Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The View From My Bicycle (COLUMN)

Blood, sweat and sore bottoms but still the best weekend at the Lost City

Took a ride to the end of the line
Where no one ever goes.
Ended up on a broken train with nobody I know.

Day 1
“I’ll meet you at 4:05am at the traffic light. Don’t be late.”
“You cannot be serious,” I say.
“Relax. The extra 20km will do us good,” Alex says.
“I actually don’t believe you. You want me to get up at something past three in the morning?”
“Well who will give us a lift to Fourways before 5am?”
“I don’t believe it. We’re cycling there and then doing another 150km?”
“Now you’ve got it.”
“And then the next day we ride another 103km? C’mon. You’re not serious.”
He puts his wife (my only hope of a chauffeur drive) on the line.
“He’s not joking,” she tells me. The dismay, the disbelief mixes with the disturbing reality that sleep time is evaporating fast. I hang up, set up my bike (a red Cannondale CAAD4 Aero) and after quickly packing and ferrying bags to cars grab a bottle of Shiraz. I'm still not very relaxed. Half an hour later I take another swig and am soon in Carefreeland.

The ride from Houghton to Cycle Lab is on William Nicol in the pitch dark; a ride we’re all too familiar with as it's part of our training route on Wednesdays. We’re both chipper at 4-something in the A.M. It's that mad sort of chipper filled with jokes to keep us awake (and me sane). We arrive early, just before 4:40am, and the place looks eerily deserted. But then slowly, the wee hours delivers one cycling soul after another. By 5am we’re over a dozen riders, not enough for a ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ bunch as originally planned, but that suits me down to a T. I want to ride with Alex and Helmut (both guys did Trans-Baviaans only a week ago), but I also don't want the pace to be too hard. As one group the average will be somewhere in the middle.

While the Earth loses the odd degree as the sun inches its way closer to the horizon, my core also starts to chill. I'm not the only one impatient to go. Eventually we start the 150km trip after 5am, with a vehicle backing us up, driven by a chap from Sun City (he had come down at 2am that same morning). Ian takes charge of the group immediately, sending Alex and Ozzie to the front to break wind, and drifting back periodically to make sure we were all staying in touch, keeping left and otherwise having no problems. The first 30-odd kilometers out of Johannesburg is also on a route we know quite well; it is Cyclelab’s Saturday ride. After quite a few hills, the traffic presses in on us and I am glad to have a vehicle to buffer us. Even so, over some rumble strips at least three of us have our water bottles bounce out of our cages (including me), and one of the lady’s lights clips off. I go back for my bottle and the light.

There is a nasty section after this where a truck wedges between the peloton and me, and in the near darkness cycling behind it I almost hit a pothole that suddenly blotches the road in front of me. Soon after that an impatient minibus overtakes the truck and riders on the left (over gravel, nearly taking out a pedestrian. After these near death experiences, the sun finally rises and presents us with a beautiful day, and a stretch of road I have never cycled before.

It turned out to be a lovely ride after the initial section. We reached Harties at close to 8am, and crossing the bridge was one of the beautiful photo-opportunities – cyclists silhouetted against the silver stretches of dead calm water, with the early morning light dabbing the sky. Soon everyone is chatting and enjoying the change of scene. We breakfast at the Wimpy at around 8:30am where even more riders join us. I lean over steaming bacon and eggs and say to a big chap behind me, “You threw a much bigger slip than that truck in the beginning.” We get rid of some layers, putting some of our paraphernalia in the van, adding sunblock and whoat not, and then we continue on, the roads becoming quieter, straighter and more pleasant with each passing kilometer.

I glimpse streams in misty valleys between the increasing number of game lodges. The sights and smells come thick and fast. What a great way to spend the day! I have a nasty feeling I have a flat tyre after bumping the side of a cat-eye, but it proves to be a false alarm. Ian is making sure the pace remains steady.
A little further up the road it is warm enough to shed virtually everything except the cycling shirt with a t-shirt underneath. One of the riders is tired, so uses the opportunity to climb into the Van of Defeat.
A chap on a Cervelo tells me about riding with the CSC Team in Stellenbosch - guys like Zabriskie, the Schleck brothers, Carlos Sastre and of course, Fabian Cancellara whom my companion called ‘a real character’.

I feel the last 20km. My shoulders start to ache and one foot burns so much I take it out, and ride with the foot on top of the shoe. A lot of the guys - including me - have had our first wax since the start of winter the day before. A few pairs of legs are looking redder than they should because we have caught a little too much sun on the right side of our right legs. I press my iPod’s white earpieces into place and listen to music for the next few kilometers. We pass a big sign with 1km to go saying: YOU DESERVE IT (and an image of someone drinking a Black Label). We certainly do!

Our perfect day and almost constant downhill for the last 100km allows us to reach Sun City after just 5 and half hours of total riding (averaging over 30km/h, no sweat). Ian says that a group of Standard Bank guys will be riding the race together (in group E) and asks for a show of hands. I decide to take my chances with A, although I know my fitness is still very shaky.
Once I arrive at the Palace of the Lost City, total riding distance is a mere 169km. A light massage on my calves and shoulders by my girlfriend does wonders. I have no difficulty falling asleep that night.

Day 2
Alex (in VA) and Helmut (VB) have an earlier start by approximately 20 minutes. My group, A, is leaving at 7:55. Breakfasts at the Palace are sumptuous and not to be missed; Alex has said I should make an effort not be back later than 11am (in other words under 3 hours) because that’s when breakfast at the hotel finish. I don’t rate my chances too highly when I drift down the long, long downhill on race morning. The air is beautifully fresh. Cool, but still warm enough to allow for no vests, arm warmers or any other warm clothing. I say hi to someone I know, then make my way to the gate with about 15 minutes to spare. It’s nice to be able to arrive so close to the last minute; something unthinkable in races like 94.7 and the Argus. I’m enjoying the relaxed setup as we mosy on forward.

The first kilometer is very fast, and I’m expecting the group to slither over a drag and disappear, but after a steady effort (no more than 80% of my heart rate) we’re cruising along nicely, and what’s more, I have one of the Standard Bank riders for company.

Despite both of us expecting the group to shrug us off, the pace though swift, is steady. We hold up the rear, conserving our energies, watching more and more riders fall off on the undulations. The peloton occasionally concertinas severely, but then the main group is at least a hundred riders strong.

At around 20km a truck decides to overtake us on a long descent, even though a dark blue BMW is slowly approaching from the opposite direction. The truck starts to go off the road, but the trailer swings down the embankment, then back up, throwing clouds of dust and showering the road with hundreds of stones. It is a long time before the truck manages to clear the whole group, and the BMW looks set to hit the truck head on. At the last moment the truck seems to put its nose back on the door and in front of the leading riders. Meanwhile, the BMW has come to a dead stop on the dirt and as we pass her, clouds of unsettled dust drifts over in curtains. I am relieved for her sake, but she seems equally relieved that us riders are in one piece. Peculiarly I am grateful for the previous days exertions. A lot of riders at this race are skittish and rusty, and the day before we had over 150km to settle in nicely, and get used to close quarters. The repeated concertina-effect proves that many other riders aren’t quite so settled.

It turns out to be a warm, virtually windless day, and the 103 kilometre route only has a few mild drags (510m total climbing). My Standard Bank friend (I never learned his name) and I stay in touch through all the climbs, another harsh concertina (leading to someone overreacting and falling) and a set of very tricky raised rumble strips. Throughout the day water bottles slither across the road, adding to what feels like a weird first person pc game (CYCLISTS’ CARNAGE or something), where the idea is that you try to survive a myriad of dangerous encounters whilst on the bike.

I make the comment that after yesterday’s ride, I am really happy to still be with the A bunch. We now enter the last 10km, riding on the same strip of tar when we came in the day before. My friend moves right to the front of the bunch for the first time, and I mark his move. Here it is a tighter and trickier setup, with the guys a lot more territorial and determined to mark out where they want to be in the bunch. Although my legs feel unbelievably fresh, I have a touch of cramp in shoulders, and am feeling slightly dizzy. My energy is good to last me until the end, but by taking along only 1 water bottle, I have cut it very very fine.

The last kilometer proves to be a nail biter. I start to move forward but am held back by cars coming down the road. Some braver riders dodge around the vehicles (as fools do in rush hour traffic) but I hold back a bit. More cars on the road in the last 500 metres even though our speed now leaves little room for error. In the last 5 metres I find myself out too wide as yellow barriers feed us over the finish line. Bad idea. Another rider is wider than me, and crosses my line, knocking over an orange triangle. It twirls dangerously over the road, but I manage to dodge it, and my friend from Standard Bank, taking advantage of this second’s hesitation, pips by me and crosses ahead of me. I cross the line in 2:32:55, averaging over 40km/h (The A group came in 1 minute faster than the VA's and VB's).

I head up the long incline, very happy, very tired, very exhilarated - thrilled with my time - and make breakfast with 5 minutes to spare. The ride up from Johannesburg, the race, and staying over at Sun City are all well worth it. It is great early season conditioning. The officials might want to start the race an hour earlier (getting up at 4am isn’t such a big deal), and be a lot stricter about marshalling at the finish. I’d also recommend more bunches of smaller size, so that it is easier for trucks and cars to get around the cyclists.

Driving back on the Sunday night after a day spent bodysurfing, descending the Valley of the Waves' famous Slide of Courage, bodysurfing and otherwise soaking up the sun we pass a horrific car accident which we must have missed by no more than a minute. Someone says that the road has been called ‘The Road of Death’. Ironically, I had referred to it the same way, quite by accident, when recounting the race day dangers we’d experienced over breakfast. Just then, in the car, we decided to call one of the Standard Bank guys, Johnny, who had had a nasty fall at 30km. He had finished the 103km, coming in with Alex's wife (who did the 70km). He was upbeat, explaining a lady had had to slide quickly back into the bunch to make room for a passing car, which caused a touch of wheels. We all agree that cars overtaking, the sheer amount of traffic going on alongside the ride is a bit too much.

We turn up the radio as we come back into Johannesburg. The temperature gauge has changed from Summer (in Sun City) to almost spring here in Johannesburg. Mika's Relax is playing. All of us sing:

Relax, take it easy
For there is nothing that we can do.
Relax, take it easy
Blame it on me or blame it on you.

It's as if I'm scared.
It's as if I'm terrified.
It's as if I scared.
It's as if I'm playing with fire.
It's as if I'm terrified.
Are you scared?
Are we playing with fire?

There is an answer to the darkest times.
It's clear we don't understand but the last thing on my mind
Is to leave you.
I believe that we're in this together.
Don't scream - there are so many roads left.

Despite the blood, the sore bottoms and the sweat, everyone in the vehicle agrees that this has been the best weekend so far this year - and there are so many roads left. Relax. The Sun City ride prepares you for all of them.

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