A story from our Flèche – by Pawel Wuzyk

Good Friday.

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.