Real Hell Riders – 85km, 2300m, 8h20. Buffels – 80km, 2000m, 7h40.
The camp stirred early. Oats porridge the order of the day, except for Charles ‘Porridge Makes Me Feel Sick’ van den Akker. A liquid breakfast for our Bike Whisperer and Paparazzi – magic potions. Richard ‘Voortrekker’ Muller led the way and we followed nervously, all mindful of the ride briefing. We would make our way up the Attekwaskloof, all on rustic and stony jeep track, over the Attekwasberge some quick severe downhill and then the long climb to the top of the Gamkaberge, along the ridge to the signal tower and down a little hill and home. I reminded the gathered throng that this was fuck-all. They nodded sagely – indeed, absolutely fuck-all.
Janneman ‘Half a Kidney’ van der Merwe tucked in amongst the Buffels and solemn brotherly pledges were taken to look after him – never to abandon him in the wilderness. I looked at my other tour- brothers, Pierre ‘Bypass’ Klingbiel with his stents and half a heart, Hop-a-Long Spiesie with his polio leg and broken hip and old age and his specially adapted extended pedal to scythe through the fynbos like a weed-eater, Sir Richard of Arborium with his titanium plates, Kobus ‘I Fix My Own Bike’ Burger with his refurbished arteries, Evergreen Abbey with his severed back nerves, Ettienne ‘I’ll Take it to My Grave’ Soekoe with his broken thyroid, The Bike Whisperer with his crushed larynx, cancer survivor Ben ‘Bench Press’ Paine with half a gut.
My own titanium implants and racks felt quite minor, I felt quite whole compared with this ward of ex- patients and also grateful for the presence of Bossie Malan with his bag of herbs and potions. He would keep them alive. Bossie had also successfully cured himself from his Excessive Chain-Shortening Syndrome (ECSS) from the previous year with Slow Smoked Extract of Fynbos (SSEF). The only other semi-normal brothers were Trevor ‘I Flew Straight in From the Med’ Milton, Lawrence ‘Will There Be a Wine Farm en Route’ Chambers, Richard ‘If You Can’t See Me You’re All Lost’ Muller and Stephan ‘I Will Look After Pierre’ Grobler. Koos and Wayne were not with us for the first day, something better having come up. They promised to join us in Calitzdorp if it suited them.
We splashed through the river at Bonniedale, turned upwards and within two hundred metres we were all dismounted and walking, too steep and stony to ride.
“Maybe Miles was the wise one with all of the walking training he has done,” complained ‘Bionic Arteries’ Kobus.
We were into the kloof, snaking upwards between rugged peaks on either side of us. The ground was marshy and we splashed through little stream crossings. I stopped to drink from a spring gushing straight out of the side of the rocks – like taking in cool mother earth herself. The fynbos scratched our legs and threatened to derail our gears. We were riding in the footsteps of Veldkornet Shriver who had traversed these mountains back in 1689 for the first time. He was guided by local members of the Attakwa tribe who advised him that the road had been created and engineered by the local elephants. It was their migration route.
For many years this was the main route into the Klein Karroo – we passed the ruins of the old hotel and also the ruins of an old Boer War blockhouse. We emerged at the side of the road and there was the back-up team – the “How About a Brunch?” Bormans.
“So, Kobus,” asked Ettienne, “What is that funny clicking and grinding noise coming from your bike?”
“Yes,” confirmed Bossie, “If I didn’t know better, I would say that you have a serious problem in your crank.” This was quite rich from Bossie.
“I maintain my own bike Bossie, so any strange noises are clearly a figment of your imagination.” responded Kobus.
“Bossie also maintains his own bike Kobus,” chimed ‘Slave Driver’ Abbey. “Like last year when his crank fell right off.”
Inspection was undertaken. The crank was snapped clean in half. Kobus ‘Bionic Arteries’ Burger was cycling with one leg.
“Oops. Can you fix it Bossie?” from the chief own-bike mechanic himself. “I probably broke this short sturdy piece of steel with my much-improved bionic artery legs.”
“Not now Kobus – but you are welcome to take my spare bike,” offered Bossie. “Just don’t break that too.”
“Kobus – will you help me to fix my non-existent front brakes?” asked Sir Richard ‘Who Has a Spanner?’ Hawkins. “I packed my whole bike in pieces into a bike bag for the plane in order to keep it safe. Now it has no brakes.”
“So Richard, why would you ask Kobus ‘I Bring My Own Tools’ Burger, given his track record?” was the chorus. “Kobus has even resorted to wearing Sanel’s helmet on his bald sweaty head – he couldn’t even remember to take his own helmet out of his hired car in George.”
“Kobus can fix anything.” Richard’s loyalty and faith were very touching. “And Kobus does put a doek on his head so that he won’t sweat excessively inside Sanel’s helmet.” Kobus mounted his spare borrowed bike and we were all together.
The Gamkaberge lay in front of us. Granny gear engaged and on we grunted, forever. The road curved backwards and around, breaching one false top after the other. I passed Whisperer Charles – very surprised. He was cramping. So was ‘Another Glass of Wine’ Lawrence.
“You should have eaten your porridge Charles,” I advised, helpfully.
The Real Hell Riders were some way ahead with ‘Voortrekker’ Richard. The Buffels staggered along semi- competently. Kobus was on Bossie’s spare bike with the special open road gear ratios. Sympathy seeped into the group.
“Kobus, where is your granny gear?” asked Stephan.
“I don’t need it,” retorted Kobus. “When my legs are strong enough to snap a crank, they are hardly going to be stretched to turn a pedal over.”
“Who wants to take a photo guys?” I called hopefully. “The view is magnificent.” “You don’t even have a camera Miles.”
“Agreed, but someone has to pose – I can stop to do that.” I retorted.
Sir Richard of Arborium darted off into the fynbos. “Have you seen these flowers?” he exclaimed. His camera was out – wide angle, close-ups – every kind of photo.
“Yes of course we have, Richard – we are totally surrounded by them. In fact there are millions of them,” we responded patiently.
He pranced off, snapping away, sniffing and singing.
“Come back Richard – the Buffel train is leaving now. There will be lots more flowers.”
“Just one more,” came his trill over the dales.
We trudged on, one labored pedal stroke at a time. We came to a fork in the road and there we found several Real Hell Riders – the others had ridden on. ‘How May I Help You?’ Abbey was debating with Janneman ‘Quarter of a Kidney’ van der Merwe. I eased alongside.
“Well that was a hell of a fuck- all,” I said. “We have been climbing without respite for hours. ‘Bike Whisperer’ Charles and ‘Wine Farm’ Lawrence are
still lying alongside the track having spasms or something. They are also screaming in pain – or at least they would be if Charles could talk.”
“That is why Poor Janneman should take the right fork and follow the short cut with me as supervisor,” explained ‘Slave Driver’ Abbey patiently. “I am of course not tired at all, but ‘Dialysis’ Janneman is my responsibility.”
“No he is mine,” I insisted. “I promised Cathy that I wouldn’t leave his side.”
“Me too,” said Trevor. “Besides which, after ‘Banting’ Janneman has collapsed he will need me to administer to him from my array of expired muti.”
That sounded eminently sensible to me. I didn’t have any muti at all with me, expired or not. ‘Bike Whisperer’ Charles had an asthma pump, Pierre ‘Have a Heart’ Klingbiel had a Panado and Stephan ‘Be Prepared’ Grobler explained that he would have to save his energy on account of under-training.
‘Woodcutter’ Richard explained that we should stick to the track, and that it was impossible to get lost. “Besides which,” said Richard ‘Forrester’ Muller, it is all downhill from here. You will be able to freewheel all the way.’ We split up with the Real Hell Riders taking the high road and the Buffels selecting the low road, figuratively speaking.
“Didn’t ‘Forester’ Richard say it was all downhill?” queried ‘Doubtful’ Stephan. “He lied,” came the chorus.
We crested a ridge just below a beacon and the clearest, longest view revealed itself. The Swartberge were in the distance, we could see the Outeniquas to the side and whole long Klein Karroo in between. We were higher than an aeroplane, stones clicking under our wheels and fynbos catching our shins. We could see the track down and in front of us, impossibly close for the drop required to get to it. The track finally tilted downhill, the stones became boulders and the shoulders had gulleys of erosion. Our speed picked up.
Our full weight was on the handlebars. Each switchback was a frightening sweep of loose stones and steep drops. It was impossible to brake to stop, our momentum now greater than our braking power. Speed picked up and that old familiar feeling of helplessness crept over me as all I could do was hope that I had chosen the right line, and that there was no hidden obstacle. The track straightened out and we plunged into a saddle with a steep walk at the far end. Thank goodness, it had arrested our plunge.
Over the ridge and more switchbacks and then onto some concrete strips – quite newly built with six inch wide diagonal drainage slots in them. We were still dropping alarmingly, and the speed picked up. Corners, more corners, steeper, and now speed bumps – for what? I hit the first one and was airborne, hoping like hell to descend back on the concrete. My rear wheel skidded and I had to let the brake go to get traction. Faster. ‘Whisperer’ Charles was ahead of me, Janneman not far behind – how could anyone do this faster? I could hear my brakes screaming and smell the burn of almost molten tungsten. I could feel them losing grip. The old familiar feeling of adrenalin started right in the solar plexis – and I could almost hear and feel the bones that were soon going to break. I was giggling and laughing which is never a good sign.
And the gradient levelled off slightly – then a little more. The road was straight. One more speed bump and one more set of six inch gulleys – slightly offset, diagonal – just enough to create some doubt about your wheel passing harmlessly over it. And I was at the bottom. There was Charles, in one piece, smiling like the proverbial Cheshire Cat. Janneman skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust. The others were nowhere to be seen.
My brake discs were blue with heat. I licked my finger and lightly touched the front one. “Pssss!” instantly boiling spit. We waited for the others for a while and decided that they could catch us if we rode slowly. We could see them way up on the mountain inching their way down – Stephan and Pierre acting their ages, Trevor and the Wineland Wonderboys keeping control of their retirement bikes.
We had all finished our water, it was boiling hot and we still had a way to go. We found a tap after scaling a gate to get into the National Parks office compound. The others caught up with us and we rolled down the road to join a district road. We had dropped over six hundred metres in under five kilometres. It had taken between five and ten heart-stopping minutes.
We rolled through the gates of the Uhuru Guest Farm, found Johan and Sanel ‘We Will Peel the Potatoes” Borman who pointed us at our delightful rooms for the night. First choice for the light-duties – the Real Hell Riders were still out there battling the elements.
The heavies rolled in over eight hours after starting. The stories started.
“So ‘Forrester’ Muller, we understood that you had scouted the whole route. What was with the straight line drawn in on Google Earth?” asked Sir Richard ‘Heidi’ Hawkins. “And you screamed like Oscar when you went over your handle bars.”
“I did scout the whole route,” responded ‘Forrester’, “I just didn’t see the double fence and double height game gate. Anyway, it was easy to climb over as long as one of you sat on top to pass the bikes over. You would also scream like Oscar if you had had to straddle a three metre high steel gate for ten minutes manhandling bikes.”
Koos ‘Have I Told You About My Last Few Races’ Basson and Wayne ‘Knysna Woodcutter’ Rebello arrived. They had clearly run out of better things to do. In fact Koos confessed that he had had nothing better to do – he was simply late.
Bikes were cleaned, beers were quaffed and over a convivial feast prepared by the tireless Bormans, the pink jersey for ignominious shame was handed over to Kobus “I Do Own Some of My Own Kit’ Burger. He had brought a bike with a broken crank, thrown his own helmet away, punctured his dainty feet and in an act of monstrous arrogance, he had fitted his training wheels for the event – to save his fancy wheel-set for a ‘proper’ ride.
“I did start on my own bike,” explained ‘Borrower’ Burger, “And I did bring my own helmet on the plane.”
“So why were your feet so sore Mr. Kobus ‘Borrower’ Burger?” asked ‘Chairman’ Abbey.
“Well that is simply because I had to ride all day without inners inside my cycling shoes, with the steel cleat screws poking directly into my reinforced-artery-fed lily-white feet,” explained Mr ‘PPPPPPP’ Burger.
“Kobus, you are always telling us that Piss Poor Planning Precedes Piss Poor Performance – the seven Ps. Do you have anything to say?”
“Yes I do,” groveled ‘Borrower’ Burger, “I have found my cycling shoe inners inside my running shoes. They must have hopped over while they were in my bag.”