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October 16, 2014

Cape Pioneer Stage 4: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Its 3:40am.

I know, because I just checked.

I am awake because my tent is awake with the sound of water drops, thousands and thousands of them, falling from the sky onto my tent.

All afternoon yesterday, people spoke of this very rain that has me awake at this hour, as a fresh reminder that today, its going to get real out there.

Mountain biking is not for the faint hearted and as I am learning, Cape Pioneer is not the ginger stepchild of the Cape Epic. Indeed, this event is as tough as the Epic, and it was something I may have underestimated a little coming into the event.

I fall back asleep, knowing that every moment of sleep will count in my favor later in the day. At 5:15am, I am awake again, but there is no sign of the water drops, and yet, I know that they will be back today.

Our mission is the Kammanassie Valley, which is off limits to everyone all year, except for us, on this one day, when 400 odd cyclists get to ride their bikes through a place that is deemed to extreme for commercial 4×4-ing.

We are told it will be a 30min walk, somewhere, as the terrain is simply too extreme to ride. We are warned of the treacherous downhills, littered with rocks that want to eat our tyres, destroy our dreams and up our medical aid monthly installments.

Indeed out there, on this day, many a dream will be shattered; plenty tyres will be slashed and a few trips to the hospital will be had.

+++

I find myself in the normal gang after about 8km or so, and the usual suspects are here – Meerendal’s Swiss connections (who are great to ride with), the ladies leaders, and the Exxxaro boys.

As the initial pace settles, I keep setting tempo, up a long drag which goes on for about 15km, just setting my own tempo and keeping the group together, without the surges I dislike so much.

We make our way to the top of the climb and WP1 and I know the downhill that comes immediately is gnarly, so I push through and get down the hill 2nd in the group, smoothly and without concern.

The next 10km or so crisscrosses the riverbed requiring a few efforts as the single track dips and climbs repeatedly. Slowly but surely wearing out the group as a few gaps start appearing and before I know it, we are on the first walk. The gradient is impossibly steep and the ground is loose, littered with fist-sizes rocks – millions of them. Even walking is a task, never mind walking lugging a 10-12kg bicycle up next to you, in cleats, with carbon soles.

Really, this is a moment to put it out there.

Its not normal, or smart, to be doing these things.

Really, there is no real reason to be out, in the middle of nowhere, where normal people don’t dare go, on a bicycle, with other stupid people, trying to get from 1 place to another, to sleep in a tent, and do it all again tomorrow.

So what the hell is wrong with us?

I moment passes swiftly, and my competitive side takes over. I am a triathlete and I can out-hike-a-bike all these mountain bikers.

So I push on and make my way between my group and the group ahead of me. The road is brutal beyond anything I have ever known and I am left wondering how a 4×4 even gets over this terrain, ever.

The only thing more brutal than the climb is the descent – you cannot, for a split second, take your eyes off the trail in front of you. It will mean hospital time. It’s like descending a pile of loose rocks, at 20% downhill gradient, at 40km/h.

Again, it’s not normal to be doing these things.

To add insult to fatigue, it’s now raining. I think of the back markers – guys and girls who have come here hoping for a finish, while I am hoping for ‘performance’ and it motivates me to keep going.

Through WP2 and I hammer for 5km to get to the two guys up the road – who are my mates. It’s taken me 4 days to get them in sight as they have been flying.

Once I am with them, we take turns and we find a decent rhythm. Things are going well, and there is just one big climb left in the day.

As we go under the road, under a bridge, in knee-deep water, I am riding and next minute, I am on the floor, and my arm is properly sore. I lift it out the water, and my elbow is white – the kind that sits under the skin, near the bone.

It takes me a few moments to get up and back with the guys, where I can have a better look at my elbow.

Its now red, along with most of my forearm.

I want to hang with the dudes, but on the climb up to Lovaine farm, I am dropped. My legs feel weak, my head is a little sore, and my buddies are riding away from me. Really, this is the first low point in the day.

Through WP3 I try and get some sugar in to revive me, as the fall would have spiked my cortisol levels and then dropped me like a bomb, but the legs are FLAT. We have a 8km climb up next, and I gingerly make my way up, just getting through it, finding a rhythm and getting over it.

A last stupid descent filled with death opportunities and we are onto the open roads back to George. The two leading girls & a super strong Belgian dude, who are flying, catches me and somehow I make it over the two kickers with them before my mojo returns, unexpectedly.

We are all sharing the workload and I am feeling great again. I am so excited as I know I can sustain this and it’ll all be over soon. It’s been a big day already.

At WP3, the girls drop us for dead and 2 other mates join from behind, and we share the workload again but the dames are flying.

Two climbs later, the lights are switched off again and I am 30seconds back before I can say Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

Gutted, I dig deep and I have 10km to go, dropped on the last climb, and have to dig real deep to get to the line.

It’s a massive day – one of the biggest I have ever done on the bike. Bigger than any day we had at Cape Epic in 2010. Rivaled potentially only by our treks through Die Hel, I am left shattered but happy it’s all over. Today was the biggest day, without a doubt, and tomorrow we get to do it all over again.

Because we are smart people, right?

Some photos from the ordeal… I mean ride.

Climbing to the Kammannassie

Climbing to the Kammannassie

My homies in the valley

My homies in the valley

Spot the rider. It's wild up here.

Spot the rider. It’s wild up here.

Looking down to where we came from.

Looking down to where we came from.

And after a long walk, we are riding again.

And after a long walk, we are riding again.

Rolling with the lads somewhere near Lovaine, just before I fell.

Rolling with the lads somewhere near Lovaine, just before I fell.

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