We left the Protea hotel in Capetown on the 13th May. Just two days after our arrival and we were back on our bikes. We weren’t going far the first day. – just 1.6 kilometres – but it’s amazing how significant such a small journey can be.

Having been on the road for four months with lots of other riders and a support crew (over 90 people at the peak) we were about to be independent once again. Goodbyes said, contacts exchanged and a gradual succession of taxis and bicycles making their way home. We were doing our own 10 day bike tour – one I had thrived off thinking about and planning since arriving in Cairo.

While I have no regrets and, despite struggles, many happy memories of TDA and good friends as a result, it was surprising even to me to be so conscious of the large smile I felt just as we turned from the hotel carpark. I was free.
The feeling was overwhelming. A sense of an emotion that had been contained. We had two weeks left in South Africa and could go where we wanted, when we wanted…..or so we thought.

So, heading off on our own route plan we soon found we were not on quite the road we had anticipated and instead we pedalled furiously for around 15km. We were on one of the main national highways out of Capetown and while legal (we were indeed overtaken by a number of police cars) we were in effect on a motorway!

So, we were going where we wanted, when we wanted but right now we wanted to be going somewhere else. Welcome to the long distance bike tour! Carrying detailed maps for all areas you plan to ride through is impossible. Reliant on directions, general area maps or free maps from the tourist office it’s not always easy to find the best roads. Still. This method had been fine in India so I’m sure it would be okay here too?

Having finally found a local road we were off again, heading towards Paarl, Franschoek and Stellenbosch. We were meeting friends and partaking in a little wine tasling. Happy days and a very happy welcome to a self planned ride. It felt good again and while weight gain now seemed inevitable (I would not be leaving Africa any slimmer!) we were back on our own and riding.

From the wine region we were heading south – to the coast, down to the point and into to Capetown again before returning home for a short break.Back to going where we wanted, when we wanted .. yet a slight hiccup was about to occur.
Unknown to us we were about to cycle past what is reputed to be one of the largest growing townships in South Africa and it seemed not everyone felt this was safe thing to do. We were heading down the N2, passing Khayelitsha, out on the Cape Flats. Housing around two million people (so we were told) the site would spread out over to our right in just a few kilometres. We were blissfully unaware yet someone was trying to grab our attention.

Having ignored the man trying to flag us down on two occasions he now noted from the truck window that the road ahead was not safe on our bicycles. Catching up to John and sharing this news we decided to stop and he explained about the township and recent bad events. That said, not wanting to be vunerable, we remained ready to push off at any time. I still hold that travelling like this is about avoiding the very small percentage of “baddies” . We just needed to be clearer on this and the driver, sensing our hestitation, pulled over someone else to confirm what he was saying.

Ten minutes later we were sat in the back of his truck with bikes and kit loaded as he drove us past the “danger zone”. It seemed we could go where we wanted, when we wanted but not how we wanted. I really struggled with this and while wanting to be safe I felt saddened and awkward as we were driven past this essentially black area.

I was still at school when Mandela was released. Aware of South African apartheid yet growing up in Birmingham – a very mixed community. I just don’t get this sense of the “Ubermensch” – a superman . I look back with a sense of nostaligia to the absence of treats in Sudan. It levelled things out. While this is a little rose-tinted I will always hold to a view of creating opportunities for all as a critical part of a thriving community. That’s why I enjoyed work in social enterprise start-up before embarking on this trip and right now I wanted to know and understand more about how life was here.

As we continued our bike tour back to Capetown this day passing Khayelitsha played on my mind. I asked many people whether we did the right thing taking a lift and it seemed it perhaps was a good decision despite the unease it caused. Khayelitsha was a part of the movement of black people to the Cape Flats that began in 1966 as areas, such as district 6, in Capetown, were cleared out for whites only. I loved South Africa. The Western Cape had stunning scenery, amazing food and friendly folk yet I felt uncomfortable about its history. Looking back, as we celebrated the world cup people were losing their homes just because of their skin colour.

It’s funny how my overwhelming sense of freedom came in a country where for many the fight for this had been such a recent struggle and knowing how great my 1.6 mile journey had made me feel I can only imagine what the end of apartheid had meant for so many.

There’s still some way to go but there is a sense of opportunity and I like that. I’ve bought a book written about the township to understand more and having thoroughly enjoyed my final two weeks in South Africa I would love to return. I hope that when I do those people from district six currently making claims for their land will be successful. I hope they get to be where they want, when they want.

Capetown. We made it!

It would take four months to ride between Cairo and Capetown according to the TDA schedule and 11th of May 2013 was the big arrival day. Though we were driven through much of Kenya and I had taken a few days off the total distance between points A and B would remain the same (11, 793km) and the length of time the journey would take was also fixed. While TDA was a a significant physical achievement, the mental challenge of the trip can itself prove to be even more testing at times. The ups and downs weren’t simply about road gradients.

For our last week we would be on tarmac and dirt roads for around 750 km – the TDA tour still proving itself to be gruelling and one of the toughest bike races/expeditions you could ever be crazy enough to take part in. Given this, it was strange to think we were almost there. A tough four months – I was so looking forward to the end now. We had a fantastic group of riders but being part of a large travelling circus for this time was enough for me. In fact, it was probably too long.

The last night would be spent in Yzerfontein, next to the coast – the smell of the sea bringing on that holiday feeling. Sadly the weather that night at camp felt less like a holiday – it was so cold. Despite sleeping in three layers of clothes, in a fleece liner, in a sleeping bag, in a duvet cover, under a blanket and with a hot water bottle I was freezing. The next morning and our last ride would be no different. Fingers and toes were slow to warm and I rode the 60km to lunch with John in fleece and windproof.

As we turned onto R27, our main route into Capetown, all eyes were focused on Table Mountain – our destination was in sight and I was starting to get excited. We were nearly there. Lunch would be at the beach and from there we would wait for a police escort, riding as a group to the waterfront area. The police were delayed and while it was frustrating to have to wait being just 30km away, once the convoy started so too did the buzz.

We arrived at the waterfront, congratulated fellow riders and made our way to the medal ceremony. I was so proud all all riders but of course given my first few days and John being ill I was pretty chuffed that we had seen this through. We had made it.

The auditorium was packed as we walked in and the welcome was amazing. The band played “celebrate” by Kool and the Gang and we would. That’s for sure. Medals were awarded to all full tour riders, called up in turn while standing next to their country flag. It was a bit like our own olympics! Additional recognition was given to those who had acheived their EFI (every … inch) and of course the winners of the race. It was gobsmacking to hear that Pascal (winner of the mens race) had an average speed through Africa of 32km pr hr. I was perhaps a little slower!

With the ceremony over there was just enough time for a complete new outfit shop before we would be collected for the evening party. I was pleased that after so long in cleats and crocs I could still dance the night away in my new heels – surely that’s an alternate EFI?

The next morning would be slow for me and the goodbyes would begin. John and I would leave the hotel the following day though some were already starting to make tracks. Confident I would see some of the group again for many it would be the last time. While sad in part very quickly a sense of relief was also coming – just simply as less people were around. I was able to pack away things I didn’t need and finalise arrangements for our last two weeks in South Africa.

We rode out of the hotel with our panniers for the first time since arriving In Africa. On our own with route planning, no rider meetings, no chef and of course we were now carrying our own luggage. The bike felt heavier yet I somehow felt much lighter. Freedom.

I won!

Some of you may remember my 24 seconds blog….for those who don’t you just need to know this – I came second in teh ladies race by 24 seconds. I was gutted and still determined to get a stage plate. Just the one.
Since then I’ve tried a couple of times and yet again I even made the board (ie the top three). However, the stage win was remaining elusive. to be honest I wasn’t sure I would ever get one and had pretty much resolved myself to this.

As the details were annouced for the last week of riding I looked to see if there was still a chance. I was looking for a day that was not too long (so I didn’t need to do the lunch stop), not too hilly (I simply can’t climb at race pace on my heavy bike…and I’m not as good at that) and a day that was on a paved road. Of the six days we had left there were only four included as part of the race and two of these would be off road. With two days ruled out immediately it left a 133km day which would be a race starting from the South African border and a 117km day from Springbok to Garies. With 1431 metres of climbing in day one and only 741m descending I knew that was not my day. I would have to see what the 117km day had to offer.

At the rider meeting the night before we received further information on the route and terrain. That day would include 1021m ascending though there would be 1648m downhill. I have to be honest I thought that was it. I had no chance. In fact, one of my riding pals Gus pretty much said so. Oh well.

I woke the next morning and prepared to set off as normal. On other days when I have been aiming for a win I removed my handle bar bag, loaded my cycle jersey pockets with food and ensured I have all the water I need. Today, all the weight was on my bike, I left in my cycle jacket and even timed out then went to my bike to put on gloves, helmet etc. It was only as I started riding that I thought I could just go for it. As I went down one of the early downhills at 55km pr hr I thought I may just have a chance.

One of the other riders, Ali, caught me at 35km and said he would ride with me. It’s great to have a pacer and the moral support. Unfortunately drafting pooved tricky with the up and down terrain – I was too slow on uphills and too fast heading downwards. As we came closer to lunch the climbs were long and I started to think that I would just get another third. I was dripping with sweat. I really didn’t need my jacket on but having lost another attempt by just 24 seconds I was stopping for nothing. Despite this I kept going. Well, you never know.

It was downhill as we came to lunch. Ali had gone ahead on the previous climb and as I passed he gave me the thumbs up. I noticed one of my key competitors, regular racer Rosie, was still grabbing a sandwich and I had done 700m of the climbing. My determination increased. I was still in with a chance. People cheered as I went by. It was obvious now that I was going for it.

As some of the guys overtook me they shouted their support – “Just keep pedalling hard”; “Go for it”. So I did. I knew on the downhills i needed to hit 55 to 65 km pr hr and maintain a good speed on the flat. I had to make up for my slower climbing.

It didn’t take long and I caught up with John. i think he was surprised. “Is Bridget infront of you”? I shouted. He couldn’t hear but on repeating the question the answer came back no. Game on. John cheered me on becoming my new supporter. I looked behind. I could not see anyone following. Gee. This race stuff is stressful. I don’t know how people do this everyday. I was physically and mentally tiring. “Come on Nay” John shouted.

We hit a 6km downhill. I wanted to keep my speed above 60km but my legs also needed a rest. I stopped pedalling momentarily to hear John shout “keep pedalling. The others will be. You don’t want to lose this by 24 seconds”. He was right. We only had 10km to go now. I still saw no-one behind and I knew more than half the route were descending. I really could do this.

The last few kilometres involved a few turns from the main highway. John cycled ahead – looking out for a clear road and signalling directions. i just had to pedal and as we turned the corner there was the final flag. I had not been overtaken and unless there were any wild cards the stage plate was mine. The final annoucement would be at the rider meeting later that evening though I did buy a large beer just in case!

In the end I came in at 4 hrs and 19 minutes exactly and ended up with an 11 minute lead. While stopping for lunch would have cost me it was only now I realised I could have taken my jacket off afterall! Not bad on my 18kg Koga plus handlebar bag!

TDA vs our ride schedules

As we move in to our last week with TDA and John and I will be about to start being back out there on our own I thought it may make an interesting blog of the comparison.

At the start of each week, following the rest day TDA run through the weeks ride and expectations. Given this tradiytion from our Africa leg I thought I would continue to do the same.

TDA Final week

May 6th, race Felix Unite to Springbok 133km , off road Camp
May 7th, race Springbok to Garies 117km, off road Camp
May 8th, mando Garies to Strandfontein 162km, mixed Camp
May 9th, race Starndfontein to Elands Bay 73km Camp
May 10th, no race Elands Bay to Yzerfontein 158km Camp
May 11th, no race Yzerfontein to Capetown 105km END, Hotel

Naomi and John
May 13th, ride am Capetown to Paarl c65km, paved Hotel
May 14th, ride am Local ride c25km, off-road Hotel
May 15th, ride am Paarl to Franschoek c21km, paved Fancy hotel
May 16th, Eat World renowned restaurant 0km Fancy hotel
May 17th Franshoek to Stellenboshe c25km, paved Hotel
May 18th, Eat Boschendal vineyards 0km Yumm.
May 19th, ride pm Stellenboshe to Gordons Bay 20km + 20km, paved Hotel
May 20th Gordons Bay to Simons Town c50km, paved Hotel
May 21st Simons Town to Hout Bay c45km, paved Hotel
May 22nd Hout Bay to Capetown c20km, paved Hotel

To be fair, with TDA it’s a real push on the bikes but they carry our gear, provide lunch and give detailed directions. For us, this is our last two weeks in Africa and we always like to finish with more of a holiday. We will at this time have panniers and given it is winter in South Africa we are opting not to camp. We will also be joined by my good friend in Franschoek. She is not cycling and so we need easy distances so John and I are not always on our bike. Besides, having cycled from Cairo to Capetown we figure a rest is in order..not to mention a treat.

We booked a stay and “foodie package” at Quartier Francais at the start of our trip. With three dinners included (one in world renowned resturant with wine pairing) and our own pool this will certainly be a real treat. All this said I have to say my only food disapointments on tour have been in most restaurants and hotels along the way. TDA food has been excellent.

It will be strange when the TDA tour ends and we are once again just two people on our bikes. Further, the comparison above does not imply a better or worse, I could not do such a relaxed cycle tour for more than a couple of weeks. As I said in an earlier blog – independent touring and a group trip are just different. Right now however I am definately ready to take a break from such a gruelling schedule.

Roll on Capetown. Just six days to go.