Struggling through Sani2C

Autumn in the Berg

Another year, another Sani.

Every year I seem to say to myself that this year will be my last, and each year I find myself drawn back to this amazing event.  More so than that, once I make the inevitable decision to ride it again, I also say that I won’t be doing another blog on the ride, but here I am again writing about my race in 2013.

It is easy now to see why this happens.  As much as the race is pretty much the same year on year (although Farmer Glen insists on keeping the race fresh by adding some outrageous additions – more about that later), the experience is always quite different.

This year was my fourth and each one seems to have had some variation on the theme.

Year 1 – I rode with my good friend Andrew but the event was blighted by the weather and we never got round to riding the mighty Umkomaas descent on Day 2.

Year 2 – Andrew was pulled away from me as a partner due to an urgent work AGM (that never actually materialized) so I ended up riding with my other very good friend, Bruce.  That year was memorable for all the wrong reasons as, although I got to ride the signature Umkomaas valley descent, I had to do it all alone as Bruce had to bail due to a rasping infection that settled so unceremoniously in his chest during the course of Day 1.

Year 3 (last year) was just about the perfect year. Andrew was back as my partner (not that Bruce would not have been a perfect partner as well), the race had been moved to May reducing the chance of a weather mishap that may have beset our chances of conquering Day 2 in all its glory and we all remained in good health allowing us to ride the race unaffected and put any mishaps from years before well and truly behind us.

You would have thought that would have been a decent swansong, but as mentioned before there are just too many good things about this race that just insist on bringing us back from one year to the next.

One of the big factors last year was that we got our act together from an admin point of view.  There were six of us sharing the experience together and the admin issues were dealt with in such an efficient way that our Sani became a boy’s weekend rather than a mountain bike race with peripheral irritations.

Our traveling group last year consisted of Bruce M and my good birding mate Dave Winter (riding together as a formidable team), Lombie, my other good birding and cycling (and generally very good) mate and his partner Bruce G (riding together as a semi-formidable team) and Andrew and I.

The partnerships this year remained the same with the exception of one major change which continued to keep things fresh for me at Sani.  Andrew obviously decided that 2012 was a perfect year for him – so good, in fact, that he decided to emigrate with his family to Australia.  Short of me paying for Andrew’s return Quantas air ticket I needed to find a new partner.

Dave and Lombie
Silent Bruce

Good cycling partners are hard to find.  I have been lucky over the years to have settled into two great partnerships with Bruce and Andrew but Andrew’s sudden decision in August last year to head for the land of wallabies and wombats brought into sharp focus the challenge that lay ahead.  I needed to find someone that was similarly passionate about riding as I was.  He (or she if Jeanie would ever contemplate that eventuality, which was unlikely) would need to be of similar speed and endurance and he (yes,  a “she” was never going to happen) would need to be a good mate, as three days on a bicycle can test the strongest of relationships.

Surprisingly, I didn’t need to look too far to find Marc as a very able replacement for Andrew.  Nortj, or Nortj-Dog or just “the Dog” came with a serious pedigree of sporting excellence.  A provincial swimmer and water polo player, a finely tuned athlete and a super-competitive mountain biker, the Dog was the perfect candidate.

Maybe too perfect?

There is no doubt Nortj is a faster and fitter (and considerably lighter) cyclist than I am but given my greater experience when it came to endurance events I figured my long, slow strength may be a good compliment to his short, sharp athleticism.  Perhaps we would be the perfect yin and yang of Sani this year (although Nortj did decline any opportunities to spoon me in our cosy little tents each night).

Anyway, time would tell, but I was extremely excited by my new partnership.

We set off at a ridiculously early hour on Wednesday morning on our flight from Cape Town to Durban, gathered our bags and collected our rental car with no fuss. Our only potential wavering from what has become known as the “Buckham routine” was that we had to collect my partner from his parents’ house just south of the airport. He had naively chosen to spend a few days with his mom and dad just before the race.  He left this little bit of information to the last minute and only “shared” his indiscretions a few days before departure, clearly well aware of the potential wrath of his partner for breaking ranks and messing with the well-oiled program.

Being as flexible as I am, I took this little “challenge” in my stride and decided to turn it into an opportunity.  Now at least Nortj could do our Woollies shop for dinner for the night before the race (lasagne, salad and garlic bread).

Despite this detour we were still in excellent shape until we got a call from Lombie’s wife, Tina, to tell us that whilst assisting us with confirming our pre-race accommodation at the Mkomazama Mountain Cottages she had been delivered the news by the proprietor that there was no record of a booking for Buckham for 6 people for the night before Sani.  Unless my surname was Erasmus we would be looking at a cramped night for 6 in a combi.

We discovered this little tidbit of info just before arriving to pick up the Dog and although Lombie is about as measured a person as I know, his face went pale quite quickly as he was responsible for the accommodation and he suddenly had thoughts of having forgotten to pay and he would now be blamed for this debacle.  He was not as scared of taking the blame as having to live with the ridicule of this organizational faux pas for the rest of his Sani-competing life.  He was quite quickly in a world of pain.

There was a glimmer of hope as Lombie could recall making payment and receiving confirmation but since it was such a long time back it was all a distant memory and he was going to need the use of the Nortje’s hospitality and broadband to dig us all out of the hole.  We left him to his devices and spent a very fruitful 45 minutes enjoying the warm Durban morning in the garden doing what we do best – birding and herping.

Bruce M had wandered off to start making alternative accommodation arrangements whilst Dog, Dave and I counted bird and herp species as they appeared in the garden.  A Raucous Toad opened the account closely followed by a Southern Tree Agama but it was really the birds that we spent most time looking at as these tropical gardens are just so much more productive than our gardens at home.  Within minutes we had a species count into the teens. An hour or so earlier Dave had mentioned to me that he still needed Rose-ringed Parakeet for his SA list.  It was a sheepish admission as Dave’s list comfortably exceeds mine and sits in the upper echelons of SA birders at the rather rarified number of 840 species. It was hard to believe the parakeet would be a lifer but considering their localized occurrence in a few urban settings it was possible that this one could remain elusive.

To set the scene further I asked the Dog if his parents ever see the parakeet in their garden to which he responded by saying that it was an irregular visitor.  We had 45 minutes in the garden.  What were the chances?

Pretty high it seems.  Within 5 minutes of posing the question a loud squawk drew my attention to two large green Psittacines landing in a fruiting tree and within seconds Dave had my tiny little Leica’s glued to his eyes making sure he could now join the “elite” club of birders with this settled alien on their lists.  841 species and a lifer before breakfast. Whoever would have thunk it?

Our layover in the quiet suburbs north of Durban had been extremely productive.  My partner was now with me, Dave had struck another blow into the ever widening gap between his list and mine (how can it be helped when he has such dopey species missing from his list?) and Lombie had shaken off the initial doubts and produced a comprehensive set of documentation that proved beyond any doubt that the Erasmuses would be giving way to our group for the sought after Stone Cottage at Mkomazama.  We were all convinced that the Erasmuses were very nice people but we were pleased they were being reassigned to alternative accommodation.

Stone Cottage at Mkomazama

The rest of the day returned to clockwork aside from a few unscheduled stops for Bruce G to empty his bladder.  Why he felt it was necessary to drink that honey and almond latte at the airport in addition to his morning orange juice is beyond me.  He was suitably chastised.

We steadily climbed our way towards the quaint little town of Underberg at about 1600m and happily received all our kit for the days ahead.  One of the real highlights of Sani is the unexpectedly large collection of kit that is dished out when registering for the race.  Our black boxes were filled with untold numbers of clothing items, medical supplies, nutritional variety and personal hygiene bits and pieces.  We would be well clothed, medicated, fed and groomed for our three days.

Our free Sani kit

Despite all the new kit that was handed out I have a very strict rule about new kit.  It goes back to my days when doing marathons where you would receive a rather dodgy cotton t-shirt when registering for the race.  These items were always worn with great pride once the event was completed but it would just mess with my karma to wear the shirt pre-race. Surely something bad will happen if you wear a shirt that you haven’t earned? A pulled muscle, a raging sore throat on the morning of the run, a bout of runner’s trots? There are just so many things that could go wrong it would be crazy to tempt fate.

So, with all this awesome kit around me my strict rule ensures that I am unable to touch any of it until I get back to Cape Town once the race is complete.  It does not appear as if my riding partners have the same fear of messing with their cycling karma…

Spot the odd man out

The late afternoon was spent birding the grounds of our accommodation (we are still uncertain as to where they managed to put the Erasmuses) but despite the slight chill in the air we had some good birds including Red-throated Wryneck, Cardinal and Olive Woodpecker and a Greater Honeyguide. The most notable species was a typically elusive, yet vocal, Fairy Flycatcher which seemed to stay out of sight just as it had managed to stay off the bird list for Mkomasama.  We will have to make sure they add that one.

With our boxes packed and all admin dealt with we settled down to a glass of wine in front of the fire and a delicious Nortj-bought lasagne meal (under strict supervision by his far more shopping-savvy wife).  Lombie worked his way through a chocolate log and a full slab of Lindt 70% chocolate before deciding that it was bedtime. Who says the days of carbo-loading are dead?

And so ended the day before the great Sani race.

Day 1 dawned as beautiful as expected.  Clear skies, windless and with the sun slowly creeping over the horizon to cast a golden light on the slopes stretching up towards the top of the pass.  My night was fitful as always and with this year’s start being delayed by an hour to ensure we did not freeze to death, I had even more faffing time to get everything together.  An inordinate amount of time had been spent the night before discussing the morning’s racing attire.  I was going minimalist, being “blessed” with a slightly more generous covering of hair and other natural layers but the racing snakes amongst us were battling with their decision-making.  In the end the temperature at our 8:30 start was very mild and it was more or less short sleeves for everyone with the exception of my partner whose wiry frame meant a slightly more conservative approach.

Day 1 is usually quite a fun day.  Although 82kms in length, it is not too physically demanding and it has a few serious highlights.  The bridge crossing is definitely one of the best moments of the day coming at 35kms so the legs are not even tired yet.  The Nxumeni forest is another highlight for me.  It is the fabled home of the Cape Parrot but the chances of a sighting are virtually nil due to the breakneck speed most of us travel through it. It is a slightly risky section with all the squishy mud combined with low visibility and a faster than average pace.  Every year I seem to miss a crash in that section by mere millimeters and this year was no different.  There was lots of slipping and sliding in front of me but I managed to stay out of trouble.

Another highlight is the numerous sections of groomed single track that we are sent through.  They are some of the best we ever get a chance to ride and I am often sad that we have to ride them at such a pace without stopping to enjoy the quality, not to mention the views.

Although I always consider Day 1 to be my favourite, this year I battled.  We started in D batch and the start was just too fast.  Nortj and I were determined to stay with the front riders for as long as possible and it meant riding outside my comfort zone at the very beginning of the day. I knew I was in trouble when Nortj was riding alongside me barely breathing.  I had to tell him that we needed to take it a little easier hoping that he would be grateful for the respite but he seemed a little disappointed that we couldn’t carry on chasing the front guys.

I then knew my troubles were even bigger when I started cramping with over 20kms to go.  I usually cramp on Day 1 but that is usually on the last climb of the day with barely 5kms to go.  The last water stop couldn’t come soon enough and at least I was able to stretch my legs with the crucial 18kms remaining.  I could see that Nortj was still looking fresh and my strategy was to politely mention a minor concern with the onset of my cramp, hoping he would slow the pace a little. He was still looking like a coiled spring ready to start chasing again and I was justifiably concerned.

It all went horribly wrong with about 10kms to go when a short little climb sent both my legs into multiple cramp.  My calves had bunched into little balls of spasming muscles and there was twitching in my hamstrings, quadriceps and inner thighs.  I really didn’t know how I was going to get to the end.

My most recent cramping strategy is just to continue riding because I figure that the pain is just the same regardless of whether you are moving or not and with 10kms to go it was definitely better to keep on moving.  My partner showed the appropriate levels of concern and told me how well I was doing.  I knew he was lying as he shortly thereafter suggested that he give me a push up the hill.

In all my years of riding in stage races I have never accepted a push from a partner.  It is, unusually, quite common practise in these types of races where a stronger partner “assists” in the quest of the common goal.  For some reason I have always just felt it is not quite right.  My immediate reaction was to refuse the help but as the cramps continued to roll through my legs I sheepishly said to Nortj “what harm can it do?”

Well, it definitely helped and the cramp released gradually but the damage was done and by the time we crossed the finish line I knew my poor performance had affected our finishing position.

It wasn’t all bad though as we made it to the finish in one piece and that is always the most important thing. We finished in 3:45:54 in 184th position.  We were closely followed by Bruce and Dave in 3:50:45 with Bruce and Lombie taking the honors in the handicap adjusted position with a time of 4:10:30.

An afternoon of lazing in the tent, lots of carbohydrate replacement and a very painful massage followed and a decent night’s sleep was on the cards bearing in mind the day ahead.

Anyone that knows anything about Sani knows that day one is just the hors d’ oeuvres for the Day 2 main course.  Day 2 is a real tough day of riding.  Cape ABSA Epic riders must laugh at the way Sani riders complain about how tough Day 2 is as it does not even feature in comparison to a tough Epic stage but it is a full 98 kms ridden predominantly on technical single track and has over 1700m of altitude gain.

It is definitely tough enough for me.

It is the day that we all train for as we know if we are fit enough for Day 1, Day 1 and Day 3 will be a doddle.  Having said all of that it also bears mentioning that Day 2 is probably one of the most beautiful days of mountain biking anywhere in the world.

After a few kilometers of district road we rode through some alien plantations before emerging from the gloomy wattles and eucalypts to be faced with a view of the grand Umkomaas Valley.  The single track that bursts out of the aliens is suitably known as “Wow” as the view literally takes your breath away.

What follows is about 20kms of meandering single track that is cut into the hillside (sometimes the cliff side) and descends all the way down to the river.  It is a descent of about 1000m and at times it is smooth and flowing with moments where one can appreciate the view but for most of the time it is white knuckle stuff with sharp drop-offs, loose rocks, slippery corners and sheer cliff edges down into the thickest bush.

This year we were doomed as we woke up at 3am with the rain pouring down and there was a lot of talk amongst the riders whether we would be given the go ahead to ride the valley or whether we would be re-routed on a slightly less treacherous route.  There was no talk amongst the organizers of a cancellation so we would be going ahead.

Within 5 Kms I was seriously wondering whether the organizers had made the right decision.

Riders were slip-sliding all over the place and there was literally no one around us that managed to stay upright.  For the first half of the descent I had had only one or two minor slides but on a steep slippery drop-off I lost control of my front wheel and came crashing to the ground.  Riders behind me had to pick their way around me to avoid the same fate.  I was completely unhurt so aside from a slightly bruised ego and a dent in my confidence I tried to get back on my bike quickly to avoid losing my place in the stream of riders coming down behind us.  In my haste to remount I lost control of the front wheel again and ended up sliding to the opposite side of the trail which was slightly more problematic.  That was the side with the sheer drop down into the bushes so the consequences of my fall on that side were so much worse.  I ended up getting my foot out of the cleats just in time to halt a complete slide downhill but in so doing I sprained my ankle quite badly.  With the adrenaline pumping the pain was something I would worry about later.  I had a lot of riding still to do.

There were several more falls before we hit the bottom of the valley, none of which caused any bodily damage but the worst of which resulted in three broken spokes.  Not a total disaster – the wheel was still spinning straight and we were able to continue.

When bottoming out, the next 10kms are my favourite of the whole race.  The single track hugs the curves of the Umkomaas and two bridge crossings take the cyclists from the south bank to the north and then back again to the south. This section is the most unspoilt and one could quite easily imagine having wild animals of all sorts charging out of the bush at any point.

Once at the bottom of the valley the bad news is that one has to climb out of it. The section between 40 and 70 kms is a long, painful slog mostly along a section called Steve’s Spruit.  It is probably the most productive section for birding as it is virtually untouched by agriculture and rural development but the numerous nasty ups and downs took my desire for recalling bird calls down a notch or two.  It was also on this stretch that Dave and Bruce caught up to us and simply rode away as though we were standing still.  It was at that moment that I knew it was going to be one of my longest days on a bike.

The only thing that kept me going during the middle section of the stage was the Nandos stop that comes at 65 kms at the top of the longest climb of Sani.  By the time we got there my legs were well and truly broken in half and I spent my 5 minutes at the Nandos stop walking around, eating my Nandos burger for fear that cramp would set in again and this time we still had 35 kms to go.

Those last 35 kms were simply terrible.  I spent a lot of the time with my head down, just concentrating on getting one pedal stroke over the next.  Nortj was incredibly patient and offered one or two words of encouragement but I think even he realized that there was not much to say that would get me to the finish line any faster.

For quite a lot of those last 35 kms it did cross my mind that I may not make it and would have to do the unthinkable and catch a lift to the finish, but, in the end, I actually got to the Macadamia farm called Jolivet that marks the end of Day 2.  The day was complete but in no means conquered.  Our time was 6:14 which felt more like 20:14.

I did look back on the day and I was pleased that I had got through it, but in all honesty it was not a lot of fun.  Dave and Bruce were untouchable in a time of 5:45 and Bruce and Lombie rolled in with a time of 6:36.  Whilst my body was more or less broken, they both looked like they had plenty more to give.

Relieved to be finished
Lombie and Bruce looking quite fresh

The weather closed in during the afternoon and the rain came down again turning most of the pathways between the tents into squishy mud, much the same as what we had ridden through earlier.  Not even my late afternoon massage could heal the damage in my legs and with my ankle tightening up it was going to require a special effort to get up the next day.

It closed one of the more disappointing days I have had on a bike but it would be chin-up the next day and face the music again.

I woke up on Saturday morning with a far more flexible ankle than I had expected and it amazed me that I had a feeling of excitement to ride the last day.  I had thought that I would find any excuse not to get back on my bike but once my ankle was strapped by one of the more laid-back doctors I have ever come across I decided to do everything I could to enjoy Day 3.

Stage races are quite strange.  One day you feel as though you never want to ride ever again as it is so hard and the next day it all clicks and you feel invincible.  I felt far from invincible on Day 3 but I definitely felt like a mountain biker again.

Day 3 descends from Jolivet through the swathes of inland sugar cane plantations, with a very worthwhile detour through the Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve before hitting the coastal hills with a final drop down to the river that flows into the sea in Scottburgh.  The route had been changed quite significantly this year with a lot more single track towards the end and it had also been lengthened from 72 to 86 kms.  It was going to be a longer day but it was definitely well worth all the changes as it felt so much more complete with the single track instead of a barrel down district roads towards the end.

For the first time since we rolled out of Underberg I felt like I was a worthy partner for Nortj.  I spent some time in front and I was also secretly pleased to notice that there were times when Nortj dropped a little back as he struggled to keep the pace towards the end (Nortj will hate me for saying this).   He didn’t complain at all (unlike me) so I kept driving hard and ultimately he hung on so we could finish as fast as we started on Day 1.  But this time I didn’t have to worry about how my legs were going to feel the next day.

The final route change that was introduced this year turned out to be the highlight of the entire race for me.  Farmer Glen comes up with some outlandish ideas at Sani2C but most of them have now become well entrenched in the race’s culture.  This year it seemed as if he had gone a step too far.  He decided that we should finish the race this year on the main beach in Scottburgh.  That in itself wasn’t particularly “out there”.  Where it became a little dodgy was that he decided that the last section of the race should take us over an 800m long floating bridge across the blind estuary, ride out onto the beach and then back into the shallow waves on the floating bridge before curving back onto the esplanade for the finish line.  Most of Farmer Glen’s floating bridges have been far scarier in description than in reality and the bridges on Day 1 and Day 2 are easily negotiated without too much fear of getting wet but in our race briefing the night before the final day we were told that the Adventure riders had struggled quite a bit with the bridge and well over 50 riders had either ended up in the lagoon or in the sea.

Now, it may seem like quite a cool way to finish a ride with an impromptu dip in the ocean, but sea water is to a mountain bike like Kryptonite is to Superman.  The salt water gets into all the little well oiled nooks and crannies and the rust eats the bicycle from the inside out.  For some of the cyclists with R85,000 bicycles it didn’t seem to be that appealing to run that risk but ego plays a big part in races like this and although Farmer Glen had given us all a bailout option there was no way that any of us would be taking it.

I normally ride with my cellphone but I tucked that into my box to be transported and I prepared myself mentally for potentially taking a swim.  I had the mental picture of the bridge crossing in my head for the entire 4 hours of Day 3 running in my head and by the time we got down to the bridge I was completely psyched for it.

The bridge itself was like a kid’s jigsaw puzzle with loose fitting pieces that slot together but allowed for quite a bit of movement.  The actual plastic pieces that were interlocked together were quite deep in profile and so they tended to be a tiny bit top heavy.  It meant maximum movement as one rides across.  It was also not the widest bridge in the world at about 1.2m wide.  All these factors made for a rather precarious crossing.

Unfortunately we reached the bridge in the wrong place having followed two guys who took a misguided turn but it didn’t mean we missed out but rather entered it more or less in the middle of the crossing.  It also meant a 90 degree turn onto the main section which was very, very dodgy.  I will admit that I had a few very edgy moments where I was convinced I would end up in the water but once getting the feel for it I started to feel comfortable.  The lagoon was safely negotiated and the crossing through the gentle low tide waves was equally well handled and shortly thereafter I was about to cross the finish line.  I turned to see Nortj coming up behind me which was a relief knowing that he had not ended up in the water and it allowed us to cross the finish line dry.

It brought to an end another Sani2C for me and, although not my best performance, I felt pretty proud to have finished it.  I had moments where I felt like I could throw in the towel and it was important for me to get through those.  I had an amazing time riding with Nortj and provided he is happy riding with me again we will definitely come back next year and I will be stronger.  Incidentally our time for Day 3 was 4:03 and at least we could boast being the fastest on that day.  Dave and Bruce came in at 4:08 (having suffered a few mechanical issues) and Lombie and Bruce finished in 4:20.  All 6 of us avoided an unplanned swim but whilst taking a planned swim to wash off all the mud we watched quite a few finishers riding their expensive bicycles into the waves.

Another brilliant year for the race despite the miserable weather on Day 2 and I can safely say that we will all be back.

Another Sani finished

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