South African Dispatch
Hello from the other side of the planet. Assuming you’re in North America, although this is probably the other side from most places this email will be read… That said, the bike community down here in South Africa continually impresses me with it’s strength. The day I arrived happened to be the annual Cape Argus road race/ride. Which meant bike racing (40,000 riders strong) was on live TV in Johannesburg’s OR Tambo Airport. And everyone seeing my Rabobank/Giant polo shirt assumed I’d just been there, or was a bit late in coming. Good eyes that the average SA resident has for cycling-related tidbits. A nice welcome for a place I’m slated to spend three weeks with the sole purpose of riding bikes in the sunshine, hopefully fast.
Speaking of arrival, the last thing I wanted to do after departing Bend at 4am Friday to land in Durban at noon on Sunday was to spend another six hours waiting for the arrival of the rest of the Rabobank team members for our drive to Pietermaritzburg. Fortunately, the local Giant dealer, Cyclesphere, is owned by someone who’s a proper bike rider. Greg Albert is an avid Track, Road and MTB rider who understands what makes the bike riding world go round. So, I reached out to him for an airport wait enhancement. Which he delivered in style. Luckily for Women’s World Champ Catherine Pendrel, she was on my flight from Jo-Burg to Durban, albeit without her luggage. This put her in the perfect position to catch a ride down to Cyclesphere with us and borrow a bike for a much-needed afternoon tour of urban and suburban, er, Durban. Some of the local racer chaps joined Johan, one of Cyclesphere’s mechanics to give us a sampling of their turf. It’s a diverse turf, enhanced by a warm, if torrential at times, afternoon rain. We rode through shanty villages, high priced condos, urban revitalization efforts, the harbor, the boardwalk (with it’s perfect, and well used, surf) and finished past the new soccer stadium, built for the 2010 World Cup. Lunch at the local Italian Restaurant as the downpour continued was the perfect airport wait capstone… Thanks for the time, Greg, and for helping us out all week, and for lunch again on Monday. And for having some of your loyal Giant riders swing by the shop to watch us pack our bikes while asking tons of thought-provoking questions. Bike love in Kawzulu-Natal is strong!
OK, now off to Maritzburg for the World Cup opener. Mind you, I arrived in South Africa on MARCH 11 for the first World Cup. Dang, way to stretch out the season, UCI. I kind of hate you for that, but hey, you also forced me to train harder earlier, which has resulted in feeling stronger sooner than ever before. Or so I thought.
We had a full work week to get our bodies sorted after the planetary crossing and set about doing that the only way I know how on Monday. Going for an accidentally exploratory bike ride… Three hours and a bunch of bermed singletrack amongst the Gum-Tree groves later we felt like the jet leg was combated effectively by laughter and excitement. And we found a waterfall. A big one.
The rest of the week lounged and flew by simultaneously. Getting used to being part of a group of a dozen for three meals a day was smoothed by the fact that it’s a good group and the meals, prepared by the Protea Hotel chef, Sven Lindstrom, were meatily delicious. Plus, I was rooming with Katie Compton. Five boys and three girls on the team set up a unique lodging scenario, which Leo deftly handled by assuming that The Americans would get along fine with their tandem jet-lag and love for car shows on TV. We stayed up late watching Top Gear and all was swell… I was able to resist sneaking bites of KFC’s Bakery on Main Gluten Free Granola and plentiful nut butter supply, just…
We had team bonding/practice with Giant’s skills guru Oscar Saiz on Wednesday, analyzing our way around the course and finding the fastest, surest lines. The track didn’t really speak to me initially, a bunch of finite terminal velocity, smooth singletrack (fun but not especially selective or creative) broken up by what’s becoming known as “technical sections” comprised of various imported obstacles to spice things up. These are kind of challenging, kind of dangerous, and kind of make you feel like a dweeb riding through them, no matter how effectively. There’s no “hell yes” line. Just survival. But there were some sweet jumps. And riding with the boys was fun. They thought I seemed fit, which was supportive and nice. Compared to last spring, I better be!
Trusty Mechanics Ed and Marcel made sure James Huang put the cameras on my sweet new whip real tight for a POV lap of the course. Check it here.
Anyway, Race Day: The moment we’ve all been waiting for. After a solid spring and good week, I was ready to find out what being fast was like. Except I wasn’t. Damn it. The standard crazy start found me in about 90th place after a lap, riding as hard as my strangely sore legs and stomach would allow me to. Which wasn’t very. I was still getting passed by random dudes, only 20 or so of which remained behind me. Embarrassing. And sort of soul-crushing, for that matter. World Cup racing sucks when you suck at it, and have sucked at it for a couple consecutive seasons after so many where it all seemed to make sense and be worth the struggle. I kind of got trapped inside my brain a bit on the first lap. Then after the second struggling round I got yelled at by some Spanish rider for no reason. So I told him off. Maybe a bit aggressively. For about 30 seconds. And somehow that swell of anger, and the appearance of Spencer Paxson, who was charging, turned things around. My legs eventually warmed up, the adrenals fired and I was off. Making up ground from the 80’s. Impressively bad. Needing to get back into the top 60 to salvage a start for Houffalize in a month (surely I’ll be fast by then) I put my head down and rode fast-ish and felt good-ish for the second half of the race as the storm clouds thickened. Then on last downhill of the race, as I was just entering the top 60, all hell broke loose, rocks and logs covered by clay and a downpour let me catch a couple more guys and come in 55th. Ouch. But less terrible than if I’d quit (racing completely, maybe) after the first lap…
Hats off to the little guys on the team, Fabian Giger was 12th and Emil Lingren 22nd. The girls did awesome as well, Rosara Joseph used her Kiwi summer form to bring home 11th and newcomer to the Rabo show, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot was hot on her heels in 13th. A benefit of a big team, SOMEONE is always riding well. Hope that’s me soon…
We had another real nice team bonding exploration ride on Sunday as well, Michiel and Rosara keen for more after the initial find of sweet Sappi Land trails outside Howick helped me knit together some loops I’d been thinking about all week. Rumor has it these trails are playing host to a certain race that awards a Tattoo for fastest/best drinker in September… Hope you’re thirsty.
Monday we popped on down to Cape Town, on a flight filled with bike riders, just like always. Was good to chat with some folks I hadn’t seen in six months and catch up on the happenings of the bike world, which included John from Black Box Labs’ attendance of a recent Italian SuperEnduro race in Finale Ligure. Sounded like fun… The Cape Epic folks sorted us out with an apartment in Sea Point, a coastal suburb of Cape Town, and we settled in for the week of sunshine and resting. With a bit of riding.
And more racing. Christoph Sauser works with an organization called Songo.info that aims to provide much needed funds for developments in the “Townships” surrounding every decent sized Town in South Africa. These settlements are often comprised of ramshackle shelters constructed from whatever’s available and cheap/free. Lots of cardboard and sheet metal. And dirt. Even with the fall of Apartheid twenty years ago, South Africa is still quite separate and not exactly equal. Songo.info is working on getting kids in these Townships exposed to sport, cycling included. The Township of Kayamandi, across the tracks from the posh wine producing community of Stellenbosch, has seen the installation of a BMX track and programs to get local kids using it, as they should be! It’s working from what I saw.
It was pretty easy to be positive about my position in the world, even with racing like a small child last weekend, in such an environment. I steeled myself to make the most of the 40 minutes+two laps circuit race that took us up the hill through the Township every lap. I was able to do that, actually feeling decent and riding through the chase group of the World Cup (and Cape Epic, which is sort of the same) level field to finish sixth, just behind Emil, who’ll I’ll be trying to stay that close to for 780km starting on Sunday…
It was pretty surreal racing through Kayamandi. Little kids yelling and running down the streets next to us, middle-aged women going about their daily chores (like laundry, which I need to do too) as if nothing was happening and old timers looking on, trying to figure out exactly what was going on. Everyone seemed happy to see something different passing their front doors nonetheless. And the BMX was race going off. Local kids battling with out-of-towners on all manner of bikes like it was the World Champs. Great to see another avenue to show folks a good time on two wheels. Good work with the vision and even, Christoph, and congrats on winning…
Now we’re finishing up resting our faces off before riding them off next week. I’m feeling good and Emil is obviously strong, so we’ll see how things shape up in the first few days of The Cape Epic, maybe we’ll be contenders, hopefully we’ll survive either way… Check it out at www.cape-epic.com and I’ll do my best to keep facebook and twitter updated with something noteworthy. Like drool.