Like Climbing Kili With a Log Between Your Legs

So it’s done. I completed the 94.7 Cycle Challenge.

There was never a question in my mind that I would complete it. It was more a matter of how long it would take. My goal was to stay under five hours. Which I thought would actually be pretty tough to accomplish, based on the few training rides my friends and I had taken out to the Cradle of Humankind the four preceding weekends. It turns out that that terrain is quite a bit tougher than the actual race, so that the real challenge might have been those training rides. And, of course, picking up the race number.

My time ended up being 4 hours and 15 minutes. Which everybody says I can be very happy about for a first race. And I am, don’t get me wrong, almost as happy as I am about getting it over with and my butt off that saddle, but I am, by nature, a competitive person. So when I reached the halfway mark after exactly two  hours, I developed ambitions of finishing in under four hours. How cool would that be?

Milling around waiting to start. You see the crowd extending up the hill under that bridge?

Moving forward to the starting pens. Can you believe all those port-a-potties on the side?
(though not a single one with toilet paper, I must add)

The strategy,  however, to accomplish that, is to stay well under two hours for the first part, because the second part is much tougher, taking you through one stretch of five climbs, one after the other, with nothing but the drudgery of the N-14 highway to distract you, the brutal sun beating down on you in the open veld. There was no way for me to accomplish that in two hours, even though I stayed on my bike the entire time (passing a lot of people who were pushing their bikes uphill). Now that I know I can do it, I’d push a lot more during the first part of the race next time, making good speed there. If there is a next time, which is a bit complicated by the fact that I’ll soon be living on a different continent.

So, as I was mindlessly pedaling and letting my thoughts drift, the obvious question came to my mind: Was this easier or harder than climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro?

I”m not sure. Summit night on Kili is incredibly hard. And you have other factors to battle with that are beyond your control, like the altitude. I did say right after Kili that I’d never do it again (I’ve since changed my mind), and I didn’t feel this way after the cycle challenge. But Kili is spread out over so much more time, with so many more opportunities to rest and take breaks. The cycle challenge is four hours (for some people, incredibly, only two hours and 49 minutes) of constant strain. Oh, and that bike seat. It’s like climbing Kili with a log strapped between your legs that for all the padding in the world still presses on all the wrong places, unremittingly. Then again, a few hours of cycling isn’t an entire week. It’s over before you know it. And no one tells you to cycle Pole Pole. It’s perfect for people with a taste for speed.

These are my favorite two pictures. Not because they are…

…particularly good, but because I took them while riding

Before the race, I had visions of stopping frequently, to take pictures for this blog and generally just enjoy the day. But I should have known myself better. Give me a place to get to, and I will want to get there fast. I don’t do slow, and I don’t take breaks. My kids will be the first to tell you that. When we go on road trips, I don’t stop for at least the first three hours, preferably not before we’ve arrived in a new country. If someone dares telling me after an hour that they have to pee, they get such a murderous look and tirade from me that they won’t soon be asking again, unless they’re about to burst.

I’m no different on a bike, it turns out. The only times I stopped to get off my bike was at the Mandela Bridge, to get good pictures from different angles (and having almost dropped my iPhone from my slippery hands on earlier occasions where I took pictures while riding, one-handed), and at one of the water points dying for a cup of real water after all those disgusting energy drink sips from my bottles (mental note – bring a bottle of each next time).

Worth getting off the bike for this shot, don’t you think?
Maybe you’ll understand my obsession with the Mandela Bridge seeing this shot from a while back

Stopping at the water point

But I do regret the opportunities lost to take pictures of all that I saw:

  • The first glorious view of the Johannesburg skyline.
  • The cheering crowds of support along the way, camped out under shady canopies, waving their beer bottles, some of them dancing.
  • The five boys sitting on a curb somewhere in Braamfontein, watching the race in amazement.
  • The cyclists (all of them men!) getting massages at one of the water points.
  • The people handing out Bar Ones in the middle of the road (I did manage to grab one in passing once I figured out what it was)
  • The stunning jacaranda trees in full bloom.
  • The group of boys at the side of the highway amusing themselves by jumping on an old discarded mattress that was very springy.
  • The kids’ drum ensemble banging a racy rhythm to the pumping of the pedals.
  • The many Santa Clauses passing me (sometimes I even was the one doing the passing), beard and all.
  • The husband and wife who had a ball shooting water pistols at passing riders (who were ever so grateful but reflexively reached behind them with their hands to cover up their oh-so-water-sensitive iPhones).

The support along the way was unbelievable. People stood and cheered, making it seem as if they cheered just for you, but of course cheering again for the next guy after you and the next one after that, crying themselves hoarse. Some of them made me laugh, yelling “you girls are the only reason the guys are still in the race” or “hurry up, my hands are getting tired of clapping,” and some of them almost knocked me off my bike with the power of their high fives. The 94.7 Challenge is yet another one of those events bringing Joburgers of all creed and color together, pulling for a common cause (I wrote about another such time here).

I saw a lot of these “cows” along the way. Read below for more info.

Another great view of the Jozi skyline

Since I was riding on my own (the friend I had come with had an earlier start time), I hung out with different cyclists for periods of time, just to have someone to follow. I fixated on a guy wearing a yellow shirt for a few kilometers, because he was fast, because he was easy to spot, and because the symbolism of the yellow shirt wasn’t lost on me. But in the end he was too fast to keep up with. Later, I hung out with a bunch of cows for a while. Not real ones (though I did encounter those somewhere along the N14 as well, with one lost calf almost running into my bike), but guys dressed like cows and pulling a variation of ice cream carts between them. Those people really did the hard work (in my next race I’d like to be the lookout for them, the person who goes in front and yells at people to make room, if necessary even punching them in the side so they move over – I would have LOVED to punch people!). I just read that the charity they support is CHOC, the Childhood Cancer Foundation of SA, and I also just read that a Grade 9 boy from our school, Kallen Browne, was one of those “cows” and is raising funds for CHOC. If you’d like to support his efforts, please click here. He is trying to raise ZAR 6000 and is over halfway there. What an admirable effort.

All in all, I think I should be grateful that I was able to finish (I saw plenty of well-trained-looking dudes being carted away on the “pick-me-up” vehicles) and that I didn’t fall off my bike (I heard a scream and a clatter once from somewhere behind me when a woman crashed into a ditch) and that I didn’t have any busted tires (though I sort of regret that I never found out if my theory – that I would find a nice-looking guy in no time who’d gladly fix it up for me – was correct) and that I could still walk the next day (didn’t even feel sore).

The next time, if I did it again, I’d want to start earlier. Waiting around at the start in the merciless sun until my group (the final group) was called wasn’t much fun. Finishing the race before it even gets very hot does sound appealing. Though I have to say, it wasn’t so much the sun that bothered me. It was that damn saddle, and towards the end my neck and shoulders as well. Everything in me was screaming “please let me sit up straight and take that thing away from between my legs!”

With my friend right after the race

At home after the race, trying to summon the energy to get into the shower

What I’d also want to do, if there was a next time, is understanding that little trip computer mounted to my handlebars better. Because believe me, when you are sitting on that bike for hours at a time, you need a distraction. And it’s a little bit hard to check your Facebook page using one hand (I tried). So the least you want to do is find out how far you’ve gone. I started out with what I thought was brilliant progress. The first 20 km went by so fast, it was incredible. Already 20% done, I thought after just 10 minutes, I’m doing really well! (Let me just say that solving mathematical problems, when I’m exerting myself, are not my strong suit.) But, alas, it turns out I was looking at my average speed (which from then on was stuck  around 22 forever, though it can’t be that accurate because I forgot to reset it right at the start). Similarly, I hit another wall at 59.2, when nothing was moving once again. Until I discovered that this time I had landed on the top speed setting for that day (I have gone as fast as 70 km/hr before, which is a bit scary when I think about it now, but you get used to it, because you cannot bring yourself to brake when it’s not absolutely necessary).

And learning the little things also helps you for the next time: Understanding that there are a bazillion port-a-potties along the starting lane, so that you don’t have to stand in a line of fifteen people coming from the car park, thinking you better use one while you see one. Although our wait there was quite fun. When the lady in front of us told us her race group was “KK” and that she’d proceed to the start just as soon as she’d done her “KK” here, I just about rolled over laughing.

One final word on the 94.7 Cycle Challenge: I’ve spoken to many expats who’ve done it and who have done similar races in their home countries before, and everybody shares the opinion that this is one of the most well-run cycling races, if not large events in general, in the world. I don’t have that comparison, but the way I experienced it, I have to agree that it was planned and executed like a charm.

Another huge thumbs-up for South Africa and Johannesburg!

Please consider making a small donation to CHOC here. These guys really worked their asses off (quite literally) in those hot costumes!

I hope there will be another time. The Argus in March, perhaps?