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.
And then it snowed
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.