Race Report: MTN Ride Crater Cruise 106-kilometre Ultra-Marathon

Flat races are fun, or so we are led to believe. With not much more than 1 000 metres of altitude gain over its 106 kilometres, the Crater Cruise qualifies comfortably and so I had no hesitation in removing my ageing-knees-friendly 21-tooth sprocket from the singlespeed and fitting an 18. Matched to the customary 32 on the front, I was looking at a chilled roll though the picturesque Vredefort Dome, with a potential hike-a-bike over the one climb on the course. First error.

In the start chute, the common number being bandied about among the surprisingly big singlespeed contingent was 34×16 or 15. And then we were off, tucked into the back of the A batch for the gentle start through Parys. The thing with riding the singlespeed is not that you build small outhouses on the climbs. (That’s the first thing people ask.) No, the real pain comes when you are required to hang in with your geared buddies on the flat… they can quietly nudge a kilometre per hour quicker and with the twitch of a thumb they are in the perfect gear. My perfect gear’s rev-limiter was set at 38 km/h tucked in the bunch, with gravity helping and 22 and a bit if I wanted to keep the cadence to a civil 120. With these limits, I was more than chuffed to last nearly 10-kilometres in the bunch, before giving up and settling in for the day.

Once the tar opening yawn was dispensed with, there was a sublime section of singletrack in the forest after about 18 kays that was great fun, before we headed back out onto the road for a good 20 kilometres of non-technical gravel-road riding that would lead us to the real fun: high-speed tracks through some game farms leading to the foot of Espach’s Climb (aka Loose Rocky Bastard), the biggest technical challenge of the course.

The turn up to this was to be closed one hour after the first riders had taken it, with the under-achievers to be sent the easy way round, so I was quite chuffed to be sent the same way as eventual winner Kevin Evans. There is life in these aging knees yet. The joy was short-lived, as the climb was pretty much too steep and loose for most of us at this point, so we trudged most of the 500 metres to the King of the Mountains point. Except for the man, nay machine, with a lower-leg prosthesis for whom walking was too much effort, so he kept on riding. His one-armed riding mate was not far behind. I kid you not; I couldn’t make this up. Sobering and inspiring, to say the least…

I skipped the legendary halfway water point. I was told you could clock out, spend as long as you wanted and clock back in when you leave, but at that moment as long as I wanted would have taken me to dinner that evening. My reward was entering the Baskop singletrack, along the banks of the Vaal River, all on my own. Swooping and twisting, and with a super-smooth surface, I finally found some rigid-fork heaven and prayed it would last forever. It didn’t, of course, but there was enough to make the soul smile.

By this point, I had all but forgotten the warnings about the dastardly washboard gravel road at the 80-kilometre mark. For the uninitiated, this is when a gravel road wears a bit thin and forms little ripples, no more than an inch high, and spaced just far enough to remove your fillings. As my eyeballs bounced out of their sockets and my forearms burned in protest, I cursed every millimetre of this 4,5-kilometre stretch. Not three, as Attie and Hannes claimed later that night. Repeatedly. As I struggled to lift my glass of wine.

And then they made it worse, with a totally unnecessary detour halfway around a rocky koppie, only to climb straight over its steepest bit and descend back onto the path home. That somebody (I have my suspicions) had painted “I’m sorry” on the rock at the top didn’t help at all. In fact, that may be where I left my sense of humour for at least eight of the last 10 kilometres, until we dropped into the glorious singletrack that makes up the lower reaches of the annual 24-hour event course here and then headed over the bridge to the finish, under the Arc de Triomphe. Five hours and a few minutes seemed just about right, on the day. Mission accomplished. Next year, bigger gears, a little more fitness. But still no suspension. Can’t wait.

Image: Zoon Cronje