An extraordinary cycle- Dan and his Trans Afrika bike race 2014
This blog covers the adventures of one of our longest serving members, Dan Hayman. It’s a little longer than the usual posts but it’s well worth a read. He recently won the gruelling Trans Afrika Bike Race – an absolutely astounding feat of fitness, determination and will power. Read on and be inspired by his account of the route across Africa!
It started with with a group of 16 nervous and excited riders at Beitbridge. Some grabbed at bananas as gangs of baboons which plague the border ran off with bunches intended for riders’ pockets. There was time for a few quick photos and at 5:45am we were off.
The race was led out by a rather large Messina Chief of Police in emblazoned helmet and khaki shorts on a rather small motorcycle. He escorted us from the Zimbabwe border along the motorway for 15km. During this enforced bunch ride people nervously joked, while covertly sizing each other up.
My team mate Nick and I hung at the back for this part. Once we were off the motorway we quickly moved past the other riders at an easy 37km an hour. With the adrenaline running through our legs the pace felt light and easy. We kept looking back and after a short while couldn’t see anyone behind us anymore. This was all going a little too well.
It was only 8am and the day was already becoming noticeably hot. Coming from late autumn in the UK, I was pretty concerned about the 50°C temperatures reported by other riders in the previous days. But that’s not all that worried me. I knew that the first dirt road section on our route was coming up at kilometre 69. As one of the few riders opting for full road racing bikes, I knew that this first dirt section would signal how the rest of the ride would go. Or if it was even possible on our bikes’ narrow tires. There’d been rumours of unrideable soft deep sand. We’d try to avoid unsealed roads as much as we could. But sometimes you couldn’t justify the extra mileage. I knew at that turn I’d either continue riding away from the rest of the field or be pushing my bike through hot sand as the other riders smugly bumped by. I had my flip flops at the ready should it come to that as I can’t walk easily in my road shoes.
Andy, the race’s mastermind, roared up in his truck to see us just as we hit the turn. He told us that we were 8 minutes ahead. We headed up the dirt road. Deeply rutted with sandy patches, you had to pick your line carefully and keep your legs spinning, but to my relief it was rideable.
After an hour the ride got a bit harsher and I looked down to find I had my first flat tire. Damn. We pulled up under a tree and Nick gave me a tube to replace mine with. As I picked my bike up by the seat I noticed a huge crack had formed and that the top of the seat tube had broken through where the top tube meets the seat stays. Damn damn damn! I rode off while dialling Andy on my cellphone. He said he’d come and meet me somewhere.
After another hour or so I came out of a butchery having refilled my bottles and see Andy, closely followed by his friend Casper. I was despondent and resigned to the fact that I’d have to retire from the race. However Casper didn’t take that for a second and grabbed out his wire cutters and started sourcing wire from the locals’ fences for some ingenious outback mechanics. Andy suggested holding it together with duct tape. Soon however it became clear that the frame was too far gone. It was Sunday, so no bike shops were open. Then Casper remembered that he had an old neglected bike sitting on a wind trainer at home, covered in years of dust and cobwebs. Casper was approximately my height, but better looking. We threw everything in the back of his car and drove to his house. There we put my bags, lights, aero bars and front wheel with dynamo hub onto his bike while his young sons served us cool drinks. Then Casper drove us all the way back to the spot we’d left a mere 5 hours before. Casper wished us good luck and we were on our way again. After a few navigational errors from other riders it turned out we weren’t even in last place. The Casper sponsored bike felt very different to my own. It was much shorter. But after a few stops and adjustments it was passable. We cycled late into the hot night, determined to make up the lost ground. Slowing only to dodge the odd snake on the road. We stopped for the night at around midnight having retaken the lead and slept on the side of the road about 1km past the race leader Hannele.
In the excitement I found it hard to sleep, but we were disturbed at 2am by the local police asking us to move. I didn’t entertain the idea for a second and closed my eyes. At 4am we woke to find we’d been overtaken in the night by Tim. I took off resolute to catch the old man. However Nick felt sluggish and was finding it hard to keep up. After bumming some water of some orchard workers we hit another dirt road. Now Nick was finding the going really tough. The combination of being tired, not feeling well and the deep rutted, sandy road was taking a toll. After stopping to adjust the position on my borrowed bike I caught up with Nick again and carried on to the end of the 8km section of dirt. There I waited for half an hour for Nick and it was clear he was not in a good way. He assured me that he was fine and that he just wasn’t used to riding off road and that he could keep up.
Back on the black stuff I rode 4km to a service station. I stopped, surprised to find that Nick wasn’t with me. Andy caught up with me and we chatted for a bit. After an hour Nick still hadn’t arrived and it turned out that he’d unfortunately decided he wasn’t well enough to complete the race. Meanwhile Hannele buzzed by on her off road tires. Andy drove back picked Nick up in his truck. I grabbed a bit of gear out of Nick’s bag and set off to chase down Hannele and Tim. As I rode I realised that I was now all alone and doing something by myself for the first time I could remember. It was scary.
However today was the first day that I’d been subjected to the real heat of the midday Kruger sun. I soon found I couldn’t get the right balance of nutrition into my body and in my haste my legs started cramping. I couldn’t even make it to the next town and had to lie down in the shade for 20 minutes. Limping forward I got to a service station and was able to refuel. As the temperatures cooled my legs slowly recovered. As I rode along the game fences I occasionally startled a group of giraffes. Pretty cool for a guy from NZ where a sheep is the biggest animal you’ll see while out for a ride.
I rode deep into the night determined to catch up again. I stopped for a quick dinner at KFC but still found it hard to force myself to eat. I then carried on late into the night through rain and wind. Eventually I passed Hazyview where Hannele’s tracker said she’d stopped for the evening. I then carried on another 30km and laid down to sleep about midnight in some road works.
Tonight I was disturbed once again. This time by a group of a dozen dogs barking and growling at me. I hazily recall trying to assert myself as pack leader, but eventually I woke again at 4am and I thought I may as well it the road. I felt very seedy having probably only slept 4 hours total, the last 2 nights. Checking my tire pressure I noticed a problem. When putting my lights onto my sponsored bike, Casper had found me a little aluminium washer which I’d used to space my dynamo light from the headset race. The light was held on with the brake bolt. While riding the previous night the aluminium spacer had been crushed and the front brake was now dangling precariously.
Very worried I tentatively rode up and down the brutally steep hills of the morning. All the while keeping my eyes wide for a big nut or something it could scrounge to use as a spacer. I knew that the hills of Swaziland awaited us where we had to climb up to the first checkpoint at Piggs Peak. After 30km I met a man called Tim who said he was following the race online. He asked if there was anything he could do to help. I said, “well actually…” and Tim pointed me to the best place for breakfast in town and drove back to his house to fetch a stack of washers. When Tim returned I was well fed and the washers worked a treat. However in the mean time Hannele had sneaked past me and gotten a good little lead.
I cycled the remainder of the road to the base of the hills leading into Swaziland. Over the last few kilometres I could see a hill with a scar running up it at what I swear looked like 45°. That couldn’t be the start of the climb could it? I stopped just before the climb to load up on food and water. I wasn’t feeling well and I was stalling. I reluctantly started again and predictably my GPS steered me onto the 45° scar up into Swaziland. It’s here that I found the limitations of the gearing on my borrowed bike. After a while I could only make progress by cycling 100m and stopping wedging the bikes rear wheel against the curb while a gasped for air and preparing for the next 100m. I toiled away and eventually made it to the border to Swaziland. Passport stamped the tarseal stopped. The roads in Swaziland were equally as steep and long but slippery and peppered with sharp rocks. My road tires were challenged, but were proving themselves. Until the last 3kms where I punctured both front and back tires in the space of 10 minutes. Gutted.
I rolled into the Piggs Peak checkpoint exhausted but prepared to do what I needed to stay at the front of the race. I was surprised and relieved to find that Hannele had stopped for the night and so did I. The checkpoint was at a hotel and so it was my my first night in a bed.
Hannele asked if I wanted to cycle with her for a while. Finally respite. I was cautious, but relieved. Finally I could get a few precious hours extra sleep and try to recover. We rolled out at first light in the morning and I soon began struggling. It became obvious that Hannele was feeling much stronger than me on the hills. I was feeling horrible. A combination of lack of sleep and a cold going to my chest I think I must’ve caught from Nick. It wasn’t till the afternoon when the roads were flatter and riding into a heavy headwind where I felt like I’d triumphed and Hannele had to tuck in behind me out of the wind to keep up.
We stayed together that night and the truce continued the next morning. I don’t think either of us had a plan as to what were were doing at that stage. But we were enjoying each others company and it was some respite from the previous days. Hannele would wait for me on the top of especially steep mountain passes where my bike didn’t have the gear range and I’d let her draft off me on the flats and harsh headwinds where my strength had the advantage over her light weight.
As the days went on in this environment I got more sleep and my body slowly recovered until I finally felt I was riding stronger than Hannele. Hannele was having backside problems which were only getting worse as the ride went on and really do sap your strength. However as time passed and we kept pulling away from the rest of the field we garnered more and more respect and trust for each other. We never spoke about what was going to happen at the finish were just kept pushing through the hardships of the road together moving ever closer to Cape Town.
Out of all the amazing things I saw in all the days and nights I rode through South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho, out of all the amazing wildlife and scenery, saddening poverty and desperation; the thing that will stick with me is the human kindness. Casper taking so much time away from his family and lending me his awesome bike. Tim caring enough to come support and then saving my ride with a washer. Ben, who manned one of the checkpoints, gently riding up Moteng pass beside me on his mountain bike before signing us off at the checkpoint. Andy for picking us up at the airport, hosting us and telling us that the shortest way is via Puff Adder. And countless others who when they saw us struggling and heard our story, offered their support, their time and even their homes to us. That’s what I’ll remember about the Trans Afrika Bike Race. The kindness and compassion shown to me by every person I met in this harsh environment. No matter the colour of their skin or the number in their bank account. If they even had one!
Eventually we came to another decisive point in the race. Something I’d been worrying about for the last 8 days. We stayed the night in Willowmore. From Willowmore there was a 92km stretch of unsealed road on the way to the 3rd checkpoint at Prince Albert. Then there was the completely offroad Swatzberg Pass. And more off road to make it to the town of Calitzorp. That’s a total of at least 160km of rough offroad. The last of the off road. But could I do it? Rain had been threatening for days. The roads were rough enough without the rain. I’d heard stories of mountain bike races being cancelled because these roads were unrideable in some conditions. Amongst all that were the rumours that Hannele, the multiple time South African mountain bike champion would make a break and leave me in her dust on the rough roads. It was an uneasy nights sleep.
In the end I needn’t have worried. If you picked the right lines the road was hard packed and both Hannele and I flew to the Prince Albert checkpoint at 30km/h. One memory of the road was when we saw 1.5 meters of bright orange which Hannele told me was a harmless tree snake. It wasn’t till I rolled ahead and it reared up at me and flared its neck that she reassessed and screamed that it was in fact a deadly Cape Cobra.
We left checkpoint 3 at 1:45pm in the heat of the day to face the last great hurdle. Schwartzberg Pass. This 30km of offroad had haunted me and my skinny tires for weeks. The first 10kms was steep and rough and with my gearing I had to resort to my familiar sprint and rest technique. Hannele eventually moved away from me until she was a spot in the distance. Eventually however the gradient softened and I grew accustomed to the searing the high gearing caused in my lower back. Eventually I even rolled past the mountain goat Hannele and submitted the climb a few minutes before her. Feeling confident I recklessly descended the pass in places cornering at over 50km/h. On the ride to Calitzrop where we planned to stay for the night I did lose concentration for a minute and got instant reprisal with a punctured front tire. Hannele of course didn’t hesitate to wait for me. By now were were a team.
From Calitzorp I figured we had barely 400km to the finish. We knew we could finish this thing now. We wanted to finish this thing. Maybe we could even do it tomorrow.
We woke at a familiar 4am. I had had a very poor nights sleep and had lay awake thinking about the days past and the day ahead. I only had a very light breakfast. That combined with an unexpected 400m climb first thing in the morning left me feeling very weak in the morning. I knew I couldn’t make it the whole 400km to the finish line in Cape Town. Hannele was amazing and nursed me through the morning. There’s a quote I love which I think is from Eddy Merckx. “On a long ride, it doesn’t matter how good or how bad you feel. It’ll change.” This proved true so many times in this ride, whenever you don’t possibly think it can. And sure enough after a long day of struggling into headwinds that were almost bending pine trees in two, as the sun fell my spirits rose and I was ready to get to Cape Town. We refueled at a service station in Worcester and we were ready to finish it. It was 130km to go. We saddled up once more and Hannele noted that even her battered backside wasn’t causing her pain any more. We flew up Bain Pass and and down the other side. We then rode faster than we knew we could. After nearly 3000kms our legs felt fresher than when they started and it felt like they just couldn’t tire. We flew up and down hills like they weren’t there.
At about 2am in Durbanville I tried to slingshot Hannele ahead of me on an uphill incline. However the previous 20 hours riding must’ve taken it’s toll on my coordination and decision making, and I somehow pulled my bike’s wheels under Hannele’s which sent me crashing to the tarmac at 30km/h. The contents of my top tube bag went skidding across the road and Hannele looked very worried. Thankfully she’d stayed upright as I would’ve felt terrible if she’d paid for my foolishness. I didn’t have time for sympathy and quickly gathered up belongings and was back on the bike. I found that I’d pushed the right gear shifter on an awkward angle and I must’ve also bent the derailleur hanger as there was only one rear gear the bike would stay in now. However I knew nothing would stop me finishing now though and thanked my lucky stars I hadn’t made my faux pas a few hundred kms earlier or down one of the rides steep unsealed mountain passes.
As we headed into Cape Town proper, rain started to come down heavily. Our adventure was mercifully coming to its conclusion. We picked our way through city streets peppered with frogs and the strong smell of fresh sewage forced up by the heavy deluge.
Hannele directed us through a “shortcut” to Camps Bay which involved us carrying our bikes across the barrier on the N1 and riding a few kms in the sandy grass on it’s northern bank. We rode swiftly between rows of blanketed men sleeping underneath the motorway overpasses. They barely had time to raise their heads before we’d passed by on our single minded mission towards Camps Bay.
The remaining last few hours of the ride was spent at what felt like a inhuman 40km/h with Hannele tucked in closely behind. As we followed round the Cape coast towards the finish we were finally able starting to believe that we would actually make it. We rode into the finish at 4:30am to find Andy and a small posse of dedicated Hannele fans awaiting us. Our first thoughts were we needed to jump into this ocean that’d been our goal for so many days through the baking sun scorched South African mountains. Celebratory dip over with our bikes were hurriedly put into cars and we were driven to our respective accommodation. Left to wonder who we’d share our stories with and what we’d do with our lives, now that finally, we didn’t have to get back on our bikes in the morning.
I still don’t know if I ever want to see a bike again. But South Africa treated me well and I’m sure I’ll never forget the 10 days 22 hours and 45 minutes it took me to cross it.