To be a mountain biker

This post was inspired by an article by the same title that was published in a mountain biking magazine that I read in the early nineties. I think it was “Bike” magazine. I can’t find it anywhere online and I will pay good money for a copy of it if someone has it.

I resonated with the list in that article; I guess there are many things about the awesome sport of mountain biking that most mountain bikers will be able to identify with. The thing about mountain biking is that it does become an identity thing. It’s not just something that you do, it’s something you are. I don’t just ride a mountain bike, I am a mountain biker.

I’ve tried to find that article (it was a cover story), but I have been unsuccessful. I wanted to use it as a starting point for this post. Nevertheless, I’ve decided, some twenty years after reading that article, to compile my own list. I plan to add to it again and again as new things come up and as I remember other things that are worthy of being on the list. Individually these things are insignificant, but together they have meaning. Although they are things that one can do, they are much more than mere things that can be done; these things define what it means to be a mountain biker

(These things are not listed in any particular order, chronological or otherwise, and the things which follow the things earlier on the list are not necessarily related to each other).

  • Think “as long as I’m able to ride my bike, all will be ok with the world”
  • Dream of flowing single-track
  • If you could only afford one bike, it would be a mountain bike
  • Always be thinking, “I wish I was mountain biking”
  • Ride as often as you can
  • Discover a new trail
  • Say to your friend at the trailhead of a new trail, “follow me.”
  • learn how to bunny-hop
  • bunny-hop up stairs
  • ride down stairs
  • crash riding down stairs (in front of people)
  • Put your foot down in ankle deep mud while trying to ride through it
  • Try to get started again
  • Dab your other foot down in the mud
  • Ride through mud and then grass and for the grass to form a a perfect matrix for the mud to be held together by
  • come home freckled with mud
  • watch a downhill mountain biking DVD
  • Get amped and inspired and all excited and think you can do the same
  • Go riding straight after watching that DVD
  • Crash hard
  • spend all your money on bike stuff
  • own a bike that costs more than your car
  • get a new car that cost more than the bike
  • have a great bike stolen
  • Get the bike back
  • Get sponsored to ride
  • Get old, fat and slow
  • Get in shape again, and have mountain biking to thank
  • read about a new technique in a mountain biking magazine
  • try out the new technique
  • buckle your rim
  • try to straighten your rim with your own spoke spanner
  • decide its better for the bike shop to take a look at it
  • build a new trail and hide it from your friends
  • build a jump
  • crash riding the jump you built
  • start mountain biking with rigid forks, when the only trails on the mountain are hiking trails and horse trails
  • hate horses because they stuff up trails
  • feel indignant because horses are allowed on parts of the mountain which mountain bikers are banned from
  • crash hard
  • check to see if your bike is ok before you check your own injuries (because bodies heal, but bikes don’t)
  • ride the argus cycle tour every year on a mountain bike
  • ride a twenty four hour race
  • break your dropout
  • take your chain off and scoot yourself home
  • ride the whole enchilada and the slick rock of Moab
  • lean forward to see your suspension fork working
  • ride a cross country lap race
  • take part in frenetic start and sprint to the first single-track
  • ride a mountain bike marathon
  • be amazed at the difference riding a full suspension makes
  • ride a section of trail really well
  • go home to see how you did on Strava
  • realise its not a segment
  • make a new segment on Strava
  • think you’ve done well all these years not to have broken your collarbone
  • break your collarbone
  • Go for a wet ride and thoroughly enjoy it
  • Go for the next ride and hate the two clicks up, one click down necessary to shift one gear
  • install Gore ride-on cables
  • Enjoy perfect shifting in all conditions
  • wonder why they don’t come standard on all bikes
  • hit a slippery root at an angle other than 90 degrees
  • crash, narrowly avoiding a nasty looking stump
  • ride a trail you’ve done many times but at the last moment pick a different line for some reason
  • crash hard enough to actually crack your helmet
  • read about an awesome new trail in a blog
  • put it on your “to do” list
  • ride a race, be amazed with the awesomeness of the trail
  • check Strava and realise you can tick riding that trail from your list
  • ride an illegal trail not realising it was illegal
  • get caught and fined and have to get a lawyer to sort it out
  • ride an illegal trail knowing full well its illegal
  • be uncaught to this day
  • have your pedal slam into your shin
  • ride into a tree
  • go for a long ride without taking enough water
  • go for a long ride without taking enough food
  • hit the wall
  • realise you’ve hit the wall by losing concentration and crashing
  • Ride into deep shade from bright sun and, because you are wearing sunglasses, not be able to see a thing, and guess where the trail is
  • Enjoy a great trail through a pine forest
  • Have the trail destroyed when the pine forest is felled
  • Ride in a place for long enough to have see the saplings planted after the felling, grow and be felled themselves
  • Think camelbacks are cool
  • Think camelbacks are not cool
  • Be at work on a Monday, look at the mountain, and wish you were mountain biking
  • Take a Monday off work and go mountain biking
  • Flick a pine cone into your buddy’s spokes with your front wheel
  • Try to flick a rock by mistake and dent your front rim
  • Ride next to a puddle to avoid getting wet and get wet instead by your riding buddy bunny hopping into the puddle and splashing you
  • Try to get him back at the next puddle but wet yourself more in the process
  • Ride on the mountain and have all the mountain bikes wave and greet you with a smile
  • Ride on the road, wave to the roadies, and be ignored most of the time
  • Wake up before dark to ride a trail out of town
  • Start the trail in sub-zero conditions
  • Ride at high altitude, suffer, and understand why it is no wonder that Switzerland produces so many world class mountain bikers
  • Crash, land on your park tool multitool in your back pocket and get a perfectly rectangular bruise
  • Have a chain snap while standing up and hammering the pedals
  • Read a bike magazine and flip through 90% of it because if you’ve read the article “10 tips to make this summer your fastest” once you’ve read it, and others like it, a hundred times
  • Read up on the founders of mountain biking
  • Service your suspension fork
  • Find an internal part from the suspension fork after you’ve re-assembled the fork
  • attempt to true a buckled rim
  • create a flat-spot in the rim while trying to true the rim
  • take the rim in to your local bike shop to get it properly trued by a professional
  • stop while riding next to a river, just to listen to the sound of the river
  • enjoy the smell of decomposing leaves
  • jump and land perfectly on the landing ramp
  • jump and dent your rear wheel on the lip of the landing ramp
  • while climbing, pedal while your rear wheel is going over a slippery root, and lose traction and momentum
  • go for a night ride and be stoked
  • get irritated with red rear lights on the mountain, especially the ones that flash
  • honestly believe that you have a shot at getting a great result at a race
  • suffer incredibly a quarter of the way into the race, face reality and think you’d gladly settle for a dignified finish
  • ride a dusty race, blow your nose afterwards, and see trail coloured snot
  • ride through sand on the mountain
  • ride on the beach, on hard sand and enjoy it
  • ride on the beach, on soft sand, and hate it
  • go camping with friends and leave them by the campsite while you go mountain biking
  • be so accustomed to unclipping your shoes from your peddles that you twist your foot off your accelerator peddle in your car
  • Think John Tomac is cool
  • Know who John Tomac is
  • Lead a race
  • Break a handlebar and crash hard
  • Be collected on route by the medics because your bike is trashed, and so are you
  • Get Northwave mountain bike shoes because Paolo Pezzo is cool
  • Know who Paolo Pezzo is
  • Think “as long as I’m able to ride my bike, all will be ok with the world”
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The Trans Baviaans, a rookie who will be back for more.

This was initially posted on crank.co.za on 22 August 2013.

What’s it like to be a Trans Baviaans Rookie?

We picked one of the last sunny spots on the top of what they call the MAC (the mother of all climbs), fitted our lights and descended down to the next checkpoint, where we would see our support crew for the first time. By now it was properly dark and in my mind we had already cycled Trans Baviaans! “How far have we ridden?” I asked my wife, as we were about to set off for the final little stretch (or so I thought!). “170km” she said. My initial reaction was something along the lines of, “wow that is a long way!” Then I did some maths, and I realised that we still had 60km to go. Before this, the longest mountain bike race I had done was the 75km Wellington Gravel Travel. It was a sobering moment and we set off to attempt to finish what they claim is the toughest single stage mountain bike event in the world!

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The day had started a few hours earlier in a little town in the Karoo, Willowmore. It was freezing cold and the wind was picking up. Some 1600 riders each loaded their three carefully packed containers into trucks to be taken to the checkpoints at 109km, 129km and 150km. The night before I had tried my best to guess what I would feel like at each of these checkpoints, and it was good to have my mate Roland, who was doing his 4th Trans Baviaans, guide us through the process of packing the containers. I ended up going largely with a “hedge my bets, buffet style, have enough of every kind of food” strategy.

As the start time neared, the riders who were assembled in the start chutes grew restless as it began to rain. At 10am we all started the 230km journey together. Fortunately there was a tail wind, and we covered the first 100km through the rugged fold mountains and dry river beds of the Baviaanskloof in 3h38. I had been properly sick the week leading up to the Trans Baviaans and rode the first 100km with that “I can tell I have been ill” weak feeling and so I was relieved to reach checkpoint 2 in a decent time. Thanks must go to my very patient teammates who eased off whenever I let them know that my heart rate had entered the 170s while I coughed and spluttered.

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After the fairly quick start, we hit the climbing sections. A decent climb, the Baviaans Back, was followed by checkpoint 3 and two further climbs, the Fangs. At this point in the ride, Dale, my other teammate, really stepped up to the plate. Clearly the strongest rider of the three of us, he alternated between pushing Roland and me up Baviaans Back, and then said that Roland and I should each decide which of the fangs we would like to be pushed up! To be honest I was amazed by the difference it made. Roland and Dale passed Garth, and then Garth and Dale passed Roland, and so it went!

We were riding for Team Gunstons Attorneys and the banter among mountain bikers was very entertaining as we passed and, in turn, were passed by other teams. One rider intended to start a class action lawsuit against us (I couldn’t think what his cause of action would be though, maybe Dale’s pushing of his teammates) while some others shared their best lawyer jokes.

Before long we were ascending the MAC, an 8km climb with an average gradient, Strava says, of 5.7%. By this point my joints were starting to hurt. I couldn’t stand and pedal because the pain from my knees was too much, which meant that I had to wait for downhills to give my butt some respite, and stretch out my calf muscles. However, we were ascending the MAC so instead I just had to suffer. It was a beautiful part of the world to suffer though, and as the soft evening light settled on the beautiful mountainside I took heart in the fact that we were not ascending (and would not be descending) in the dark.

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After this checkpoint we were off, dry after a change of clothes. However, there is only so much comfort that a dry pair of socks can bring, when they are put into shoes that have endured a number of river crossings throughout the day! But down from Bergplaas we flew, and as we did so I used my best skills to peel a boiled egg that I had selected from my own buffet at the top of the mountain. It hit the spot!

Shortly after the realisation that we still had 60km to ride, and after saying goodbye to our support crew who had waited all day to see us, we started the Never-ender. As its name implies, it is a climb that never, ever, seems to end. I think this is partly because it is 14km long and starts 187km into the race, and partly because it is dark and you can only see a few metres ahead of you, and certainly not into the distance. We eventually arrived at the summit, at the unmanned checkpoint with flashing lights, where you grab a sticker and continue to ride.

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Our goal was to finish the Trans Baviaans in fewer than twelve hours (before 22h00). We knew we had our work cut out for us because we would need to complete the last 25km after check point 7 in just over an hour. We checked out as quickly as we could and set out for the finish in Jeffrey’s Bay. No sooner had we done so, than the heavens opened and a spectacularly strong crosswind raged. Each raindrop was lit up by my headlight and the rain stinging my face as we raced against the clock was actually a pretty awesome experience. We ascended the mini-MAC and before long we were on the tar road at 21h46. I thought we had it in the bag, but the finish was at the mall on the OTHER side of Jeffrey’s. And in order to get there we had to ride uphill and into that wind!

At 22h06 we crossed the line in the wind and rain to the shouts and cheers of our awesome wives and support crew. I was stoked to have finished it, and thoroughly enjoyed most of it. Having had a few days to recover (I couldn’t walk up steps without pain the day after the race) I think I’ll be back to do it again next year! The human spirit has an amazing ability to forget the pain and only remember the awesomeness – The Trans Baviaans certainly is full of that!

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Garth & Brian ride the Whole Enchilada, Moab

The Whole Enchilada, Moab – Slickrock and More

“Ja, so we’ll stay in Moab for a few nights and we can do Arches and Canyonlands from there”. “Sorry what? Did you just say Moab?!” I got off the Skype from my brother in the States, and Googled “Slickrock trail Moab”. As a kid in the 90’s I had read about the Slickrock trail in a mountain biking magazine in CNA, when mountain biking as a sport was just gaining some momentum. I can still remember the cover photo of two riders bombing the Slickrock Trail. So when my search led me to read about The Whole Enchilada, which incorporates slickrock and more, it had to be done.

The Whole Enchilada, Moab

The Whole Enchilada, Moab

Feeling like a bit of a novice

We hired a Yeti trail bike from Poison Spider Bicycles, and we set off in the direction of the La Sal Mountains in the distance. After my wife, Lauren dropped Brian and me off, we hit the Burro Pass. The air is thin up there. I thought to myself, “no wonder Switzerland produces so many world class mountain bikers with all that training at high altitude!” This climb made me feel like a complete novice, and I was mildly concerned since I had been training for the 230km Trans Baviaans mountain bike marathon.

A 7000 foot altitude drop through extremely varied terrain!

Fortunately, we soon reached the tree-line at 11 200 feet, wished the other riders at the trail-head well, pointed our front wheels downhill and started the most epic 26 mile descent to the Colorado River just outside Moab. That is over 7000 feet of downhill mountain biking through the alpine forests, tight switchbacks, river-crossings and aspen groves of Burro, the fast flowy sections of Hazzard County, the super-quick, wide open fire roads of Kokopelli, the slickrock patches, ledges and roll-ins of UPS and LPS, the  rocky roads of Porcupine Rim, with awesome views of mesas in the distance,  and the exposed and narrow Porcupine Singletrack with views of the Colorado River.

The Whole Enchilada Moab

It took a little while to get used to the bike, but after I had figured it out, I felt a lot less like a novice, and a lot more at home bombing down a seemingly never ending downhill.  The trail does flatten out in parts, and you do need to work quite a bit, but fortunately the air is less thin lower down, and the views are absolutely spectacular. The Whole Enchilada is a sensory overload – its hard to explain, but hopefully the video does it justice.

Why buying a super light bike is almost always irrational

I’ve been talked into doing the Trans Baviaans. It is the world’s longest single stage team mountain bike event. It starts in Willowmore in the Karoo and finishes on the other side of the Baviaanskloof in Jeffrey’s Bay 230km later. It’s on 17 August 2013 and it involves training through the winter.

Naturally, I’d like to do well with my teammates. And I know that in order to achieve a good result, and not to be the weakest link, I have to work on my numbers. What I mean by this, and I’m no professional, but power (the power you can generate, measured in Watts, over a long period of time, i.e. sustainable power) and weight. The lighter you are and the more power you can sustainably hammer out, the faster you will go, and in the case before us, the less time I will spend with my teammates riding at night.

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So, it is project “power up and lose weight” that I am undertaking. I need to get my power to weight ratio (measured in Watts per kilogram) up. I don’t have a power meter, but I can tell when I’m strong, and there is a scale at gym that I’ve started hopping onto. And because for most amateur riders, weight is more measurable, I’m going to focus on that. And I’m also going to cut to the chase and get to the thing that inspired this blog.

Here we go. Obviously it’s not just one’s own body weight that one has to haul around. The weight of your equipment is factored in as well. The heavier your bike, in particular, the slower you will go. Bottom line. So most people who are mildly serious about cycling want to have a lighter bike.

Off I went to look at new bikes. I thought to myself, “I reckon I deserve a top of the range carbon fibre racing bike with the lightest components”. I checked out the bikes- there was one that had a claimed weight of 10.5kg and another, the top of the range one, which had a claimed weight of 9.8kg. That is very light for a mountain bike!

Now, how much would you expect to pay for the 700g advantage? Think calmly about that before you answer.

The 10.5kg bike was going for R30 000.00 and the 9.8kg bike was going for, drumroll please, R54 000,00.

Now, friends and fellow amateur mountain bikers, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realise that you will pay more than R20 000.00 for under a kilogram of weight saving.

I can fully understand this kind of expenditure if you have no more weight to lose. But, you do, and the chances are that you are overweight. Please don’t let your lack of discipline in not training and in over eating spill over into an irrationally motivated, ill financially disciplined purchase of a super light bike. Out of principle I don’t think people who could lose some weight should be shelling out for super light bikes. Rather drop that extra kilogram around your belly than drop R20 000.00 on an undeserved bike. Yes I did say that.

Fortunately I’ve dropped most of the extra weight you see in that photo from 2008, but I’ve got at least 700g to go. So I’m hanging on to my current bike… for now! It’s gonna be a good one!

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.

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!