Written for In the Bunch

This will probably be the toughest day you’ll ever spend on a bicycle.

I stare at the words in horror and read them again, hoping I have either misread or misunderstood.

I’m holding a typed A4 page I had pulled from the starter pack that I received at race registration an hour or so earlier.

The piece of paper contains the ground rules for the following day’s MTN Attakwas mountain bike race and the organisers evidently want to make sure that you know what you are letting yourself in for.

A few bullet points lower down they inform you that you are obliged to drag your fully charged cellphone over the hellish 121 kilometres of single and similar track that connects the Chandelier Game Farm, on the outskirts of Oudtshoorn, with Groot Brak River, which is equally close to George.

Not only that but, for security reasons, you have to save Gavin and Roy’s numbers on your handset because: if you should take a wrong turn, you may never be found again.

That’s just great! My problems have just been compounded. Now I have to find more space in my shirt pockets for the damn phone.

The chain breaker, multitool and plugs – which I was advised to buy earlier that afternoon – along with the numerous energy bars and gels already present a capacity problem.

My initial concern is slightly more pressing – fitness. It appears conditioning is the cornerstone of a successful crossing of the Outeniqua mountains via the ox-wagon trails of the early pioneers.

“Project Attakwas” started a mere seven weeks earlier when I received a one-word instant message on my BlackBerry. It read: Attakwas? My reply: No.

But the seed was sown and a week’s harassment later I was browsing cycle shops for a new mountain bike. My steed with the centre-pulls was no longer trusty and I figured I didn’t need the extra handicap.

Another week later, I was the proud owner of a Giant 29er – which left four weeks for training and one for tapering.

I gave it my best shot, but was in such desperate trouble on my last weekend training ride that I decided not to enter what I believed to be the Comrades of off-road races.

Fast forward to Thursday lunchtime.

The guilt trip had kicked in to such an extent that I decided to find out whether I could still register – half-hoping that I may have left it too late.

But I hadn’t.

The net result: I’m staring at the bulging pockets of John-Lee Augustyn’s hand-me-down Barloworld kit, wondering whether or not to downsize my padkos.

After all, the water points along the route are legendary and I’m told Spur burgers await at the third.

My race strategy is to start slowly and finish strong (yeah right), so I set off at a leisurely pace and am relieved to find my legs willing and able early on.

That would be the last of the good news.

My water bottle is dislodged on each of the first two descents, and I find myself riding against the stream in search of it.

Two unplanned climbs later, with water rations restored, I knuckle down to catching and passing the riders I had already left behind once.

More trouble lurks at the first river crossing, where my chain snaps. Expletives are followed by a silent “thank you” to my friend who insisted I pack the chain breaker.

Fixing a grimy chain in the middle of a race with sweaty hands is easier said than done and I manage to destroy two links before my bike is roadworthy again.

Hardly a kilometre further the severely shortened, grinding chain snaps a second time and I fear my race is run.

Hundreds of riders, embroiled in their personal battles against the Attakwas, pass me by and I don’t blame them.

Eventually one stops and shakes his head at the mangled mess that was once my chain. He produces a masterlink and sets about fixing it.

I protest heavily as the oily gunge transfers to his hands and clothes, but the Good Samaritan, who goes by the name Jacques, ignores me with the words: “Just remember me when you win”.

Several hours and a Spur burger later, with 35-degree heat melting my shoulder blades and cramps gnawing at my thighs, I’m not sure whether to curse or thank Jacques and decide to reserve judgement for now.

At the final pit stop, about 15 kilometres from home, a volunteer assures me all that is left is a short drag followed by a lengthy downhill – a chip and putt in golfing terms.

The drag turns out to be a killer pass of several kilometres and the downhill less than two, but then I cross the finish line and the pain is over.

Even though I have not won as per his tongue-in-cheek instruction, my first thoughts are with Jacques, who is still waging a lone battle somewhere out on the course.

Coetzee is a former journalist and full-time cycling fanatic whose PR company focuses on sports communications. E-mail him at coetzee@fullstopcom.com, visit  www.inthebunch.co.za or follow him on twitter (fullstop).

Issued by:

Full Stop Communications
Coetzee Gouws
041 368 4992
082 575 7991