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.