Mandela, the mountain & a movement of pioneers

I clearly remember the 10th of May 1994. It was the day when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa after the demise of apartheid. The results of the first free and fair elections held on 27 April 1994 were out. The day before I had had the honour of raising the new South African flag at my primary school; Sweet Valley. I didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of what the event symbolised, but I knew it was a big deal. I also remember the new R5 coins, the Nelson Mandela inaugural coins. People were saying that they would be worth a lot in the future. And, perhaps insignificantly, I remember the weather. It was overcast and rainy in Cape Town. The perfect type of weather to go mountain biking!

Fast forward 19 years from the day when Mandela cast his ballot, and today the car park, make that the car parks, at Tokai are full of cars with bike racks on the back. One cannot easily find a place to park and today there are certainly far more mountain bikers enjoying the mountains than hikers and horses. The sport of mountain biking has exploded over the last 19 years. The mountain is accessible to all and there is something for everyone – from jeep track for beginners to road gaps over those jeep tracks for those whose bikes come equipped with take off and landing gear.

Over the years trails of all types at Tokai have come and gone. Even whole sections of forest have been cleared, regrown and cleared again!

I often think back to the 10th of May 1994. That day I was the only one out there. My bike was a Hansom hardtail, with steel Reynolds tubing. It had Shimano biopace chainrings, a 200GS groupset, rigid front forks and awesome brahma bull bars with with pink grips!

I enjoyed the solitude, the mountain, the pine trees, being close to nature, the great feeling of grinding up the mountain, breathing heavily as my breath condensed immediately upon being exhaled. I loved hammering downhill, staying on around sections when I should have crashed (you can’t beat the feeling), losing control over rooted sections that my bike couldn’t really handle, and crashing hard, knowing that no-one would hear any cry for help. I remember the moments after crashing, checking the bike before the body, knowing that my body would heal, but my bike would cost money to fix. I loved doing something that I knew hardly anyone else was doing. I wondered why no-one else was riding when it was so awesome. I couldn’t figure it out. After all, the mountain was there, and mountain bikes were available.

Obviously I wasn’t the only mountain biker on the planet, but at Tokai that day, a public holiday, I never saw anyone else. I guess that is life, and it’s something I draw inspiration from. I think most worthwhile things are started by a movement of pioneers. I’ll try to explain…

Before there was the N2 through the garden route, there was a rough road, and before that, there was no road and before that, there were some pioneering types who went on a journey, over mountains and through forests.

The journey was hard at times, but they persevered through the slow progress of felling trees. They cut a path through the forest; a path that others could follow later and a road that we can travel in a small fraction of the time by car today.

That is the role of those that do it first, they pave the way and make it easier for others down the line. I’m not saying I pioneered mountain biking, or riding at Tokai, it was a people movement and a whole industry. But when I’m doing something that I believe in and where it feels like I’m the only one, I do draw inspiration from the difference between the car park at Tokai today and 19 years ago. The fact that the day I remember was Mandela’s inauguration makes it incredibly special, the long walk to freedom is always worth it. Pioneers, keep pioneering.

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I love horses, especially with tasty gravy

While at work today I received a whatsapp from my mate Renay. “I just rode horse trails.they were muddy, the roots were wet, and it was awesome.”

Fortunately I had my bike at work, as well as my kit, including my headlamp, in my car. So, then and there it was decided; my commute home would involve a detour via the horse trails.

Growing up, my brother Brian and I, as young mountain bikers, did not get on well with horses. This was for good reason; they rode on mountain bike trails, some of which we had laboured to build, they made these previously nice trails into a sandy mess, and to top it all off, they were allowed access to parts of the mountain that mountain bikers were banned from because, so we were told, mountain biking is destructive and causes erosion.

The last time I checked a large heavy horse, with hooves that are small relative to the size of the beast, exerts far more pressure on terrain than any group of mountain bikers could ever dream of. Remember; pressure equals force divided by area. I digress.

Back then life was simple; eat, go to school, eat, go home, eat, ride, search for new trails, find new trails, build new trails, eat, sleep, repeat. There were no enemies except for horses. However, Lindsay, if you read this, you are ok and we like your horses. We know you don’t ride your horses on mountain bike trails.

Getting back to this evening… there is this trail that has been attributed to horses. However, it is a perfect mountain bike trail, and I think it was always destined to be such. Horses have not ridden there in ages. I know this because the trail was smooth and not full of hoof holes.

As I found the trailhead I turned my light on. The trail was perfectly illuminated as far as I needed to see. Beyond that the trees of the forest were silhouetted by the city lights. I was the only one there and it felt like 20 years ago, when just about every time my brother and I went mountain biking we were the only ones there. Light rain started to fall as I descended the mountain through the refreshing chill of the autumn air. The trail, although muddy was strangely grippy and I realised that I had some margin to speed up a little even though it was dark. Importantly, I obeyed one of mountain biking’s many golden rules: do not hit slippery roots at any angle other than a right angle. This helped me keep things rubber side down and ensured that I had a lot of fun!

As the smile broadened across my face I thought, although subconsciously at the time, this is one thing to add to the list, that every mountain biker knows and understands, of what it means to be a mountain biker!

Hey Renay, you were so right, it was awesome- thanks for the heads up!

Hey Brian, get your ass over here- I miss riding with you!

You don’t get strong when you train, you get strong when you rest

Seasons are wonderful. The first rains in autumn are so refreshing. It feels good as the days shorten and the air gets a bit chilly in the evenings. The same is true in spring; we cannot wait for the hot weather and the long days that go on and on. We need the change. We need the seasons.

In life, as in nature, we go through seasons. I believe in seasons of trial and seasons of rest. As with a lot of my thinking, this thought is rooted in a cycling analogy. It goes something like this. You do not get strong when you train, you get strong when you rest, assuming of course, that you have trained. Simply put, athletes who train all the time will burn out. They will not get stronger if they train all the time. Recovery drinks, Mondays off after hard riding on the weekends and chugging some L-glutamine before at least 8 hours’ sleep is where strength comes from! Rest days, rest weeks, rest seasons; you cannot hammer hard all the time. Contrary to making gains in strength, you will actually regress.

It’s important to know what season you are in. Training or racing when you should be resting will lead to reduced performance and a lack of joy. Resting when you should be training, or racing, will make you sluggish and fat. Most of us, in life, I think, do not recognise when we should be resting. We need to understand when life has been hard, when we have gone through some sort of trial, that just “carrying on” is not what we need.

After a season of trial there will always be a season of rest in the same way that summer follows winter. “There may be pain in the night, but joy comes in the morning” – Psalm 30 v 5. Just “carrying on” when you should be resting is like going to the beach in summer dressed with a scarf. It sounds crazy, but we are a lot better at discerning the natural seasons than the other seasons in life. You need to recognise the change in the season, change the way you think, and change the way you act. You will need the strength you gain in season of rest for the next season of labour and trial so that you can overcome it, and be victorious through it.

Trees have growth rings, they show the seasons of rapid growth and the seasons of slower growth. We must live in the seasons of life, the seasons of trial and the seasons of rest, the seasons of slow growth and the seasons of faster growth. This is necessary so that when each season draws to a close, we will enjoy the change in season, having gained what that season had to offer us. After resting well we will relish a trial, and after a season of fighting hard we can put the weapons down and rest. We will expect and love the change as much as we long for the refreshing rains after a long dry summer, or the warm summer nights after a freezing winter.