Last race of the year

I look forward to Die Burger each year – it’s the last organised ride, follows a wonderfully scenic route, and is also a seeding ride for the Cape Argus. One final chance at getting an earlier start time for the big finale to the summer cycling season. Originally when planning to do the DC, I’d foolishly assumed I would skip Die Burger this year, with it being just one week later. When the entries opened however, I just couldn’t imagine not taking part. So I bargained one last weekend of racing from my long suffering partner, Yoli. Not that she complained much, since she haggled an early, and more extravagant than usual birthday present – a nice shiny Kenwood mixer which now takes pride of place in the kitchen..

I normally struggle to use the term “race” when describing organised bike rides, because in truth the term “fun ride” better sums up the spirit I and many other riders enter and ride them with. For the first time though I feel at least a little bit justified in calling it a race. Not because I’d be up front racing for honours, but lining up in start group E put me only a few groups behind the real racers, and would mean fast bunches to improve the chance of a decent time. Better still, in amongst those fast riders were six fellow Wannabees, from our DC team and training rides: Adele, Alita, Desiree, Elizna, Peter and Theunis.

As we chatted to wile away the time until our 06:12 start, it became clear that I wasn’t the only one hoping for a good time: Adele had done a 3:08 the year before, and was looking to improve her time, even if only by one minute. I’d set myself a target of 3:15, but I didn’t mention the fact that I was really hoping for a faster time – having spent most of the typically sleep interrupted night before dreaming about a first sub 3 time. It seemed outrageously arrogant to mention it when this race last year was the first time I’d managed a sub 4, with a time of 3:48. So I kept quiet on my real ambition.

Pacing Die Burger is very tricky. It starts with an initial lung busting 6.5km climb almost immediately off the line. The risk with going out too hard at this, the only real climb of the day is not leaving enough fuel in the tank for a testing 40km of rolling hills back from Wellington at the end. Each of us had our own ideas on race tactics, so we had agreed not to try and ride as a group but rather follow our own pace. As we set off though, Alita and Elizna were both around me and we stayed largely together over the opening ramps of Helshoogte Old Pass. As the road wound and pitched up the wonderful wooded hillside, Alita’s climbing pace was a little stronger than I wanted to go at this early stage, so I sat back into a steady climb. Elizna was also obviously concerned about pushing the pace too much, and we exited the old pass and crossed the last few metres of the climb together.

Looking down at my Garmin, I was glad I’d only mentioned my 3:15 target in the start chutes. The split given in the race pack at the top of Helshoogte for a sub 3 was just 19 minutes. We were already 3 minutes slower than that with 85kms of riding still ahead. Dwelling on it wouldn’t help though, so I shifted to my big plate on the front, stood on the pedals and rapidly worked through to small cog on the back as we picked up the pace and sped into the descent. Wind rushing past us as our speed crossed 60km/h, I shouted across to Elizna that we needed to find a bunch for the stretch into Paarl after the downhill, which would be a fast section but also likely to be into the wind. It wasn’t looking promising though, with no obvious groups around us.

After the short incline before the run down through Pniel it struck me we were gaining very slightly on a bunch some way ahead. At just that point a guy clad in white, on a white bike came past only slightly faster than us. With three of us now, we could probably catch the bunch ahead – so I pulled alongside and shouted across that if we worked together we could chase them down. The next few kilometres were a painful, lung and thigh busting blur as we ignored the opportunity for a nice easy free-wheel through the village, and instead charged at full speed towards the tail of the group ahead. Slowly, as we alternated turns between myself, Elizna, and white-clad-cycle-guy, we reeled them in metre by metre, and as the road flattened past Boschendal we finally caught them. I was impressed with how quickly Elizna ignored the temptation to sit at the back of the bunch, and immediately hopped into the thick of it in the middle. She’d clearly learnt a lot from our recent rides about the horrible concertina affect at the rear of groups, and sensibly gone for the typically steadier pace towards the front.

As we swung left onto the R45, I was having a few concerns over just how much energy and muscle power I’d burnt up, with a long ride still ahead. I knew it was the right move to ensure we kept a good speed up until Paarl, but I was suffering way harder than normal for such an early stage of a ride. That was when I realised that for the first time I was experiencing the real difference between riding and racing – pain. On fun rides, when it hurts, you sit up and take it easy. But not today, I was already hurting, but with no intention of backing off I bit down hard onto my lip, rode harder, and stuck with the bunch. At least the reward was there to see, our pace was improving and not far ahead I could see another large bunch which we were slowly overhauling. I presumed we were hunting down the tail of a slower bunch of C and D riders.

We caught them around the right turn onto the R101, and as we headed towards Paarl circle chaos ensued. This wasn’t a bunch any more, but a full on Peloton – everywhere around me were riders, literally hundreds of them. Negotiating the right turn around the circle was a nervous, potentially ride-ending affair, with at least ten riders abreast sweeping around the circle at a crazily fast speed for the number of riders and tightness of the bends. At least the clock was more promising – we hadn’t slipped back, and were still only 3 minutes off the official sub 3 split time of 55 minutes at the circle. Desiree also now joined Elizna and I, having clearly had a good run down from Helshoogte – it was great to have a chat with friends as we headed through Paarl and towards the pretty vineyard lined section around Klein Drakenstein. 

This stretch of Die Burger has been a bad patch for me in previous years, it’s slightly uphill and always seems to suffer with the wind. This year was no exception, and as Elizna kicked to stay in the bunch to help battle the wind my legs just wouldn’t respond – in the blink of an eye, I was dropped. In a few minutes I’d gone from being surrounded by a ring of racing riders, to riding completely alone along a leafy lane between wineries. If this were a fun ride, I’d have been delighted to enjoy the serenity with just one or two riders around me. But I was gutted. The clouds looming over the mountain were heavy and grey, the wind was freshening into my face, and despite my average speed being close to the 30km/h needed for a sub 3, I was currently battling to even make 25km/h. It felt like less than half way in my race was already over. Regardless, I pushed on, catching the occasional glimpse of the bunch ahead, tauntingly close still but way too large a gap to be closed solo.

One thing I have learnt from past rides though is that when you get dropped from your bunch, dial back a gear, get some strength back into your legs, and be ready for the next bunch coming through. And sure enough, the first riders of that bunch started to pass me just before the last rise of Sonstraal Road as it swings left back towards Paarl. For one brief moment, my fun ride mentality surfaced and I considered letting them go past rather than throwing myself back into the pain of a race. But I hadn’t lost much time and a decent time of just over 3 hours was still very possible. So I picked up the cadence, and stuck myself firmly in the middle of the group. The next moment, as if to confirm my decision, Adele came past me with a “heya Rob“, followed by Peter just a few riders back. I stood and pumped up the short incline, and we charged down the long, extremely fast run down into Paarl.

The rapid sequence of left and right turns switching through the back streets of Paarl were challenging, the group splitting and sprinting with each turn, making for a thigh burning couple of kilometres trying to stay in touch. Heading out towards Wellington though, somehow I was still there, now alongside Peter and chatting away. The pace was still uncomfortably fast, but enough endorphins were flowing through my veins now to dull some of the pain. The Garmin was smiling back at me too – our pace now having crept to 29.9, tantalisingly close to the magic 30.6km/h level that would revive the sub 3 dream.

Skirting Wellington, we swung left onto the R44, and the second half of the ride. Initially the now fairly strong North Wester was a crosswind, but after the gradual climb up to Windmeul, the road swung south and we felt a welcome extra push of the the wind at our backs. The long climb out of Wellington had fragmented riders, different climbing abilities and speeds splintering the group, leaving small shards of riders dotted ahead and behind as far as you could see. With no obvious bunch to join, and a sequence of rolling hills and short fast descents ahead, I decided to just put my foot down and go as hard as I could solo. It was breathless stuff, but the kilometres started to evaporate rapidly with each surging ramp, and racing descent.

I was a little nervous approaching the last rollers into Klapmuts. At this point I have started to cramp on every previous Die Burger. By now, I was holding nothing back and pedalling flat out – quads burning, and mouth open sucking in lungfuls of air to keep the engine going. I was passing riders too, and not just on the downhills: I joined and pulled away from at least two small groups on the uphills too. Despite the pain, I was loving it – my average speed had now crossed the magical 30k/h barrier, faster than I’d ever averaged before, and it wasn’t just because of drafting a faster group doing the work. I started to dream again – just 0.5km/h more and the sub 3 was still on. But the cruel thing about average speeds is they get harder to improve as time and kilometres move on, the distance behind creating a heavier and heavier anchor dragging you back. Knowing this, I told myself that I should easily beat 3:15, and that would be more than good enough as a result.

Although the bunch had broken up, and Adele was far ahead by now, Peter and I obviously ride at a similar pace, and spent most of the R44 passing each other regularly, exchanging words of encouragement as we did. Even with the work rate and fast start, the rolling hills were now behind without any hint of cramps developing. I started the second to last hill of the day, Wiesenhof, with Peter just ahead of me – and soon pulled alongside him. Rather than pass though, I rode alongside and we chatted to the top, the main topic being the motivational thought that there was only one more, relatively small, hill to go before the finish.

Crossing the top, I had lost track of split times and resorted to a quick mental calculation: there were something like 13km to go, including long stretches of fast riding, and just over 20 mins left on the clock. This was going to be close, very close. That realisation was all the incentive I needed, I stood up, stamped a frantic burst into my pedals, and tore into the downhill. The only thoughts that went through my head as we flew over those final kilometres was “don’t get a puncture, don’t get a mechanical, stay on the bike“. I’ve never been a fast descender, and the speed terrified me at times. On my first Die Burger down this same stretch of road I saw first hand what happens to a rider when a front wheel or fork breaks and they go over the bars at 60k/h. It’s a sobering sight, and wasn’t one I could shut out of my mind as we hurtled along.

The relief as we swung the last left turn onto the R301 was enormous. The clock was reading 2:54, and we were almost there – less than 2km, and 6 minutes in hand. I started to dream again, and shouted across to Peter that we had a chance of a sub 3 here. He looked back at me in surprise, clearly unaware of how close we were to such a fast time. But as I stood to sprint the last stretch, the legs had nothing to give – they were dead and lifeless, and I was forced to sit and labour my way up the nasty short uphill from the turn. The top crawled into view, and I hit the big blade one last time, it seemed to take an age to get back up to speed, and the last sweeping bend seemingly endless. Peter passed me and I saw him pause, clearly conflicted with a sub 3 a few metres down the road, but also not wanting to drop me behind. I shouted across to him “go for it Peter, get the sub 3“. I heard the words “thanks …. “, and something else that I didn’t quite catch as he pulled away and made for the line ahead. Everything hurt – the tank was empty, the legs were gone, but the finish was there. I hauled myself out of the saddle, and launched the bike towards the big blue, Die Burger arch spanning the road, and a welcome release from the pain.

The last race of 2012 was over, and just beyond the timing mats were Desiree, Adele, and Peter – huge smiles, hugs and congratulations all around as they had all gone under 3 hours. I didn’t want to look down, just in case, but I needn’t have worried. The Garmin smiled at me one last time – 2:57. Even allowing for small differences between my clock and the official one, I’d done it. My first sub 3, and despite many previous rides, my first real race. Just to round off the ride nicely, we found out later that both Alita and Elizna had also gone under 3 hours as well – Alita being particularly pleased to have bounced back strongly after a disappointing DC.

The final irony of my faster riding was the smartness of Yoli’s bargaining – I was home before 10am, hardly making a dent on our Sunday. I knew the DC training had exacted a heavy price on our weekend family life over  the last six months, so that Kenwood felt like a fair trade for such a memorable final event of 2012.

Photos by Capcha Photography

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.

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.

Feed Me Seymour!

RIP Die Wingerd Breakfast Ride. Gone but not forgotten

I heard with sadness this week that there will be no Die Wingerd Breakfast ride this year. Not only was it the closest PPA organised ride to my front door, but it was also the first timed fun ride/race that I took part in after we moved to South Africa. My fond memories are not just losing the convenient pleasure of being able to cycle to the start of a ride. Nor are they, as a fellow hubber commented, just because I’ll miss the after-ride burgers included in your ride fee, although damn they were good. But that does at least get us towards the point of this topic: food. And that is at the heart of why I will miss the Die Wingerd ride.   

I’d been riding the road bike for about a month into 2008, but somehow had failed to pick up on the vital concepts of adequate hydration and nutrition. The 40km mark of the Die Wingerd Breakfast Ride handed me my ass in a big way and cured me of that oversight forever. God knows what I was thinking only putting one water bottle on my bike, and not filling up at the second water stop, but as we turned into the strong Cape South Easter with 20km to go everything died. It seemed an eternity to the water stop 5km or so from the finish, and I can still remember pretty much every agonsing and slow pedal stroke it took me to get there. My speedo never clocked above 12km/h over that stretch. To put this in context, the next year I barely dipped below 30km/h down that same stretch in similar conditions. It’s not a tough stretch, I just did not have the energy to turn the pedals.

My buddy Niels, who I’d been cursing for talking me into the ride for most of the last few kilometers, found me slumped at the end, mumbling incoherently into my Coke. He scooped the bike and me up into his bakkie and drove me home, I think he may even have felt a little guilty at the state the ride had left me in. I passed out on the bed for hours, so long in fact that Yoli had to cancel our evening dinner with friends. I was also badly sunburnt too, another obvious thing I’d failed to consider was sunscreen.

At this stage, I was thinking, and Yoli was saying “how on earth are you going to manage 108km on the Argus in less than a month if 60km does this too you“. And that is the real reason I’ll miss Die Wingerd. Glinting in the surface of my first great cycling failure was an unexpected gem, my first great cycling lesson. It sent me back to the drawing board, made me work out what I did wrong, and figure out what was needed to fix it.

The next day, I went to my LBS (local bicycle shop) and asked them to help me with what I did wrong. I left the shop with a tub of Fast Fuel and an assorted selection of Gu gel packets. I was inducted into what probably every cyclist and athlete knows, but as a confirmed couch potatoe I’d never learnt. Hydration isn’t just about drinking enough water, it’s also about replacing electrolytes. And even with that, you’re not going to get very far or very fast if you don’t also put some fuel in the tank, which in general means carbs. The energy drink formula, I was clutching that day, and every other drink I’ve tried since have a decent helping of both. The transformation was amazing, every training session got quicker and easier, that less-than-month-away Argus was actually fun, and at just under five hours was way quicker than I’d dreamed of.
I’ve switched brands a few times since. For a while I was searching in vain for a cure for crippling cramps that have dogged my riding the last couple of years. I’ve come to understand my body better through training though, and with that has come the realisation that they are more about lack of condition and over exertion than electrolyte depletion. There’s no quick fix for that in my energy drink, sadly.

My latest fuel of choice is Hammer Perpetuem Caffe Latte. Like most of them, it tastes pretty dreadful, especially after four or five hours of just that and the occasional super sweet energy gel or fruit bar. But the energy boost seems pretty good. I say pretty good because the most recent ride had some similar elements to that first Die Wingerd ride. A tortured last few kilometers, and me lying helpless and exhausted on our bed. Except Yoli’s comment this time was “how on earth will you manage 1230km of Paris-Brest-Paris if 105km of riding does this to you“. And as on that first ride, those same thoughts were also going through my head. Except this time, I knew what to do – analyse, assess, and fix.

My first attempt at the “fix” part will come in two weeks time on the 99er. An even more brutal ride, and so a very good test. I’m planning to drop the Hammer Heed spare bottle I usually carry, mix the Perpetuem double strength, and have at least one extra water fill up en route to counteract dehyrdation. I’m also going to see if Race Caps or Anti Fatigue additives make any difference (I needed to bump my web order up to get free delivery so figured why not give them a try).

My big nagging doubt is how this would work over a 4 day ride, where there is just no way to carry the weight of typical per-hour quantities of these wonderful rocket fuels. One step at a time though, that’s a problem for a different day.