I have had a few days to reflect on our Race to Cradock adventure. We had ridden the Freedom Circuit, 400km, in April last year. I absolutely loved the ride and as soon as we could, with the encouragement of Mike Roy, signed us up for the next level.
Race day arrived; my bike was finally in one piece and seemed to be behaving. I was a bit concerned with my level of fitness compared to the rest of my team, but we were off, come what may.
It was hard, very, very hard. The mental side was probably harder than the physical side of just getting on the bike and riding. It was spectacularly beautiful and incredibly remote. Farms and roads and tracks in the middle of nowhere. Not seeing a single person or car or even an animal for miles and miles. Just stopping and putting our bikes down for a break in the middle of the road, knowing that we were all alone. I was in riding heaven, happy to be on the trail. The rest of the world ceased to exist. No obstacle was insurmountable, one foot in front of the other and suddenly you were at the top. The views were magnificent up there. Not once did I wonder what I was doing there and if I would manage.
The portages were brutal. I don’t think bikes are really meant to go where we took them. We were lucky to get blue skies and sunshine but the rain over the past few days had made sure that there was lots and lots of mud. It took us 5 hours to do 10km over Slaapkrans and to the top of Bontehoek. The descent down Bontehoek was steep, rocky and treacherous. The Aasvoelsberg was muddy and slippery; we walked down a lot of it. Our wheels clogged up with so much mud they wouldn’t turn anymore. We dragged and pushed and stopped and started and eventually got to harder farm roads, and even those were hard work. The mud held on to your wheels and drained your energy. We were caught in an afternoon shower in the Stormberg and splashed through the mud some more. We sympathised with the earlier batches who rode in the rain and mud. We kept on going and the roads and tracks dried out, the sun kept shining and we were still smiling.
I spent weeks leading up to the race going over narrative and maps and looking at the route on Google maps and saving pictures in my head. You have to do the homework. Some of the places look just as you imagine and you can see the route immediately. It’s just the same as in your head. Other places, not so much. It’s very easy to miss a turn, or go too far or start second-guessing if you are going the right way. Knowing that the track is somewhere near, but not finding it. The sun is going down, you can see the support station in the distance, but have no idea how to get there. Your ankles are on fire from the needle sharp grass seeds. Every minute of trekking through the rocky veld, dodging enormous spider webs, you expect a rinkhals to rear up in front of you. Is the trail before or after the windmill? Should we cross the stream here? Open and close and climb over what feels like a hundred farm gates and fences, wade through another stream, cross a flooding river. The only time we did go off track was when we got lazy, assumed we knew the way and didn’t zero our odometers. Luckily we realised we were wrong fairly quickly and managed to find the track. It definitely helped having Charles with us, who has ridden the trail a number of times.
You cannot eat enough to replace what you are using up on the trail. Jelly babies and energy bars don’t make the cut. You are starving all the time. A major goal of the day is to make it to the next support station to find proper, wholesome food.
The support stations are such an integral part of the trail. I don’t think anyone could do this without them. These wonderful people give up their homes to a bunch of smelly, muddy, dirty cyclists, who come and go at all times of the day and night. They feed us, give us a comfortable bed for the night and wash and dry our clothes to be ready for the next day.
Minkie, at Chesneywold, sets the table with her fine bone china. At Elandsberg the kitchen is full of baby parrots and the sheep tries to join you in the shower. Donna, the retriever at Slaapkrans, gathers up all the socks and looks like she’s won the lottery.
Then we got to Brosterlea, and Wich (She comes from Wichita in the USA), the loveable, goofy, highly pedigreed pointer, was there to greet us. Ecstatic to see us all, demanded pats and tummy rubs. While we were off inside having lunch she took herself off to do a bike inspection, in full view of the big dining room window. I have a feedbag on my handlebars that stays open so that I can reach my snacks while I ride. Inside this bag was a stash of nuts and dry wors. When I got back on the bike after lunch, the packet of nuts and dry wors had vanished. Nowhere to be seen. Surprisingly, I immediately knew what had happened. I have two such master thieves at home. Hounds that are ruled by their noses, can execute a theft with the utmost stealth, stash it around the corner, consume it in seconds and be back on the couch as if they haven’t ever moved. No witnesses, no evidence, no crime. Wich was there, on the lawn, demanding more tummy rubs, not looking even remotely guilty. Now I know why she was so happy to greet us all. Lunch snacks had arrived.
We have learnt a lot of lessons. My bike didn’t fall apart. Even more conditioning is required.
We met new friends, rode together, supported each other and waited for each other when someone was a bit slower or struggling with a difficult section. We helped each other fix punctures and mechanicals and adjusting setups. We all hit highs and lows, got grumpy, got tired, but kept on going. Had good days and not such good days. We chatted and laughed and napped in the sun and had fun together.
We live in a magnificent country. It’s a privilege to be able to explore these places by bike and foot. I think we all have to be a bit crazy to do this, but we will be back for more and are looking forward to doing the other sections. Which one will be next?