Written by Garth Watson
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!