Double Century

Looking at the hill profile above for the Double Century (DC), you’d be forgiven for thinking that all the hard work is getting over those two hills in the first 63km and that it’s all downhill after that. If you look more closely at the last 40km, you’ll also spot what old hands at the DC refer to as either ‘Dolly Parton’ (two big  bumps) or the “Three Bitches” (depending on how you count them). On this year’s DC however, it was the weather that delivered the most painful blows, eclipsing by far anything the route itself could throw at us.

The morning was still dark as our team gathered in front of the Caltex garage in Swellendam, hastily pinning race numbers on each others backs, dropping coolbags full of supplies in the trailer now hitched to Peter’s car, and making last minute checks of  our bikes. Despite two late withdrawals, somehow we were a full complement of 12 riders free-wheeling down Station Street to our start chute. A rag tag bunch maybe, with a few of us meeting for the first time on the morning, but at least we were all there and ready to go – something not every team had managed, as riders rushed around us late to join their teams, some even missing their start time completely..

As our team shuffled towards the start mats, I felt a little overwhelmed – unsure how I’d got nominated as team captain when we had a number of riders with past DC experience, at least five of whom had done the ride many times in the past. Suddenly the few words of team talk I had in mind seemed rather pointless when we had guys who knew far more than me about the course ahead, the perils of starting out too hard, and the need to eat well early in the ride. I think I mumbled something about us having done the hard part by getting to the start line trained and ready, and all we needed to do now was pedal to the end. As it turned out later, I needn’t have worried – those experienced guys would be a great asset to us on the ride, far more so than any words I could have come up with.

We crossed the start line with Ralph up front, I don’t recall who was alongside him. Before we fully left the town, Jack and I took up the reigns upfront. The riding was easy with the freshening wind on our backs, and we flew along that first stretch of the N2 highway to the left turn for Suurbrak, and the start of a very welcome and long stretch of closed road to make the cycling much more relaxing. I settled into myself over those opening kilometres, my worries about being captain fading away as we worked our way into the ride.

Tradouw Pass certainly lived up to expectations in terms of scenery, a truly stunning stretch of road winding through rocky gorges, across mountain streams, and climbing up fynbos clad mountainside. The sky was dark again now though, this time with heavy grey clouds, the wind picking up considerably as we crested the pass, and threaded our way through the water stop. A few of our riders immediately regretted picking up water bottles when confronted with an acrid taste of plastic flavoured water on their first sip – clearly the organisers had not bothered to wash out the new bottles, something I had spent the previous evening doing for all 12 of our event supplied bottles. Ralph shouted a warning across to all of us about the speed of the upcoming descent, and with that in mind we whizzed down the other side.

Having studied the route profile many times, I’d somehow got the impression that the Op de Tradouw climb came almost immediately after Tradouw Pass, but with my Garmin only showing 35km it was clear that we had a quite a few kilometres before the second big climb of the day. They passed fairly quickly, and although crossing some fairly picturesque and rolling farmland, there are only a few fragments of this part of the ride which stick in my memory. One of these was Danie’s regular warnings that The Beast was just ahead, and to keep our pace steady. Another was a bizarrely apt farm sign for ‘Quads‘ – at this point many of us would gladly have stopped in for some replacement quadriceps ahead of the big hill, if only that had been what they were offering.

I started to feel a little complacent as we ground our way up Op de Tradouw. Jack had told us to ignore the false tops until we saw a row of pines come into view. The road twisted it’s way up and we followed it slowly, Ralph regaling us with an endless stream of jokes and one liners which did a superb job of taking our minds off the work. And before we knew it, Jack’s landmark trees came in to view and the “big climbs” of the day were all done. Both ahead and behind us though, the day’s real troubles were only just getting started.

Behind us, our last minute substitute Darren was struggling and had dropped off our group, Clayton having spotted this dropped back to help him up the hill. We learnt later that Darren was not fully over a bout of flu, and had still being having jabs until a day or two before.

Ahead of us an even more ominous threat was building – no longer sheltered by the hill we had been climbing, the full force of the North West wind blasted us, now whipped up into a full on gale. Prior to the race I’d imagined the 63km feed station would be a welcome relief after the big hills, and a place to gather breath and look forward to easier kilometres ahead in the middle of the ride. The reality though was very different – sure, we did have some nice cold energy drinks (in clean bottles) and snack bars to restock with, but with rain now starting to fall, the kilometres ahead felt anything but easy. Sure enough, within minutes of starting off again, Marc was blown right across the road and almost into the ditch – the crosswind picking up his deep dish wheels and chucking him around like a rag doll. That fast descent was a scary section for many of us, but Marc was literally battling to stay on his bike and in the ride.

By now, the rain was heavy, very heavy. The decision earlier that morning to leave my jacket at home now didn’t seem such a good one – I wasn’t especially cold, but I was soaked through. We were also now short of firepower to battle the ferocious cross and headwinds too. Clayton had suggested I took the lead group on ahead to the support stop in Ashton, and he’d help Darren along who was still struggling. Danie, and Ralph had also dropped back to help out too, so the workload up front fell largely to the remaining big guys in alternating turns: myself, Styger, Jack, Chris, and Marc when the wind allowed.

Sadly, none of us would see Darren again until after the ride. As we took the left turn just before Montagu and headed towards Cogmaskloof, Danie, Ralph and Clayton rejoined us with the news that Darren had realised he was not going to be able to finish and pulled out. It was a blow to lose a team-mate already, just halfway into the ride. The DC had become a minor obsession for me over the last few months of training, and I knew Darren would be no less disappointed not to have completed the ride. It only occurred to me later that being down to 11 riders, also meant we wouldn’t qualify for a Charles Milner medal for completing the ride as a full team.

Cogmaskloof is a flat gorge that starts by dipping down through a short tunnel dynamited through an archway of rock, and then meanders between neighbouring mountainsides before opening and dropping you out onto the farmlands around Ashton. Through this stretch the wind was directly into our faces, making for very slow progress. To combat this, our experienced riders showed the rest of us how to set up a rolling echelon – a continuous loop of riders where the outside of the loop has riders heading up to take the front briefly until the rider behind them passes and takes over. The inside column is lead riders who are passed slowly dropping back relative to the outside column. As the tail of the outside column passes the last rider, a call of “last rider” goes out, and the last rider of the inside column goes across the bottom of the loop and starts to make way up the outside again. Aside from being a mesmeric and remarkably pleasing formation to watch, the echelon also helped us maintain a much faster pace against the strong headwind than we would have been able to do in normal dual or single line formation.

Once through the kloof, there was a short pacey blast through the outskirts of Ashton, and down  the main street, followed by a left turn across the railway tracks and the timing mats into the neutral support zone. It immediately became clear what others had told me about us having a top support crew Peter and Adele when we saw our team car – coolboxes all laid out, bikes and water bottles taken from us as soon as we pulled up.  Those few minutes off the race clock were very welcome to grab a breather and a bite. In my case, I took a fresh energy drink bottle for my bike, stuffed another packet of new potatoes into my pocket to replace the one eaten earlier, downed a chocolate Sterrie Stumpie and hastily scoffed a peanut butter sandwich.Without such good team support, we could have messed around in disorganized chaos, but with an efficiently managed stop done we were under-way quickly, my belly already complaining about being too rapidly stuffed with too much food and drink.

As we left the stop, it was suggested we take another quick stop after the circle in Robertson. I was a little doubtful of this initially, being only 20km ahead it seemed way too early to be considering another stop. Swinging out of the neutral zone though, it became clear what a good call it was. Any thoughts that we might have seen the worst of the wind vanished as we were instantly shredded by vicious gusts directly into our faces. We briefly tried to setup the echelon again, but it was obvious it wouldn’t work – Elizna and Desiree being lighter riders got blown backwards as soon as they joined the outside column, and simply couldn’t pedal through the gale to reach the front. We fell back to two lines of riders, with the bigger and heavier riders, myself included, up front to shield the light riders so they could keep up. It took well over an hour until Robertson came into view, the gruelling battle to get there revealing the wisdom of calling for that next stop so soon.

Swinging left at the circle was like having the brakes taken off the bike, the strong wind suddenly now at our backs, pushing us effortlessly along to the waiting team car. The shortest of stops, just a quick swig of coke and Black Cat bar and we mounted up again. Cycling now in sunshine and with the wind behind us, we flew along, my Garmin ranging between 35 and 40km/h for long sections of this stretch.We rode through a purple, Jacaranda lined lane, passing the vineyards of Van Loveren and De Wetshof, where Yoli and I had gone winetasting a few years back with her family.

The kilometres were clocking up nicely now, even with a quick coke stop at the water tables by the right turn towards Bonnievale. My Garmin was soon reading 160km, which was significant not just because it was the longest distance a number of us had ridden before, but also because it meant the start of the much feared “last 40km” of the DC, and our date with continuous rolling hills, and ultimately Dolly herself. No sooner had we started the first of these rollers than Theunis fell off the back of our group. I let the others press on ahead and dropped back to chat with him. One look across, and I could see he was in severe pain even before I heard him say “my knees are killing me, you go on ahead, I’ll hold you guys back“. The team car pulled alongside and Adele said “we’ll help him, you go up to the others“.

I stood on the pedals, and quickly caught up with the back of our group – I wasn’t happy though, we’d lost Darren and now Theunis was battling and looked close to giving up. I knew the ride meant as much to Theunis as it did to me, and I also remembered from the One Tonner that he had a lot of grit too, and quite possibly would be able to battle through if we helped him. As a team though, we had to all be happy to do that and accept a slower finish time as a result. I sprinted to the front of our group and let Ralph and Clayton know Theunis was struggling, and then dropped back to chat with Desiree, who as Theunis’ partner both needed to know, and also could give me her view on whether she thought Theunis would be able to finish if we helped him. Desiree’s words to me were along the lines of “if we leave him to soldier on alone, I think he’ll probably quit, but if we help him I’m certain he can finish“. That was all I needed to hear, so I called a stop and we waited for the team car and Theunis.

As we stood briefly by the car, I did offer that if a fast six wanted to push on ahead for a time, no one would complain, but not one of our rag tag bunch was interested – despite some of us hardly knowing each other, everyone rallied around to help Theunis and give him encouragement and support to finish. And that help was needed as those remaining 40kms unfolded, revealing a painful and continuous sequence of sharp ascents, and short fast descents. Desiree’s prediction proved solid though – Theunis kept going, and going, if anything getting stronger as we pressed on.

A few of us dropped back to give moral support on those climbs, until finally we started at the bottom of the first of Dolly’s bumps, with rain falling heavily again now. In the bottom of the following descent was the much fabled “portage section” – supposedly we were supposed to carry our bikes along a section of dirt road to get around a massive crater where the R60 had washed away in recent floods. In practice, we skidded and slid through most of it, briefly using our road bikes to tackle something more suitable for mountain bikes. Exiting the dirt section onto a slippery descent on wet tarmac I called across to Desiree and Theunis to be careful of skidding as we sped down into the dip, and the start of the last of Dolly’s bumps. The rain was now sheeting down, at some point it turned to hail, although to be honest I forget exactly where – I was so wet by now it was hard to remember. We stopped briefly to try in vain and unlock Theunis’ front brake which was binding, but having failed and with the top so close, we rode on.

The top of the last bump came into view, and there waiting in a narrow shaft of sunlight between the rain clouds, the whole team stood patiently waiting. Knowing there was almost no more work to be done, I heard Theunis say “I’m going to make it” – possibly the best words I’d heard all day, and ones which will stick in my mind for a long time. “You were going to make it when you got back on 40km ago and kept pedalling” I said in reply, and as we passed the team I shouted across “What are you guys standing around for?“. Ralph’s natural wit undamaged by 190km of cycling came back sharp as a pin “Becasue we can’t ride“.

And with that – the DC was all but done. A short dash down the descent, followed by a sprint up the last steep kilometre, and our 11 remaining riders crossed the line together. Sadly, the cold and rain washed out any idea of sitting around drinking beers and exchanging war stories, and instead we all dashed for warm food, dry clothes, and some comfort. In a bizarre way, I’m glad of the harsh weather – it made for a memorable DC and brought out the best team spirit imaginable, a team I’m proud to have been called the captain of.

A short account written for the team and club can also be found here.


All photos by Peter Nolan.

Four Passes


‘It’s going to take a week for this smile to fade’

That was my comment to the rest of our bunch, but mostly to myself as we regrouped at the top of the last short climb on the R44 climb, a short ramp which I think of as Yonder Hill but is also referred to as Koosie by some of our riders. We had just completed what must be if not the best, then certainly one of the top 5 circular cycling routes in the Cape, and one that has been on my bucket list for almost as long as I’ve been cycling in South Africa.

There are several reasons why it had languished on my list for so long. Firstly, at 130km long and just shy of 2,000m climbing, it is not a route you can do without a level of fitness that I’ve been a long way short of in previous seasons. Second is safety, there are a number of fairly narrow stretches especially from Grabouw through to Theewaterskloof which make it less than ideal to ride alone. But probably the biggest factor is weather. Sir Lowry’s Pass, the first of the four, is a long and not especially hard climb but it snakes up a section of mountainside that is referred to locally as the Wind Factory. What can be a light south easter down in Strand or Somerset West can be howling a gale up through the pass, making it potentially lethal to cyclists who can be all too easily blown into the path of cars and trucks travelling up the pass.

To mitigate the safety aspects we called a 5:30am start to our ride, just after dawn and early enough that traffic should be light through the early sections. Even with that though, we’d also said we would only make a definite decision to ride the route if the wind was very light. That was the part I’d had least confidence in, fully expecting us to be slogging off towards Stellenbosch on one of our usual routes. But for once, the weekend weather favoured us with an almost totally wind-still morning – something very rare for Spring in the Cape. So as we rolled out of Watersone car park nothing could suppress the smile on my face or the lightness of my spirits. We were 12 riders, 9 from DC team 4 plus Penny, Des and Dylan from DC team 3 – just the right sized group, and a great mix of personalities to enjoy the route with.

I hadn’t really expected much from Sir Lowry’s pass – more a case of getting it out of the way so we could get over to the scenic parts through Grabouw and the Groenland mountains. It’s a fairly big climb but the gradient isn’t especially steep, but what makes it lack appeal is being a double lane busy highway – as a cyclist you don’t feel you belong there, small and vulnerable alongside the noisy trucks, buses and smokey old taxis and bakies labouring past. In the magic of the early morning though it was a serene and peaceful climb. Only a handful of vehicles passed us, and the crisp morning air was still filled with the smell of fynbos, not yet overwhelmed by hot tarmac, rubber and truck fumes. The journey up was a welcome surprise but nothing compared to the breathtaking views from the top, the whole of the Cape Flats and False Bay lay stretched out below bathed in a warm orange glow by the first long, low rays of the morning sun.

After a fast free-wheel down the other side of the pass we cycled directly into the sunrise on the short stretch of N2 before our turn off into Grabouw. The town was still mostly sleeping as we sped through, a few souls here and there on the street but the usual bustle of the busy little agricultural town was yet to get under way. At the other end of the town our long downhill from the pass finally came to an end with a sharp little ramp up to the left turn towards Theewaterskloof dam and Villiersdorp. Heading out of town you can almost feel the pace of life slow as the road rolls and winds through an almost ridiculously picturesque patchwork of vineyards and orchards. At some stage a few kilometres beyond Elgin the landscape changes again, and achieves the seemingly impossible feat of becoming more beautiful still. Rolling hills and farmland give way to mountainous crags, fynbos and forestry.

Without realising it, we were lucky enough to have brought along our very own tour guide. And as we shifted gears to begin the climb up through our second pass of the day, Ralph regailed us with a stream of interesting facts about the areas we were cycling through, only a few of which I’m embarassd to admit stuck in my memory.  One I do remember though is that the pass is in fact called Viljoens Pass, and not Grabouw Pass which I’ve always referred to it as. Another was that the road forms a divide between two different management entities: the forestry to the left coming under MTO (Mountain To Ocean); and the predominantly fynbos clad mountainside to the right coming under the management of Cape Nature. Sweeping around a long bend at the start of the pass, you leave the last of the farms behind and all that you see in front is the glorious mountainsides ahead of you – it hardly seems to matter who is managing them, they are both jawdroppingly beautiful.

As with all climbs, the pass fragmented our group, stronger riders relishing a heart pounding race up the climb, and the rest of us, well let’s just say we enjoyed the scenery on the way up. Just short of the summit we paused to regroup by a dam to our left. With hardly a breath of wind to break it’s surface, the water was a serene mirror, reflecting the clump of pines fringing the lake, and open mountain beyond. I was born near the Lake District in the UK, and some of my ancestors from way back come from there also. Some deep part of me seems to be rooted in that heritage, because for the brief moments we stopped in this place, surrounded by the quiet of the mountains, I was home.   

The summit just a few hundred meters up the road beckoned though, and on we rode. And as we crested the top, the views across the farmlands of Vyeboom and the massive expanse of Theewaterskloof dam were astonishing. We raced down the snaking downhill and dogleg bends to become part of the tapestry below. Our group became so heavily split up by our different descending speeds that we only caught up with Wiehahn some 20km down the road at the Theewaterskloof bridge –  Penny describe him as taking the low flying route. At some point on this long stretch to the bridge across the dam Yoli also passed us in our car laden with ice, drinks and snacks for our midway pit stop. It was a very welcome site, but I felt a little guilty she’d be waiting around for us, having slightly miscalculated our average speed.

In the end, she had turned back from our planned meet point to find a much more pleasant spot shaded by trees. The detour meant she didn’t have to wait too long until she saw us battling up the road against a suddenly strong northerly wind that had made the last few kilometres much more arduous than the ride so far. That was the first real stretch where we rode as an echelon, taking turns at the front so that no one worked against the wind for too long.

It was a delight to see them waiting for us, Ben hopping up and down excited to see dad cycling with his friends, and then suddenly becoming shy and hiding behind Yoli’s legs when everyone drew up close. Cold drinks, ice, snack bars and bananas went down with gusto and after a quick delay getting Theunis’s bike on the rack so he could head home early, we were on our way again all too soon. It was tough to leave them as Ben’s mouth turned into a sad frown and his lip started to quiver. I had fully expected he would want us to stay and play, but that didn’t make it any easier to turn back to face the road ahead and pedal on.

The positive part was that ahead lay what must be one of the most scenic tarred passes  to ride in the whole of the Western Cape – Franschhoek Pass. A winding gem of a road, lined both sides by quaint stone walls, fynbos, and towering mountains. Even the occasional scream of motorbikes also out to enjoy the road didn’t detract from the sheer beaurty of the 8km climb to the summit. It isn’t actually as steep as the road up on the Franschhoek side, but it’s longer, and the regular blasts of the north wind made it no less difficult. Marc was battling a tad, suffering the combined effects of a half marathon the day before, and stomach cramps from too hastily downing a chocolate milk. I had no desire to rush my first ride up this glorious pass, so was only to happy to drop back a shade and pedal up with him. In the end, we were probably only a few minutes behind the rest of our group, and the relaxed pace allowed plenty of time to savour every moment of the climb.

Gathering again at the top, it was great that Styger got a chance to enjoy the view over Franschhoek valley which had been shrowded in cloud and mist on last week’s climb up from the town below. It would have been a shame if he’d ridden to the summit twice in two weeks, and not got to stand and enjoy the vista which must be on thousands of postcards home every year from tourists visiting Franschhoek and its winelands.

For the remainder of our ride we rejoined our familiar route home via the final of the four passes, Helshoogte, and then through Stellenbosch and home along the R44. A long held dream fulfilled, and with my extra training this year, a much less challenging ride than I had expected. I even had the legs for one last quick sprint up Yonder Hill at the end, predictably though Penny and Wiehahn both caught and passed me just before the top. One day maybe I’ll have the legs to keep up the pace over those last few meters. For today though, I was content – the four passes ride had not disappointed for one second. A truly awesome ride.

All photos taken from Wannabees site.

A Dying Art

This week saw the last stage of my original ideas for the build for Jolly come to fruition – completion of the race wheelset. The Dura Ace hubs have been languishing in the box of bike bits alongside my desk for what seems like months. It took me a long time to decide on the Velocity rims that they would be built into and even longer to get hold of the rims and spokes. Even now, really observant bike enthusiasts might notice in the picture below that not all is quite right – the front wheel is currently laced in a two cross pattern with a standard double butted spoke. It’s a bit of a long saga, but the CX Ray bladed front spokes are stuck in the South African postal system, held up by a recent transport strike. I just couldn’t wait any longer though, with the DC just around the corner I desperately needed to get out on the new wheels and run them in and so gave William the go ahead to do an interim job with spokes he had in stock.

Pictured left is William doing some last minute truing when I picked the wheels up last week. I remember his comment about wheel building dying out in bike shops when we first discussed the wheel build, so I count myself lucky to have a local guy and shop so capable in the art. The Mavics which I’ve been riding for the last few weeks were also built by William, and they’ve been an absolute joy to ride – fast and true. But their intended purpose is Audax riding, and the added weight which that extra durability carries has seen me lagging at the back battling every climb on our recent training rides.

I was excited to get the wheels home and fitted on to Jolly – in fact so excited I forgot to weigh them, so that’s something I’ll have to try and remember to do at some stage. The Mavics came out at 840g for the front and 1020g for the rear, so just shy of 1900g for the set. Not bad for a high durability build, but at a guess these race wheels feel to be at least 300g or so lighter.

The first test ride this weekend did not disappoint either – I’ve never been a fast descender, but was easily up with the front of our group racing down the far side of Helshoogte, and despite very poor visibility we also sped down Franschhoek pass. On both descents the wheels felt extremely stable and solid. I’ve got used to the larger footprint of a 28mm tyre on the Mavics and so was expecting a few jitters going back to a 23mm tyre, but I hardly noticed the change.

As for the climbs, no more hanging at the back for me – at least not because of the weight of my wheels anyhow. I was easily able to increase the cadence to keep up with the quicker climbers where I wanted too.

All in all a superb outcome – they look great too. I must confess I thought the Velocity claims about the rim giving clincher tyres something closer to a tubby profile were probably marketing BS, but the tyre does look visibly rounder and seems to roll very smoothly onto it’s edges through corners. The only qualm now is whether to actually bother re-lacing that front wheel when the bladed spokes arrive. A radial lacing and bladed spokes will definitely look better, but as things stand the wheel feels extremely strong so I’m not sure if it’ll really be worth it.

All photos by Rob Walker

Further, Faster

Any hopes I had of a relaxed pace on the One Tonner were gone inside the first 20km or so. To be honest, I hadn’t really expected anything different despite suggestions that we’d treat it as just another training ride. Race days never quite work out like that, you get caught up in the adrenalin, the surging bunches of  riders, and the constant ticking of the ride clock. So when a group of riders led by Martie (a well known local rider and spin instructor) passed us I didn’t really need to glance across to see the glint in Des’ eye, who was currently alongside me working at the front of our group. There was no lack of enthusiasm from the rest of our bunch either. Even though at least three of us including myself were One Tonner virgins, and less than a seventh of the way into our longest ride to-date, a resounding “go for it” came from behind, so we chased the group down and latched on. Our speed immediately picked up, and the mood of our ride was set – this wasn’t going to be a slow pedal thumping effort just aiming to finish.

Swinging on to the R304 it was a welcome relief to feel a much lighter headwind than forecast. This, combined with our large pack of riders, made for a very fast stretch back past the silos and on to the R312. Strangely, we hit the strongest winds of the day on this short stretch of road back towards the R44 – so much so, that when Elizna and I got unhitched from our group on a short ramp, there was simply no way to bridge the gap. Fortunately, Dylan pulled alongside, having also got separated in the confusion, and we soon saw Penny and Des drop off to help us work against the wind and get back to the group.

Free-wheeling down the R44 we passed our earlier starting point at Nelson wine estate, completing the first 66km loop of the route. I felt a tad foolish at having been worried by the 10:15 cutoff time when I looked down at my watch and saw it wasn’t yet 9:30. Spirits were bright, the day was sunny but not hot, and the wind was light. But the pace was also fast, much faster than I was used too. I knew there would be a price to pay later but there really wasn’t a lot of point stressing on it, so I sat back and enjoyed the riding.

Our pace didn’t slow either on the leg from Wellington towards Hermon, in fact for a short while it even picked up as we latched on to a passing group in which Penny’s brother was riding. The 85km water point came up quickly, and we stopped for a quick refill and load up on snacks. Shortly before the Bothmaskloof climb we crossed the 100km mark, and my legs and energy reserves were starting to feel the pace. Later on Des commented we’d gone through the first 100km with an average speed of 28.5km/h, which for my fitness level is flying. I could happily have stopped right there, content in the knowledge that we had shredded my previous best time for 100km.

Just a few kilometres further on at the top of the climb, I nearly did stop. The pace caught up with me, stomach cramps kicked in, I started to feel nauseous, and in a repeat of Wednesday’s training ride the fuel tank seemed empty.. It’s amazing what the encouragement of your team mates can do though, and for the second time in a week my fellow riders helped me keep pedalling even though the body was ready to quit. The long downhill from the top of the climb was a welcome relief and breathed some life back into legs, lungs and spirit, and although I was tired and my pace had dropped, I stuck in there, pulled along by the great spirit in our team. 
One of the TV motorbikes followed us along this section of the route, the rearward facing cameraman filming Penny as we sped along. The same crew filmed a couple of us, including me, at the next water point around the 130km mark. I really wasn’t at my best by that stage, so hopefully that piece of video ends up on the cutting room floor.

The right turn off the R45 was a very welcome sight. Even with both legs starting to cramp, it was the first point at which I was fairly sure I would actually finish. Adele dropped to the back and rode alongside me for a while, similarly delighted to be within striking distance of the finish. She’d not had a chance to train for the ride, and had made a very last minute decision to take part. Over the last 5km I really started to struggle, Dylan sat directly in front and towed me up the last couple of short ramps, even handing me his bottle for a couple of swigs of Powerade to give me a shot of energy to reach the left turn back on to the R44. Penny and Tom were waiting at the turn, and the rest of the team had only just started the last downhill roll to the finish.

With no more pedalling to be done, conversation picked up, spirits rose, and the finishing mats soon came into view. Our whole team crossed the line together, with a finishing time of 5:54. In my wildest dreams I hadn’t imagined completing my first One Tonner in under six hours, making it not just the furthest I had ridden but also the fastest average speed of my previous PPA rides. Dad’s One Tonner had been my inspiration to take on the ride, but on the day it was the unceasing encouragement of my team-mates that got me to the end. Without them, I’d have struggled to finish at all. 

All pictures by Peter Nolan.

Franschhoek Pass

The town of Franschhoek lies at the end of a broad valley, it’s ridiculously quaint main street ending abruptly at a T-junction in front of the Huguenot monument. Our regular Wednesday club rides normally turn around at this point, heading for one of the cafes before the return journey home. Last week’s ride was no exception, although we forwent our usual outdoor seats at Traumerei for the welcome warmth of a table inside, the weather being damper and colder than had been forecast. As we huddled over steaming coffees, Penny threw out a question:

‘What route could we use for a 140km ride which would include Franschhoek Pass?’

The pass is a truly stunning stretch of road, climbing almost immediately left out of town at the T-junction. Over the many times we’d turned at that spot we’d often joked about a quick spin up the pass, and on more than one occasion I’d looked up in awe at it’s curves sweeping their way high up the mountain side. So I didn’t take much convincing to have a dabble and see if I could come up with a workable route for the upcoming DC training ride on Sunday..

A couple of days later, after some tinkering with Garmin Connect course mapping, I was feeling rather pleased with myself at the route I’d sketched out. Not only did it meet the two main requisites of distance and including Franschhoek pass, but I felt I’d managed to embody some of the feel of the DC – with increasingly steep hills over first half of the ride, and a succession of rolling hills on the way home. With the pass top at almost bang on half way, and pit-stop opportunities after the free-wheel down, I was pretty confident we’d be in for a good ride.

Clearly my powers of persuasion weren’t at their strongest at 6am on a blustery Sunday morning however, as I completely failed to communicate my enthusiasm for the route to the gathered group of DC riders. The  majority opted for a straight ride to Franschhoek, and without discussion had spun around and were already disappearing along the car park entry road. Seven of us were left: myself, Des, Desiree, Penny, Theunis, Tom, and Wiehahn. After a quick check that we were all up for the challenge we headed out along Old Main Road. The threat of rain was holding off, but we were battling head-on into a chilly northwester over the opening kilometres. The mood was good though, regularly swapping turns working at the front, spirits buoyed by a glorious sunrise over the Helderberg mountains to our left, lighting up a brilliant green patchwork of vineyards and farmland.

The day got sunnier as we rode on up the first short climb of Vlaberg, and the longer climb of Helshoogte, but it didn’t get much warmer. I’d lost most of my cycling warmth after a puncture stop, prolonged by a defective new inner tube that immediately split at the valve, and as we started out again on the final stretch into Franschhoek I was feeling chilly again. Luckily though the right knee injury which flared up after Wednesday’s ride seemed to have settled down, and I mentally thanked Andri for his careful gym program the previous Friday which seemed to have worked it’s magic. At some point soon after the puncture we passed the original Wannabee group heading back for home: I wondered if they had also done the pass, since surely they would have been further on by then otherwise.

After three or four more changes of turn at the front, our group reach the monument and the T-junction, and swinging left we headed into completely unknown territory for me. A brief stop was needed for jackets to be removed and stowed ahead of what was likely to be a sweaty climb. As we stood and chatted it was impossible not to look up at the snaking road, and from below it seemed long and steep. Not really knowing what to expect, I was all too glad to hold back and wait for Theunis to sort his gear out. As he, Desiree and I started out, the rest of the guys were already quite some way ahead and were pulling hard across the first ramp past Haute Cabriere and Le Petite Ferme. Realising the scale of the climb ahead, the three of us settled into an nice steady pace. Theunis seemed to be feeling the pressure a tad, and as we reached the first hairpin he slowed and said he’d got as far as he could and would wait for us at the BP station at the bottom, previously agreed as our rendezvous point before the return home. Desiree and pushed on, and were rewarded soon after as the pass rose out of the trees revealing a stunning view across Franschhoek  and the entire sweep of winelands beyond. The day was bright and clear and the scenery more breathtaking than I ever remembered having seen it from a car.We were even accompanied briefly by an Orange Breasted Sunbird, flitting between protea heads alongside the road.

Just ahead of us we saw a luminous green jacket that Desiree commented might be Tom. It soon became clear we were gradually gaining on the rider though, meaning there was no way it could be, and sure enough over the next kilometre or so we pulled alongside Des working his way up the pass. Remembering Paul’s kind gesture two weeks back, I called Des to latch on and our group was once more three riders. I’d expected a final steep rise after the last tight hairpin, a turn of considerably more than 180 degrees. But both my memory of the road, and it’s appearance from beneath were deceiving, and as we exited the turn the road levelled out and we each shifted up a gear or two and raced up to join our fellow riders at the viewpoint stop.

Tom, Desiree, Penny, me, Des, Weihahn

It seemed I wasn’t the only one to have been blown away by the fabulous climb, as Penny and a number of the other guys commented what an awesome ride up they’d had and how tremendous the view was. All too soon we had to turn back down the pass and our refuelling stop before the rolling hills home. Before leaving though we managed to lasso a honeymoon couple to snap a team photo to mark the occasion.

The ride down the pass was one long, fast, icy blast – the cold wind seeming to find us again despite the clear sunny skies. And after a quick fill up of water bottles and tummies, we tackled the remaining 60km or so home. The route plan proved rather too good, and the rollers started to hurt along the road from Simondium to Klapmuts. The psychological effect of turning left onto the R44 for home though seemed to work wonders, and my spirits and energy levels lifted almost immediately. It seemed to have a similar effect on others too: Des’ cramps started to lift shortly after the Wiesenhof climb, and Theunis was resolutely stuck on our wheels despite a reasonably quick pace over the remaining few kilometres. Even my slight miscalculation didn’t seem to dent spirits as our various Garmins and cycle computers all came up a shade short of the targeted 140km as we rolled back into the car park.

A memorable ride, great company, and a truly outstanding pass on a glorious Cape spring day. Training rides don’t come much better.

What the LEL?

“You’re seriously going to enter that?”

Hent’s view on my audaxing interests had mellowed a shade from his comment about me being mad at the beginning of this blog. He and Lanie were over for dinner last Saturday evening and our conversation had moved from cycling in general, to some stunning Joberg2c footage which had been used on a recent Avis TV ad. Hent raised an eyebrow at the 900km in 9 days schedule which prompted me to mention my intention to enter LEL (London-Edinburgh-London) next year. As we talked more, it dawned on me that I haven’t really mentioned LEL here on the blog.

Two or three months back Yoli and I were having dinner at one of our favourite restaurants, Taste just outside Somerset West on the R44. For a day or so I’d been wondering about whether LEL would be a good idea, but I knew there was no point considering it unless Yoli was comfortable with the idea. Given that we have work, family and friends in the UK, it’s not a difficult trip to combine with other things and no shortage of things to do whilst there.

A few things had sparked my interest in LEL. First of those was the distance – at 1,400km it’s actually longer than PBP albeit with an extra day allowed to compensate for that. The next attraction is that it is two years before the next PBP event in 2015. Whilst that may make it a tad ambitious in terms of my training, it will give me valuable practical experience of what a long audax event entails, allowing time to improve and refine my ideas on equipment and preparations before PBP. And finally, there is the question of whether I am made of the right stuff to complete these long audax rides. Hopefully LEL will help me answer that question before committing myself to the qualifying brevets and the final stages along the road to PBP.

Luckily, Yoli is extremely understanding and tolerant of my cycling addiction and immediately grasped the logic of adding LEL to the DC as training stages towards PBP. Although maybe the candlelit ambience, Anton’s excellent food and Ed’s superb wine helped get the idea across too.

So that’s how LEL came into the planning of my journey to Paris, and hardly a day goes by without some aspect of the going through my mind. The most often areas I find myself contemplating aren’t actually the cycling at all – I can train for that. The trickier parts to gauge are what a workable sleeping and eating pattern will be. I know from reading many accounts of PBP experiences that, aside from injury, over tiredness and lack of nutrition are big dangers as the hours and days wear on. An average speed of 20 KM/h sounds easy until you think about doing it five days in a row. Actually for LEL the real average is closer to 14 KM/h but you need to get out ahead of that speed to eke out time to eat and sleep, not to mention contingency for mechanicals.

For now though, it’s all about building the kilometres towards the DC. It’s been hard at times to get out training lately, especially with some very wet riding. But the looming prospect of a tough team 200km ride in November and needing to make a final decision on LEL by Jan 5th 2013 have served as more than enough motivation to keep cycling.

Rain, Rain …

Rule #5 – Harden The F*ck Up

Rule #9 – If you are out riding in bad weather it means you are badass. Period.

Source: the rules as laid down by the Velominati, Keepers of the Cog.
Today was definitely a day for contemplating both of these rules, and they were cited on a few occasions to cheer our small group of riders and prevent further defections to home or a coffee shop due to the inclement conditions.

Even though they disagreed on how much, and when it would start, every forecast was predicting a cold morning with some rain. With little doubt of a downpour, it was clearly a perfect day to break out the Endura Flyte jacket for it’s inaugural ride, the only one of the items brought over on Mum’s visit not to have been road tested yet. In theory, this jacket should be more water and windproof than my lightweight jacket or gilet, albeit at the expense of portability. Once on, the jacket needs to stay on as it does not fold down small enough to go in a jersey pocket. So you need to be pretty sure it will be cold and/or wet enough that the jacket will be needed for the whole ride.

Along with the new jacket, I also put on my Deluge Zipless overshoes and FS-260 leg warmers. Both of these have had one previous outing and proved their value at beating the cold, but this would be their first test in the rain.

I must confess, as I started down the road with all my layers on I was almost too warm. But even in the dark of the morning, I could just make the outline of some fairly ominous looking clouds in the sky. Sure enough, swinging right at the lights into Main Road and heading towards our meeting point at Waterstone Village a few small half-hearted spots of rain were already drifting lazily on the air. It was easy to ignore them at first as we chatted in the car park, but even before we started off a steadily increasing drizzle was glinting in the gathering beams of headlights arriving for the ride. By the time we reached Beach Road in Strand the drizzle had turned into full on rain – so much for the forecasts which had suggested we would stay dry until 11 o’clock.

A quick stop and confer and it was agreed that with nearby Gordon’s Bay hidden by a blanket of cloud and rain, the coast road would not make for a pleasant ride. Not willing to abandon the ride though, the decision was made to change our route and we swung back and headed for Vlaberg. Conditions did not improve by heading inland though, and as we span wetly along our new route each junction we crossed saw a fresh crop of riders elect to turn for home. By the time we left the R102 the attrition was complete: our group had been culled to seven or eight die hard riders, buoyed along by a consensus that since we were already wet we may as well just keep going.

I was surprised how easily my legs span up the first ramp of the Vlaberg climb, but three and a half weeks off the bike for our holidays caught up with me on the second ramp and it was a slow crawl to the top and the waiting group of riders. Flying down the Stellenbosch Arterial, a mix of road spray and rain made for a solid drenching. Penny commented that it was surprisingly exhilarating, which in a weird way it was: it’s not every day you get to take a 45km/h shower.

The remainder of our ride home from Stellenbosch was a bit of a struggle – my legs felt good, but lack of saddle time definitely showed in my energy levels. Our usual coffee stop was abandoned by consensus. None of us wanted to stop and allow the wet and cold seep in deeper and then have to get back on the bikes again. So we pedalled briskly for home, and bid our farewells as we peeled off the R44 at our various exit points.

Back home, after over two hours of solid riding in the rain, it was time to assess how the kit had performed. Wettest were my First Ascent gloves and shorts – to be fair, the shorts aren’t billed as water proof, but the gloves in theory are all weather outdoor gloves. They did keep my hands warm, but get a marginal thumbs down for waterproofing. My legs felt wet during the ride, but rather surprisingly peeling off the leg warmers they actually seemed quite dry. I suspect the close fit of the warmers had something to do with the sensation of being wet, so these get a solid thumbs up. My feet were warm and toasty all ride, but the boot covers and cycle shoes were a little damp. I suspect fitting my mudguards for an audax event would see much less road spray on the boots and drier feet as a result, so another thumbs up there. Last to come off was my jacket. My jersey was only slightly damp on the back and dry on the front, which given the conditions I’d rate as excellent. Oddly, my thermal vest was wetter than the jersey, so I must have been sweating more than I had realised. First prize for dryness though goes to my new Pocpac phone pouch – not only dry inside, but outside too, although that probably bears as much testament to the effectiveness of the Endura jacket as the actual pouch itself.

All in all it was a surprisingly memorable and enjoyable ride given the conditions. Without the camaraderie of the brave souls who stuck it out it would have been a miserable ride in foul weather. But the lively and friendly banter kept going the whole ride, lifting spirits and preventing anyone dwelling on the steady drenching of rain and road spray. Cheers folks!

All photos from Endura web-site

What’s in a name

‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.’
Ask Yoli how many times I’ve prevaricated over joining my local cycling club, the Wannabees, and her answer will almost certainly be accompanied by a rolling of eyes. I should be old enough to know better, but the stupidest of reasons has put me off each time I’ve visited the website to download the forms: the name.

Daft as it is, the name has kept putting me off – cycling is purely a fun past-time for me. Although I can get extremely competitive with myself, I hope I don’t take myself so seriously that anyone one would label me a wannabe. Except now they can, albeit with a slightly different spelling. I have got over myself, seen sense and become a Wannabee member. In the end, the simplest of reasons decided it for me: safety. I’ve been lucky enough to have very few near misses in the four years I’ve been riding solo, but cycling accidents and hijackings are on the increase and with Ben and Yoli to consider the risk feels too high. Cycling as a group is generally safer, and having training partners is an added motivation to get out of bed at 6am on a cold and dark winters morning to go ride.

My first club ride was the midweek Wednesday ride a couple of weeks ago. And what a ride it was As if to both endorse my decision to join, and also chastise me for not doing it before, the guys chose a stunning route for my first ride: Clarence Drive, the scenic coast road from Gordon’s Bay.  I’ve wanted to ride that road since I first started cycling in South Africa, but had shied away from riding it solo because of the lack of a safety lane.

The route and the ride did not disappoint, either on that first week or this Wednesday’s ride when we went a shade further and turned around after climbing the short but steep hill just beyond Rooi Els. The scenery is every bit as majestic when viewed from the saddle, except that it slides by more slowly so you get to appreciate it more. Not to mention being able to hear and smell the ocean crashing against the rocks, in places only a few meters down from the road. The wildlife hasn’t let us down either. We’ve seen mongoose, seals, and large troops of baboons on both rides. In the next few weeks, we should be enjoying sightings of whales too, as they arrive to nurse their young in the bays.

From a cycling perspective, it’s great training too. Riding as a group pushes me to ride faster than I typically do when training solo, especially on the climbs. There’s no room to shift down to the easiest gear and grind slowly up a slope if you have a group to keep up with. Even less so if you’re taking a turn at the front of the group, I did on a couple of short stretches this week

The final bonus from joining also came with a bit of a moral dilemma – John offered to put my name down on their DC team list.  It meant backing down from the provisional DC team that a group of us from The Hub had started to pull together, which wasn’t an easy decision to make. In the end though, the option to train locally with a group of experienced riders who had done the event before was a compelling factor given my always limited time for riding.

So there it is, I’m proud to officially be a Wannabee and Yoli gets to enjoy poking fun at me for being a wannabe every time I don the jersey. Turns out to be more in a name than you might expect.

Hel’s Hills

This weeks particular torture served up by the autumn and winter training programme was hill intervals. Suffice to say, that my first attempt at these resulted in a lot of sweating, gasping, and a peak heart rate of 175bpm. In theory that is 2bpm more than 100% heart rate, assuming of course that you believe the standard age based calculation of 220-age.

Anyhow, back to the hill laps – I devised a nice little circuit that I have called Hel’s Hills. It loops around various angles of the hillside on which we live, the Helderberg.  The benefit of being local is that I’m training almost as soon as I leave the gate. The downside is, well, the circuit! Parel Vallei road starts out with a decent climb, steep but manageable. As it swings into Silwerboom road though the gradient pitches upward sharply  and it’s a battle even on the small blade and 25 tooth rear cog to keep any kind of momentum going. First lap around I was sucking in gulps of air and battling pretty much all of the last and steepest section in a standing climb for. Second lap around I managed better, staying in a seated climb for most of the hill, with just an occasional standing surge to stretch out and keep my speed above a crawl.

I decided my legs needed a more gradual ascent between laps to loosen the legs before the next assault, so threw in a short loop down to Old Stellenbosch road and back up Irene avenue. The extra section making each lap into a figure of eight, and adding a nice gradual hill that you can steadily work up a good pace on. The only part of the circuit I’m less than sold on is the tearing descent down the other side of Irene, very steep and a badly placed 4 way stop and left turn mean that instead of running down it at speed, I end at the bottom with seriously over heating brake blocks. It’ll do for now though, 11km per lap and 300m of climbing, this week’s session being 2 laps making for a respectable start of 600 vertical meters for my first week of hill laps. Hopefully over the coming weeks I can speed up each lap and build up to 3 and 4 laps in the time clawed back from each faster lap.

This week had a few other cycling related highlights too. The hub forum served a considerable amount of interest in LEL 2013. It seems quite a number of SA based cyclists have an interest in taking part, one of whom also lives in Somerset West which could tie up nicely for training sessions. Also via a thread on the hub, it looks like we have the makings of a team for the Double Century in November. Our group will be meeting for an inaugural ride together on 22nd April.  More on these in future entries as they develop.