Canadian Cycling Magazine - - FEA­TURE -

had to con­vince me to use heart rate and power data to stream­line my train­ing and to learn how much I could suf­fer.

Even­tu­ally, I be­gan to look for­ward to the songs in videos, the vir­tual 20 per cent grade hills and the num­bers that showed I was im­prov­ing. And shock­ingly, I wasn’t bored. I loved watch­ing my cy­cling he­roes like Chris Froome tackle the hills and laugh­ing at the cheesy Suf­fer­fest say­ings: “Suf­fer­lan­dri­ans know how to dance on the shred­ded chamois of their van­quished foes.” I was get­ting into a rhythm, and push­ing harder and harder with each train­ing ses­sion.

By mid-fe­bru­ary, I was in the sad­dle 10 to 15 hours a week, which ne­ces­si­tated new women’s-spe­cific shorts. Some­thing else I learned the hard way: women’s chamois are dif­fer­ent from men’s.

By early March, I was only rest­ing one day a week, get­ting stronger and feel­ing great when sud­denly, my legs went flat. I had no en­ergy. Check­ing my heart rate, it was un­usu­ally low. “You need a proper rest. You’ve been work­ing too hard. Rest is as im­por­tant as work when you’re in train­ing,” Paul said. I felt de­flated. My mo­ti­va­tion waned so I be­gan yoga and boot-camp classes. I de­cided to lis­ten to Paul; I slowed down en­tirely for about week. Like magic, my en­ergy re­turned. But by early April, anx­i­ety was tak­ing hold of me. Pso­ri­a­sis, a blotchy and itchy skin con­di­tion ex­ac­er­bated by stress, was spread­ing.

April ar­rived. Af­ter 24 hours of plane travel, a six-hour time change and a 1,677-m al­ti­tude change, we met Wap­nick at the pre-race meet­ing. “Three things could de­rail you on this ride, and two in­volve your ass: crashes, di­ar­rhea and bum sores,” he said. Wap­nick also gave the large group of mostly mid­dle-aged ath­letes a les­son in san­i­tary prac­tices and rules to avoid stom­ach prob­lems.

On Day 1, Paul and I waited at the start line groggy, cold and pasty-mouthed. We kissed and be­gan our long­est day of moun­tain bik­ing, so far: 114 km. With shoul­der-toshoul­der riders on the slip­pery gravel road and red dust swirling up, I could hardly see Paul’s or­ange hel­met ahead. The first day was a neu­tral day, but the first wa­ter sta­tion at 30 km felt like Christ­mas morn­ing. At the sta­tion, school girls in plaid-kilt uni­forms with wooden boxes around their necks asked us in their plummy South African ac­cents: “Would you care for a koek­sis­ter?” Imag­ine fried dough plunged into ice cold wa­ter (which later in­creases the syrup ab­sorp­tion), and then soaked in syrup.

“You will gain weight on this race,” said Chris West­garthTay­lor. He was on his third Joberg2c at­tempt. On the sec­ond last day of his first at­tempt, he dis­lo­cated a shoul­der and was air­lifted out. The fol­low­ing year, he was in­jured on a train­ing ride be­fore Joberg2c and had to can­cel his race en­tirely. With an en­tourage of friends to see him through the 2017 edi­tion, he also had an­other mis­sion. He’s a pe­di­atric sur­geon. His char­ity, Sur­geons for Lit­tle Lives, had 40 riders fundrais­ing. Through­out the race, it was easy to spot

the blue sur­gi­cal scrub hats over their hel­mets.

Af­ter draft­ing on a gravel road for hours, we hit a fes­tive wa­ter sta­tion. A lit­tle girl of­fered to lube my chain. An­other sprayed me down in sun­screen. Over an open flame, a farmer in a straw hat was brai­ing­boere­wors (bar­be­cu­ing a tra­di­tional farmer’s sausage). That night, dur­ing a steak din­ner, we strug­gled to stay awake as we watched video high­lights of the day.

By the end of Day 2, with 90 km rid­ing, I’d al­ready suc­cumbed to bum blis­ters. Dur­ing seven hours of rid­ing on Day 3, I in­vented new po­si­tions – sidesad­dle, rest­ing on the top tube – any­thing to avoid sit­ting. Com­ing into the first wa­ter sta­tion, I no­ticed our neigh­bour’s hands stuffed down his shorts ap­ply­ing chamois cream. “Hand­shake?” he asked with a dusty-faced grin.

By af­ter­noon I no­ticed an­other mess: en­gorged sun­burn blis­ters be­hind my knees. That night, a nurse wrapped them in gauze and tea-tree oil. For three days, I wore leg warm­ers in 30 C-plus heat.

The scenery was a dis­trac­tion from the aches and pains. As we left a quiet river­side sin­gle­track on Day 3, the trail opened up to a moun­tain shaped like a peak of meringue on a pie, and a 3-km climb up Mount Paul. Be­hind my Paul, a lone cy­clist tucked in. “I was signed up last year but had to drop out be­cause of the can­cer treat­ment,” said Malan de Vil­liers, a bio­engi­neer from Pre­to­ria. Off and on dur­ing the climb we re­vealed our lives. “Is this a good pace?” I asked de Vil­liers. Paul had scooted ahead. “Per­fect. Lead us up!” said de Vil­liers. Even­tu­ally an­other rider tucked in be­hind de Vil­liers. Heads down, churn­ing the ped­als, we rode in si­lence. Reach­ing the peak, we fi­nally talked face to face and took a pic­ture with a view of the Drak­ens­berg Moun­tains. We would ride along­side these beau­ties for days.

On Day 5, the trail cut across a canyon plateau. Great Wall My China felt like rid­ing on the edge of the world. At the top, look­ing down on the criss-cross­ing switch­back down­hill, I did some­thing I would never do in a race: I stepped off my bike and watched the riders glide back and forth down the moun­tain­side. With dust kick­ing up, it looked like cow­boys and cow­girls on moun­tain bikes de­scend­ing into the set­ting sun.

Later that day, we hit a spongy forested trail. (It was hard to be­lieve we were in an arid dusty canyon the day be­fore.) Painted on a rock was “Buckle up!” I led a group of riders into a pine forest of berms and jumps. “Kill it! Yeah!” yelled the rider be­hind me. Riders took turns hoot­ing and hol­ler­ing. “Let the brakes go,” I said to my­self. I was get­ting air and launch­ing off the whoops – ma­noeu­vres I wouldn’t try back home. When the trail spit us out of the forest, I felt like fist pump­ing the air as Judd Nel­son’s char­ac­ter did at the end of The­break­fast­club.

For nine days, time moved like an ac­cor­dion. Hours trick­led by painfully on the seem­ingly end­less dusty gravel roads and bumpy farm­ers fields, while sur­prises like a bag­pipe player on the top of a hill or two girls singing and serv­ing ice cream at a wa­ter stop were fleet­ing. But it was the blessed sec­tions of sin­gle­track (250 km) that fin­ished en­tirely too fast.

The race rou­tine was also be­com­ing sec­ond na­ture: wake in dark­ness to AC/DC’S “Thun­der­struck” blast­ing through­out the camp, pack bags, eat, ap­ply chamois cream, gather bike, lube chain and grab wa­ter bot­tles. With ev­ery­one in stag­gered starts ac­cord­ing to abil­ity, faces were also be­com­ing fa­mil­iar in our group. We had started in the E Pack, about the mid­dle of the field of 800 riders. But, we even­tu­ally moved up to D. I credit our climb­ing prow­ess: Paul and I love hills and Day 5 and 6 were miniEver­ests. Imag­ine 30 km climb­ing with a gra­di­ent ap­proach­ing 20 per cent. A cy­clist in front stopped ped­alling and im­me­di­ately fell over. From be­hind me: “I’ve never seen a woman with legs like that!” That was de Vil­liers. I smiled and picked up a smidgen of mo­men­tum with the ego boost.

Day 8. Could it be al­most over? Was I happy or sad? It had be­come an all-con­sum­ing world, where my arse was con­stantly sore, but I had never felt stronger, faster and more con­nected to my fel­low riders.

Even though Day 9 was an­other neu­tral day, we still had to ride 83 km. But at mid­day, I had a fright: as I crested a hill, my chain had snapped. The thought of com­ing this far and not fin­ish­ing be­cause of some­thing pre­ventable was crush­ing. I’d been shift­ing poorly all week, but that day I learned a les­son about lis­ten­ing to one’s part­ner and bike me­chan­ics. (Paul taught me how to reat­tach the chain with a chain tool.) We car­ried on through tall stalks of su­gar cane sway­ing in the wind, leaves slap­ping our faces, un­til we fi­nally reached the ocean. The sight of the blue wa­ter en­cour­aged us to start ped­alling faster. Fi­nally cross­ing the fin­ish line, we were handed bot­tles of cham­pagne. Af­ter many hugs with our new friends, Paul and I took the cham­pagne to the beach, toasted our hap­pi­ness and then jumped into the warm In­dian Ocean. We flopped in the wa­ter like chil­dren.

“I was get­ting air and launch­ing off the whoops–ma­noeu­vres I wouldn’t try back home.”

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