Of course, my original post from the Umkomaas day (Day 8) of the Old Mutual joBerg2C was a cop-out. I mean, one of the most celebrated day’s riding on the planet and I just post Kelvin Trautman’s images to cover for me?
Apologies. So much happened on that day I didn’t even know where to begin. I was being honest about one thing though. Words can’t do the day justice. But, since it’s my job…
Day 8 included some of the fastest and slowest riding of my short life. The day started with a bang. Andrew and I woke up early and slipped into ‘A’ bunch. For the start of Stage 8 organisers seed riders according to the position attained over the previous seven days’ racing. Although I can’t strictly class what Andy and I were doing on the joBerg2C as ‘racing’, miraculously, we had been not sufficiently slow over the preceding week to be relegated down the starting order. This leads me to believe the seeding system is rigged.
Maybe the organisers thought a favourable blog post was in the offing if I got to start with the top riders, and therefore have a sniff at getting my wheel in front of the chasing pack down the mythical Umkomaas singletrack. But I doubt it. Farmer Glen knows how good this trail is. A favourable blog post is inevitable. He is confident that no matter where in the pack you attack the course from, you are going to enjoy yourself.
No matter. An ‘A’ bunch seeding is what we had, and I was looking forward to exploiting it. I carefully donned my Pearl Izumi freeride shorts after breakfast. Knee-length. Black checks. They screamed ‘fast’! Some might say they screamed ‘ponce’, but thankfully no-one said that to my face.
My choice of pants was a tip of the hat to the radical descent the Umkomaas offered at speed. And a silent reminder to anyone keen to get on my wheel that I was going to get a little loose on the way down the valley walls to the floodplain below. Now I just needed to do the descent (and the pants) justice…
Problem is, the day starts with 6km of district road. So I needed to stay up near the front of the bunch for when the singletrack entrance appeared. Well, that nearly killed me. We jostled for position like the main race at the Durban July. Breakneck speed all the way along the rolling district road. No-one was backing off. A faint taste of blood registered in the back of my throat up the short climbs. It turns out I wasn’t the only jockey keen to point his mountain pony into the trails first. Plus, the stupid pants ended up being a target to my lycra-clad competitors.
The popping of gears intensified as riders surged up the last stretch of district road. The first singletrack section with its two entrances loomed. David George was making a hard charge to the right-hand side. Hot on his rear wheel was Brandon Stewart. I had followed the powerful Louis-Bresler Knipe off the front of the bunch and we were heading for a spectacular bottleneck on the right. At the start line, moments before we set off, one of the cameramen from Bigshot Media had attached a GoPro video camera to my handlebars. As we honed in on the start of the high-speed action I luckily remembered to hit the record button. This was going to be fun!
At the last-minute Louis veered left, lifted his front wheel and ducked between the trees into the left entrance. I instinctively followed him into the void. My heart rate was through the roof. I was seeing stars as the shade of the thick gumtree plantation closed in around the singletrack. It took a while for my eyes to adjust, but I couldn’t slow the pedals down for a second, for fear of being rear-ended by whoever was on my wheel. I clung desperately to Louis’ rear wheel, watching it skid, hop and drop through the dark earth. I was hoping my handling skills would hold out as my lungs started to fade from the aggressive pace. Just hang on, I repeated to myself. No-one can keep this speed up forever.
I was partly right. No-one, except the three guys in front of me, could keep up this pace. Louis was riding like a man possessed and I was turning myself inside out to keep up with him. He is a pretty imposing figure at the best of times. Six foot three, almost 80 kilos and ripped. But following him through the trees I got to see the bike skills I’d only ever heard about. The guy is a maniac. We ripped through the singletrack parallel to David George and Brandon Stewart. For those of us who’ve done this section of the race before it’s common knowledge that the left-hand line is slightly longer than the right.
As I grimly held onto Louis’s wheel I was wondering what he was going to do about this. Since all the oxygen that might supply my brain was busy powering my legs, I couldn’t actually think straight. I figured I’d just leave the decision-making to Louis. Do whatever Louis does, I thought to myself. Then, when the two weaving trails were mere feet apart, and with no warning, he switched to the right. A simple slick manoeuvre. I followed suit, not elegantly slicing through a gap in the tree-lined trail as my fearless leader had done, but crashing through the brush a moment later, with bark and twigs exploding around me.
The switch lost a bit of my speed but totally threw my concentration. As Louis pulled away slightly I drifted a little wider on the turns, and brake-checked a few quick descents. Louis joined David and Brandon as I loitered about five bike lengths back, still hammering the bike as hard as I could. I glanced backwards, waiting for the inevitable green-and-white blur of David’s 360Life teammate, Kevin Evans, as well as the other race contenders. But he was nowhere to be seen. In fact, no-one was around! Up ahead the leading trio were tearing into the next section of singletrack. Then it was me.
Somehow, a large gap had opened up behind me. I was very wary of getting in the way of the racing teams. Some decent handling skills and my ego had brought me here but I had no place being with the podium contenders. Andy and I were hours behind these guys in the overall standings. To my relief, I wasn’t holding anyone up. So I put my head down and ducked into the next section.
The riding was sublime. Perfectly groomed singletrack, famously swept clean the night before by Farmer Glen’s ground crew. The rising orange sun streamed across the trail, clipped into a strobe by our speed through the trees. My heart was still pounding in my throat as the trail opened up and hit one of the few short singletrack inclines of the morning. Then Kevin Evans passed (he’d apparently lost his chain earlier), followed by Paul Cordes, and the guys from Team RE:CM.
As the window to the Umkomaas Valley opened up through the trees into a section called simply (and aptly) “Wow” I was joined by Oliver Munnik and Tyrone Bird. I was stoked, one of the greatest descents of all time was about to begin, and I was with two young pinners to celebrate the occasion. We settled into a fast rhythm on the tight descent down “Yankee’s Doodle”, sliding the back wheel out on turns and whipping our bikes over any rises. Then came “Murray’s Meander”, “Nick’s Pass”, the hairpin berms of “Sosiba’s Section” and the cheering children and villagers at Msayana School. I was still swimming in adrenaline and Oli and Tyrone were putting on a spectacular show in front of me. We had caught the guys from Team RE:CM, but had no intention to pass them. So we backed off a touch, to let them get ahead and create some more space to play.
Then it went pear-shaped. Tyrone was absolutely flying down an open section of the trail. Two smooth rolling bumps begged to be attacked, but a small drainage channel had been cut across the trail directly afterwards, and at full tilt, Tyrone’s left hand slipped off his handlebar. In a split second he was doubled over his bike, careering toward the precipice. Through a cloud of orange dust I saw him skid across the trail and luckily come to rest in some thick bush a metre or two below the track. His bike bounced down the mountain side, eventually lodging in a tree a few metres further on.
Our insane train had come to an abrupt end. Thankfully the TV helicopter had been tracking us down the trail. As I jumped to Tyrone’s side to brace him, and prevent him rolling down the hill, Oli waved the chopper down. We retrieved his bike and helped him out of the bush. He wasn’t going anywhere. He was covered in cuts and scrapes but, more seriously, his shoulder and neck hurt. We hung out with Tyrone for ages, making sure he was comfortable. Riders streamed by. All Tyrone could do was apologise profusely for ending the day’s fun.
Somewhere in the process of getting Tyrone stable, Farmer Glen’s daughter, Bianca came tearing down the track. Oli stepped onto the track to tell her to slow down and an instinctive handful of front brake saw her execute a spectacular forward roll over her handlebars right in front of us. Luckily Oli knows the Haw family well, and he dusted her off and made sure she was in one piece.
With the chopper right there we figured our invalid, Tyrone was in good hands. My partner had arrived in the meantime, so Bianca, Oli and I remounted our bikes and pedaled on with Andy. The lower reaches of the descent are just as exhilarating as the top, but obviously don’t offer the same dramatic views as we near the mighty Umkomaas river.
After a short singletrack section hugging the riverbank the trail spat us out across the river on another floating bridge. Then it was back into more riverside riding as we zig-zagged across the floodplain. We knew what was coming. What goes down must, eventually, come up and shortly after the first waterpoint the gradient ramped up and we settled into the long climb out of the valley through dozens of small water crossings. Plenty of time to process the crazy morning so far. That’s also when our first mechanical trouble hit.
Having ridden with Andy a few times, I had some idea that he was a bit inept when it came to the mechanical side of mountain biking. I just had no idea of the exact extent of it… our first puncture was a comedy show. We’re going to need to plug this, he declared authoritatively. I looked at him, his fingers pressing firmly on a bubbling hole in his tyre. You’re right, I said, fishing in my pockets for a tyre plug. I found one and handed him the applicator. He looked back at me, confused. Um, I’ve never actually plugged a tyre, he confessed. He took the applicator and pushed the rubber strip through the tyre, but before I could tell him to leave some of the rubber protruding, he’d pushed the entire plug into the tyre and pulled the applicator out. Right, let’s try that again.
This process took some time, with Andy eventually conceding defeat and reaching for a spare tube. Moments after fitting it he realised the spare tube he’d been carrying through eight days of the joBerg2C had a rather large hole of its own. So we fitted my spare tube. Another unfortunate rider had pulled up next to us to fix his own puncture, and he allowed us to use his pump, as we had long since run out of CO2 bombs to inflate our handiwork. Andy was on the brink of exhaustion, trying to inflate the newly-fitted tube, when I demonstrated how to open the valve fully to allow air into the tyre.
We left, eventually. But it wasn’t long before Andy was forced to stop again with another puncture. By the fourth puncture the novelty had worn off. I was grumpy. And stood idly by while Andy begged for spare tubes from passing riders. It was the fifth puncture that sent Andy over the edge though. In a fit of frustration he ripped the quick-release skewer upwards and destroyed the thread.
We were now stuck in the middle of nowhere with a flat rear tyre, no spares and, crucially, no way to remove the rear wheel to attend to the puncture. So Andy started running. I wheeled his bike and rode mine for a good 5km before a huge climb signaled the end of my heroics. We were still 8km from the second waterpoint.
At this point we said our farewells. I was going to cruise on to the waterpoint and let the mechanic know Andy would be coming. But I was of no use to the guy anymore. I momentarily felt a pang of guilt for abandoning my partner. But I bravely shook it off… and pedaled away, leaving him completely in the lurch.
Andy carried on walking his bike and reached the waterpoint, where he spent a good hour repairing his bike, which had also lost its rear brake incidentally! I sped on, working my way through the field and caught up with Thando Klaas, one of the Songo.info development riders. I spent the last hour of the race showing the young talent how to ride into a headwind! Andy, meanwhile joined some mates of ours at the back of the field and trundled home. Huge respect to him for having the guts to keep on trucking.
To add insult to injury Andy and I had an hour added to our overall time because we crossed the line more than two minutes apart. It was more like two hours. But I was just glad the 87km, and one of the longest days of stage racing I’ve ever experienced, was finally over…