The Road Goes Ever On (Part 1)

Several life events have kept me off the bike, and this blog, for large periods of the past few months. Principal of these has been our family’s relocation back to the UK – a move that neither Yoli or I ever really anticipated, but which has happily worked out more smoothly than we could have wished for. As all consuming as that process has been though, it wouldn’t be entirely fair to blame the lack of cycling on that though. After The Munga, and the year of preparation leading up to it, it’s fair to say my enthusiasm to be on the bike ebbed a little. As a result, the occasional rides I did were entirely social. But now, having settled into a new house and new routines, it feels wrong to start blogging about the new rides and routes I’m beginning to explore without catching up on the last couple I took part in before we left South Africa. Quite fittingly, one of those rides was the ride that got the whole cycling bug rolling in the first place.

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Munga – RV5

1032km – 3rd Dec, 03:43 – Ceres (arriving RV5)

Our final RV on Munga, and it’s almost a carbon copy of Sutherland: I head straight inside to sign in, find food and scope out the chance of a bed for a quick nap; whilst T heads off to the mechanic. It’s a ridiculous hour of the morning, but the room is busy. Every scrap of floorspace seems to be occupied by mattresses and bodies, and the vagrant-astronaut-girls are here, readying to roll out albeit without their improvised space blanket clothing. As they prepare, they remark about my woefully inaccurate estimate of the riding time to here. They’re not wrong. I’ve no idea how long it took them, but T and I have been on the road close on 24 hours. I’m utterly shattered, and starving – but the kitchen is still lit and there are some basic provisions available.

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Munga – RV4

806km – 1st Dec, 21:36 – Sutherland (arriving RV4)

Blasting down the last of the hill we roll out into brightly lit town streets. In front we see cyclists coming and going, and the tell-tale fluttering flags and blinking lights of the RV. My fatigued brain takes a few moments though to piece them all together and figure out the path into the checkpoint. As we approach it becomes clearer, a drop kerb leads to an entrance into a small courtyard at the back of the hotel which is hosting us. With differing needs, T and I head in opposite directions – I’m desperate for food and sleep, but first I need to find out if we took a wrong route in and will have to ride back. For T, it’s his bike which needs the most urgent attention so he lingers outside to seek out the mechanics.

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Munga – RV3

589km – 30th Nov, 17:10 – Loxton (arriving RV3)

We’re sat at one end of a stretch of long wooden tables in the dining room of the Boy’s Hostel (boarding dormitory for boy’s at the town school). We’ve completed the usual formalities – signing in, taking bikes to mechanics, and in this case getting batteries plugged into the shared charging station at the entrance to the hall. As we wait for food to arrive conversation is sparse – we’re both too wrecked for much in the way of words, albeit in differing ways. T’s backside is now by all accounts resembling steak tartare, his stomach is now on full protest and he’s struggling to eat. My neck, hands, and feet are all pretty battered but the most worrying development is a peach sized lump sprouting on the inside of my right ankle. My Achilles is swollen and sore – not an ideal scenario with one of the toughest legs in the race up next.

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Munga – RV2

403km – 29th Nov, 18:58 – Britstown (arriving RV2)

After the obligatory sign in we wheel our bikes through to a charming little open air courtyard in the middle of the hotel. There are bikes and people everywhere, but on the right hand side there’s a large concrete planter with a tree in the middle that still has space to lean our bikes, and next to it an open table. T goes to sort a room key and I make for the restaurant. It’s bright, clean and homely inside – a few tables have people dining but the evening is still warm and most have opted to eat outside, or are already upstairs sleeping. The food is plentiful and near ideal – chicken pie especially catches my eye and I opt for a double helping, with rice, veg, and some gravy from a rich looking stew over the top. There’s plenty of coffee, but having decided we’d get a proper sleep here I politely hassle the staff to make some rooibos before heading back out to our table.

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Munga – RV1

222km – 29th Nov, 02:50 – Van der Kloof Dam (arriving RV1)

There’s a protocol at each RV. You sign in when you arrive, sign out when you leave, and tell the RV staff if you want food or sleep in between. This much I am prepared for because it has been explained in the manual and at the briefing. I’m also not surprised by the friendliness of the guys at the desk – it’s an hour when any normal person would be fast asleep, and anyone coerced into being awake could be forgiven for being thoroughly grumpy. But these aren’t normal people, they’re Munga volunteers. The chocolate milk is a surprise though, and a welcome one, especially as I’m offered two of them. My sign in position is in three figures – and judging by the box behind the table, they have considerably more bottles left than there are riders behind me. Unsure of whether I’ll sleep I take a food token with me and say I’ll come back if I do decide on a nap.


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Munga – The END

Wednesday 28th November

It’s often said that getting to the start of a race is half the battle. In the case of The Munga, that logic is somewhat reversed. Becasue the start is really The END. When you first notice it, it’s tempting to think some idiot has messed up and brought the wrong banners. But they haven’t, the wording in the small print explains the concept:

The end of the life you knew

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Munga – Prologue

Tuesday 27th November

There’s a strong sense as I start to write this blog that my words will fall short. Memories fogged by fatigue, and a lack of language craft will be wholly inadequate to conjure up the majesty of the landscapes we traveled through, the incredible people we met, and the inner depths we dug into for inspiration and strength. And yet, as with the race itself, the best we can do is to try.

The “we” in this case is myself and riding buddy Theunis Esterhuizen (T). And the race is The Munga, a 1076km gravel and offroad ride across the arid, semi-desert which occupies the very the heart of South Africa – The Karoo.  Driving with us to the airport is riding buddy Hendrik Vermaak, who has taken the place of T’s son as our chauffeur. You see this is no ordinary ride – it’s a one way journey from Bloemfontein to Wellington. Instead of flying back we will, as T puts it, “just be riding home”. A keen mountain biker himself, Hendrik hasn’t just come along to be driver – he’s keen to chat and learn about the ride itself. And a significant part of that conversation in the car and over breakfast at Mugg & Bean is what it might be that makes this ride so tough.

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Dot to Dot

Cool, clear air, crystal clear waters of a high mountain lake, wispy clouds scudding across the surrounding peaks. As I slogged up to CP3 in Slovakia almost exactly a year ago, I was pretty sure this was the final chapter in TCR for me. Nothing much challenged that view in the days which immediately followed – heading down to Poprad, flying to Athens, and arriving in Meteora for the party as a tourist rather than a finisher. The feeling in all of this was a prolonged farewell to an incredible experience. It took me a few months to complete my blog entries, but doing so felt like the last words I’d ever be inspired to write on TCR. But one of the great joys and mysteries in this life is that we never really know what lies on the road ahead. And TCR, it turns out, is no exception. Because just as my attempt on this monstrous beast ended, so the gauntlet was picked up by friend and riding buddy Nico Coetzee.

We met up for breakfast a few days before he flew out for his attempt – I’d be lying if I pretended there wasn’t a tinge of FOMO mixed in with the excitement that he’d soon be starting out on his own adventure across Europe. Any doubts that I should also have entered and be joining him for a second attempt myself were dispelled brutally though just a couple of days later on the next Cape 200 Audax. It was a new experimental route – taking in the stunning Gydo Pass, which we’ve been wanting to include on a ride for some time. With just five of us starting out at 6am from Wellington, there was always a high probability that our paces wouldn’t match and I’d be spending a significant time riding alone. Ordinarily this would trouble me, but for some reason on this crisp, blue, winters day the idea of riding solo was almost something I was looking forward too. So when Gary and Shaun dropped back a shade on the first ramps of Gydo Pass, I ground on steadily and allowed the gap between us to widen. For the remaining 140km I enjoyed every aspect of the solace of the ride and the stunning mountain scenery. With limited stops, I even managed to finish an hour inside the time I’d expected for a strenuous ride with four significant climbs.







What is perhaps most significant about this particular Audax though is the date on which it was ridden – 28 July 2018 – the day before Nico would line up on those iconic Geraardsbergen cobbles for the start of TCR No.6. I rode solo, I finished strong and faster than is typical for me, and I enjoyed the ride. But absolutely no part of me felt fit and ready for another attempt on TCR. My general physical fitness has definitely improved, but it still feels insufficient to maintain a high enough average speed across the whole distance to complete TCR in time. More than that though, the latent numbness in my right hand has actually degraded since last year. It’s becoming something of a battle on the bike, kicking in at anything from the 80km mark onwards. By the end of this latest Audax, I was again struggling to control the brakes and shift well enough. Massage, physio, gym core work – all of these I’m working through, but it’s unclear yet whether any will yield enough improvement for the really long distances again.

Over the last three weeks following Nico another, equally significant factor has entered my consciousness. As a dot watcher, I’ve come to realise exactly how much trauma our families go through whilst we as riders are out on these big adventures. Every time Nico’s dot paused for too long at some unlikely spot you could almost hear a collective intake of breath from our local TCRNo6 WhatsApp group. Was this just coffee, or a sleep, or was something wrong?. In fact, all of those scenarios panned out over the next 16 days – including several mechanicals. But, with his typical calm and unflustered perseverance, Nico soldiered on stoically to overcome all of them. And his final run in to the finish was filled with the kind of drama that none of us watching needed, but which somehow seemed a perfectly fitting finale to this epic battle.

With 1 hour and 15 mins left on the clock Nico had a last 200m odd of climbing before the long, all downhill run of the parcours into the town of Kalabaka and the end of his journey. At which point, the Trackleaders site died and stopped updating. All we could do was guess and wonder. My estimate was that he had around 20 to 30 minutes of uphill and another 20 to 30 minutes of descending left. It was going to be nail bitingly close. We sat, staring at a frozen map, pinging each other messages and wondering if he made it. For some reason, I’d expected Nico’s wife Valerida would relay the news, but with about 5 minutes to spare it was Nico himself that messaged us to say he had made it. Sliding just inside cutoff, Nico became the very last rider of TCR No.6 to finish within time, and the first ever South African rider to do so. According to one of those there at the end, he did so with typically unassuming aplomb – reportedly riding up, and hopping off and parking his bike looking as fresh as if he’d just gone for a gentle spin around town.

A few days since Nico’s magnificent achievement I realise how much it has helped frame my own thoughts on TCR too – both my own attempt on TCR No.5, and also whether I’d ever try it again. First and foremost of course, it’s re-enforced my absolute love for the personal battles and triumphs this amazing event inspires – the drama which unfolds every day, as ordinary cyclists and individuals take on the immense challenges that the road throws at them. Every fragment of my being yearns to be a part of this unique cycling adventure once more. But I’m a realist too. Sat glued to the screen watching Nico’s dot crawl across that enormous map has helped me come to terms with how improbable that scenario may be. I know I can ride 2,300km in around nine and a half days. If I am going to put my body and my family through the stress of riding out again, I need to have a reasonable degree of certainty of getting further – much further. Borrowing Andy Alsop’s phrase from the title of his LEL book – ‘barring mechanicals’, I need to know that I can complete the whole 4,000km within 16 days. My current training, and the recent Audax have given me a level of belief that my riding pace and time management are heading in the right direction for that outcome. As things stand though, my right hand and neck remain a much greater question mark. Until they are capable of taking the punishment, my participation in future TCR editions is likely to remain as an avid dot watcher and fan.