Monthly Archives: April 2013

A town called Solitaire

Day 106, stage 82, 124km

Start, Weisenhof Guest Farm

Finish, Solitaire Guest Farm Desert Ranch

Two weeks from today, all being equal, we will be cycling into Cape Town. Hard to believe. But there is still a lot of hard cycling to do and anything can happen. I remember being told a story about a guy who was EFI when he arrived in Windhoek but got so sick in Windhoek he couldn’t even think of getting on his bike. Unfortunately we had our own version of this story coming out of Windhoek. Lizzie, who held second place in the women’s race, had felt run down coming into Windhoek. In Windhoek she went to the hospital and discovered that she wasn’t just run down but had a significant infection in one leg that appeared to have started with a saddle sore. She tried to keep going but had to give up coming out of Windhoek. What a shame, she is a really strong rider with a great attitude. But anything can happen.

Day 2 off road there was less climbing and a lot more descending. Before lunch the day was pretty much like the day before – some good bits of road, some bad bits, but manageable. After lunch we went onto a D road and off the map. The reason for this was a mountain pass that was not to be missed. We came out of the mountains through a pass that laid out dozens of miles of valley before us. We descended 500 metres in only 4 kilometres. That is an average gradient of -12.5%. With switchbacks, this is serious white knuckle and smoking brake territory.  The descent is so steep that our trucks had to take another route. They were not allowed to go through the pass. It was remarkable. Some people walked some of the steeper and rougher parts of it. I cycled the whole thing but had my brakes firmly engaged the whole time. I almost lost it at one point. I was on a smooth bit and had picked up a fair bit of speed. But before I knew it I was back on dirt and going too fast, and then the dirt became very corrugated. One hand bounced off my handle bars and I only had only hand left to keep my upright. Somehow the lazy hand found the bar again and grabbed the brake hard. I skidded around a switchback and got it back under control. Shit. Too many broken bones on this tour already.

After descending into the valley we cycled another 45km to the town of Solitaire. Sounds like a lonely place right? But it wasn’t. It was little more than a cross roads in the middle of the Namib but it seems to be the social hub for the area. There is the camp we stayed at, a gas station and general store, and a bakery and restaurant. The bakery makes amazing apple pie – they say they make 150kg of pie a day, sounds outrageous but could be true. When we arrived there must have been twenty or thirty cars in the parking lot. And they kept coming, disgorging fat people who made a beeline for the bakery.  What a bizarre place. But a great place to camp.

Following John Cleese on a tricycle

Day 106, stage 81, 112km

Start, Arebbusch Travel Lodge, Windhoek

Finish, Weisenhof Guest Farm

There is a lovely paved road that goes from Windhoek to South Africa, the B1. We didn’t take it. We headed onto the dirt, gravel, rocks and sand of minor C and D roads, where we will stay for the next 8 riding days. We are heading through the mountains and then the Namib dessert.   After following a bit of tarmac that got us to the dirt we also started to climb. By the end of the day we would climb 1300 metres – and to no avail because we would also descend 1200 metres.  Having said that, these dirt roads were probably the best we had travelled on so far on the Tour. There was clear evidence that they had been graded in the not too distance past and we did have sections that were hard packed and almost smooth. But we also had sections that were badly corrugated and made every effort to shake your fillings out; that were deep, sandy gravel and tried to grab your wheels and turn them sideways; and that were studded with large, sharp rocks that felt like riding over the spikes on a pit bull’s collar.   The deep, sandy bits were usually at the bottom of a hill – just waiting to catch you and throw you off your bike when you were at your maximum speed. The corrugated bits were usually on the flat straightaways – designed to keep you from generating any kind of decent pace. And the sharp, rocky bits were usually on the uphill sections – designed to keep from you from cycling a straight line (the shortest distance between A and B) so that the line you took when ascending a steep hill looked like you were following John Cleese on a tricycle.

But I had a fairly good morning to the lunch stop. I had some hills in my legs from the couple of days of hills leading into Windhoek. My pace slowed a it after lunch but I still made good time to camp. I probably would have cycled faster if Bob were still there to pace me but Windhoek was his last stop. His bike was boxed. His bags packed. His flight booked. He got up early with us and came down to the trucks to say goodbye to everyone and see us off. It would have been great if he could have cycled all the way to Cape Town with us but it was fantastic to have him with us for as long as he was. He did 3500km through 5 countries and didn’t miss a f***ing inch.

Claus was also at the truck early this morning saying goodbye to everyone. Claus had fallen when brushed by a truck as we were leaving Nata in Botswana. He was originally X-rayed and told nothing was broken. But he was till in a lot of pain so in Windhoek he had an MRI and discovered there was a break in his pelvis. Claus was also a strong rider. It was sad to see him go.

However, we were joined in Windhoek by a few new riders, including a crew of three from Cinelli, the bike and cycle clothing manufacturer. There was the Cinelli rep, a filmmaker and a pro racer. There are here to film a 5 – 7 minute film for Cinelli and TdA. There first day out though was a bit of a wake up call for them. Wrong tires. They had close to 10 punctures – all those pit bull collars. At camp that night they made frantic efforts to beg borrow or steal better tires.

And they weren’t the only ones. As well as maintaining my EFI status for the last 3 ½ months I also held the record for fewest punctures. I hadn’t had a single one – a record hard to beat.  I spent a lot of time wandering around looking for wood to knock on. But it didn’t help today. I got to camp all right with tires still fully inflated. But an hour later, after a shower and a coke or two and went to put my bike away for the night. The back bloody tire was flat. My bike had betrayed me. I was already composing ad copy for Schwalbe Marathon Plus tire: “TdA rider completes 12000km on Schwalbe MPs without a single puncture” etc. When I took the tire off I found a centimeter long slit on the rim side – a pinch puncture. But perhaps not. Three other people had ‘phantom punctures’ in camp that night. Was it sabotage? Hmmm. Oh well, the ad copy wasn’t that good anyway.

We camped tonight at a 4,000 hectare guest farm. They ran 250 head of cattle (very dry land – grazing capacity is 16 hectares per head), bred horses – currently over a hundred on the farm – and ran a camp and guest house. It was a lovely place in the middle of nowhere with Pueblo style architecture and a hedgerow labyrinth. People get up to strange things in remote places. It had originally been part of a 10,000 hectare land grant to a German soldier in 1908.

two milk shakes and a sundae

Day 105, rest day, Arebbusch Travel Lodge, Windhoek

Windhoek is a growing and modern city. At times it almost feels as if you are in the south west of the USA. There are good roads, good shops, good restaurants, affluent housing and cars. So after the standard set of rest day chores – laundry, bike cleaning and maintenance and blog – we headed into town and went shopping. Many people went off to the bike shop. There is a very good one here that has all those parts people have needed for the last six weeks. There is also a good selection of cycling clothes. Since it had been very cold the last few days I picked up a fleece-lined jacket that I can wear in the mornings before the sun heats things up. And then, believe it or not we ended up at Spar, the South African chain of family restaurants, for a cheeseburger and a milk shake, or in Bob’s case, two milk shakes and a sundae. We were also hosting a cocktail hour at our chalet at 5 that evening so we picked up wine and beer and snacks.  All very civilized.

The hardship of Africa continued in the evening. We went to an excellent restaurant called NICE – the Namibia Institute for Culinary Education (I think). It was brilliant. It is run by the Institute and staffed by students. It has an open kitchen – all steps of food preparation are on display. It is in a quirky old building, stunningly renovated, with private and small rooms all over the place. It was all starched white linen, shining cutlery and the full choir of wine and other glasses. There was an excellent menu and wine list. Once again we ate and drank well and finished late.

Bye Bye Botswana

Botswana is a boring place to cycle – at least the parts where we cycled. It is flat (the Okavanga delta). There are very few towns and villages – one every 100km or so – so few places to get a coke. The bush is a monotonous sameness. There is no wildlife in evidence. Of the narrow ribbon of tarmac that we followed I am sure there is more happening. While we were in Maun Bob took a 1-hour flight in a small plane over the bush. He saw lots of game. We saw little from the road – even though the road we were on is called the elephant highway. The towns have a middle-America suburban feel to them. There is middle class affluence – shopping malls, civic buildings, functioning utilities. But there are also street kids sniffing bags of petrol and petty crime – not what you typically think of when you think of Africa poverty.

Bike

During the rest day in Maun I left my bike with the mechanics. There was nothing really wrong with it but we had put on a lot of miles recently and I thought I would take the opportunity for a quick tweak and tune. When I got it back the front derailleur didn’t work. I took it back again. They said my crank was also loose so they had tightened it. The next morning when we started riding again my crank sounded like an eggbeater. I rode with it all day. It was a pain. It appears the crank had been tightened too much and had crunched the bearings in the bottom bracket. So the bottom bracket that had been fine when I first took the bike in, as far as I know, had to be replaced that evening (by a different mechanic), who also repacked the headset once again – it was starting to grind a bit – and readjusted the front and back gears. After that it ran well again. But I was pretty pissed off for a day.

Body

Towards the end of Zambia I started to develop a saddle sore that wouldn’t go away. The days were getting longer, we were spending more time in the saddle, it was hot during the day and I sweated a lot. This is the first persistent saddle sore that I have had. It is not a killer. No skin has broken. But it is sore and I do ride with a low level of butt pain for most of the day. The long days have also made my legs a little tighter. I have a knot of muscle in my left thigh that doesn’t warm up for 20km in the mornings. I think I need a good massage to get the knots out. Other than that I am feeling great, sleeping well – and of course eating sensibly (coke, snickers bars, half litre tubs of blueberry cheesecake ice cream, crisps, mango cream biscuits and lots of oranges)

Head

With just less than three weeks left everybody is wondering what ‘reentry’ will be like. Many are anticipating change of some sort. A few say claim that within a couple of days they will be back in the old flow and it will seem as if they have never been away. I think some change will be inevitable, some rebalancing, some refocusing. The Tour has been a great way to clean the mind. The forced routine of our days and the obsessive focus has cleared away the clutter. It has almost been like going away to a retreat and meditating for a week or a month. When I mentioned this to a few other riders it was amazing how many of them said that over the years they had practiced some form of meditation but that on the Tour they had discontinued it. The whole Tour was a step sideways or outside that de-stressed and sort of calmed – calmed is not the right word, but sort of steadied the heart beat, got rid of big swings, ups and downs.

60 60 60 60

Day 104, stage 80, 159km

Start, bush camp, road works yard

Finish, Arebbusch Travel Lodge, Windhoek

Up at 4:30am (which is standard practice) to pack up and get ready for breakfast at 5:30, and be on the road by 5:45. It was freezing again, 4C. It was my birthday. I was 60. What did I do to deserve this?

But in spite of only wearing thin lycra shorts and being frozen I was smiling. I was having a great time. This was a good place to be. Dozens of other riders came up and wished me happy birthday. There was hot porridge to be had and the sun would soon be up. Somebody had brought the embers of last night’s bonfire back to life and put a little more fuel on it.  I went over and stood as close to the fire as I could and tried to warm myself up. It was my birthday and I was not going to leave at 5:45. I didn’t leave the warmth of the fire and get on my bike until 6:05. What luxury. Pure self-indulgence.

Sometime during the night Bob had put pink, silver and purple streamers on the ends of my handle bars. They went perfectly with my orange bar tape and mean black croix de fer frame. It was the kind of look I would have died for when I was six years old. I had to wait until I was sixty. But worth it.

We set off in the morning with the 2nd peloton again. They were going fairly slowly today because Lizzie was not feeling well so they were pulling her along. After lunch Bob and I went off on our own. After a while his legs went into involuntary spasm again and he shot off my front end like a rocket. The only reason I caught him about 3okm later was because he had a puncture. But no sooner had he fixed his puncture and we were back on the road when his new tube exploded. It was quite an impressive sound. Bob was not so impressed though. He fired the old tube into the bush on the side of the road with a few well-chosen words of encouragement. The same thing had happened the last time he had had a flat. That time I had lent him a tube, which he was still running on on his front wheel. The flat this time was on the back. When I look at the exploded tube I saw that it was a skinny road tube for a tire 18 – 20mm wide. Bob was running 35mm tires. No wonder it had exploded. The tire he had punctured was the one the bike had come with and was the right size. When Bob checked his spare tubes he found they were all 18 – 20mm. the guy at the shop had given him the wrong size. There will be words I am sure. Fortunately I had a spare tube of the right size with me and so we were shortly back on the road with tempers as well as punctures mended.

We were now in the hills again. After a week or more of very flat country we had about 900 metres of climb today, not a huge amount but enough to remind my legs what hills were. I actually enjoyed the day. It was a nice run and the ride through the hills into Windhoek is lovely.

When we got into town and to our camp I set up my computer and was able to get wifi right away – for the first time in about 10 days. I had a great chat with Liz and the girls and with my sister Pam. Lots of good birthday wishes. It was great.

Alex B has identified a good restaurant – the Stellenbosch wine Bar and Bistro. So after a drink at the bar at our lodge, about a dozen of us set off to the restaurant. We had a lovely meal complete with champagne, a fair bit of a lovely Pinotage and a sweet and spicy South African desert wine to go with the tart lemon tart, the baked cream cheese pie and the cheese platter. We sat at table until well after 10pm, well past our routine bedtime.

Bed by 7

Day 103, stage 79, 162km

Start, east gate rest camp

Finish, bush camp, road works yard

Forty-five fewer kilometres today. Sounds good. But we still had to cycle a century. Once again it was very cold in the morning. I was very slow to start. Bob went off on hi sown after about 50 metres. I just couldn’t warm up. Every part of my body was cold. My legs were tight. I just could get the engine started for about 20km. At about this time I met up with Maurice, an anesthetist from Peterborough. We started riding together and switching lead every km or so. The pace slowly picked up and after travelling together for about 50km we were doing quite well. Bob had waited for me at lunch. He had arrived ages ago. His young legs had obviously thrived on the 200km day. He said that at times he pushing at 38kmh. Good going. We left together after lunch and travelled at a good pace for me. We stopped in Ghanzi, the town just before our next camp, and stoked up on fluids and chocolate. The towns in Namibia were as few and far between as they had been in Botswana, but at least they were well stocked. We weren’t in the stockbroker belt but we were certainly in an area of middle class affluence.

Our camp tonight was in the yard and field next to the Municipal road works yard. Very attractive. Everybody was tired after four long days. There was a sort of celebration tonight – not sure what for, the 200km day perhaps – and there was a big bonfire. Many people watched as it was lit, hung around for a little and then slunk off to bed by 7pm. Even the die-hards had shut it down by shortly after 8pm. Real party animals. But we all knew we had to ride yet another century tomorrow.

A good day

Day 102, stage 78, 207km

Start, something lodge ganzi

Finish, east gate rest camp, Namibia

Today was the day we had all been waiting for. If the wind was favourable it would be as close to a doddle as a 207km ride could be. If the wind was not favourable it could be any flavor or dire from punishing to suicide inducing. It was also very, very cold. When Bob and I set off at around 6:45 it was still only 3C. We could not feel our fingers or toes. But we didn’t want to delay out start.

Apart from being cold the wind was not out to kill this morning. It was a cross wind slightly on the nose, hard work but low spectrum pain threshold stuff. By forty kilometres it was starting to warm up and we took a right hand turn onto the road to Namibia. This was marvelous. It meant that a cross wind was now almost a tail wind. We felt the assist immediately and picked up the pace. We made goodtime to lunch at the 85km mark. But were disappointed at the news there. In Botswana there are very few towns and very few places to stop for a cold beverage of choice. We had not passed anything but repetitive and anonymous bush in the first 85k. But we had been told at the briefing the evening before that there was a Station at km 114 where cold drinks could be had. At lunch this mirage evaporated. We were told that the Shell station was no more. It had closed. Cold drinks were not to be had. The next opportunity for a pit stop would be at km 150 where the TdA Land Cruiser would have refreshments. So another 65 empty kilometres. Bob and I left together and set a still pace. But just about where the Shell station should have been I started to tire. So we stopped under a tree for ten minutes, ate an energy bar and drank from our bottles. It’s amazing what a few of the right kind of calories can do. When we set off again I felt immediately better. We picked up the pace by 3 or 4 kmh and reached the Land Cruiser in no time. From there it was more of the same until about km197 where we came across a petrol station with cold drinks. We stopped and filled up. When we hit the road again we knew we only had about 8km to go to the border. Bob, with his new sugar hit, picked up the pace yet again. He just about tore my legs off. I stayed on his wheel for about 6km and then fell off. We had done over 200km. I cruised into the border, went through formalities and entered Namibia. We camped in a lovely place a kilometer or two after the border. They had green grass you could walk on with bare feet that we could camp on, warm showers and shop with cold beer and all the wrong kinds of junk food calories next door. A good day.

KNIGHT RIDERS

Day 101, stage 77, 142km

Start, bush camp

Finish, something lodge Ganzi

The five days from Maun to Windhoek would see us ride more kilometres than any other five days on the Tour. We would do a total of 825km in those five days. Tomorrow will be the longest day on tour at 207km. So to give us a bit of a break today we would not race the whole day, instead we would only do a 40km team time trial. What this means is that we cycled about 30km to the start of the time trial in a more or less causal way because we were not on the clock. We would then do the time trial, have some lunch and then cycle the final 72km to camp also in a casual way.  That’s the theory anyway.

We put together a team of five called the KNIGHT RIDERS. It consisted of Bob and I and the three top women riders: Bridget, Lizzie and Rosie. This time trial was not a pure contest against the clock where the fastest team wins. It was a time trial with a twist. Each team had to set a target time for the 40km ride. They then had to hand over all watches and cycle computers and, without the aid of any data, set and ride at a pace to arrive at their target time. This gives teams who are note necessarily the fastest the incentive to compete. Otherwise we all know, after three and a half months, who the fastest people are and who will win.

We set a target time of 1h36m or 25kmh. there was still some headwind and we didn’t want to push too hard. We wanted to be steady. At the end of the day we didn’t do too badly. We came in at just over 1h32m and came in third. We would have done worse but we had to stop once for a Lizzie wee break. We figured that if we had stopped for one more wee break we could have won.

As we left camp that morning we still did not know where the camp would be that night.  The lodge they had used in years past had shut and they needed to sort something new out quickly. They had identified a couple of options and left early in the morning to sort things out. By lunch we had instruction about where to go. We were told to turn left a couple of km after Ghanzi and follow a dirt road for about 3km to a nice camp. After battling a fair bit of a head wind after lunch we rolled through Ghanzi and found the dirt road. Only it wasn’t a dirt road. It was deep sand. Easily manageable in a 4-wheel drive Hilux but not rideable on a bike – especially one with road, not off-road, tires on. We could do nothing but walk our bikes in. Needless to some very pissed off people arrived in camp after their 45 min walk. Getting to camp was one thing. Waling a bike through 3km of calf-aching, heel blistering, 6 inch deep sand before getting on your bike to ride 207km was not a prospect many appreciated. After several people talked to staff it was agreed that they would shuttle people and bikes to the tarmac in the morning and that the race would start from there. So we went to bed mollified if still anxious about the long day tomorrow. What would the wind do?

Peloton crash

Day 100, stage 76, 160km

Start, Sedia Hotel, Maun

Finish, Bush camp

I rarely set out in the morning with a fixed plan of whom I will ride with. I usually leave fairly early and set off with whoever is starting around the same time. We will often ride at different paces and separate fairly soon. After ten or twenty km I often find myself with one or two others or a small group riding at a compatible pace and work with them until lunch. After lunch I repeat a similar process. Other people set off in the same or similar bunch every day – the racers do this, and the second peloton that clusters around Ali and Lizzie also do this. I have cycled with this group a few times but after a while I usually their pace is just that bit too quick for me and I drop off. This patter has changed a little since Bob arrived. We typically set off together, often riding together for quite a while, usually until Bob decides to stretch his legs a bit more and he takes off. Today we set off at a fairly good pace and at about 20km came up to the Ali and Lizzie bunch. We tagged on the end and joined the growing peloton. There were about 12 or 14 people in the peloton. The leads pulled for 5km and then peeled off. This was great. It meant you could work hard and pull for 5 and then draft for 30 or 35km. You can save a lot of energy that way and travel at a much faster pace.

Unfortunately, as sometimes happens in a large peloton, people lose concentration and wheels touch. Italo touched Bob’s back wheel and went down. A half dozen riders behind him also went down. It was a bit of a mess. Italo landed on his head, cracked his helmet and then skidded and lost a lot of skin. Alex B landed on top and got a deep wound above his left elbow. Stig, who had just returned to the Tour after breaking his collar bone ended up in the pile as well. Fortunately everybody was more or less ok. We cleaned and bandaged Italo and Alex at the roadside. Neither had concussion. Others had landed on top of people and had not broken skin. Alex did have to go back to the hospital in Maun however. His wound required internal as well as external stiches. He met us at camp that night though and was back on his bike the next day. Good powers of recovery for a 65 year old. Italo kept cycling after we patched him up. He is only 64 so didn’t need any time off.

After the crash we put the peloton back together and started off again. Bob and I stayed with to lunch and then, very much against patter, left with it after lunch and stayed with it to the end of the day. With the wind, it was a good day to ride in a bunch.

The only downside to the day is that my crank sounded and felt like an eggbeater all day. When I gave it to the mechanics for a tune on the rest day they had over cranked the bottom bracket and ruined it. So the first thing I did when I got into camp was give my bike to the other mechanic and get him to sort things out, which included putting on yet another new bottom bracket. This was my third on this trip so far. I hope it holds out.

No bricks in the cistern

Day 99, rest day, Sedia Hotel, Maun

I didn’t sleep much last night. Alex B, Bob and I had rented a two-bedroom chalet at the Hotel. Alex took the smaller bedroom on the main floor. Bob and I took the larger one on the first floor.  It was a nice enough place. It also had a large sitting room, a kitchenette and a large veranda outside. But nothing much worked. There was no remote for the AC so we could turn it on. There was a big screen tv and a satellite dish but the tv didn’t seem to work. The toilet almost flushed but if you are eating 6000 or 7000 calories a day you need a toilet that really flushes. No bricks in the cistern please. And I don’t think the chalet had been rented in a while. All the windows were shut and curtains closed. There were no towels in the bathroom. But the power was on and the fridge worked.

I didn’t get much sleep because the day before we had simply chucked our stuff in the room and gone off shopping and eating. When we got back we simply went to bed. The main floor was ok but the first floor was full of mosquitos – no mosquito nets either. If the AC had worked we could have turned it on and frozen the buggers out and pulled on the duvets. Instead I tossed and turned until about two in the morning and then pulled the sheet off the bed and went down and slept on the sofa in the lounge. The sofa of course was about three and a half feet long. So I could either curl up like a pretzel or dangle my legs over an arm, in which case all the blood would leave my feet so that at least they would go to sleep. But I did eventually fall asleep for about three hours.

We finally got some towels and were able to clean ourselves up. They brought us three different AC remotes. None of them worked so the cryogenic strategy was not going to work. And they sent over somebody to fix the tv. And he was successful. I turned it on and began to flick through the channels. Our tv was programmed for no less than 71 stations – and every single one of them was a god bothering station. It was unbelievable. We could not get anything else. We had every flavor of American, African and Middle Eastern evangelical and fundamental nonsense – all of them asking for donations. Who would do such a thing?  Another rider found that his tv was programmed to receive only 3 stations, all of them showing football. This was obviously a themed hotel, like asking for the Elvis Presley room or the pickup truck room. I guess the upstairs bedroom was where they played out the plague years.

Since I didn’t sleep very much I spent the day doing very little but my chores. I cleaned my bike and gave it to the mechanics to tune. I did my laundry. I read for a while. I had a nap. I wrote my blog. But then of course the wifi – advertised prominently at the entrance of the hotel – did not work so I could not upload anything. Maybe the god bothering stations were sucking up all of the bandwidth.

Bob on the other hand went on an hour-long flight in a small plane over the Okavanga with Darragh and a few others and saw some great wildlife.  He did get home a bit late though. They had to thoroughly clean the plane before Bob and crew could get on. A couple of people on the flight before theirs had lost their lunch.