If you can’t stand the heat …

It’s a couple of days since the Argus for 2012, and after a gym session and massage, all that remains of the day are a few lingering aches and a ton of great memories. Foremost of those for anyone who took part this year will be the soaring temperatures they were faced with during the latter half of the ride.

Standing in the start chute in the full glare of the morning sun at just past 8am it was already clear that heat was going to play a big part. Once we were underway though it really didn’t seem too bad over the first half of the ride. A bigger factor during those early kilometers was trying not to crash into waves of charity and corporate groups who seemed not to have read any of the pre-race guidelines, and opted instead to spread out across the full width of the road and just stop dead in front of you on a whim. Despite that minor annoyance, there were a few bunches of riders from my TT start group, and also groups just ahead and behind, and we made quite decent progress down the blue route, over the evil stretch of short climbs on Boyes Drive, and through Simonstown.

Coming up on Millers Point my Garmin (now reliable again) was showing close to the pace I’d need for my 4:15 target. I knew before we set off a sub-4 was likely to be beyond me in the expected heat, so I’d already adjusted expectations even before the hold-ups getting through the crowded sections. The new plan was holding up though: my water bottle should last out until the second or third water stop after the climb of Smitswinkel looming just ahead; and my energy drink was only just over half gone, also about right for current progress. How quickly things can change.

As the road turned in to the mountain for the last stage of the climb, there it was, the first waves of real heat that would be mercilessly sapping our reserves for the rest of the ride. As we crossed from the East to the West of the peninsula the heat rose from a manageable 27 to 28 degrees, up to 38 degrees in a matter of about 40 minutes. After a nice fast downhill race from the top I pulled in to a water stop. I wondered about filling both bottles, but the stop was busy and I wanted to get going as quickly as possible. I knew I’d need to stop again, so I figured it was better to hope for a quieter stop further on and then refill both.

Scarborough and Misty Cliffs was the usual brief but refreshing delight of cool misty air mingled with the smell of the ocean as we rode alongside the breakers.Sadly, it’s also a fast stretch of riding so is gone all to soon, replaced this year by a sweat drenching slog over Slangkop and down to Ocean View and Noerdhoek. By this stage, I knew a 4:15 was gone and it’d be a battle even to equal my time of last year. Just before Chappies I took a quick stop, filled one bottle with water and the other Powerade. That’s unusual for me, but I knew I needed more than just water and the energy gels and bars were now just making me feel sick rather than giving me anything usable. Whilst waiting for the bottles I also downed a coke and a powerade for good measure, before setting off into the furnace again.

The next hour and a bit getting up Chappies and the one last hill beyond was honestly the toughest of any Argus I have done, including the storms of 2009. Certainly the closest I’ve coming to bailing, and had it been any other ride I suspect I may have stopped at a bar and called it a day. There’s a magic to Argus day though that demands more from you – and so far, has always found it. Every year, something has inspired me over that last barrier of Suikerbossie, and this year’s arrived in the shape of a rhino. Not a real one of course, but the tandem bike costume was almost as big as a rhino, decked out in Saving Private Rhino logos. My legs found some new strength and I pedalled hard, but the rhino beat me to the top. Hopefully the fate of real rhinos in the wild has an equally successful outcome, unlikely as that seems right now.

After Suikebossie it’s all downhill, quite literally. Apart from the minor bump of Maiden Cover rising up after Camps Bay. Small it may be, but that was where my legs gave up and locked solid with cramp. Luckily the work was done by then and I could pretty much coast to the finish. I crossed the line, greeted by the delightfully welcome sound of Yoli and Ben cheering from me at the line. The ride and I were finished, for another year.

As it turned out, it had been equally hot and unpleasant waiting for us to finish, so I’m not sure Yoli will volunteer again if it’s as hot in future year’s. It was lovely to have a welcoming party though for a change, especially one bringing much needed water.

My official race time was 4:36, only 7 minutes quicker than last year. The much tougher conditions. though are evident in my best ever race position of 47%, much improved on last year’s 58% and the first time I’ve made it into the top half of the finishers.

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Feels like Christmas

I’m a kid again. It’s the last few days before Christmas and I can’t wait to see what Santa has left in my stocking. Except this isn’t Christmas, it’s the week before the Argus, and at 47 I’m hardly a kid any more But that’s about where the difference ends. That same glorious, nervous, excitement has been building for a few days now. And just like that boy from my past, I probably won’t sleep much on Saturday night and I’ll be up early on Sunday morning.
 
One of the many things that makes the Argus special is the the unpredictable nature of the Cape weather. All races have the potential to go astray with mechanical problems, punctures, or a crash bringing down the bunch you are riding in. But those possible mishaps pale into insignificance to the mess that Argus weather can make of your training, preparation and race plans. In my four previous Argus’s we’ve had such extremes as the raging storm of 2009 which pummelled us with gusty blasts from before we’d even crossed the starting matts, to last year’s calm and mild weather which gently coddled us to the finish at Greenpoint.

There are many aspects that makes the Argus a special day: the camaraderie of 35,000 fellow riders; crowds of 100,000 supporters partying, and occasionally spraying water from a garden hose to ease the mid morning heat on our backs; and then there’s the hills, in particular Chapmans Peak. However fresh I feel rounding the corner into sight of Hout Bay, the next glance at the road ahead never fails to put a knot in my stomach. A majestic tarmac sliver winding up the rocky cliff face, filled with a continous snake of cyclists battling their way to the top. You wish you were already at it’s head, but as with every other part of the Argus, even this wonderful torture is over too soon and you’re flying down the other side with one last hill to overcome.

Memories of those previous rides help keep this year’s ride in perspective. I’ve trained harder and longer, and there’s potential to set a personal best time. But in all honesty, although I will push hard, if the day or my riding don’t make that possible so be it. The races I’ve done this season have far exceeded my expectations, with best times and fastest average speeds in every one of them. The Argus is the last ride of the season, time to just enjoy riding closed roads through the most stunning scenery imaginable.

This year too, I have the added bonus of Yoli and my 3yr old son Ben waiting to cheer for me at the finish. He’ll have no idea what it means to me to be taking part in it, but someday maybe he’ll read this and remember that feeling of waiting for Santa.

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If at first you don’t succeed …

The 99er has been my nemesis race since I first attempted it two seasons ago. Both past attempts have seen me finish cramped and walking, and driving home deflated and spent.

So the Friday before this year’s ride was always going to be a nervous time. The extra 15km added to this year’s ride really didn’t help. The brutal Vissershoek climb seemed more daunting than ever – I just could not envision staying in the saddle with a tough 115km already in my legs.

As it turned out, facing that reality proved to be the essential step in slaying the ghosts of those past attempts. Along with my usual pre-race preparation, I also crunched a few numbers to try and determine an optimal race plan. The interesting part was that walking up Vissershoek and Odendaal Street didn’t have a disastrous impact on my overall race time compared to climbing up them slowly in the saddle – although steep, neither are particularly long climbs. On the Tour de PPA in January I went off very hard from the start to try and catch a reasonably fast bunch to help ride out the rolling hills and wind with a decent average speed. I cramped at the end, but had already done enough work to finish with a satisfying time. It seemed crazy to be considering a similar strategy for the longer and tougher 99er, but numbers don’t lie. Every way I re-worked the plan, my best race time came down to starting fast and hanging on as long as I could, even if it meant some walking on the final hills. Putting in a fast 60km as I managed on the Tour de PPA, would give me a chance at a similar race time to last year despite the longer course. Every kilometer further I could hold the pace would get me closer to a 5 hour time, which seemed far too elusive to dream of achieving.

Apart from having a much more tangible race plan, I made a few other changes to my usual routine – peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches were on top of my cycling kit on the passengers seat as I left the house at 4:45am to head to the race. Normally I can’t eat much so early in the morning, but that costs energy in the latter stages of a race – so I munched away on them during the drive. I’d also only packed Perpetuem, favouring two plain water bottles and just one of energy drink, but mixed stronger. To replace the other energy drink, I’d also packed two energy bars and two gel packs. Hopefully the food and drink changes would help avoid the energy depletion I’d suffered over the last 25km of the Tour de PPA ride.

It was still dark throughout most of the time I was registering, getting ready, and visiting the typically disgusting toilets that always accompany races. Having a race plan definitely gave me something to focus on as we filed into the start chutes. Get to the front, go off hard, stay with the whatever other riders that also started off fast, and work to try and either form a bunch or catch one of the earlier groups. Being at the tail of the start times in group T doesn’t give you many chances at finding a bunch – realistically there might be one or two in your group or groups behind, but miss those and you’ll be battling the wind and rolling hills solo. Dark heavy skies greeted us as we headed out of Durbanville onto the first sets of rollers. It seemed to take forever to actually settle into a group. After 25km I was still pushing a punishing pace for such a long ride, but as we swung onto the R304 and sheets of rain started falling I finally managed to catch up with a group that stuck together. It was nice and fast too – my computer was clocking a nice average of between 28 and 30km/h, although the wet roads and falling rain made it seem like we were doing that in a shower cubicle.

As we approached the 66km water stop, I realised my plan was going to need some hasty patching. The cool riding in the rain meant I still had plenty of water, and so far the legs felt good despite the pace. Energy drink was another story, almost out. I knew ahead lay tough rolling hills, and quite probably wind. If I stopped to refuel, I’d lose this bunch – and most likely there would be no more behind me. Feeling very relieved I’d over stuffed my jersey pockets, I reached for the first energy bar and decide to make do with gels and snacks.

Several times over the next few kilometers the bunch nearly split as it passed riders, turned corners etc. It really took concentration to see the splits and make sure you accelerated to bridge the gaps. Finally, just after we past the third water station around the 90km mark, I was done – a split happened, and I had nothing left to fight back with. I sat up, took a proper look at the lovely views of rolling farmland, swapped my water bottles over, had another gel, and relaxed into the last few solo kilometers of the ride. I was smiling though. My race plan had worked better than my most optmistic calculations: 90km clocked in not much over 3 hours; 100km came up in well under 4 hours; and I passed the argus distance of 108k in 4:06, even having stopped for that water and energy drink top-up. Even walking up Vissershoek didn’t diminish my smile – this year it was part of the plan you see.

I finally crossed the line in 5:05, not a fast time by any standard, but for me an extremely satisfying result – 15 minutes quicker than last year despite being 15km longer. Next year my race plan will include cycling up those last two hills … maybe.

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The madness begins

I guess like all good stories, one should really start at the beginning. In my case, the cycling madness began back in January 2008, with the somewhat unexpected acquisition of my first (and still current) road bike, “Merry“:

It might seem more correct to say the trouble actually started in September of the year earlier when my brother-in-law entered me for The Cape Argus bike ride, but that wouldn’t strictly be true. At the time I was living in the UK, with just one bike: my trusty and much loved Marin soft-tail mountain bike which would soon be crated up with our other belongings for our move to Somerset West in the Western Cape. I really had no plan to do more road riding than was strictly necessary to be fit for the 108km ride, after completion of which we’d get back to the traffic free trails and mountains. Fate had other plans though and through a combination of shipping & customs delays, our container including said mountain bike were quite literally stuck at sea. With less than eight weeks remaining to train before the ride, something had to be done. I bit the bullet, went into the nearest bike shop, and asked them for something entry level to train for the Argus on. As luck (or good salesmanship) would have it, they had a 2007 model Merida 903 on offer and in my size – Merry. As I left the shop I fully expected it to be a short lived relationship, ending up either gathering dust in the shed or being sold on Gumtree. Half an hour later, as I was dismounting for the third time to walk up yet another hill, I was even more certain road bikes were not for me. The gearing was killing me. Even standing my legs and lungs just couldn’t push me up even the smallest of my local hills. And that was bad news – because where I live we’re surrounded by hills, most of them anything but small. It was beyond my comprehension why anyone would build a bike like this – where were all those easy gears that let you spin your legs into a blur to fire up even the most brutal slope. No, this road bike lark really wouldn’t be my thing.

Ha! Famous last words, little by little over the next few weeks with a steady flow of kilometers under Merry’s wheels, an unexpected thing happened. I started to look forward to my evening rides, and, even more bizarrely, I started looking forward to those hills. They still killed me, but I found myself walking less and less, and eventually hardly at all. Instead, a puffing flushed sense of triumph greeted me at the top of each hill. The bug had bitten. Road biking would be my thing after all. And all because our shippers couldn’t deliver on time. There are still times when I curse that, but overall I guess I should thank them for their tardiness. 

Anyone looking closely at the above picture will notice that Merry has had a few modifications since her initial purchase:

  • SRAM Rival 50/34 compact crank – because even though I’ve come to love road biking, I still miss spinning those easier gears on hills
  • Tri-bracket – what can I say, Cape summer’s are hot and I sweat a lot. Two bottles are very often not enough, and I don’t like backpacks when out on the road. They seem to get in the way of that wonderful light and free feeling you get when belting down a hill at 70kph.
  • Easton wheels – total extravagance both on a bike and rider of my level, but one day maybe I’ll be able to do them justice. Until then, I’ll enjoy how light they are and how quickly they spin

These are pretty minor though compared to the whole raft of changes planned for Merry once this summer’s road rides are out of the way and winter training begins. Check back for details of the changes and the reason for them in future.

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