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

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.

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.

Bad wheels, or bad luck?

Under any other circumstances, sitting outside on a sunny winters day at Rooi Els with a cup of cappuccino to complement the stunning views would more than enough to put a smile on my face. But when it is winter, and sunny days are rare, sitting looking at views is not something I’d trade for enjoying them from the saddle of my bike. And enjoying my midweek ride is just what I had been doing until my Easton EA 90 SLX wheels let me down again.

I’d made a concious decision to lead the group up the climb back from Betty’s Bay. It’s fairly long but not steep, making it perfect for settling into a nice brisk pace to spin up to the top. Being just four riders we ended up riding in twos: Penny alongside me at the head; and John and Tom tucked on our wheels behind. Energy wise, I’d judged the haul up well – as we crested the top I was starting to feel the effort in my lungs, although my legs still felt strong and energetic.

Starting the free-wheel down I was looking forward to seeing how well I would last the remaining few hills, given my recent lack of training and the decent pace we had kept up. But around halfway down I heard an ominous crack, followed immediately by a wobbling front wheel. I instantly knew it was another broken spoke, having had exactly the same experience at the end of the Wellington Lions ride back in February. I’m a fairly cautious (in other words slow!) descender, and Penny and John were already too far ahead to hear me cry out “mechanical“. Tom pulled alongside as my bike rapidly slowed under the involuntary braking of the no longer round front wheel. He graciously offered to wait with me, but there was really no point him also spoiling his ride so I bid him farewell and asked him to let the others know what had happened when he caught up with them.

Luckily Yolandi was at home, and the hour it took her to reach me passed quite quickly with the views, my coffee, and my inbox to work through. I wasn’t happy though: two spoke breakages in 8 months and less than 2,000km of usage is just not what I’d expected from high end wheels. Especially since everything else about them I like – they’re very light and spin very fast. But durable they are not, at least not the set I have.

Having done some internet research – it seems that there are many happy customers, with lots of distance on these wheels and no problems. There is no shortage of other unhappy riders though whose experiences pretty much exactly mirror mine – multiple and repeated spoke breakages with relatively low usage, and also loosening hubs which is something I had to get fixed just last week. So I’ve lobbied Helderberg Cycle World to try and get me either a replacement set or a refund from Omnico, the SA distributors. Hopefully I’ll get a rock solid set in replacement, and will be able to report back that I was unlucky with a defective set.

26 Jul 12 – Postcript to original entry:
Yet another case of superb service from Helderberg Cycles and Omnico, they replaced the wheels with a brand new boxed set. I can’t really say whether my set were just defective, or there is something inherent in the Easton’s that doesn’t suit my riding, but it’s great to have the support of my LBS and the importer in getting me a replacement set.

Photos from Easton website

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

Unsuitable clothing

‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.’ 

Alfred Wainwright

Maybe it was coincidence, but just as the Wannabee newsletter arrived with news that the DC Training schedule was on the web site, winter also blew into the Cape with a vengeance. Perhaps we’d also chanced our luck one too many times by commenting on great weather we were having for our Wednesday morning rides. Either way, the recent pleasant and mild autumn cycling seems to be over.

Rather fittingly, I was reminded of the above quote quite recently too. I forget where I came across it, but quite probably it was on a site reviewing cycle clothing. I should have given it some more attention this Wednesday before heading out to ride. I’d looked carefully at the weather forecast for the prospect of rain, but completely overlooked the temperature. This important detail didn’t overlook me as I free-wheeled down our hill though, and by the bottom my fingers and feet were numbing with the cold nicely. Usually some quick pedalling along Main Road gets me up to a decent working temperature, today however the faint breath of warmth to the air wasn’t nearly enough to thaw me out by the time I reached Waterstone. I wasn’t altogether surprised to see no one else there, depending on which forecast you believed there was some some likelihood of rain.

After a respectable wait for any latecomers, I pedalled back out of the parking lot. At this stage I was undecided whether to do a short ride to the top of Helshoogte Pass, a full ride to Franschhoek, or just turn off at the top of the Lord Charles hill on the R44 and head home. Passing under the Steynrust Avenue bridge my first decision was made, I rode on past the turn-off and left the head straight home option behind me. As I rode on I seemed to be following the edge of the weather front. The sky above the hills and the pass ahead of me looked clear and inviting, but overhead hung a thin but line of storm clouds which thickened progressively to my left. My sense of direction has never fully adjusted to life in the southern hemisphere, and it felt to me like the weather should be going the other way bringing more of the clear skies and banishing the remaining clouds. Rather annoyingly though the weather seemed less confused about North and South and so the slight but persistent drizzle accompanied me the whole ride into Stellenbosch.

Riding solo, I reverted to my preferred route through town, turning off at Van Reede road and taking quieter roads past Paul Roos and Stellenbosch high schools. Even with the morning school traffic it seemed considerably less busy than the route the Wannabees normally take to Helshoogte via Molteno road. I’d guess my route could be much less ideal for a large bunch though, with it’s narrow roads and many turns that could split a group up badly. I had been feeling slightly damp and chilly for quite a way, but the cycling was pleasant and a spectacularly bright rainbow whose arc seemed to perfectly frame the whole of Stellenbosch was more than enough to distract me. But as the junction with Helshoogte road came into sight the clouds darkened and the drizzle turned to hard cold sheets of rain. Moments before I’d decided to opt for the long ride, but with the rain my resolve faded. I suddenly realized how cold I had become, and I had neither the clothing nor determination to stay the distance to a coffee stop in Franschhoek with the worsening weather. I swung left instead of right and made a beeline for the nearby shopping centre, and the very welcoming sight of a cafe.

For an impromptu stop, the coffee and muffin were both pretty good. The view wasn’t much compared to the lovely tree lined streets of Franschhoek but at least I was sitting in the dry and warming up slightly as the rain lashed down. Having received my text, Yoli called to check I was ok. She also relayed the news that the weather at home had cleared up and was dry. So rather than hang around, I downed the rest of my coffee, paid the bill and raced back home with the remaining energy that had not been sapped from me by the cold. I had no more rain on the ride home, but I got steadily colder again as I rode – my choice of gear had been woefully inadequate for the conditions, and specifically the temperature. My hands and feet were like ice blocks when I got home. At the very least, I needed a full pair of warmer gloves and a thermal tee under my jersey, plus a proper riding shell rather than just my gilet. I also need to use the shoe covers which my mother brought over, and possibly the leg warmers too.

I can’t blame the weather for the pain of today’s ride, just unsuitable clothing.

Rainbow photograph by Steve Crane.

Winter gear

Wintry weather has officially arrived in the Cape, and with almost perfect timing also came my Mum’s visit from the UK with my new cycling gear for cold and wet weather in her suitcase.

Wednesday’s Wannabees ride was the perfect opportunity to give some of the new kit a try out. Free-wheeling away from our house the morning was still dark, and as I picked up speed down the hill to our rendezvous point the wind chill added a nasty bite to the already cold air. I can’t say I was toasty, but the new Endura Laser gilet and FS260 Pro arm warmers did a pretty good job at keeping the worst of it out.
I had expected to be taking them off quite soon into the ride, in fact I’d originally thought they’d only be on as far as our start point and wouldn’t be needed after that. On the first few kilometres to Stellenbosch though, the morning stubbornly refused to warm up, a sure sign that summer weather was now fully behind us. As we climbed the short ramp by Techno Park, Nadine commented how much colder the hollows felt as you sped down into them – something I had noticed moments earlier as we went through the bottom of the dip.

So the gear stayed on. Even at the top of Helshoogte, I resisted the temptation to shed them having built up a nice warm sweat on the climb. And I was glad I had as we rushed down the other side into shadows and more chilly air on the road through Pniel. Despite the early cold though, the day could not have been more glorious – truly a day where it was a privilege to have to be to out riding and enjoying the stunning scenery and magnificent autumn colours. Finally, on the last stretches of the outbound ride into Franschhoek, the day started to warm up and I began to feel over dressed. Luckily, Wednesday is very much an LSD ride, so there was a welcome cafe stop after we’d observed club tradition by visiting the Huguenot monument before turning around. By this stage, it was just myself, Penny, Adolfo and Tom riding, Nadine having turned back at Stellenbosch due to time constraints.

After enjoying a decent cappuccino at Traumerei, and some good banter about the DC and other riding stories, we started back. The gilet went in my jersey pocket for the ride home, it had done the job well, keeping off the worst of the wind chill without weighing me down or building up any nasty sweatiness.

The arm warmers stayed on, their job for the return leg being to keep the sun off as I’d forgotten to put any sunscreen on. One minor failing did come out of this – not in my comfort level, which was just as good on the return leg. They cover  my watch face, and I lost track of time. Our pace was already relaxed, and we lost some time with a snake bite puncture from the railway track crossing heading out of Franschhoek. So by the time I got home Yoli was beginning to stress that something had happened to me, and was also a little annoyed that we were going to be late for our vineyard lunch.

All in all though, a lovely ride and great initial impressions from two of the bits of new gear. I should have tried the full rain jacket, leg warmers and shoe covers on my very rainy hill laps session on Friday. Sadly sense did not prevail, and so I returned wet and cold. I won’t be making that mistake again, so with wet weather likely to be a feature of my training rides it won’t be long before I’ll be able to report back on their effectiveness.

I just wish I’d taken some pictures of the stunning day and ride, although in truth I doubt any quickly snatched snapshot would have captured it well.

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.