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KAROOBAIX was a two-day, 395 km stage race for modern, gravel-style bicycles through the South African Klein Karoo, and the first edition was held on 9 + 10 October 2017. The name KAROOBAIX (pronounced ka-roo-bay) pays homage to the murderous European Classic that earned itself the nickname Hell of the North, and with this spirit, Karoobaix set out to challenge riders through the unique, spectacular and inhospitable desert of the Western by @johnwatson  other photos by me unless otherwise noted.

Having ridden in the Karoo before, I knew what to expect: the course would be at times corrugated and rocky, and since it’s mountainous, there would be plenty of brutal climbs and high-speed descents. With two stages, 221km and 175km, I was going to ride with John Watson from the Radavist so I decided to a new bike was in order.

Enter the Standert Erdgeschoss. Handmade in Italy from Columbus Life tubing paired with a massive 3T carbon fork, and looking “the business” with its retro paint scheme reminiscent of Moser frames from the ’90s, the Erdgeschoss promised flex and comfort for long, hard days in the saddle. As usual, I was running short on time, and Peter performed a minor miracle transferring components from my Niner RLT-9 AL  whose ultra-stiff ride I would not miss in the least.

Not to mention, the 2x setup on the RLT didn’t get much use when gravel grinding. Instead, we went for a 40-tooth SRAM 1×11 (11-36) with Force cranks paired up with a mix of Rival components. To make it roll, we used the light aluminium American Classic Argent 700c Tubeless wheelset strapped up with Panaracer Gravel King SK 43mm tyres which left plenty of clearance for mud, not that there would be much of that considering the drought. Finally, we finished it off with a Brooks Cambium C13 145 and Brooks Rubber Bar Tape and the Erdgeschoss was ready for the flight to Cape Town.

The fun began in the courtyard of Woodstock Cycle Works, the hub of cycling social activity in Cape Town. Shop staff were busy loading trailers, making coffee, and handing out starter packs to the riders, most of whom came from Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, though there were 7 international riders from the 45 participants.

Two buses outfitted with trailers would take this group 4 hours and 1000 vertical meters up to Calvinia, a quiet village at the north end of a mountainous area between the Cape and the Great Karoo desert, the “Little Karoo”. On the ride there, I sat crammed in the back apprehensively listening to friendly but noticeably fit-looking South Africans who passed the journey comparing their ultramarathon and triathlon times.

Upon our arrival in Calvinia, we were assigned rooms in a quirky motel and led to an outdoor dinner with a huge spread of food cooked by locals: lamb roasted on the “Braai”, fresh-baked bread, diverse salads and local wine. We each received the course map for day one along with a cotton jacket in pale pink with the race logo, a tradition of organiser Stan Engelbrecht, who is known for handing out custom apparel at his other event, the Tour of Ara.  We were entertained by a few speeches and got to know each other. At only 9 pm though we hustled off in the pitch dark in twos and threes to make final preparations for the 4 am wakeup call.

At 5 am I stood in a windproof jacket, leg warmers and light gloves with 45 other riders in the hotel parking lot/start line waiting to receive final instructions. I had mounted an Apidura saddle pack to stow clothes, extra water, food and tools. The field was mixed, with a couple of ex-European pros, various ZA industry folks, and international cycling celebrity John Watson with his flat bar 650b and massive handlebar bag housing 25lbs of camera equipment.  The mood was casual.

After a memorable start in the pitch dark, soon we hit gravel and rode in the familiar-yet-mystical tunnel of light created by dust brightly reflecting from our headlamps.  Before long, the pace started to quicken, excitement mounted, and just then – my chain came off!

I raised my arm and calmly rolled to a stop as the riders flowed around and past me, watching as their red lights shrank into the distance. As it was still pitch dark, I had to fumble quite a bit to get the chain back on before remounting and setting to work to reel the bunch back in from last place. After some km’s I came across two bottles lying in the sand and stopped to recover them, stuffing them in my jersey in the hopes I would soon find their owner. (It is a rule that you must stop and pick up anything left by other riders, including trash, and when it comes to such rules, I follow!)

I started overtaking riders one by one but had lost sight of the mass of red lights at the front. I stopped to remove the bottles from my jersey, stowing them away in my pack. The sun was about to break over the horizon and I stood alone for a moment in the quiet desert, watched the barren mountains on my left towering over jagged canyons which cut into an endless plain to my right. The sun began to rise as I carried on and rode into the day up a long, smallish pass followed by a prolonged descent, occasionally passing another rider, slowly leaving the mountains behind me as I emerged onto a great, semi-desert flat.

The Tankwa is barren and majestic, but its sandy, corrugated roads combined with a cold and steady headwind made for some tough going that required vigilant concentration. After waiting for the enormous leader of a troop of Cape Baboons to lumber slowly out of the road (he weighed at least 100 pounds and had biceps like a giant kangaroo) I stopped for some water at a park outpost and chatted with the receptionist to try and ascertain where I was in the field.

At midday, I caught sight of some riders who I would be off with on a bikepacking trip in the days following the race. It took some hard work, maybe 30min, but eventually I latched onto the back wheel of the last rider and reached down for a drink, only to notice that both of my water bottles were missing! I screamed obscenities, which came as a shock to Cameron, who had no idea I was there,  causing he and the other riders to stop and see what the problem was.

Over the howling wind and Plastic Surgery Disasters blasting in my headphones, I cursed about water bottles and without explanation turned and pedaled back, leaving my friends confused. I was going to need those bottles as those two bottles I had recovered earlier, unfortunately, did not contain water, but Chocomel and some sweet carbohydrate drink. I was going to need water. I rode back about 3km  and found my bottles on a bumpy descent. Always remember to give your metal cages a fresh bend during a bumpy ride!

By now I was obviously pretty far behind and at 140km it was clear I needed to reduce my pace if I wanted to finish at all, with 80km of rocky terrain to go. The wind was blowing incessantly, the corrugations relentless, the sand unavoidable. It was a beautiful country, but monotonous riding. I met a slower rider who to my chagrin seemed to be having the day of his life, sharing without malice his newly found love of cycling and the fact that he only started training recently.  He offered me potato chips and get this: smoked fish to eat, to which I declined. Then he dropped me.

After this, the going was incremental. I had foolishly not taken enough to eat from the one food stop and was starting to pay the price. The sun was hot but the wind cold and incessant. I was out of water.  A mountain range loomed in the distance, huge and ragged with switchbacks. I thought “no way are we going up there!” I fantasized about a low pass,  a tunnel maybe, hidden somewhere around a distant bend.  The top of my knee had been bothering me for hours from pushing through sand and wind, and when I reached the start of the climb I guessed it was 400 meters vertical to the top and the grade was steep to unrideable. I stood and cursed. I had never abandoned a race before, but with climbing this mountain, and an additional 45km after to the finish, I knew this would most likely be my first time.

photo by @johnwatson

Others arrived in a similar state. We cursed some more and discussed what do. In the distance I could see Watson coming so I decided to wait. Darker clouds moved in and I felt cold drops of rain. Finally, Watson arrived but with bad news – he had reactivated a knee injury and was sure he could not continue, including our bike packing trip which was to begin following the event. We decided to walk up the mountain.

The walk was long, steep and relentless. We took turns bitching, pushing John’s heavy bike, and talking about the landscape. At some point, a cold rain started again but thankfully passed. We shivered as the altitude rose.  A 4×4 passed and assured us we were almost there. We trudged on for what seemed like a long time more.

At Nic’s Oasis, even the paramedic is exhausted

We reached the top and the last checkpoint before the finish where Nic waited with his T2 and usual gourmet bevvy of food and drink. This oasis is well known to anyone riding the Tour of Ara, Eroica South Africa or Karoobaix. I wrapped myself shivering in a blanket and tried to eat. Someone handed me a fancy gin and tonic. It was surreal. Suddenly after so much desperation, we were safe, the climb was over, and the vibe at the bus warm and friendly. We laughed and bitched some more. The sun was getting low and we decided not to carry on.

I am not a fan of suffer challenges, or at least not ones I didn’t sign up for. Our photographer was broken along with my photo plans for Brooks England. We rode the final 40km back in the dark in the race vehicle through herds of sheep swarming the hilly, corrugated road.  I didn’t regret my decision and I still don’t, as the truth is I could not continue. I had eaten regularly but not enough, I had tried not to overcook myself but I did. I maybe could have trained more in the weeks prior but felt that wasn’t the reason. I didn’t exactly bonk. I was just beaten.

John and I feeling the worse for wear

As we arrived to the hotel, all I wanted to do was sleep. Most everyone was completely similarly wasted. The mood was dour. I sat by the fire, ate joylessly and tried to drink a beer.  I left to my room without saying good night, showered and curled up exhausted in my sleeping bag on top of my bed, still shivering from exhaustion, and chatted with John briefly before passing out.

I said I would not ride in the morning but instead join the others in the van ride to the finish in Matjesfontein, which sounded like a really appealing plan to spend a day as 9 or 10 riders had dropped out. In the back of my mind, I knew though, that this abandon probably wouldn’t happen. My alarm woke at 5am and I got up and mechanically put on my riding kit. John came in from getting a coffee and asked if I was riding to which I grunted, gathering my things to go find my bike. The temperature outside in Sutherland that morning was -2°C.

The hotel foyer was cold and oddly filled with spotlessly clean bikes. I remember giving my bike to someone the night before, but I had only asked if they could lube the chain, so seeing my cleaned and lubed bike brightened my mood considerably.  We collected outside under bright, clear skies. I noticed some of the riders were very lightly dressed. Eventually, those riders would warm up, but they had at least an hour of bone chattering riding ahead, and I for one did not feel sorry for them.

I decided that today I am racing, not riding, and I will seek and enjoy the suffering of others.

We were to ride 15km on tarmac before starting the gravel, and it was a refreshment to do some pack riding after a day spent alone. Nils from Woodstock Cycleworks remarked at the frost covering the landscape. Being South Africa, he could not remember the word for it. I had to laugh.

After 7km the first break occurred, with about 1/4 of the riders going. I could have followed but did not want a repeat of the day before and knew anyway that would be a short-lived escape. I sat at the front of the second group and took turns with two guys from Durban and one of the Flamingos from Joburg.

We turned off on to the gravel at km 15, but this time instead of headwind and corrugations there was a neutral wind and wonderful, black, shiny, smooth gravel!  What I came here to ride!

One of the Durban guys was intent on hammering at the front so I tucked in at third wheel behind his enormous buddy and enjoyed a slipstream for the first time in 200km. After a while, I glanced behind me and noticed I was in a break, which was great because I had hardly put in any effort. It wasn’t long after that that the big man providing my windscreen peeled off, as did his buddy at the front with the pineapple calves. (I found out later the one had a knee problem.) I looked around again to see we were now only two riders.

It went on like this for a while, trading places and almost coasting over hill after hill.  The other rider upped the pace and I finally had to let him go. I didn’t want to kill myself, and most importantly I needed to finish. Finally, we reached the start of a massive descent so I stopped to make a video and take some pictures. A small group of riders caught up to me, among them race organiser Stan Engelbrecht, a person I admire greatly but with whom I was not yet capable of addressing after the forced march the day before.

Race organiser Stan Engelbrecht

That being said, I was having one of the best rides of my life at this point.

We were crossing through a lot of grazing territory, and though it is proper form to always shut the sheep gate behind you, even if you see another rider coming, at the first gate I was gracious and waited and let the other riders through. At the second gate though, the gap was big enough that I shut and fastened it completely, fully, and as tightly as possible.  I know this is ridiculous since I was not in the top ten, but feeling like it’s a race does do powerful things to the mind, charity not being one of them!

Mostly I rode alone the first 100km, though I spent a memorable 10km riding with a relentless man/ woman duo on matching OPEN bikes who rode like water wearing down a mountain, never giving an inch, and with such souplesse it was all I could do to try and pay attention while admiring them. We chatted a bit and it felt good to keep up with this pair, who finished 8th and 9th by the way. Eventually, I stopped to take off my warmer clothes and said goodbye, but it would not have been long before they had dropped me anyway.

Most of these signs promise water but are empty and rocky when you get there

Around about 120km I was busted from behind taking a selfie by two fast riders from the Joburg Flamingos and, after some time trading blows, it was clear we were matched to ride together. The roads straightened out and became very white, and for some time our pace hovered around 40kph. We came across Matt Sowter of Saffron bikes who was dealing with his second puncture of the day. That he had spent at least 20min on the side of the road and I am only now coming upon him says a lot about how well Matt rides his bike.

Matthew Sowter of Saffron Frameworks spent most of his day stretching like this

After helping with his puncture we rode into the second food stop, decorated with colourful umbrellas, friendly faces, and an impressive array of food and drink. The highlight was stuffed sandwiches from Poppi, made from fresh bread baked on the grill, washed down with homemade pineapple soda. I inhaled one of avocado and egg, changed out of the last of my warm clothes, and applied sunscreen. One of the flamingos, Gilles, deigned to ride with me (I’m convinced he could have dropped me anytime) and we set off to finish the last 45km together.

Riding exposed in the hot sun, the next kms were mostly flat, with some ups and downs, a headwind, and lots of loose sand so it wasn’t easy going. Almost to Matjesfontein, with only about 7km to go, I had to watch helplessly as Gilles pulled away.  Still, we had run into Liam the photographer shortly before, who claimed the next rider was very far back so I was not too worried, and set about finishing the race. I had been having acute pins and needles in my feet and was very uncomfortable on the bike. My feet felt exactly as if they were on fire!

A bike race can also be interesting for mere mortals like me, and about 4km from the finish I noticed another flamingo gaining on me fast. I used every trick I know to maximise my meager speed and wondered if I could hold my lead to the finish. Finally, I reached the tarmac and started the descent into Matjesfontein, and thankfully descending is my strongest point.  I tucked and sailed into town, high-fiving two local kids along on the way, turning left to where I hoped to find the finish. I saw Nic’s T2 and crossed a line chalked across the street. I stood there wondering where everyone was. As it turned out, most were still riding. I had come in 14th!

The following day, seven of us set out on a tour to die Hell, documented by David Malan on the Everyday Cycle Supply blog  The race itself was covered with amazing images by John Watson on the Radavist so go check that out too.  Some more about the bike over at the Standert Blog. Thanks finally to Apidura, a blog will be posted soon over there. Thanks to Stan, Nils and everyone involved who made this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.