I don’t know why I bother stating that I am unprepared for my bicycle races – one can almost always assume this is the case. The last two weeks were no exception, although this time, the outcome was slightly different from what I’m used to.
Two weekends ago was the Siteki Road Race. Last year I entered the 35km ride and won. This year, I decided to try my legs at the 65km race. Given that I was on a mountain bike while others were on aerodynamic road bikes, and that my training the previous week had consisted of riding donkeys in Lesotho rather than riding bikes, it may come as no surprise that I didn’t win. In fact, I came second-last….by a long, long way.
The reason I chose to the do the 65km ride was in some vague preparation for the following weekend’s event – the Momentum 94.7 Challenge. This race, held each year in Johannesburg, is the second largest bike race in Africa. Stretching for 94.7km, it attracted 31,500 registrants this year – that’s almost 3 million kilometres pedalled in one city in one day. With so many participants, they had to schedule departures in 57 stages, starting at 5:30am and continuing until 10:27am. There was simply no way I could leave Africa without being a part of that!
Physical under-preparations aside, I was also a wee bit underprepared on the logistical side. Thanks to Vitor, Swaziland’s cycling ambassador extraordinaire, I was able to tag along on the Inyatsi team’s preparations at the last minute. I was also able to obtain some slicks (smoother tyres to make mountain bikes more like road bikes) from another super cycling Inyatsi friend, Richard. This may, or may not have been a good thing.
A couple of kilometres into testing out the slicks, I suffered a puncture, and had to walk five kilometres to work. Because I had slime in the tubes (gooey stuff that is meant to seal punctures instantly), the hole couldn’t be repaired so the tube had to be replaced. Of course, just to make things a little more interesting, the mechanic was 20km away, my car was out of action, and my bike had to be repaired and on the Inyatsi trailer that day in order to make it into the race at all. Nothing like a challenge!
Needless to say, I made it, and when it came to standing on that starting line at 7:45am on Sunday morning, I was feeling good. This may have been due to the excessive and undoubtedly unnecessary supplements that I had pumped into my body. No, not what you’re thinking, but rather free little sachets of unpalatable “Female-tailored herbal sports gels” courtesy of the previous day’s Bicycle Expo. It may also have been due to the 15,000 cyclists that departed before me guiding me forward, or the 15,000 cyclists that departed after me pushing me ahead. Either way, after 1:15, I had managed to cross the 30km mark.
At 33km it all started to downhill, and sadly I’m not referring to the road. Just before the Nelson Mandela bridge, my front tube popped. Punctured tubes are generally no biggie – they can be easily replaced – but this problem was a puncture in the side wall of my new slick tyre, requiring spare parts that I did not have. So, I was forced to sit by the side of the road and wait for a sweep vehicle to take me to the next mechanic where I could purchase a new tyre and tubes. Then, as I waited for the mechanic to fit these onto the wheel, I realised that I had left my water bottle back on the road. For the next 60km, I would be reliant on the intermittent water tables to keep me from keeling over.
Nevertheless, I was soon off again and racing hard…..but not for long. A further five kilometres down the road I found myself having a lot of difficulty getting up hills (not altogether unsurprising). Then I noticed even greater difficulty going down hills (a lot more surprising). Before I had time to check the problem, my back wheel seized up completely, leaving me nowhere to go except to the next mechanic. Fortunately he was only a few hundred metres away, but when he looked at my bike and shook his head stating “You need a proper workshop to fix this”, I thought my racing day was over.
Miraculously, by loosening a few screws (what can go wrong?), he managed to get the wheel turning ever so slightly. I was still in the race! The final 50km was a hard slog, as I continued with the sluggish back wheel while the heat of the midday sun passed up and over, but the scenery made it worthwhile: passing abandoned or squattered dilapidated and graffitied industrial buildings along Joburg’s inner city streets; cycling down leafy suburban backstreets where residents and spectators offered free tequila shots or set up garden hoses to spray racers as they zoomed past; and scooting along the motorway that was closed off for the exclusive use of cyclists as nature intended.
Five hours and 35 minutes after starting, I crossed the finish line. Not exactly a stellar time, but it was a time, which meant I had completed it. That was victory enough for me, and one more tick for my bucket list of cycling must-dos.