Brutal biking in preparation for the Cape Epic

Somewhere, deep in an Outeniqua mountain fold on Saturday, I pedalled my bike through a knee-deep stream. The water was cool and clear, bringing brief relief. Standing from my saddle, I ground up another 10m of incline before slowing to a halt. I slid from my bike as my thigh muscles bunched and bent forward, resting my head on my saddle.

This was my reality check.

I was only 50km or so into the Attakwas Challenge, a mountain bike race winding 120km from Oudtshoorn to Great Brak near Mossel Bay. The race organisers claimed this would be my "hardest day on a bike".

For me, the eight-day Cape Epic is looming this March, and I should be strong by now. I thought I was.

On Friday night I snorted at the "hardest day" claim. Ja, I'd had a run of bronchitis leading up to the race. Sure, my training had not been going according to plan. Yes, 120km and 2 900m of climbing sounds hard, but I was fit, and I've endured some horrid bike rides. I know how to pace myself over a long distance.

Where I stood bent over at the side of a remote old wagon trail, the mountains of Attakwas Kloof were gorgeous and unspoiled. Fynbos stretched up to high crags that disappeared into the clumping clouds. Dozens of fresh burrows – honey badger, fox or maybe porcupine-sized – punctured the edges of the rough track, suggesting a busy ecosystem. The cicadas, wasps and flies were quiet though as, mercifully, the clouds blocked the sun, and a cool wind blew.

I failed to register much of this at first until, hours later, my girlfriend asked me, "Surely there was at least one thing you enjoyed?"

"No," I snapped. "Maybe crossing the finish line."

But as I lay sprawled in a heap that evening, memories of the mountains crept back. Yes, they were lovely, but …

I recall riding, at walking speed, up another hard climb out of a river bed when a white-bearded man with a sprightly gait appeared, walking down the hill towards us in tiny khaki shorts and shirt, a peak hat slouched over his silver mop of hair.

Myself and nearby cyclists had been forced to walk up the first third of this climb – the rocks were just too large and loose and most of our legs were failing. But we'd started peddling again, at not much faster than walking pace, and my good spirits returned by the time he appeared. He was barefoot and his feet slapped against the rocks.

"Good morning. We've also been hiking. This is a lovely place for it," I said, mocking myself and the others.

His feet stopped slapping and he glared at me: "Kom nou, engelsman. Die boere het hier deur getrek, en jy kom sukkel? Kom man!" (Read rule number five. Perhaps this is what he meant)

We approached the top of the highest climb of the day. Yay, a bit of rest on the downhill, I mistakenly thought.

Picture by Zoon Cronje

I don't remember much of the next two hours, but they began like this:

A startlingly steep descent into a long, dark green ravine. The track is paved at first, so I pick up a brisk pace. Then, it's no longer paved. The whole road has been washed away and filled with a loose pile of head-sized boulders, which I bang and bounce over. I try seeking traction, any traction, so I can use my brakes, but my front brakes fail. After skidding and hammering, the boulders end and the road crosses a wide, smooth rock surface. I'm relieved. Then I panic as the rock tilts alarmingly to the left and becomes wet and mossy. The bike slips and is out of my control. I hit a foot-deep gulley (an old wagon wheel rut?). I'm still riding though, but now I can't see the substrate as a small river plunges along my path. Angry water rushes just beneath the ledges; I feel barely in control.

Later we climb again, just a short one. My gears jam and I stop. A grumpy, tired cyclist smashes into my rear. He swears at me. I un-knot my gears and start peddling again – but my legs spin ineffectually, and I look down to see my broken chain fly off into the bushes.

Mechanical trouble becomes my excuse to rest. I retire with my tools to the shade of a small tree.

All in all, I walked up five different climbs and finished after seven hours and 20 minutes, not feeling very proud of myself.

Attakwas felt much like 2014 delivering a happy-new-racing-year wake-up call with a handful of a bikes crashing into my face. There is much work to be done.

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