Ezelenduro – A riders perspective
I wanted to do this race badly, I wanted to test myself against the mountain, see how I stacked up against other riders and I wanted to have a lekker weekend around it as well. Last year I was still riding a little plastic bike with lightweight wheels that I knew was a bad idea. But this year it was different. Swapped the plastic bike for something bigger and beefier. I even taped an old piece of tyre to the downtube to ward off some knocks (it worked.) My bike was ready, and I thought I was ready.
The Ezelenduro is probably one of the hardest enduros in South Africa. I say probably, as I have not been part of the shenanigans at the hallowed Hakahana and KZN events. But the Ezel event is pretty hard, I’ll admit that. To those who don’t know the Enduro racing format, it is based on Rallying. The race is broken down into Special Stages, and riders are not timed on how long it takes to get to the special stages. Riding between stages is called Liaisons. An Enduro can take hours to complete, and have a racing time of about 20-30mins. For the Ezelenduro we spent 7hours in the mountain, but the racing aspect was about 30mins. I knew this was going to be a rough day out, so my mission was to finish all the stages. Last year only 25 of the 60 people finished. It is a stupid idea, but a great idea.
It all started off with registration and a quick race briefing. Rupert VonT was standing on a table and working his crowd into a couple of Hoorah!s to get us amped, it didn’t take a lot, he promised us some lekker trails, a lot of gnarl, asked us to be sort of careful , reminded us that a helicopter is on standby, and that there is some medics at Race HQ. We had to get a buddy so that we at least had someone who knew whether you haven’t finished a stage and might be stuck on the mountain somewhere, a quick explanation was given of how the timing system works, and the rule was decided upon that every stage starts with the rider with one foot on the ground, and ends when the rider stops at the marshall. Simple stuff.
And then we set off. We cruised down the farm’s roads to the base off the climb, and it was pretty cool watching as people popped off water bars, jumped anything they could find and manualled random gaps. The stage was set, this was going to be a lekker day on the bike.
We climbed up Dead Man walking to go over the first hill overlooking the farm. To those who know Eselfontein, this is the climb that goes underneath the pipeline and curves around the back of the mountain to pop out on top with an amazing view of the valley. It was pretty cool looking around and seeing strings of riders ascending the switchbacks to make their way to the top.
I buddied up with Pieter Henning, and we tried to be at the forefront of the field to avoid waiting too long at the start of the Special stages. We managed it by being early at the start of SS1, and from there on we were among the first to go down most of the stages.
Stage 1 was a good warm up. Fast, with some off camber corners, a lot of speed and steepness in the last bit to keep us honest. It was an eye opener and enough to get the adrenaline flowing. It was lekker. We ended at the bottom just after a river, you basically hit the water flat out hoping that there are no unseen holes and try to stop just before running over the time keeping marshal.
We then set off for stage 2. We were warned that the ruts on stage 2 were deep, and that we shouldn’t try to pedal if we got stuck in it. I have ridden this trail before (the first time I had to help a guy down the mountain who fell here and got a heavy concussion) and knew what to expect. When I arrived at the rutted bit I just decided to not take chances in the rut, and basically rode next to the rut, hopping over it when it curved left and right and sort of straight lined it through the corners instead of riding in the rut. I also managed to miss the sneaky left corner that we were warned about, coming way to fast and had to hop over (and sort of through) the bush that was laid down to mark the corner. I took a slight detour but managed to not lose too much time because of this mistake.
We then cruised over to the start of SS3A. This was where things got rocky. As in really rocky. Pieter and I walked a couple of meters down the stage to cheer the first guys dropping in, and I couldn’t wait to get started. If only I knew what lay ahead.
Pieter dropped in, and 20 seconds later I set off as well. I was not prepared for the bomskok. It was rocks all over. Little rocks, big rocks, round rocks, straight rocks, pointy rocks. Rocks everywhere. It seemed that a meteor shower struck the mountain and we were trying to navigate through its aftermath.
I could barely get a few pedal strokes in every now and then, but to top it off, I was picking up speed the whole time, it was steep in places, and the rocks didn’t really allow braking, as they just rolled everywhere. Somewhere on this stage I couldn’t make a corner, overshot it, and careened down the side of the trail into more rocks. Crisis! I came down hard, immediately felt a sharp bang against my right pinky and leg. Thank heavens I was wearing knee pads, as the thump numbed my leg. I jumped up, grabbed the bike and ran back up to the trail to get going again, ignoring the pain in my hand and shin, but alas, the impact twisted my handlebar, I had to jump off the bike again and twist the bar straight again so that I could resume racing. I didn’t get the bar 100% straight, it was turned slightly to the left, I had to compensate for this (it is like driving a car that pulls strongly to the left or right) mentally and really had to focus to get down (I was still racing, and still going faster than what would be a good idea (actually, doing this whole event is kind of a bad idea…) but fortunately I was nearly done. I made it to the marshal, stopped, got timed and then took stock of my injuries. Two badly scraped shins, and one very fat pinky. I still don’t know how I didn’t break my hand or finger, but I am very thankful for that. Pieter checked out my hand, we decided that I would not have been able to open and close my hand if it was broken so we deemed it safe to go on. We rode another beautiful portage; it offered a vista overlooking the farm and even had a waterfall.
Stage 3B I was getting into the groove and managing to ride the rocks better, I kept momentum up, carried speed over the rocks, flowed through corners and generally started enjoying myself. But it was brutal, calling it rocky would be like calling the sea wet. The whole route was made up of rocks. Only the size differed. I was so glad to get to the bottom and see the marshal that when I started riding towards him I didn’t realize that it was not a marshal, but a guy with a phone taking a picture (the timing device looks like a big phone,) I realized too late and when I tried to get back onto course I had dropped my chain and fell when I tried to pedal. I got up, ditched the bike, jumped over a stream and ran up the hill to the real marshal, sprinting with all my might to finish the stage. I think the run might have shaved a second or two, as I was in the wrong gear and would have labored up the hill on my bike. But damn, two falls down and two massive stages left… I was starting to evaluate life choices and adjusting expectations.
Pieter and I cruised over to the start of the portage up to stage 4. We stopped to fill our bottles in a stream again and started our hike. It was a monster slog. Up, up and over a mountain. We hiked up for an hour and a half, stopping two thirds of the way up for lunch. I was smashing leftover braai broodjies and pizza into my mouth like a fat kid at an eating competition.
Just before the top of the climb we started to encounter riders racing down. I worried about running into someone going up or down, but that was dissuaded very quickly. The shouts of “rider” was interspersed down the mountain with the rushing, clattering sound of a rider racing past you, tyres scratching for grip and rocks rolling out of the way in the wake of mountain bike tyres.
At the start of stage 4 we did a bolt check on our bikes to ensure that everything that might have rattled loose is tight. We rested a bit, ate some more and then got ready to take off. We had to race down this monstrous stage that took us 90 mins to ascend. We had to get down safely, get the bikes down in one piece and not slash a tyre on one of the MANY rocks.
Pieter dropped in, and as usual I dropped in 30seconds after him. As I started racing past people that was hiking up, their cheers ignited something in me. Racing over the rocks and being cheered on made me feel like a rockstar, no matter how slow I was really going.
Everything clicked. In my mind I was klapping it. There were wild horses running beside me, eagles flying over me. I cruised over the baby heads, nailed the rock slabs, hit my corners and braking points bang on and just generally enjoyed myself. About halfway down I passed Pieter who was standing beside the trail, bike upside down. On any other day I would have stopped to help, but this was a race, and I’m pretty sure Piet didn’t want me to stop. I shouted some encouragement at him and went on. At the last bit of the stage I was moeg. I couldn’t operate my shifter (the derailleur’s clutch was on, making it harder to shift, but helped to keep tension on the chain,) or the trigger of my dropper seatpost. My forearms were pumped and my thumbs were cramping from holding on. Just before it was starting to get too much the stage was over. I stopped at the marshal and had my time tagged.
A minute or so later Pieter also rolled in. His gear cable snapped and his chain wrapped around itself and his pedal, that is why he had to stop to get it untangled, and also had to finish the stage in his heaviest gear. Unfortunate. We replaced his gear cable (remember kids, always carry spares) and set off for the last hike of the day.
Once again we filled our bottles again and had something to eat. We joined Dan, Harry and Francoin on the hike. We hiked up slowly, this stage was as rocky as 4, but steeper, and had a couple of sniper climbs in it. As Francoin and I hiked up, we agreed that if it is okay for grown men to cry after finishing Comrades that it would be okay for us to choke back a crocodile tear or two at the finish. This hike felt even longer than the hike up to SS4. It was a slog of note. Dragging my weary body and a heavy bike up a mountain was rough. At the top we rested again. For the first time I wasn’t amped to drop in. My hand was hurting, my legs ached and I was tired. And the Stage scared me.
Nevertheless, we had to get down the mountain anyway so we dropped in to SS5. The Queen. It was rocky, gnarly, steep, rough, had very little flow and the steep climbs that surprised wreaked havoc with my body. At one point in the stage I came around a corner and my bike just disappeared from under me. I went over the bars, banged my shin hit the deck. Hard. This fall took the fight out of me. I got back onto the bike and just headed further downhill. No more heroics, no more gung ho, no wild horses. Just finish the stage. When we hit the flat pedally bit at the bottom I knew it was close, but still I could not get to the marshal fast enough for my liking. When I rounded the last corner and I saw Dan Dobinson it felt like a wave of relief. I stopped, checked in just had a huge grin on my face. I felt relief, pain and elation. I made it. My bike made it. The mountain did not break me but I nearly broke myself against the rocks.
Pieter and I headed down to the race village to hand in our chips and get some beer. The beer tasted wonderful. I went for a swim in the dam to get the worst dirt off me and out of my wounds and headed to the medics to get checked out. They agreed that my pinkie was not broken, and cleaned up the gashes to my legs. With the lekker KZN timing model, you get a print out with your stage times when you hand in your chip. This system worked lekker, and it will be cool to race more enduros with it.
We cleaned up, got dressed and felt alive by prize giving. Prize giving was a joyous affair, with even the winner of the unofficial Hardtail category getting a piece of wood for his victory. The floating trophy for the winner (Hayden Brown) is heading to Jozi for a while and the ladies also had a new winner (Gina Nixon.) I think special mention needs to go out to the guys on the hardtails, they took a stupid idea and made it even more ludicrous, and the ladies also need a special mention. All three ladies that took part finished all the stages.
With the official results out, I am 18th, with Pieter 19th, 3 seconds between us. We both lamented the time lost with his mechanical and my many crashes, but we’ll race again next year. As an aside, I’m dik chuffed with my time on SS4. 09:17 (remember, we hiked up for 90 mins) and placed 13th on that stage. Overall racing time for me for the day 33:39. The winner, Hayden finised in 26:19, smashing a while 7min20 into me, but only 5seconds separated him from second place. It was that tight.
We went for a lekker group ride the next morning. Some of the riders were hanging like fruitbats, but this is Eselfontein, it is very hard to not have a good time here. Both on and off the bike.
Was it worth it? Was it fun? Was it hard? Absolutely. I will be back next year. I will be better prepared. I will go to gym more than two times as part of my preparations. My core muscles ached for two days after this. And I will have to searching for rockier trails to ride. After this event I have a new baseline for what I regard as rocky, and what is rideable. The limit is a lot further than we think. What kind of bike do you need? Well apparently a hardtail is fine, But I’d suggest a trail bike or bigger. I rode it with my Giant Trance 2 and it performed admirably. I would have liked a lighter bike with more travel, but this bike served me very well.
My suggestions for the stage names:
SS1: Getting Steep
SS2: Railing Ruts
SS3A: Thunderbolts and Lightning
SS3B: Meteor Shower
SS4: Rainbows and Unicorns
SS5: Crap en Ellende