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January 5, 2012

Epic Unsupported Tour 2011

I have written this but I know it will never cover it all, so please view this as a peephole into an amazing week with some mates in the backroads of our beautiful country. I could never recall all the laughs, the cries and the beautiful pain that was shared out there. Every year the trip is different and I expect that. Some years it’s about bonding, other years its about overcoming and this year, it was about something else. I have yet to pinpoint that into one word, which I am not sure will ever come to me.

It was not without some apprehension that Epic Unsupported Tour 2011 got under way. Last minute changes to the roster, an international guest and some forgotten items were on the agenda as we assembled 6 lads and one professional duathlete as car driver into a Foretuner and with 7 bikes on the car and 7 loads of luggage.

Departure for this trip is quite a spectacle. Expectations from what to expect from the new guys are running high as the stories of past trips surface. Every year we smooth out this trip but in no way at all is it ever plain sailing. Covering 850km in 8 days is always a challenge, even if it’s slightly downhill with a tailwind the whole way.

As you would expect with 6 boys, there was much smack talk and banter on the way to George, where the new, improved Rock Pedal Classic awaited us all. Firstly, I feel I should intro my crew for this mission. Here, in no particular order, are:

Kristian Manietta

All the way from everywhere, Kristian came from the Australia via the UK to be on the trip. A man I truly have learned to appreciate. Multiple sub 9 Ironman guy too. Plucky little Aussie.

Dan Hugo

No introductions needed. Finished 2nd at the 2011 Xterra Worlds. Insane athlete. Great guy. Eater of much fruit. Mover of great economy. Future husband, father and all round inspiration to thousands and thousands.

Guy Veysey

Multiple EUT participant, famous for falling in Die Hel last year and having to abandon 3 days later with an elbow the size of a melon. Top 20 in his age group in the world at Xterra. Banker, friend and consumer of all things of high quality. Guy is the real deal, from completely nowhere to top 20 in his category in the world.

Nic Lamond

Le Storyteller, a quiet, amazing gentleman who I got to know in 2011 for the first time and who I am looking forward to spending years of time with in the future. Top 20 Cape Epic finisher. Experiencer of many cultures, adventures and scared of nada.

Jacobus VD Merwe

City destroyer, who eats tanks for breakfast and whose plumbing leaks when riding uphill. Future multiple world champion in 68 sports. He is so elusive there aren’t even pictures of him on Google.

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Day 1

So we slowly made our way out onto the Rock Pedal Classic route. Nic rode ahead, paving the way. The rest of us chilled and around 28km in some had a wait for our driver, Miss Courtenay Brown, whilst Kristian and I got in an hour’s steady tempo to half way.

To say that the 2nd half of the new Rock Pedal Classic route is tough is quite an understatement. After beautiful open roads, you mission up a 3km near vertical single track rocky climb and down a bed of rocks on the other side. I had never ridden anything quite as daunting as that downhill.

After that, nice open roads, 40 degrees plus and a headwind. Normal opening day stuff really. Kristian was riding with guitar strings for hamstrings while I was pointing out birds and trying to distract him from the fact that we had 4 small passes to ride in the last 15km.

As we were chilling on the grass, at the finish, looking for hope, Guy rolled across with a cut eye and a grazed elbow. Not ideal, but he was in great spirits, nonetheless. The rest rolled in a while later. Miss Brown was shattered but smiling, a sure sign she has what it takes to be the best. Her stay here in Africa is sure to bring her more amazing moments.

Day 1 was much harder than in the past 2 years. 93km with 2200m vertical in 40 plus heat made for a weary bunch with many questions heading into this trip. With 4 virgins, we had a big few days coming up and we were excited to take them to the limit on some days. No matter how big, fit, strong or world class you are, some of the days on this trip shatter you.

It’s a part of the trip. You disconnect completely, wondering how to get to the next stop as a primary goal in life. Work, Gregorian calendars and social media become things you eat, rather than consume. This trip would be no different.

A short swim concluded the day before we had an intensely amazing dinner and a big sleep before we got under way, the car staying behind.

For those who haven’t read about our adventures before – we take everything we need for a week in a small backpack and have no car following us on this trip.

Day 2

Achy legs, sensitive minds and big bags. That about sums up the morning on day 2. New route, back up the Montagu pass again (much to the dismay of Nic) and on towards Oudtshoorn we missioned with full packs loaded with minimal clothing, maximal calories and this year, some beautiful coffee courtesy of Dan, an addition that we will never again go without.

Jacobus’ pipes were again leaking on the pass and we stopped for a drink from the mountain and were just blown away by the simple joys that the day had already brought. The pass is extremely beautiful and an ode to a man called Thomas Bain, a master Italian road builder who opened up much of the route for us. It winds for 12km and summits into the land of hops and Veysey family where we stopped for coffee and a chat about cattle, of all things.

Once the guys were loaded up on caffeine and the wind had picked up a little we were on our way to Oudtshoorn where I can attest it was 40 plus in the shade. A shorter day, around 90km with only around 1500m of vertical, we sat in the pool and realised a few things.

  1. We needed to get more food.
  2. We needed to sleep.
  3. A few of us were desperate for haircuts.

So off to Checkers. Kristian and I almost melted on the way but made it back safely with time to eat, cut everyone’s’ hair (including mine) and get in an afternoon run. I am quite stoked to tell this story.

We all missioned out on the run. Some of us ran a little longer. As Dan, Kristian and I made our way around the airport; we came across a gap in the fence and took it as we were running a little low on water by this point. I could see where the road was curving but thought it best not to mention it to the crew.

As the road curved again, Kristian looked at me and said: “Over the runway?”

I only had 1 word for him: “Yes”.

One word came back: “Awesome”.

Here is the Garmin proof for you…

And so, we ran across the airport highway in Oudtshoorn, at 5pm, on a random Sunday. Good times. We found some crazy single track running on the other side, after hopping another fence and made our way home. Tired, but smiling.

Day 3

Weary heads rose for a day that would end up including some of the best trail riding of my life and a trip over my favourite climb in the world. It would be 100 odd kilometres and over 1800m in climbing, largely over 1 hill, called the Swartberg pass.

But not before a stop at MTB Destination, a new mountain bike park just outside Oudtshoorn, which has painstakingly been built to perfection by Matthys Beukes, recent winner of the Wines2Whales. The work he put in there is incredible. The trails are so fast, so well groomed and SO much fun. The hour we had there was gone far too quickly and next year we will be staying in their accommodation at the farm. There is so much to be learned from Matthys in one day of following his wheel, if at all possible. Bright eyed and bushy tailed we left for the pass. Everyone was now at their own pace.

At some point, we got back together near the top, all smiles, all amazed at the climb and the beauty of what was around us. The Swartberg pass is an epic adventure and the ride down into Prins Albert is ridiculous. It’s rough, winding and rutted and you release a scream of awesomeness every once in a while. Before you know it, you`re 9km down the valley, 1200m lower, your ears popped and the biggest grin ever on your face. A short, fast 10km tailwind ride into town where we destroyed the local deli and ate litres of yoghurt, boxes of peaches and lamb curry downed with milkshakes before heading for our amazing accommodation.

A nap and some more food later, some of us went out for a run where the skies spoilt us with crazy clouds and a tail wind home. As we ate that night we each laid out our plans for 2012, what we hoped to achieve, goals to conquer, and skills to acquire and for some, people to meet.

It was an amazingly chilled evening with a sunset like you have never seen. It was a good sign for what is traditionally the biggest day of the trip through Die Hel the next morning.

Day 4

To the dismay of Nic, we were heading back up the pass, climbing 900m in the first hour of the day. I love this climb and it’s a steady wind up a tear in the mountain. The road seems to climb forever, never tipping below 6% and at times over 15% in elevation. It’s shaded, thankfully and we each found our way to the lookout point at our own pace. Everyone was pretty calm there, taking in the views. For four of the guys in the crew, they had little idea of what to expect for the rest of the day. All they knew was to conserve. Simple orders for a 10 hour day with limited supply of air, food and water.

The road into Die Hel, where we had lunch waiting, is not an easy one. There must be 3 big climbs and 8 little ones to get into the actual valley. The road is fast, with a couple of long descents and they are so so so much fun as the heat sets in for the day. You`ll hear a shout of pure joy from time to time as a rider comes into a corner too hot realising there is only cliff face and a well-timed handful of rear brakes between them.

After a magic lunch of stew and shade, we made the trek down the valley and over the gnarliest little hill ever. The trek was hot and the heat that Die Hel was famous for was upon us as we entered Boplaas, location of Die Leer. The last hill before a short break and the walk up the mountain is preceded by the toughest climb of the trip, only around 400m in length but what must be 18-20% in gradient the whole way.

I heard a few choice words as guys put their feet down. In 3 years there have only been 3 guys in total who haven’t put a foot down on the climb. Congrats to Dan and Nic for making the exclusive club which was my own until this trip?

Die Leer is an old donkey trail that was not built for mountain bikes but we like to have an annual trek up the mountain with our bikes on our backs. It’s roughly 800m vertical in 1.6km. You transfer your wheels to the bike frame with cable ties and wedge it onto your backpack. You also put on running shoes if you have carbon soled mountain bike shoes.

Then you walk up a loose, rocky, twisty single track sort of there path up a mountain. Like doing 2500 step-ups in the gym with 15-18kg on your back, hunched over and in 40 degree heat.

Can I get a hell yeah???

One by one we made our way up the climb, to the top where we huddled under a tree and laughed at ourselves. The rest of the ride is undulating, rough, sort of jeep track through the middle of nowhere with a brief stop to drink from the water tanks en route and onto the road to Seweweekspoort, which this year included an extra 10km or so into a belting headwind with no water in the bottles.

Our instructions were to look out for a palm tree as the entrance to our stay. In the semi-desert, the palm tree was easy to spot and we were welcomed by our best stay ever, an ex fine arts teacher from UCT who has settled into an area where he leaves his keys in the ignition of his car and where his home made lemonade welcomed us with warm reception.

By the time we got there, some of us had to hold some of our glasses with 2 hands and others needed a straw, but we had made it, 10 hours and 110km later, to the biggest dinner we had ever seen and the quiet that this trip is known for had descended among the lads.

This shit was real. There was no hiding and we had all faced some questions out there on the day. We had made it and there was no denying it that this day is never conquered. We merely manage through Die Hel. It allows us through there and the respect for the route grows every year.

A truly epic day that ended in a few glasses of red wine and laughter among the table as the sun set over the Moondance farm where we ate recklessly and arrived in tatters only to wake up refreshed with a new strength inside us. 110km, 2900m vertical, 10 hours.

Day 5 & 6

Traditionally, these 2 days are pretty easy going after a tough start. This year was no exception. It’s more or less downhill from Moondance to Ashton, where we would spend the night, but first we would stop in Anysberg at the Cape Nature reserve for an evening of runs, swims and marvelling at the pleasure of watching the sun set on one side of us, only to have it rise the next morning exactly opposite that but only after one of the best displays the stars will ever give you in the world.

We didn’t even need torches to walk in the middle of the night.

They are around 100km a day, these 2 days. But they are far less intense.

We had the opportunity to ride next to running Gemsbok, Ostrich and Red Hartbees along the route and as the deep fatigue lifted and energy levels returned we readied ourselves for the biggest day of 2011, from Ashton to Elgin.

We stayed at Kleinhoekkloof, where my parents welcomed us with warm arms and loads of food. We drank far too much in the evening and let our weary heads lie down after some Limoncello was shared, which is a bit of a de Jongh tradition. Always a pleasure introducing such fine specimens to my parents, the lads were super to my folks, as all gentleman are.

Day 7

A brand new route. A big day lay ahead. After 2 days of headwind, we had the pleasure of a little tailwind on this day, which was excellent.

I knew I had to keep Dan away from his farm as he was ready to feel the comfort of home. I knew if I got him through the day he would be happy, despite protesting, so I had us avoid the route close to his house. We pushed on into a valley which I did not know and the route on the Garmin was sketchy at best.

So when the road said to take a right, all we could see was the back of Jonaskop Mountain and some 4×4 tracks. A few phone calls later and we had a sort of route planned – a mix of old Cape Epic tape and some information about a track which the Eskom bakkie uses. This is how all great adventures start.

Some sand riding, then some hike-a-bike through some gnarly rocky stuff and then a ride up the most awesome loose, rocky, change-directions-a-thousand-times climb I had possibly ever ridden. I was following the lines ridden by Dan and Nic, undoubtedly the most skilled riders in my wrecking crew and managed to outdo my wildest expectations, riding the entire way up. I learned more in those 3km than I have in total in mountain biking.

At the top, a fist punch into the air and the views over the back were mightily impressive over wheat fields and private land. We climbed gates and made our way through the lush land out there, riding through some private land, mostly on fire breaks and in great spirits.

Once we got back onto dirt roads it was down to business for the day. We had some 100km to go to Elgin, so we got into gear and made our way to Villersdorp for a food stop and onto Nuweberg for the climbs to Elgin.

By the time we hit Villersdorp it was clear that we were going to take the most direct route. 6 days of riding had the guys taking more sensible options and instead of over Groenlandberg and through the Nuweberg reserve, we made our way via tar through and over Nuweberg itself. We had split up as a crew into 2 packs for the ride, some wanted to rest less and pedal slower and others wanted to ride a little more solidly.

After some 8 hours of riding, 155km through some crazy passes and winds, we regrouped at the Peregrine farm stall; ready to eat all that was laid down before us. I counted 8 pies, 2 quiches, and 4l of yoghurt, 2 bags of crisps, and a box of fruit, 12 cold drinks, 6 ice creams and 4 coffees before we got up and I am pretty sure I missed some.

Our last night’s accommodation was groovy and within an hour we had a fire going, were talking smack and celebrating by drinking fabulous wine from Creation, Southern Right and a few other farms. Our last supper together was a peaceful one. We had achieved a lot on the day and next year I would love to conquer the extra 20km over the big climbs as a final touch to a truly amazing day.

Day 8

How do you treat an Aussie who has never seen the Cape Coast?

Well you start in Elgin, take him through the trails in Grabouw, down the old Wagon Trail into Somerset West, give him an epic tailwind so that you can scoot through the coastal road to Muizenberg in record time, then have him ride through the Constantia Winelands, up Suikerbossie and through Camps Bay into Green Point as his last day of 8, including this magical 120km to total 850km on the bike in 8 days.

As we rolled into Muizenberg to kill off a pizza at Knead we were astounded by the noise that society creates. It had been a while since we were in the buzz of it all. It took some adjusting and thankfully, on the way through Constantia, Nic’s dad rolled in in his convertible old school Mercedes wearing a Boer War hat, shouting encouragement and going mad. It was a great moment indeed and as we rolled into Green Point we were quiet, reflective and ready for some beers.

Again I noticed how much harder conversation gets, in a sense of there being no boundaries and no holding back, as we sat at lunch. 6 boys together for a week means some mild integration back into society where rules apply and talking frankly isn’t always appreciated in the way it is when on tour.

Conclusion

The trip is always special.

It always improves my life and always disconnects me from a crazy year.

It started as the ultimate distraction after a few rather insane weeks in November, 2009. Every year is different, but the same. Every year there are new people, new converts. Every year I come back smiling. 2011 was no different.

In 2009, we suffered and the HTFU saying was the one that stuck. In 2010, we were constantly reminding each other to shut up and keep going.

In 2011, I learned to be a honey badger. If you click the link HERE, you`ll understand a little better. I learned to step up to the plate when pushing the limits. I tried to lead from the front this year, to not conserve as wisely as I would have in the past. I learned to walk proudly and open my mind to possibility all over again.

To Kristian, Nic, Jacobus, Guy and Dan – fellow honey badgers – thank you for an epic trip. Sure, at times we disagreed, but in general, we came back stronger, wiser and hopefully, with a cheque in the bank to cash out at some races in 2012. I would take you lads to war any day.

Here’s to the crazy ones, the ones who walk over mountains with their bikes on their backs but carry coffee pots, who consider holiday to include 8-10 suffer festivals, who are happy to get lost and make their ways back to society, those who look at the impossible and kick it in the face with the gentle touch only a loving mother can exude. Quiet power was displayed in many forms out there and it is without a doubt one of the best shows to watch.

Images nicked from DGHugo.com. Thanks Dan.

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