I couldn’t see Matt, but looking at the bicycle-shape hole in the sugar cane, I had a pretty good idea where he was. As usual, Matthew de Jongh, my race partner and good mate had shot down the hill ahead of me. And I was fine with this. Thanks to his superior bike skills and a total disregard for personal preservation, Matt was easily the quicker of team Subaru CAR’s two riders when it came to descents.
By now we were deep into stage three of the sani2c Race and, by his own admission, Matt had gotten a little cocky. Me too, to be honest. You can’t really blame us. Two-and- a-half days earlier we’d lined up with our fellow batch H riders at the Underberg Primary School ground. And, frankly, we were kakking ourselves. What lay before was the unknown... the unchartered... virgin territory... I swear you could hear a lone bugler in the background. As far as we knew, no-one had attempted this iconic South African stage race on a cyclocross bike before and we weren’t sure if our equipment or bodies would be up to it.
|Day 2: dusty but smooth trails. Ideal for the CX bikes|
For the preceding couple of months both of us had been riding our steel- framed Cotic >X< cyclocrossers on the mountain trails of Cape Town (me) and Pretoria (Matt). We’d gradually gotten used to the bikes’ handling characteristics on rough terrain and identified the correct spec we needed for a stage race (see sidebar for that). Remember that cyclocross bikes have their origins in the muddy fields and gravel roads of Belgium and the Netherlands, not the razor-edged shale of Groenkloof and the granite- hard rock on Table Mountain.
Our frames were steel. But what about our arses?
Would the bikes hold up over three days of sani2c? And more importantly, what about our arses? Sure, we’d done the 2013 race on rigid-fork, singlespeed 29er Cotic Simple mountain bikes, which meant that both physically and metaphorically we were already somewhat hard-arsed, but this was a whole other level. At least on those Simples we had large-volume 29 x 2.3 tyres inflated to the pressure of a party balloon. They were positively plushy compared to the teeth-rattlers we were now sitting on.
We hadn’t told sani2c’s acclaimed race founder and organizer Farmer Glen Haw about our plans either. Afraid he might nix it, we decided instead to pitch up at the start, sneak into our starting batch and (hopefully) once stage one was successfully completed, they couldn’t really boot us off. Yes, this was a mountain bike race but, hey, these were the bikes we regularly rode on the mountains.
|Matt grabs a little actual air. Really. Look closely|
There was also a performance upside to choosing a cyclocross bike as our Sani weapon of choice. There’s a fair amount of district road on the race route and here the bikes should come into their own. After the lycra-melting cadence employed last year trying to keep up with everyone along the flat bits on our single speeds, the cyclocrossers would allow us to snick it into a big gear, hunker down on the drops and leave those dual sussers bobbing up and down behind us in the fine KZN dust.
Looking good. Sort of
And for those initial two-and-a- half days it all went according to plan and despite being a little slow on the downhill singletrack, we passed plenty of riders on the district roads. Stage one was physically the roughest, with some corrugated ingletrack descents that really hurt our arms and wrists. The Hope V-Twin hydraulic disc brakes work well enough but require a lot of pressure to really make them bite. That means all descents must be tackled with hands positioned on the handle bar drops, nose right over the front wheel, and fingers pulling on the levers for all they’re worth. Do that a few times down hard-packed, rutted singletrack and you get the kind of forearm pump Arnie Schwarzenegger would high-five you for.
We were also worried about our skinny tyres. Would they hold up on the rocky descents and give us enough traction on the steeper, more technical climbs? Fortunately, experience on a rigid-fork, singlespeed mountain bike proved invaluable here. You get used to constantly moving your body weight fore and aft to maximize front and backend grip and it also teaches you to concentrate all the time. There’s no chillaxing downhill, bombing straight over rocks and ruts – on the singlespeed you have to manage every single centimetre of the trail you’re riding. Miss one obstacle and you’re likely to see that arse you been so busy hardening. On the CX bike this is doubly so. Even though they’re tubeless, with their small volume rubber you still need to pump the tyres rock hard (4 bar) to prevent rim damage. And this makes the bike very, very twitchy over the rough stuff.
|The descent into the Umko valley|
This concentration added a layer of mental fatigue that was even more taxing than the physical exertion. And sani2c is physically tough, make no mistake – especially the 100km- long stage two with its 60km climb out of the Umkomaas valley. Plus this is an actual race so its balls-to- the-wall most of the way – especially when you’re being chased by a bunch of mountain bikers who can’t quite disguise how miffed off they are at being passed by “a couple of flippin’ roadies”. Now add on to that four to six hours of scanning the trail ahead with laser beam intensity and you cross that stage finish line physically and mentally drained.
So there we were...
Stage three... 230km of the 260km race done and, against all odds, our bikes, our wrists and arses had held up. Except now one of us had forgotten to turn right and punched a large hole in a sizey field of KZN’s finest sugar cane.
Fortunately two arms appeared from the recesses of the buckled cane cavity... followed by two very wide eyes. Matt was okay. Oh how I laughed. The cockiness was now gone but a few kilometres later however, so was my smile. Going over a small bump, an audible (and very disconcerting) “crack!” below my butt together with a wobbly saddle signaled a big problem. My carbon seat post had snapped. Luckily it was only a couple of kays to the water point where a local farmer helped me make a splint of two nine-inch nails and swathes of gaffer tape.
And that was that.
After months of discussing, strategising and agonizing over our potentially foolish decision, Matt and I had done it. More than that we’d done it without maiming ourselves or forever damaging some of the more delicate parts of our anatomy. Even though – in a somewhat surprising move – we weren’t given a big shiny silver vase for dominating the Men’s Veteran’s Cyclocross category, there was enough satisfaction in proving that you can not only do a mountain bike race on a cyclocross bike, but be fairly quick too. We ended up mid- field in the competitive Race.
|The famous floating bridge at the finish. Note broken seat post|
At the after party later that evening, we had a drink with Farmer Glen and we finally told him what we’d done. Instead of a reprimand, he hugged us and laughed. “Guys, you should have told us man! That’s exactly what the spirit of Sani is all about. Fantastic!!”
Matt and I agreed that this was a way better than getting a shiny silver vase.
|Done. And dusted|