The Cyclist Challenge

My love of cycling was killed when, as a fifteen year old with a new Raleigh racer, I went for a ride of 50 kilometres or so with a local cycling club. I arrived alone at Cresta Centre early one winter morning, dressed in my school rugby outfit for some reason, including long, woollen socks – I must have thought I would look sporty. Everyone else was in lycra. Of course, I got left behind very quickly, finished stone last and had to phone home to be collected. I felt ashamed and cross with myself for thinking I could do something like that, my hatred of the innocent members of the cycle club turned inwards.

And that was pretty much it for me and cycling for the next 25 years.

Some unwarranted resentment still festers in me as a result of that experience. But, with some definite exceptions, I still find road cyclists to be condescending and less down-to-earth than runners. I think this may be because many amateur cyclists have a lot of money (because cycling can be an eye-wateringly expensive hobby) and the inevitable sense of entitlement that goes with it.  When you go to a road running race in South Africa, you see all types, all classes, all ages and all colours. Runners are friendly. A cycling race is 99.9% white, just about everyone is older than 40, and the parking lot is full of 4X4s (mine included). Cyclists are snooty.

With this in mind, I was expecting to hate yesterday’s 94.7 Cycle Challenge, which, I told people, given its commercial radio station sponsor and its participants, was going to be like attending a two-wheeled Coldplay concert, while donating generously but resentfully to Primemedia. And that was definitely the pre-race experience – the 20 bucks it cost just to park your car the day before the race to collect your race number, the aggressive traffic jam on Maxwell Drive in the queue to park our 4X4s at the start of the race, the embarrassed DJ interviewing cyclists at the start line.

But the gun went off and everything changed.  I finally understood why this race is popular and respected.  It is very well organised. All of the groups started on time (down to the second). Those selfless heroes, the Think Bike marshals, make you feel safe, and politely brook no nonsense from motorists. It is also a tough race for its length, with just under 1.5km of climbing over the 95km route.

I admit that I loved every minute of it.  I started in an unseeded group, which included several not-so-funny dress-up artists and madmen on ice cream bicycles in cow suits (I suppose the cause they support, CHOC, in support of children with cancer, makes them acceptable), but once I had picked my way through them, I kept a steady pace, and had a good race.

This was my first proper bike race, and I was aiming for anything under 4 hours. At the 60km mark, a 3h15 seemed possible, but then I reached the last 35km stretch on the N14 at noon with the temperature reportedly at 38 degrees Celsius,  and I wilted a little and allowed myself a few minutes at each of the watering stations. So I ended up finishing in 3h43. I am already planning how to start earlier in a seeded group in next year’s race, and wondering whether a sub 3 hours could be possible.

I’ve made amends with the 15 year old in the rugby jersey.


5150: perseverance

I wouldn’t describe my warm up swim in Germiston lake the day before Sunday’s 5150 triathlon as pleasant. As my six year old daughter put it (loudly, and to not much amusement from the serious triathletes in the vicinity), “it stinks, Dad. I can’t believe you’re going to swim in there.” But the weather was good, the water comfortable, and, except for the occasional stray duck feather and slimy lily tendril brushing my legs, it was fine. Fun, almost.

Having registered for the event after my swim, feeling warm and tingly, and wearing the brand new, free and quite flattering goodie bag T-shirt, I was feeling a lot more confident that this triathlon was going to be just fine.

I woke up at 4am on Sunday after an anxious night of semi-sleep. The weather had turned nasty. It was cold, overcast and, a wintery wind was blowing hard. For the first of many times that day, I considered baling from the event. The wetsuit I had borrowed didn’t fit, and the thought of doing the swim in that weather without a wetsuit made me a little green. But I got up, dressed in the dark, and packed up the bewildering variety of triathlon equipment (goggles, ear plugs, cap, sunblock, cycling shoes, running shoes, towel, bike, bike fixing equipment).

The weather was no better by the time I got to the lake. Having checked in my bicycle and slid it into its slot, I laid out my gear as neatly as I could alongside it, then went and sat forlornly on the lawn and waited for my wife and daughter to join me. Withdrawal from the event still seemed like my best bet. Some good news was that the water temperature was 19 degrees – six degrees warmer than the air temperature.

The presence of my wife and youngest daughter must have spurred me on because the next thing I knew I was up to my waist in green water in something called the “holding area”, under starters orders. There were about 200 people in my starting group. I saw one other who wasn’t wearing a wetsuit. I became aware that I was practicing the swimmer’s distress signal described during the pre-race briefing.

Then a siren went off and we were swimming. The wind was moving the surface of the water so that it was like being repeatedly slapped in the face as you moved through it. I saw several people being fished out by paddle skiers and the safety boat. I remember in particular the ashen complexion of one guy not far from the start who didn’t look like he was going to make it. He was treading water, with a wild look to him and all I could think was, “get away from this guy because he is going to grab you and pull you under”.

The 1500 metre swim leg was a rectangular trip around three buoys – It was supposed to be 730m to the first buoy, a couple of hundred to the next and another 500 or so to the shore. The swim to the first buoy had a nightmarish quality to it – the nightmare where you are trying your best to move but objectively you are not going anywhere. There were times when I would look up and the buoy seemed even further away than it had been the previous time I looked up. With knowledge gleaned after the swim that the buoys had moved (in the wind apparently) and the actual length of the swim was between 2000 and 2100 metres, and not 1500, maybe this was not an illusion.

I got through the swim solely by telling myself that if I just made it to the shore, I could withdraw from the race and get warm. But as I stumbled out of the lake past a man wielding an underwater camera, a strange euphoria enveloped me and I think I even managed a little strut up the aisle into the transition area past my wife and daughter who were both shouting anxious encouragement at me. Before I knew it, I was pushing the bike out of transition, struggling to swallow two bananas, clipping in and pedalling.

I was aware that not only had the sun come out, but also that it was now scorching hot.

The swim had taken me a depressingly long 50 minutes (in retrospect, not absolutely shocking given the conditions and the extra length), so I realised that I needed to try and make up some time on the bike. I barrelled along for the first 32 km of the cycle leg averaging a swift (for me) 31km/h and I was actually starting to enjoy the triathlon experience for the first time that day when I felt something go wrong at the back of my bicycle followed by the familiar repetitive thud of a punctured tyre. I had 8 kilometres more to cycle of the 40 kilometre out and back course, and the last 8 kilometres were all uphill. I considered getting off and changing the tyre, but I knew that if I did that, there was no way I would get back on, so I pedalled the last quarter of the cycle leg very slowly and very uncomfortably.

By the time I got to transition, my average speed had dropped to 27 km/h, my right leg had started to seize up, and I was in the quitting mood once again. I racked the bicycle, and started changing out of my cycling gear, very slowly and petulantly, chewing on an apricot energy bar, my mouth too full. I hoped that everything about my manner was communicating my disdain for the whole experience, my rejection of the concept of the quick triathlon transition in particular.

I was by now aware of pain in a number of places, and I wondered what formalities were required in order to withdraw. Then I realised that even if I walked the entire 10 kilometre run, I would still make it before cut off. And then I was lacing on my running shoes and jogging out of transition alongside Germiston Lake, feeling momentarily stoic.

I got through the run with a fair amount of hobbling and quite a bit of walking. Everyone was being amazingly friendly. I think those who were at around the same time as me had realised that they were going to make it without being cut-off and a good natured atmosphere was in the air and everyone was encouraging everyone else to hang in there. I saw that guy Stan, an amputee, and that dad who does this type of race pushing his child in a wheelchair.

With about a kilometre to go, I realised I was going to finish. I began to feel quite emotional. As I crossed the finish line, with my wife and daughter cheering, it was suddenly all too much and I was hunched over, hiding my face, choking back tears, clutching my medal.

Today, I feel as though I have been run over. The few serious triathletes I spoke to after the event all said that this triathlon was particularly difficult, mainly because of the swim (which turned out to be longer than the swim in a half iron man), and because of the wind. It certainly ranks among the very hardest things I have ever done. And it is just about impossible not to spout platitudes here, but the reward of tapping your very last reserves of emotional and physical strength to conquer pain and fatigue is a very powerful one. I can see why people do these things again.

Oh. My time? I did it in 3 hours and 50 minutes. (The winner did it in 1 hour and 55 minutes.)

What rough beast slouches (crawls) towards Germiston?

Like several others who have been trumpeting an intention to go for 31 days without any alcohol, I have joined the unctious ‘Octsober’ brigade. This is partly because the Germiston 5150 triathlon which I rather glibly entered several month ago is now just over four weeks away, and with various parts of me being sore as a result of overdoing it on my bicycle, my fascist training regime has started to peter out. 

A fairly seasoned (pickled?) drinker, I have learned that booze doesn’t motivate exercise, especially when one is injured. This is mainly because drinking is more fun than slamming sore body parts into tarmac, but also because alcohol and fitness seem to hate one another.  There is not much worse than being active with a hangover.  So no drinking for me this month, and quite possibly after that too. I will let you know how it feels to be a teetotaller.

The triathlon on 3 November involves swimming 1500 metres around Germiston Lake , then riding a bicycle for 40 kilometres, followed by a 10 kilometre run. There are a few cutoffs to instil some anxiety – an overall time limit of four hours, and you have to have finished the cycle leg within three.

My sense now is that the swim and the cycle, while not a doddle, will not be a problem. It is the run I am worried about. I have not done more than 20 minutes at a time on the treadmill for a few weeks now, and this morning I had to downgrade my entry into the Gun run half marathon next weekend to the five kilometre fun run. I foresee a fair amount of walking in Germiston on the day, which means I will have to try and do the swim and the ride as quickly as I can in order to avoid being cut off.

The over-serious rules for the triathlon provide that for the running part, athletes are only permitted to run, to walk or to crawlLet’s hope that it doesn’t come to that, and that the crawling is confined to the swimming.


Social rides and separation

Yesterday, I rode the “Heritage Day Social Ride” with Cyclelab (the club I belong to) from Fourways to the Voortrekker Monument, via Tembisa, and back. Well, ‘with Cyclelab’ is inaccurate, really, because I was dropped by the group I rode with after about the 20km mark. I set off with them, but got stuck at a red light and watched as the bunch whirred and clicked its merry snot-gunning way into the distance and then out of sight along the R101 towards Pretoria. I never saw them again…

Turns out I am not very good at riding in a group. A combination of the proximity of all that lycra, the knowledge that nobody is wearing any underwear, and the continuous possibility of a stranger riding into you, hurting you, damaging your bike, makes it an ordeal for me. The result is that I tend to drift slowly towards the back, making it easy to be the last one to arrive at a traffic light, just as it turns red. I know one is supposed to tear off from the light and catch up, but this happened on an uphill and I didn’t have the energy. And I sort of hoped the bunch would wait for me, but it didn’t. I became separated from the collective.

Fortunately, I had decided the day before the ride to get in touch with an old friend, Tristan, an elite cyclist (personal best of 2 hours 18 minutes for the 94.7) to ask if he wanted to come along. I warned him that the pace was going to be tedious for him, and said he could drop me whenever he liked. I am very glad he came.

Tristan stuck resolutely but cheerfully behind me for the entire ride, saying how badly his legs and mind needed a relaxed ride like this one (we did the 110 km in a little under five hours). At one point, on an uphill at about the 95km mark, when he could tell I was no longer having much fun, he gave me a gentle push from behind with a hand on my back, about as touching a gesture as is possible between two men on bicycles. Had he gone off at his usual pace (averaging well over 30km/h) and left me to do the ride on my own, I have no doubt that I would have ended up calling my wife to come and fetch me from a shebeen in Tembisa. I was feeling pretty sore for most of the five hours (a stiff left Achilles and an aching tendon behind the right knee if you must know).

Nevertheless, I finished the ride and feel good for having done so. Who cares that it turns out I am as crap a road cyclist as I am a slow road runner? That said, I am not entirely convinced that Cyclelab’s “social ride” pace was strictly adhered to by the riders – I think some of them invest quite a bit in going faster than their fellow riders. I guess this is just the natural competitiveness that results from putting people together in a group and asking them to do the same thing.

Riding solo to Clarens was fun because I could do it at my own pace and stop whenever I liked. Yesterday was a good experience because I got to connect with an old friend and to watch him demonstrate precisely why I liked him in the first place.

I am not really a social person, and while I really do enjoy pedalling, and how it feels after finishing a long ride, I am not sure that I will ever be a comfortable member of this collective.

Cycle laboratory

The trip to Clarens resulted in my first bona fide injury. See previous post.

And so last week I went for a pro bicycle fitting, a process where a friendly, lean man measures you with lasers and then sells you expensive components you can’t afford but which you apparently can’t do without unless you hate your body enough to continue injuring it.

He sold me a saddle from Italy the price of which can only have been in lira.

He sold me handlebar tape made from platinum. (Not really).

He warned me my mountain bike shoes and pedals were the real cause of my injury. But the prices he mentioned to fix it made my eyes water. No hyperbole. I actually cried.

Then on Saturday I went for a bicycle ride with Cyclelab club (what does the lab stand for? Laboratory? Labrador? Laborious?) which leaves from Fourways and rides out into the cradle of humankind, where all human life allegedly began. Adjacent to Krugersdorp.

The saddle is incredible. Worth every million lira.

But my Achilles. The agony. Can only be the shoes and pedals. So straight to Cyclelab the shop, situated immediately to the right of where Cyclelab the club ride ends, (clever that), where Investec overdraft services kindly bought me some real road bike shoes and pedals which I will try out tomorrow on the club’s heritage day 110 km social ride to the Voortrekker monument.

Wish me luck.

Well done, Overdone

No surprises, I guess, but I have injured myself by cycling the 550km to Clarens and back. Not severely, but sufficient to make the prospect of my participation in the Gun Run half marathon in mid October in Cape Town, (for which the entry fee, plane tickets, car hire and accommodation are all paid), unlikely.  

I keep asking myself what I was thinking undertaking the equivalent distance of five Cape Arguses, or six 94.7s, over four days, completely alone, when I have been cycling for just three months, and only a year after emerging from 20 years of slothfulness. The result is that I have a sore left achilles tendon, coupled with an ominous grinding sound when I move it, and also pain behind my right knee. Both of these are classic overuse injuries – what the websites disapprovingly call “too much too soon”, tsk tsk. The only thing that wil improve things, these sites say, is to rest the affected parts.

This means that I can’t run or cycle for a while. I confirmed this by attempting a 5km run on Friday. I had to hobble from 3km onwards. So I am, for now, confined to Old Eds swimming pool, where I spend about as much time sitting forlornly on a white plastic chair waiting for a lane to become available, as I spend flopping around in the pool.

I am almost resigned to missing the Gun Run, but still hope to be able to do the triathlon in Germiston which I have entered. That’s on 3 November. It is a “5150”, which is a 1500 metres swim followed by a 40km cycle and then a 10km run, and, before my big bike ride, the training cycle for it was running along just swimmingly. (See what I did there? Triathlon humour. Pretty annoying . My favourite triathlon joke: the Jewish Triathlon, which is the one done by the old Jewish men at Old Eds gym, consisting of a 10 minute shower, a 20 minute sauna and a chat).

it is hard now to see the unfulfilled workouts rack up, day after day, one after another, on my meticulously compiled training schedule, with “rest” written in under each ambitious daily goal. On Saturday, for example, I was supposed to do “45 minute cycle, brick, 30 minute run”, meaning ride for 45 minutes, get off bike, put on running shoes and immediately run for half an hour. I did nothing. Yesteday I managed 60 lengths in the pool.

I feel quite depressed about this. What I find interestingis that I am as addicted to exercise as I was to cigarettes (a year of not smoking on 25 September). This sounds melodramatic, but even though I am relatively bad at all the activities I undertake – I have run 5km in under 30 minutes only once, I dawdle when I cycle, and let’s not talk about swimming – not being able to do two of these three things for the past week feels like part of me is missing,


I made it! Got to Stonehaven on Vaal at 12h30 after a pretty grueling 6 hour 120km ride from Petrus Steyn,including 2 stops for food.

Round trip: 550km in 5 days with one day off
Total hours in saddle: 24.5
Status of legs: sore

Tomorrow I head out on my bicycle again. Northbound this time, to Zimbabwe. See you soon.

That was a joke.




This is where I was at my second double century.