The 4th edition of the Cape Beast, the Audax 1000, was in no way different from the previous two. It is as if Mother Nature had no surprises left and blessed us with the same weather conditions: hot conditions at the start, going through the semi-desert Klein-karoo and then, on the return leg, the expected winter front of rain, gale force winds and snow on the mountains.
The 7 Participants
After the first two editions, only 6 persons had successfully completed the Cape Beast in the cut-off time of 75 hours. This year, 7 hard-core riders participated and 6 finished the ride, including myself, Wimpie van der Merwe (62). Theunis Esterhuizen (61), who finished the Munga in 2018, decided to enter only 2 days before the start, but unfortunately had to call it a day after Bainskloof because of a neck injury, a decision he did not regret, after seeing what the riders eventually went through. Nico Coetzee (37), successfully completed the Trans Continental Ride (TCR) from Belgium to Greece in 2018. Derek Lawrence (56) was doing his second Cape Beast. Three Gautengers made the trip down, Leonard Welthagen (54), Mark Shuter (53) and Ernest Stipp (52), all of whom successfully completed the Gauteng 1,000 km Audax Max in 2018. Ernest also successfully completed the 2018 edition of the Cape Beast.
The ride is famous for its attrition rate
Having personally ridden some of the top international Audaxes, this has one of the highest levels of difficulty. The route is extreme, with two out of category passes, its elevation gain of more than 11,000 m, temperature variances of over 30 degrees Celsius, long distances between the town and a scarcity of provisions along the route.
Departure was on a perfect, full moon night on Fri 17 May 2019 from the farm Vrede, close to Stellenbosch. The group of 7 riders stayed intact until the top of the first pass, Bainskloof. Descending at speed down Bainskloof at night is not for the faint hearted. This caused a separation into two groups, which stayed until the end. The leading group of four Vd Merwe, Shuter, Stipp and Welthagen stayed mostly together through the night until daybreak where they had a quick breakfast at Barrydale at the 250 km mark. Ahead lay the semi-desert landscape of the Klein-karoo, including the Huisrivier and Robinson passes on the way to the turning point of Hartenbos at the 500 km mark. From Oudtshoorn, the front group split, with each rider setting his own pace for the night ahead.
Half-way in Hartenbos
As the first 2 riders, Wimpie and Mark left for the return trip from Hartenbos at about 4am, Nico and Derek were just arriving at the guest house the group used as refreshment base. They were 6 hours behind us, but well within the limits allowed for the event. The Hors Category climb of Robinson Pass took about 2.5 hours and we reached the crest at daybreak. Anxious eyes were checking the skies for the anticipated front coming from the West. The clouds were building up and the temperature dropping. Everyone wanted to cover as much distance as possible before the full fury of the storm hit us, thus spending as little time as possible at the stops.
Calitzdorp is the only town on the route which makes it nearly impossible to do the ride in one roundtrip, even if you could stay awake the whole distance. There is no 24-hour facility open in town. When the chickens go to roost, the town closes and when the school bell rings in the morning the town awakens. You cannot get water or provisions on this section of the route at night. You might get shot, or have a dog leave its teeth imprints on your backside, if you try getting water from someone’s tap at night. Calitzdorp is famous for lying at the foot of the Huisrivier pass, mostly downhill to Oudtshoorn, but a steep 400+ m climb on the return leg.
The temperature becomes notoriously hot in this boiling pot. On this occasion, Mark and Wimpie were covering the distance at a pace that brought them to Ladismith at lunch time, slightly ahead of Leonard and Ernest, who were still separated. The wind began howling and every year this is where the pawpaw hits the fan. The relatively short distance of less than 100 km to Barrydale can become a nightmare, because the distance can take up to 5 hours to cover against the wind. You are lucky if you can find the watering hole of Ronnie’s Sex Shop open to fill the water bottles. Mark and I reached them 2 minutes before they closed for the evening! We were nearly delayed by a dust storm that covered the road.
The windstorm was picking up and the weather forecast was that rain was to hit between Worcester and Robertson. Mark and I decided not to take our planned rest at Barrydale, because that would eventually mean riding for longer in the storm. The rain hit us before midnight on the Saturday, about 30 km before Worcester. We had already been on the bike for more than 48 hours, with only about 5 hours down time. I realized that our intention to make it in one ride to the finish was not going to materialize, because we were sleep deprived, which would create a safety problem in two areas, going down Bainskloof, falling asleep on the bike at speed and the severe cold. We were soaking wet and not adequately clothed. The risk of hypothermia was real. We aimed for the only place that was open in Worcester at 01:30, the police station! They allowed us to ride out the storm for a couple of minutes. Mark had a thin base layer of dry clothes, but I was in my wet clothes, exacerbating our problem. Sleep was out of the question because we were shivering ourselves awake. We decided to continue on to our second last control of Rawsonville in the dark, cold, wind and rain.
At Rawsonville Mark was battling to control his bike in the conditions and decided to quit for safety reasons. The wind was so severe that if we did not ride in the middle of the road to make provision for the gusts blowing us all over the place, we would be crashing off the road. Obviously, we were at risk from the vehicles passing us, especially at night in heavy rain. As we parted I reminded him that his decision should not be a final one.
Enter The Beast
In my 42 years of international exposure to cycling I have never ridden in conditions like these. The gale force wind was close to 100 km/h, head on and with torrential rain. The food I intended to consume for the day, which I packed in my back pockets, was just blown right out! I reached Bainskloof pass at daybreak. It was a sight of apocalyptical proportions, as if the mountains had broken open and streams of water were gushing out.
There were waterfalls where there have never been before, falling onto and next to the road from the mountain. The water on the opposite side of the valley was rushing into the river, which was by now in flood. The thundering sound of the river was like standing next to a Jumbo 747 with revving turbines. The closer I got to the top, the higher the wind speed and gusts became, forcing me to ride as close to the mountain side as possible in fear of being blown off the cliff. There were rockfalls and rivers of water flowing over the road, making it dangerous for those who still have to come and ride the pass at night.
Riding down the pass was no easy feat. You need not pedal, but that caused cooling down like a water sack and the drop in temperature caused shivering. Holding on to the handle bars whilst shivering and trying to steer straight is an accomplishment. When I arrived at the last control, I had hypothermia, the first time in my life. The public threw their jackets over me to try and warm me. I wanted to warm my core by drinking a hot chocolate, but could hardly consume it, because I was spilling it all over the place. The only way to generate heat in this instance was to start pedaling again. I arrived 62:20 hours after starting the Friday evening at 21:00.
I assume I was unexpected, because there was no reception. Luckily, we made use of WhatsApp live tracking and for the first time I could get an idea where the field was. Mark’s good friends booked him into a B&B at Rawsonville, where he waited for the worst of the weather to pass and then restarted. However, when he got to the drift that crosses the river in the Slanghoek valley on his way to Bainskloof, it was a raging river. He had to turn around and take a detour of close to 50 km! He finished in 68:55. Leonard and Ernest avoided this flooded road and finished in 66:40 and 67:59 respectively.
Nico Coetzee and Derek Lawrence, forming the back-markers, were hitting the brunt of the storm later, but once they reached Bainskloof, the storm had passed. They both are known to get full value from events like these by visiting every store on the way and stimulating the local economy. They finished together in 72:40.
All for the best
An Audax is for the audacious, the courageous, the independent minded spirit. There is no prize money, only bragging rights. You get to know friends and fellow-cyclists at a different level. They are not your opponent. You become a band of brothers. You need each other and are willing to eat the bag of salt with him, share the work load when he is in a bad spot and vice versa. You get to know yourself, your abilities and vulnerabilities. We were all thrown into the melting pot and come out refined after an event as grueling as the Cape Beast.
Issue #29 of Into CYCLING (www.intocycling.co.za) reports on Grant Lottering, former SADF Cycling team mate who podiumed with me in the 1987 amateur world championship in Belgium, doing a solo fund raising event this May. Into CYCLING deems this the most brutal solo attempt ever undertaken in SA (sic). Grant will do 1,340 km, ascending 16,000 m within 96 hours. This is on behalf of the Laureus Sport for Good foundation.
Not many cyclists can accomplish what Grant undertakes, though Into CYCLING might not be aware that there is a special breed of cyclist out here in SA that does what Grant does, just for the fun of it and for training. They do it monthly AND without accompanying support. Having a vehicle follow you with supplies and to assist in mechanical breakdowns makes it so much easier. These cyclists are slightly crazy (it helps a bit), are a breed of their own, strong minded and strong willed, emotionally stable, independent and level headed. These are the AUDAX stallions and mares.
If you are a motorist and driving at night between here and nowhere and see a row of red lights in the distance you might be passing Audaxers on their way, having missed their second or third night of sleep, on their way to their destination. So, if you deem yourself an Audaxer, be proud of yourself. You are competing and participating with the best in the world. You are accomplishing what less than 0.01% of international cyclists are doing!
Blue morning sky, breeze from the right. My feet squarely planted on tar road going up at 10% angle. My helmeted head resting on the handlebars, hands in the drops. My chest in an embrace of pain. All my thoughts on a next cupful of air. The heart rate does not drop but the air feels my lungs. I push the pedals and the pain comes back to my calves. Two hundred meters up the tar I run out of air and collapse again. It is all wrong. I feel like I am missing a lung. The truth of the climb cuts through the delusion of a successful recovery from the flu I had three weeks ago. Gerrit comes up to me and says “Take it easy, ride within yourself”.. I am already in 36 at the back.. the granniest of the granny gears of a road bike, the shame. I catch the air and push again, and collapse and push…. An then the devil comes. Not the one of the Tour de France variety with the red cape and a the fork. This one has a smile on his face, drives a truck and is called Ernst. A fellow randonneur, who just came by to take a few snaps while on his way home. I mentally cross my fingers and toil towards the top of the pass past the temptation of the convenient broom wagon.
I find the rest of my cycling party engaged in a leisurely repast on a verandah of a quaint sandstone building. I get a coffee and steal a few chips from Kenneth while on my Garmin the average ride speed mercilessly drops below the 15 km/h. We need to cover a minimum of 360 km in the 24 hours, starting from Bergville at 8 am and ending somewhere hopefully close to Johannesburg. This means 15 km/h, minimum. Which is nothing on a road bike and good tar. And with a pair of good legs. As much as I may offer reasonably good legs there is seemingly very little I have in the good lungs department. The bill paid we roll down the road on the other side of the pass, and in the face of the wind. John, Nardus and Gerrit disappear quickly. For the ride to qualify a minimum of three of us need to finish together. Which three it is rather obvious. There is roughly 100 km to the next control. Windy and rolling kilometres that is. And with Kenneth we roll through the endless green hilly pastures sprinkled with purple and white of the autumn Kosmos flowers. A wide variety of escape plans rolls through my empty brain.. defeatist rubbish. Finally I conceive an elegant idea. The three disappeared and must be hours ahead of us. They will finish in time, well past the 360 km mark, get the glory. To all practical reasons were are no longer contenders of any kind. In a rough way we are actually moving towards home in Secunda, if we just veer a little towards the East a nice bike tour could unfold.. Warden – Vrede – Standerton – Secunda. All those places full of inviting Bed and Breakfast establishments.. pizza, beer… mmm. I decide to share the idea with Kenneth at the control in Kestell and roll onwards contently. The Vetkoek Den at Kestell has no electricity and boasts two handful size vetkoes. In total denial to Kantian Imperative my reptilian brain makes me to ingest both of them in darkness before Kenneth notices.
My jaw drops when three cyclist appear. Hours, they were supposed to be hours ahead. I sense danger. There is a piece of flat iron on the top tube of Nardus’ bike. He detaches it and with a help of a brick proceeds to assault with it the bottom bracket of his machine. A story unfolds.. the bottom bracket seized, over dirt road Gerrit towed Nardus to a farm.. they found the iron.. hammered the bracket… the bracket gave in to the forceful attack and started to move. And now my elegant escape plan is in tatters. Yes, it is three of them, and it takes three to finish… but what if the bike fatally fails taking Nardus out of the game? Then Kenneth or I will need to raise to the occasion and save the day. We are raising and with the average at 14.9 depart Kestell for Reitz.
The pattern repeats. Me. Kenneth and John. Nardus and Gerrit. All working furiously on the average speed. Me – not so furiously. We reach Reitz well after the sunset. Nardus and Gerrit well at home at the control petrol station awash in the dum-dum music poring out of the open doors of micro-bus taxis. Coffee, a pie and a water top up from (fa-la-la) unsecured water tap on the forecourt. The night unfolds, moon to the right of us peeking from the beyond the veil of thin cloud bathing the landscape in the sliver light. A ring of brightness in front of my bike picking out potholes in the tar. How damn poetic. Petrus Steyn comes, another coffee, a banana. Then at 1 am Heilbron with surprisingly alive, clean and well provided Total garage. I had no idea of the night life of the South African road. We meet again, all five of us. For the last time. Onwards we roll, kilometre after kilometre of up and down road. Now mostly down. It rains, now and then. Cars pass us. Some give us a wide berth, some don’t. Most of the traffic is in the opposite direction. I am quite happy that I am not the first surprising rider those drivers meet tonight. Nardus, Gerrit and John are well ahead of us. At 3 am a small closed up petrol station emerges, lights, water tap, toilets. The total trip speed average standing at 15.4 km/h. We consume the .4 in a power nap. Kenneth curled up on an ornamental bench, I, in the search of darkness, on the floor of the ladies toilet (it must be cleaner then the gents, right?). I am all pumped up with coffee and whatever the body produced to keep me running and addicted. My heart rate decoupled from any sensible indication of the actual effort. The heart offering the virtual finger. After 15 minutes I decide it is enough and start rustling around Kenneth in a hope of a departure. We keep moving towards civilisation, horizon warms up with the glow of Val Triangle. At 5 am, after a short soul searching moment Kenneth succumbs to the call of Sasolburg lights. We shake hands and he departs in a search of a bed.
The slave driving average stands at 15.0 again. It rains some more. I follow the purple line on Garmin screen towards Three Rivers. The tearful sun raises and I snap a selfie at 6 am .. 334 km. The game calls for a minimum of 25 km to be travelled between 6 and 8 am… rules. Get to Three Rivers control at 6:35.. 343 km… I have it all sewn up.. 360 km by 8 am, easy-peasy. I call my brother in law and arrange for a pick up at Henley. Somehow I forgot to share with him my, err, expectations before. But he, a saintly man, raises to the occasion and all is well. I gulp down a bottle of chocolate milk. Across the forecourt a group of cyclists meets for a morning ride. Yeah, cyclists. Once more I place my buttocks on top of the leather hammock of my saddle, the feet click into the pedals. I ride. A sign indicating a turn towards Henley appears. My rear wheel goes flat.
It is 7:05 and I am 12 km short of 360. Easy… the bike goes rubber side up. I remove the tube, search for any sharp objects embedded in the tyre. Get the spare. Try to pump it up a little with the mini pump I have. Somehow the air does not go in, so what, we will finish it off with CO2 cannister. The tube goes in, the tyre on the rim. The CO2 cannister and its valve go on the tube. I turn the CO2 valve. Nothing happens. It is 7:25. I struggle to remove the now pressurised CO2 setup from the tube. Eventually I unscrew the already punctured cannister and the gas escapes with the loud pop. Yeah.. elementary, dear Watson, I never opened the valve on the tube itself. The error corrected, the seconds cannister goes in. And nothing happens. And then the third one. The CO2 dispenser valve does not work any more. In hand blurring and pain-in-the-arm-defying frenzy, with my mini pump, I mange to fill up the tube to an highly unsatisfactory squishy state. But it keeps the rim off the road. It is 7:38. The phrase “contre-la-montre” normally denoting the time trial race now gains in my mind its full meaning. Lake a man possessed I stomp on the pedals. It is now or never. The soft tire wobbles under me. A lone cyclist coming from an opposite direction flashes a salute. As the clock striked 8 the Garmin little numbers clicked into 362. One never knows.
PS. By 8 am Nardus, Gerrit and John reached the 390 km mark. As I posted my achievement on our WhatsApp group I spotted a picture of badly mauled cycling helmet. Nardus had an accident at 3 am and completed the ride with three cracked ribs and an some other injuries. Kenneth cycled all the way home from Sasolburg. My chest, well.. we will see about my chest.
Hi there, we’re the organizers of the ‘Rando Imperator’, the randonnée that starts from Munich (Germany) and arrives in Italy. It’s an ‘european’ randonnée as the route goes through four different countries: Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.
No borders in Europe, for cyclists and everybody!
We would like to invite you to the third edition on Saturday and Sunday May 6 to 7, 2017. You can choose one of three routes: Munich-Ferrara (600km), Munich-Bozen (300km) and Bozen-Ferrara (300km). We ride along the bike path called ‘via Claudia Augusta’ across the Alps. Last year over 150 cyclists joined the event, this year we’d love to have more subscribes from all around the Europe.
The Mille Miglia (Thousand Miler) is not called the toughest randonée in Europe for nothing. It is held once every four years. This is a race or ride, depending how you approach the monster, where you climb 16,000m over 1,600 km in sweltering heat. Combine with that the fact that you have to navigate the whole distance mostly on your own for up to five days, whilst sleep-deprived. Add to that the factor that where you travel you are mostly not understood and neither do you understand the locals. Of the close to 600 entrants eventually 400 finished in the prescribed cut-off time of 140 hours.
As in any event like this the preparation demands a multi-year cycling background and a focussed preparation of at least 8 months. Through Audax South Africa several long distance events are organised throughout the year to prepare body and mind for an event like this. You start with the kindergarten distance of 200 km, progressing rapidly to 300, 400, 600 and eventually to the mature 1,000 km rides. By now you know whether you are crazy enough to attempt an event like the ‘Thousand Miler’.
Only one South African has ridden the Mille Miglia before, in 2011, namely Chris van Zyl. He convinced me to join him in the fourth edition. Our preparation included the Cape 1000 in April 2016. I am fully convinced that to be successful in events like these you should have only 1 brain cell. Any additional cells would want to know why you do this and the first will not be able to answer them. During the Cape 1,000 we consciously tried not to entertain the ‘second brain cell’, because we were tested to our limits. It was an exceptional hard and thorough test of what was about to come during the 2016 Mille Miglia. Anyone ought to be able to complete these endurance events physically, but the challenge arises in the mental sphere. You cannot prepare for that, except to have tremendous respect for the distance and what lies ahead. Chris and I have found that once you become cocky and too self-confident you will pay your dues later!
Our preparation in the southern hemisphere meant going directly into the peak of summer from out of our cold and wet winters, with a difference of more than 20 C. Acclimatising to the hot weather before the time was impossible. Eventually it was this factor that affected me negatively the most during the ride. The gradient of some of the passes exceed the steepest climbs we have available to prepare on. You know you are in trouble when you have to zig-zag up the climbs because you have run out of gears. Gradients of up to 19% were not uncommon.
Both Chris and I are Paris-Brest-Paris anciennes (Ou Manne). This experience was put to good use in preparing for the event. We have a similar minimalist approach to carry-ons, meaning anything you carry with you for being self-reliant has to be the absolute minimum. Whatever you carry with you has to be multi-functional. You have to be prepared to take risks to leave something behind that you might need. You cannot over-cater for all events and ‘what ifs’.
Through experience you get to know what causes a panic when something goes wrong, especially when you are sleep deprived, hungry, thirsty and not sure whether you are on the right route. In cases like these when something goes wrong it can cause total meltdown and you abandoning the ride. This hierarchy of needs determines what you pack and what you leave. On top of our list was our need for battery power for navigation and communication. In the 2015 PBP event I wasted about 10 hours wandering around the French countryside because I did not have navigational equipment. This time both Chris and I bought 4 x 20,000 mA battery banks that would fulfil the need to keep our electronics charged. We ordered them through a mail order and it arrived just a day or two before departure. We only found out during the ride that they were Chinese duds and we were stuck to charging cell phones and Garmins at control points, slowing us down unnecessarily. Having navigation was non-negotiable. You thus needed to calculate at what point you have enough juice in the battery before continuing to the next control. It was an expensive lesson learnt.
Until just before the Miglia I was not on FaceBook. Friends convinced me to share the experience with a wider audience than just a Whatsapp group. Therefore I needed data communication and power to my phone whilst riding. Having the task of reporting whilst riding kept my sanity and helped to create memory markers along the way. Our experience is that the subconscious becomes so traumatised that it wilfully suppresses the experiences and in the process the history of the ride. Taking photos and looking at it later calls up the memories that I otherwise would not have remembered. The whole trip is a vague recollection. You were so involved in the inner conversation to maintain sanity during this period that you hardly had time to make provision for a chronological recollection of your experiences. Videos made during the ride will thus still be in my FB profile.
You do not enter an event like this with the possibility that equipment can fail. Have the best for the purpose. Best does not mean lightest, but the most durable. It should not be something that is so high-tech that you cannot repair it in the ride yourself, e.g. something as simple as replacing a spoke. If you have wheels where you need to do open heart surgery to access the nipples you should rather leave them behind and go ‘old school’.
A lesson well learnt was the choice of the correct saddle for events like these. It is not the ride itself that takes its toll on your south pole, but the daily hours in the saddle before the event. Once you are bruised or chafed you don’t have the luxury of laying off for a while. You have to repair whilst training. I therefore made a decision to stick my testosterone up somewhere and get myself a ‘lazy-boy’ saddle. It does not do my macho image any good, but towards the halfway mark of the rides I watch those guys with their macho lightweight carbon and leather saddles moving about as if they have ants in their pants. The saddle that suits you is the best find you can make for rides exceeding 5 hours at a time.
To successfully finish an event like the Mille Miglia you need to be a MacGyver, an innovator, someone who can improvise with nothing to repair something. You have to think out of the box, because you are fully self-reliant. You cannot receive outside help, except within the control areas.
I planned my trip so that I can adjust my sleeping pattern to a late wake-up and late to bed by being in Milan a couple of days in advance. I spent the first day meandering through the countryside and visiting the northern lakes of Italy, Como and Varese. The ride provided the needed muscle stimulation and through sweating got rid of excess fluid.
You need to realise that when you expend the amount energy as we do and then stop exercising the excess water makes you bloated and causes stiff and shortened muscles. Rest days are active days. During the ride I burnt about 45,000 cal, but did not consume close to that through my diet. Much of it had to come from muscle and the bit of fat I had left.
Chris van Zyl arrived the next day and after settling in at his hotel we went shopping for provisions. Most of the times we provided for ourselves from the local supermarkets. It is cost effective and we had a greater variety of foodstuffs for feeding our worms! The appetite you develop is so huge that we seriously considered deworming. With confidence I can say that we eat only once a day and that is the whole day. Your legs do the pedalling and your jaws the non-stop munching.
We went for the registration to collect our race numbers and route maps. Unlike other rides I experienced the atmosphere more relaxed, perhaps because the setting was in a monastery.
The start was set for 16 August at last light. A couple of hours before the start there was a pasta party for all and the race briefing in the sports arena. If you did not understand Italian it was of no value.
Each group was separated with about 10 mins. Chris and I opted for the third group, giving us something to chase and not to be caught up with the fish & chips from the start. The eventual winner emerged from our group.
On our way to our first food control at Massa Finalese our group got lost due to an incorrect Garmin track provided by the organisers. Some of the local riders who knew the area immediately went for the route they knew. There was confusion in the group. The last thing you want to do is follow riders who are lost. Chris got joined up with the small group of riders who thought the Garmin track was correct, until they too ended up on a farm road. Sensing the split, the group kept the pace at close to 40 km/h. I realised that if Chris and I got split up here it would not be good for both our efforts since we carry equipment and provisions both of us needed from one another. After about an hour Chris caught us from behind. I believe if he was saved this effort he would have been a contender for the top 5.
The first control for provisions is normally the control that breaks the big group up in small pieces. From there on the riders proceed in pairs or singles. This is a phenomenon I still need to understand. If the riders stayed in larger groups, giving one another time to eat and go to the toilet and restart together they would eventually ride a faster time. Chris and I had some chow and refilled our bottles and were from the last to start in our group. We hooked up with Claus from Germany and we proceeded on to the next control at Lugo di Romagna as day was breaking.
As the ride is long and the end is far and knowing that there are ominously high and steep passes soon to come you are focused on a couple of things. You need to ride within your capacity. As fatigue sets in due to various factors, some which you can control and others you can’t, you need to slow down or take appropriate action before grinding to a halt. On the other side you are riding with two other riders, who you can draft, but perhaps they are riding too fast and if any of them blow up they will be the cause of your misfortune. Do you let go of them or do you stick to them hoping you don’t pay interest later?
With these ongoing conversations in your mind you have to see to it that you never stop drinking and eating, always stay within the set heart rate effort and make a conscious effort to take in the scenery. You have to remind fellow riders of the same because you need one another. This literally is a case of survival. If you help your fellow competitors last longer you will last longer.
At a control Claus informed us he needs a rest and we should continue on our own. We were at the heat of day and in the distance we could see the foothills of the dreaded Apennine mountains, separating Italy between from top to bottom. We have been on the go for a day by now with the sun setting. We were lying in positions 34 and 35 with the leaders a couple of hours before us.
The Mountains arrive
What a pity one has to travel by night, missing the beauty of the Italian countryside. I studied classical history as part of my Greek and Latin training. I now know why the Romans chose to stay where they stayed: because it is beautiful. The country’s architecture is awesome. The countryside has a smell of its own. It is an old and well established world. It appeals to me and to the senses in general. Gaining height on the mountain passes opens up vistas of the countryside. Unfortunately you had no idea where you were so that you could revisit those particular villages. Your subconscious was continuously drawing you to your Garmin, which was set to inform you when to turn left or right, so you could not really get absorbed into sightseeing.
Day and night wove into one. My body was dehydrated, but when I wanted to drink I could not keep anything down. I knew I was in trouble and could see that Chris was sensing this too. At Dicomano he did what he could to nurse me out of my bad spot by waiting longer at the control with me as what he needed to and I realised I was keeping him back. I then had a man to man talk with him and told him that if he wanted to win the race he would have to do something he has never done before. We were halfway and he could still catch the leaders, but then he cannot afford the luxury of any sleep for the rest of the way.
After Todi everything came apart. I dropped behind Chris, whilst he continued towards the control. Instead of him waiting next to the road it made sense that he at least charge his batteries. I sat down next to the road on the pass and started vomiting severely. I had nothing left in my stomach. Whenever I drank water I just brought it all up again. I perceived the symptoms of heat exhaustion and knew I had to change strategy. The sun was not my friend. I had to ride at night.
I limped in to Bolsena. I was in a poor state. The staff at the control wrote me the instructions in English of how to get on the train, what time, platform, town to get off, train swopping, which bus to take and everything needed to reach my destination in Milan. In their minds I was a Did Not Finish (DNF). I asked them just to allow me to put my head down for an hour or two until the sun sets. When the sun went under I got up to continue. It was great to communicate with a batch of followers on WAP, updating me on Chris’ status. He was about 200 km ahead of me. I left Bolsena in the last 125 of the field. I was now playing catch-up.
To survive this ordeal I had to play games with my mind and not my mind with me. I had to stay in control of the processes. I set myself a goal to take pictures whenever I wanted to and to experience the beauty of what I passed. My greatest concern was losing my way. My Garmin was charged but I was the only person on that road. Riders were kilometres apart from one another. I built this semi-spiritual relationship with my Garmin, praying that it will not fade on me and that it will lead me on favourable paths. I made deals with it, promising it that I will power it up at the next stop as long as it stays my reliable source of information. The route is planned on rural roads. There is hardly any traffic at night. If you get lost you won’t even realise it and I had to prevent myself from distrusting the Garmin. I had to keep a distance from my fatigued state of mind where I knew I am prone to make bad decisions and could experience hallucinations. You knew it would happen and you can’t do anything about it. I found that communicating with sane souls in SA and America on WAP throughout the ride brought me back to reality.
I realised how steep the passes were when I could not climb the ascent in my ninny gear anymore. I had to zig zag up a 19% incline. About an hour into the climb I realised that my Garmin was not moving and it was not moving for quite a while and in that time I passed many off roads to the left and right. I was so focused on my Garmin as navigation system that I hardly ever tried to look out for the painted arrows on the road. The reason my Garmin was not working was that I had lost GPS signal, because I was in such a remote mountainous area. This was the situation I dreaded. To know if I am on the correct route I shall have to trace my steps back and find arrows or until I find GPS. Had it been a flat road I would have considered turning back, but what if I was on the right road and I had to come all the way back that I have just covered?
Knowing from the previous year’s Paris-Brest-Paris where I lost my way several times, I lost it so badly on the last day that I found myself going back in the opposite direction, back to where I have come from! Eventually I linked up with a major arterial on the pass. I had to choose left or right at the T-junction. I decided for downhill. I had no clue whether I was on my way to my destination or riding away from it. Eventually I got my GPS back and found I was on track. None of the riders that I either caught or that passed me rode the road I did. Either I took the long or the short route. Till now I cannot find that part of the course! Nobody recalls riding a 19 percenter either.
My relationship with my Garmin took a bad turn when I realised that when the control staff charged my Garmin at Bolsena they did not give me back my USB cable. It was non-negotiable I had to charge my Garmin and I had to get an electronics shop soon so I can load my Garmin. I received instructions of how to find a shop in Siena. I drove around in this beautiful, most amazing city to find a computer shop. After doing more than 15 km of scouting and not becoming wiser I decided to look in the old city. I was prepared to buy a cable from an office PC whilst in use. This is where I found this bargain Chinese store. I just hoped I did not buy a dud as my Powerbanks. At Siena I rode the famous white Siena dirt road, a white powdery (possibly calcium or dolomite) on which many Italian professional races are held.
Even with my cable scouting and hiding from the sun I moved up into the first 100 again. Chris was about 120 km ahead. That would constitute 6-7 hours of riding.
Fighting the heat
The temperatures were around 40 C and in the valleys no breeze. This caused serious humidity. Wherever I could I bought something cold to drink, but I had no appetite. I was just praying for the day to pass so I could ride at night. I had a feeling everyone was doing it because I was passing no one and no one was passing me. I thought I was the lonely ranger, hadn’t it been for the continuous updates from my WAP group.
I arrived at the sleep control of Staffoli Cerbaie late afternoon of the third day, about 72 hours into the ride and having covered 1,120 km. I was in a broken state due to dehydration. I threw up and I had very concerned staff. The controls along the route were informed to look out for rider 366, because he might not arrive at the controls and they would have to go looking for him. I decided to take a nap until I felt better. At the control they put out some mattresses for riders to lie on, which was accessed by a flight of steel stairs.
I climbed the stairs to the sleeping area and when I woke up I was lying at the bottom of the stairs. I became unconscious and fell backwards down the stairs. Some of the riders were reviving me. I assured them I was ok. A couple of minutes later I passed out again, this time falling forwards flat on my face. Luckily there was no one to help or else they would have withdrawn me. At midnight I decided I had to get as much distance covered before the sun rises because the sun and I were going to have a serious meeting in the morning!
That night I rode the longest pass I have ever ridden, 45 km long. It crossed the river several times whilst zig-zagging the sides of the river valley. On my way down the other side of the mountain pass I nearly hit a reindeer at full speed. It was standing in the middle of the road. My lights were set on its weakest setting to save battery power so this deer did not see or hear me. I missed it with less than an arm’s length. This close encounter of the other kind was shortly made up for by the view of a citadel, lighted up on the other side of the valley.
At night everything seems so unreal. There are hardly any people. In your fatigued mind the imprinting is erasable. If it had not been for the photos and the videos posted onto FB these experiences would have been lost to my memory.
I was now in a part of Italy that I got to love. I can understand why Hannibal did not leave Italy or attack Rome, but stayed where we were riding. Tuscany was too darn beautiful!
Still weak from the previous night’s experiences I progressed steadily towards control 13, Gorfigliano. From a distance I could see the mountain tops, evidence of regularly being covered by snow in the winter. Here you got your food as part of your entry free, but you pay a Euro for your pip squeak Espresso! The worst climbing was still to come. They were not long passes, but in total ascent they were as much as the whole of the ride up to that point. You learnt to respect the course, because it can throw you a curve ball. That curve ball came in the form of trusting your track of the course more than other route indicators, supplied to you by the organisers, for your Garmin.
I arrived at the top of a plateau. At the bottom I saw the Mediterranean for the first time. In the bay was this exquisite Roman town, Deiva. I could imagine the Romans taking their winter holidays there away from the urbs. To reach my next control my Garmin track said I had to go down the pass of about 4 km, have my card stamped and return up the hill. I arrived at the designated address where the control should have been, but no one knew of anything and they assured me I was not the first to enquire about a ‘control of some sort’. After some Italians peered over my route instructions they pointed out that the address is at the top of the pass where I admired the view. I would have to return there.
At that point I was mad. I was prepared to phone the organisers to come and collect me and take me back up the pass. It was their mistake that I was sitting down here. I had to find a way to get myself motivated to crawl up that steep pass again. It was sweltering hot. Their route indicator, which was incorrect, brought me to this pub as control. I asked the bar tender to give me his largest beer. I gulped it down in one swig. I ordered another one. He looked at me and warned me of the consequences of too much drinking. I assured him that I was not anaesthetised enough to make it up the pass yet.
At the control I hid from the sun until late afternoon. Here I met a delightful British adventurer, Daniel Moores. He is sponsored to travel around the world and then share his adventures with his sponsors. He and I decided to ride to the finish together. The hours felt like minutes. We decided to get some shut-eye at the second last control and then press through to the finish in the morning, on our fifth day. The last control was at the memorial of the late Fausto Coppi, renowned Italian cyclist.
In my pre-race check list I warn myself that as you become tired you become forgetful, do stupid things you otherwise never would have done. I go through a ritual to feel if I packed everything I should when I leave a control, café or table. Irrespective of that, last year on PBP, at the last control, before Paris, I forgot my money, cards and cash and some valuables on the counter with the barrista as I paid him for my coffee. I turned around and walked away. The honest man had my valuables returned to me in Paris soon after I arrived.
After leaving Castelania I felt exceptionally comfortable. I ascribed it to the fact that the weather was cooler and I could drink about 2 litres of iced tea which hydrated me. At about 50 km away from the control it dawned on me why I was feeling so, I forgot my stringy-thingy rucksack somewhere. All my valuables like money, passport, food, spares, etc, everything essential for me finishing the ride successfully were in that bag. During the night I stopped several times too and took off the bag from my back, put it on the ground, did what I needed to and could not remember whether I actually put it back on. Knowing that I was taking many selfies I glanced through the gallery to see where was the last time I had a photo with my bag on my back. Luckily it was at the last control. By now Chris had finished. I phoned him and he organised that it be brought to the finish. I realise, even if you take all precautions and are prepared for mistakes like these, during a fatigued state, you will still make them. Be prepared for it and adapt around it.
Chris had his first nap and shower and was at the finish line to receive me as I came in under the first odd 80 riders. He managed to finish the distance in 90:38 hours and I came in at 110 hours.
Finishing the ride with a sane mind was a great relief! I would love to do more Italian rides to explore this beautiful country. Just to complete this event in the required cut-off time is an accomplishment. In comparison to Paris-Brest-Paris it is exponentially tougher and requires a climbing capacity as cyclist. However, PBP should be on the bucket list of all cyclists. It is a cycling pilgrimage. Mille Miglia should be done for the sheer challenge. It is extreme. It is tough. It reveals who you are. The ride is a source that will keep your grand children entertained with all the stories you can share with them!
A report like this will not be complete if the story of food and the need for it afterwards are not included. You need plenty of that afterwards. You become ravenous within 24 hours. It is as if you have a dark hole where matter just disappears into, as if you have this tape-worm the size of your arm. It seems never to stop eating. Chris and I were constantly buying food. Standing in line to pay at the supermarkets you become hungry and thirsty and start eating your provisions. By the time you should pay you have already eaten most of it. Then you have to return to the shelves to fill up your basket again! You offer the cashier empty wrapper papers with bar codes on when you reach the till. Provisions that ought to have lasted for a day and a half lasted for one meal.
For my return trip to SA I needed to make provision for the lack of enough food on the flight and me having manners not to ask for meals more than 4 times in a row. I bought nearly a kilo of M&M’s and polished most of it even before boarding.
To survive the wait before departure I made a restaurant safari at the airport. I too informed my friends in South Africa of my predicament, namely that I am worm infested and need a serious and urgent deworming. My friend, Jurie, on his way to fetch me at the airport, stopped at the butcher and bought me a kilo of biltong. I stay about a half an hour from the airport. The biltong was past tense by the time we reached home! That is the casualty of cycling, becoming a ravenous monster…