300km Vätterrundan, Motala, Sweden: we survived!

You know a race is seriously long when your Garmin‘s battery runs out, the sunrise snack was something called “Köttbullar och Potatismos” – meatballs, mash and warm sweet red berries at the 104km mark – and you’re clocking 200 km by 08:00 in the morning.

The truly spectacular Vätternrundan is the largest recreational bike ride in the world, consisting of various distances with the 300 km challenge being the longest and most popular,  attracting more than 20000 riders. We were lucky to get an entry, so I flew from Cape Town via Amsterdam to Linköping,  where my brother and sister picked me up. Like most riders we stayed at one of the many campsites, close to the Vättern lake. There was even a beach on our doorstep.

Our starting time was at 22:36, just before sunset and it was bitterly cold and windy. Standing on the market square in the tiny town of Motala felt unreal – I had flown in the day before and was seriously attempting the longest bike ride I had ever even considered. We had checked our gear for the umpteenth time, our energy drink was in our cycling shirt pockets, we were dressed with arm and leg warmers hoping it would be sufficient protection against the chilly winds. It barely was: the first 104 km lead us to the southernmost tip of lake Vättern, to the town of Jönköping. We rode this against the wind, and by the time we had covered this, the temperature had dropped to an achingly fresh 7 degrees. The clever organizers of this race had prepared: the food stop here was in a giant factory building, which was heated! We were served Swedish specialities like meatballs, warm blueberry soup and salty gherkins, which at that point was still surprising, but towards the end of the race I was looking forward to a healthy portion of gherkins at each watering point (of which there were plenty). After sunrise the route around the shores of the lake was truly spectacular: little villages with cobbled roads (rattling a couple of bike lights into pieces), endless pine tree forests and picturesque views over the lake just kept us going. It got warmer the minute the sun peeked over the misty horizon and cycling in this breathtaking scenery was just a dream come true. The second half definitely feels more challenging, mostly because of the countless rolling hills, and the lack of sleep at that point. Once we hit the 200km mark, adrenalin kicked in and I knew that I would finish this race – we hit it hard at that point and averaged above 33 km/h in a crazy 4 man mini-race within a race.  It felt like we were flying through the Swedish landscape. Well, we came to our senses and slowed down eventually but by then we only had something like 40 km to ride. For some reason I didn’t want it to end yet, mostly because we had planned this trip for the better part of a year and it would soon come to an end. But this is what we came here for, completing the Vätternrundan. The final 10 km lead us down to the lake and along the promenade to the finish.

Our plan was to ride fast but to make use of the catering stations as much as possible – so we managed a 28 km/h average, but had to add about two hours to our total ride time, bringing us back to Motala after 13 hours in the saddle. It took me a few hours afterwards to realize that we had actually done it.  We had completed the longest race of our lives so far!

The organization of this race is incredible:  the entire town of Motala is taken over by cyclists – registration, exhibition, start and catering all happens on the main market square. This creates a great vibe around the start/ finish all the way through the night.  The food and drink stops along the route are so perfectly run that 20 000 riders all receive a warm meal and endless bread rolls, gherkins, warm berry juice, coffee, teas and energy drinks without having to stand in a queue.  I couldn’t believe the number of volunteers who assist in making roads safe or serve food all night long, only for a bunch of crazy cyclists to have the time of their lives. I couldn’t believe the “veterans” cycling the route on 50 year-old single speed bikes with shopping baskets in the front or the guy doing it on a 30 kg military bike. There was a 70-year-old riding his 40th Vätternrundan, having completed the 300km ride every year since it started. Our campsite neighbour never trained, “but uses her bicycle to go shopping” – and completed the 300 km in about 20 hours. The support by locals was something special too: seeing a family sit in front of their house by a fire, at 3:00 AM during a bitterly cold and windy night and cheering excitedly is something I won’t forget. Their little boy screaming a supportive “hey hey hey” at the top of his voice will stay with me forever.

Thanks to the Vätternrundan organizers (Twitter: @Vatternrundan)  for a truly unforgettable event. If I can, I will be back some time.

AMA Rider 100Miler – or “Don’t ride when sick….”

“To be able to say you’ve ridden a 100 miles off-road is something special to add to your cycling resume.” (AMARider website)

Well, I tried. On a normal day, a 100 mile mountain biking race would have pushed me into the survival mode for about the last third (i.e. being in pain, nursing cramps but still moving towards the finish line). So I thought I could manage this race, which is organized by the team around Meurant Botha, the founder of Amarider. It takes place on the open farm roads around Malmesbury, is non-technical and therefore ideal for me, someone who is not to great on technical and rocky climbs, but prefers endurance off-road events. So the theory went like this: “I’ll be easily OK for the first 100 kilometers and then nurse it to the finish line in time for the cut off.

I knew it was going to be a mind game of knowing the route and what to expect, so I spent time reading the detailed route description, and even went into the trouble of editing my own top tube sticker with the important sections of the route. All in order to not push it too hard too early and know what was coming after the next waterpoint.

Then my alarm clock went off in the morning. I was feeling sick, my throat hurt and my head was pounding. Something like “maybe it is the lack of sleep” went through my head instead of “there is a cold on it’s way and you should turn over and forget about racing today!”.  Packed my car, had my breakfast, of I went. At the start I had shivers, but surely that must have been the early morning cold… A beautiful sunrise sent us off, following the farm roads of the Swartland. I never found my rhythm, started severely sweating way too early, but the cold mist sort of cooled me down and made me believe all was fine.  After 40 kilometers and a long climb I had my first cramps, something I usually only get when extremely exhausted after a long day of riding.

I expected wonders at the first breakfast point, but the fresh fruit, muffins and selection of energy drinks couldn’t save me at that point.  My race plan said “very strenuous 5 km of climbing” right after the water point. At the top of this climb I said good bye to “Niels”, a friendly Dutchman and “Springbok”, a lady from said town, as I had to take it slow. At that point the beauty of the scenery wasn’t enough anymore to keep me going – suddenly the Swartland milk cows seemed to be staring at me… it wasn’t going so great and I made the call to get to the half way point, another 20 kilometers of “fast open riding”.

Those must have been the longest 20 kilometers I have spent on a bike in a long time. I knew my body wanted me to stop, I didn’t want to hurt myself  unnecessarily but had to make it to the next stop, to catch the shuttle I somehow imagined to be waiting there for me.  Somehow I made it to the stop, relaxed under an ancient shady tree until the cramps subsided and managed to catch a lift to the start in Malmesbury.

The AMARider 100 Miler is a beautiful and an amazing challenge – but only do it if you are 100% healthy. Even though I didn’t have a flu or anything serious that could have  caused real damage,  my body just wasn’t ready for a challenge like this. I will be back next year, and tackle this again! Thanks to AMA Rider for the great event, wonderfully friendly people and beautiful route!

All pictures by the brilliant people at Oakpics.com (www.oakpics.com &  facebook.com/pages/Oakpics) Orders: orders@oakpics.com 

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The largest recreational bike ride in the world

from: http://www.vatternrundan.se

Vätternrundan 2011

Vätternrundan, 300 km long, is the largest recreational bicycle ride in the world.

The 300 km course follows the shoreline of the beautiful Lake Vättern in Sweden and early starters can see the sun set and rise over the lake during the ride. Taking place every summer in mid June, it is open to everyone from 18 and up. This is a unique possibility to experience cycling on a grand scale. The main event is accompanied by the shorter alternatives; Tjejvättern (100 km, women only) and Halvvättern (150 km).

Vätternrundan starts and finishes in Motala, Sweden, which swells to three times its size during the cycling events. The cyclists, their friends and relatives and the thousands of bicycles create a festival atmosphere, making the bike ride that extra special. Many cyclists return year after year to be a part of this large and welcoming cycling community.

The course appeals to all sorts of bicycle enthusiasts and the level of service along the course is very high. Word of this well-organised event has spread far beyond the borders of Sweden. Last year 38 different nations were represented.

Because Vätternrundan is a recreational ride, no winners are listed. Instead cyclists wear a timing chip that registers their individual times. These times can be seen under Results. Everyone can check what time they started, when they passed the check points and what time they arrived at the finish in Motala.

Punctureking will take part in the ride this year – we’ll post pictures and reviews from mid June!

vattern map

Arabella Challenge: “commit to eat sand”

Can a luxury hotel brand African Pride put together a mountain bike challenge at one of their swoosh golf hotels? Well, this weekend it was time to find out at the first Arabella Challenge, in Kleinmond on the South Coast, a mere 110 kilometres from Cape Town. Next to a large lagoon you’ll find the African Pride Hotels Arabella Hotel & Spa, a golf hotel with a wonderful coastal golf course on the banks of the Bot River lagoon. We could see flamingos and fish eagle from the balcony of our room. There is also a recently renovated (and seriously spectacular) spa offering the classic treatments as well as their signature African Rainforest Experience, a 2 hour treatment incorporating various hot and cold water elements.

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The Arabella Challenge itself was a 2 day stage race, with about 40 kms of riding a day. In terms of distance this is not huge and probably not a real challenge for most accomplished riders. It was great to see a few Epic finishers in the mix though who had probably taken the Arabella Challenge for what it really was: A great opportunity to take your partner and kids and combine a stay in a luxury hotel with cycling in some of the most beautiful areas in South Africa. Many riders brought their family (there was also a trail running challenge at the same time), so the hotel was full of sports people – and it was also my first time that I felt comfortable sitting in a hotel restaurant while wearing lycra.

The stage race itself was booked by about 150 riders, not a bad turn out at an initial race – which was quite pricy to participate in (ZAR 950), so my expectations were huge. Just being able to put your shammy cream on in 5 star luxury instead of in a smelly portaloo makes a huge difference. But there were other services that made this event very special: A bike wash and service station (included), free coffee at the start, a great cyclists breakfast in the main restaurant, a fantastic dinner buffet (very family friendly), bike lock up facilities, great goodie bag and best of all – a free beer on finish after day 1! Ice cold, handed over on the finishing line to forget the pain and agony that some of the sandy stretches of that route might have caused.

Day 1 was supposed to be a 40 km / 740m ride with most of the climbing to be done in the first third. On the start we were informed that the route had changed slightly, that there were two waterstops (with super friendly and cheerful people) and that there were going to be a few sandy patches. So off we went into the stunningly beautiful Koglberg Nature Reserve. Mostly climbing on jeep tracks we reached the top, with spectacular views of the lagoon and the surrounding mountains, partially covered in clouds. I had pushed way to hard and started hating the long and sandy, often rocky climbs and was extremely relieved to reach the first waterstop, thinking that it could only get better after that.

Arabella Challenge12

A lot of fast descents followed by short steep climbs and very sandy river sections made this day exciting – and exhausting. When I ended up on a climb all by myself, with the tracks of the sweep vehicle covering the other riders’ tracks, I realized that something had gone wrong. I had been on this climb before, early in the morning. I had cursed at these rocks before… so I turn around, went down to the next crossing, where there were no signs. Oddly enough there were also no tracks., so I was clueless when and where it had gone wrong, but luckily there was an Arabella vehicle in the distance with a friendly guy showing me 2kms back to the actual track – on one of the downhills I had missed a very visible sign. The last 5 kms were another very sandy affair, with a bit of climbing that I didn’t expect – so by the time I got the finish 42nd, I was quite happy to have completed the day. Said ice cold beer was handed to me there and then the bike was taken care of and I enjoyed the rest of the day in the hotel spa.

Arabella Challenge5

Day 2 started with the briefing “Beware of the climbing: Today starts with a long climb, to be followed by a long climb”. We left the start area and cycled the first few kilometres on the same route up the Highlands road, which took us a good 45 minutes to reach the first summit (after about 500m of ascent). Deep in wonderful pine forests, fast descents were followed by rocky climbs, then a few contour paths. At 20 kilometers, my bike gave in – the rear shock failed and I had to lock it out, so I wasn’t looking forward to the next half. But what lay ahead were the best 20 kilometres of riding I had done in a long time: first there was pine needle covered soft single track down the forest, super fast, stunningly beautiful and almost as good as the Welgevanpas near Wellington. We were flying through the forest at exhilarating pace, what a great reward after the long climbs of the day. The single track then changed to rocky jeep track (fast and dangerous) led us back to the main district road. I clocked 60km/h on this gravel district road, and after a small detour through the sandy forest of day one, made it back to the finish in just under 3 hours.

In total day 1 was about 38 km, with little over 800 m of ascent (plus my detour…), day tour was 46 km with 1100 m of ascent.

African Pride is planning another Arabella Challenge for September and it is highly recommendable, if you are looking for a weekend away where it is not just about you – it’s a luxury stage race where you can easily take your entire family (riders, runners, spa-experts…) and enjoy this concept. It is not a cheap exercise, but the hotel has got a package rate for participants which is great value for money. I would only make sure that you can arrange a late check out on the second day, as coming back from the ride and not being able to get into my room as it was after 11:00. ( I just need to ride faster, clearly…).  Apart from that, a great mountain biking family experience in a beautiful location. I must admit, combining mountain biking with the comforts of a luxury hotel is a great concept: sitting on the terrace overlooking a beautiful lagoon, enjoying a freshly made beef burger from the hotel kitchen and great cappuccinos is definitely the best way to end a race.

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Local bike shop: service made me smile

The other day I packed my bike to fly to a race in Johannesburg, arrived the afternoon before the race – a Saturday. After checking into the hotel and unpacking my bike, I realized that my bike’s headset bearing had disintegrated, with balls falling all over the (very plush) hotel room carpet.

Panic – my starting time was somewhere around 06:45 AM, no time to sort anything out. Bike shops all closed. But there was the Cycling Expo, which is  the registration event where all local bike shops have stands to sell anything the last minute semi-pro might still need for the race. Equipped with iPhone pictures of the bearing in question (and in pieces) I ran across and showed it to some of the sales people, who all felt really sorry, but couldn’t do much.

Until I met a gentleman at one of the biggest shops, who told me immediately to get the bike there, they would take me to their workshop. Two hours later his mechanic was still calling around trying to locate the bearing which didn’t work out. All this on a Saturday afternoon, during his off time. Eventually they told me that there was nothing they could do to fix the bike, as the bearing is not available anywhere on the day and everythign they had didn’t fit. I was bleak, saw my participation in the race disappear and the wasted money for the flight and the hotel accommodation I should have rather used on a weekend away with my wife.

They must have sensed my disappointment despite the lack of tears – and suggested I take a brand new bike, with better components, off the show floor and ride the race on it. I was speechless – they didn’t accept any payment, and drove me back to the hotel, with my borrowed bike. Wished me good luck, arranged the meeting for the next day after the race (they had to open their shop again, on a Sunday, to take of my pedals and other items) – and still refused to take any money.

The race went well, but at that point I was so impressed with the friendliness of Johannesburg and the no-questions-asked service by this bike shop, that I must have smiled all the way on my race. Thanks again, Joburg!

PS: If you need a really friendly bike shop in Johannesburg, let us know – we might have found one!

2013 Cape Argus PicknPay Cycle Tour, Cape Town

The “Cape Argus” is South Africa’s most famous bicycle race and with 35000 participant the “largest individually timed bike race in the world”.  This year was my 4th attempt to clock an impressive time, and let’s just say it remains an attempt. The race starts in Cape Town’s CBD and follows the False Bay coastline all the way to Simonstown, then crosses the Peninsula and runs along the breath taking Atlantic Ocean coastline via Hout Bay all the way back to Cape Town.

My starting time for this 110km race was at 06:56, and as I learned from previous years, the trick was to be in your individual starting pen as early as possible. In my case it meant hat I was freezing in the Q box from 06:00 and I was still only in the last quarter of the field, before we even started. The amount of people taking part in this race is amazing, the amount of Portaloos int he starting pens is too – there was a total of 2 toilets for what seemed about 700 Q riders. It was not a pretty sight and I hope that one day this lowlight of any bike race can be taken away…

The race itself was fast and I felt much stronger than in the previous years, which were overshadowed by painful walks up Suikerbossie, the last long hill of the course. This year I managed a 30 km/h average and flew up all the hills, even the dreadful last one – my result was just a few minutes over three and a half hours, which made me quite happy, but left me with the feeling that I should have pushed harder.

The men’s race was won by Johan Rabie in 2:39, the woman’s race by Ashleigh Pasio in 2:53. My kudos go out to the people who spend the whole day on their bicycle because the Argus is their personal challenge to beat. I remember a lot of very humbling moments like being overtaken by a seemingly 70 year old on Chapmans’s Peak or trying to catch up with one of those incredibly fast wheelchair riders. The Argus truly brings riders from any background together: t

One of the most beautiful coastal cycling routes in the world.

One of the most beautiful coastal cycling routes in the world.

here is the  lady on the back of the tandem whose husband is doing a lot of pedaling work while she focuses on the shouting, there are riders in support of rhino protection, there are brave people on rigid single speed bikes and there is the hipster in a tweet jacket – the Argus is an amazing spectacle.

Nice celebrates the Tour : join us on the Promenade !

Nice celebrates the Tour : join us on the Promenade !

The finish of the 71st edition of Paris-Nice put cycling champions in the limelight on the French Riviera for the final two stages of the Race to the Sun. Another cycling weekend will be held in just over three months in Nice, besides the Corsican Grand Départ of the Tour’s 100th edition. Nice mayor Christian Estrosi and Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme unveiled the details of the “Nice fête le Tour” (Nice celebrates the Tour) operation this morning.

On the 2013 Tour, Nice will be the landing base of the peloton for its first stage on the mainland. If the city is familiar with the race, with 35 appearances since 1906, it is a welcome return to the capital of the Riviera, 32 years after the start of the 1981 edition.
For this vintage Tour de France, Nice will be doubly invited to play a leading role since, before hosting the riders, the town will have a first taste of  the biggest cycling race in the world during three days between June 29 and July 1. A meeting venue will be installed to follow the first three stages live in communion with Corsican fans. A giant live screen, an exhibition village, animation stalls and various quizzes and games will take visitors to the very heart of the Tour. Amateurs will then have a chance to go from recreation to action on June 30, when they are allowed to gauge themselves on the course used for the team time-trial two days later. Applications for the 24.1-km timed challenge will be open on http://www.asochallenges.com from April 11.