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South Africa 2019 – Riding the Joberg2C

My great friend Sibusiso Vilane first mentioned the Joberg2C race as we ascended the Ruwenzori Mountains in Uganda in 2017.  I’m not much of a mountain biker, but the challenge seemed too good to miss, and of course, I said yes.  I’m not quite sure that I was ever ready for the race however…

Only a few months before my departure I underwent surgery on my right arm to relieve a nerve problem.  Suddenly I was in a sling with orders to do nothing exciting for a while.  Road cycling was out of the question, so I got on my rollers.  It’s not exactly exciting, pedalling away in your garage, but I had to keep up my training.  As my arm recovered I felt good enough to try a few road trips, but then everything fell apart.  I lost the most wonderful Man in my life – my Father.  He died suddenly, but peacefully in mid March.  Training went out of the window.  Every ounce of energy I had went into supporting my Mother and Sister, sorting my Fathers estate and trying to take in what had happened.  I’m not good at emotion.  At times like these I bottle things up, work myself to the bone and generally hit the self destruct button.  The weeks passed and as exhaustion crept in, I boarded the flight to Johannesburg.  I’d just turned 50, but my body felt 500.  At least my mind was clear.  I was riding the next 900km for my father…

I arrived in South Africa to stories of heavy rains and floods.  The Easter sunshine of home was soon washed away, but it would make a return as every day in the saddle became baking hot.  A bike had been arranged with PYGA who fitted me out before the riding began.  I had no idea then how much I was going to rely on them.

We saddled up early in the morning of Friday 26th April after a pre dawn transfer from Johannesburg.  The city was asleep, but the neon lights still shone brightly.  The sun rose as  the field gathered at Heidelberg. There was a party atmosphere, with booming music, dancing and laughter.  111km lay ahead and as the hooter sounded the field set off.  Sibu and I waited at the back as we had no intentions of racing hard.  This was a ride to enjoy rather than to thrash.  Everyone spread out and we ascended the first climb on a wet dirt road.  There were a few clashes as the crowds jostled and I fell at one point, but once we were clear a long decent soon opened the field again.  I felt good and thought of my father as I pedalled along, speaking to him and drawing strength from our memories.  How little I realised what the days ahead would hold.

We crossed the Vaal River and left Gauteng, entered the Free State and pushed on.  The day grew long and my legs grew tired.  By the time we entered Frankfort I was struggling and we were in the last group over the line.

The next day we rode 93km to Reitz and again were at the back.  I know my training had been poor, but I hadn’t expected this.  I also didn’t expect what was to happen the next morning…

The plan was to cycle to Sterkfontein Dam.  All was going well until I left water point 1.  There had been plenty of mud on the track before, but as I rounded a corner and entered a sticky bog my left knee went.  A shooting pain flew up my thigh like having a red hot poker shoved in it.  I hobbled from the morass and took a slow peddle to a search and rescue medical team, who strapped me up.  I then had to ride to water point 2 to be evacuated from the stage.  I was very fortunate to be driven to camp and arranged an appointment with a physio.  My left ICL was inflamed and I was advised to take it very steady.  It was decision time…

I decided to try the next stage and see how it went.  It was a disaster.  I was forced to pull out and was very thankful to the PYGA team for offering me a ride to camp.  The pain in my knee was awful, but at least I’d managed to ride into KwaZulu-Natal and onto an Escarpment of the Drakensburg, enjoying stunning views across this rugged mountain range.  Sibu and I had crossed part of it on foot in 2013 and experienced it’s extreme beauty and changeable weather, but at least today, the sun shone.  During the descent, I really struggled and fell a number of times.  Not good for the knee..!

I took the next two stages off and helped Team PYGA at water points and with team kit. At least I could still be a part of the race, rather than a bystander.

I got back into the saddle on day 7, crossing a floating  bridge and negotiating tight forest descents, before leaving Sibu to his day, then started day 8, predominantly to ride the Umko Drop.  It sounded fearful, with mile after mile of twisting track falling into the Umkhomasi Gorge below.  I missed a turn and ended up losing 10 minutes, but that was to my advantage.  I had a clear run all the way down and could enjoy the extensive views over the primeval world below.  The river had cut a slow meander over centuries past and its sides were swathed in deep green vegetation.  There were sections that any slip or fall would have been painful at best..!

Having short fingers makes descending a hair raising experience as I often feel my hands loosing their grip.  That’s bad enough, but you also need to brake and I was thrown into an either/or world of balancing acts.  There’s no getting away from the fact that a combination of fear and plain stupidity are required in experiences such as these.

Somehow I held on and sped down the drop with some control.  My racing heart sang with joy as I entered the valley floor although my backside still smarted at having to face the saddle again.

I’d always planned to pull out here for the day and joined Team PYGA again.

And so the final day came.  Whatever the pain, whatever the trail, whatever the time, I wasn’t backing out on this day.  Overnight rain fell making the track slimy and sticky, but I pushed onward.  I fell twice and went over the bars once, but I picked myself up and kept going, no matter what the conditions.  Sibu was as patient as ever and together we brought up the tail end of the race.  A huge ovation awaited us as we crossed the line.  Relief filled my aching limbs, a medal hung over my neck and a dram of malt whisky passed my lips.  We were interviewed and after more applause sank back into the normal life of packing, washing and wondering what the hell had happened.

I sat looking at the Indian Ocean that evening, still covered in mud and blood, wondering what my father would think.  I hadn’t cycled all the course, I had come in last and I was sore from head to foot, but I had given it my all and more.

I just hoped that was enough…

Sibusiso and I rode the race in support of the Mandela Mobile Library Project.  If you would like to support their work, please click here

My thanks to Sibusiso Vilane for his patience and friendship, to the race organisers for all their hard work, to PYGA Mountain Bikes for their support, to Terra Nova Equipment for their bike and hydration packs, to Granger’s for keeping my kit clean, to the physios and sports therapists for keeping me going and to everyone I met on the ride.

You’re all stars…

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