The 2009 “Die Burger” MTB Challenge, Stellenbosch. 01 August 2009
Saturday the 1st of August 2009 heralded the beginning of my involvement in organised mountain bike racing in the western cape! I've been in this province for 5 months, now, and at last I am equipped with a bakkie and a bike rack with which to transport my old Diamondback 21 speed mountain bike. This Saturday marked the start of a new era in my life, as I entered to 2009 “Die Burger” MTB Viets Uitdaging in Stellenbosch.
Travelling to Stellies in my little bakkie early on Saturday morning, I was joined on the N2 by throngs of similar (and many grander) vehicles laden with mountain bikes and packed with eager competitors. By the time I arrived at the Paul Roos Gymnasium field where the race was set to begin in an hour or so, the excitement was palpable. The atmosphere of large scale organised sport reminded me strongly of my school and university rowing days. The sound of the P A system, the prominent start and finish line, the crowds of competitors and spectators, the stands selling coffee and pancakes... All of these rejuvenated me as I was taken back to the old days at the Buffalo River in East London in the early days of my rowing career.
I arrived in time to find parking at a nearby school field, and quickly presented myself at the registration desk. There I handed in my registration code and was given a goodie bag full of freebies and promotional samples (i.e. bubble bath, breakfast muesli, chocolate etc!). I felt very spoiled, and even more so when they handed me the t-shirt that I'd ordered when I booked my spot in the race online! I have a weakness for sporting kit, what can I say?
The early morning in Stellenbosch was absolutely frigid. I don't know when I will ever get used to feeling so cold.! The sky was clear, but the sports field where the event was situated was in shade until shortly before the start of the race. I was ready early, and the sitting around in the aforesaid shade did me no favours. However, the wait wasn't too long, and before I made good on my mental threats to actually pull out of the race and head back to the heat of my car, we were herded into a “paddock” and the excitement began. The closeness of the competitors in that paddock yielded it's own warmth, but the best part for me was being able to size up the competition in my group (Group CD, the 4th batch to compete in the 30km event). About 100 of us stood there, astride our respective metallic steeds – gleaming one and all with shine of trust, expectation and care.
Looking around in the crowd, I wasn't able to spot a single other Diamondback. I have no idea what to make of this observation. I am inclined to believe that my make of mountain bike is no longer for sale, or that the suppliers are particularly small... The majority of bikes were examples of the usual suspects: Trek, Merida, GT, Giant, Felt, Avalanche, Schwinn, Specialised, Mongoose. Most of the riders had cleats, and everyone wore a helmet that was at least a few bucks more valuable than mine! I was relieved to see that my bike compared favourably with even the best of the competition in the accessories stakes. My assessment, shivering there in that paddock while the tepid sun shone half heartedly down on us on that field, was that I was going to give this race my best shot.
Soon enough, we were off. A quick pedal off the field and onto the nearest road saw us arriving at the start. A commentator was keeping us advised in Afrikaans with a bit of English thrown in for diplomacy's sake. The majority of the cyclists, advertising, competitors, retailers and marketing were Afrikaans, but this was expected... Stellenbosch is a town about which the Afrikaaner nation can feel justifiably proud. The commentator asked if it was anyone's verjaarsdag that day, and a teenager to my right put his hand up. “Veels geluk liewe maatjie omdat jy verjaar” was duly sung, led by a laughing woman at the front of the pack. After a brief countdown, we were off!
The air, cold to begin with, quickly approached freezing point. I shivered harder as I accelerated. It was unreal. When, oh when, was I going to warm up? I pumped those pedals round and round, spinning fast to get the blood flowing through my legs that felt like refrigerated leather. At last, after the first 2kms or so, I was able to stop thinking about the cold. At about the same time, we came to the end of the tarred section of the race (only to return on the final home stretch). From that point on, the route was to take us through the farm roads and vinyards south of Stellenbosch.
I was thrilled at the propspect of being able to ride in such beautiful surroundings. If I weren't so cold to begin with, perhaps I would have decided to take the race more slowly purely to allow myself more time to appreciate the natural beaty of the landscape. The land undulated gently – no hill was too steep, and no decline too perilous. The path was exclusively farm road. Hard packed and consisting of a kind of pale, sandy loam, it hummed as hundreds of pairs of tires fleeted over it in rapid succession. The sound was unique to me, accustomed as I am to cycling alone. The opportunity to cycle in a tight pack provided its own thrills, too. I enjoyed the sensation of moving swiftly along the gound while simultaneously staying still amongst my fellow riders. The thrill came from not being able to see the ground immediately in front of me, and besides that, not having enough time to react even if I did. But the path was neat and fair, and it hummed as we glided over it.
The uphills were none too long, and with a bit of effort from my legs and a good deal of gear changing, they didn't challenge me too much. The downhills were pure exhileration. I attacked them without brakes, and clocked a top speed of 48.4km/h! Certainly it was faster than any car could have handled the tracks. The roads were turreted at regular intervals, to prevent any run off from heavy rains from damaging the surface – these became handy ramps, and both wheels of the Diamondback left the earth on a couple occasions. I held off the brakes until the very last moment, and then leaned into the turns at the bottom of the hills with nothing more than a hope that my front wheel wouldn't slide out in the soft sand.
On three occasions we were lucky enough to have to cross the stream that flows through Stellenbosch. This proved to be an ever increasing challenge, as the crossing points became deeper with each traverse. The first cross was muddy, as was the second, and the third was deeper than the axles of my wheels! Needless to say we were muddy and wet to a man, but this only added to the thrill. I always enjoy taking the old bike through new terrain and was able to make these crossings with ease. Others weren't so lucky, and ended up horizontal and muddy!
Thoughout the race I absorbed the beauty of the surroundings and bonded with my bike. My beloved, trusted, Diamondback. 930Kms, she and I have travelled together, and I feel as if I can remember each pedal stroke. We sing a song together when I ride. I provide the tempo, and she brings the music, accompanied by the wind in my ears and, if I'm lucky, the backing vocals of birds. Saturday was no different. My beloved bike disliked all the sand and water, and her left pedal started to squeak with each turn. This must have made me stand out like a sore thumb amongst the expensive machines around me, but before long the pedal was silenced – no doubt by the other dunkings she endured. But to sit atop her metal frame as we dashed, bolted, hurtled, glided, skidded, splashed and soared over that beatiful pale sand, to work with her in that bionic symbiosis, that was pure joy. If I try to recall the sensation most accurately, I would be amiss if I said I rode my bike for 30kms through the vinyards. No, I would have to conclude that we collaborated to cover that distance to the best of each of our abilities...
Too soon, we reached the end of the track and the sand was replaced with tar. This spelt the end of the race, and one last chance to catch some serious speed. My legs stroked those pedals to a cadence high enough to yield power in the highest gear. 35km/h on the flat road was mine for a time, as we slipped past the other racers to the finish. Finally, it was over. A bottle of wine, a medal, a quickly gulped bottle of juice. A stretch, a bike wash, a satisfied meander and a phone call. Too soon the race was over. I wish I was still racing.