Last weekend was the start to Swaziland’s mountain biking season, and the country kicked it off in style with Imvelo, its most challenging and, therefore, most popular cycling event held in the Mlilwane Game Reserve. Attracting people from all over Southern Africa, I had heard about Imvelo even before I arrived in Swaziland. So when entries opened at the start of April, I made sure I registered early to snap up one of the limited 500 entries, which were sold out within weeks.
Having only mountain biked about three times in life, I passed on the 20km family and 65km you-must-be-nuts rides, and settled on the respectable 35km Challenge. Of course, having only mountain biked three times in my life, I didn’t quite comprehend what 35km of Swazi mountains actually entailed.
Fortunately, the briefing before the race helped me a bit in this regard: “River crossings can be slippery, and be sure to give way to Hippos and Crocodiles”. Um…okay. Before I had a chance to digest this properly and potentially back out, we were off.
Within a couple of hundred metres it became apparent how ill-prepared I was for such an event. I lost my only water bottle heading down the first bumpy hill, and my gloveless fingers solidified in the chilling winds, limiting my ability to change gears. To make matters worse, Swaziland was blessed with Geraldton-esque winds of around 30 knots on race day, sending a chill through my body, propelling dust into my eyes, and working sadistically against me on the uphill. The nail in the windy coffin, though, was the fact that the cyclonic breeze blew away one of the ribbons indicating the correct track. Of course, it was a few kilometres down the wrong track when I, and a dozen of my fellow competitors, realised this. If anyone knows me, they know that the thing I hate most when cycling is wind. After riding an extra 6km, I feel very justified in that hate.
Despite all of this, there was nothing like the exhilaration of zig-zagging down a gravel single track, over roots and rickety wooden bridges, between walls of granite, through muddy puddles, and past herds of zebra and impala. I even enjoyed having to physically pick up my bike and carry it up and over a wall of boulders, and through croc-infested waters. The best part, though, was learning to let go. The initial trepidation, where I was braking all the way to, often unsuccessfully, avoid skidding into the bushes on tight corners, was slowly whittled away to reveal a indomitable sense of freedom that left me laughing all the way to the finish line.
In the end, I completed my first ever mountain bike race (plus an extra 6kms), in a respectable time of 2:41:08, placing me 19th against females from all across Southern Africa – and I was even racing against adults! Not a bad start to the season, or the hobby.