South Africa’s first Flèche

AudaxSA turned 20 this year and many would say it’s all thanks to Eddie. To commemorate the occasion, we completed our first ever Flèche, named after the man himself.

Flèche Thomlinson

This was one of my most enjoyable Audax rides yet. So, what is a Flèche? Not quite a team time trial, but unlike other Audax events, the focus is on a group effort.

  1. Ride for 24 hours.
  2. Over the Easter Weekend.
  3. At least 360 kilometers.
  4. Maximum 5 riders.
  5. Minimum 3 finishers.
  6. At least 25km in the last 2 hours.
  7. Teams ride different routes, but finish at the same venue.

At first it was just Rob and myself, so not enough for a team. But a quick email to the group saw just as quick a response. Adele Bellairs, Richard Baufeldt & Andrew Wheeldon were keen to join. It must be said, it takes a special individual to opt in at the drop of a hat to come and ride a 400km route through the night on the eve of the Easter Weekend. And that pretty much sums up the group.

Go

We left Vrede wine farm on Thursday 13 April 2017 at 5pm and got onto the familiar Old Paarl road through Klapmuts and onto Franschhoek. My last time on a bicycle was exactly a month ago during TDB and I certainly felt it, falling behind the other four as we approached the first checkpoint. But some food & coffee did the job and I was ready to go again.

It was raining as we rolled out of Franschhoek. Cold outside, but a beautiful night nonetheless, with the prospects of seeing the full moon later on. As we turned right towards Paarl there was less traffic and we eased into a nice rhythm. Entering Paarl, we missed the left turn to the main road and continued with the most direct option towards Wellington.

Crashing into Paarl

It happened as we were cycling single file through the outskirts of town. I was following behind the first rider and the roads were wet from the earlier rain. A slight hesitation at a traffic light and a sudden stop had a ripple effect going backwards and split seconds later I heard that terrible sound as Richard went down.

He was lying in the road, next to his bike. Everyone jumped into action and helped, without moving him. Adele diverted the traffic and Rob & Andrew moved his bike to the island. After what felt like ages he eventually lifted his arm and I helped him to his feet. A quick check revealed that his carbon frame was still 100%, but that his Prevail helmet was split at the back.

Like a true champion, he broke the fall of his bike by landing on his head. Jokes aside, we were all relieved. He decided to go on to the next stop in Wellington, before the stiffness sets in.

Minus two in Wellington

This was not a control point, but the Shell garage at the end of town was a familiar and popular coffee stop. Richard decided he wanted to continue and Rob went with him as they started the climb, while Andrew, Adele and myself went into the shop.

Andrew and Adele decided to call it a day and return to safety. I didn’t blame them. In fact, I really appreciate their effort in coming out in such short notice to join us and look forward to the next ride. Andrew handed me some of his supplies and we parted ways.

I’m the slowest climber here and was looking forward to a solo effort of Bainskloof in the rain. By the time I crossed the waterfall going up, the rain was coming down in full force.

So started my slowest ever descent of this pass, being on the brakes consistently. The roads were quiet and I only encountered two vehicles — one of them politely enquired whether I’m enjoying the ride.

Back on the flat road, I stopped to find the source of an unpleasant but familiar sound on the bike. The front hub didn’t run smooth at all and I suspect the bearings have run dry. With no means to fix it and being the eve of Easter Weekend, I just hoped it wouldn’t completely fail within the next 300kms.

Shortly before the Wolseley turnoff I passed three runners coming in the opposite direction, from Ceres, jogging in the road in the middle of the night, being followed by an official vehicle and two ambulances. I wonder what that was all about. We greeted each other in passing.

I arrived at the 24hr shop a couple of minutes after Richard and Rob, who were already having coffee. Richard was looking great for a guy who came off his bike not long ago, ready with a high five, and Rob mentioned how he had to put in some effort to keep up with him.

I informed them it was only the three of us now, the minimum amount of riders needed to complete the Flèche, so we all had to finish together. And off we went.

It was a great night out. The rain was gone and the eerily quiet roads were lit by an almost full moon. We hopped onto the R44, passing Tulbagh and the Nuwekloof pass — with only 48 meters of ascent, this won’t be your best bet for Everesting (185 laps and over 1500km).

We turned right and through Gouda towards Porterville, happily chatting all the way. There’s no better way to start the weekend.

The first time I drove here at night, it took me a while to realize the red flashing lights in the sky are from the wind farm turbines, not aliens, but now I saw them flash out of sync for the first time.

We stopped for a call of nature in Porterville before tackling the 25kms of rolling hills to the distant lights of Piketberg. Most of this stretch was down to a single lane due to long-overdue roadworks and we took the gravel options of cycling in the work-in-progress lane.

I was eager to get to the Piketberg check point and check out the newly renovated garage and convenience store. Upon our arrival, we also noticed a 24hr Spur and we cycled through the sliding doors and into the dining area.

Our 4am breakfast was delightful and we spent a good hour here. Getting ready to leave, we knew the next part would be the most difficult — that dreadful stretch before sunrise. It was still dark and much colder outside than we were prepared for.

Time to explore

Usually we go over the mountain behind Piketberg and down to the coast, but this time we followed a lovely stretch of road parallel to the N7 north. It was dark outside, but you could see the silhouette of the mountain on our left. First light also revealed the faraway mountains on the east. No cars, just us, side by side.

We saw another bicycle up ahead. Rob said it was a Qhubeka bike. I thought it was a 26’r. We finally reached him. It was a farm worker pedaling like there is no tomorrow. Maybe he thought we were a bunch of scoundrels out to nick his bike. Or maybe he was just fighting the cold in the most natural way.

Morning has broken. When we made it to the end of the mountain range, the sun was starting to appear and even though we were still in the shade it wasn’t necessary for lights anymore.

Déjà vu. I grew up in Clanwilliam, so absolutely loved cycling through this landscape. I remember traveling to Cape Town and staring down the Piekenierskloof pass in this direction, wondering where this road went — and now we were cycling it.

We saw an Eland next to us on the side of he road — rather fitting, as we were on our way to Elandsbaai. The only thing more descriptive would be taking a picture of underneath the Elandsbaai signpost, with that Eland standing in-between us, arms around the shoulders.

We thought the day would heat up. But the opposite happened. As we dropped towards the ocean the temperature dropped to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This was unexpected, seeing as the sun was out and it was April.

Take me to your leader.

Rob called halt and we stopped next to the road. He was freezing and whipped out his golden space blanket. Mental note: don’t ever go on a winter Audax without one. It weighs nothing and its value cannot be underestimated. While he reflected rays of sunlight and posed for a picture, I sat down with my legs crossed and dozed off for five minutes.

Wide awake. I felt like a new person and the last stretch to the coast was pure bliss. We passed the Aurora & Redelinghuys turn-off and continued next to the wet(dry)lands towards the coast. The scenery was increasingly beautiful with each passing kilometer.

We all spotted the long hill up ahead and silently wondered whether that was the road we were supposed to take. From what we could remember according to the map we weren’t going to turn again before we reach the ocean. And we didn’t have to, as it was the Lambertsbaai turn-off. This day was just getting better and better.

Just before Elandsbaai we found a lovely breakfast spot and promptly pulled in to soak up some sunlight and have something to eat. Thereafter Team Flèche-light made for Elandsbaai and a photo on its iconic beach.

To Velddrif

The worst was now behind us and only a victory lap remained. But things quickly changed as the wind picked up. We continued up a never-ending hill. From a distance I could see how the heavy laden trucks struggled to get over it and I had the deepest of sympathy, knowing my fate would be the same.

The wind was much stronger when we reached the top, but what a summit it was. Below us lay the West Coast, all the way to Table Mountain. When last have you seen a wind pump with the Atlantic ocean as its backdrop?

We continued down a fast descent to reach the coast. From here on to the end there would be very few vertical meters gained. We cycled single file, taking turns in front.

Earlier rains played havoc with barrier protection and by now my rear resembled the Japanese flag.

It was 2pm when Rob called a strategy stop. Our next goal was to do the minimum required kilometers during the last two hours. There was a farm stall less than 3kms back, to which we returned for a final stop.

Sitting on the lawn in the shade outside, with well over 300km in the legs, we enjoyed the best venison pie I had since Peregrine, plus some ice cream. Isn’t this what an Audax ride is all about?

We rolled out with a newfound lust for life. We marked our progress at exactly 3pm, as this was the start of our final goal. I don’t mind the wind as much and was sitting comfortably in front. We achieved our 25km requirement in just over an hour, despite the headwind and losing 10 minutes to fix a puncture. Job done.

Fin

Not long afterwards we rolled into Velddrif and straight into the hotel for a couple of celebratory beers. Yolandi & Ben met us there and Ken came through to collect Richard. After the ride we spend a lovely long weekend in Langebaan with our families.

Good news: Richard is going strong, irrespective of his fall. He was back on the bike with a rehab ride on Sunday and a recovery ride yesterday. Ps, we haven’t gained a single meter of altitude during the last two hours of cycling. Check out Rob’s Strava here. As always, it was an absolute pleasure riding with these guys.

Due credit

Eddie, thanks for taking charge of Audax for two decades so far. You have enabled us to do some stunning rides, make new friends and see amazing places.

Somewhere I have a picture of him and his proud and supportive wife Jean, taken at Vrede Wines in October 2015. Eddie shows gold his medal for being the first male in age category 85-89 in the 2015 Cape Town Cycle Tour. Talk about dedication.

Till next time.

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