Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Loaded down

Days remaining to get ready for a ride across South Africa are dwindling, and I'm working on making final decisions about gear. This trip is particularly scary because mechanically, I'm virtually on my own. The Freedom Trail travels through rural and remote parts of South Africa, and bike shop availability is even more slim than it was on the Great Divide. As such, I'm bringing an entire mini-kit of spare parts that I can only hope I don't actually need to use, as I have low confidence in my own field repairs. (I get it, if you're going to be a cyclist, it pays to work on your own bikes. But trust me, you would not want to ride any bike that I took apart and put back together, and neither do I.)

So, top of my list, spare parts. Next on the list is gadgets. When a race organization explicitly forbids GPS, you need a lot of gadgets to make up for it: Odometer, spare odometer after mud inevitably kills the first one, spare magnets, compass, handlebar map holder, and an ingenious little electronic cue-direction device that Beat has designed, built, and programmed. Hopefully I'll have a chance to write more about this device after I have a chance to test it more extensively. It has high potential for usefulness and also for being broken by me. But it's made with love, and that is reason enough to value it highly. Gadgets also include a handlebar and helmet light, spare batteries, battery charger, camera, camera charger, cell phone, iPods, and a South Africa plug adaptor. You should see this plug adaptor; it's the size of a rear derailleur. Seriously, everything is bigger in Africa.

Liehann and I won't be carrying camping gear, as we plan to utilize the support stations set up by the Freedom Challenge organization, even if it means pulling an extra long night ride to make it to the next stop, or stopping early if the next station is too far away. Cowboy camping in rural South Africa is discouraged, and I figure the farm house accommodations will be part of the whole cultural experience. There are also occasional warnings on the maps such as "watch out for rhinos" ... so yeah, there's that. I do have a robust emergency bivy (that won't fall apart if I need to use it), fire starters, and extra clothing for potential unexpected long stops.

And clothing. South Africa is located at a subtropical latitude with oceans on three sides, so winters are relatively mild. Storms can be more frequent and severe during the winter months, but the Interior is usually characterized by crisp, sunny days and frosty nights. It actually seems comparable to a coastal California winter — 80-degree heat is a possibility, but so are temperatures in the low 20s. There are also points on the route that climb near 3,000 meters (10,000 feet.) Even coastal California is a not-so-nice place in the winter at those elevations, and one poorly timed storm could bury us in snow. Liehann warned that we could also spend a lot of time soaking wet, so I'm carrying a lot of the same clothing I took on the Iditarod Trail in February — Gore-Tex shell, rain pants, wind tights, nanopuff jacket, windproof hat, windproof buff, mitten shells, fleece socks and vapor barrier socks. I even purchased a pair of size 10 Montrail Mountain Masochist shoes to accommodate extra sock layers, with the added bonus of not being Gore-Tex (as are my current winter shoes) for better ventilation. My everyday kit is a Castelli skort and Patagonia capaline mock turtleneck long-sleeve shirt — which I also wore in the Iditarod, and believe to be the best shirt for all occasions. It's somehow sun-protective yet cooling when it's hot, and reasonably insulating when it's cold. I'm also carrying a pair of light running shorts and a T-shirt for sleeping, and also for wearing on the bike if the chamois become a problem (Over long distances or rainy days, chamois take on some of the properties of a dirty diaper, and that is a problem.)

I loaded up my bike and backpack with the lot of it, as well as a day's food and water, and set out this afternoon for a weighted ride. I planned a particularly climb-intensive route to get a feel for the heft on steep terrain, but started to feel bad surprisingly early. So bad, actually, that when I slashed a brand new tire at mile 3.5, I very seriously considered pulling the plug on the whole ride. There was a dime-sized shard of glass stuck between tread, and sealant was spewing all over the place. But when I pulled out the glass and spun the wheel, the sealant seemed to hold. A few pumps of air was all it took to get everything back to normal. I had my entire spare-part kit with me, including tire boots, two spare tubes, extra sealant, and a patch kit, but I was trying to justify my way out of riding. "Maybe the sealant won't hold. I should just go home."

Maybe feeling this way was predictable. Allergy season is in full swing, so there's that. I also had a blood draw in the morning. Fasted for twelve hours, gave three vials full of blood for different tests, ate two bowls of cereal and coffee, and set out for a 50-mile ride with 8,000 feet of climbing on a loaded mountain bike. But it wasn't *that* much blood, so I was incredulous. "Why do I feel so weak? This bike isn't *that* heavy. I'm just being lazy."

By the time I hit the Waterwheel Trail, I was feeling lightheaded, almost dizzy. But it's good learning experience to practice recovery on the bike — dialing back the effort level and trying to recapture energy while maintaining forward motion. I ate a few fruit snacks but my appetite was low and I didn't want to add nausea to the mix. Still, I had so much fun descending Bella Vista and Alpine trails that I forgot all about the dizziness.

That is, until it was time to climb up Windy Hill. Grades sometimes approach 20 percent, and I could not stay on the bike without feeling like I might black out. I stumbled and wove as I pushed up the loose gravel fire road, wondering how I could possibly become so weak and delirious with this scant extra weight — I can usually ride up this trail without issue. About a half mile from the top, I finally sat down in the high grass that ignites my allergies and ate two Clif Bars. Results weren't immediate, but I started to feel a whole lot better within the next twenty minutes. It seems obvious as I write this, but at the time — before Clif Bars — my world was crashing down on me. I was too weak to pedal a loaded bike. My legs were shot. This Africa trip was going to be a disaster. Low blood sugar — such a humorous physical state, when you think about it.

Anyway, it was a great ride — scenic loop, rolling steep hills, lots of singletrack, almost all dirt between the first and last eight miles, and it starts right out my front door. Even with low blood sugar and loaded for touring, it's fun.