Donker moves. Nobody got to hear master South African bike builder, Francois du Toit explain the meaning of the phrase he’d coined back in the day when bikes were crafted by hand from steel. If they’d heard him speak at the small-town Sutherland restaurant that night as had been the plan - the plan before the wind, rain and sleet closed in and turned riders into warriors - they’d have heard him say this: “If a route is very hard and you make it, that’s donker moves.”
It’s Wednesday 27 August 2014, 589km into the inaugural Tour of Ara, a 679km, 6-day bike race through South Africa’s brutal-beautiful Karoo and 33 cyclists, 60 year-old du Toit included, are riding a collection of vintage SA-built steel road bikes. Among them: Le Jeune, Du Toit, Alpina, Hansom, Peugeot, Peter Allan. They’ve been navigating a mostly dirt route, on tyres no larger than 32c, over badly corrugated roads, through deep sand, loose rocks and gravel from the vineyards of Franschhoek through Robertson, Laingsburg, Merweville and Sutherland. Destination: Matjiesfontien.
And so far, so expected: there have been pinch flats, mechanical issues and sore muscles. But nothing that patience, a puncture kit, Miracle Comfrey Ointment (poached from a passing motorist to repack an exploded rear hub), bags of ice and sneaky Voltarin shots (administered in a dark hotel room), can’t sort out.
But on day five, the leg from Merweville to Sutherland, shit got real. And none of the cyclists who were now devouring a chunk of springbok shank washed down with glasses of merlot needed du Toit, or anyone else for that matter, to tell them what they already knew: they’d pulled some donker moves that day.
A cold front had closed in as predicted, turning the burnt sunset colours of the Karoo into something darker, greyer, more brooding than the previous four days.
The weather was worse than most had anticipated – wetter, windier, colder - and dressed in lycra cycling shorts or leggings, cotton t-shirts, flimsy windbreakers - few of them were prepared. Riding solo or single-file in groups of three or four, heads down, the cyclists fought against the rain that sought out weakness in waterproofs like sonar, icicling down flesh and soaking through cotton, lycra and any material between, skin sliced open on finger joints and palm flesh torn by the ruts which turned downbars into pneumatic drills, and hands frozen right down to the bone and - small mercy - now utterly devoid of feeing. There was the steady 50 kilometer headwind to deal with too. It rattled across the Karoo, smashing into bikes and bodies. In this terrain, cyclists become soldiers. Look down at your heart-rate monitor, it says you should be doing 45 km per hour, look at your speedometer it reads 7 or 8 km per hour. Your temperature gauge reads 7.5 degrees centigrade. What do you do? You batten down your hatches. You keep moving.
Nils, 31, owner of Woodstock Cycleworks in Cape Town, riding a Le Jeune rebranded as a Diamant, remembers how icy it was. “Naively I was wearing short-fingered gloves so once the rain hit, my fingers went cold straight away. I couldn’t feel them. I was trying to hold them behind the handlebars to keep them warm and trying to ride one handed. But that was dangerous because we were slip-streaming each other.”
Just a few hours earlier, in a restaurant in the sleepy town of Merweville, race director Rolf had jokingly predicted this scenario in the morning map briefing: “Tonight at dinner, there’ll be the announcement of the King of the Mountain and stage race leaders. And body count.” This area isn’t called the Moordenaars (Murderers) Karoo for nothing. Even so, in that innocuous pastel-hued morning, the riders, sipping freshly-brewed filter coffee, their bodies unfurling in the gentle sunshine, laughed.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves...
The desertous, sparsely populated Karoo region in South Africa’s Western and Northern Cape is big. Moerse big. There’s no official beginning or end but you know it when you see it – dirt roads twist-turn, taking you straight up towards the sun or dead-ahead into the blue-purple koppies beyond. Steel windpumps spin, turning on the breeze like thoughts. Here, in all this space, things can seem crystal clear. Whatever ‘it’ is, you’re pretty sure you get it.
You can hear it too. The silent, dustred beating heart of the Karoo is surrounded by the lifeblood of insects and birds and bontebok, the odd sheep’s bleat, a person’s voice, startling the silence.
But the truth is, you feel it first. It’s the kind of landscape that makes you want to punch the sky. Brutal - you don’t want to be left alone without water for too long, temperatures can swing dangerously from sweat-soaked to bone-clacking and while your phone will come in handy to take the photos that will launch a thousand Instagram likes, good luck if you want to make a 911 call with it.
This is where 39-year old bike-befok Cape Town photographer, Stan Engelbrecht chose to stage the inaugural Tour of Ara, a bike race inspired by early twentieth century French and Italian races.
These races were the sort before support vehicles, refreshment stops, tour medics and tar roads came as standard. Stan wanted the Tour of Ara to be unlike any bike race in South Africa. Certainly he didn’t want it to be a thing like the Cape Epic, the renowned race, which draws thousands of mountain bikers from around the world to some of these same desert parts. It attracts big name sponsors, too. And there’s support. Lots of support.
But not for these riders. This was to be a more lo-fi affair. There would be no brand names, no bloated food tents. There would be a home-cooked dinner and breakfast at each night’s stop - a mixture of hotels, B&Bs, a school and an old sleeper train. And there would be padkos along the way: lemon pancakes with ice cold Coke served up by Judy, the owner of the roadside cafe heading towards Robertson, roosterbrood and pineapple beer made by Tannie Poppie from Laingsburg served to starved riders at the top of a grueling mountain pass, homemade vegetable soup, fresh bread and Deluxe coffee dished up from the cosy confines of a classic orange VW kombi on the icy-cold, windswept road to Sutherland.
All these stops had been carefully mapped out by Stan on previous reccies and planned down to the minutest detail. A way to offer jobs to the local communities the tour passed through and for the riders, a series of surprising and welcome respites to punctuate the desert harshness.
But in those endless spaces stretching on either side of the one official pit stop for the day, riders were on their own – alone with their machines, their thoughts and the Karoo. The cyclists that signed on for R7500 (‘at their own risk’ - these words were repeated like a mantra throughout the tour), would get precisely what they asked for…
Alone, or in twos or threes by the side of the road, under a camel thorn tree offering up a paltry shade or the shelter of a bridge, riders could be found hunched over bikes - their own or a fellow rider’s - attempting to McGuyver a mechanical with whatever they’d stowed on their bike, slung over their shoulder, or begged from a passing car: a freehub has worked itself apart, the tiny bearings scattered in the dust, a derailleur has spat out a jockey wheel, the rider forced to finish the stage single speed, handlebars hang broken-limbed-useless - given up after one rut too many. And punctures. A lot of punctures. Thorns and pinch flats are the most common. In the relentless Karoo sun, repairing your sixth flat of the day feels less like bad luck, more like universal retribution.
And it’s all caused by one simple fact: you’re riding a steel road bike on a dirt road - a gravelly, sandy, rutted road that really couldn’t give a shit about your reasons for being there.
Some are here to win. They have strategies and gentlemen’s agreements. And after each day on the road they can be found meticulously cleaning their frames to prevent any mechanical failures, inflating tyres, tinkering late into the night. These guys aren’t stopping for the roadside snacks.
Others are taking a less single-minded approach. Like Justin, a 41 year-old artist from Cape Town. He’s riding the Tour of Ara on his fixed speed Le Jeune, a packet of gherkins and an Old Brown Sherry half-jack filled with pinotage in his pocket and Bach flowing through his headphones. “There’s an edge of poetry that suits me. Riding a fixie has slowed me down a bit - not right to the back, but back next to people I want to ride with anyway. It’s a really beautiful way to spend your time.”
Kirstin, 37, an urban designer and mother of three from Cape Town, is one of three women on the tour. She’s riding a blue Le Jeune nicknamed ‘Tuareg’ after the Saharan desert nomads who traditionally wear indigo cheche (veils). “This race is about understanding your bike, understanding what it feels like, how to fix it, what could go wrong. Steel bikes are suited for that. They’re robust and easy to understand.”
But Kirstin sustains an injury on the first day. By day three she’s forced to stop and wait by the side of the road for the sweeper vehicle. She hasn’t seen a soul in three hours and when she can speak, she manages between sobs: “My leg gave in, it doesn’t work.” She’s gutted but she can’t go on, that much is clear. Later she says, “I’ve had three children, I have a high pain threshold – this is worse.” But driving in the kombi alongside the riders with race director, Rolf means she’ll get to see the tour from a perspective she hadn’t planned. “Everyone has grease on their faces, grease everywhere, that’s exactly how it should be. And the Karoo doesn’t allow for you not to persevere. Every single thing you see is struggling to survive. As are the racers.”
Out of 33 cyclists, 27 finished that brutal fifth day. Those swept up were experienced riders. The payoff for a future finish didn’t outweigh the agony of the present - or the potential of injury. Simple mathematics. Others had no choice. One rider (strong, experienced, single-minded, dubbed ‘Robocop’ by the others) became so disorientated by the brutal cold, sleet and wind that he left his bicycle strewn like a carcass in the road while he desperately sought shelter behind a thorny, unforgiving bush. Picked up later by a passing car, his tour was over.
Those who finished the route were a mixture of the physically fit and the mentally strong. The first bunch to roll into Sutherland came in after six hours. When you’ve survived endless hours on the road, when you’ve wanted to quit so many times but you didn’t, when you’ve pushed your body to a limit you didn’t know existed, when you’ve accomplished the hardest thing you pretty sure you’ve ever done - do you laugh or do you cry?
What you definitely do is strip off your shirt, shorts and gloves that are superglue-stuck to your body and stand under a steaming shower to get your body temperature back to something resembling normal. You take your bike in with you - it’s a muddy mess. You drop heavily into a chair around a fire, glass of red wine, hunks of bread and cheese in hand and stare into the flames. You wonder, “is this what hypothermia feels like?” while steam rises from the dripping mess of gear hanging on the windows behind you. What the hell just happened? Tomorrow’s another day...
Except it’s not tomorrow. Not yet.
Somewhere on the road between Merweville and Sutherland five riders are still out there. Marsi, Sarah, Las, and father and son duo Nick junior and senior - would spend ten hours on the road that day - 2 hours in the inky black of the Karoo, the driving rain lit up momentarily by the light of the sweeper vehicle now on high alert. Something primal is making these riders continue when their body temperature is so dangerously low that they are forced to pedal and brake on the downhills to generate heat. Any heat. Something makes them stop. Not to climb into the kombi, but to remove their brakes - so clogged with mud that forward movement is impossible. And anyway, who needs brakes when you’re pedaling into a 50 kilometer headwind? Something forces their shivering bodies back onto their bikes. Something got every one of the Tour of Ara riders back to Sutherland that night. Something primordial. Or perhaps superhuman.
Day five would signal the official end of the Tour of Ara. Snow was forecast for the following day (the lowest recorded temperature in Sutherland is minus 16.4 degrees centigrade) and it was decided by group vote over dinner that the sixth and final day would be a neutral ride. Cyclists could choose to ride or not, but either way, they’d finished.
Those who chose to go on had two options: take the tar road heavy with traffic, or opt for the dirt track - the road less travelled and the original Tour of Ara route. Both led to the small Karoo town of Matjiesfontien and the comfort of the colonial-style Lord Milner hotel.
A handful of the most experienced decided against riding and that morning they replaced their cycling gear with jeans, trainers and jumpers. What part of choosing to ride in snow, sleet and rain for 9 hours is idiotic? “All of it,” says one rider with nothing left to prove.
The mood amongst those who have committed to day six is a cocktail of trepidation, fear, determination and grit. Last minute sprints are made to the local supermarket for supplies: yellow rubber cleaning gloves top the shopping list. You do whatever it takes to keep dry. Feet are slipped into plastic supermarket packets before being squeezed into cycling shoes. Another plastic bag goes on top. And then another is tied over heads, beneath helmets. Duct tape criss-crosses shoes and legs. These are warriors readying themselves for their final battle. Or they’re simply men and women making their dumbest decision ever.
The ragtag battalion who ride out of Sutherland en masse that grey, drizzly morning is very different to the one that left Franschhoek in full sunshine six days previously, still buzzing on the glass of champagne they’d sunk to signal the start of the tour. One rider places his hand on the back of a fellow cyclist, urging her onwards into the wind and up the long, slow rise ahead.
33 cyclists left Franschhoek. Just four would finish the original dirt road route. They would ride into Matjiesfontein as heroes
Aided by a seductive downwind, the first few kilometers of dirt road were glorious. Cyclists cruise down mountain passes, past wild horses and windpumps, smiles as wide as the Karoo landscape. But when the sleet starts, and the wind changes direction, the mental battle begins anew. If your bike has little clearance, constantly having to stop to unclog your brakes takes its toll. Remind me again why am I doing this? Plus it’s raining, it’s freezing, it’s windy - so blustery in fact that one rider gets blown clean off his bike. It’s utterly unforgiving. Mpho, who has chosen to sit this one out urges the cyclists to get into the warmth of the sweeper vehicle: “It’s simple, they’re done,” he says. And indeed some are. One group takes shelter in a bleak farmstead garage. While waiting for the kombi they attempt to keep warm by covering themselves in oil-drenched rags scrounged from the floor. Others finally relent to the grateful warmth of a passing bakkie.
But there are four who are not done.
Stan and Nic, two friends bonded by cycling are riding together and up ahead are the sturdy brothers Willem and Matthys. “They’re built like Ferraris, we’re Land Cruisers,” says Matthys as explanation for their endurance when so many others have decided not to continue. Matthys has removed his front brake. It’s too clogged with mud so he’s using his toe to brake down the mountain passes. The brothers are feeling strong - it’s hard work but they’re still cracking jokes. Behind them, Stan has his head down, cocked to the side to keep out the driving sleet, one eye is shut tight giving him the crazed look of a pedaling desert pirate. The plastic packet wrapped around Nic’s right foot has torn causing it to flap maniacally in the wind. This is how they go on.
Why are they still here? Battling through the Karoo on bikes not designed to take this strain. What made 33 cyclists sign up for six days of physical and mental hardship? The answer lies somewhere on that road between Sutherland and Matjiesfontein: Stan and Nick are riding side by side. It’s snowing. Their beards are flecked with snow. Stan’s grinning, shaking off his hands in a futile attempt to warm them - right first, then left. In synch they sit upright in their saddles, snow is drifting down, collecting on their shoulders. They stretch out their arms, feeling what every one of the Tour of Ara riders - those foolhardy warriors of the off-road - has felt at some point whilst cycling these magnificent Karoo roads. Wide awake. Alive.