Thursday 30 April. Day 2.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!