Race Across South Africa, part one
This has happened to me a few times in my life: A moment — on a bridge over the Colorado River, or a curb in front of my house in Salt Lake City, or the edge of a frozen lake in Alaska, or a trailhead in the Canadian Rockies — when I straddle my bicycle and realize that I really have no idea where this is going to take me for the next week or three or nine. I made some plans, I did some preparations, I studied some maps, but really ... I have no clue. It's a gut-sinking moment, a wide-eyed gaze across a bewildering horizon, when the scope into a vast unknown opens as wide as it's ever been. I feel that quiver in my lower spine, a weakness in my limbs, a gurgle in my throat that ignites an urge to sit down, to not venture any farther into an unfamiliar world where there is so little that I control. Every time, that's my gut reaction — don't move. Stay here. Crossing that threshold in a swirl of excitement and dread is like stepping out of a warm house into a blizzard — and it's one of my favorite moments in bike touring.
I looked toward Liehann, who was passing his camera to someone else for the round of obligatory pre-race photos. Ever other person in our starting group of four men and four women seemed to be nervously fidgeting with lights and gear. Over our heads was the bright red banner for Comrades Marathon, and I thought about the 18,000 runners that stood in this same spot just over a week earlier. "How weird would it be to start a race that you knew was going to end on the same day?" I wondered. Comrades simply follows a main highway on a marked course 56 miles to Durban. I'm not saying that makes it easy by any stretch of the imagination, but there was comfort in pondering something so straightforward.
Liehann and I kept a slightly fast, somewhat nervous pace out of the city and into the mist-shrouded hills. The landscape was a rolling patchwork quilt of golden grass and tree farms — blocks of forest nestled amid the natural grasslands. I stopped at the first intersection to consult the map, and realized Liehann was no longer behind me. Several minutes later, he still wasn't there. "Did we already get lost in the first six kilometers of the Freedom Challenge?" I wondered. "That doesn't bode well." I pedaled back up the hill and found him hunched over his bike, giving off frustrated grunts as he tried to remove a pin in his chain. A broken chain at kilometer six — as it turned out, this would be a harbinger for poor Liehann's curse of mechanicals throughout the race.
At the bottom of the gorge, we followed a narrow and surprisingly rideable cattle trail through the thick willow-like trees. Where the cliffs came down to the river, we simply had to hike. The rocks were slippery and at times more treacherous than it looks.
DayTrippers. Both have both been involved with the Freedom Challenge since the early days. Di completed her first Race Across South Africa in 2007, and 2014 would be her third. Steve had also completed it before, though I was never quite clear on the number. These two would prove to be a fountain of knowledge, and they were always full of good humor even when things got tough. Di is a petite woman — probably 100 pounds tops — but incredibly strong, amazingly strong. We'd sometimes see them towing some of the longer climbs, meaning both bikes were attached to a rope with the stronger partner towing the person who was struggling. In every case, it was Di towing Steve, which was impressive for me — as a woman who understands my own level of strength — to witness. Steve was self-professed out of shape but always seemed to be in a good mood, even when he was, in his words, "shattered."
Finally, with my headlamp on high beam, I was able to spot a depression in the grass that proved to be the singletrack cattle trail we were looking for. From there, we worked our way along the contour and into the next valley, climbing over several barbed-wire fences. I struggled to lift my bike, hooked my shorts, and made a joke about my natural awkwardness and terrible climbing skills. These fences were only four feet high. As I laughed at myself, Steve had a smirk on his face that seemed to express a belief that this newbie American had no idea what she was in for. "These fences are nothing," Di said. "Wait until the game gates. They're just as bad and three meters high." I remember her saying this, but I'm not sure I believed her at the time. Who would expect people with loaded mountain bikes to climb three-meter-high fences?