by Wimpie vd Merwe

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.

LTR: Wimpie, Leonard, Nico, Ernest, Theunis, Derek, Mark

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.

The Start

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.

Almost there

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.