24 Hour MTB Race at Van Gaalens Cheese Farm Skeerpoort – 21 November 2015
A Bicycle is not vulgar when wheeled out of the garage, and soon becomes sparkling in its rapidity. Yet whoever mounts it, man or woman, reveals something disgraceful, that of human being reduced to mechanical object, with a caricatural movement of the legs, Too bad!”
Stephane Malarme 1896
Mode of Transport
Qhubeka bike – solid steel, single speed, pedal-back brake and no suspension
- Always wanted to test my abilities over 24 hours on a bike
- Nothing else on that weekend
- CHEESE FARM !
The 24 hour race is for solo or team relay entries so, of course, I chose the difficult option of doing it all myself. The course is cross country over a 13.2 km lap with the aim being to do as many laps as you can in the time allowed. At the end of each completed lap the competitor may choose to ride on or nip back to their tents for refreshments, repairs, sleep etc.
I applied my normal “Back to Basics” ( B2B ) policy and topped up the energy levels by drinking borehole water with a little sugar, salt and lemon added and eating meals based on bread ( with cheese mostly ).
B2B dress code means wearing my homemade, garish, African shirt with PEP shorts ( R 39.99 ) and Ackerman takkies ( R 129.99 ).
- Do the first lap and see if I can get the Qhubeka round the whole route.
- Start on the back row and slowly move to the rear of the field.
- If all OK, then ride till I drop, have a rest and ride again. Repeat.
- Apply the strategy of Pierre Brambilla ( TDF rider 1947 ) and beat myself over the head with my pump when I get tired and want to give up.
A simple plan never fails.
The race starts in the midday heat and all the rabbits race off into the distance. The opening stretch is like football field grass and it sucks the Qhubeka into its depths and by 400 m I am puffing and steaming like the Flying Scotsman. Suddenly we hit compacted mud and we shoot forward at a good lick under the trees. For 30 seconds everything seems perfect and then we turned sharp right and drop onto a narrow, shaky wooden bridge. The last time I rode across a log bridge on a bike was fifteen years ago on my superlight Giant MTB with disc brakes, 24 gears and Marzocchi Air suspension forks. This time there was no time to stop and re-assess my options. Pure momentum, sheer luck and riding my logs off got me across. I cursed the organisers who had not told me there was a rickety bridge and I was still on the last –ck when the planet disappeared below my wheels. We dropped into a donga bigger than in Kimberley and this time there was no way out. The Qhub stops dead on the opposite vertical face and I can’t get my feet out my pedal straps fast enough. You can’t keep a good man down for long, so with ropes, harnesses and many pitons I climbed up the other side hauling my Qhub with me. I’m alive, but it has taken us nearly five minutes now to do 600 metres of the first lap. Luckily there are only 23 hours and fifty five minutes to go.
I talk aloud to myself to repel the depression that was looming. And I can talk to myself because there is not a soul in sight.
A sudden change of tactics is decided upon. This means at every blind corner or summit I come to a virtual stop and check what’s coming next. If the previous hole was the worst of the obstacles I would be alright, and every lap I would just have to get off at the bottom of the bottomless pit and drag my Qhub out.
We are off rolling again and head back into the bushes along the riverbank. The track is good firm mudpack and we swing left and right along the singletrack getting a good rhythm going, even dropping in and out of medium holes with ease. A path has been cut in the reeds and the flattened base makes for perfect Qhubeka riding, spongy but firm. A quick right turn and we plunge into a tunnel of reeds which is cool and dark. I christen it the Bogey Man tunnel because it is scary in there. Out from the trees and into bushveld we swing sharp left and hit a grass stretch and onto a recently scraped track that is as lumpy and bumpy as a bevy of blondes sunbathing on a beach. From the lovely 18kph we slow to 10kph as the corrugations smack the saddle into my arse and the handlebars into my wrists. Together, heroically, we struggle through this stretch and again turn onto a grass tyre sucking field, this time a long one, and its humpy thumpy too.
A sharp left over a mini bridge and into a Pecan orchard fills me with hope as we scuttle downhill past some farm buildings and back into the riverine area.
We follow the yellow arrows as there is nobody in sight and we have now covered about a quarter of the first lap. Back in the bushes the single track now seriously thumps up and down and makes the riding very hard work. With a single gear ( 38 crank and 20 rear sprocket – for the techies ) you cannot get enough speed to sail up the other side of every dip so you have to stand and pedal extremely hard. For the next km or two it is interval training and sweat pours off and thighs burn.
At the half way point we cross a concrete bridge and just manage the leg burning climb out of the trees by the Greek Church signs ( not an olive or goat in sight ) and onto a short stretch of dirt road. This is more like it, real Qhub territory! A short pull up the hill and then we swing right and back onto a cattle trail, rocky but relatively fast. Another drop back to the river path and a high speed left, right, left, dodge the trees and WHOOOOAAA! Brakes full on but not slowing in time. Another big drop onto a very narrow metal grated bridge, brakes off and use the speed to shoot across the chasm and into a very rugged climb out the basin. The rocks are too big for the Qhub and we come to a dead halt. Push the bike to the summit and ride back on the single track.
I had forgotten my cautious tactic and had to have a good talking to myself. Another short, steep bridge crossing was completed by stopping at the bottom and walking out. Then the best part of the loop through perfect single track though trees, bushes and cut reed paths.
One more steel bridge, wider and not so steep, a short push up to a farm road and a lovely sweep through the trees and the finish line.
First lap complete at 16.6 kph. Way too fast to keep going all day. We decide to do a slower and maybe more flowing lap.
There is still no-one in sight. I have completed one lap and I am in last place. Half way around the next lap the leaders start coming past and that is the trend for the next 23+ hours.
A certain rider, I shudder to mention his name so let’s call him Spies Armsterk, stated that the TDF was “a contest in purposeless suffering” and it looks like that’s what’s going to happen today.
This second lap is taken relatively easily and I even have time to look at the scenery as I wander along the course. The route is along the valley in Hekpoort with the soaring Magaliesburg along one side and following a small river in a boerewors shaped course. We pass a dammed up section which looks like a quaint summer afternoon pond scene in England. There is even a pair of ducks paddling around in circles. In fact one duck says “Quack” as we ride past and the other one says “I was going to say that!”
After the third lap, and now averaging a more sensible 15 kph, I pull in to camp to refill water bottles and have a cheese sandwich supplied by our Camp Manager, Maggie. Bianca is so far ahead of me she leaves the pits as I arrive so we high five and go our own separate ways. This time Bianca is not riding her Qhub but she is on her single speed MTB doing her best to keep up with the other ladies on 30 speed bikes. A tall order on this flat course.
A few more steady laps and the sun starts going down. At the end of a lap I try and estimate if I should come in to fix on lights or stay out. I take the wrong decision as usual and try one more lap forgetting that most of the second half is deep in the trees and reeds. A guy with mega lights comes up behind in the gloom and says “Follow me and use my lights”. So I do for about 50 metres then he is gone. The last few k’s are done in complete whiteout ( and I do mean whiteout, there is no white anywhere, just black and very dark brown ), bouncing from tree to tree.
Scurry back to the Camp Manager to affix lights, eat cheese sandwich and back out for a few laps during the night.
During the long night the brain does wonderful things and I can’t help but giggle to myself wondering if very mature cheese is a drug and whether I will be “found out” by the drug squad and banned from ever riding a Qhubeka again. This then reminds me of Pierre Brambilla again, who, when in the lead, lost the 1947 TDF on the last day. He buried his bike in the bottom of his garden. When a friend asked “Why?”, he replied sarcastically “that it had wooden wheels and he wanted to grow some trees in his garden”.
His friend replied “Lucky you didn’t bury your water bottle as well, you would have grown a Pharmacy!”
Here are a few things that do not go together well;
- Brussel Sprouts and strawberry ice cream
- Welding in a hay barn
- Charles and Diana
- Americans and guns
- Mountain bikes, night time, lights and trees
The solitude of riding by lights at night is fabulous ( I am on my own as usual on this race ), but depth perception and speed make terrible enemies with bridge crossings and humpy, bumpy hillocks becoming mountains to climb. At one stage I am speeding ( that’s a relative term on a Qhubeka ) along and I wonder why that big tree is getting even bigger, then it hit me. A good clump on the helmet dumps me on the leaf strewn track. Luckily its only head damage so I can carry on.
We make it till just after midnight, then the stress of nearly falling off every 10 seconds becomes too much so we hit the sack until dawn. Up at 04h00 and eat cheese sandwich, remove lights and wait for the sun to come back up. Seven hours to go and still feeling good. The Qhub and I are back in our rhythm and we clock off a few more laps before the finish at 12h00.
Bianca cranks out a huge 19 laps = 251km and finishes third solo lady on her single speed.
I tag along with, I think, a respectable 17 laps = 224km and finish in 11th place out of 26 starters in the men’s solo category ([Edit] And 14th overall – Colin got “chicked” [Bianca]).
Can you do a Back to Basics ride on a Qhubeka on a 24 hour MTB race?
Most certainly, it’s as easy as falling off a bike.