Race to Willowmore Day 1

Cradock – Gegun – Koedoeskop

162km / 2304m ascent / 12 hours

The day started like most days do before the start of any exciting adventure … sleep doesn’t come easy but the 5h00 alarm does. It starts the count down to the 6h00 start. We lined up for the traditional group picture and then at 6h00 the most uneventful start of any race one will ever do … “Off you go, have a good ride”. No-one sprints away, in fact, it’s almost tradition to ride a bit of a neutral zone together and then, without prior agreement, everyone starts settling into their own rhythm and space starts opening up.

RTW Batch 4 Start (Pic Credit. Freedom Challenge Race Office)

First incident occurred after 1km, I had forgotten my mobile phone on the charger and fortunately realized it when we wanted to take the first picture of the day. School boy error quickly rectified by the ever helpful Race Office.
The first 20km out of Cradock is a bit of a mental tester. The road up the Swaershoek Pass meanders very innocently through a beautiful valley until the last 5km to the top when it suddenly tilts upwards at an average gradient of almost 9% to the top of the pass. Soon everyone had settled into their own rhythm to try and get to the top with good legs. I had planned 2 hours for the 850m of ascent but reached the top a bit ahead of schedule. Tim James, 3 times winner of RASA, had reached the top 2 minutes ahead of me and was taking pics to show the breathtaking view from the top. We joined up soon after the top and rode the 44km mostly down sloped stretch to Tollie’s Safaris together. Tim and I have known one another for quite a few years but have never ridden together so it was a special little moment for us both.

We reached Tollie’s just before 9h00, I was already about an hour ahead of my planned schedule and despite making sure I kept my enthusiasm in check, I was worried I had gone too hard with Tim. We filled up with water and started the jeep track climb up Struishoek, it was a proper sweat affair with a few stretches of pushing to get to the top but once on top the road evened out and we could ride comfortably all the way to the top of Struishoek descent. Tim and I worked well as a team alternating gate duties with the navigation being straight forward. The descent down Struishoek was a challenge to say the least. The white painted rocks, a legacy of the helpful farmer not wanting to look for lost souls at night, made navigating down the rocky river bed simple but the loose rocks were a danger begging an injury. It took an hour to get down to the Struishoek farm house but Tim hopped down the rocks like a Klipspringer and had made up more than 10minutes on me by the time I reached the house. A note on the gate invited the riders to a cool box on the patio with the residents being in town. It took great discipline not to finish the packet of Lemon Cream biscuits, an unexpected treat!

The road from Struishoek to Gegun is pretty much flat with traditional Karoo landscape. I took it easy on this stretch to save some energy for the afternoon push through to Koedoeskop and was caught by Mike Potgieter and we rode together into Gegun at 13h52. I had allowed 10 hours and got in at 8 hours, a solid start to the ride.
The stretch from Gegun to Koedoeskop is over several game farms and offers some very enjoyable riding. I wasn’t feeling all that great and pretty much just rolled along, until I was surprised to find Tim and Mike at Karoopoort Farm taking a quick break. Tim wasn’t feeling too great an took it slowly while Mike and I continued through the beautiful Koedoeskop Game Reserve to reach the support station at the lodge at 17h30.

It had been a solid 162km day in 12 hours, a few hours ahead of schedule and I had enough time to recover properly for the big next day through to Hadley. Last minute hosts Richard and Roslynne and the French reserve owners were superb and catered for our every need. Tim and Mike left a bit later for Kleinpoort while Leon, Dave and Ingrid also elected to get some sleep in. The four of us were to ride together quite a bit over the next few days.

Note: The support station had moved from Toekomst to Koedoeskop just days before due the tragic and untimely passing of Phillip Henderson from the farm Toekomst. I had his name written into my notes to be able to greet him in person. May he rest in peace.

Chapter3. Welcome Race to Willowmore (RTW)

The Freedom Trail is a 2400km trail from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl and was originally raced under the event named the Freedom Challenge. In subsequent years the trail and the races have grown in popularity and the original 2400km race has become Race Across South Africa (RASA) with the Freedom Challenge now a portfolio of multiple events. In recent years 3 further race events have spawned from RASA each covering around 600km or a quarter of the total trail on their own. These events are raced on the exact same route and under the same rules as the original RASA. Race to Rhodes (RTR) is from Pietermaritzburg to Rhodes. Race to Cradock (RTC) is from Rhodes to Cradock. In March 2017 Race to Willowmore (RTW) will have its inaugural event from Cradock to Willowmore. The relatively shorter 600km distances lend themselves to different race strategies than those employed during the long RASA and are fast becoming must do events. They have so far attracted an expanded following and are fast establishing themselves with their own personality, legends and stories.

On Wednesday 29 March 2017 I will line up at the start line with 5 other riders in Batch 4, all of them stalwarts of the trail but all new challengers for the inaugural RTW. These are riders not afraid of navigating their way around the Karoo expanse using maps and compass and riding extended hours every day so new strategies wil be tested and new benchmarks established. It’s my first excursion on this section of the trail and several previous riders have told me it’s their favourite part of the Freedom Trail. I cannot wait to start.

Welcome to the family Race to Willowmore.

Goodbye Vic

The day started out like most Saturdays. The alarm signalling time to get ready for our regular Saturday ride. Our group has been riding together for many years now, we know each other well. We have suffered together many times, we have chased other cyclists and trucks many times, we have huffed and puffed, we have had many laughs and there is always something to chat about. We enjoy spending time together. This morning was no different. We met up at the new Burger King or BK as per our Whatsapp group. Vic and Arno were already there, early as always. After doing the traditional greeting by hand, we left on our journey. The Transbaviaans guys had a big ride planned while some of us had to turn back early for other commitments. I had to turn back at Tierpoort, so the group stopped to greet me.

It was to be the last time I would see Vic. Later that morning Vic tragically lost his life at the end of his ride within sight of his house gate. The message on Whatsapp was surreal, as beyond belief then as it still is now. I am still in shock.

Vic was a fit and strong rider, both physically and mentally. He never complained, was always friendly and chirpy and with a great sense of humor. Someone remarked how he always had a banana to offer at one of our stops. He always asked about “Willem en die chick”, some of our other friends. Vic worked at BMW and I liked to chirp him about BMW’s not having flicker lights, being Vic, he always played along. His parting words to me when I greeted him by hand as I turned back was “Onthou BMW’s met flikker ligte op special hierdie week”. He had a big smile on his face, clearly enjoying the moment. That’s how I’ll remember Vic.

The day ended so different to what it had started. No-one saw this coming. It’s a terrible loss. We have lost a friend but Vic was also a caring husband and father. He was a special man and will be missed by all.

Goodbye Vic. Rus in vrede my vriend.

Witklipdam. SA’s own Switzerland.

Sabie to Witklipdam
Mission. Find Witklipdam, inspect water levels & extract via The Wall.
83km 1600m ascent.
– A tough ride in hot windy conditions, I had to reach for an emergency serving of HTFU. As usual, it did the trick.
– Hendriksdal sits top of Sabie, direction Nelspruit. A 400m climb gets one there. I felt a bit sad riding past there, the last time a few years ago I had lunch there and a few weeks later the owners of the restaurant were tragically murdered. I stopped for a moment to appreciate my blessings & privilege to be able to ride my bicycle. Amen.

Early morning start. Feeling a bit bushy in the sunrise.

Early morning start. Feeling a bit bushy in the sunrise.

Looking down from the top of the opening climb above Sabie to where the day started way down below.

Looking down from the top of the opening climb above Sabie to where the day started way down below.

Bicycle design gone horribly wrong?

Bicycle design gone horribly wrong?

 

 

 

– Witklipdam is in a stunning setting, its as close to Switzerland as you’ll get and rather unknown to most. The water levels are the lowest I’ve seen them but it does not distract from its beauty. The ride around remains special.

Witklipdam. Low water levels provide an interesting photographic perspective.

Witklipdam. Low water levels provide an interesting photographic perspective.

Green snake. Harmless.

Green snake. Harmless.

– The escape route up The Wall is a nasty! It used to be a traditional route feature of Sabie Experience and many a rider had near collapse experiences up there. With gradients over 15% and temperatures always like an oven, its a test of character! The photo below shows as it appears on the gps. Time to HTFU and feel sorry that you weren’t a few kilos lighter in weight. Yes, I had to push at one place, blame the sweat burning my eyes 😳.
– The tar road back to Sabie from 12km out is all downhill, sorry, I couldn’t resist, I was pretty buggered and the glide down smooth tar was like pudding.
– My last hilly ride in Sabie this weekend and what a blessing its been. Such a privilege to ride in such a stunning place.
– Thanks for allowing me to share my ride experiences. Now get your bike over here and come make your own special memories!

The Wall .. coming up!

The Wall .. coming up!

Top of The Wall. Witklipdam in the distance.

Top of The Wall. Witklipdam in the distance.

Searching for Harries Pancakes

Mission Objective.

Mission Objective.

Sabie to Graskop
– Mission: Target is Harries Pancakes in Graskop. Stay off the tar.
– A “flat” 40km, 920m ascent. As always I don’t do tar, so took a route off the beaten track.
– Too beautiful, lots of non-stop little climbs, incredible views of mountains, forests, waterfalls, escarpments & a few bosbokkies along the way.
– Also happy to report that Harries Pancakes in Graskop still sells cinnamon & sugar ice cream pancakes!
– Mission accomplished!
– Another fun Pembi adventure. This is why we ride our bikes!

Amazing forest scenes, simply stunning and very welcome shade.

Amazing forest scenes, simply stunning and very welcome shade

One of several waterfalls at Mac-Mac.

One of several waterfalls at Mac-Mac.

Mac-Mac. These must have been very popular at one stage. Very sad.

Mac-Mac. These must have been very popular at one stage. Very sad.

Breathtaking views from the escarpment near Graskop.

Breathtaking views from the escarpment near Graskop.

Railway between Sabie and Graskop. What a setting, must have been a popular route for train drivers.

Railway between Sabie and Graskop. What a setting, must have been a popular route for train drivers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Should we all have weekend homes in Sabie?

Sabie remains a superb mountain biking destination. Why we don’t all have weekend homes in Sabie is beyond me. I went for a “quick” 5 hour spin this morning and these were the highlights:
– I went to inspect all the viewpoints in the mountain and am delighted to report back to you, future Sabie visitors, that they are all in perfect working order.
– I took the mamba route 3.6km 407m ascent over rocky jeep track, its a nasty by any measure. I rode strong, I pushed fast & crawled in style, I even perspired.

The Mamba Climb awaits. 400m over 3.7km

The Mamba Climb awaits. 400m over 3.7km

Top of the Mamba looking down to the bottom of the climb.

Top of the Mamba looking down to the bottom of the climb.

– Hartbeesvlakte on top will be unknown to most but its like the Serengeti on top of a very high mountain with large herds of antelope, really large herds!

Large herds of Hartbees on Hartebeesvlakte. Never seen herds this big.

Large herds of Hartbees on Hartebeesvlakte. Never seen herds this big.

– I think I hit 1000m ascent at around 25km, but my vision was rather blurred from sweat & steamed up Rudies.
– I’m rather accomplished at navigation so was very surprised when a forrest road high up on the ridge came to an abrupt end. Turns out I missed a turn despite having my Garmin right in front of me. In hindsight I may have been distracted by the stunning views and I may have seen another climb & just assumed I had to go up it. School boy error but it gave me a story to tell.
– I tried to work out how to get down from so high to Sabie in the bottom in a short space if time, the answer came in the form of a steep switch back descent. It feels like one drops down forever but eventually gravity runs out and by that time my wide smile was etched as firm as my helmet hair.
– What a beautiful place this is and what rewarding riding. Great memories. Blessed.
– Now, remind me again, why don’t we all have weekend homes in Sabie.

Natural bush tunnels leading the way down to Tweefontein on the steep switch backs.

Natural bush tunnels leading the way down to Tweefontein on the steep switch backs.

Breathtaking views from the top of Sabie mountains.

Breathtaking views from the top of Sabie mountains.

The Berg is Calling

XC Africa

At Swazi Frontier in 2014 I was bragging about how much I had enjoyed Race to Rhodes earlier in the year. Naturally I had to slip in the 900m vertical portage up Lehana’s Pass to the top of the Drakensberg, just to establish my superior social credentials as being “hard core”. Justin Armstrong, a fellow rider with whom we had become friends (this happens a lot at Swazi Frontier), then very casually trumped my boast with his participation in what is called the X-Berg Challenge, a race over +-300km in the Drakensberg between paragliders, trail runners and mountain bikers. There is no formal route, only 8 turning points and a no-race exclusion between 11pm and 5am. You plot your own route, load your gps and you’re off. This is really my kind of thing and spending time in the Drakensberg would be a bonus. Justin got me hook, line and sinker! I was going!

X-Berg was founded by Pierre Carter on the same race principles as the Red Bull X-Alps which takes place over a longer distance. The fields are generally small and for the X-Berg version trail runners and mountain bikers have been added to create some interesting dynamics and accommodate a broader adventure audience.

So it’s 8 days before X-Berg. I have kept my legs turning over after Race to Cradock but it’s been a battle not to ride my bicycle and feel like training. You see, I don’t like the training thing very much, Drix Pretorius, my very first mountain biking buddy 10 years ago, always used to say, we don’t train, we “play” ourselves fit, I still subscribe to his wise philosophy. The biggest fun has been the route planning. There are several route choices and they are influenced by one’s personal abilities, preferences and insecurities. In some places one may choose to ride a further course to avoid a steep and technical portage, in other places the portage may save time over a pedal around. There’s the time exclusion that influences where to stop or not stop. I have balanced my route to contain a balance between challenge and enjoyment. I cannot wait to start.

X-Berg brings a fresh dynamic to what some may consider to be an over traded multi-day mountain bike calendar, there is an ever growing need for something different that presents a challenge that is not too difficult to achieve, yet very rewarding. The growth of the Freedom Challenge June intake to almost 130 riders is proof of this and X-Berg is likely to follow suit.

X-Berg starts on Wednesday, 29 April 2014 and you can follow Live Tracking of the participants on www.xcafrica.com.