Big 5 Sport Challenge

Guts … And some Glory

2011-07-04 14:06
Thamar Houliston
Thamar Houliston on the Knysna 75km Mountain Bike

It’s official. Mountain bikers are deranged. Personally, I think they are missing that part of their brain that relays fear. There’s no flashing red light that goes off when they see a muddy 90-degree downhill.  Unfortunately for me, my first instinct is self-preservation, which is why the 75-kilometre mountain bike race in Knysna on Saturday was the equivalent of me going to war. 

I knew it would be tough but I had no idea that the big man upstairs was going to throw in some icy wind and rain which eventually created the muddiest course I’ve ever ridden.

We started out on a deceiving tar road where I merrily started to pass everyone, knowing full well that when we got to the trail they’d pass me. The first part of the off-road section was a head-cracking downhill and I clung to my brakes while the entire field passed me. Once I reached the bottom I said a little prayer of thanks and then relished the uphills that followed. My Comrades fitness really paid off and no hill was too much for me.

When we reached the ‘King of the Mountain’ spot (which basically means the highest point where everyone kaks off) the view was spectacular and I couldn’t help but feel jovial.

The first 42-kilometres were actually pretty quick, being mostly fast jeep track and relatively manageable climbs. There was one muddy downhill section which I nicknamed ‘death’s doorstep’, where I was pulling the breaks so hard I got cramp in my fingers.

I asked a fellow biker what the rest of the course was like and he said it was another 23 kilometres of off-road with one or two technical bits and then a nice tar downhill for 10 kilometres. ‘Perfect’, I thought. First rule of mountain biking – don’t ever listen to anyone who’s done the course before. The course always changes or the terrain does.

Raw Fingers, Mud and Guts

Needless to say that’s when the mud came. Sections were so slippery that everyone was getting off their bikes, falling face first in the gooey earth. Carnage. One steep uphill was so slippery that I actually couldn’t get grip with my feet and almost slid all the way down again. A friendly arm grabbed my bike and helped my haul it up the steepest part. I never saw his face as I couldn’t actually look up from the angle I was crawling at.

Now generally on a mountain bike course there’s one good line and another line that’s not as smooth or as easy. The problem with being the only person who is afraid of the downhills is that you have to take the line less ridden, which is also trickier. I wasn’t sure if I was more terrified of the ditches on the line I took or the crazies whizzing past me on the downhills.

By now my fingers were raw and the tips of them numb. I was covered in mud from head to toe and my feet were frozen. Rocky and treacherous terrain also takes a lot of concentration and my eyes started to glaze over. Then, another spirit-breaking downhill. I stopped half-way down and composed myself. My mental strength was all I had to conquer the worst of it and I had to constantly coach myself through the sections where I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry.
When we reached the single track which I’d been dreading, it was actually rather enjoyable and for a few kilometres I was in my element. Then my front tyre slipped out a little on one of the moss-covered routes and my heart when through my chest. ‘Ok easy does it’, I thought and that became my motto for the rest of the technical bits. I had four other races to get through and couldn’t afford any broken bones.

No Tar in Sight

I clung to the hope of the 10 kilometres of tar but the forest just wouldn’t end. We got to one open white rock section that was freezing, the wind lashing us with rain and an angle, and I felt like I was in the Himalayas. Here we were given donuts which melted in my mouth and I guzzled them like a crazed person who hadn’t eaten for days. One fellow rider even had a good chuckle at my enthusiasm for the chocolate-coated bun.

More hills, more mud, more single track and no tar road. It felt like an eternity…

Then we got to some single track which I remembered from the 50-kilometre ride and knew we were almost home. As kids from the nearby township shouted “Hou beene hou”, I tried not to get my hopes up too much. Descending was painful and the last long grassy downhill took every muscle fibre in my fingers that was still working to hold on.

Then finally, after six hours I was on the two-kilometres of tar that led to the finish.

When we were on solid ground, one guy towards the end said “my mate got me to ride this thing and we only did a four-hour training ride.” I replied, “Ya I did one 14-kilometre training ride.” I then twigged - I’m just as nuts as each and every one of these crazy-ass mountain bikers.

Thamar is currently in Knysna participating in the Big5 Challenge … She is the online editor for You can follow her on her Knysna Big5 adventure here


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