Saturday, July 08, 2006

Tour de Free State

Ficksburg to God’s Window
60 Cyclists, 1000km (almost) and An Undiscovered Country

Diary entry:
19:57, Friday

…atmosphere somewhat reserved…in the hinge period between work and holidays…still casting off the cobwebs…

Day 1
The moment of truth is that spark that happens when it is cold and dark

Let there be light. It’s Saturday, just past 5am in Ficksburg, and I am hoisting a mattress into the huge belly of a truck – the first of at least sixty. Deep in the darkness and the chill, inside the sandstone church hall, people young and old (but mostly young) clip on helmets and wheel their bicycles out. Some bicycles are sleek Tour de France type machines. Others look like they come from the farm. A steady stream spills down the steps bringing sleeping bags or dragging mattresses. I’m working with a team of packers (the pakspan) until everything is loaded. It soon is but I’m the last to go back inside and gobble down some breakfast. When I emerge it’s still dark, and our leader Lee is giving us instructions. We say a short prayer. We’re cycling to Bethlehem today – all 60 of us. It’s 93.8km. I look into the murk. Let there be light.

And there is light. Each of us has to take care of someone on the road. I’m partnered with Ize-Marie, ex headgirl of Oranje, a Human Movement Science student at the University of the Free State. She works part time at the same gym where my girlfriend works. She’s a personal trainer there, and she looks strong. From the first pedal turn she’s struggling with the gears. It’s not her bike, she says, “I borrowed it from a friend.” From the vantage point of my lightweight Cannondale I try to make sense of her gearing problem, then recommend she shifts the lever upward with her thumb. It works. We pick up speed and start to pass the others. Light starts to flood the fields around us, turning the mists silver and the sandstone cliffs gold.

It’s into this misty farmland, filled with light, that more than 60 cyclists fade away. We’re the Sendingfietstoer – a group of mostly Free State university students – on a 1000km mission to God’s Window. Half of us – the girls – will be expected to cycle 500km. The guys will cycle all of it if they can, and help out the girls en route. There’s no such thing as going off on your own when the girls are riding. Or you can, but you risk being given ridiculous outfits to wear the next day (like the green Padvark uniform, or the ridiculous Mnr As or Mej Speek blouse). Who gets to wear them is decided at a vote at the end of each day.

Ize is doing pretty well for someone who has never cycled before. For me it’s inconceivable to attempt something like this on a borrowed bike, and with no training, but at least a third do so. I am a well trained cyclist on a machine built for long distance. I’m quite fit, but well aware these next few days are going to hurt a lot. Lee has told us the mountains get harder and harder the closer we get to our destination. Yes, so far Ize is doing a good job. Together we’ve moved up to the front third of the pack. She’s riding a really heavy black Diamond Back. It’s basically a chunk of steel. When we approach a hill she immediately sinks back and then I ride alongside her, put my hand on her back, and dragging her up the hill with me. She works hard with me, against the force of gravity. Then the fun bit: we fly down the other side. I glance back to the valleys and the farms and notice the silver ‘mist’ is actually gray smoke from this angle.

We cycle through fields of cosmos, stopping occasionally beside the Barlow World sponsored vehicles driven by our support crew. We scoff down a banana or chew on toffees then pedal out another 10 or 20 kilometres. There’s a beautiful sense of living the day: believing in ourselves and each other, whilst increasingly beautiful countryside – an undiscovered country – stretches out further and further along the secondary roads we’re on. The first day has been gold and blue with barely a whisper of wind.

Day 2

After resting in Bethlehem on Sunday, we travel by bus (with our bicycles in the truck) to Clarens. Monday morning early we’re off again, this time through Golden Gate. We’re doing two stages today. One, the climbing stage, is through the mountains, and the next is just for the manne, from Kestell to Warden.
There’s stillness today. It’s a hollow, echoey sort of stillness that you only find in the mountains. Godlight is streaming between clouds and rock, and we cyclists are heading right through this panoramic spectacle. I have the same feeling of joy and awe I had yesterday. It’s another beautiful day and what better place is there to spend it, to enjoy the great outdoors than right here?
God’s own country, Golden Gate, wheels around us. The great cliffs open the sun soaked fields of the Lord to us. My partner today is Marisan. She’s more talkative than Ize, and I’m enjoying her enthusiasm. She’s riding a lightweight yellow Giant racing bike, but the gears don’t work at all, so she’s stuck on a single gear. That’s bad news for climbing in the mountains. Fortunately for us both, it’s stuck in a high gear, so when the going gets tough, her face reddens, and my arm goes over her back and we strain to make it over the shoulders of mountains. Sometimes she gets off to walk. I don’t really mind, the scenery needs time to absorb.
On one occasion, while I am pushing her up a hill, I give her one last shove (which makes me slow down to almost 0km/h. At that moment I turn suddenly across the road – to recover my balance and my strength, and to regain momentum. And as I’m halfway across the road, a green bakkies flies out of nowhere and hoots at me. The driver is so close I can see the color of his eyes. My toes and fingertips are stinging from fright. I’m still thinking about that close miss when we arrive at the beautiful sandstone church at Kestell. Ize and I share a pillow in the shade while the others come in one by one, and find us and our bicycles lounging on the lawn beside the church.

After Kestell the guys race each other. I come in 4th, not far behind a 50 year old guy called Andre who, from behind, looks like a lightie, and climbs like a demon. Warden is one of those towns you might miss if you’re yawning as you pass by it. Once again it has a beautiful sandstone church. It’s one of the biggest sandstone buildings in South Africa (after the Union Buildings).
We have to walk along a country road to a building where we can shower. It’s this sort of thing that makes the Tour magical. I’m still on a high from what’s happened today. There’s a quiet excitement about getting to the middle of nowhere on your own steam, and not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow.

Day 3

I’m Padvark today, so I have to wear a heavy green apron. My maneuver in Golden Gate yesterday that almost got me killed earned me a unanimous vote from the other riders, especially Schabbord. Thanks guys. Today we’re cycling to Vrede. My partner is a very petite medical student – Nadia, who’s riding a red lightweight Mountain bike. She looks even lighter than her aluminum steed. Thankfully it’s a very flat stage. We start off in a perfect rhythm. Six of us ride in the stillness of the morning, and the only sound is the clockwork whirr of clean chains spinning wheels. At the first rest point Ize, wearing pink, decides to quit for the day – her knee is hurting. We see a lot of cows mooing in fields full of white and pink cosmos. Once again it’s just a pleasure to be pedaling through such pretty scenes. Often I want to get off my bike and snap pictures, but another part of me just wants to enjoy it, and wants to see what’s over the next hill. Besides I’m also enjoying talking to Nadia. She’s an interesting combination of being physically delicate, but having a sharp tongue and a determined head on her shoulders.

Over the next hill is a field filled with big bales of rolled grass. It’s scenes like this that make me realize the Free State has a lot of its own charm, its very own brand of beauty. It’s not a province to be sniffed at, not even by Cape Townians. It has a pleasant appeal – it’s got the whole country life/country feeling package: Quietude, farmers fields, flowers and mountain backdrops. Oh it’s not stupendous. It’s soft, and subtle. It’s gentle and soothing on the stressed soul. The morning mists are phenomenal. The sunshine is warm and rich. I’m surprised there aren’t a bunch of artists sitting in fields with their canvasses and easels.

In Vrede there’s a luxurious lawn surrounding the church. We lie there while the cyclists trickle in. I’ve had fun riding with Nadia because we’ve raced Andre and his partner, Michelle. The last 200metres is a sprint down Vrede’s main street that nearly ends in carnage when a local on a postman-type bicycle suddenly turns left. How Willie, on my left, avoids smashing right into this guy I really don’t know.

After lunch (delicious bobotie) the guys motor towards Standerton. I work with two other guys to reel in Kallie – a 40 year old guy riding a very cool silver bike with double (4 spoked) Spinergy’s. I drop both the guys I am working with in the last few kilometers. Kallie tells me he’s been waiting one or two minutes – he says we closed the gap quickly in the last few kilometers. But I wonder, When am I going to win a stage?

Day 4

We may run the race for ourselves, but it is significant that we do it in front of spectators – Grete Waits (1986)

It’s tradition that the manne take one stage off on the Tour, and so we decide to sit out on this one. From Volksrust it’s not much more than 30km (we have all driven from Standerton to Volksrust by bus, in order to avoid a dangerous minibus infested stretch of road). The girls are on their own now. The back markers must help each other. Meanwhile I’m snoozing in the bus where it’s parked alongside the church in Wakkerstroom. When the girls arrive I emerge and gasp. The church looks like something from Olde England. All the churches have been impressive, but this one, in Wakkerstroom, is magnificent. Perhaps it’s the way the tall, sharp steeple punctures the blue balloon above it. Or it’s the soft mountain scenery behind it.
The food they serve us at the hall is delicious, but I separate the noodles and leave all the meat behind. Not cycling in the morning, not pushing someone up a hill has left my legs feeling fresh and ready for this afternoon.

Immediately, at the start of the stage, we start to climb. In fact, we climb for about 20km. Although I am not about to set a cracking pace, the group is moving very slowly, and to stay with them on the downhills I find I have to brake. So I allow myself to drift off the front. Schabbord and I work together until we drop down from the highest point. I’m not sure if it is nerves, but I take wing on my way down and find he’s falling further and further away. Now I start to fly. It’s a long, long downhill and I am shouting and whooping with excitement and sheer happiness. It’s almost like skiing down a mountain, just faster. And I have the roads all to myself.
I hop over potholes – one as big as a grave hole – and shoot over the crest of a hill just as a herd of cattle are being shooed on to it. As I flip over the next hill I look back and see at least one cyclist stuck behind a brown blob of bulls.

And then something takes my breath away. Here I am, speeding along on my own, swooping along the saddle of an escarpment. On my right the land falls dramatically away and then launches up in a giant green wave. Slotted into the sharp downward slope are telephone lines, and for some reason they appear green and see-through, like fishing line. I look at the big mountain rising on my right out of the huge space under me. Hovering between the mountain and me are two birds. Two small birds sitting quietly on a telephone line, but for some reason the line is invisible. These birds seem to be perched in space. And here I am, on my own, moving into and out of their world. I feel the size of the world in that moment. And the great beauty of it. With the sun shining on my back, I watch my shadow, and my front wheel’s shadow windmilling beside me. I make it spin faster and faster. After a gut wrenching final uphill in killer heat, I reach Piet Retief first. When the others arrive they’re covered in a lather of perspiration.

Day 5

There’s something very old school about Piet Retief. There’s a feeling that the last outpost of the AWB still lives out here, in some parts of suburbia. That was my impression anyway. The next day Charlene and I cycle together to the halfway mark. Big celebrations. 500km done. 500km to go. We pose for photos, smile for the video camera, eat ice cream and glug down globs of Ultramel.
The short stretch from the halfway mark to the little dusty town called Amsterdam kills my legs. There’s a short, stiff uphill and Charlene needs all my help getting up. She wants to walk but I just need her to vasbyt a bit longer. We make it, but it feels like getting over the hill has tied my leg muscles into tight knots.

After lunch the guys head out towards Ermelo. Soon a core group forms. Willie, Andre, Ben and me. My legs still feel tight and sore from that damned hill after the halfway mark. At various points each of us either falls behind or flies on ahead. Ben’s chain falls off, Willie weakens, and I catch a Coke truck which rockets me out of sight – until they catch me again about 10km later. The road is like a ribbon, twisting and swooping constantly. The sun cooks us, even though we’ve plastered ourselves with sunblock. I can almost hear my skin sizzling in the heat. After being split and diced by sun and road, we arrive at Ermelo together. I spot the red flag of our support crew and kick into a sprint. Andre has been the strongest climber the whole way, but he doesn’t see the flag. Second stage win!

Meanwhile, one of the trucks has had its gearbox explode – literally shatter to pieces on a downhill a few kilometers outside Ermelo. That means the whole Tour is in jeopardy. Lee tells us not to worry, they will make a plan.

The next morning we hear a truck is on its way (but needs to go through a roadworthy test first), so we won’t be able to cycle (to Belfast). We need all the vehicles we have to make two trips. One to transport ourselves, the other to move bikes and mattresses and everything else.

Day 6

No one is complaining about the unscheduled rest day yesterday, because today is a 3 stage monster. The last stage today ends in the monstrous Long Tom Pass. My partner today is one of the strongest girls, Christie. An extrovert. She’s riding a light blue, lightweight racer, and there’s no holding us back as we speed off in the mists ahead of the whole peloton. I’m glad. I don’t want to total my legs before Long Tom. We arrive in Dullstroom first, and immediately head to a coffee shop for something hot to drink and pancakes. Delicious. Dullstroom is Mpumulanga’s equivalent of Clarens (in the Free State). On weekends it’s buzzing.

From there we cycle to Lydenburg. Now the countryside is turning green, we’re seeing a lot more forest, waterfalls, and instead of koppies or Golden Gates, green mounds fall over each other. There’s less and less straight flat road, more and more curvier, bouncy, up-and-down road.
Lydenburg is another lovely dorp, a quaint weekend getaway. The people here are also nice. When we arrive a marathon is just wrapping up.

After lunch we’re warned not to ride this next stage if we’re not feeling strong. It’s an ominous start, and even more ominous, is the wind that beats us as we start to head up Long Tom Pass. The Pass is named over the cannons used in a battle on the hillside of the Pass. But the Long part is certainly right. I look down at my bike, wondering if the brake blocks are locking against my rims. I look down again and again unable to believe I have no extra gears. The climb is agonizing. Legs grind slowly to form a single circle, then another, for an hour, and so it goes on and on and on. A few times I swing down, making a small circle just to give my legs a reprieve. I climb with Andre and Barendine into the cool mists. Around us the Pass becomes increasingly bare. We reach the highest point, 2150m, and then slip beneath the veil of cloud, racing down, careful on the dewy roads to turn without falling. The downside takes a long time, but the views are spectacular. In the last kilometer a massive yellow truck pulls out in front of me, and I have to dive to the opposite side of the road to miss it. In the end only about 12 of us finish Long Tom.

Day 7
…our reward for this physical commitment is a spiritual experience…

Sabie is a lush, woody piece of South Africa. It has forests and waterfalls, and feels like another country. Indonesia or Malaysia perhaps. Because of a misunderstanding, about 70 of us spend the night in one house. It belongs to the owner of a Backpacker’s who made an error with the booking. So he’s got his whole family (except for his horse) living somewhere else for the weekend, and we’re ruling his roost: swimming in his pool, jumping on his trampoline, putting his toilet and geyser through the ultimate test.

The cycle to God’s Window takes us via Graskop. Graskop is quaint. It’s really a gateway to plenty of nearby tourist attractions. Petro is my partner today – a slim, curly haired medical student riding a hefty blue Trek Mountain Bike. After a nice chat and a cup of coffee we cycle out of Graskop towards God’s Window. The scenery becomes breathtaking. We can’t seem to go very far without climbing, and here the air is thinner, so the effort literally takes our breath away. But we’re blessed, once again, with beautiful weather, and slowly but surely the colorful flotilla of us moves like an amoeba up the mountain.

There’s a last-day nostalgia that makes the muscle ache almost pleasant. Because it’s the final few kilometers we all ride together. We chat, we crack jokes, and we help those who are struggling up the steep climbs. We arrive at God’s Window tired and sore, and spend a long time just staring out at the clouds below us. We’ve come a long way. Our road, on bicycles over mist covered mountains, has taken us through valleys and farms we would otherwise have missed. It’s an Undiscovered Country all right; fine and fair and filled with light.

The 1000km Sendingfietstoer is held every year in early April. SA Truck Bodies sponsors the Tour each year with a bus and truck. This year additional support vehicles were provided by Barlow World. Monies raised (including the price for a slot) go to missionary work in Africa. For enquiries call Sally at 083 294 4946.

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