On Cloud 900: Riding South Africa’s 900 km Mountain Bike Race

“Pass if you want,” I say to the rider behind me. “Nope, your pace is perfect. I’ll just stay here if you don’t mind.”

Teetering on the edge of a steep green cliff, to my right is a mountainside of crumbly red soil and macabre black trees that appear burnt – in the summer the pink national flower called protea blooms. At the base of Mount Paul, I crane my neck way up to see the peak resembling a meringue on a pie. I can hear the rider’s breath behind me; our legs move in synchronicity. Malan from South Africa reveals he is recovering from lung cancer. For seven arduous kilometres we talk candidly – smushing in as much real conversation as we can. “This is my first race since finishing chemo.”

 

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words :: Melanie Chambers       photography :: Em Gatland

 

Reaching the plateau, looking out onto the Drakensbergs (‘mountains of the Dragons’) resembling a dragon’s back, we take congratulatory pics, hug and descend into some fast singletrack smiling all the way down.

We’re with 400 teams of riders from 30 different countries biking 900km from Johannesburg south to the Indian Ocean; for nine days we ride through areas most travellers never see. Since it was my first time in South Africa, racing seemed a waste of scenery: sugar cane leaves slapping at your head through a narrow channel, bumping over stretches of farmers’ fields and peering onto the mesa and burnt-red rocks of the Drakensberg mountains, hearing the singing of schools in local villages, and talking with fellow riders.

 

For seven arduous kilometres we talk candidly – smushing in as much real conversation as we can. “This is my first race since finishing chemo.”

In its eighth year, the ride isn’t so much about racing, it’s a journey of determination, and mettle in a beautiful place – and profound connections to riders.

I heard about the joBerg2c race last year while doing my first mountain bike stage race in Israel; “if you like three days, you’ll love nine,” says Ico Schutte, a hard core adventurist from Stellenbosch. The average age is 46 and most are hardcore endurance athletes, runners, triathletes. And many just want to finish the damn thing: Chris Westgarth-Taylor is on his third attempt. The first time, he broke his collarbone; the second, he was 2km from the finish when he wiped out on his shoulder.

 

 

Our first day was supposed to be a warm up, an untimed neutral day they said; at 116km it was a horrendous wake up call for Paul and I, my partner in crime. This was the most either of us had ever ridden on a mountain bike. Starting off in a massive herd of riders on a gravel road, the flurry of red dust coated my face, lungs and teeth. Wearing arm and leg warmers, the mornings start cool. Drafting behind a stream of riders, I tuck in, with head down into the wind.

I cannot recall a time when I wasn’t pedalling. Looking onto the terrain map on my Garmin, a water break isn’t far off.  Eventually I see flags and my mood lightens. An adorable cherub-faced girl wearing a school skirt and white shirt approaches me: “Would you like a koeksister, ma’am?” a wooden drawer around her neck has slots of boiled eggs, potatoes, and a South African donut soaked in sugar syrup.

 

 

“This is the only race where I gain weight, thanks to these water stops,” says Westgarth-Taylor. As a pediatric surgeon, he’s part of a charity, Surgeons for Little Lives, raising money with a group of 40 other riders. And much of the race registration goes towards schools on the course: governments typically only provide them with about $1,300 a month. Stuffing another koeksister in my mouth, we’re off again. Only a few hours in and already my bum is sore.

“There are three things that will prevent you from finishing this race,” says Craig Wapnick, the race organizer. Two of them involve your ass: “Crashes, diarrhea and bum sores.” After a few days, I’d start to notice guys’ hands would disappear deep into their shorts to apply more chamois cream. By day three I lost all daintiness and lathered up in front of everyone, too.

 

 

 

By the third and final water station of day one, it’s feeling a bit like a pit stop: “May I oil your chain?” asks a kid before I’m even off the bike. Another offers to spray my arms with sun block. Stuff face; move on.  Some riders hang out: on the first day, our tent neighbour and partner drank four bottles of wine at the last water station. It took them three hours to finish the remaining 30km.

Most of the teams were men – only 36 mixed out of 393 teams. During a section of long gravel road, I pulled up to an English guy I’d been following most of the day. This was his second year doing the race. “Why didn’t you race with your wife?” I asked. “I don’t want a divorce.” He has a point; I thought the same before asking Paul to join me.

After a few days, I’d start to notice guys’ hands would disappear deep into their shorts to apply more chamois cream. By day three I lost all daintiness and lathered up in front of everyone, too.

For one, Paul’s a racer. As an Ontario mountain bike champ, it’s in his blood. Riding our commuter bikes to the grocery store, he thinks a yellow light means gun it.

But we devised a system for the joBerg2c: After the start, he’d get ahead and wait at water stations. Seeking out his orange ‘crossing guard’ helmet in the crowd then running into his arms pre-empted any ‘divorce’ proceedings. It was these moments that got us through the challenging times

 

 

Mornings. Waking up to AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ and a fake rooster call at 5:30am was like a bucket of ice water dumped on your head. We’d always prep our kit and gear the night before, but in a dark tent, half asleep and cranky, the scenario ran something like this: “Where is my glove, did you see my glove? I need my !#^@ing glove.” “It’s right in front of you.” Oh yeah, thanks.

By day three we got into a routine; at our new village each night, which the organizers disassemble and recreate every day, we’d often cross the finish line holding hands (Paul always waited for me). After local kids took our bikes for washing and handed out chocolate milk, we shower, get a massage, then stretch in the stretching zone, a little outside studio with matts, rollers and even platforms to stretch your calves.  We drop off our Garmins for charging; grab lunch.

Every berm and corner flowed into the other – just point the handlebars, hang on and fly.

Day four we hit some of the sweetest single track I’ve ever ridden. Painted on a rock: “Buckle up!” I was just about to launch into a stream of berms and jumps, on a descent so fast, all I could do was hold on for the ride. Careening around corners, and getting air off the jumps, I let out a few, ‘yehaws’ to the delight of the line of men behind me.

Every berm and corner flowed into the other – just point the handlebars, hang on and fly. This perfection, truly one of the funnest times I’ve had on a mountain bike, is thanks to Rob Dormel, a legend of trail creation in this country; he even has a trail park in his hometown of Sedgefield.

 

 

The main fear for today was a 30km long climb with a gradient approaching 20 percent. That’s 2100m of climbing over 122km. Looking up for the end was futile, and demoralizing. Always another turn up. Just pedal. Breathe and drink. At 30 plus degrees of dry African sun, crusty salt formed on my eyes and the skin just below the back of my knee blisters. “Melanie!” It’s Malan. He snaps me out of my dark place.  “I knew you’d pass me on this hill eventually!”

We finished in about seven hours. Three hours later, the last riders are still coming in. I cannot fathom. Even at five and six hours in the saddle my bum sores necessitated a trip to the medic for bandages as well as a nasty burn right under my knee that began to blister; the nurse wrapped them in tea tree oil soaked cloths. In other ways, my body was adapting; riding with Paul and the English guys near the end one day, I lifted out of the saddle seconds before the finish and gave it every last gasp of breath and left those little girls in my dust.

Every day had its surprise: a bagpipe player at the top of a hill before a decent into the pine forest; another time we finished amid howls of wolves through a wolf sanctuary; or two little girls singing and serving ice cream cones at a water station. Or, a blind man on the back of a tandem bike. Incredible.

 

 

For the mountain bikers in the group, today was Christmas day. New to the route, Harrison’s Pass was a technical downhill romp; steep and sharp switchbacks zig-zagged across and down the mountainside.

It took over 200 hours of labour to cut these beauties.

A few times, I stopped so I could collect myself, chill and take a few breaths. Clipping back into my pedal proved difficult when my legs wouldn’t stop shaking. But, I got back on, aimed the tire, looked ahead, and let the brakes go. “This is beyond me,” said one woman walking her bike.

 

 

Not too long into the descent, a man behind me pipes up: ‘Believe in yourself!’ It’s amazing – with those words, I stayed on the bike the rest of the way. I wanted to kiss that man.

The final days’ paths cut through giant sugar cane stalks and some sweepy singletrack. But cresting a hill, my chain snaps. I’d been shifting poorly throughout the race and now, payback. The fear of not finishing this race so close to the end was lesson enough. Throughout the nine days we had passed many riders with mechanicals, but besides this user issue, we were mechanical-free. This was the second race with a 29er (Specialized Era Comp Carbon) that gobbled up the rocks and raced smooth on the flats. With so much of this race on gravel roads, it meant the difference between trailing behind or sticking with the pack.

 

Besides the salt water healing our wounds, it felt incredible to wave our arms and legs freely; cycling is beautiful but it’s such a structured movement.

And by the final day, we got our first glimpse of the Indian Ocean. The sight of it was enough to start pedalling faster; when we finally hit sea level and sand, we rode across a swerving floating bridge, people on either sides were cheering. Coming across the finish line we were handed bottles of champagne. After many hugs with people we’d ridden with all week, Paul and I took the bottles to the beach. I jumped in immediately. Besides the salt water healing our wounds, it felt incredible to wave our arms and legs freely; cycling is beautiful but it’s such a structured movement. We flopped and danced in the warm Indian Ocean.

Then, we hugged, grabbing onto one another without saying much. We knew the magnitude of this moment. What I thought might harm us, made us stronger, more patient with one another. When one of us was weak, the other picked up the slack.

 

 

I never got to say goodbye to Malan at the end of the race: the finish was chaotic with everyone scrambling to get their bags from trucks and return to their families and home.

For days afterwards, I felt a huge emptiness take over. The intensity of riding, adrenaline, our daily routine, the herd of people we moved with every day, the surprises, the endless path that lead to the ocean – our purpose was over.

The last night before the race. We ran into Malan. “Please come stay with me before you return to Canada. Please, my family would love to meet you.” I plan to visit them in Pretoria; I will also see others from the race again. So, in this way, the race isn’t over; it just made life a little sweeter.

 

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