Confessions of a more-than-middle-aged mountain bike momma

2014-11-12 00:00

WE will never be royals, royals …” Lorde sings, over the PA system. When I was the age of most of the competitors around me, it would have been Queen’s “I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike”. The aroma of bacon-and-egg rolls permeates the early morning air and the grounds are littered with bikes, cyclists and spectators.

For the sixth time in as many months, I am in the holding pen along with scores of other cyclists in my batch, waiting for the countdown to the start of yet another mountain bike race. Every Sunday morning, mountain bike madness brings thousands of cyclists to race venues all over the country. This particular race is in Eston, KwaZulu-Natal, and most of the ride for those (like me) doing the 18 kilometre event is to be through the Tala Game Reserve. The really serious racing snakes have entered the 60 kilometre and 40 kilometre events, but the 18 kilometre race boasts the biggest field of entrants — seeded into batches. This pre-race wait affords me the chance to reflect on how I came to be involved in this sport.

“It’s something we can do together!” David (my husband) happily told me. He even bought me a new bike “with front and rear shocks and disc brakes” as well as a dozen other features designed to give a more comfortable ride. One glaring oversight, however, was the saddle — an instrument of indescribable torture — which delivered shocks of a different kind. Fortunately, a chance visit to a cycle shop revealed softer, more comfortable saddles “designed for the female anatomy” were available. Who would have thought it?

Soon enough, finding neighbourhood rides rather passé, we pedalled into the world of mountain bike racing. Almost immediately, it became apparent for me these would be rides rather than races. Another thing that became clear, on this and on subsequent races, was the only bit we would “do together” was driving to and from the race venues: after the first kilometre of that first race I did not see David again until I finally struggled, muddy and exhausted, over the finish line where he had been waiting for some time. Thus was set the pattern now the norm for us.

“B Batch, your start is in three, two, one: go!” And so begins today’s race. Being at the back of the group, I cross the starting line a while after the bulk of the B batchers and a minute later am literally eating their dust as we cycle along the dirt road leading up and through the cane fields. I lick my teeth and taste the grit. As always, on a climb, there is much changing of gears and jockeying for position. We all know “real mountain bikers” do not get off to push, but as the gradient becomes steeper, a few cyclists are forced to dismount to attend to urgent problems with their bikes: tyres, brakes, chain — the only way to save face at this time. Others, still on their bikes, have changed down to granny gear and are tackling the incline with grim determination. “I know I can, I know I can … uhm, I think I can,” I tell myself. “Oh no, you can’t! Oh no, you can’t! Oh no, you definitely cannot!” my searing quads scream in reply.

At this point I become aware of loud footfalls thudding closer and closer. “Are there trail runners doing this course too?” I wonder. No, it’s my heart pounding wildly! Okay, time to dismount and push. At least I’m not the first to do so and, in any case, my pride has been deserting me steadily with each ragged gasp, so there’s no longer any face left to lose.

Fortunately, the terrain finally levels out so we’re all back on our bikes, breathing normally, and entering Tala Game Reserve. Several piles of buck droppings make me recall a YouTube clip I once saw of a cyclist being knocked off his bike by an antelope. Such a thing couldn’t happen again, could it? Surely not! Then I remember there are giraffes in this place too — and immediately The Wit ness story from a few years ago of a chap who claimed to have been attacked by an angry giraffe, comes to mind. Perhaps I should catch up with that group of cyclists ahead.

Ten kilometres into the race, in the depths of the game reserve, we reach a watering point — given the location, “water hole” might be more apt. “Are you all right?” a concerned helper asks me. My scarlet face streaked with sweat and dust probably does suggest someone on the verge of collapse. “What can I offer you?” he continues. I assure him I’m fine and all I need is some cold water. He hands me a polystyrene cupful and adds an ice-block. The drink rivals champagne served in a fine lead crystal glass. There are doughnuts on offer too. Well, maybe just one small one: after all, I must have a carb deficit by this stage of the race. As pleasant as it would be to linger here, I have miles to go before I rest, so I set off again.

Because many riders have chosen to spend a while at the watering point, I soon find myself cycling all alone through the bush. “This is wonderful,” I think. “Just me, a child of Africa, enjoying the solitude and getting back to nature.”

At this point nature asserts itself in the form of a heap of enormous fresh droppings in the middle of the track — not those of any kind of antelope, surely! Giraffe, perhaps? A twinge of anxiety causes my heart to flutter slightly; after all, there is no possibility of safety in numbers just at the moment. I look nervously over my shoulder, hoping to see at least one rider coming up behind me. Nope, not a soul.

Well, at least a giraffe should be easy to spot from a distance and the doughnut should provide enough oomph to make a quick getaway. It is as I am reassuring myself there is no need to worry, that a sudden realisation causes panic to set in: why am I worrying about mere giraffes? There are rhinos in this game park. And hippos, too.

Seasoned athletes talk about having to “dig deep” to break through exhaustion and aching muscles. May I (a most unseasoned “not-exactly-athlete”) suggest a shot of pure adrenaline as a viable (perhaps even more effective) alternative? Digging my feet deeply into the pedals, I manage an impressive burst of speed, leaving behind me a cloud of dust for someone else to eat.

The next steep uphill proves to be no real obstacle — in fact, I feel remarkably strong at this point and cover the remaining kilometres at a most satisfying pace. There is no hint of the trail runner, either. Once out of the game park I sustain my efforts, cruising past several other competitors.

The finish line comes into view and I discover I possess a competitive streak: on the final straight I change into top gear and pass three riders to achieve a personal best time. Over the PA system Bruno Mars is singing about being locked out of heaven, but in my head Vangelis is playing Chariots of Fire. As always, David is there waiting for me, but his wait today has not been as long as usual. Perhaps, after all, mountain bike racing will soon become “something we can do together”.

ABOUT

THE WRITER

‘Soon enough, finding neighbourhood rides rather passé, we pedalled into the world of mountain bike racing.’

PHOTO: supplied

Rona Stubbings

PHOTO:

Rona Stubbings: “I was born in Pietermaritzburg where I grew up and also went to school. My husband David and I have been married for 25 years and have two daughters. I have been teaching at Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School since 1983, despite having moved to Hillcrest 19 years ago. My relationship with my bicycle is somewhat ambivalent, but I enjoy reading and am a keen amateur photographer.”

ABOUT

THE WRITER

Rona Stubbings: “I was born in Pietermaritzburg where I grew up and also went to school. My husband David and I have been married for 25 years and have two daughters. I have been teaching at Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School since 1983, despite having moved to Hillcrest 19 years ago. My relationship with my bicycle is somewhat ambivalent, but I enjoy reading and am a keen amateur photographer.”

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