Cows of The Apocalypse - The 2017 edition of the Telkom 947 Cycle Challenge

19 November 2017

09h07 - As my wheels flipped belly side up, and gravity released me from its gentle embrace, my shoes unclipped from their pedals and I floated. Chewbakka was on my right. Also airborne. As though the Millenium Falcon was experiencing zero g.

The Angry Kenyan was on my left. In his stormtrooper black and whites. Exertion had drained the blood from his face. A tell-tale vein snaked its way beneath the skin of his temple. Two stormtroopers to his left heaved and sighed behind white teeth. The finish line had arrived.

Chewbakka and Han
We would hit the deck, Han Solo and Chewbakka, in a twisted embrace of steel, tyres and road rash. Cartoon characters sliding on tar to an inglorious lament of oohs and oh nos from the crowd.

The sub-3 had permitted us entry once more. It was a duck and a slide underneath a closing roller door. Han sliding on a hip, his spacegun drawn in one hand, Chewie rolling under with his crossbow in check.

But before we hit the black of the tar, I thought of my comrades: The Apocalypse Cows.

The riders ahead.

Those fallen behind.

I thought back to the alarm clock.
Princess Leah and her stormtroopers


Alarm clocks don't lie. It was 3h00. Soldiers call that time oh-3 hundred. Mosquitos had been at my throat all night long. I kept cranking up the fan until they evacuated the room and my palate was dry. Sleep before a day like today was pointless. It's a jumble of neurological impulses going through a million permutations of what the day might bring. Ready for the mishaps, the challenges. Ready for fate. Ready for destiny. Mosquitos could circle. Like helicopters in Apocalypse Now. But they could not prevent the day that was before us. I sensed its inevitability. And I love the smell of inevitability in the morning.

Jake and Han
Things happen in threes. George forgot his race number at home. Brooksie crashed his car into his garage. And Ben's car wouldn't start. Our 15 minutes leeway was eroding. The sun was not yet up and the day had already begun. But we would not give in that easily to misfortune.

George woke his wife up. Brooksie's got his car mobile. And Ben ditched his car and started riding to the meeting point. My brothers, Alby and Mucky, detoured to pick up Ben's gear. We were on the move but we were officially late.

The crew was waiting for us at the Sasol. The East Rand posse. Rock solid and reliable. Like Navy Seals. A quick team picture and we were on our way.

05h45 - DL batch
Nearly 6h08

Hacksaw Ridge
Hacksaw Ridge is a war film which follows the exploits of a pacifist soldier, Desmond Doss, at the Battle of Okinawa. Against all odds, Doss - who carries no rifle - remains behind to save his fellow soldiers and single handedly belayed 75 injured men down the Hacksaw Ridge cliff face. For this he was awarded the Medal of Honor, for service above and beyond the call of duty. This superhuman feat took Desmond 12 hours and each time he would go back into the warzone, under heavy enemy fire, repeating the words "Lord, please help me get one more". 

20 minutes in
We were 20 minutes in. The first ridge had been cleared. We were in one piece. Pete Moravec was in pieces. Breathing through a straw and yo-yo'ing off the back. The peloton exhaled. There was a snap. And then a ripple in the fabric. Something black was off the group dragging its chain behind a rear wheel.

10-15 minutes in
"I'm out. I'm out." A shout emanated from the pack. It was Darth Vader.

Darth had snapped a chain. The group was suddenly 54 strong and unruly. Without a leader reigning in the thoroughbreds, the pace had increased. Surreptitiously so. The legs creaked with the strain. The breathing became ragged. The salt began to lean on the eyelids.

There was another shout into the wind. Nigel - who was in the thick of the frontgunners - turned his beard toward the sound.

"Obi. Wan. Kenobi." The sound was gruff and loud above the noisy ruffle of the group's speed.

"Darth's gone. Snapped chain. You are captain til he gets back. Your team!"

Nige nodded.

Nige aka Obi looped a long rope around the frothing steeds, jumped on the brakes and bit his heels into the ground. But the beast would not heed and it surged.

Radio communications came through by Kyalami that Wookie's chain-link had mended Darth's chain. A team of five - including Darth, Wookie, Yoda and a pair of stormtroopers - was powering behind to catch up. Obi dug his heels in once more and the group succumbed, tapping off for the few minutes for Darth and the boys to catch up on the hills of Woodmead.

Francis dances
We were close to the highway, and the team, for those who were able to hold on, was composed. The early hills had taken out one or two riders early on. One to a puncture. Another to fate. But the core was together. 50-strong. Once we are on the highway, we can relax.

As the thought entered my mind, Francis's front wheel hit the back of Jayde's and he did the left-right-left-right downward shimmy into the tar ahead of my front wheel. Hitting another ACs back wheel is not permitted. I noted the fine. In addition, an AC is not permitted to fall off one's bike. A second transgression. Things were not looking good for Francis.

My fingers grabbed on my brake levers as soon as I saw Francis's wobble. His face-plant left no room for my wheels which rode over him and his limbs. The impact flipped me onto my stomach like a whale coming in for a beach landing. A third transgression for Francis and one with serious consequences because of my connections to the High Command.

Francis fractured his wrist during the fall. A fourth infraction. ACs - as we all know - are not permitted to break bones. But Francis endured and made no mention of the fracture. He remounted, sorted his twisted brake pads, and rejoined the team.
Four fines for Francis
It wasn't soon enough as the ponies up front began drilling a hole into the highway's ozone. The rest of the team hid in the vortex, sneaking a drink from their bottles when the angle of the road permitted. Workers at the back nudged weaker riders back into the safety of the peloton's core. A stiff hand on a lower back was the glue that kept things tidy. Energy shared, lives spared.

Captain Oates
"I'm at my limit, " Alan one of our new AC's called out to me as we rode above Wits University on the M1. "I'm good. I'll drop off in a bit. No need to let anyone stay with me. Thanks. And good luck."

I thought of Captain Oates in the doomed Scott Antarctic expedition, stepping outside his tent into a blizzard to sacrifice himself for the good of the team. "I am just going outside and may be some time."

That was the last anyone saw of Alan.

We manoeuvred the highway's sharp u-turn towards the Nelson Mandela bridge. The group splintered into components up the hill, each team sprucing itself for the bridge photographers. The next few kilometres allowed for the usual attrition as the tar rolled past the Johannesburg Zoo and Jan Smuts. Each incline took out a soldier. The small climbs and rises, jabs to the solar plexes, would break the will of riders on the edge.

I could feel the strain up Randburg: riders' knees groaned at the pedals; quads taking in shrapnel; lower spines absorbing the flack. But we knew Randburg's top, where we could settle our lungs on the flats, was close. Enough time to regroup before the gun-run past the tequila stand.

The Ridge
It was here that I had a memorable conversation with Ben Burnand. He had been at the rear all day. In the trenches. He looked strong. A composed stormtrooper. He had done a magnanimous job so far. Pushing anything that came towards him.
RobbyRicc: We're the back. That's it.
Ben: Is there anyone behind us?

I looked back down the road. All I could see was tumbleweed, shell holes and death.

RobbyRicc: There's nothing left for us. They're 100, maybe 150 metres back. But they're done for.
Ben: I'll go back.
RobbyRicc: There's nothing there left to put together.
Ben: With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don't seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together. 

I looked at Ben, his eyes dancing like assassins.

RobbyRicc: You may believe that Private Doss. But they're all done for. Done for I tell you. Better to save yourself man - to live and fight another day.
Ben: RobbyRicc, you go ahead. I'll go back. Because I don't know how I'm going to live with myself if I don't stay true to what I believe.

And with that he pulled over to the side of the road turned his wheel around and headed back into the fray.

All I could hear behind me was Ben's mutterings. "Help me get one more. Lord, help me get one more."
"Help me get one more"
The bridge too far
After speaking to Ben, I noticed the chasm between me and the crew had opened. They were moving on. My legs were not. I took a drink from my bottle. Depletion was setting in. I needed more oomph. More sugar. I sucked back on one of Keith's SIS gels (AC ammunition he had said) and waited for the cells to recharge.

In the Witkoppen doldrums, with the gap still ahead, I dropped as much energy as I could to bridge back. The group held its distance. My speedometer read 52kph, and still the gap loomed. I held my head down and pushed. Sweat and sunscreen dripped through my glasses and onto my bike's top tube.

I looked up. The gap was holding. I needed to find something more. But what? And from where?

"Come on RobbyRicc!" a voice hollered behind me, a hand placed itself on the base of my spine and skyrocketed me up the hill. "Yeehaa!"

It was Spartan. A man amongst men. He had lost us about 20k's back. A piece of plastic caught in his wheels. It took him several minutes to remove the debris from his chain. He had been time trialling back to the group since Jan Smuts. His nudge returned me to the pack. I was back from the dead. And indebted to Spartan for all eternity.

At the last hills of Malibongwe, I took a look around. The silence of the ascent had returned. The race had taken some, spared others. Whoever was left now, was not going without maximum effort. Riders paired up. Arms across shoulders. Palms on lower spines. The bodies exuded groans and agony. The sweetness of the descent down the Lion Park was yet to come. Minds knew that the pain would subside. It could not remain like this for much longer. How could it? It too would have to pass.

Charge of the Light Brigade
For this moment, the sky would go off like a flash bulb, etching the image of the riders into grey, black and white. Flecks of sinew and muscle. Grimaces. Teeth clenched. Mouths open. Gasping at the air. An image forever chiselled into the synapses.

Our Normandy landing. Our planting of the flag into the ice of the South Pole. Our axe into the hide of Everest. Our charge of the Light Brigade. Only in black and white.

All that was left were the bumps over Steyn City, and a nasty little leaner to the finish line. Ten to fifteen minutes of suffering. At most. And as always Steyn City would deliver. Riders, knees wobbling, held for the sub-3. Relying solely on Darth's pacing. This was his crew, his pace, his ride. And aside from the chain break, Darth don't make mistakes.

The Climb
For the second time of the day, up the last climb, I was overwhelmed. To my left were three stormtroopers: the Angry Kenyan, Kim and JP. To my right was Chewbakka. My old friend Chewie. Good for any battle. The suits had been designed around Chewbakka. And only one guy would be worthy to wear the Chewbakka suit: The Warmonger. A one-man vortex to my Han Solo. The key piece linking the Force and the Rebel Alliance.

The five riders crossed the line behind the core of the ACs. 2h59m and 27 seconds. And we basked in it, smiling broadly, bracing ourselves for the confetti and rock music. And for the long finish line. And for the groupies. Lots of groupies. Intergalactic groupies. Star Cows groupies.

And then Chewbakka's bike tangled with mine and we flipped.

And for the split second in the air, I knew we had made it.

My wheels spinning in the air like Saturn's rings.

Chewbakka twisting and turning - his crossbow strapped to his back - like a comet entering orbit.

And - for a moment - I swore he looked at me, smiled, and gave me a wink.


09h30 - Loop 2

After pizza and cool drinks, served by Karyn (Princess Amidala, Luke Skywalker's mom) and my brothers, Alb (the other Darth) and Mucky (the other Chewbakka), we restocked supplies and headed out for a second loop.

The Brothers Riccardi - moulds broken at birth
And the second loop, a whole other adventure, became our blue sky moment. Summed up best by what Chewbakka sent to me the day before the ride:

Once more into the fray...
Into the last good fight I'll ever know.
Live and die on this day...
Live and die on this day...

Chewbakka, Angry Kenyan, Jeffrey, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker

Chewbakka 3 - Han Solo 1
~ RobbyRicc

Of the 54 Apocalypse Cows who started:
  • 37 went sub-3 hours;
  • 15 finished but failed to make the sub-3; and
  • 1 did not finish due to a broken spoke. (A fine will - of course - be incurred as ACs are not allowed to break spokes).
Ben Burnand finished in 2h59m57s.

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