Monday, July 25, 2011


The 2011 Kouga Mtb race was held on 24 July 2011 (click the above image for my Garmin race ride). The weatherman was forecasting 23mm of rain for the day, so instead of using my Scott Spark RC, I opted for my Specialized Stumpjumper M5 HT. The Stumpy had last seen serious work on the Cape Epic 2010 and is now being used for my Coega Daily Commute (CDC). The bike has not had a major rebuild since the 2010 CE so I figured lets trash it in the rain and rebuild after the race.

The race venue was in a stunning setting just outside Oyster Bay with a great Bar and Fireplace - just the ticket for a wet race. It's not often we get to ride in wet conditions in South Africa and the drought which we had been experiencing over the last few years was broken by heavy falls of rain about two weeks ago. The raceday rain was falling on waterlogged impervious surfaces and in a catchment where one dam was already overflowing. The rain would provide a unique opportunity to see the Krom river in flood - what better way than to see it on a Mtb.

If this race was at Longmore or Kabouga, I would not have got out of bed. Longmore forestry roads have a high clay content and Kabouga has the typical clay which underlies Subtropical thicket. It cakes up everything and makes riding impossible. In contrast, the Kouga race would be over Cape folded sandstone and in fynbos. Though it would be wet, it still remains stunningly rideable, particularly in the fynbos areas, and more so in the wet, with the rain bringing out the most vivid of colours.

At the start, I indicated to the Race Commissar, Louis Rossouw, that I did not think the 135km race was on, due to the wet conditions. He seemed to agree, but, it appears the organizers were intent on holding the 135km race as they were expecting the rain to stop and riders were very keen to get in the training for the upcoming Baviaans. The Race Commissar agreed to allow the race to proceed, on condition that support vehicles were available to riders if they wanted to pull out.

At the start line I checked out how the competition was dressed and confidently predicted that the the Best dressed rider would win the day - and I was the Style man! I had come well prepared with: full length Addidas leggings; Assos shorts; Velocast winter race jersey; Scott RC jacket; arm warmers; undershirt and; a heavy duty Addidas gillet. I topped off the whole package with some full Neoprene Dutch cycling booties and a Pearl izumi rain jacket. In contrast, most of the opposition were lined up in cycling shorts, shirts and rather flimsy looking rain jackets which seemed more water resistant than water proof. Akin to taking a chop stick to a gun fight!

Feeling a bit like a polar bear amongst skinny dippers, the race started at a fast pace. At about the 40km mark, Johan Britz broke his frame and that left me riding with Craig Tunstead. In the valleys going down into the Kromme river my brakes faded and I backed off to conserve energy and for safety reasons. In wet conditions, you simply must start with fresh pads, and mine had seen a Cape Epic and regular commutes to work.

Up front, the leader took a wrong turn, and that put me into the lead for about 10km or so. I have always viewed a Race Commissar as someone with power issues. Now I understand why they are so neccesary in an event. They're there to ensure that the race is safe and fair. I know what its like taking a wrong turn and then fighting back to make up lost ground - thats just the way it is - a mistake has been made (either by the rider, or by the organizers) and theres only one way to get back into the race - on your own steam. The Kouga organizers had a different approach to sorting out a wrong turn - put the rider in a car and take him back up to the head of the field. I now know why Race Commissar's take the stand that they do - ie a time penalty or disqualification. There is nothing more disheartening than slogging away for 10 kms or more and then having your competition roaring up in a car and being dropped off next to you! In past races I have forfeited prizes to compensate a sore looser who took a wrong turn and have learnt that it solves nothing. Real mountain bikers must simply take it on the chin and learn to look for those visual cues (in this case the sign was down but the sign posts still clearly indicated the way). I am sure the organizers thought they were doing the right and fair thing and I feel sorry for the affected rider - being placed in such an unenviable position. However, one must take the cue from the rules. Kevin Evans lost SA titles this way and Bart Brentjens lost stages on the Epic this way. In the 2011 Cape Epic, Eva Lechner and Nathalie Schneitter, despite being the best riders, lost the womens title for taking a water bottle outside of a feed zone and in 2009 Burry Stander lost the Cape Epic for accepting a wheel via outside assistance. Sh&% happens and its all about how you recover and not about the setback itself.

I let the freshly dropped off rider (who was clearly not entirely comfortable with the race organizers decision) go, swallowed the anger, and started a slow methodical chase. I had warmth and food in my favour. I was fully stocked with energy bars and gu's and my polar bear outfit was holding up well. As the kilometers ticked off, I noticed how the leading riders tracks were becoming more erratic and I caught and passed him at about the 80km mark. I felt warm and strong, albeit without brakes, and was looking forward to the run in to the finish.

At this stage, the organizers stopped the race, in line with the Race Commisars ruling. Support vehicles could no longer support riders as roads were now flooded and inaccessible. Johan Britz took the picture hereunder which shows the extent of the flooding.

Johan's account of what happened makes for fascinating reading:
After my frame snapped I walked for about an hour (in cold, wind & driving rains) before I was picked up. As luck would have it I had to sit in the canopy driven by a guy with no sense of going slow on washed out gravel roads..... We went down this random gravel road with another bakkie coming up. The driver apparently held his hand up. Obviously in the "STOP, don't even try it" position. My driver read that as "Oh hello you, hellooooo, wavy wavy". So the driver gets to the water, and goes, ag, even though I can't see where the water actually ends around the next bend, I'm going to make it. Here we go... Water eventually raises to over the wheels. Soon the water is level with the doors and thus level with the "bakkie" section where I am. Driver keeps flooring it. Soon we stop. Not because he stopped, because now we are floating. We float about 2 meters to the left to where I think some branches stops the bakkie. Ja lekker, what now? (trying to very civil here). By now water is coming in everywhere, gushing in through every hinge and badly fitted canopy spot. Soon feet are under water. Grab cellphone and prepare to go for an unplanned dip. Open the capony flap (that was luckily not locked!). Guys open the doors in the front and get into the icy water. Seconds later I'm also in the water to just under your arms. Lekker slow watery walk to the side we went in soon follows. Next follows ANOTHER 45 minute walk (just a windy, but now allot colder cause you are properly soaked), to where the next rescue vehicle comes. Long story short, we get the dead bakkie towed out with my bike is aquaplaning in the back. Back 'n forth, back 'n forth, jumping between bakkies I eventually get back to the start/finish about 2 hours later, freezing and very gatvol.

So what about the status of the race? Well, the race was stopped after 87km, finishers medals were handed out and the person who was in the lead at the time won (I guess thats me). The race was stopped as per the Commisars ruling - to ensure the safety of riders who had pulled out.

I see there has been some criticism of the race, but, I beg to differ. This was a very well organized event - just unusual weather conspired to make this event difficult. The format which the organizers have is a potential winner. While there are long open gravel sections, there are also stunning sections through the Krom river valley. For me it was mission accomplished and it had nothing to do with winning. I got to see nature replenishing Port Elizabeth's water supply. It gave me a new appreciation of the beauty of the Krom area and let me know that a mountain bike is still the finest way to get around. Weather is not an issue, its really how well prepared you are. Just like you should never expect to cross an ocean comfortably in a life boat, you must be prepared to accept what nature throws at you and be prepared for it. Treat it lightly, and you will come off second best. Respect it, work with it, and with the right gear, and you will love it. So HTFU and roll on the 2012 Kouga challenge!

You can also take a look at Johan Britz's take on this race on the hub

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