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24 Hours at Oak Valley Race Report

“Let’s do the 24 hours of Oak Valley” they said, “it’s going to be fun” they said... and that’s how a normal 24 hour day gets started.

Louis and I rolled into Oak Valley about 90 minutes before the start.  Inus, the other rider on our team joined us soon after that.  Luckily Charl and Hannes from Extreme Lights hooked us up with a spot right in the transition zone, next to their charging/exhibit station.

They also doubled as our support team when they were not dishing out advice or helping people to charge a light or phone.  Hannes describes his role in Extreme Lights as being the nerd, while Charl is the cool guy.  Charl, more practically, describes Hannes as the engineer, while he is the accountant.  In practice Hannes does the development and sourcing of components for Extreme Lights’ products, while Charl runs the day to day activities. They helped us to settle in and then it was time to go.  Each one of us had a slightly different strategy: Inus was in for the long haul and made only very short stops.  I planned to come in every third lap and to take a long break every ninth lap. Louis followed a similar strategy to mine, but was definitely going to have a shower and nap at some stage, while I kept the option open for short naps since I purposefully only brought a thin blanket.

 We started at noon on Saturday and the rules dictate that you must finish your last lap after noon on Sunday to qualify as a finisher.  The lap is about 11.2 km long and initially winds its way up a medium climb through the apple orchards and around a dam. Then there are two sections of rather flowing climbing single track to the top of an intermediate hill.  The descent on the other side runs through a paddock onto the longest single climb on jeep track. After the jeep track climb there is a flat piece of single track and a steep climb to the highest point of the route, which is interrupted by a quick single track section. At the top there is a tag point before a flowing, banked descent, which drops into a rutted single track section. Next there is another flowing section before dropping into the fast section of the lap: a winding single track following a river bed with some tree branch ducking (which would require lots of concentration later in the evening).  This is followed by a steep descent into, and climb out, of another river bed and then you are back on the single track for a fast wooded section to the finish.

In the first daylight section Louis and I rode together and averaged between 36 and 38 minutes per lap. Our first stop was after 2 hours. The many single track sections make it quite difficult to eat while riding, so we opted to have sit-down meals instead of takeaways.  This first stop was only a quick snack stop to keep glucose levels normal with another one three laps later. Late in the afternoon the herd of cows with their calves became irritated with the cyclist riding through their paddock.  I was almost rammed by one when I accidentaly came between her and her calf.  I also heard someone mention that he was actually hit by some stupid cow.  Unfortunately those weren’t the only stupid cows on the trail with a few riders becoming irrationally irritated by slower riders on the single track sections.  But they were in the minority, since most riders were actually very considerate and in good spirits.

Inus flying on the trails.

After nine laps we came in for a decent meal and our lights because dusk was setting in.  Louis and I brought pasta salad, mini hamburgers, Coke and Steri-Stumpies, while Inus was running on droë wors and hard boiled eggs, Coke and energy drinks.  Although not all at once, since your stomach can only handle so much while you are exerting yourself. Although it rained in the morning, the course dried out and the subsequent dust clouds became rather smothering, especially in the pine forests.  While we ate, Hannes and Charl gave our bikes a quick wash to get the dust off the chain before re-lubing it.  With our lights on the bikes it was time to go.  We both had a light on the handle bar and one on the helmet, which is preferable since your bike is not always pointing to where you want to go.  Soon it was dark and time to light up. This was the first time I cycled a long endurance event with one of Extreme Lights’ products and I was very pleasantly surprised.  In previous races I used two lights with a more focused spot on the handle bar: one pointing just beyond the wheel and the other about 10 meters ahead, so that the two spots overlap.  With the Extreme Lights 1.4k I could take off the second handle bar light.  The 1.4k has a strong central beam with enough peripheral spill to make even winding single track negotiable.  The low setting is adequate for climbing and rolling open roads.  During the forested single track section I changed the light setting to high and switched on the helmet light.  With these lights I could see about as well as during daylight conditions and did not have to hold back on the descents.  There are probably more powerful lights around, but it is possible to have too much light and then you can be blinded by the own light reflected off bushes and branches.  I feel the 1.4k struck a very nice balance and with a battery to back it up it did not even begin to dip by dawn (rated to last 6 hours on high and 22 on low). 

Once we put on our lights Louis and I split up.  The night was pretty much a lap after lap recurring blur.  By that time the trail was starting to deteriorate since about 200 riders were on the trail at any given time.  It became even more jarring during the night. At least until the penny dropped somewhere in the early hours of the morning that I should check if I didn’t flick the remote lockout of my suspension at some stage... I can smile about it afterwards, but it was definitely not funny at the time.  Not that it helped much, since by about 02:00 in the morning everything was getting sore and fatigue was setting in fast.  Louis stopped for a nap, I thought about it, but the chilly night air had my teeth clattering under my thin blankets within minutes of getting off the bike so I decided to crack on in order to keep warm. Whenever I stopped to sit under my blanket and eat something Hannes or Charl were still manning the stall, happily chatting away about their products.  I actually learned that although there are many similar looking products on the market theirs are distinguished by what is inside: either a better LED, stronger battery or a SABS certified charger. 

Only a few of their products are generic off the shelf models. Although none of my lights were fading, I was fading.  From previous experience I knew that if I could get to 04:00 then dawn was not too far away and being out and seeing the day break was something special.  It was, but by 07:00 I was not in good head space anymore.  My legs were still relatively fine, but my arms and backside were sore and cycling just wasn’t fun.  Throughout the night my position in the overall standing had steadily improved to fourth, along with Inus’s (who was sitting comfortably in fifth place), as people either went to bed or stopped riding.  But I had no idea how I was going to spend another five hours on my bike.  In the end, as with most things in life, to get there you just have to take it one step at a time.  So I just went out for another lap and kept my focus on one lap at a time. I was planning to keep riding until 11:00 and then call it a day. But as I rolled into, for what I thought would be my last lap, I was reminded that to officially finish I had to complete my last lap after 12:00.  After feeling sorry for myself for a couple of minutes Big Louis pulled in.  He said he was going to do two more and the thought of riding with him motivated me to crack on again.  We stretched out our last lap so that we could finish it just after 12:00.  It felt really good to get off the bike knowing that I would not have to get back on it for the foreseeable future.

I managed to put in 29 laps for a total for something like 325 km to finish in fourth place.  Inus came fifth with 27 laps and Louis seventh with 25 laps.  An all-round great performance by all, considering that each lap also entailed more than 200 metres of climbing.  I don’t know if I want to be back next year, but when I do come back I would like the same team backing me up.  Thanks for some great support Extreme Lights.