X-Berg Day 2. Looking Over My Shoulder.

Thursday 30 April. Day 2.

67km/2221m ascent.

The alarm woke us at 3h15. Had to get to the place where I stopped the previous night by 4h45 to restart at 5h00. The 5 hours sleep was handy, except my legs were still pretty sore from the big hike the previous day. My support team of my wife and daughter had been rock stars the previous day, made every support point, had everything ready, they knew what they were doing and had us ready in no time to start the 45 min drive.

It was pitch dark at the starting point in the area my map showed as Zunckels, near Arthur’s Seat and “only” 6km as the crow flies to TP5. Just a quick hop onto the ridge and then an easy pedal along cattle tracks to TP5. I told them to meet me at Drak Sun, just below TP6, at 8h00 and that I didn’t want to know where anyone else was, I wanted to ride my own race at my own pace and enjoy the trails on my terms.

I immediately started pushing up the ridge, using my lights to guide the way. The GPS track helped a lot but the actual terrain was rough, very rough. The picture below was taken by Guy Pitman when he went past the same portage, the going is up and over the rocks. I was struggling to carry and push my bike up the ridge, it was taking much longer than I had anticipated and every time I shined my head light around I saw a different cattle path that looked better. Once I got to the top, which felt like ages, I could at least ride along the myriad of cattle track, switching from one to the other, some get too deep to pedal then you switch, then it just stops, then you switch, then it flows into a donga, then you switch. In the dark its not possible to look ahead and plot a visual path through the cattle track you just pick a line and ride it until it becomes a problem, then you switch, the world ahead is only what you can see in the light from the head lamp and bicycle light. In addition, the undulations meant I was off my bike pushing more than expected. An hour and a half later I arrived at TP5 at 6h30.

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Picture by Guy PItman. Portaging up and over the rocks from direction Arthur’s Seat up to TP5, above Zunckels.

TP5 is a beautiful spot, completely remote on top of the mountain and the sun had just risen above the horizon. It was a pretty amazing moment and a pretty incredible place. Even though I had struggled up the ridge, I was feeling good and looking forward to riding the ridge and then the drop down into the Bell Valley. I was in a very happy place.

 

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Breathtaking views from above Bell Dam, near TP5.

 

From TP5, my route took me along a stunning ridge into a plantation, from where I had plotted a shortcut using Strava tracks across to Cayley Lodge, down into Bell Valley and up and over to Drak Sun. The riding was not as fast as I had thought but very enjoyable nevertheless, the track sometimes just ending and running into the veld only to appear 10 meters to the left and so the pattern repeated itself, stunning place, fun riding.  I found the sneak into the plantation easily but as I exited onto the plateau above Bell Dam, the ridge up to Cayley Lodge that looked like a little koppie on Goole Earth, had in real life turned out to be a bit more than I had envisaged. It was way bigger and on tired legs, it messed with my mind. Plan B was to drop down the Right into the Bell Valley but I did not see a clear track and the smart move was to stay with my plan. I decided if it took me 10 minutes to the top, it would be acceptable, so off I went portaging all the way to the top. At 9 minutes I hit the top, I was still ok I thought. The next unforeseen problem was a single track other side of Cayley Lodge I had also seen on Strava but when I got there it was all overgrown with Kakieboes shoulder high, I couldn’t even see the path surface. I had no Plan B here so I just pointed my front wheel and went for it. The thinking was if I went over the handlebars at least the landing would be soft in the thick grass. It eventually reached the bottom of this section but it had taken a lot longer than expected.

It was at this point that my head started messing with me. A part of me had gone into race mode. Quite unexpectedly, I was leading the race and even through it wasn’t important to me when I had started, it had now started to matter. My struggle up to TP5 and the messy portage across past Cayley Lodge had unsettled me and I expected a cyclist to come down the road at any moment. I started the climb near Wolwefontein and kept looking over my shoulder expecting to see a cyclist come into view, meanwhile my legs are like jelly and despite me mimicking the movements of a strong climber, I was crawling along in granny gear. You know they are catching you but there’s nothing you can do about it. Stay strong my mind, stay strong.

After reaching the top of this drag, I could almost see Drak Sun in the valley below, just one quick bundu bash, a quick breakfast and then I’m off to tag TP6 I thought. The bundu bash turned into quite something, I expected short grass with visible track, what I encountered was shoulder high ferns and shrub, I steppe into holes and literally dragged my bike on to of the vegetation down the embankment. I could see the Drak Sun road down below, so close it felt like I could touch it, yet I was stuck like a animal in a snare in the thick brush. It was way past 8h00, I called my support team and told them I was only going to get there by 8h45, 45 minutes behind schedule. My mind was in a bad place, I thought I had blown it. Guy was going to come cycling down the road right in front of my eyes as I was stuck on the hill and he would not even know he was passing me. I found a beautiful path at the bottom of the bundu bash and in no time rode up to Drak Sun. It was a quick stop, I ate potatoes and meat balls and filled up my bottle with fresh PVM Octane. I didn’t want to know where the others were but my support team at least confirmed they were still behind. I hate this damn race mode, it’s a position I don’t find myself on often, well in fact, never and whilst one part of me felt like an olympic athlete, the other was way out of his depth.

The road tilts up steeply to Cathkin Lodge and BergSomething and along this path I encountered a group of hikers to whom I must have been a freak show. I was sweating like a dog, leaning on my handle bars with my arms as I pushed my bike up a steep switch back, them in the apex of the turn. If ever there was a scene to show why its not a good idea to cycle in the Drakensberg, I’m afraid I was that picture. I made it up to TP6 soon after and to my relief had the opportunity to come flying past the same group at speed, hopefully dignity restored.

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Passing in front of Drak Sun, looking like I was feeling.

 

After a quick and enjoyable drop down a ridge to the Drakensberg Boys Choir I got onto the R600 to tackle the climb up to Monks Cowl. Those who know the road will know the nasty S-bend near the top. I knew at this point I was at least 10 minutes ahead of the second place MTB but I did not know where the trail runners of paragliders were. I expected they would make up time from TP5 as their route was a lot more direct than the cycling route. I reached TP7 at Monks Cowl in good time I thought and with only a short out and back to TP8 remaining and then a fast drop to the finish I, for the first time wanted to know where the others were, expecting a close fought dash to the line over the next two hours. It had been a very tough day, harder than expected, mentally and physically both with highs and lows. As it turned out the rest were still some distance behind, the paragliders struggling to find the right wind and the trail runners still nearing TP5 with the next cyclists still two valleys away. I had mixed feelings. The race was nearing the end and I wanted the experience to continue but I was pretty tired so the thought of finishing was also welcome, leading the race was a strange thought and I didn’t know what to make of it, so I just defaulted to what I was familiar with, riding my bicycle and enjoying the moment.

Just before midday on Day 2 I rode into the finish at Mountain Splendour. It had been quite an adventure and I had seen some amazing places. Riding time around 21 hours for the 250km/7000m ascent. I never really stopped, just short breaks to fill up a bottle or to have a quick bite, it was mission accomplished for me. Linda and the SABC cameraman promptly ambushed me and conducted an interview than I can remember very little of, I was out of my depth and it probably showed.

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Riding into the finish at Mountain Splendour.

 

X-Berg is a very special event, it’s not for everyone but its for me and I loved every minute of it. A big thank you to the organizers for putting up a superb event and also a big thank you to my support team (Ronel & Heidemari) who also enjoyed themselves and made new friends along the way. Which brings me to my closing thoughts. X-Berg is a pretty tough race for all categories and everyone that finished or even participated was a winner in my book, I came to the Drakensberg to enjoy riding my bicycle in the mountains but I left with some special new friends who inspired me and some very special memories, I got way more than I expected and for this I thank everyone that had a part on this race.

We are all rock stars! See you in 2016!

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What a special MTB trophy.

 

 

 

 

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X-Berg Day 1. These Mountains are Big.

Wednesday 29 April. Day 1.

174km/3950m ascent.

A beautiful morning greeted us on race day. After a light breakfast it was time to line up for the 7h00  start and after a quick 3-2-1 Go we were off. I was pretty relaxed knowing there was a long day ahead but the legendary trail runner Andrew Porter, still holder of the solo Grand Traverse record and defending X-Berg champion, was off like a bullet. I though he was just making making a joke when he sprinted off towards TP1 but I soon realized the race proper was on. My plan was to ride at a sensible pace but to ride till the 23h00 to 5h00 no-race cutoff. I wasn’t feeling particularly strong as we set off for TP1 about 12km away so I just paced along.

7h00. Race start. 3-2-1 Go!

7h00. Race start. 3-2-1 Go!

It was a pleasant morning and the ride along the canal towards TP1 was fresh as we rolled past the start of the Berg and Bush MTB race. We all rode together and portaged up to TP1 on top of a hill, no sight of the trail runners or paragliders as we dropped back to the road, they had only 4km or so to the TP as the crow flies and I suspected they were ahead of us. We eventually caught and passed the trail runners as we descended into Little Switzerland Resort, they had made very good time during the first 2 hours. The drop from Little Switzerland past Montussi Lodge was the biggest of the whole race and a lot of fun, well a lot more than running down. I was riding with Guy Pitman, an experienced adventure athlete and a strong cyclist. I suspected Guy would pull away during the day and go on the win the race so I wasn’t trying to keep up although we enjoyed the company along the way. The Scuttling Spiders, defending MTB Team, were just behind us as we arrived at Cavern Resort to tackle the portage/hike up to TP2, it was right at the top of the mountain and being weak on my feet I knew this was going to cause problems.

Portage up to top of mountain behind Cavern Hotel.

Portage up to top of mountain behind Cavern Hotel.

The climb behind Cavern rises about 700m above the valley. It took me a belabored hour to get to the top, in the process Guy and Justin from the Spiders had passed me and left me behind, I was slogging up and down again tortoise style, they were light footed and fast. At the top we had to scramble up a steep crack in the cliff face, almost like proper rock climbing, just the beginner grade, although for me it felt pretty vertical :-). The views from the top were breathtaking and I was not unhappy to experience a big climb with the rewarding views. I got back to the bicycle at Cavern and my legs were very uncomfortable from the big hike, I was really worried about the cycling ahead so decided to take it easy and try and recover for the next 2 or 3 hours en route to TP3 at Mnweni. It was now around midday and 5 hours into the race, also time to start paying attention to hydration and nutrition. The Spiders had vanished into the distance with Guy not far behind. I passed Guy while he was having a leisurely chat with Pierre Carter along the way and he told me he’d catch up soon, which I expected would happen as he was fast on the bicycle. As it turned out we took different routes and only caught up way later in the day. The road to TP3 at Mnweni runs along Woodstock Dam and I expected the Westerly to provide some assistance from the back but somehow the wind was coming from the front, I just kept pedaling a rhythm. For a brief period I saw the Spiders ahead but they were strong and put in time in me very fast, Guy was somewhere behind me. The temperature and humidity was high and it wasn’t long before I started cramping, the big hike and perhaps some dehydration started taking its toll. I started drinking my Octane, one bottle after the other in the hope of hydrating again and to try and make it through the very hot midday hours. It was perhaps the toughest part of the race, just hanging in there from midday to around 17h00 when I knew I’d be strong again in the cooler weather. I was quietly hoping the others were pushing too hard and that the long day would catch up with them. From experience I knew if I looked after myself, I’d get through the rough phase and become strong again in the late afternoon. Unfortunately the always threatening cramps acted as a limit on my intensity so I just kept going, only making very short stops to eat and get a fresh filling of Octane.

Approaching the turn-off to Mnweni Valley.

Approaching Mnweni Valley.

I reached TP3 at Mnweni in 2.5 hours (50km from Cavern) ahead of my forecast. I had also caught up with the Spiders and we rode together for while until the big climb out from Woodstock Dam broke up the group. It was also a bit cooler with a few drops of rain so we made good time as we rolled up and down towards TP4 above Cathedral Peak Hotel. The landscapes and vistas were amazing during this leg with one beautiful view after the next, it was to become a trademark of this race.

Climbing out from Woodstock dam towards Cathedral Peak Nature Reserve.

Climbing out from Woodstock dam towards Cathedral Peak Nature Reserve.

The tar road to Cathedral was busy, with people, animals and taxi’s. I got through slowly and fine but my support crew had a brush with a bunch of undisciplined and aggressive local youngsters, fortunately without consequences. We had been going for around 10 hours as the night started falling and I was at last starting to find a rhythm, it had taken me all day. I was now rather looking forward to some night riding.

Some hills are just too much after a long day.

Some hills are just too much after a long day.

I reached Cathedral Peak Hotel around 18h30 and as guests started preparing for dinner, I was preparing for a night ride. It was my plan all along, I was feeling good again and my first nature break next to the road indicated my dehydration was something of the past, took me all of 6 hours to re-hydrate and rid the cramps. I could again stand on the bike and put some power into the pedals without fear of a muscle twitch. Strategically I was not going to make it all the way to TP5 which was on top of a mountain and down in time before the 23h00 curfew so I decided to ride up the next 30km to the start of the portage and then call it a night. I arrived at the start of the portage just before 21h00 and was picked up by my support team to drive back to Didima Lodge for a good sleep.

It had been a pretty long day, my legs were still very sore from the big hike and I was unsurprisingly a bit tired. It had been a very rewarding day with some amazing riding, beautiful views and a some good distance and ascent (174km/3950m). It took a while to settle as we got everything ready for the next morning but the 5 hours sleep till 3h15 was going to be very welcome! We had to drive back to where I had stopped at 21h00 and restart again at 5h00 the next morning.

I had not come to X-Berg to race, with Race to Rhodes coming in June, it was a great opportunity to get some very handy and interesting riding under the belt. I wanted to test myself and enjoy the Drakensberg at the same time. My support team though had kept track of the other competitors during the day. The paragliders had the weather against them all day and with no flying possible they had to hike and were way behind. The trail runners made good progress but rough terrain meant they were sleeping the curfew out one valley behind us at Mnweni. It appeared we had made the most progress of all on Day 1 which was great, but with favorable weather for the paragliders and some shorter crossings from TP4 onwards for the trail runners, I expected them to catch up the next day.

ZZZzzz…

X-Berg Day 0. Recce and Race Briefing.

Tuesday 28 April 2015. Time for X-Berg Challenge.

I woke up strangely relaxed yet nervous at the same time, an unknown adventure awaiting. It was time. We arrived at The Border Post on Tuesday 28 April just after lunch leaving enough time for a quick recce and familiarization with the first half of Day 1. It proved rather intimidating to say the least, the Drakensberg is a very big mountain range.

A highlight was meeting up with Simon from The Phat Chef, to settle my R18.00 bill from buying a remote beer for my mate Niven who did Dash2Durban the week before. It was great to meet the participants as they arrived one-by-one, these were hard core folks, they had signed up for one serious challenge and they looked the part.

The evening we had race briefing, the usual kind of race briefing except there was a picture of a very big mountain with very big cliffs. It was very clear what we were in for and that if the weather was favorable, the paragliders were going to have all the fun. The weather forecast was not good for flying though, a strong Westerly meant flying would be limited if at all possible on Day 1 and the gliders were going to have to hike if they wanted to make progress.

The field for X-Berg is still small, so a couple of changes were put up for vote, specifically the start time. It was agreed for 7h00 which suited me better as I had in mind to ride all the way to the evening cut-off at 23h00, allowing me 16 hours riding time. I calculated I’d be able to reach the start of the portage to TP5 but would make final decisions only later in the afternoon once the day and route had developed. I loaded a last minute route option onto my GPS and it was time to X-Sleep :-).

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Race briefing at The Border Post. Not good for the confidence when you ride a bicycle and see a picture of a big mountain.