There should be a warning on the Sabie Experience website: “THIS IS NOT A RACE FOR NOVICES” followed by two exclamation points. The warning should be in bold with submarine foghorn blasts every time the sentence flashes.
My partner Dave sold it to me like a snake-oil salesman sells his wares. He used the words “unforgettable”, “rolling hills” and “green plush forests”, sometimes in the same sentence and over a period of a few weeks. I was sold. It is one of South Africa’s premier stage mountain biking races in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. What could go wrong?
The 80, 80, 75 and 26k stages all start from the same paddock outside of York Timbers and head almost immediately into the mountains. At race briefing we were informed that the last mountain-bikers from the year before had an average speed of less than 10kph. We sniggered. The sombre cheek-chiselled athletes around us did not. Lots of new hair cuts in this room. People were here for business.
Day 1 (80k’s) - At the time my front wheel fell off I was doing 40 kph down the mountainside. We still had 7k’s to go. Up to that point, David had been catapulted over his handlebars on two occasions. My back wheel had fallen off during one of the single track sections through a pine forest. It was a generally fear-filled day and the impact of the ground brought me to the sudden realisation:- one should never borrow a mountain bike when competing in adrenaline sports.
Following my Road Runner-like dismount, and when the world stopped turning, I found myself on my knees waiting for searing pain to explode out of my collarbone. Luckily none was forthcoming so, after not being able to find the skewer to my front wheel, I took a gel and bar, hoisted the bike over my good shoulder and began the run home. I mock Dave that I saw him glance at his watch contemplating whether he should go it alone, but at no stage did our partnership falter. He pulled his weight (paying back handsome dividends on day 3!), and took turns running and carrying my broken steed home.
It was a tough day one finished off by our Rudy moment as the small crowd gathered at the finish line applauded us home, me carrying my wheel-less bike, Dave running his bike and carrying my bike-less wheel.
Position: 399th out of 439 teams
Last team: 8h03m
Day 2 (80k’s) – We were put back to the last starting paddock. But with our bikes now carrying the required two wheels a piece, we were confident we’d make our way back to the middle of the pack. The rocky winding roads up suicidally steep mountain passes was enough to stiffen our resolve. Thankfully the food stations were handing out rock buns covered in icing sugar, and not warm mushy bananas like the previous day.
The single tracks that connected mountain paths soon followed. These were slippery roots the size of tension cables that slivered between rocks and trees. The gifted few stayed on their bikes and delicately zipped their way through the pine trees like ballerinas avoiding gun fire. The majority of the field walked or wound their way down at a health and safety pace set on SLOW.
On reaching the highest point of the day, we realised we had made our way through many of the riders. We thought our average speed (around 9kph) would suddenly double with the descents. But the white grip of death engrained in our knuckles from the sheer spine wrenching descents, ensured our average would remain just slightly into double digits. Rock ledges mixed with bowling ball rocks, and day one’s crash, kept my fingers firmly wrapped on my brakes. My palms and fingers were becoming numb from gripping onto dear life.
Many of the riders who we overtook on the uphills came bombing passed us on the descents.
Their technical ability was more frightening than impressive.
We moved up 70 places following day one’s setback.
Position: 308th out of 399 teams
Last team: 8h42m
Day 3 (75k’s) – We thought our duathlon days were over. Alas they had only just begun. The heavens opened before the riding got exciting. My brakes failed soon thereafter (old fashioned clincher as opposed to disk brakes for me). We turned my brakes around which provided a smidgeon of grip, and remounted. Time spent changing the wheels had lowered my body temperature. The medics along the roadside provided me with a foil blanket underneath my wet cycling top. This staved off the cold considerably and my humour returned soon after. Later on I heard a father and son team pulled out of the race at the same point with fears of hypothermia.
Dave’s chain snapped with 17k’s to go. We discussed our situation:
Rob:- How far do we have to go?
Dave:- Less than 20k’s.
Rob:- Excellent. We’ll easily make the 9 hour cut off. We could run it home in about 2 and a half hours.
Dave:- It isn't like yesterday. Today’s cut off is 8 hours.
Rob:- That poses a problem.
A few k’s later of walking the muddy hills, free wheeling the muddy declines, and scrambling over the muddy road, we bumped into Sasha and Barry. Tattooed forearms, old school mountain biking baggy shorts, designer goatees, covered in mud from helmet to toes. 20 minutes later and with Barry’s miracle chain-link holding Dave’s chain together, we set off to get ourselves in before the cut off. These guys would go down in our books as Absolute Legends for taking the time to fix the chain of two competitors.
The chain kept slipping and with the lack of traction in the mud we were going nowhere fast. My brakes were filling up with mud globules the size of softballs. We kept pushing and despite our efforts couldn’t push through the mud and roads which had become rivers. Eventually with 3k’s to go, we managed to jam the chain into the largest gear on the bike. This meant that only with 100% effort on the cyclists part could we get going. For the last 10 minutes of the race we managed to get up to about 40k’s per hour on the tarred home straight. Unfortunately we missed the cut off time by a handful of minutes. That meant we were officially out of the race, but thankfully - for our pride - were eligible to finish the last stage of the race.
Position: missed cut-off time of 8 hours
Last team: 8h03m (cut off extended by 3 minutes)
Day 4 (26k’s) - The heavens remained open. We lined up with the first riders of the day waiting for our departure time. The previous day we were at the thick end of the mud with water up to our waists. The tracks of the earlier riders thickened the soup and made life for the slower riders unbearable. Now the roles would be reversed with slowest riders first. The rain became worse as the minutes progressed and hills became tractionless slopes which were impossible to ride over. The downhills were just as bad. I squeezed the brakes and held on for dear life.
After 2h13m we whooped with joy across the finish line. Riders, still waiting for their call-off times, cowered under tin-shacked rooves watching mud soaked riders crossing the line. The joyful expression in our eyes juxtaposed with the dread in those of the clean riders created a ying-yang moment which made finishing this race - for us - all the sweeter.
I stashed the small medal into the back of my bike shirt and asked the guys cleaning bikes to hose me down fully dressed. The mud ran down my legs like an oil spill. After that I had a swim in the pool. And then a shower. By the time we got back to Joburg several hours later, I had another bath and scrubbed. That night I went to sleep, like the bike, slightly broken. Mud was tanned into my feet and legs. The curse of the mountain biker.
Position: 165th out of 296 teams
Last team: 3h38m
Overall Position: 371st out of 451 teams
Bruises heal, bikes can be fixed, earned pride stays forever.