A few month’s ago I stumbled upon this stage race that fit the bill for a unicycle. It was close to home, affordable and most importantly the distances were manageable. This was Gravel and Grape’s third edition offering 2 versions; the Extreme and the Adventure. You’ve probably guessed that the Extreme was the more demanding of the 2:
- Day 1 – 66km, 1480m elevation
- Day 2 – 65km, 1210m elevation
- Day 3 – 50km, 1000m elevation
The Adventure is what I would call “Unicycle friendly”:
- Day 1 – 35km, 484m elevation
- Day 2 – 30km, 670m elevation
My personal goal for 2017 is to get out of Cape Town every month. Get away from this computer and get out of my bubble. This could be May’s adventure. I sent Shaun Engelbrecht a seed planting email. It didn’t take long for that seed to germinate. Shaun was in the process of a career change. Out with the desk job and in with the hiking and mountain bike-guiding job. He is also officially the first unicycle guide in South Africa and has a little card to prove it. Both frothing to take up the challenge of a stage race we paid our entry fee on 27 Feb. This was the cut-off date that entitled us to a 50% refund if we retracted from the race. Money out the bank meant it was official we needed to start training. Both frothing to get outside!
Training began, we ventured out on long rides virtually every weekend. We have a sub-mission for all the muni rides – we are linking up, piece-by-piece, the Table Mountain National Park MTB routes from the city bowl to Cape Point. Why? We want to do a multi-day tour of the Cape Peninsula. I so loved having a riding buddy again! Someone that was always psyched to ride, gave words of encouragement and was a strong muni rider. Admittedly Shaun just kept getting stronger because he was out exercising more than me. Something about a desk job versus an outdoor job. We spoke gear geek about vans, motorbikes, uni’s, hammocks, tents, bikepacking. He didn’t mind my snot rocketing. I packed us little gourmet riding meals that repeated on us in various ways. It was muni buddy bliss! But one of the best parts is we rode hard. We were training for everything – heat, rocky terrain, steep climbing, forested single track, sandy descents. But most importantly – ‘TITS = Time In The Saddle’. We needed to be able to ride 2 days of roughly 30km’s without being broken. We even went as far as Barrington and rode some of the trails at the Garden Route Trail Park.
The Tuesday before the race Shaun decided to meet Hilton Smyth for a Uni session. Shaun was hopping around on his 20” when he landed poorly and broke his ankle. Yes you heard me. My riding buddies ankle was kaput, broken, stukkend! Eish, that sucks for Shaun big time. He literally left his desk job a month prior and was starting to establish himself as a freelance guide.
Now what? What are the options? Not do the race and loose the money or maybe 50% of the money. Find a new riding partner, who? There are not many people that are skilled and fit enough to ride this race on a muni at the moment. There is Jonathan Benjamin, Van Zyl Gunter and Piotr Wolski in the Cape region. I also considered asking Rob Bulloch but I had a strong feeling he would decline because he pulled out of Argus this year due to lack of training. What are my back up options? Find someone to ride with me on a bicycle. A uni / bicycle team. The person on the bicycle would need to understand that a uni is slow and needn’t be MTB fit. I considered Ethan Roberts and Brent Boswell. I proceeded to mail the race organizers asking about refunds and the option of riding with a bicycle if I couldn’t find a unicyclist. I proceeded WhatsApp Van Zyl, Jonathan, Ethan, Brent and Piotr. Slowly over 2 days the various responses came back and to my delight Piotr took up the challenge in true Piotr I-don’t-plan spontaneous style. Beata, his wife had encouraged him to do the race. Thanks for that Beata!
Fortunately there was a long weekend before the race, which enabled us to get 2 consecutive training rides in. The rides cemented that we could do this race as a “team”. I knew Piotr had the ability because we had just done 24 Hours of Oak Valley. Our first training ride was in Tokai MTB Park. We all know Tokai is not an easy park to ride especially the climbing aspect. Our 2nd training ride was from Newlands Forest to Constantia Neck and back. Both rides were about 17km’s. They revealed that Piotr has the heart of a true Unicyclist – regardless of the challenge he has perseverance, which is coupled with a positive attitude. Two of the most important traits of a unicyclist. It was a good thing that we did these rides. Whilst coming down Boulders in Tokai we bumped into Rob Bulloch and Andrew Barkley sneakily riding on 2 wheels, tut tut. They noticed that Piotr’s saddle was on backwards. Immediately corrected by the trio, a bit more chitchat before parting ways. Whilst riding down Vasbyt Piotr’s crank came off. The grouped parts went flying off in various directions. First we picked up the crank / pedal group, then found the crank bolt further up but the spacer had shot off into a mound of dry leaves. Gone. Luckily I always have a full selection of tools in my hydration pack. There’s nothing worse than a long walk home because you don’t have tools. We put the crank back on and managed a successful arrival back to the parking lot.
Friday afternoon on race weekend, we toddled off to Goudini Spa near Rawsonville for registration and then to our safari tent at Slanghoek Mountain Resort. A very picturesque location. I set about preparing my gear, replacing the lost spacer and putting Loctite on Piotr’s crank bolt. I definitely didn’t want a repeat of our Tokai ride. Piotr made dinner, hehehe… a little bit of gender role reversal. We had a lekker kuier sessie before getting some shuteye.
Alarm sounding, pulled from our slumber. Two cups of coffee too activate the brain. Oats with fruit for fueling. A large smearing of “Ass Magic” on the nether regions and we’re ready to go. On arrival we had a little warm up pedal. I dislike the part where you know everyone is staring at you because you have one wheel. Especially in the world of super serious lycra clad mountain bikers. Riding a unicycle is not a discreet affair. Geared up we started riding at the back of the pack in a very anxious state. It was hard to shake that feeling of you know you are in a race but can’t compete seriously but your brain keeps informing you otherwise. It took some time for us to relax and just get into the uni flow. We pedaled out in a southwesterly direction toward the Hawequas Mountain Catchment Area on some dirt roads, a combination of pebble and sand. Then hit our first section of single track, ascending sharp rock. Quite technical with constant stop starting. It was frustrating. Fortunately this didn’t last long. Back on the dirt roads on the Lorraine Private Cellar farm. We cycled passed a local who asked us if we were doing the race. We obviously said yes. This was Schalk the farm manager. He darted off to fetch his fat bike so that he could join us. Apparently he had built the MTB route that was on the farm. After more dirt road we finally hit a good section of flow single track that had a continual ascending gradient. I loved this section of riding because of the flow; I could stay on my uni. Piotr had devised and executed his riding strategy for the race on our training rides. Any hint of a climb he was going to walk. And walk he did, head held high. I discovered that Piotr particularly loves downhill. Most of Piotr’s riding experience is rooted in doing DH and not cranking climbs. Partly my nature and partly the training, my approach was that I was going to ride everything I could possibly ride. The climb had to be unmanageable or I had to be super fatigued to not ride. This is when Piotr started calling me “Donna the beast”, especially when it came to the climbs. This is how I felt when I was training with Shaun. By this stage we had lost Schalk due to a faulty hub on his bike.
Back to the dirt roads and the eventual arrival of our first refreshment point. What we found very amusing on approach was how chilled out the refreshment vendors were. They eventually noticed us and rushed to turn on the kak commercial tunes and man their sweet stand. They were amazed to see us on unicycles. They asked if we wanted to continue and we said yes. A call was made to the event crew that had started striking the first section of the race to inform them of our desire to continue and finish the course for the day. We mounted our steeds to resume our sandy adventure. Stopped again by the gentleman that was striking the course. He gave us directions with a general overview of the remainder of the course. Off we went. This is where the riding got annoyingly sandy. We road along a dried out riverbed, half way into the course I found a wild watermelon patch. Being the forager that I am I picked one and shoved it into my hydration pack. More loose sand, aaaarrrgggh! We arrived at what was meant to be an amazing piece of single track called “The Maze”. It was kak! Sandy became the dominant terrain for the day. Around here we merged with the riders that were doing the longer version of the race, the Extreme. Back on the sandy dirt roads with the 2 wheel variety receiving numerous encouraging, respectful comments. Another refueling break at the dried out riverbed where we watched people collect and bag white pebbles that you would purchase at nurseries. A tediously long stretch of straight tar was next. We took a few nether region breaks. Finally our second refreshment point had arrived at the Du Toit Kloof Winery. An impressive spread from the previous one. This is where I discovered small boiled potatoes that you dip in salt. Yoh, they hit the spot! Salt, potatoes and biltong, yum yum yum! I’m not sure how it happened but someone shoved a bottle of Red Muscadel into my bag. Heavily laden with a wild watermelon, bottle of Red Muscadel and at least 1 liter of water in my pack we continued on the sandy roads. The grump was slowly creeping in but we managed to remind ourselves that we asked for a challenge and this was it. We forged on and eventually made it back to Goudini Spa. The onlookers were mightily impressed that we had crossed the finish line. Some people rushed at us to take photos. Kinda weird. We found a patch of shade on the outer ring of the lycra clad cyclists, stripped off all the extra’s so we could cool off quicker and hunted down free beer and food. That was day 1, a slight let down from a riding perspective.
Day 2 started in a similar vein. Alarm, coffee, food, Ass Magic and packing for check out. Piotr had said, “I wonder what the cleaning staff will think when they see all the sachets of Ass Magic in the bathroom dustbin”. Mind in gutter – right? A late arrival to the start line meant we were forced to walk up the start shoot in front of a large group of ready riders. We had to throw our uni’s over the fence and muscle our way behind the start line. The last in the string of cyclists we headed out on Slanghoek Rd in a northeasterly direction. The tar was a good warm up for the legs before all the climbing began. Today was the climbing day, 670m of elevation over 30km’s. Ushered off the tar road and onto dirt. We zigzagged through the vineyards whilst constantly gaining height. The course also took us through some monster-sized buildings that housed stainless steel tank after tank, an unusual but interesting addition.
We’d had gloriously overcast weather on both days. A blessing in disguise because the next section of riding demanded focus and strength. You were constantly engaged with very little time to relax. This is what made the entire adventure worthwhile for me. Guided off the dirt roads onto beautiful flowing single track. Roughly 12km’s of constant unbroken single track. It just went on and on and on. I will be the first to admit it, I’m a bit of a single track slag. It’s my ultimate happy place! The first kilometer or 2 was more like a warm up. It was mostly smooth with enough obstacles and undulations to keep you in the zone. Slowly we gained elevation. Then came the switchbacks. I’m not a fan of switchbacks because they are designed for descending bicycles that do tight 180º turns. These had a particularly pleasant gradient for climbing on a unicycle. There were no rocks or roots which meant all you needed to do was crank lock crank. Piotr was exercising his uni portage abilities again and decided to cut a straight line up the mountain instead of winding with the switchbacks. I continued to ride. Every now and then I would hear Piotr say “Donna the beast”. I did walk the top few switchbacks because I was pooped. Cheerfully walking along I found myself talking to Valiant my unicycle, “Aren’t we having so much fun today Valiant?” Grinning from ear to ear. Nearing the top we started traversing the mountain. I was in my happy place and had to force myself to stop and wait for Piotr occasionally. We are a team and teammates look out for one another. Approaching the end of our 12km single track there was a sign that said split. When we arrived at the split there was no indication whether we should go left or right. We decided to call the emergency number for directions because even the smallest detour would add more time to our snail paced journey. Right was the short route to the base of the mountain and to the only refreshment point of the day. “Where are the salty potatoes?”.
The journey home began. Another 12km’s of flat straight district dirt roads. It was boring. The most exciting thing that happened on this section was passing a field of butternuts. I obviously had to pick one. Eventually the mountain bikers stopped passing us. Then the motorbike support rider passed. Then the ambulance. We were the last people on the course. The last of the marshall’s were patiently waiting for us to arrive home. “One kilometre to go”, they said. We matched our pace so that we could ride to the finish line together. Welcomed home by the commentator he ensured everyone was aware of our achievement and presence. People ran up to us to take photo’s. There was even a quick interview on the finish line. I think we both enjoyed being acknowledged for our efforts.
Prize giving started soon after our arrival. The first people called to the stage were Piotr and myself. Why? That morning when we were leaving the start line the commentator had promised us both a bottle of wine if we finished the race. We were collecting our gift. It was clearly stipulated by the organizers that we were not entitled to any of the prizes because we were in the non-competitive category. We truly appreciated this kind gesture. Overall I found all the people involved in the race to be really nice. Oh, there was that angry grumpy mountain biker in the red jersey who had poor communication skills. He was the only unpleasant aspect of the entire event.
By Shaun Engelbrecht
What are you on about now Shaun! Well before I waffle on further, let me give you a bit of background so that things make a bit more sense. 24hrs of Oak Valley, is an annual race that takes place at the Oak Valley wine Estate in Elgin. It is a 24hr mountain bike race around the farm, where you can either enter as a solo rider, or as a team. In 2015, four of us took part and it was epic, so myself and Donna get chatting to enter again in 2017, and from there things got underway.
This time around we managed to round up a team of 5, including myself, for the 2017 event, and all of us would be doing this on our unicycles as we did in 2015. We were the OddWheelers and the event was to be known as the “Dawn of the Riding Dead”. The reason for this being that after having a rider on the trial non-stop for 24 hours, we all begin to look like Zombies. This now leads me to the introduction of our mascot, Mr Death Wheel, who was plastered on our team T-shirts.
So, as I have already alluded to, the idea is to have a uni rider on the trials at all time for the full 24 hours, with the ride starting at 12:00 PM on Saturday 28 Jan, until the same time the following Sunday. We would be riding through the heat, darkness and whatever else we were dealt, all the while trying to stay on our uni’s and not get run over by those training wheels, AKA bicycles. After all we were those guys, you know the kind that enters a mountain bike race, but only pitch up with the front wheel. Damn, now even I am making horrible, where is your other wheel jokes…
Donna: Ladies first, we have Uni Mom, the face and soul of OddWheel and the South African unicycle community. She always keeps the rest of the team on their toes, and puts up with the boys.
Van Zyl: The yoyo master, and all round great rider, who in a short time has been able to accomplish what many riders with plenty more years under their belts, could not.
Rob: Speed machine on and off road (thankfully for me he did not train that much), and for the weekend, our potjie master. All I can say is we were well fed on Saturday night, nom nom!
Piotr: Our polish scientist friend, whose name is forever mis-spelt and mis-pronounced, but politely takes it, but don’t let the politeness fool you, because he is a strong rider. Piotr, thanks for taking the last leg, I think I would have died if it were not for you!
Yours Truly: The speed freak (only cause I have been riding longer than Van Zyl, Rob had not trained much, same for Piotr due to his travels and Donna tweaked her back the week before the race). I was the unofficial ring leader for the team I guess. My take on the team, what a bunch of clowns, pun intended.
The initial planned trail was around 12km with about 250m in elevation gain. However, we experienced heavy rain the day before the race. The organizers were forced to change the route as some of the trail was damaged; the new route was now around 12.5km with 350m in elevation gain. Not too bad, but over 4 laps, which is 50km of riding and 1400m of climbing, all on one wheel. Eina!
The route started on a rugby field, and for a uni rider, grass is one of the worst things to ride on. It tends to pull you in all sorts of directions. The trail then shoots off right and straight into a climb running along an apple orchid, then through a flatter section between rows of pine trees before looping around a rather dry dam. The climbing continues through a short single track section before hitting a nasty and steep section of jeep track, which tops out at a dam full of flowering lilies. It may seem as if the climbing is over, but alas it is not.
A small downhill section, and then you guessed it, more climbing. Now just a short, steep and muddy section lay between the rider and relief. Now comes relief from what feels like never ending climbs. From here it is pretty much downhill. The only section causing a few problems are what I like to call baby heads. Imagine closely packed rounded bumps, making you UPD if you are not fully in the zone. The builders had also placed and few log bridges over fences and low walls, they are fun during the day, not so much in the dark.
The route has now looped back, heading in the direction of the camp site, a steep decent leading you into the best part of the entire route. Flowing forested single track, compacted and wet thanks to the recent rains. No matter how tired you may be, it would always bring a smile to your face, and as a bonus you knew you were almost home. Coming in, you are greeted by friendly smiles of the first lot of campers, situated right next to the trial, then riding up onto the field for a last push to the start finish straight for the changeover.
To recap, 24hr mountain bike race, solo or team, running from 12 until 12, with a loop totaling 12.5km from start to finish. The aim is to cover as many laps as possible with in the 24 hour period.
Although the race only began at 12, the day started a lot earlier for us. The camp site opened at 7:00, registration at 7:30 and we still all needed to drive to Elgin, just the other side of Sir Lowry’s Pass. Rob and Donna were the first to arrive, finding us a suitable campsite nice and close to the start, Van Zyl and myself arrived not too long after, whereby we commenced operation camp set up.
Tents, awning, chairs, pots and pans were flying, however not nearly as much as the general banter and chirps. We were yet to start on the mountain bikers chirps which would come later. After much internal fighting and chirping and giving each other our 2 cents worth, we had a home for the next 24 hours plus, and it was something to behold…
Not really, some cyclists had full camper set ups, husbands, wives, children waiting hand and foot on riders. Never the less, it was our camp and it contained the most important piece of kit for the weekend, our unicycles. From there we went to register, get our tags and scope out the start/finish areas. The music was already pumping. There were a few stalls to buy food and drinks, but tucked away behind it all were hot showers which would come in handy later.
We were joined a bit later by Piotr, who had only arrived back in Cape Town at 12 the previous night, returning from Lusaka. Piotr took the minimalist approach, proceeding to take out a sleeping bag, sleeping mat and his unicycle. Camp set up done.
The next question was, who would go first. The idea was that the individual with the lowest number goes first, and that was Piotr. Well he needed to catch up on sleep so that would not work. I then volunteered to head out first, being the unofficial team leader and all. Suit up! It does take me a while to get all my gear on. Let’s see, shoulder strap for the constantly dislocating shoulder, ankle guards to the ever twisting ankles, knee guards to protect the knees from the inevitable falls, not to mention the standard stuff like helmets, gloves etc. Now I am ready, let the race begin.
The event started at 12:00 on the dot, beforehand though we had to be at the rider briefing where the MC was kind enough to ask the training wheels (mountain bikers) to stay out of our way because we are sssoooo much faster than them.
Briefing done, we place our metalic steeds at one end of the rugby field, and then line up at the other end, and when 12 o’clock comes we race to find our bikes or unicycle in this case, and begin the race. Being in no particular rush, I walk across the field and let the racing snakes do their thing, and I wait a bit for the masses to head out, and off I go, beginning our 24 hour endeavor.
The route profile shows that majority of the elevation gain of 350m is covered in the first half of the route, and tappers off for the remaining half. This means that I was picking off the training wheels one at a time during the first few kilometers, with the weekend worriers battling to keep up with me. The second half is another story, with all the freewheeling training wheels catching me again. I must say though, I am pretty sure I still finished the first lap ahead of some other cyclists which always makes me happy happy.
To ensure smooth hand overs, we had a set of two way radios, whereby the rider would let the team know when they had passed the tag points. The next rider could then start to get ready and had a rough idea when the current guy or girl would be in.
Donna took over the reins on my return, flying out the gates and showing the boys how it is done. She was followed by Van Zyl, then Rob and lastly Piotr who had caught up on some sleep. Our lap times varied between 60min and 1h30min.
Starting at 12 worked in my favor, it allowed me to scope out the trail. When it came time to do my second lap in the heat of the day meant that the 2 wheelers started to fade and the riders had spread out a bit. I was adamant then to do a sub 60min lap, and my second lap would be the best time to do it. Piotr came in at 18:00 and I was up. I shot out of the gates, determined to beat the hour. I was out the saddle on the climbs, gunning it on the flat sections and bombing it on the single track. I knew I could do it. Coming onto the rugby field, I began to slow, satisfied with my pace and feeling I had it in the bag. Then I see Rob waving his arms wildly and shouting at me to hurry up. Oh crap, this is going to be close! Sprinting for the finish I fly across the line and swipe my timing tag. I had done it, the team had timed me and I had done the 12.5km in 59min37sec. That was close, high fives were given all round, I was happy. I did however have another 2 laps to do and pretty much spent all my energy on this one lap. It was so worth it, even if I had reached my zombie state earlier than expected.
While I was out, Rob and Van Zyl got working on the chicken and veg potjie, with enough chow to feed the masses. Their timing was perfect, with the food being pretty much ready by the time I sat down after my hot lap. Nom nom nom ☺
Jumping ahead shortly, when results were shared the Monday after the race, I perused the lap times and the results showed I completed that second lap in 1h 00min 2sec. Can you believe it, 2 freaken seconds! But our team scientist, Piotr, had reminded me that the team had taken two independent lap times, and even if we take the average of the three (one timing tag, and two by the team), I would still be under the 1 hour mark. This was the second time Piotr saved me, the first being when he enthusiastically took to doing the last lap of the race for the OddWheelers.
Okay, back to the present, sort of? We had now started our second laps in the same order we started with. By now lights were required as it was getting dark. Riding in the dark is a whole other story. You can’t really plan your line as you are unable to see too far ahead. Even the smallest of bumps can throw you off if you are not careful, and judging variations in terrain is also on the difficult side. UPD’s (unplanned dismounts) are the order of the day, sorry night.
Things were running pretty smoothly with the transitions of the night laps. My next lap was at around 12:45 AM, I could not sleep so I was up and ready long before Piotr radioed in with his location. Off I went into the darkness on his return. As tough as it is riding trails in the dark, it more than makes up for it in it’s tranquility and beauty. Riding around the dam. I took a break, switched off my light, and just watched the stars, no light around to ruin and pollute the glittering night sky. I still have to finish my lap though. Onwards and upwards. There were plenty of Leopard toads on the trail, they even seem to play chicken, sitting in the middle of the path. They do not flinch one bit, I am surprised not to see any flattened with tread marks across their backs, but I think most riders were keeping an eye out for them. The next interesting thing I came across was something I could hear long before I could see it. Coming upon one of the dams, I heard a strange sound I could not place, and it was loud. Once at the dam I stopped and began searching for the source, and noticing some ripples coming off the lilly pads I realized the noise was being produced by dozens of frogs. I enjoyed the spectacle for a while and remembered that someone must be waiting to take over for me, so I better get a move on.
After my hand over to Donna, I went to bed satisfied, feeling that things were running smoothly, well little did I know. Not long after my return, Donna had made her way back to camp. Her light had died about half way into her lap, and the problem with LED’s, is that they give no warning, poof and they are gone. Donna did check how much life was in the battery before her departure, which was sitting on 70% full. She cycled home against the flow of traffic by means of her cellphone torch, dodging speeding cyclists that were blinding her with their dual lighting systems of 2000+ lumens. On Donna’s return Van Zyl was loaded with extra batteries to complete her lap, so into the darkness he soldiered. Can you guess what happen to him? Well his light died too, and unlike Donna’s light, his died well passed the halfway mark near the end of the course. Instead of changing to a back up battery he soldiered through the dark on his wheel, or not. To add insult to injury, the batteries for the radio died too…
With the evenings issues behind us, the sun decided to join the party, with Rob bringing in the new day while out on the trail. Our order was a bit of a mess now, but I was ready, and off I went for my fourth and final lap on his return to camp. By far my slowest of the 24 hours. My legs were lazy, my head was sleepy, and the muscles in my back did not know what hit them. Onwards and upwards, it must be done, even if there are some extra UPD’s added to the mix!
The team had settled into the new days pace, the only thing was that at the current pace, Van Zyl would finish his last lap at around 11. While on route he decided a bit of tom foolery was in order, and started posing silly selfies on the WhatsApp group while doing his last lap. Timing wise we still had an hour to go. Although you do not need to ride for the full 24 hours, we needed to show what we were made of, so keep on riding we must. No one seemed to be keen to take on the final lap. I was mentality preparing myself to take on the responsibility as team captain. Piotr then pipes up with vigor, that he wants to do the last lap. Thank goodness, I think to myself. I found out later, Donna was doing the same thing in her head after thinking she may have to do the last lap.
Off Piotr went, with a renewed energy to complete his, as well as the team’s final lap. This brought us to a total of 17 laps in the 24 hours. I was also to be his favorite lap of the race. On his entering the start and finish straight, the team raced to the finish line to support and cheer along with the MC cheering. Piotr had packed a beer in his bag at the start of the lap, he took it out and opened it up ready to taste its sweet hops. However there was one last UPD in store for him, needless to say, there was beer and unicycles flying, but he recovered, took a sip of his beer and crossed the line in style, like a boss!
We were now all looking and feeling like zombies, and visually Mr Death Wheel had nothing on us. We did however do it. 24 Hours of Oak Valley, tick! We had completed 17 laps, placing us 18th of 23 teams. That is right, we are on unicycles and still managed to finish ahead of 5 teams. Not too shabby I dare say.