Double To Ntsikeni – Allendale to Ntsikeni

I left Allendale at 15h00. I was heading for Centacow, a mission station and normally a soup stop on the morning of the second day. I texted Meryl that I was planning for dinner and sleep at Centacow. That was my plan at that stage.

I was chasing the sunset. I knew beforehand I would run out of daylight on this leg and I had prepared my navigation accordingly. I had pretty much memorized every turn and section of road and scanned it many times over on Google Earth. The exit out of Allendale went smoothly in daylight and I targeted to get to Donnybrook before dark. I made good time into Donnybrook and passed through the town at 16h20 with plenty of daylight to spare, it went a bit faster than I had expected and I was onto the forest roads with light to spare. I was feeling pretty good and was riding my bike like it was a regular weekly night ride. I had around 120km in my legs with over 3000m of ascent and I was feeling really good and enjoying riding my bike. I was very surprised and even caught off guard by this and for the first time the thought of pushing on to Ntsikeni entered my mind.

It was a bit of a surreal moment. I am a solid cyclist but I am not in the league of the big boys and racing snakes, nor do I have their racing ambitions. The Double is their territory, privilege and honor, it’s not where I usually find myself nor had I really prepared my mind for such mentally. Many thoughts played through my mind as I made my way through the forest down towards Centacow. My conservative riding had protected my legs and I was physically feeling great, my mind was therefore also in a pretty good place, I enjoy riding at night so that did not phase me much, getting to Ntsikeni would give me several and very doable options to get to Rhodes under 4 days, my maps were well marked and I was comfortable with the night navigation. I could find no good reason not to push to Ntsikeni. I decided not to get ahead of myself and to first get to Centacow before I made a final decision but the seed had been planted.

I was accurate with the night navigation up to the last left turn to drop into Centacow. It was dark by then and one’s world narrows down to what is visible in the beam of a bicycle light, the stars and lights of village huts, there is however no depth perception and no macro visual clues to assist. Not knowing the visual clues from experience, I depend strictly on distance clues. My distance split showed I was 0.2km short of the turn but there were two clear tracks off to the left. I decided to try the first one, it led down a very rideable single track, almost like it had been cut for purpose. As always, a wrong track heads downhill to ensure the uphill correction punishes mistakes. The track ran out and it was clearly wrong, I tried right and left and nothing led to an open track. I found myself on a fire break that was marked on the map so at least I knew where I was and followed it up a steep hill to arrive at a steep drop, out of options I took a track back towards the road I had dropped from. My direction is generally good even in the dark so I knew roughly where I was all along, it was just a bit frustrating, having Ntsikeni in the back of my head and now wasting time faffing around a dark forest. I had bigger fish to fry. I knew the road ran down to a tar road which would lead to Centacow but it was a 20 min detour. I called Glenn at the race office to check i I would incur a route deviation penalty for taking the gravel road. He checked my position on the Spot tracker and saw I was 0.2km from the turn, I should have trusted my original trip distance. I was in Centacow shortly after. I still had to make the pushing on decision.

Centacow mission is a very comfy place inside, its nice and warm, lots of delicious food and warm beds. Everything about it begs one to stay. I sat down to eat and settle, the eating went well, the settling didn’t. I was caught in two minds but the weight of my thoughts were back out in the dark, I was uncomfortable with the thought of staying over whilst still feeling so good.

I texted Meryl and my wife … “Screw this, I’m going to Ntsikeni. Sorry Meryl”. Meryl responded “Great. Will let Mr Ngcobo know”. I said I’ll be in there at 2am Sunday morning. My wife texted me “Great! Genet dit. Gedink jy gaan dit doen”. It sounds like it was all very romantic … only as far as heading into a cold dark night over two very big mountains can be considered romantic. Dramatic yes, romantic no.

The trail from Centacow to Ntsikeni is challenging, even in daytime. There are two big mountains to be conquered, I was going to have to push my bike quite a bit to get up these and that means progress is slow, it requires large doses of patience. I headed off into the dark and made my way up the first mountain, I remembered it from 2014, it was a slog to get to the top, I pushed my bike a lot and worst of all is I started to feel tired for the first time that day. I stopped near the top to eat an energy bar and try and gather some composure. I cooled down quickly and had to layer up. I had entered the territory of vasbyt, it was not romantic any longer and I was only an hour into this 6 hour stretch. The plateau on top brought welcome relief and some positive feelings, I was surprised to encounter several pedestrians and even vehicles in such a remote place at that time of night. I had divided the stretch into 4 main sections. The next one was the infamous Boshelweni forest, every year riders get lost here and have to sleep out. I had prepared for this so was looking forward to it, my mind was fresh again and sharp, I could not afford to miss the turn down to the river crossing. In 2014 I followed our group down here without paying any attention and it was daytime, now it was dark with no visual clues to guide the way. My trip meter was precise again and I crossed the river and found the entrance into the forest perfectly. I had discussed this section with Mike Woolnough before and he told me his habit was to celebrate this little navigational victory with a sit down at the forest entrance and a cuppa. I followed suit, put on my Sealskinz socks, had a drink and a bite and headed off towards the Ntsikeni climbs. Unbeknown to me, three other riders were camping in Boshelweni that night and I must have passed them.

Mike and Kevin Davie had told stories of the presence of a “second person” during endurance rides. It was too early in the ride for such but I got scared witless at one point in the forest when my eye caught a movement to my left and I almost fell off my bike from the fright. Turned out it was my moon shadow jumping long the brush and trees as a half moon provided some welcome light.

I hit the gravel road other side of the forest without issues but I found myself weaving across the road as fatigue was setting in. It was just after midnight, the moon had just set so it was pitch dark, it was getting cold and it had become very quiet. The trail had become a very lonely place. I turned left to start the climb up to Ntsikeni and as if on cue, a very strong wind started blowing and both my headlamp as well as my bike light started indicating low batter power. It shook me a bit, both lights should be able to last the night and the thought of being without lights with another 2 hours to had me in a bit of a panic, it was pitch dark without lights and very remote. No way of even moving without light. I decided to use the last bit of bike light to change the batteries in my headlamp. You see, once I take the batteries out of the headlamp, there is only the bike light … which was running low. I had to cut the cable ties off the helmet mounted lamp to get the batteries replaced, I was lethargic and moving slowly, sitting flat on my bum in the middle of the road. At first try, the headlamp didn’t work, the possibility of being caught without light was becoming awfully real. My guardian angel kicked into action and I redid the battery fitment, the headlamp flashed on. I had wasted 15 minutes but it felt like a major victory and my spirits had lifted. I started pushing my bike up the mountain into the dark, the wind was howling and it had become a very uncomfortable place.

I tried riding my bike to keep momentum but the wind kept blowing me towards the steep drop on the left, I was leaning into it to keep going. My balance was tired and I had to jump off every now and then when the wind was too strong, most importantly I kept going forward. I eventually reached he stile crossing the fence into the reserve and carried my bike over. The trail gods smiled on me as the jeep track from the fence led all the way to the lodge, I didn’t remember it to be this clear, maybe it wasn’t, but it was not as difficult as I had expected. Frost had begun to form and it was like riding on a white carpet, my wheels were white all around and the frost was falling onto my shoes and cooling my feet down. Crossing the neck above the reserve one gets a first sight of the lodge, at night this beacon comes in the form of a very faint light. As I made my way along the frozen jeep track, the faint light eventually became brighter and then it starts becoming a shape, first a square and then at last a square with frames in it. That’s when I knew, I had made it to Ntsikeni.

Mr Ngcobo was up and waiting for me, it was just after 2 in the morning, it had been a 20 hour day and it was bitterly cold. He had soup ready, fresh bread and hot chocolate and rusks. The fireplace provided welcome heat and the lodge had the making of a sanctuary. I told him I’ll have breakfast at 5h30 and head out at 6h00, it was no effort for him and his crew. They really are amazing people. I took a shower and hit the bed for a short sleep.

I was in a happy place. I had doubled to Ntsikeni. It had been quite a day.

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Double To Ntsikeni – Pietermaritzburg to Allendale

The first two days of the Freedom are notoriously challenging. It’s 200km/5600m ascent day with tricky navigation, multiple big climbs and requires riding into a cold night. When Tim James did “The Double” the first time several years ago it was hailed as quite incredible, pushing the boundaries of what had been deemed possible. Since then several more riders have achieved this feat but it remains a serious challenge. In 2016 only 11 of the 120 riders managed this feat, perhaps the largest number to date.

My race strategy did not include “The Double”. I had my mind set on a sub-4 which would require me to get to Centacow (1.5 days) on the first day. Rain was forecast for our 6h00 start and it started dripping in the early hours of Saturday morning. We rode down to the traditional start at the City Hall in pouring rain. I was in the last Race to Rhodes (RTR) racing batch grouped with Martin Dreyer, Eddie Stafford and Arno Crous, these guys were hard core, they were all planning a non-stop sub 3-day ride to Rhodes, I was pretty much out of my depth but it did not bother me much to be honest, I was going to ride to my plan which would be to try and get to the top of Hela-Hela without cramping and to Allendale (first support station) feeling like I was able to continue. Our batch also included Werner, Gary, Caren and Tony, all doing RASA and perhaps on a more conservative riding strategy for day one. I knew riding cautiously like this meant I would not break any records to Allendale and that I would need to ride the tricky Donnybrook and Centacow approaches in the dark. I had prepared well for this scenario and was up for it.

Martin Dreyer went on to win RTR in a record time of just under 50 hours. It is testament to his personality and character that he rode the neutral zone into Bisley Reserve together with the rest of the group at a easy pace, having a chat with everyone. Once we entered Bisley he got into his rhythm and gently paced away. I settled into my own low effort rhythm falling behind Eddie and Arno. Gary rode a few hundred meters in front of me pretty much all the way to the top of the Cunninghams Castle radio towers, where I was surprised to see Eddie and Arno just ahead. I had paced carefully up the big climb and was feeling great. Dropping into Byrne we somehow missed the soup stop turn-off and I did not want to go back to find it so Gary and I decided to push through to the Umkomaas Valley and find water at Highover. I had half a bottle of water left but decided to try and find water at one of the villages along the way. Fortunately we found a dripping overhead forestry water chute where we could fill our bottles. I decided this year to ride with two 750ml bottles as opposed to the normal Camelbak, I was comfortable this would be fine to Highover but I would need to top up before Allendale.

Gary and I rode together to the Umkomaas. It’s a deceptive stretch, there is more elevation gain to the top of the Umkomaas Valley that one expects and its easy to burn too many pennies on this stretch. Several riders had cramped up in previous days going up Hela-Hela and I believe its because of too hard an effort on these deceptive rises. The steep drop down to the river was intimidating as always with the ever present smell of hot brakes, we made good time through the bush and arrived at the river just as Eddie and Arno were exiting the opposite bank, I was very surprised to be so close to them. I crossed the river without incident while Gary was still busy prepping his shoes and clothes for the crossing. I decided to ride up to Highover to fill up my bottles and would catch up with him up Hela-Hela. I could not find the water at Highover and decided to press through to Allendale with the bottle I had left.

Hela-Hela as always was a challenge. I rode up to the S-bend which is around halfway up at a pace my legs were comfortable with. I had not cramped yet but I had fallen a bit behind what I thought a good schedule would be. I had decided upfront that I would sacrifice speed in order to protect my legs and give me a solid chance of reaching Centacow on the first night. Many riders have gone too hard into Allendale and then abandoned Centacow plans due to cramped up legs. I did not want this to happen. The stretch of road from the S-bend to the top of Hela-Hela is very steep and I often wonder if the top riders ride up there, I suspect everyone pushes their bikes for some sections. I certainly was pushing quite a bit and I could feel my muscles being uncomfortable every time I tried to push the pedals a bit harder, at one point a calf muscle gave a slight twitch and I immediately jumped off the bike. I kept going on the rolling hills into Allendale and arrived around 14h40, 40 minutes behind my expected 14h00 schedule, but my legs were good and I was satisfied. I ran out of water on the top of Hela-Hela and had used 4 water bottles for the more than 8 hour ride, it was way less than what I should have drank but I seemed to be fine.

Dana was welcoming as always and it was good to see Arno and Eddie inside. Trying to achieve a quick support station turnaround is pretty overwhelming for the tired mind. I found myself with several half completed tasks on the table and floor in front of me and Eddie/Arno were not much better off. Half a sarmie and a bowl of soup on the table, empty water bottles at the tap, maps folded open, ice cream tub turned over, back pack gaping open. Getting organised is a difficult as riding. I was happy to leave 20 minutes later but felt for Dana who was so hospitable and yet we rush in and out chasing the sun. She is an experienced and I think she understood.

I was feeling a bit tired after the punishment up Hela-Hela but my legs were good. I was pushing through to Centacow and felt pretty chuffed with myself. I left Allendale at 15h00.

My 24 Hours at a Support Station

My Race to Rhodes (RTR) 2016 first went better than plan and then, unexpectedly, it unhitched and I found myself stranded at the Glenn Edward soup stop for 24 hours with hosts Charles and Sheila, waiting for my wife to pick me up. I had aggravated a back problem and could not continue the race so I made my way to Glenn Edward and arrived around midday. I had 24 hours to “kill” till until my lift arrived.

Sheila and Charles have manned the Glenn Edward soup stop for the past 9 years since they had moved there. They have hosted hundreds of riders and made as many friends over the years. It was a Sunday and they were both outside waiting for me as I arrived. Sheila’s first question was if I was ok, its how it works in these parts, people care.

Later in the afternoon Clint, Neville and Gerhard arrived, they had camped out in Boshelweni forest the night before and were working their way back onto the trail. I had somehow passed them during the night in the forest and was surprised to see them. They were pretty chirpy and all smiles despite their unplanned camping. Gerhard had camped the first night in the Umko Valley and had me try and lift his 15kg Karrimor back pack. These guys were not the fastest but they were pretty hard core by any measure. Sheila had them few and setup in their sleeping quarters in no time. Charles put out some biltong which needless to say went down faster than flash.

Gary Scoular rode with me the previous day through the Umko before we split up going up Hela-Hela. He arrived in the dark and joined us at the dinner table. Sheila had prepared a delicious meal including some steak, a welcome relief from the customary chicken and rice along the route. She thought everyone would enjoy a bit of variety. Five Star hospitality. Sheila and Charles open up their house in all ways and their bedroom shower has become a favourite stop for dirty tired bodies. The beds are comfy and warm and many a rider has probably planned a riding strategy around a stay over at Glenn Edward for this reason alone. After all the spoiling, no-one needed an invite to hit the bed.

Gary had left during the night and the Trio were planning an easy day to Masakala so they were in no hurry. The outside temperature had dropped to -7C during the night. It was Monday morning. At around 6h00 Tim and Mike arrived, they had been on the go for 24 hours non-stop and it was showing, they went for the couch and a bed almost immediately. It was nap time, 60 and 20 minutes respectively. They arrived together and the split up happened without a blink right in front of my eyes. They were going to sleep a different strategy and leave separately, it was par for these warriors, relationships along the route are often a matter of mutual convenience and they tend to dissolve as uneventfully as they started. Its how it works on the Trail.

Twenty minutes later Mike’s alarm went, he looked a new man, ate his breakfast, drowned his tea and literally picked up where he had stopped an hour earlier. All very efficient. A while later Tim came out from his refuge, a little less elegantly than Mike but looking fresher than an hour before. Tim was focused on keeping a meal down and managed to do so successfully, something that has been a challenge for him recently. I wondered if that little triumph may end up being a turning point for Tim for the days ahead. Once his meal had settled, Tim, got himself prepared to resume his ride. As with Mike, he pretty much just got back onto the bike and started riding. The time these racers were in the house flashed past before one could blink, all the time Sheila knew exactly how to make sure their every need was met. Time mattered for them and somehow she knew exactly how to make sure their breakfast was ready and warm exactly when they needed it. She was everywhere and yet nowhere, always serving but never in the way. Sheila was in her element and she was very good at it.

Somehow, during all of this the Trio of Clint, Neville and Gerhard, had slipped away. Their getting mobilized was in stark contrast to the racing snakes, in fact, quite the opposite, they were slow and disorganized. They had pretty much unpacked everything the previous night and had to repack everything all over again. They carried plenty and plenty had to be reorganized at every stop. It was early days in the race and I suspected that over the next few days they would settle into a rhythm and become almost as efficient as the racing snakes, even though their pace may remain tailored to a more body and mind friendly riding strategy. I was sad to these three leave, they had bonded in a special way, were in great spirit despite some setbacks and to me epitomized the spirit and character of the Freedom Trail. In the days since they have remained together and others have remarked on their bond and character. I really hope they make it all the way to Diemersfontein without problem.

Werner Nienaber, a veteran of the race and strong rider arrived around 8h00, his frame had broken and Ollie and Heiko from Pyga were en route to rebuild the old components onto a replacement frame. Sheila greeted him as if they were old friends, pretty much picking up the conversation from where it had stopped a few years before. I have seen this before at other support stations, its how it works. There is a mutual respect and bond between riders and hosts and it lasts for years. Werner, as those before him, was fed and serviced faster than a F1 pit stop. Ollie and Heiko arrived pretty much on cue and the rebuild from old onto new was completed in no time. I suspect the hospitality was such that Werner may have even wished the rebuild to take a bit longer so he could enjoy himself a while longer.

During the bike rebuild excitement, Liehan Loots, another RASA veteran arrived and none of his racing snake intentions were showing. He was as calm as the touring Trio, had his breakfast, topped up supplies and left again quietly, even having time for some casual conversation. He was on a mission and left with the same efficiency as Tim and Mike, but looked a lot less stressed. The final guests for the 24 hour period were Tony & Caren, they had started with our batch the day before and were heading one day at a time along the route, enjoying the sights sounds and people along the route. As with all those before Sheila was in her element and everyone only had compliments.

My wife was almost at Glenn Edward and my 24 hours at a support station, or soup stop in this instance was coming to and end. It had passed by in a flash and for both myself and Sheila the 2016 was coming to and end, she had a handful of riders left and my lift was approaching. There had been a common theme for the past 24 hours. The race office did a superb job of communicating arrivals and times to the support station host and every rider was expected and waited upon like they were family. Every time the bell rang, Sheila knew who was at the gate and she was as excited about the one as she had been about the other, even being disappointed when racing snakes had skipped during the night. She had a sense of responsibility and understanding. Sheila is not a cyclist, not does does she do endurance events, yet she understood the needs, what to do when and what not to do, what to say and what not to say. Charles was always there in support, lending a helping hand, keeping conversation going. They love the Freedom Challenge and what it stands for and serve proudly year after year as hosts. Every single rider took the trouble to thank them for their effort and support and I could see how they truly appreciated the compliments.

My 24 hours had come to an end. I had experienced a very disappointing personal low 24 hours earlier, yet I left Glenn Edward feeling so very proud of what I had witnessed during my day in the life of a Freedom Challenge support station host. Long may this symbiotic relationship continue. It is truly something quite special.

Appreciation

I wrote this in June 2014 and it still holds true …

“Family. Adventure is selfish full stop. It takes a very special family to allow one the freedom to pursue our dreams. I have such a family.”

I am told that in 2014 my daughter got a little bit nervous when my tracker dot went missing or stood still for too long and then called “mother” Meryl at the Race Office who knows where everyone is to the nearest meter. I have been riding my bicycle alone for many years in remote places and not being the nervous type, didn’t really think others would be very worried about me either. Then at X-Berg in 2015 my wife and same daughter dropped me in the middle of the night and watched me ride off into the pitch dark Drakensberg. Again I heard afterwards how they shed a quiet tear.

I find myself being irritated with myself in the run up to Race to Rhodes 2016, I am cautious of this race, I know what challenges the trail and the weather hold, my preparation has not been ideal and my nerves are showing. My life the past month has evolved around this race and when my mouth opens its all I talk about. How my family and friends live with this is a testimony to their support, patience and tolerance.

It seems they do care after all about what I do and about my personal and selfish endeavors and despite their own concerns and emotions, are still prepared to give me the space to enjoy this privilege. It makes my appreciation for being allowed to embark on these journeys so much bigger. My 2014 quote is as relevant as ever.

“Family. Adventure is selfish full stop. It takes a very special family to allow one the freedom to pursue our dreams. I have such a family.”

The Dots are Moving

It’s 1 June 2016. The Freedom Challenge “Winter Series” of events started today, Batch 1 is on the trail and the challenge has become very real for the 120 or so riders that will head down the trail this season. For those scheduled in the remaining 12 batches, hand palms are just that extra bit more sweaty, hearts are beating a bit faster and the stomach has turned a touch. The dots are moving. The time has come.

The dots refer to dots on the tracking system associated with the individual riders. Unlike many other events, each rider is tracked, primarily for safety reasons and secondarily for family and friends to monitor progress. In an unintended consequence, the dots at times also become a source for entertainment value. You see, once your dot is showing, your trials and tribulations are exposed to all, you soft inner belly is exposed, your mistakes are there for all to be seen as is your progress, there is no hiding. The stories of trail deviations have become part of the legend and the DNA of the trail.

Enthusiasts will spend hours checking progress, making notes on route options and analyzing progress and developing strategies. Family and friends will check in to see how their favorites are progressing and to make sure they are at least still moving. It gives a warm feeling knowing your rider is still ok out in the chilly bundus before you head out for a Mugg and Bean Cappuccino yourself.

So for the next few weeks, eyeballs will be glued to computer screens all over as supporters enjoy the action from the trail.

Gladiators, are you ready?

Spectators, are you ready?

The dots are moving!