Words: Dennis Rink
When I was a child growing up in Johannesburg we used to travel to the Natal south coast for our annual seaside holiday. It was a 400-mile journey that took all day – sometimes even two. That was an era long before iPads and other digital distractions, and my sisters and I found the long drive boring and tiresome.
The road through the Orange Free State was long and straight and flat, passing through endless maize fields. The horizon seemed to stretch out forever, never getting any closer. There was a brief, breathtaking interlude about halfway when we dropped off the edge of the Highveld, winding down Van Reenen’s Pass into the Natal Midlands, where regulation boredom resumed until finally we saw the sea.
I returned to South Africa this year to make that journey again. Only this time the trip takes nine days, and I am on a mountain bike. But if it was such a boring journey when I was a child, why would I want to revisit it more than 50 years later? Well, I ask myself that question many times along the way, but not because the ride is boring – it’s anything but boring.
The journey really begins almost a year earlier when I see a five-minute video posted by a friend. As I watch highlights of the 2018 joBerg2c (slogan: ‘Ride the beloved country’) I see riders passing through such spectacular, jaw-dropping scenery that I decide instantly that I have to go there.
After months of preparation and (under-) training I arrive in Johannesburg six days before the start. This gives me time to get used to the weather and altitude (Johannesburg’s elevation is 5,750 ft). At least, that’s what I tell my wife. In reality, this is time spent catching up with family and old friends, who clearly think I look hungry and underfed, so my training must have had some effect. The weather isn’t wonderful, and there are worrying reports of flooding in Kwazulu-Natal, where the ride finishes. I’ve done most of my training in a cold, wet England, and the last thing I want is nine cold, wet days of riding through South Africa.
The day before the start I tear myself away from the good life and book into my hotel near the race check-in. I spend the day putting my bike together and setting up my tubeless tyres, which are essential in South Africa’s hostile, thorny terrain. I had decided, after studying hours of joBerg2c videos with Will, my LBS owner, that a hard-tail would be suitable. I plumped for a GT Zaskar carbon frame with Hope wheels and brakes. Here in the hotel room the anodised-red components look very smart, but I know they won’t be like that for long.
There is a moment of panic when I realise my spare derailleur hanger is the wrong one. GT is not a big brand in South Africa, but I decide to try my luck. I call the main supplier in Cape Town, and minutes later I am put in touch with the local GT rep, who quickly locates the correct hanger and couriers it to me, without charge. The cycling gods are smiling on me.
I check in at the race venue and collect my race bag plus a load of goodies. The official bag is the only luggage we can take on our journey. I think I’m well prepared for the packing – I learnt during the eight-day Cape Epic that being organised is critical. The joBerg2c organisers give a long list of what we need. This includes sleeping bag, towel and riding gear for five days (a laundry service is available). I have brought a Jiffy bag with each day’s nutrition ready and labelled. There are spare shoes and cleats and a saddlebag with spare inner tube, CO2 pump and a minimum of necessary tools. The list ends with two essentials: character, sense of humour. I search the room but cannot find them. I hope they’re not gone for good.
Once everything is packed, I drag my bike box and empty suitcase across the road to the check-in venue. I won’t see them until the finish. At the evening briefing we are introduced to Craig “Wappo” Wapnick, Glen Haw and Gary Green. These three men are the driving force behind the event, although rumour has it that their wives are the real organisers. They are presented to us as the Three Musketeers, although at times they seem more like the Three Stooges. They will appear nightly as a kind of travelling cabaret, keeping us entertained and informed as we eat our evening meal. They also pop up at unusual places along the route, working tirelessly to encourage us and ensure that everything runs smoothly.
I return to the hotel for a pasta supper, which seems a solemn affair. I am surrounded by foreigners – there are 230 non-South Africans among the 800 entrants – and all seem to be staying at my hotel. They look very serious, lean and mean. I feel old, overweight and undertrained. I limit myself to one beer with my dinner. I feel apprehensive and totally under-prepared.
I wonder: what am I doing here? My last long venture was ten years ago, the eight-day Cape Epic. Everyone says that’s much tougher, but I’m not convinced. After the Epic I swore I’d never do a ride like this again. And yet here I am, 65 years old and I still haven’t learnt my lesson.
I phone my wife to tell her everything is fine, and by ten o’clock I’m in bed for a sleepless night.
Day 1: 111 km Heidelberg to Frankfort (780 m up, 800 m down)
When the 4am alarm goes off I am already awake. At 5am we set off on a fleet of coaches for Karan beef farm near Heidelberg. The sun creeps over the endless horizon to reveal a faultless Highveld autumn morning. It is 30 years since I moved to England and I had forgotten just how beautiful these crisp, clear mornings can be. And chilly.
Riders mill about in the red dust, looking for their bikes and making last-minute adjustments. I find my bike, wipe the dew from the saddle and oil the chain. There’s not much to do but wait for the start, so I join the queue for coffee and a bun.
I look at the riders around me. They are built like biltong, tanned and toughened by hours of riding through the dusty African veld. Most seem to know what they’re doing, but here and there is someone who looks like they’ve no idea why they are here. I almost feel comforted.
As 8am approaches the riders move towards the starting chute like a herd of wildebeest. I know my place in the pecking order, so I take up position near the rear of the peloton. I hope I’m among the laggards and slower coaches – I have no desire to get swept along by the early enthusiasm and energy. This is the group that I will to remain with for the duration of the ride. I tell myself that these are the fun people, those who chat along the way, stop to help each other, or to take photos of the scenery. We are a mixed bunch, without doubt.
We set off in such glorious sunshine that we soon warm up, shedding arm- and leg-warmers. Quickly we reach a short, sharp hill that gets the heart rate up (alarmingly so for me – I blame the altitude) and then onto 4 km of smooth singletrack before wending our way through endless miles of maize fields and district roads.
It isn’t the most difficult day of cycling, but it isn’t easy either. We cover long stretches on undulating dirt roads, corrugated and sandy. Along the singletrack there are soggy stretches, a consequence of the heavy rains. These patches are interspersed with dry, sandy stretches, which are sometimes more difficult to ride than the mud.
The day is full of friendship and fun – there are so many people to meet, new stories to hear. And the water stops are something special – boerewors (farmers’ sausage to the foreigner), potato salad, boiled eggs, koeksisters (fried dough soaked in syrup) and every helper is a cheerleader. It’s a travelling picnic on two wheels, and at the end many riders joke that they think they’ve put on weight.
Just after the second water point we cross the Vaal River – ferried across on a flotilla of motorboats, with specially constructed rafts to carry bikes. Because of this bottleneck, it’s not a racing day – we are all awarded the time of the first rider: 4 hours 59 minutes. But I am in the saddle for 7½ hours, longer than l would have liked, and it is with relief that I reach the finishing line. The spectator enthusiasm has clearly dissipated but Wappo gives me a cheery pat on the back as I cross the line.
A schoolboy asks, “Can I wash your bike, sir?” I let him take the bike without a thought – I’ll have to find it later. I look around me – we are on a school rugby field with 800 tents pitched in neat rows, each numbered. A schoolgirl thrusts a bottle of water into my hand, and a cold drink. I down the drinks without hesitation, and realise I haven’t been drinking enough. I feel shattered. I just want to lie down in my tent and go to sleep, but I need to collect my bag, have a shower and get some food inside me.
This day sets the pattern for the ride, especially in the race village. I know the importance of being organised and getting everything done in the limited time. Of course, finishing down in the field means I have less time to do everything at the end of the race – shower, massage, eat, prepare kit and bike for the next day, eat some more, and sleep. I also need to find time to socialise.
The race villages are well organised: a tent for each pair or solo rider, showers, food tent to seat about a thousand people, bars, snack bars and chill zone. There is also a team of about 30 masseurs and physiotherapists, plus a medical tent (think saddle sores).
Each race village is laid out differently, but we have a phone app that gives a map of each village, route details, news and information.
I prepare my hydration, food and clothes for tomorrow, find my bike and lubricate it, pack away what I don’t need tonight, then find my way to the bar for a beer while I post pictures on social media. There is steak for supper, a massage at 7.30 and then straight to bed. I know I will sleep well.
Day 2: 93 km Frankfort to Reitz (880 m up, 800 m down)
It is a chilly start and there is thick fog in the valley below us as we ride out of town. The sun begins to warm as we meander alongside the Wilge River. The water looks quite magical with mist rising off it, but once the mist clears it looks more like stagnant dishwater. I am probably doing it a disservice. I’m sure it’s a lovely place to picnic on a summer’s day, but we don’t have time to find out.
Today’s ride is 16 km shorter than yesterday, with about a similar amount of climbing. I decide to take it easy and save my energy for later in the event. I stop often to take photos, and try to eat and drink more than I did yesterday. The most reassuring thing is that my average heart rate is down from 149 to 135. I had been worrying about that.
Early on there are a few pinch points, which hold us up for longer than we would wish, and we have to contend with long swampy patches and a river crossing.
I’m slowly getting to know my fellow stragglers, Nigel and Trevor and Sibu and Busi. For a while I ride with Dalene, a spirited, cheerful woman who has a prosthetic leg with a leopard-skin design. A German rider catches us and joins the conversation. He asks Dalene what happened to her leg.
“Oh,” she says, coolly, “I was attacked by a lion.”
“Wow,” says the German. “You don’t often hear about things like that. But this is Africa.”
As the German drops back I look across at Dalene and say: “C’mon, you’re not serious?”
“Of course not,” she says. “It was a motor accident. But I just love to see people’s faces when I say that. I tell them all sorts of things and they always believe it.”
The day’s best fun comes in the last 30 km, with lots of singletrack, but it also has tough stretches on soft wet ground and a long climb on soggy grass. It is a long day in the saddle, and worryingly, I can feel that the saddle is beginning to erode the skin on my backside.
It is a relief when Reitz, the finish town, comes into view. But it is still 12 km away, and as we dive into the next valley the town disappears, as if it’s a mirage. When it finally heaves into view again there is a long slow climb past the town’s rubbish dump. The dump is smelly, with flocks of birds and people pecking through the detritus, unmoved by the exhausted riders on expensive bikes passing nearby. For me this is a moment that highlights the huge disparity between well-off and very poor in this country. I feel a pang of guilt knowing that we are heading up the hill to relax under a hot shower, followed by a steak dinner.
At dinner this evening the Three Musketeers thank the local head teacher for hosting us. The head in turn thanks the organisers and riders, because this is the school’s biggest fundraiser, and is vital in keeping the school afloat financially. “Please come back next year,” he says.
joBerg2c has a symbiotic relationship with the schools and community groups that host race villages and water points along the route. In 2018 they paid out nearly £250,000 to these institutions, plus another £70,000 directly to suppliers along the way, and towards route building.
Day 3: 121 km Reitz to Sterkfontein Dam (1,150 m up, 1,050 m down)
Yesterday was supposed to be an easy day. It might have been for some, but for us slowcoaches there’s never an easy day. Which doesn’t give us much confidence about today, when we face the longest distance – 121 km. That might be a doddle for you road hounds, but on a mountain bike that distance is a totally different story.
I decide that it’s time to start riding with my CamelBak. For the first two days I’ve been carrying just two water bottles, but it’s easier to drink from the CambelBak while bouncing along a rocky track. Also, with water points about 30 km apart, which can take me up to two hours, my two 750 ml water bottles just weren’t enough, and I really should be drinking more.
It’s another misty start, and early on there are bottlenecks that slow us. These hold-ups also result in riders getting spread out. So, although there are times when you are surrounded by many riders, there are also times when you find yourself alone – no one in sight ahead or behind you.
We are still in the Free State (but it’s no longer Orange), riding stretches of district road, long, flat and – dare I say it – boring, just like in my childhood memories. But I don’t find this at all boring. For a while I find myself riding totally alone, and I have time to take in every detail of the picture around me. The veld has an ochre dryness that complements the burnt sienna of the roads and farm tracks. The morning mist has melted away and the autumnal roadside is alive with lovely cosmos – a sea of pinks and whites and the occasional maroon thrown in for fun. In the distance, a hazy blue that is almost a mirage, the Drakensberg – the “dragon’s mountains” – rise slowly on the horizon, nothing more than a vague brushstroke against the bottom edge of the cobalt sky.
Right now I am content to be alone, because as I see those distant mountains I feel a lump in my throat. This is the beloved country that I left reluctantly thirty years ago. This is the vista that I yearn to see during those miserable English winters. This is the solitude I long for when life on a small, crowded island gets a bit much. For a moment there may be a tear in my eye, but perhaps it’s just a trickle of sweat. No one is here to tell me.
I ride alone on this a wave of nostalgia until I meet Trevor. This is his first joBerg2c, lured along by a group of younger riders who are far ahead. Trevor is a professor in something to do with three-dimensional electron microscopy (yes, I had to look that up, but I still don’t really know what he does). As the day warms up we ride mostly in companionable silence.
The day ends with the long climb up Mount Paul, at 1,900 m (6,230 ft) the highest point of the ride. Exhaustion isn’t far off, so I am pleased that I manage to pedal all the way up. On the other side is a rocky, rollicking downhill where I have to keep my tired wits about me. But I survive.
I finish at Sterkfontein Dam just seconds short of a full nine hours – that’s twice the time of the leading rider. This has been a long day in the saddle – and that’s the area where I feel particularly uncomfortable. In the shower I realize that my butt has borne the brunt of three days’ efforts. It is time to suffer the indignity of visiting the Bum Clinic. Oh well, I shall just have to bend over, and grin and bare it. As I emerge from the clinic, a golden sunset silhouetted over serene waters takes my mind to higher places.
Day 4: 91 km Sterkfontein to Emseni (1,070 m up, 1,750 m down)
My heart rate monitor is no longer working. Oh well, maybe that’s a good thing. My first day’s fears about my high heart rate have diminished. Yesterday it was down to an average of 120, so I must be getting acclimatised, or something. I suppose as long as I keep pedalling I know that my heart is beating.
We set off in bright sunshine along a short stretch of tarmac. In the distance there are a few wispy trails of mist, but the sky is clear, cloudless, an immaculate blue. This is one of the days I’ve been looking forward to since seeing that video a year ago. We will travel along the Great Wall My China, a track that runs for several miles along the edge of a steep escarpment that boasts a view to the ends of the earth, before plunging down Quaggas Nek.
As we turn off the tarmac onto the singletrack I catch up with Nigel, who is from Derbyshire. We exchange the usual pleasantries (“Is this your first joBerg2c?”) and complaints about training in the British winter. I ask him if he’s riding solo, and he says no. He points to his partner, who is some way ahead. “I’m with Sibu,” he says. “He’s from Swaziland.” Then, almost conspiratorially, as if he doesn’t want Sibu to hear, he says: “Sibu is the first African to summit Everest twice.” Wow. I want to know more, but just then we come across a group of riders stopped along the track.
One of the young riders has a broken derailleur, and the group all stand around him, looking at his bike and scratching their heads. I feel obliged to help – or maybe it’s just my chance to show off my mechanic’s skills. Once the others realise that I think I know what I’m doing, they set off and leave the two of us behind.
His name is Musa, and he’s one of the ten Soweto academy riders sponsored by the organisers. More riders pass us as we remove the offending derailleur and try to shorten the chain with my multitool. The problem is that we can’t remove the magic link. While we’re struggling, a motorcycle arrives. Does he have any tools? Long nose pliers? Yes? Great. We get the chain apart and set up the bike as a single-speed.
We’re almost done when it occurs to me that the motorcycle is the broom wagon on two wheels. “Are you the sweep bike?” I ask the rider.
“Yep,” he replies.
“Does that mean we are last?”
“Yep, stone last,” he says. He doesn’t seem to be in any hurry.
We complete the repair job and I set Musa on his way, warning him not to ride too hard on the climbs, otherwise the chain will break. As I watch the youngster disappear over a koppie, I think: “Stone last! Oh well, at least I’m not going to get passed any time soon.”
It takes me nearly 30 minutes to catch the next-last riders, Busi and Bheki, who I’d met on day one. They seem unhurried, taking photographs from the Great Wall My China. Bheki takes my phone and photographs me. The vista is far more spectacular than the video – we are on the edge of a rocky plateau and far below us the green hills roll away into a distant haze. I would like to hang about a bit, sit down and enjoy the view, but there is also a feeling of urgency that I should keep moving. Even slowcoaches have a competitive instinct.
I pass about a dozen riders by the time I reach Quagga’s Pass. The descent is long, steep and bouncy, and a few riders walk down. I pass them, thinking that I need to make up time, but after a few dodgy moments I decide I don’t want to overdo it and come off. The track near the bottom is particularly rutted, and I think I’m handling it pretty well when – whoosh – without warning, someone passes as if I’m standing still. It’s a woman I passed some time ago. I wonder if that’s the difference a full-suspension bike makes. Or perhaps her brakes just don’t work.
Just near the finish we pass Spion Kop, site of the infamous Boer War battle. This year the route has been changed, for which I’m thankful, so that we cycle around the mountain, not over it, to our camp alongside the Tugela River. I’ve spent just 6 hours and 30 minutes on the go, which means perhaps today I’ll have time for a brief afternoon nap once I’ve sorted out my washing, prepared my kit and nutrition for tomorrow and lubricated my bike. And maybe enjoy an extra beer.
Day 5: 118 km Emseni to Nottingham Road (1,750 m up, 1,215 m down)
They say today is a transition day. I’m not sure what that means, something about moving towards the mountains. The profile shows that we climb steadily through the day – 1,740 m of uphill (5,740 ft in old money).
The riders set off in waves, seeded according to their times so far. Naturally I am pretty much where I expected to be – in the last group. But I’m fine with that, it gives me more time for my breakfast, morning ablutions and daily visit to the Bum Clinic. We set off from Emseni Camp in thick mist, which continues as we ride alongside the Tugela River. As soon as we turn away from the river we emerge into bright sunshine, and what will be a hot day.
Today is filled with a certain feeling of urgency, because my mother, sister and brother-in-law will be at the race village. They have booked for dinner at a local hotel, and now I’m riding with a certain amount of trepidation, because I’m not sure that I’ll have enough time to fulfil my usual post-ride routine. This is the one night when I haven’t been able to book a massage, which is one thing less to worry about, but still, there’s the lubing the bike, preparing my kit, afternoon nap . . .
It turns out to be a hot and hard day, and I push just that little bit extra, in spite of the long climbs. There is some lovely forest singletrack in the last kilometres, and we are serenaded by two bagpipers as we enter the ground of Clifton School.
I finish earlier than I expected – my average speed is one of the fastest for the whole ride and my total stopping time for the day is down to a mere 40 minutes. I notice once I finish that I’ve hardly taken any photographs, even though we passed through some of the most wonderful mountains and valleys. I suppose there is time to do everything before going out for dinner. And goodness, I’m hungry. I even find time for a pre-dinner burger and chips.
Day 6: 97 km Nottingham Road to Glencairn (1,940 m up, 1,860 m down)
Well, my hard work yesterday has paid dividends – I’ve been moved up to the second-last group in the seedings. That sounds great, and is good for the ego, but I’ve decided that my friends are the guys at the back, so I’m going to hang about and set off with them.
Today turns out to be the toughest day so far, with some brutal climbs and more brutal downhills. The first climb – Gumtree – is long and slow, and it rears up steeply (think 17 per cent) as we near the summit. Even though I push much of the way, I’m feeling tired already and I don’t relish the prospect of a long day ahead. Maybe it’s because I am so tired that I manage to crash three times. Surely that is my quota for the whole event. I also notice that my front wheel is slightly buckled, which may or may not be related to the crashes.
The first two falls come on Harrison’s Pass, a sculpted piece of singletrack with 32 sharp switchbacks (Alpe d’Huez has only 21, and you ride them uphill). Fall 1 is on a switchback, when I almost faceplant on a rock. For fall 2 I skid on mud and clip a tree. I survive with nothing more than a few cuts and bruises, and my handlebars facing the wrong way.
Fall 3, on a downhill aptly named Rock ‘n’ Roll, must be the most impressive, although there’s no one around to tell me what happens. I just know that my front wheel is whipped out from under me, I somersault over the handlebars and land on my back in the bushes. “Stupid boy,” I tell myself as I dust myself off, “you weren’t concentrating.” My water bottle is missing, so I cast about in the bushes for it. There it is, along with about five others. There is some relief in knowing I’m not the only one to come to grief at this spot. For a moment I wonder whether a full-suspension bike would have been a better idea.
On top of all my woes, I manage to miss a turning and land up riding an extra 2 km. The organisers insist that we ride with three essentials: a phone (for emergencies), a credit card (for hospital admission) and GPS (for navigation, because the route is not marked).
So far I’ve always just followed the person ahead of me, but at 60 km, on a long, slow slog of an uphill, I don’t notice that there’s no one in front. I’m tired, my knees ache, my mind is a blank, and so I churn away uphill, head down. Slowly a whistling creeps into the back of my brain. It is shrill (aren’t all whistles shrill?) and insistent, and I look from side to side to see where it’s coming from. Finally I look back and there is Ken from Ashtead, who happens to be the only person on the ride with a whistle, chasing to tell me I’m going the wrong way. Bless Ken. He could have just let me keep going. I certainly owe him a beer or three. After that I always make sure that I have my Garmin on navigation mode if I can’t see anyone ahead of me.
After seven long hours I arrive at Glencairn, a camp set in idyllic pastures. My knees are hurting seriously, but at least that takes my mind off my aching butt.
Day 7: 82 km Glencairn to Mackenzie (1,221 m up, 1,525 m down)
I have breakfast with Nigel and Sibu. Nigel has been battling, not able to ride every day, but he’s still in good spirits. I ask Sibu about himself. Reluctantly he reveals that he started out as a game ranger but was lured into mountain climbing and other adventure sports. To support his adventure habit he gives motivational talks. His quiet, gentle manner clearly cloaks a soul of steel.
While we talk I notice that most of Nigel’s fingers are missing. It strikes me as odd (how the hell does he brake? Or even hold on to the handlebars?) but my attention is on Sibu and trying to stuff enough calories down my throat to keep me going for the day.
It is only after Sibu and Nigel leave that I recall that their team name is Mr. Frostbite, and I suddenly realize why – their mutual interest in mountain climbing. I wonder if I’m a bit thick, or maybe it’s just that I’m tired. My German friend should have been around to ask Nigel what had happened to his fingers.
As we set off I ask Trevor if he’s seen Charles. “Oh,” says Trevor, “didn’t you hear? Charles is in hospital with a burst kidney.” It turns out that Charles crashed yesterday, probably near to my fall 3. I thank my stars that my journey towards the sea is continuing. My wife won’t forgive me if I land up in hospital.
Today is the shortest so far, a mere 82 km, but it has the prospect of the floating bridge. I’ve seen the pictures of those who don’t judge their line properly, and I don’t fancy joining them in the drink. But the bridge doesn’t turn out to be as bad as I expect. There is a choice of two lines, and as I approach I notice that the right one has speed bumps, so I opt for the left. I cover the 50 metres or so without mishap. It is turning out to be a hot day, so the idea of a swim isn’t bad, but it’s certainly not something I fancy with a bike attached. At supper we are told that 11 of our number took the plunge. Henry the croc was very happy.
The flowing singletrack through the forests to end the day almost make me forget my aching knees and butt.
Day 8: 97 km Mackenzie to Jolivet (1,900 m up, 1,500 m down)
I have my first sleepless night on the ride. My legs are sore and I just cannot get comfortable in my sleeping bag. I also find myself worrying about today’s ride, with its long descent and big climbs. Maybe that’s just because I’m awake a lot, and it’s on my mind. But amazingly I felt quite alright in the morning, apart from the aching knees.
I decide to visit the physio before the start, and he straps up my knees with bright blue tape. If I get lost the fluorescent blue will guide the rescuers my way.
They tell us that today is a day of two halves, but for those of us at the back of the field it is so long that it’s more like a day of three halves. The first is a downhill beyond compare. We start high above a wide, deep valley, where the Umkomaas River winds its way through the verdant veld far below. This is what mountain biking is about, a forty-minute rollicking rollercoaster down the side of the valley. Awesome doesn't approach describing the beauty of this descent, and the real thing is much more thrilling than the video.
The next 20 km through the valley promise fast-flowing singletrack alongside the fast-flowing river. But it’s not fast or flowing. The track through long grass alternates between sand and muddy patches. My first surprise comes when a water buffalo bursts through the thick bush and onto the track. It seems more surprised than I am, and heads off ahead of me. I struggle to get my phone out as I ride but it turns into the bush before I can capture the moment.
Not a kilometre further I come across a group of riders standing around a bike with a broken rear derailleur. Once again, I practice my magic skills and set the rider up so that he can proceed single-speed to the next feed station, where a spare bike awaits him.
Shortly after that I come across a bunch of riders pushing through a patch of mud. They are on the left, the river is on the right. I can ride through that, I think, and set off between the riders and the river. I almost make it, but when I feel my front wheel dig in deep, I unclip my left foot to stop. The mud has other ideas, and sends me over to the right. I land up half in the mud, half in the river, my right foot still firmly clipped to the pedal. Oh well, my attempted picture of the buffalo is the last photo I take. My phone takes a week to recover from the dip.
The next stretch is simply brutal, a long, slow pedal and push up a rutted, rocky track. This climb is named Iconic, and it is so long that I keep expecting my helmet to bump the sky. As I ride I stare down at the raw, red earth and study the ants that seem to overtake me. A bottle-blue dragonfly darts between my spokes, teasing me. This is a big valley. It was a wonderful descent but now we have to regain the height we’ve lost.
The third half of the day is a matter of survival. Hot, sweaty, caked in mud and dust, we still have more climbing, but as a reward we are treated to miles of cooling forest singletrack. I will be more than happy to see the sea tomorrow.
Today is the last racing day, although for us at the back there haven’t been any racing days, just a matter of getting to the finish before the cut-off.
Day 9: 86 km Jolivet to Scottburgh 9 (850 m up, 1,551 m down)
We wake with the campsite shrouded in thick mist, which lasts most of the morning. I visit the Bum Clinic for the last time. As I leave I thank the medics for literally saving my ass. They laugh politely and pretend they haven’t heard that one before.
Today is another neutral day, a fun day where riders wear fancy dress or sport their national colours. A lot of tutus have been hauled out of kit bags, plus one pair of Speedos, which clearly have no chamois.
We are now in hilly sugarcane country, and overnight rain has left us with skidpans galore. In spite of this being a neutral day, everyone is riding head down and hard. Mud or no mud, we just want to get this done and dusted. For once there is far more downhill than up, and with the exception of one brute of a climb, the going is good. I have a few dodgy moments in the last 20 km as I push hard, and it is with relief that I finally glimpse the Indian Ocean. The finish is atop a grassy fairway at Scottburgh golf club. I go for the sprint finish but halfway up, with crowds lining the chute, I wish I’d preferred a more sedate pace.
My family are here to greet me. My wife, who arrived from England yesterday, runs round the barriers and hugs me. I think she’s more relieved than I am that it’s over. I think I mutter “Never again,” but I can’t be sure, because that would mean giving up, and I’ve never given up.
My overwhelming feeling of relief has nothing to do with the fact that I won’t have to sit on a saddle tomorrow. I know that I will look back on the ride as a sunshine-filled walk in the park. The pain and exhaustion will soon be forgotten, but right now I will enjoy that pain, because it is the mark of my achievement: I rode the beloved country. It might have been tiring, but it was never tiresome or boring.
What do you get for your entry fee of about £1,500?
- nine days of trails and trails of happiness
- eight race villages with tent accommodation (two-man tent per team or solo rider), with mattress (bring your sleeping bag)
- three meals a day, plus snacks
- all race facilities: hot showers, bike wash and free Seattle Coffee
- medical support (you must have insurance cover)
- transport for your race bag (supplied) from race village to race village
- two to three water points each day
- private route through hundreds of farms and rural communities that you cannot ride at any other time
This feature first appeared in Conquista 23.