Seeking Discomfort in the Piket-bo-berg
‘I’m just going to take it easy’
‘I’m just going to enjoy it’
‘No racing today’
‘Just a chilled long ride’
I know my friends politely secretly and sometimes not so secretly roll their eyes when I utter these words before a race. I don’t know where it comes from. Neither of my parents are competitive. My dad philosophically looks down on competition in sport and my mom would stop to look at the flowers and butterflies way too often to compete. But somehow they produced me. Possibly a recessive gene on either side that paired up and voila, here I am. I must however, clarify, I’m less competitive with others than I am with myself. Creeping closer and closer to someone on a bone crunching climb is less about passing them than about proving to myself I can do it. Flying down a single track as if my wheels are no longer in contact with the ground, is less about catching people than about the fact that I’ve conquered my fear of letting go. With this little bit of insight into the mind of Unice, you might understand why what I’m about to tell you aroused a high level of discomfort within me.
I have been wanting to ride the Piket-bo-berg challenge since its inception. However, this time of year seems to be the time to get married in South Africa and missing a friend’s wedding for a mountain biking race when your livelihood does not depend on it is not deemed socially acceptable. These trails have become somewhat of a legend in the mountain biking world. The fact that they are only open to the public once a year for this event adds to their mystery. They are not the friendliest of trails. Terrain is technical. And fellow skilled mountain bikers have left with mountain biking tattoos as souvenirs. But they cast a spell on all who ride them, making them leave with a cloud of euphoria surrounding them and causing them to click ‘Enter Now’ 12 months later.
As I lined up for the start, a series of emotions ran relays in my stomach. Firstly, for the first time I was more nervous about the distance and the climbing than the technical nature of the trails. A massive win for me. I knew I wasn’t prepared for the distance or the intense climbs but I was riding Lesotho Sky in 2 weeks and considering life had not gone according to plan (it never does) and my training was severely lacking, or more accurately non-existent, I needed to prepare myself mentally as that would have to carry me through the Maloti mountains. Secondly, the organisers had decided to implement ‘honesty batching’ and to start the 37km and 63km together. Meaning riders were left to honestly decide their own seeding and you had double the number of riders to contend with at the start. You don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to do the maths and calculate chaos from this. Trying to con myself into starting slowly and frankly just not having the energy to muscle my way to the front, I positioned myself in the middle to back of the pack. When I heard the gun, the whippet in me forgot all the self talk about taking it easy, being unfit and just enjoying it and just wanted to put her head down and go. Caged in by riders of all shaped and sizes I was stuck. And this is where the learning began.
Lesson 1: Stop being a spoiled brat
I started to panic. How could I possibly ride this slowly? There are so many people around me. This stop starting is awful. There are so many people who don’t know how to ride around me. Can’t they just ride! This is such a waste of time. And then I was on top of the mountain. The surreal beauty calmed me. The brain freezing crisp breeze rebooted my neurons. I stepped off the trail, sat down and soaked up the raw beauty around me. The silence was broken by one of the local farmers riding as the sweep. ‘You know, I’ve travelled to many places in my life but I don’t want to live anywhere else but here.’ That was it. How could I be angry, upset, frustrated or be experiencing any negative emotion while doing something I love in one of the most beautiful places in the world. How spoiled of me. How many millions of people can’t even dream of this because they’ve never been fortunate enough to experience it. How many people dream of this every night because they’ve experienced this pure joy and it’s been taken away from them. With that in mind I restarted my engine and continued.
Lesson 2: Everyone started somewhere, even you
While stopping to take a photo of Kudo, the majestic marshal surveying his valley, I heard the characteristic sound and profanities of a rider taking a tumble. This is how I met Charles. An experienced paraglider. A novice mountain biker. I was reminded of my early days mountain biking or more accurately mountain hiking in Pietermaritzburg. I walked down wide gravel roads with a 1% downhill gradient. I had cramps in my hands from clutching my handle bars so tightly. There were multiple temper tantrums. I was elated every time my tyres touched tar road again. I remembered how patient and encouraging my friend Ross was. Everyone has to start somewhere, I thought to myself.
Lesson 3: Everyone has a right to enjoy these trails no matter how fast or slow they go
I said goodbye to Charles. The wheels in my head mirrored my wheels on the ground. I’m always saying how everyone should ride a bike. You have to create that space where everyone wants to ride a bike. You do that by being patient, encouraging the rider who is white knuckle gripping his/her handlebars, chatting to and joking with riders around you, helping the person who is having a bad day, stopping, getting off your bike and running back to help the rider who just crashed. That’s what made me keep going. That’s what will make others keep going.
Lesson 4: Racing is fun but photographing race crew singing, ‘Sy vat hom met haar lyfie. Sy vat hom met haar hande…’ is more fun
When you’re racing there’s no time for photos. There’s no time to ask route marshal’s names. There’s no time to appreciate the effort the water tables go to. Glitter wigs, posters, T-shirts, music, singing, booty shaking dancing. This is a mere blur when you’re racing. These people don’t get much in return. They don’t even know you. But they’re filling your slobbery bottle and cheering their hearts out for you.
Lesson 5: Practice what you preach – Coming last doesn’t matter
I always say this to people whose biggest deterrent to entering a race is their fear of coming last. Rational me thinks this is so bizarre. Who actually gives a flying fandango if you’re last? People’s lives are way too busy to even take note of it, never mind remember it. Irrational racing me, found myself contemplating not crossing the finish line. How could I tell others it’s about the joy of riding when I myself didn’t want to cross the finish line because then it would be in black and white that I was last? Why did I feel I would then need to justify to others that it was my choice to ride at the back? Preaching is often easier than practicing, isn’t it.
Lesson 6: Memories are made at a slower pace
I can remember every detail of this ride. I can remember sitting at the top of the first single track absorbing the unrivalled view. I can remember the farmer proudly telling me how he would not live anywhere else in the world even if they paid him. I can remember the marshal, Kudo, majestically standing overlooking the valley below. I can remember the novice rider, Charles who felt that this was much more challenging than paragliding. I can remember each water station, singing, smiling, dancing, posing. I can remember the marshal in his tractor surveying the single track below and how his partner appeared out of nowhere when I asked if I could take a photo and pulling me into a selfie. I can remember the feeling when I let go and my wheels took flight down the trail. Perception of time, memory and emotions are complexly interlinked. And maybe my memory has been coloured by my intense emotions. Whatever the explanation for my intricately detailed memory of this event, I like it this way. Don’t get me wrong. Racing gives me memories too but they seem to be more binary. Good or bad. Black or white. Slowing down gave me time to colour the memory. Different shades of reds, yellows, green, blues, purples, splashed with some neon pink and a sprinkling of glitter for some extra pizazz.
As I finally saw the finish line I had a last minute, ‘I’m not going to cross the line and ride directly to my car’ moment. Stop preaching and practice, Unice! I argued with myself. And with that I put my head down and peddled across the line before I could talk myself out of it again. I’d like to say it was with a gleaming smile on my face. Unfortunately, that would be a big fat lie. As ridiculous as it sounds it took a lot of wrestling with discomfort to cross that line. However, it is exactly this discomfort that taught me these lessons. We should seek this discomfort. It teaches us about ourselves. It makes us see who we are and think about who we could be. It is the black crayon that we scratch away to reveal the colourful picture underneath. Piket-bo-berg thank you for the discomfort