07 Dec, 2015

Riding for the deaf

Team Phakisa attacks one of the hills in the KZN Midlands.
Team Lorbrand was made up of Olympic medallist Terence Parkin, Modern Cyclist editor Raymond Travers, Robert Eichhorn, team captain Ralph Granig and climbing specialist Leon Kemp.
The cyclists started from Villiers on Wednesday 14 October.
The runners started from Villiers on Thursday 15 October.
First team home were the cyclists from Team Phakisa.
Each of the eight teams of runners had at least one runner out on the road at any time. Change overs were worked out according to different team tactics.
Another running team makes it to Pietermaritzburg.
Before every cycling stage started, Rodger Winter from ELB Engineering would brief the riders on what to expect out on the roads.
More runners celebrate finishing the ELB Extreme Road Challenge at the Golden Horse Casino Complex in Pietermaritzburg.

The numbers sound impossible. Five hundred kilometres over four days, teams of five runners and cyclists vying for the first to get to Pietermaritzburg. But cyclists did it, and the St Vincent School for the Deaf benefitted. Raymond Travers went along for the ride.

Externally, I looked around and smiled at the 50-odd other cyclists.

Internally, I wondered about my general sanity.

I was sitting on the top tube of my road bike (something I hardly do as I see myself as a mountain biker) in Villiers.

And I contemplated the 500-odd kilometres of ELB Extreme Road Challenge that lay before me.

My teammates, who I’d met that morning for the first time, all looked and acted the part. Firstly, our team leader Ralph Granig, a tall, thin, experienced cyclist who seemed confident enough to take on the world.

And then we had Leon Kemp. His Movistar Catlike helmet and luminous orange shoes certainly showed he understood the cycling lore of being visible to all. I would later discover that not only had he done the ELB Extreme Road Challenge before, but he also possessed the ability to climb like a “homesick angel”.

Robert Eichhorn was probably the most “outspoken” member of our team. Always quick with a chirp or comment, he was probably our unofficial “spokesperson” and perhaps our number one strategist with his classic “let’s smash it from the bell”-comment.

But our “secret weapon” was definitely Terence Parkin. Olympic silver medallist (200 metre breaststroke at the 2000 Sydney Olympics) and countless gold, silver and bronze medals at various other “high profile” swimming events across the globe, Terence is certainly no stranger to strenuous sporting events. And, as we discovered, he also revealed himself to be an outstanding, although somewhat crazy, cyclist.

And then, of course, there was me – an almost-average mountain biker who is completely freaked out about the width of a road bike’s tyres but crazy enough to attempt a 500-kilometre ride across the country.

So that was us then …

And as we patiently waited for a late-arriving team to get their ducks in a row, we watched as the wind picked up and blew the start “bridge”-thingy over. ELB Engineering engineers and event organisers scrambled after the infernal metal structure, we did the only thing that made sense to us at the time – shouting useful suggestions like “Grab it!” and “Chase it!”

A short while after that, it all came together perhaps too quickly and we were away. A left turn into what is probably Villiers’ main street and out we headed, our “pizza-slicer” wheels carving through the gravel surface of this “dorpie’s” main street until we turned right onto decent tar.

Our relief was short lived. The first of what seemed like a million hills then started to tell our muscles that we’d only covered a miniscule amount of that first stage’s 140-odd kilometres, with plenty of climbing to be done.

After a shade over 1300 metres of climbing, we entered the town of Bethlehem and stopped at the Engen Garage – the official end of that stage and start of the next stage – where we were briefed on that night’s sleeping arrangements. We found out then that the winning team’s average speed for that stage was in the 38km/h region. If they kept that up, it would be easy for them to beat the 2014 champions, the runners.

But no one told us that “our” allocated B&B was at the top of probably the steepest but thankfully relatively short hill of the day.

Apart from a rather large spider in someone’s bathroom, and the inevitable “fines ceremony”, that stop-over was relatively peaceful and the next morning found us rested and perhaps anxiously awaiting the next stage.

The start from the Engen in the centre of the town was pretty uneventful, as was the slog all the way past Clarens and into the Golden Gate National Park. The scenery of this national gem made up for the pain experienced on some of the steepest hills of the whole tour. And the cherry on the top, this stage also included some of the gnarliest descents of the tour too.

It was the descent from Golden Gate National Park towards Witsieshook which caused a bit of an upset in the ranks as our Olympic swimmer clocked 107km/h, qualifying himself for a fine during that evening’s fine ceremony.

Unfortunately, a “few” kilometres after that a road works detour saw most of the “cleverer” teams scrambling into support vehicles and skipping the misfortune of a couple of kilometres of gashed tyres, tar-stained up tubes and general mayhem.

Back on the bikes again and we went over the top, passed the Windmill – where we’d spend the night – and helter skelter down the slopes of the Drakensburg to that stage’s end point. A four way stop in the middle of nowhere.

After checking into the Windmill – and cleaning the bikes after the dusty detour and 300-odd kilometres of general abuse – the fines evening was hosted in Little Switzerland’s pub.

The next morning, after we were transported to that strange intersection in the middle of nowhere, stage three’s 120-odd kilometres began. The rolling hills of KwaZulu Natal gave way to a blast through Winterton.

Then, after crossing the highway, we sped onwards and downwards into Estcourt where the kind folk from Nestle were there with boerewors rolls and very cold Cokes. After eating and drinking our fill, we carried onwards and upwards.

A really steep hill just outside Estcourt – which we’d been warned about – assaulted our legs. But our peloton got over that ok and steamed past an informal settlement. Then the real hill hit us.


It went up and up, seemingly relentless. Then it made a left turn and went up some more. Other cycling groups – who were cycling down for the Tsogo Sun Amashova Durban Classic – also rode that hill on that day.

We made it though, and were rewarded by our support vehicles waiting for us at the top with cold liquid and perhaps a banana or two. And then even more rewarding as we descended into Mooi River with the promise of a vehicle transfer to our lodgings in Pietermaritzburg for the next two nights.

Stage four, the shortest stage of around 75 kilometres, awaited us and we drove back to Mooi River in our support vehicles the next morning. There is, however, a rather nasty hill just outside Mooi River which bit me hard and upset my rhythm completely.

I soon lost sight of not only my team but the rest of the peloton. But eventually found two other riders, one named Olly, who I was able to ride with and get a rhythm back. Riding through Howick I actually saw the support vehicles up ahead and tried to ride myself back into the group. I didn’t make it. So now, when I see the pros riding “back into the peloton”, they’ve got my infinite respect.

But once that nasty kick is over, it’s a beautiful descent down the R103 into Pietermaritzburg and, after a few “suggestions” as to where to go; I found the Golden Horse and joined my teammates for a celebratory beer.

We had done it! We had ridden the ELB Challenge, hopefully benefitting St Vincent School for the Deaf. And, as a huge bonus, the strongest of the cycling teams had won the overall challenge, beating the runners by 15 minutes!

I still wonder about my general sanity though. But I’ll probably do it again next year, especially if Terence, Rob, Leon and Ralph are with me.

ELB Extreme Road Challenge fast facts

  • There are 40 runners, made up of eight teams of five runners each;
  • There are 50 cyclists, made up of 10 teams of five cyclists each;
  • Funds are raised for the St Vincent School for the Deaf;
  • The cyclists started at 07:30 on Wednesday 14 October;
  • The route for the cyclists was: day one – Villiers to Bethlehem, day two – Bethlehem to Oliviershoek Pass, day three – Oliviershoek Pass to Mooi River and day four – Mooi River to Pietermaritzburg;
  • The runners followed the same route, only they started on Thursday 15 October and ran team relays (with only one scheduled stop at Little Switzerland for a shower) on the same route, hoping to break the 40 hour barrier;
  • At the end, the cycling team Phakisa beat the running team Scud by 12 minutes.
Raymond Travers

Raymond Travers

Modern Cyclist Editor |