My name is Dan, I’m 33-years-old, and – as of this week – I’m a mountain biker. After six years of hosting the Absa Cape Epic, but defiantly refusing to give in to the mud and lycra world of two wheels and rugged single track, I’ve finally cracked. On Tuesday morning, in the untamed wilds of Parkhurst, I clicked a new pair of cleats into a gleaming set of pedals, nudged a sparkling carbon fibre KTM out of my garage, gave a cool nod to my riding partner, and set off on my new career as a rider. And promptly fell off.
Remembering to remove your cleats from your pedals when coming to a halt is one of the early lessons you learn as novice on the bike; the urge to learn said lesson is enhanced by the unrestrained mirth demonstrated by both riding partner and passing motorists as you collapse in a heap with feet still glued to pedals. One particularly ungainly dismount had a woman rush from her car to see if I needed help; her husband, at the wheel in a queue of idling traffic, wasn’t sure whether to call an ambulance, or give me a standing ovation for the morning entertainment I’d provided.
So what sparked the conversion to life in the saddle? A number of reasons. Peer pressure from a couple of mates, led by Andy Jury, the Boris Johnson-lookalike who won fame as an Oxford rugby player, but deserves greater acclaim for completing Sani2C with a physique better suited to breaking off the back of a scrum (although he cuts an athletic figure after months of riding, an example I’m hoping to emulate). And Greg James, the man whose midlife crisis involved not the purchase of an Italian sportscar, or a hedonistic romance with a 22-year-old secretary; instead, the lunatic decided to do the Epic, run Comrades and Two Oceans, and have a crack at Iron Man, all in the same year, and on the back of 40-odd years of red wine, good eating, and a fleeting relationship with the gym.
Then there’s life in Johannesburg, now as permanent a base as my itinerant lifestyle allows me to have. (I’m writing this in the business lounge at Heathrow, en route to Scotland to host the gala dinner at the Alfred Dunhill Championship; the 100-flight mark for the year has long since been breached yet again.) The industrial wasteland of barbed wire fences and marauding Nigerians cheerfully depicted by Capetonians is a remarkably green city, and morning rides through Emmerentia, passing rowers on the lake, couples walking dogs, and the grim spectre of career joggers, reveals a city embracing a vibrant culture of getting out and about as the sun rises.
There’s also, I freely admit, the desire to cut a slightly trimmer figure when, in seven weeks time, I get married; my gorgeous, petite fiancée will command all attention, certainly, but I’d like to make a decent support act. (This depends on the wedding actually happening; my general circle of acquaintance has good money on her fleeing to South America on a false passport when she comes to her senses, and realises what she’s getting herself into.)
But it’s a sense of curiosity, I suppose, that sealed the deal. After six years on the microphone at the Epic, watching the celebrated pros and their amateur counterparts fight an eight-day battle with unforgiving, unrelenting terrain, in as demanding an event man can put himself through, I want a sense of what drives them to do it. The look of joy and triumph in the eyes as the finish line is crossed answers part of that question. But to ride 20 hours a week for months on end, to crawl out of bed at 4am to go slogging through three hours of training in the wind and rain, to take a fearful beating both physically and mentally for eight consecutive days: after being so involved with the Epic for the long, I needed a better understanding of the allure of the mountain bike.
So far, enlightenment remains a long way off. Two rides down, and I’ve got a great collection of cuts and bruises (my legs look like I’ve been shaving them with a cheese grater), a technique that’s mountain biking’s answer to Yuvraj Singh facing the short ball, and a turn of speed that’s more Gurthro Steenkamp than Bryan Habana. My KTM, openly coveted by the afore-mentioned Jury, is no longer quite so new or shiny, and my understanding of the mechanics of gears is commensurate with my understanding of Duckworth-Lewis.
But for all that, I have a sneaking suspicion that the bug has bitten. I woke up an hour before my second ride, too excited to go back to sleep. I brought that second ride to a reluctant end, keen to go on (even if my bloodied legs were happy to stop). And when I get back to South Africa next week, top of my agenda is another ride: next Friday morning I’ll be out again, several mates in tow (word of my habit of falling off most entertainingly has spread), and pushing myself a little further.
There’s pressure that comes with all this: my time with the Epic means that Kevin Evans and Burry Stander have led the Twitter assault, joined by KTM, who’ve asked if my riding partner can wear a camera to record my misfortunes (sadists). Bryan Habana and Jacques Rudolph have joined the abuse with great enthusiasm, and Swiss World Champion Christoph Sauser has been bombing me with Facebook queries as to my availability for his pro team next year. Oh, the hilarity of it all.
The Epic certainly isn’t on the agenda; self-preservation is the prime objective, with an enjoyable route to a healthier lifestyle in the company of good friends following on. But just as daft I still think doing the Epic is, I’m starting to get a feel for just where the addiction lies; just why people embark on the pre-dawn rides and the weekend marathons. Being part of that all, albeit at a very modest level, is enormously satisfying, and I’m already itching to get out again. And as soon as I’ve taught myself to get those cleats out of the pedals in time, I might just get through an entire ride without falling off. As a beginner, I’ve got small goals. For now.