. Somewhere we needed to find another 65km. On the road to Paarl we passed a sign to Wiemershoek Dam on the right.

We could go up there to look at the Dam, that will add a few kilometers”  Henri commented as the turn slid by. “That was the original dam for Franschhoek before the Berg River Dam was built.

I’ve no issue with the kilometers, but the ‘up’ part isn’t grabbing me” was my reply.

Without further debate we rode on, it would have been nice to see the road and the dam though, so it may well feature on a future ride. This stretch of road was bumpy but fast, we were making great speed. The Garmin was soon reading 120km – nice to see the kilometers rapidly clocking up, but we’d still got no certain route for all of the remaining 80. Heading out to Wellington and swinging across to the Malmesbury road was our best idea so far. Some mental arithmetic showed that was still going to leave us light by at least 25km.

If we take the Die Burger route around the back of Paarl, I can think of a loop that will add 30km” I added, hardly believing I had actually spoken the thought that was in my mind.

What, Du Toits?” was Henri’s response.

What was I thinking, I was already tired, why would I even contemplate another long climb. Once again, thought and words came at the same time as I answered my own question.

Well, we could be the mad buggers who got up at 3am do to 200km, or we could be the mad buggers who got up at 3am to do 200km and did Sir Lowry’s, Franschhoek and Du Toits passes all on the same ride just for the heck of it“.

Henri’s smile was all the confirmation needed, plus his added comment that at least by doing the pass we’d only have to actually cycle the 14km up. The Malmesbury road would just be one long battle against rollers and wind, there’d be no downhill relief that way. It was too late to retract the idea, we were committed now. And as we swung right off the Die Burger route, I could already feel my right hamstring tightening. This was truly mad, I was doubtful I’d even make the top. We paused for a moment to stretch, and Henri snapped a picture of us on the bridge back over the N2.

I’m going to snap one of you at the top” I said. “I need something that is going to keep me going up this climb, and that commitment is going to be it. However tough this is, I will be taking that picture.

In the words of Bilbo, the road went ever on and on, luckily the searing heat only lasted the first couple of kilometers and a mix of shade and breeze cooled us once we got into the long traverse tucked into the hillside. The road went up and my water bottle levels went down in equal measure. I was clearly going to run out by the top, but at least it’d be quick back into Paarl for a refill with no real exertion, so I’d be fine. We passed a large male baboon on a rock, and strewn just beyond the chewed remains of prickly pears. I’d often wondered what animals braved that spiny exterior to reach the juicy flesh beneath.

Further up the pass was a church group on a bank above the road, waving and shouting and their drummer beating out a friendly rhythm which helped keep the legs turning. My legs were seriously tired now, with no more gears left to offer easy pedaling I just had to alternate standing and thumping out a slow cadence. A few kilometers short of the top I heard Henri call out something and pull over. He’d punctured – a sizeable chunk of glass had slit the tire and pierced the tube. Perhaps the only surprising part was that we both hadn’t already punctured, and more than once. I’d given up counting the number of large patches of broken glass we’d ridden through. I offered a variety of tyre boot options whilst holding up his bike so he could slip off the wheel and replace the tube. He declined for now, but commented if it went again he’d use one.

3km to the top” was Henri’s comment as we got back into the climb.

Cool. Can I steal some water from you at the top? I’m not quite out, but a few sips for the run back down would be great” was my reply.

With a Camel Pak and two largely full bottles it wasn’t an issue for him. Once again it struck me how much more water I get through than many riders. It seems natural I would with being a profuse sweater during exercise, but something that has always niggled and I keep meaning to look into is that feeling of a stomach bloated with water, but a body that is not getting enough. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’ve seen references to a specific condition that causes this, hyponatremia or some name like that? Clearly an area I could improve, I resolved to learn more about it. Maybe I should use more electrolytes, or less, something different for sure.

I was about to head off into the viewpoint at the top of the climb, lured by a shady tree with empty benches beneath. Henri was insistent though, the next pull off just around the corner it would be, that’s the real top of the pass. Fortunately it’s only a few hundred meters further, and without any significant extra climbing it came up quickly. There was no bench though, just a meager patch of shade behind a stumpy tree – if you really huddled in to it close. Never mind, we were at the top, my commitment to Henri’s photo could be fulfilled, and a small top up of water transferred from Henri’s bottle to mine. In return I loaned out my touring pump so that Henri could get his rear tyre up to proper riding pressure. It was already close, but at least it justified me swapping out the miniscule Lezyne I normally carry.

As I snapped pics, I was surprised to see how well my phone battery was doing – still well above 50%, it should be fine to track the rest of the ride and then some. I was impressed, LocaToWeb was looking a useful option – not to mention the fact that photos were instantly tagged and uploaded to the route as well without me needing to worry about sharing them. I’ve got used to phone technology letting me down on rides, so it was nice to have something that actually worked for a change.

The lack of a bench was a blessing in one respect – it meant we didn’t hang around long, and the cramps hadn’t set in yet as I swung a leg back over my frame. With all these climbs though I knew it couldn’t be far away. The cooling rush down the pass deferred that thought for now though – 14km of effortless riding. It was impossible not to picture the alternative – that long tortuous stretch of the R304 into a headwind. Not only far tougher riding, but without the stunning views. The effort to gain these extra 30km via this rather odd option was well worth it. I wondered if Yolandi had noticed our detour on the live tracking page back home. If she had looked she would surely realise we’d gone up Du Toits and was probably wondering about our sanity.

Henri was waiting by the four way stop at the bottom of the pass – as always, significantly quicker on the descents than me. As we rolled in towards Paarl I remarked that you had to wonder about the reasoning of someone who won’t ride a few kilometers up to a dam but then suggests a massive 14km climb higher than any pass planned for the day. The irony wasn’t lost oh him – dad often commented that for an otherwise smart guy, he could never understand the thought processes that led me to decisions. I guess in this case, there was no real rational explanation – other than because it was there.
I was paying for it now, and both legs cramped up as we pulled across the lights on the last short ramp before the stop we were aiming for at the Spa. Henri emptied the last of his water on my legs – much to my surprise it helped. Both inner thighs were still tight and crampy, but after a short walk up to the left turn onto the main road, I mounted back up and pedalled gingerely towards the welcome sight of our pitstop just up ahead.

I was angling towards a sit down stop at the cafe, but Henri was keen to keep moving – it was already later than we’d planned to be out riding, and the Paarl valley was building towards a properly hot day. Reluctantly I headed into the Spa to pick up water, cokes, and ice creams. They cold water was an instant relief, and the ice creams definitely hit the spot. As we topped up water bottles I mentioned to Henri how the last day of LEL had involved multiple ice cream stops, and those combined with a regular stream of coke kept me going over the last few controls. Not exactly a healthy diet, but hey it got me through the day – and made for some memorable moments en route. Looking back on it now, I wonder how a beer at a pub hadn’t tempted me. Probably good that it hadn’t though, it would probably have finished me.

We’re underway for the last leg home – Henri estimates it’s 8km to the 4-way stop at Klapmuts. A fiercely hot and rolling 8km, but his estimate turns out to be almost spot on as we pull up to the junction and our fourth BP of the day, or was it our fifth, I seem to have lost one somewhere along the way. Anyhow, one thing is confirmed – turning left here is not an option. It’s 35km back to Somerset West if we take that route, and we need at least another 42km. It’s a better call too, my legs have been spinning well over the gentler terrain since Paarl, but the climb up past Wiesenhof will most likely see spasms of cramp return. We agree that straight on towards Joostenberg will not only gain us more distance, but we’ll avoid any serious hills too.

We continue to make good time, the slight rise after the junction barely knocking us down from a steady 28 to 29 km/h. I’m surprised how easily the legs are turning, but as we reach the R304 I can feel I’m tiring. Swinging into the strong wind for the last stretch into Stellenbosch and my head bows – it’s going to be a battle from here on home. Henri now takes the lead and ushers me back into his slip. Quite a long way back as it happens, the wind blasts us at an angle and it takes a few moments to find the shadow. We ride like that for a while, me a meter and a half behind and just to the left. But it’s not really making a huge difference and I pull alongside again to be sociable.

Stellies is busy, we’re weaving through the early afternoon traffic. I chase ahead to catch Henri.

Will you indulge me with a milk shake stop at Mugg & Bean” I call out. “It’s been a great ride, and I don’t want to finish with my head low and battling. Would much rather stop for a short break and a drink, and pedal home with a smile” I explain, and just to clinch the deal I add “I’m buying

Riding in wind, thirty one degrees of heat, and the climbs have all but worn me out and the open table and a drinks menu is the perfect pick-me-up. The waitress mucks up Henri’s order, and he ends up with chocolate rather than vanilla, but comments it tastes good. For some reason I order strawberry, which is lurid pink, but sweet, cold and wonderful. For the first time we linger and chat, close to home and now no longer in a rush. We’ll be later than expected by an hour or two, but it doesn’t matter now. We’re almost there and it’s time to savour the last of the ride.

The stop has done the trick – I’m still tired and battling, but I’m smiling and we’re almost home. The last few kilometers are tough. I’m pretty sure I’m going to cramp again going up Koosie, but the legs keep turning. It’s bound to happen on Irene then, but no, they spin on. I’m rather surprised, I’ve never had a mid ride cramp not plague me again later on, but the hills are all done now and we freewheel the last few lefts and rights that chase downhill to our gate. My Garmin is reading 198.3km. I really should go around the block to get those last couple of kilometers, but there’s a beer inside and I’m knackered.

Good job we came out and trained” Henri says “otherwise you’d have gone into the 600 like this, and possibly not made it“.

I can’t argue with him, he’s right. “Thanks for giving me the reality check, I needed it. The next one is going to be much easier after this“.

Henri holds out a hand. “That’s not going to cut if after today’s epic adventure” I say, and walk over and give him a hug, in a manly way of course. I say something mundane like thanks for the awesome ride, and he’s off down the road as I hobble inside on shot legs. I know he’ll do a lap around the block to make up the full 200, and sure enough when he logs the ride on Strava later he’s clocked up the missing kilometers.

At some stage, Yolandi’s going to comment on here how I told her to ban me from PBP and sell my bike when I got inside. Let’s just say we have different recollections of that.

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