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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Broken

I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of collecting my new P group start letter as we lined up at the start of this weekend’s Wellington Lions ride. Maybe it was the dim morning light, but the majority of riders and bikes around me somehow seemed more serious than my previous start group of S. In a very literal sense, I felt a bit out of my league. I tried to dispel the idea, putting it down to the earlier than usual 4am start to pick Marleen up and be here in time to sort out the new race number.

It wasn’t long though before those initial doubts were confirmed. Not the usual relaxed cruising when the starter let us go, but a frantic surge of sprinting bikes carrying N, O and P jerseys all around me. I burnt a lot of gas over those first few rolling kilometres just hanging on to the bunch at the front of our start group. Gone was the loose and fast feeling in my legs and lungs from the 99er two weeks back. The bad omens started early too, we hadn’t left Wellington before my rear water bottle broke free and catapulted out of my tri-bracket. For a brief second I looked back at it bouncing off the road and wondered about collecting it. But even in those few moments, the group was already slipping away. Sod it! I decided to get back into the group and resigned myself to more water stops. Not a great start for what promised to be a hot day in the saddle.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the first or last casualty of the day. The bunch was positively charging down the R44 heading towards Hermon.  Occasionally I was comfortable, but most of the time I knew the pace was way too hot for me. My Garmin had developed a nasty erratic behaviour, flickering between believable speeds, zero, and a few Km/h. So I had no confidence in it’s figures, knowing only that the average speed it was showing of around 20Km/h was wrong for sure – at my best guess, we were averaging close or even above 30.

Three years had dulled my memory of the tough outride from Wellington, but my leg muscles reminded me as we came within sight of the day’s big climb, Botmaskloof. Standing to stretch, there was suddenly a gap of 10 metres from me to the back of the bunch. I changed up, and pedalled hard,  but the gap stayed the same. Eventually, I had nothing more to fight with, and they slowly slid away just before we turned off the R44 and started the first ramps of the climb.

Feeling broken and drained, my inner thighs cramping painfully, I wasn’t convinced I would make it up Botmaskloof without walking. It even flitted through my mind that I might not be able to complete the ride at all, and would have to pull off to wait for the sag wagon. Needing to mentally regroup, I sat up, looked at the stunning scenery of the Riebeek Kasteel vineyards, and realised it was time to abandon my race plan and dreams of a sub 3:30 time. I needed to back-off, work through my cramps, and slog out the next few kilometres until I recovered from those early hectic salvoes. I decided to ignore the aptly ironic message of the sign for Allesverloren (‘everything is lost’), pushed past it and on into the pass.

Slower and slower the pedals turned as I struggled up the steepening gradient. I made a bold decision, shifted up two gears and stood up to climb. Normally for me the standing motion triggers crippling cramps, but to my surprise the pedalling became light and pleasant. I could even enjoy the antics of a troop of baboons passing alongside us in the kloof. Alternating seating and standing, and taking in the glorious views, the hard work was over almost too soon and the welcome sight of the hilltop water stop came into view. I hadn’t planned to stop here, but with one water bottle down I needed to keep topped up.

I was soon on my way again, and the descent was a welcome relief, occasionally the Garmin gave me a number I could believe, 40km/h, 50km/h, even flicking up to 60km/h at one stage. The speed and cooling wind breathed new life into my ride and as we leveled out I pedalled on solo with a new determination.

‘Klim saam’ …. (‘climb on’)

Or something close to that hailed the leader of the one of the remaining bunches as they passed me a bit further on. The gracious offer was an attractive one down the long windy stretch of road. For a few moments, I did think about it. I looked at the range of hills, uncertain whether it was the Perdeberg or Rhebokskloof. The difference between those two meant 20km or more closer to home. I was pretty certain the 50km reading on the Garmin was out, but I decided the risk wasn’t worth it. We had at least 30km to go, my legs felt good and I was making good speed, pushing that bit harder though would almost certainly trash them again.

That was the last bunch to come through, the rest of the ride was all solo – but no less enjoyable for it, despite being slower. The day was glorious, sunny and bright. A dusty heat haze spread  over the rolling farmland interspersed with the little glinting mirrors of farm dams here and there. I’d long ago lost count of the kites, buzzards, goshawks and eagles also out enjoying the day. The privilege to be out riding on such a beautiful day was more than pleasure enough.

Finally I recognised a gradual rise before a short pine woodland from my last time doing this ride. The spot is significant for two reasons: firstly because this was where I cramped on the last attempt, walking every uphill for the rest of the ride; and secondly because I knew it was close to the end. I slogged up the slope past the my previous dismount spot, through the wooded section and down to the left turn at the start of the short vineyard detour loop the ride takes before home

’12km to the end’

Shouted the water stop marshall as we went past. The only figure I could trust on my Garmin was the time, and this was reading 3:08. Crikey, maybe I could make 3:30 after all. But some quick mental arithmetic and a memory of the undulating contours on the detour made me realise I would miss it, but only just. As it turned out, I also slowed a lot over the last 6km or so. My water bottle had gone, the Garmin was stuffed, and now it was me who was out of gas, both mentally and physically.

But the day’s drama wasn’t over. As I swung left into Piet Retief Street for the last 500m of the ride a crack like a rifle shot came from somewhere behind and under me. Immediately, I was wobbling around the road amid cracking and groaning noises.A rear spoke had gone, and it was all I could do to get over the line. After everything else, the bike was now broken too. I was cursing my expensive, sparsely-spoked, Easton race wheels as I carried the bike through the 3 or 4km neutral zone back to the start. The road surface had been especially potholed and harsh, and I guess they’d had enough too.

Rob, Rob, told you I’d beat you back. Ha!’

I was wandering blankly along, as Marleen shouted at me from the parking lot. She and Jakes were by their car. As it turned out her ride had not gone to plan either. She got a puncture at 42km, and although a fellow rider stopped to help her his efforts came to naught. The local bike shop had given her the wrong tube. Needless to say, she was not a happy customer. As she and Jakes both said though, better to find that now than on the Argus in two weeks. I reflected on my broken spoke, and realised the same was true for me.

In a different way to the 99er, there were plenty of positives from the ride. At 3:42, it was my fastest pace for a 90-something kilometer ride, 6 minutes faster, 2km longer and a considerably tougher ride than Die Burger. And despite punishing my legs early on and cramping badly, I managed to stay pedalling up Botmaskloof, recover my legs and keep a decent pace for all but the final few kilometers. I am absolutely certain I had nothing more to give physically or mentally, but there is still a tinge of disappointment at not getting under 3:30. An unrealistic goal it may have been, but I got damned close even riding solo for more than half the ride. I’m sure I’ll be back another year to try again.

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