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Race to Paarl 2022 – Observations of an accidental racer

Given all the drama around RASA in 2022 its no surprise that Race To Paarl (RTP) 2022 has taken a bit of a back seat. Unlike in 2021 when Anthony Avidon set the fastest time of 66hrs with the clearly stated intention that he was there to race, nobody this year stuck up their hand in either of the groups to lay down the gauntlet.

Group 1 leaving on the Tuesday comprised of ‘Roger’s Group’ led by Roger Nicholson and in it were blanket wearers Andy Walker. Keith Sutcliffe, Dom Giampaolo and Rob Verseput having been on the trail numerous times, accompanied by Elouise Biggs tasting the trail for the first time. Andy told me before the time that I could get a lift with them to the start, but that I can’t ride with them as they talk too much – something I could attest to later.

But talking = fun and that’s just fine in my books. They stated from the outset that they were riding day to day and were set on enjoying the trail – they stuck to that strategy. It’s a great point to make for folk, especially those from the Western Cape wishing to ride RTP or to tour the trail, that you can really enjoy this section of the trail as the navigation is pretty straight forward (well relatively as we shall see) and the support stations are superb.

Group 2 leaving on Wednesday had Eddie Stafford who needs no introduction with multiple RTR quick times and a decent RASA to his name, but he was to be tested by bringing along his son Rick, who at 16 years of age, has multiple age group endurance sport palmares to his name, but this would be his first outing on the trail.

Justin Dowdle and Bruce McKinlay look like and are accomplished cyclists, they have done all the other sections of the trail and were keen to experience this part of the route, but you don’t get to take superb photos like they do if you are racing.So it seems it will always be a toss up between the memories and whether they put those cycling pedigrees to the test someday. Ray Sephton (aka Barkly Boy) has been down the trail to get a blanket before and has done every other section as well as having been involved with the event for more than a decade, Ray made no bones about the fact that he was on leave from the farm. Then there was me, the accidental racer. I naively on the start line asked Chris what the record time was. Chris shot back that “you cant ask those questions, but it is 66 hours if you must know”. I suddenly realised I had said the wrong thing and felt eyes on my back – what a silly question to ask I thought to myself as my actual stretch goal was simply to get to Diemersfontein before the rugby kick-off on Saturday.

We rolled out of Willowmore together. Rick and Eddie set off like they were late for an appointment at Rondawel (exuberance of youth), Ray went into holiday mode and Bruce, Justin and I fell into deep conversation. By the time we realised it, we had missed the Sleutelfontein right turn and were 11km down the wrong road. So much for my no maps and own cryptic narrative. I put my glasses on, adjusted my computer magnet to get it working and apologised profusely to Bruce and Justin for being such an idiot. The message to myself was simple: get your head in the game and your equipment working.

From there on it was a pretty regulation day to Rondawel where Karien is always so efficient for a quick stop and then on to Prince Albert. The weather was great and the riding easy, the sandy sections after Rondawel were a bit of pain with the sand/ corrugations combinations, but with no wind it was nothing to complain about.

Arriving at Dennehof one is met by the team of Inge, Albert and Ferdinand and the pampering starts as soon as the welcome is over. Nothing is too much to ask and tea and delicious soup arrived in quick succession, along with directions to your room…….but its not even 5pm, there is no wind and it’s a glorious winter evening – perfect for riding.

I had visions of Tim James and Mike Woolnough saying are you really going to stop? Don’t, it’s a trap.Clearly Eddie and Rick in their stokies and freshly showered look, with access to the wifi were going nowhere and Justin and Bruce looked ready to see for themselves what the famed Dennehof hospitality was about. That left me with my wife on a farm about 1km away (where we had been staying prior to the race), but me unable to see her as race rules state no outside contact is allowed. My thought was -oh well, I may as well roll on and see what Fontein Gaste Plaas in Die Hel looks like. Immediately I became not only the guy who asked about the race record, but the guy who skipped Dennehof.I became the accidental racer. I blame it all on Mike and Tim.

That, I am afraid, was also the end of any other contact with a RTP rider for 2022 as I ghosted past Roger’s group in Die Hel and never saw anyone else except RASA frontrunner Mark Basel for the rest of the trip. So from here on it’s a bit more of me and a bit of commentary about RTP which I could glean from the race after the fact.

I eventually got to Fontein Gaste Plaas at 11:45pm, I passed nobody on the route and the only remarkable thing was a broken chain on the way up the pass and something large jumping off the bank into and across the road. I’ll call it a Rheebok. I was greeted by a lantern in the road outside my cottage and lanterns on inside with a lovely fire, a room filled with the aroma of lamb tjops, with the freshest green salad you could lay your eye on. Normally I would wolf this all down, but I was too exhausted, cold and tired after 240km of day1. (Just to put it in perspective I have never ever ridden 240km let alone on a hardtail mtb and my longest training ride was 9km). So a quick hot shower, put my clothes in front of the stoked up fire and a few hours of shut eye it was. I cannot say enough about the loving touches of Marinette and Pieter to prepare the cottage for me and to ensure I left there with enough food for a day or two, this for a rider they would never even see this year.

Day 2 started earlyish for me with an easy roll down to Die Leer, where I could see Mark Basel’s solitary light in front of me some way up Die Leer. After an awful experience on Die Leer last year at night in pouring rain, I was looking for redemption. It was a beautiful clear morning and the sun would rise somewhere on the way up. Not too far up Die Leer in pursuit of Mark, I saw the train of lights coming down into the valley from Roger’s group, and the chatter could be heard below as the readied themselves for the hike. I managed to get to the top in just over an hour, a good sign and was matched by Mark for the rest of the trip to the road and on toward Rouxpos for lunch. Mark was clearly riding his own race and I mine, so there were no words needed about riding together and that sort of stuff. It just falls into a nice rhythm and each gets on with their own task with the odd interaction which is just sufficient and nice to fill the need we all have to be social.

Rouxpos is like visiting old friends now. Ronelle and Gerhard know the riders and their needs and they are consummate hosts and after so many years, still show such enthusiasm for the Freedom Challenge.Theirs is a work of service. After a quick lunch, it was off to the sandy river section of Buffelspoort. It was a bit odd being alone in front on this section as there are normally a host of tracks to follow, so mine being the first was something unusual for me. For some unknown reason my computer had stopped working and no amount of fiddling would get it reading the magnet.I was riding without maps (I had them on my phone and grabbed some from a box on exiting Rouxpos), but still my security of how far to go was thrown as I was estimating distances and it played on my mind. Just before Anysberg I stopped and had a quite a long chat with the Manager of Anysberg who was following dots. He’s been there for 14 years and is a keen supporter of the event – how critical these relationships are to the event – so spending time with any landowner and showing some appreciation is time well spent. At Anysberg, Mark was testing Julia’s assertion that these ForeverFresh meals are the business. I was a bit sceptical as I have consumed my fair share of dehydrated meals over my lifetime and I was expecting a fancy version of Toppers. What a surprise, they were delicious and I was tempted to throw another in my bag.

More tinkering with the computer and a full reset offered nothing but frustration. Mark was keen to move and I needed to sit for a bit. Ronelle had said Roger’s army would be skipping Rouxpos for Anysberg, which meant there was no point in me staying with limited beds and it was in any event another lovely evening with no wind. Mark was aiming for Montagu and I had no idea if I would get there, but I set myself the goal of at least getting out of the reserve.

So off I went into the night, no idea of distances and there are not a lot of distinct features in that area which one can recall and tick off as you pass them. Added to this was that my front brake had bled out, probably a seal issue as I had made sure the bleed nipple was tight. So no computer and no front brake. These things play on a tired mind. I did have Mark’s track in front of me as a confirmation, although I was pretty certain of the way out. By the time I passed the first farm near Hoek van Berg, I was looking for a shed or some sort of shelter, the thought of Ouberg Pass with one brake in the dark was not appealing and I was very tired.

I could find nothing that offered any shelter. I decided to turn right at the intersection and see it there was anything at Hoek van Berg Farm where the farmer has set up a tap for water opposite his entrance gates. Hoek van Berg looks like a very upmarket farm, rolling lawns and oak trees, with lots of security. The winner was a low stone wall at the entrance with thick green mowed kikuyu grass, there was no shelter but at least my bum and hipbones would enjoy the plush cushion. I crawled into my new foil bag, pressed the OK button and started snoring and coughing. The coughing woke the dogs, so I had to keep that down, but at least I got a few hours of ‘decent’ rest and some sleep. I got going at about 4am and just like that my computer decided it was back, things were looking up!

About 5km down the Ouberg pass my back brake failed too from overuse, so zero brakes and I am no lightweight.I managed to stop by braking with my foot on the road, a proper scary moment when you realise that you are looking for a landing spot. I quickly changed largely unused front pads for back and visa versa and again had a decent back brake. The rest of the ride to Montagu was uneventful and the facilities at the garage were a welcome relief to wash my face etc after the night out.

As the sun came up I stopped for a coffee at the Total garage in Ashton and sat out a 5 minute mini tornado as the wind went mental ahead of the cold front and total cloud cover arriving. I wasn’t that surprised by this as 10 days before my start, a large frontal system was tracking for arrival when I would be approaching Trouthaven and Stettyns. So while this section of the trail is not difficult riding and the accommodation options are superb, the weather can play a big role as we were to about to find out.

On to MacGregor and the skies had turned dark and ominous, but thankfully the initial wind had died down and the hills around Macgregor offer some respite, unlike the flatter areas of the Breede River Valley where the wind can be merciless. Brandvlei dam is a popular topic of conversation on my kitesurf whatsapp group about how hard the wind is blowing there at this time of the year. Kitesurfing and cycling are not good bedfellows.

MacGregor Backpackers is hosted by Geoff and Dorothy, their enthusiasm is unmatched and I am not allowed to tell you about the toasted sandwiches, so I wont. Suffice to say we could have competition with Dana’s at Allendale. Sitting next to the heater drinking tea and eating toasties is another trap, so I hauled myself out of there, put on sunscreen, cause not the sun was out again and headed for a tour of the wine farms of the Breed River Valley.

The new section under the powerlines toward Carisworld Road is not difficult, one just needs to realise you are following an Eskom mainline and it gets mowed and maintained from time to time, so just loosely follow the powerlines. This is probably the reason Macgregor gets no load shedding as they are on such a major national distribution line. Predictably the wind picked up near Amathunzi Nature Reserve and it howled from the front. But I was ready for it, so much so that on a Friday night, with a howling wind and everyone at home for the start of the weekend, I found myself fighting the wind all alone. I crawled passed the Reeds accommodation knowing that I had made up my mind that a late entry into Trouthaven was inevitable and that the Reeds would just delay the suffering for a few hours.

So it was a painstakingly slow slog to Trouthaven, but I was in a good mental space as I knew days before that this was coming and it would be about getting on with the job. I woke Mark up at Trouthaven, who told me he was getting up at 1:15am to get ready, I was too wide awake to go to sleep, so I caught up on where the rest of the field was. It seemed that Roger’s group, along with the Stafford’s, Bruce and Justin had all got to Macgregor and were headed to Trouthaven the following day. Ray in holiday mode, had gotten to Anysberg.

Mark headed out early and I followed him some hours later, I enjoy Stettyns and prefer to see the sunrise somewhere before the crash site. My goal was to nail the route from start to finish with no deviations. It was windy and cold with rain clearly on the way, so sitting around in the sun was not an option. It all went according to plan and I eventually caught Mark on the steep exit slog just before the top. We took some photos at the top and made our way down the jeep track. Not far into the jeep track, the rain which had been threatening since sunrise arrived with a vengeance. I mention this because the passage through the kloof had been easy, with the arrival of the rain it all changed very quickly, we went from a swift ride to a soggy, freezing slog and added to that my easy gears were gone with an alignment issue.

In a few moments it went from easy clothes changes to near impossible to put gloves on, to deciding to walk rather than fix mechanical issues and just wanting to get off the pass and down to Diemersfontein. My point is that this is a ‘relatively’ easier section of the trail, but the weather – wind, cold, rain can make it a very difficult section.

We rolled into Diemersfontein at about 3:30pm, so in time for the rugby, but no records were ever under threat and I didn’t feel like a racer in any shape or form – just someone wanting a hot bath.

The rest of the RTP field followed the next day into Diemersfontein under constant rain. The chatter I heard at the Leer was absent at the finish. Like me, the rain had a say in the finish line celebrations and the kloof had transformed from a dry bushy hack, to a swollen rivers and soggy branches slog for a few hours. Ray true to his holiday form,took the newer alternative route around via Rawsonville, Slanghoek Valley and Bains Kloof to Diemersfontein – and why not when you are there to enjoy yourself.

My other observations are that Eddie and Rick are likely to be back for full tilt at this at some stage now that we know Rick, like his dad, has a taste for the tough stuff. I’d be surprised if Roger wasn’t using the tour to take notes for October, it’s a portion of the trail which suits the bigger guys with the grind across the Karoo to Prince Albert, the grind to Rouxpos and out of the Anysberg and then across the Breede River valley. Certainly, those longer legged of us seem to find Stettyns a little bit easier than those below protea height.

I have tried to point out that this section of the trail has a bit of everything and with good weather can be a real blast of ‘easier’ riding and if you are really diligent with the new rule on unlimited private accommodation you could plan your luxury. On the other hand, anyone wanting to take a serious tilt at Anthony’s record will in all likelihood need to be prepared to go into Stettyns at night and that is an intriguing prospect as we all know how that can turn out. I’m hoping that RTP gets someone who is prepared to put up their hand at the start and say I am up for the challenge. I

It deserves it’s own bit of legacy and possibly,drama too

Charl van der Spuy – July 2022

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