By Wimpie van der Merwe | |

(Ek skryf hierdie stuk maar in Engels ter wille van die wat net met Britse tande gebore is.)

Next weekend we embark on the 400 km AUDAX qualification ride and 4 weeks later the 600 km ride. My desire is to see as many of those attempting to qualify for PBP actually do. I share my experience as an experienced ultra distance cyclist with those that might benefit from some of the tips I share here. It is in no way complete. I see it as a way to remind myself too of the basics.


The weather forecast for the day is predicted to be coolish due to expected rain on Fri over the Western Cape. The blistering NW is changing to a blistering SE over the course of the day, picking up towards the end. It is of utmost importance to know that the ride will become exponentially harder towards the end and planning for that is part of the successful completion of the ride.

I am a minimalist, carrying as little gear with me as possible, but what I have must be multi-purpose. If the day seems to be dry I shall have a couple of newspaper pages stacked under my jersey when I start. It is a protection against wind chill against the chest and a barrier that you can discard when it becomes warmer. Should the weather change detrimentally you can find yourself another newspaper en route and repeat the process.

Should the day be wet or partly wet I shall use a neon coloured, reflective wind jammer (no sleeves) with arm warmers. The arm warmers can be slid up and down depending on how cold or warm it is. The jammer will eventually become too warm. I fold it into a bundle which comes into the centre back pocket. The side pockets I use for my food.

Should we start wet I intend to use a grease based (like Vaseline) warm up emulsion. It repels water and keeps the legs warm. You can always later, at a pit stop, remove it with tissue paper. I won’t ride with leg warmers.

The best invention ever is the buff. It is so versatile. You could even use 2 on the day. It helps keep sweat out of the eyes and off my sunglasses if worn under the helmet. Since vision at night is important the buff will prevent sweat from streaking the lenses and distorting line of vision. Expect the night air to be cold. Wear the buff as an air warmer over your nose and mouth and if you steam up on the climbs, adjust for airflow. It keeps your trachea warm and I believe acts in these instances as a first line of defence for colds and upper air infections.


Any unfit person can complete an ultra distance and any fit rider can fail to complete it due to one reason: either by knowing or being ignorant of how to spread your energy over the distance. You have to experiment in your rides prior to the events with food so you know what works for you and what not. One way of finding out, in the coming week, is to take with you a meal to eat on the bike. You might find out you don’t know where to stack it in your pockets, how to open the packaging in the ride, finding out that  chocolate melts in the heat and becomes a block of wood in the cold. You would have wanted your food to be packed bite size, not so sweet, having a variety of salty and sweet choices. When working at a high intensity I need my mouth to breathe through. I cannot waste effort on chewing. My food needs to stimulate saliva and be soft enough that I can chew and swallow easily (one benefit of a banana).

Due to my personal experience I know that I need 1000 Cal/h coming from my liquids and solids. It is impossible to carry all of this on the ride with you. Most of it you need to purchase at cafés since this is an unassisted ride. Know your preferences in advance and select accordingly. Get an idea of how many of what you need to eat to supply your energy demand. If you don’t carry food along join the group that takes their own Weber along and braai next to the road!

There are enough sports drink mixes available to select for the ride. Unfortunately they are not available on the course when you need them. Before the PBP you might want to find the ‘not so scientific formulated’ drinks in advance and experiment with them.

There are 2 kinds of drinks: one for water and one for energy replacement. For energy replacement I am taking Epic Pro of USN and carry powder along in 2 x 250 ml discardable plastic containers so I can mix 2 bottles at a time at the control points. I shall have a flavour for each. If it is cold (as at the start) I shall mix the one bottle at double strength (hypertonic) and if it becomes warm I shall mix both at half strength (hypotonic).

Read up about the symptoms of hypoglycaemia and understand when they show up. Rather buy yourself Wimpy burgers or a bucket of KFC in town than being caught with no provisions on the road. Drinking a beer sounds nice, but it will take revenge later on. Save that for the finish.

Caffeine, if used wisely, could literally be a life saver. If you take in caffeine at 3-5mg/kg that you weigh/hr, you will release free fatty acids for energy use and is thus a glycogen saver. Be aware that you need to hydrate copiously, because you will release water through your kidneys faster/more  than without it. Towards the end it could help you riding safely and delay the onset of fatigue. A percolated cup of coffee has about 120 mg of caffeine.


Your contact points with the bike will determine whether your ride is a pleasure or an excruciating one. Investing in quality is the name of the game here.


Good shoes are able to drain water and allow airflow to prevent overheating. It should be able to take on the form of your foot. Too late to ask you to get new shoes now. They need a bit of breaking in. Unfortunately water is the best way to do it. Ride the shoes wet and let them stretch and shrink according to your foot’s form. Obviously you hear that some natural material, like leather, is used. Mountain bike socks (slightly thicker than the road one) keeps my feet warmer and I need not worry about my feet freezing up. Newspaper can once again help with wind chill, especially the sports section — it gives you athletic foot :-)


I invested in the latest ultra distance 10mm thick padded Assos pants. Go into the ride without bruises by riding less in the couple of days before the event. The thick padding will not take the pain away, but will prevent you from further bruises. If we have wet weather anticipated, your bum will become wet and the skin will soften and the chances of chafing, become real. One of my clients gave me a bottle of wit blits made from oranges. It is now being put to good use to disinfect and harden the skin! Ride behind me and you might smell oranges!

Use an anti-chafing and barrier cream like Fissan paste, for babies (made of compressed sheep wool). It will not melt with heat like Vaseline. Most of the chamois creams in the market place are not long lasting. At the longest 4-6 hrs then you have to reapply.


I tended to get numbness in the fingers after an hour in the saddle. My chiropractor, Chris Muller, in Stellenbosch, set the cause straight and the problem was relieved. It has nothing to do with the non-use of gloves, but is a typical cycling injury due to a typical cycling position. He showed me stretching exercises to prevent it from happening again. Gloves are there for protection against cold and against abrasion when falling.

Other areas of importance

Photo-chromatic glasses are a must, because they are multi-purpose: for day and night use. They are about R650 for a decent pair. I opted for my money’s worth for a pair from Ocean Eyewear (at CWC). ‘Pump’ might sound old school, but I have never used a bomb. My ‘asma pompie’ follows me. It will help me from deflation to inflation. I do carry patch & solution with me.


Pain makes cowards of us all. In a ride like this expect the times when you will doubt your sanity. They say the primary physical requirement for a cyclist is that he should not have more than one brain cell. The second one is redundant, because a cyclist needs singleness of purpose. A second brain cell is only there to create doubt and confusion.

Whilst you are still in your right mind you need to agree on a couple of rules for the internal conversation that will take place, especially when things are going tough. If you think you might get Alzheimers in the ride, paste them onto your handle bars or top tube as a reminder. Understand what the parameters are for your ride prior to the ride. One that I set for myself is that it is not a race but a ride of camaraderie where I would like to see people accomplish something that they might not have deemed possible, creating a memory to share with their grand children.

Set your rules for the times that you are going to be down.

  • Quitting is not an option.
  • Pain is temporary, quitting permanent.
  • Pain is not your enemy.
  • An elephant is not eaten in one meal. Break your ride up into manageable portions.
  • Keep a presence of yourself. Be aware of everything happening with you. Be like a car driver continuously watching the dials. E.g. if you stopped drinking for an hour, because of a wandering mind, you can never make up unless you camp out at a restaurant to play catch-up.

Never let the conversation become negative or self destructive. Prepare yourself to ride the last 200 km against a torturing SE wind. Be a smart rider and share the load with a group of similar strength. Be honest to tell them when you go through a bad patch so they can nurse you till you have all your bearings again. It will happen to them too. Be honest to share the load when you can.

If you do find yourself on the edge of quitting and contemplating to flush your last and only brain cell play tricks with yourself. I find treating myself with something to eat or drink that I really like changes my attitude towards the perceived discomfort. This is normally due to hypoglycaemia and I need to understand why I am thinking like this.

Mental and physical fatigue will set in. Each one will fight it in his own way. You tend to loose your varnish and the real you appears with sleep deprivation. If I start talking nonsense incessantly with you it might be that I am forcing my brain to stay awake. This was my recipe to stay awake for 143 hours whilst setting a 120 non-stop world cycling record.

My last safety net to prevent me from quitting is to appreciate the fact that I can be participating. Other people are praying for legs and I am complaining of the pain in my legs. Pain proves I am alive. Appreciate the event and the creation of memories, even if it is a war story. Others don’t have the health or ability to create memories. Whatever way you can swing the mind to force the body to give another pedal stroke forward, you have succeeded. It is eventually more mental than physical. Celebrate that one brain cell!


In the light that there are persons with different levels of fitness and aspirations joining the ride, I am prepared to guide a 25 kmh average (16 hrs) bunch. This group will possibly stop shorter in time at stops or can stop longer by agreement, but will then have a faster moving average to make the longer stops possible for meals. If you are interested to join this group contact me in advance. On the morning of the ride everyone just peels out of his car in the dark, on to his bike and off he goes. Not knowing who is hidden behind the masks of buffs, glasses and helmets makes it difficult to start together. It will be good to have a roll call of this group at the start.

Should you feel later in the ride that the pace is too fast you can always fall off to a slower group. The secret for this group is constant effort, not pace. For you to know whether this group is for you and if you can contribute to the effort, ride on a level road when it is wind still at 27 kmh. If you can have a conversation with someone riding next to you you have the fitness and ability to be part of the group. However, if the effort is so much that you need your breath to finance the effort; I suggest falling in with a slower bus. If you fall out of a bus, be wise and rather wait for the slower bus than sitting for most of the day in no-man’s land, killing yourself unnecessarily.