Sunday, October 08, 2006
After sleeping just over 3 hours, in a dark and stormy night, I really didn't want to wake up before 5am and drive to Kimberley so that I could cycle the whole way back. Somehow the fact that I had not trained earlier in the week, resting to be fresh for today's race, made me feel like I had to go. There was the option of a local 80km race; the guy who drove us up, Hennie, wanted to be back in time to ride that at 9am (our race started at 8am in Kimberley).
Funnily enough, just after rescuing a flat-looking tortoise on the outskirts of Kimberley, we suddenly didn't feel like riding at all. The weather was windy, the sky a moody watercolor filled with swathes of brooding rain.
There were two pro teams, and then abnother 20 or 30 other riders. In the warm up I didn't feel very fresh. I felt very sleep deprived and faintly irritable.
At about 8:30 we set off, at an easy pace. At this point we were heading into a virtual headwind, and we were barely hitting 30km/h.
Then, for no apparent reason, Barendine's chain hopped off the chainring, and it sounded like all hell was breaking loose - like metal jousting with itself. As a result, Barendine fell out of the group and when I turned back I saw she'd stopped in the middle of the road causing a long queue of cars behind her to also stop. She called me while all of this was happening and I found myself floating in nowhereland, with the bunch drifting off, like an icecream into a desert.
A chain slipping off often happens because you've stretched your chain. It may also be a misalignment of gears (the gear over the chainring), but a self-respecting cyclist usually has his gears working efficiently, especially a cyclist who participates often in races. My chain came off in an extremely tricky section of the Argus, and on an uphill (that means you're going up, and suddenly you're pedalling fresh air). With riders around you, it's a recipe for falling.
I was lucky to be able to use my gears to get the chain back on in a few seconds, without having to stop and get off my bike. Unfortunately Barendine spent the better part of a minute trying to sort out the chain. I've seen her riding with the chain on the small chainring and then at the back its on the biggest gear (the smallest cog), and that's something you just should never do. Why? Because a stretched chain is always going to want to hop off.
By the way, losing a bunch in the first 5km of a 180km race is probably the worst case scenario. If you lose the bunch because of a puncture, that's one thing, because its unavoidable, but losing it because of a chainring incident? If I had been less sleepy I might have shed a few tears of frustration. As it was, I squeezed out a few long lines of precious salt and sweat as we pursued the bunch. My heart rate went up to over 160 but I was trying to get to the bunch as soon as possible to make sure this effort against the wind went on for the shortest possible time. I kept getting held up by Barendine who I think was monitoring her heart rate and trying to keep it to a certain level. At one point we had a bunch of three guys in front of us and it just went on and on...just about 10 metres in front. When I heard Barendine talking to some guy next to her I got really pissed off. I sank back and told her to hurry up so we could rest a while behind this temporary windbreak of three riders. I had been doing all the work for her and she didn't seem to be involved in what we were doing.
After riding behind the three black riders, I went by and we eventually reeled in another small group. I had the help of an enthusiastic young guy in white, but very few of the others helped. That was the first hour or more. Ideally, a long ride like this you shouldn't let your heart rate go over 150, perhaps on a hill you can go a bit higher, say 160. Mine went to 174.
At about 80km, less than halfway, I could already feel the strain of the long 30km pursuit against the wind. My legs just felt full of lactate. My waterbottle for once had GAME in it, and as it turned out, was too sweet and not salty enough. I had a packet of chips with Barendine's mom, but how to get it?
Just outside Dealesville (at 110km) I actually lost touch with our bunch (which was about 7 of us, including the two leading ladies) on a long drag, but gained momentum on the downhill on the other side and shot back across the gap - more than 300m to eventually rejoin them. That was a good feeling. But my system was feeling really week - I could feel I was dehydrating. It wasn't that I didn't have liquid, I just didn't have water. Everything I was eating and drinking was sugary and I just needed something that wasn't sweet.
I stopped at Dealesville and bought some water, allowing the bunch to leave without me. I thought I'd do another 20km or so, and then get a lift back or something. Fortunately once back on the bike I felt really good, and a healthy tailwind was whipping from behind, so that my average speed hit 31.8km/h until about 160km. Having drank plenty of water my body started to demand salt. I didn't have enough money to buy salty chips at the shop, and Barendine's mother left before I could get the chips I'd stowed in my cooler bag. The symptoms of lack of salt are cramps, and on a small hill about 25km outside Bloemfontein one leg muscle suddenly went into spasm (on the top side of the leg, just above the knee), and immediately after that, the other leg (on the underside, a line of muscle on the edge of the hamstring). So I'd pedal once to straighten one muscle, then the other would go, and again. I thought I was going to fall off the bike!
I threw the chain onto the small chainring and stood, almost motionless, while I allowed both legs to relax. It took a while! Then gradually, I was allowed to get back into a rhythm. At this point I knew the two or three hard uphills at the end were out of the question. I left the course before the first of these, cycling through Langenhovenpark. I turned up what I thought would be a slight incline to avoid Bankovs Boulevard, a drag similar to the one at 155km. But this hill was worse. My muscles did the same trick, and I responded with a sort of jack-knife pedalling action - one muscle cramps, straighten it, other muscle, straighten that one. I hovered on my bike for half a minute before the salt levels, low as they were, reached some kind of acceptable homeostasis, allowing me to go on.
I arrived at my girlfriend's house and passed out on the lawn. Check out these stats:
Total time: 5h43min
Heart rate: 153 average/174 max
Distance: 177km (add 1 or 2 km because I started my heart rate monitor fairly late in the neutral zone, which went on for quite a while through Kimberley
Average speed: 30.9km/h (After the first cramps it dropped very quickly, since I spent a few minutes in a holding pattern, waiting for the muscles to relax).
Air temperature: 27 C max/23 C average/ 21 C min
Altitude: 1377m max / 1220m average/ 1152m minimum
Barendine won the R1000 first prize. I'm happy for her. She had to chase down a small bunch out of Dealesville and she did that on her own, so that's commendable. My race was incredibly hard, because of the hard start, and riding on my own for the last 70km, and also the lack of salt which I knew was important. In one sense it was good training.
In the future I don't think I'm going to be riding in a supporting role. I'd like to be with the elite guys, not playing domestique to a leading lady. Anyway, I'm sure Barendine's strong enough now not to need my help.
Last thing to say is that it's a nice feeling having finally done this. I've heard about this race and it's amazing to have covered the distance between these two capitals on a bicycle. It shows you what's possible.