some image

Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Epic Training: Week Seven

Oscar Foulkes October 23, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
Off the bike, I had a great week, with the centrepiece being my 50th birthday on Wednesday. The likelihood is that I’ve passed the halfway mark, and yet I don’t feel that I’m facing a decline. Rather, I have a strong feeling of genesis. My ‘idea spring’ hasn’t stopped producing fresh concepts. And, after 50 years of life, I have a huge store of ‘history’ that can be repurposed in a productive way. A kind of upcycling or recycling, for want of a better expression.

Isn’t it interesting how the word that denotes the origin of mighty rivers (i.e. spring) should be same as the word for the season in which life is reborn? The energy implicit in spring (as in ‘jump’) and spring (coiled metal with elastic properties) is a beautiful part of the metaphor.

I didn’t feel a great amount of energy in my legs at the start of the week. In fact, the “easy 60 minute spin” on the programme for Tuesday was pretty much all I was capable of after the previous week’s riding. I was still behind the eight ball on Thursday, for the five one-minute build-ups I had to do (along with warm-up and cool-down). Monday and Tuesday’s conditioning sessions followed the usual pattern of deadlifts, lunges and squats, along with mobility exercises.

Nevertheless, I approached Saturday’s STBB 60km race around (and up) the Bottelary Hills feeling positive. I stoically pedalled my way through the rain, mentally banishing the cold, and then skidding through the resulting mud. I actually felt pretty strong in the last half, consoling myself with the thought that even if I was slower, at least my endurance had improved (or so I thought while I was riding).

I’m trying to compare 2016 performances with 2016 only, but taking 40 minutes longer on this year’s race (over almost exactly the same course) compared with 2015, was more than a little disheartening. The first half took 10 minutes (or 8%) longer, which suggests that the mud on the second half of the route must have contributed to the overall 40 minutes.

Nevertheless, there were a few Strava PRs on downhill sections before it all got too wet to go flying down the slopes.

I’d had five or six hours of interrupted sleep on Friday night, and the same on Thursday and Wednesday. I’m hoping that the disappointing result was the product of that fatigue, added to a body not yet fully recovered from the previous week’s training.

For someone who is just hoping to finish the Epic without too much pain, it shouldn’t matter how fast I’m riding prep races. However, with the amount of time that’s going into training, I’m looking for indications that the effort is paying off.

Shelley’s poem Ode to the West Wind, which has rebirth as its central theme, ends with the line: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” From this I take my cue. In the absence of positive reinforcement I’ll just keep following the process, and trusting that it’s going to deliver a good result!

Homemade birthday cards

Homemade birthday cards

Epic Training: Week Six

Oscar Foulkes October 17, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
I reached Friday of week six feeling fantastic.

After warm-up, the guts of Tuesday’s ride was 30 minutes in zone three, not that I bothered too much with staying under the zone four threshold (turns out that unbroken 30-minute climbs aren’t easy to find, even in the City Bowl). Wednesday’s gym session involved deadlifts with 10kg more than the week before, and Thursday’s ride included three six-minute climbs, also in zone three. Once again, I found that I regularly strayed into zone four, but recovery was quick.

So far, so good. On Saturday, I rode for three hours, almost entirely under the stipulated zone four threshold. The morning’s entertainment was provided by testing a top-spec Cannondale Scalpel. It was quick on the descents, and climbed well enough. If I wasn’t riding Epic, it would be a great bike for a variety of situations.

But, this race covers nearly 700km, with 15400m of climbing. As much as I like the Scalpel, I don’t think it’s my Epic bike. Thus far, the Santa Cruz Tallboy sets the standard, but I still need to test the Yeti. In the course of setting this up, I spoke to Dave George on the phone. It transpired that they didn’t have any demo bikes available, which meant that I’d need to borrow a bike from a mutual contact. During the conversation, at the start of which Dave had written down my name and phone number, he offered to change the saddle on the loan bike, saying, “You wouldn’t want to ride with a male saddle.” Clearly, my name isn’t sufficiently masculine to off-set perceptions created by my high-pitched voice!

At this point, ‘life’ intervened. I spent all of Saturday at a horse auction, leaving at 11.40pm to fetch my daughter at Pearl Valley (now also part of Val de Vie, and where we are responsible for all F&B in the clubhouse). I finally got to bed at 2.00am, only to spontaneously wake up at 6.30am. A little later, with just four-and-a-half hours’ sleep, I headed out on a three-hour ride, which turned into nearly four hours. There will be Epic stages that could take almost as many hours as I slept the night before, so this was preparation of sorts.

While on the subject of sleeping, Piet is emphatic that we need a motorhome. I agree, it’s more comfortable, and having our own space would also aid in the recovery process when the day’s riding has been completed. I spent almost a week researching options, and by the time I got back to the preferred supplier, they were sold out of four-berth vehicles. Luckily, we’ve ended up with a free upgrade to a six-berth, which gives both of us spacious ‘quarters’.

There’s just one problem: Cape Epic had already allocated all the available spaces for motorhomes by the time I received my official entry. It’s hard not to resort to “it’s not fair!”

The motorhome plan also involves us having our own mechanic, as well a soigneur, which mimics a professional set-up. That being the case, I’d have to get around to making a decision about shaving my legs. How could I possibly live in the motorhome village while sporting hairy legs?

That will have to be a decision for another day. We may end up in tents after all.

At Saturday night’s auction we sold a horse in which I had a share. Those proceeds have been earmarked for my Epic bike. Along the way, 500kg of supremely athletic flesh and blood would have been traded for 12kg of state-of-the-art carbon, rubber and bits of metal, to be ridden by the most average of mountain bikers. It’s an interesting exchange.

This week’s priority is to secure a spot for the motorhome, or I’ll be searching for a new partner (one who likes sleeping in tents).

The domestic arrangements at Cape Epic. The setting is all very scenic, but much more comfortable in the motorhomes than tents.

The domestic arrangements at Cape Epic. The setting is all very scenic, but much more comfortable in the motorhomes than tents.

Epic Training: Week Five

Oscar Foulkes October 10, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
There could be a life lesson in this. You may think that I’m talking about the mental aspect, in which riders “force heart and nerve and sinew” over the Cape Epic course. No, what I have in mind is the training, which on its own is a massive commitment, or so it seemed to me when I heard about other people doing it.

I print out every week’s training schedule, which gets posted on the fridge. Yes, I’m a digital creature, who lives in the cloud, as it were, but somehow it’s important that every week’s structure takes a physical form. I did the same thing with the schedule for my 33 radiotherapy treatments, except that then I crossed off each session as it was completed.

Having a plan, especially one in printed form, takes away negotiation. It simply becomes something that has to be done, regardless of the weather or how I feel. Being given this value – or, put differently, me having accepted the path – helps me to just do it.

During Monday’s conditioning session I managed to just about deadlift my body weight, which is big progress for me (for perspective, the guys who train at the same time as me weigh the same, but deadlift 100kg).

Tuesday’s ride was a warm-up, followed by three eight-minute climbs in a big gear, and then a cool-down. Thursday’s ride was billed as an easy spin, which it may have been by comparison, but there’s no such thing as a totally easy ride on the City side of Table Mountain. On Saturday, I did a warm-up followed by six repeats of heart rate in zone four for five minutes. These had ten-minute gaps to allow decent recovery. This was on the same route as Tuesday’s climbs.

Sunday’s ride was just two hours on the mountain, with high cadence, but keeping heart rate below zone four.

As usual, the more interesting stuff happened off the bike. On Wednesday night, I was invited to join the Val de Vie management team at the Cape Epic route launch. My connection to Val de Vie is that we are responsible for the hospitality (i.e. restaurant, bar and ballroom) on the estate, which now also includes the adjacent Pearl Valley. I was sitting next to Ryk Neethling, who professed to be getting chills (of awe and excitement) when watching the preview video. Mountain biking may be a different discipline to swimming, but training remains training. He told me about the long distance swimming he did, in which he swam 20km every day for eight years. He started talking about the importance of breathing, when we were interrupted by the next part of the programme. I’ve arranged to get the detail on the breathing, which is one of my top concerns at the moment. Swimmers spend a lot of time facedown in the water; I have no doubt they’d know something about breathing properly.

While on the subject of breathing, during the week we discovered that a racehorse I own a small share of has a paralysed arytenoid cartilage. This causes one vocal chord to block the airway, and requires tie-back surgery. Without this procedure he’ll never reach his full potential (which appears to be significant). Coincidentally, I have an interest in another racehorse – Sergeant Hardy – that also has a paralysis, but is apparently not affected by it (or he is such a superlative athlete that even with the disability he is still superior to many). Breathing appears to be a theme at the moment.

What we’ve learnt about Sergeant Hardy is that he needs to be extremely fit (you can read about him here and here). There’s no such thing as him going into a race slightly underdone. In my case, breathing only becomes an issue at elevated heart rate. In other words, the fitter and stronger I am, the less of an issue my breathing will be.

Process is an uninterrupted sequence of directed actions (much like a training programme).

There is magic in process.

Impaired breathing appears to not have affected Sergeant Hardy, now a winner of four of his five starts.

Epic Training: Week Four

Oscar Foulkes October 3, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
In our family, “assume the position” can mean only one thing – me on the couch on a Sunday afternoon, reading the FT Weekend on iPad, with the strong likelihood of a nap somewhere along the line. I can occasionally get coaxed into doing the week’s supermarket run. However, there was no possibility of this yesterday, as I was busy with ‘recovery’, having ridden a 60+km race in Elgin earlier in the day.

I can put a tick next to Week Four on the programme, and would regard it as a generally positive step towards March 2017.

For the first ride of the week I deviated from the easy recovery ride I was supposed to do, because I had the opportunity of test riding the Santa Cruz Tallboy 3cc. I also made the ride a bit longer than the intended hour, because I wanted to have a go at the Rhodes Memorial single track.

I started the ride by going up the loose, rocky single track between the Herzlia sportsfields and the Deer Park parking area. You have to get the line just right, or you end up spinning out and having to walk the rest of the way. For starters, the Tallboy climbs like a boss, consuming far less energy than propelling my existing GT Zaskar. Plus – and this is an important factor – I felt as if I could point it at just about any line, without any concerns about not making it.

This bit of trail isn’t a Strava segment, but without making any special effort on the uphill Rhodes single track, which is a ‘segment’, I banged out a new PR (personal record). On the climbing/flat/downhill run between the Vredehoek quarry and Rhodes, I was 10% quicker than I’d been the previous weekend.

The implications for riding a bike like this on Epic is that one can either go faster with the same effort, or go at the same speed and save energy. For marginal riders, this bike could make the difference between finishing a stage, or not.

I didn’t attack the downhill single track with any great aggression, so I didn’t do it any faster than on the Zaskar, but I’m certain that the Tallboy is more forgiving.

I’ve never ridden a ‘one-by’ (i.e. just one chain ring in front), so I was interested to see how I would cope on steep climbs. Thanks to the 12th gear, which takes the form of a ring so much larger than the rest of the cluster that it is variously described as “dinner plate” or “frisbee”, I had no difficulties climbing steep sections. Just to make sure, I rode up a climb known on Strava as Motherfucker. Without making any particular effort, I rode it in a time not far off my PR from last year. This is with a 34T in front – the smaller 32T one would use on Epic would make it a lot easier.

Training will build up muscles in my legs, but there’s nothing I can do about having a reduced intake of air. However, the Tallboy reverses many of my body’s deficiencies. If you’ll excuse the expression, it’s like an Iron Lung, except that it’s mostly carbon, of course. There is also the option of adding carbon wheels (at a cost of roughly 25% more), which would make the bike even faster. Mountain biking equipment is a slippery slope. Those slopes, I can report with confidence, are covered in carbon.

Piet was with me at the start of the Apple Blossom MTB. “Try to ride at 15km/h average”, he said, followed by a quick fist bump, and then we were off. He started like a scalded cat – so much so, that he may have been leading the race before the end of the ‘neutral’ zone.

I, on the other hand, went as fast as my noisy air intake would allow, having an internal conversation which reached the conclusion that I absolutely had to have the Tallboy, with carbon wheels nogal. After a while people stopped passing me, and the ride settled into a rhythm. The Oak Valley trails were an absolute treat. So well designed are they, that my clunky-by-comparison Zaskar felt as light as a feather. My spirit was lifted, which was a good thing, because there were some big climbs ahead.

All ended well, with Strava telling me I’d averaged 14.8 km/h. In truth, this was a bit below par for the course, but under the circumstances it was close enough. As far as race position was concerned, I was bang on two-thirds down the field. Had a ridden just a few minutes faster, I would have been in the median position.

It would be wrong to compare with anything other than 2016, so I can happily report that I’m getting stronger.

Even so, knowing that I can give myself an additional boost, just by changing bicycles, is an extremely attractive prospect.

Iron lung

Iron lung

Epic Training: Week Three

Oscar Foulkes September 25, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
This week’s programme kicked off on Tuesday with an easy hour on the mountain. After two solid rides over the weekend, followed by dead lifts and more during Monday’s gym session, it was a relief to have a recovery ride.

Instead of the ride scheduled for Wednesday, I joined the Road2Vasco gang (see pic attached) for a Blockhouse Dash. It’s on Strava as The King’s Blockhouse IPA TT if you want to try it for yourself. The start point is the end of Pinoak Road in Vredehoek, and you climb at an average of 8% for 3.6km. The first part is above 16%, which will come back to bite you if you go out too quickly (as I did).

By the time I reached the Blockhouse my throat was on fire. My throat has given me all kinds of pain experiences, but this was a new one. I clearly shouldn’t be riding in the red zone for 23 minutes at a stretch!

Saturday’s ride was three hours on the mountain, with high cadence, and staying below zone four. The mountain routes around the City Bowl are fine for an hour to perhaps two hours – if you can put up with some steep sections that can easily push heart rate into zone four.

With the Table Mountain National Park in the middle of it, Cape Town makes for unique urban mountain biking. I love the way that people have found ways to link off-road sections, especially since parts of the Constantia green belt may now legally be ridden. So, for my three-hour ride on Saturday, I was able to get from Deer Park to Constantia without riding for more than a few kilometres on tar. There are also some enterprising single-track sections alongside Rhodes Drive.

Soon after setting off on Saturday, my phone rang. As I wasn’t (yet) out of breath I decided to answer, which I could do without stopping, because of the microphone on the Apple earphones.

At the end of the phone call, I expected the music I’d been listening to start playing again. Instead there was an unfamiliar rhythmical sound that I assumed was the intro to old-school Hip-Hop that my son loaded onto my phone. When the ‘intro’ didn’t morph into an actual piece of music I began to think of alternatives. Technically, I don’t know if this is possible, but the only explanation I could come up with is that somehow, via my Fitbit, which is connected to phone via Bluetooth, I was listening to the sound of my own pulse.

Just as I’d reached this deduction I caught up to the rider ahead of me, who asked me if I have asthma. It’s not the first time my laboured breathing has alarmed fellow riders, and it doesn’t get better when I try to explain to them that my lungs are just fine, because I generally produce an unintelligible croak while cycling.

It’s one thing to have my own pulse as soundtrack – it’s another thing altogether for other cyclists to be subjected to the apparent sounds of someone gasping for breath. Don’t worry, I’m fine, and thank you for caring.

Today’s ride should have been a relatively straightforward high cadence spin on the road, but having attended a 21st last night, my body was not entirely shipshape. ‘Nough said. At my age, training requires nocturnal moderation.

On a positive note, Strava tells me that yesterday’s ride was an improvement on the previous week’s ride along a similar route. While I’m a long way off where I was last year, I seem to be getting stronger. Perhaps I should start a new Strava account, so that I’m not tempted to make comparisons with 2015 and earlier!

The Road2Vasco gang at the Blockhouse

The Road2Vasco gang at the Blockhouse

Open Letter to Vee Moodley

Oscar Foulkes September 25, 2016 Uncategorized No comments
Vee Moodley
Betting Executive

Dear Vee

I don’t officially have a surname, so I hope you don’t mind me using your first name. Yes, in my version of my name there are two parts – Grape Vine – but I’m not a Mr Vine kind of guy (and just imagine answering to the first name, Grape!).

I’m in bit of a situation. Well, if I’m not already in a situation I will be at some point, and I may need your help.

First, a little background. I started my career in Cape Town, where I will admit to being somewhat directionless. However, it all got a lot better when I moved to Port Elizabeth. I won’t say that I found religion, but something certainly shifted.

First time out in PE I ran a close fourth, and it didn’t take long for me to win two on the trot (if you’ll excuse the expression). In total, my PE career has comprised 14 starts. Other than the two wins, I also had five places, and four fourths. There have also been two fifths, which means that only in one start did I not earn money (the less said about the way my jockey rode me that day, the better).

On six occasions I’ve been beaten a length or less.

What I’m getting at, is that this record makes a true servant of the Tote*. I’m sure that your databases could tell you a lot about the role I’ve played as punters’ choice in exotic bets. Consistent chaps like myself, I’m sure, are good for your business. More about that later.

On a scale of unplaced maiden, to Frankel, I am extremely average. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur. However, I would say that my model of consistency makes me anything but average. If you totted up my earnings in PE you’d see that I’ve more-or-less paid my way. In all my averageness I’m a rare racehorse.

The handicapper must look at my PE form and feel rather pleased with himself. My suggestion to the handicapper is to not get too smug. I make him look good, with my always-trying attitude. In return for my honesty I’m stuck with a merit rating* that all but ensures I’ll never win again. What do they say about no good deed going unpunished?

Anyway, my pain is your gain. I’m good for your business.

Yesterday, once again, I ran my heart out from a bad draw (what is it about me and wide draws). The best I could do was fifth. The worst is that it was a dead heat for fifth. Apparently there were some ripe comments from one of my owners about sharing a measly R1500 in prize money. Even though my form yesterday was worse than previous form against Naval Intelligence, I can’t see my merit rating getting cut. That’s just not how the handicappers roll.

Vee, something has to give. I get the feeling my owners are getting frustrated by this thing of seeing the handicapper stand between me and the winner’s box.

It’s time for me to get to the point. Considering what I do for your business, in the event that their frustration gets a bit too much, would you consider a contribution to my training fees?

Kind regards
Grape Vine

*Tote: The principle of Tote betting is that all bets are pooled. After the government taxes and operator’s share have been deducted, the nett pool is shared amongst the winning tickets. The tote is a more effective funder of the sport than bets struck with bookmakers.
*Merit ratings: Most races run in South Africa are handicaps, which aim to equalise horses’ chances of winning. Better horses carry more weight. Merit ratings are the method for assigning weights to horses. Higher merit ratings indicate better horses. At the basis of handicapping is the measurable drag effect of weight (over 1600m, one length of a horse equates to 2 lbs in weight carried).

Grape Vine winning in Cape Town

Grape Vine winning in Cape Town

Epic Training: Week 2

Oscar Foulkes September 20, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
There is a simple pattern to my training programme – roughly one-hour rides on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with three-hour-plus rides on Saturdays and Sundays (all rides will increase in length, I’m sure). Mondays and Wednesdays are for gym.

Gym is a private session involving exercises that improve mobility in my hips, as well as a variety of leg-related exercises, such as lunges, squats and dead lifts. Upper body, in the form of push ups (with rotation) and rows, also gets attention. There are two other mountain bikers (both with Epic experience) who train at the same time, so the sessions can involve plenty of banter, which helps to keep the training programme a relatively fun space.

The second week’s midweek sessions were not overly taxing, and the weekend’s two three-hour rides were straightforward. I rode the second one with Piet, which gave us an opportunity to touch base on various Epic-related matters.

Discussion turned to my average speeds on training rides, as recorded on Strava (remember, “if it’s not on Strava, it never happened”). Until Piet brought it up on Sunday, I hadn’t given much thought about that important, single number. My attention has mainly been focused on following Lezandré’s programme. The point of training, of course, is to be able to ride at a faster average speed. On Epic, anything below 15km/h just doesn’t leave enough time for recovery. Ideally, one would ride faster than that; the more time spent chilling after a day’s riding, the better.

I’m currently riding about 30% faster than three months ago, but even at this level, I’m 20% below where I was a year ago. It’s a stark reminder of the side effects of radiotherapy.

I don’t know anything about the generally toxic effects of radiotherapy, but the physical ones are easy to list. I’ve picked up most of the weight lost (mainly as a result of pain-induced change to diet). My throat remains inflamed, which restricts my intake of air as my heart rate goes up.

Swallowing food can be tricky, and this brings me to nutrition, especially while riding. I’m not a big fan of processed foods, which means that I view ‘sport bars’ with circumspection. Plus, their cost does nothing to delight my frugal nature. By comparison, droëwors appears to be much better value. However, it’s not necessarily the easiest thing to eat while gasping for breath. In my case, there’s the added complication of ‘bits’ that can get lodged in my larynx, resulting in much coughing.

On a recent ride, a speck of something went the wrong way, which caused me to cough at an inopportune moment, propelling a piece of droëwors into my respiratory tract. I could vaguely feel its presence, which is where is stayed until I blew my nose in the shower.

My cousin suggested coconut oil as nutrition while riding. It may tick a number of boxes, with ease of swallowing clearly being an important consideration. In an emergency I could also use it as chain lube, which may explain why I have no interest in even trying it. There’s just too much fear factor involved.

On the other hand, I’ll shortly be addressing my fear factor relating to the speed at which I descend. I’m not the slowest, but certain technical downhills sometimes get me off my bike (occasionally involuntarily). The attraction of getting this right is that it will make me faster, without me having to expend any additional effort.

Fortunately, I have just the person to help me with that (expect a call, Daniel Dobinson). Piet and I will be the ones on bicycles, but without our respective support teams, Cape Epic would be a lot harder, not to mention slower.

How NOT to ride a switchback, but what a recovery! Me on Wines2Whales in 2011.

Epic Training: Week 1

Oscar Foulkes September 15, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
The first official week of Cape Epic training was uneventful. None of the four days was particularly taxing; whether it’s because that was Lezandré’s plan, or whether I’m a little fitter than she expected, I don’t know. However, this could well turn out to be a similar experience to first year Maths at UCT. I started all cock-a-hoop, having nailed Calculus in my Matric exams. I treated the lectures as optional, but within weeks it all got serious, and I never managed to catch up.

Whatever Lezandré has allocated for the day, I do. The one element I struggle with, though, is when I have to keep my heart rate below an indicated level. Anything below zone 4 feels as if I’m not doing anything.

In other news, The Partner outed himself on Twitter, so I can henceforth refer to him as Piet (Viljoen). When we had our first meeting over coffee in February, he told me that he likes to do one thing a year that scares him. You may think that he meant something along the lines of ‘challenge’, but you’d be wrong. Piet is on another level when it comes to what he takes on. This man is a machine.

Allow me to illustrate. For any person who is into endurance sports, Cape Epic and Comrades Marathon are bucket list events. Doing just one of them, once in a lifetime, will satisfy most people. In 2017, Piet is doing both Cape Epic and Comrades Marathon. We’re talking about a gap of two months between the two events, a big chunk of which will be taken up by recovery from Epic.

But wait, there’s more, Piet is doing Comrades as part of Unogwaja, which means that he is cycling from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg (1660km), and then running a very tough 89km. A runner may get some benefit from cycling (and vice versa), but Piet will need to be training for Comrades while simultaneously training for Epic.

I’m in awe of what he’s taken on, and also thankful. You see, by setting a peak even higher than Cape Epic, he’s foreshortened the perspective. In an odd way, he’s made Epic seem less of a stretch.

There will be many hours of pain along the way – and Piet is the one undertaking the main challenge – but I feel fortunate to be sharing part of the 2017 journey with him.

Until then, I have six more months of following instructions from Lezandré.

Lezandré Wolmarans Qualified Biokineticist, BSpSc Hons (US), BA Sport Health & Leisure Sc (NWU) ... and highly accomplished athlete

Lezandré Wolmarans
Qualified Biokineticist, BSpSc Hons (US), BA Sport Health & Leisure Sc (NWU) … and highly accomplished athlete

Epic Training

Oscar Foulkes September 6, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
My Be My Epic Valentine post drew some amused comment, but just one serious interest. The Partner (I’ll call him that until he’s okay with being ‘outed’) more-or-less committed immediately, despite the fact that I could barely whisper, and was on the way to losing nearly 10kg during radiotherapy.

He, on the other hand, was already in training for the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon. This would be followed a few months later by a full Ironman, and for good measure, the Trans-Baviaans MTB. Even if I were at peak fitness, I’d struggle to remain within sight of him.

Thanks to a 13-week training programme from Lezandre at the Sports Science Institute, I was able to get strong and fit enough to complete the Imana Wild Ride. But three- or four-day stage races are known territory for me. The Cape Epic is ‘eight days of courage’.

Having completed Lezandre’s first 13 week programme, this week I started the Epic programme (see alongside). Shit just got real.

I had planned to ride with The Partner on Saturday. I woke up early, to a south-easter that was just about gale force, and a message from The Partner, suggesting that riding in the wind was not an option. Inside, I was cheering. I have been known to ride in winds as strong as this, but I didn’t want to be the one calling off the ride. The plan was adjusted to ride on the road the following day.

There is a little backstory to the road ride, because The Partner wanted to ride his new road bike. I should add that he doesn’t own just one or two bikes. In fact, the number goes beyond several. As he puts it, there is a precise mathematical formula for calculating the number of bikes he owns: S – 1, where S stands for the number of bikes that would cause him to be single. Fortunately, for him, S is a big number.

On Sunday, I needed to meet him at the Camps Bay police station at 7.00am. From my house this is a +-25 minute ride. I was delayed leaving, and despite riding in the red zone all the way, I arrived at 7.04 (or maybe 7.05). The Partner rightly waited a few minutes and then carried on. Next time I’ll be more punctual (let’s just say that if I ever decide to join the Swiss Cycling Club I’ll be well prepared).

Yesterday, before I’d even expended one minute in formal Epic training, I received an email from The Partner suggesting that I should ride the Attekwas with him on 21 January. This race is 120km, with 2900m of climbing, from Oudtshoorn to Groot Brak. It’s fantastic preparation for Epic. The only problem is that I need to be in Cape Town that evening. I’ve calculated that if I ride fast, and have someone drive me, I can get just about get back to Cape Town in time.

Over the course of the next six-and-a-half months there will be many other times when I’ll have to juggle commitments to fit Epic training into my schedule. For the vast majority of riders in the Cape Epic – in other words, for everyone other than the pro riders, for whom training is their job – just getting to the start line of the Epic is a major achievement.

However, like the Epic’s ‘eight days of courage’ that are experienced one turn of the crank at a time, my training programe involves one day of Lezandre’s instructions at a time. From my experience of doing the first 13 weeks, it’s amazing how this daily commitment makes training a manageable process.

Throughout all of it there’s a riding partner to keep one motivated (and punctual).


Nie op sy bek geval nie

Oscar Foulkes June 21, 2016 Horse Racing No comments
Speaking additional languages isn’t just about making oneself understood. One also needs to be aware of the polite word for things – and I don’t mean words that are impolitely used to refer to faecal matter. Take the Afrikaans word bek, for instance, as used in the expression “hou jou bek”, which translates as “hold your mouth”. It’s the “shut your trap” equivalent of “hold your tongue”, because the polite word for mouth is mond.

Admittedly, I never thought about it with any great latitude, but I couldn’t understand how bek could be mond, until I was on a trip to Montreal and saw the French word bec, indicating the spout of a milk carton. Bec, of course, is also the word for beak, so now it all makes sense.

When Afrikaners say, “Hy is nie op sy bek geval nie”, which is directly translated as “he hasn’t fallen on his mouth”, they are referring to someone who isn’t slow to open his mouth to say something. In a dry and slightly obtuse way, it’s more likely to refer to someone who is witty, sharp, opinionated or arrogant than a run-of-the-mill chatterbox.

I’ll get back to bek in a minute.

There is a perennial shortage of commentators in horse racing. These are the guys (yes, because women hardly ever volunteer) who ‘call’ the races. In the days before video coverage, their job was even more important, but it remains necessary for someone to tell fans where each horse is in the race. Good commentators will flesh it out with horses that are squandering their chances by running wide on the bend. Great ones will spot the supposed no-hoper at the back of the field, with tons in reserve, about to mow down the leaders.

In the late 80s, Sandy Bickett had long since retired as Cape Town commentator. So desperate was the need for commentators that they kept him on even though he regularly made mistakes. Current head commentator Jehan Malherbe started under Bickett. He’s had a succession of understudies, and has been trying to switch off his mic for decades, but management won’t let him leave. It’s for good reason, I should add, because Jehan is a great commentator, in the sense of truly being able to ‘read’ a race. That is a skill that comes from watching tens of thousands of races.

The point of this story is that Racing. It’s a Rush is busy with a drive to recruit aspirant commentators. For someone with the ‘gift of the gab’ – partially similar to nie op sy bek geval nie – an employment opportunity awaits. This may be the only lifetime employment currently being offered anywhere, although I’m sure Jehan wishes it wasn’t.

Given my laryngeal issues, these days I tend to speak only when I have something important to say, and even then – especially in noisy surroundings – I’ll often hold back. However, when my youth was at its brashest, my bek was in full swing. There were many times my future self should have put a hand on my shoulder and told me to shut the fuck up. At the time, I was doing some television presenting for horse racing. I was always keen for some extra money, so I thought I’d give it a go.

There is no school or handbook for learning to be a commentator. You may sit in your bedroom with a tape recorder and call a fictitious race. That’s relatively easy. Harder is to sit in the stands mouthing a commentary on a real race.

Nothing beats the chill that engulfs your entire body when you’re sitting in front of a live mic, looking through binoculars, and realising that there are jockey silks that you can’t match to a horse. Or vice versa, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The plan was that I would make general racecourse announcements and call horses to post for a few weeks. When I did my first actual call, Jehan would be standing by my side, ready to prompt me if I stumbled over the horses. The problem was that I got impatient. Instead, when I did my first call, Jehan was standing next to a crackly speaker on Greyville racecourse wanting to listen to the Cape commentary. When he heard my voice, I suspect he felt the same kind of chill I described above. Or perhaps it was just anger. Had there been cell phones he could have taken immediate action, but there weren’t.

It all started fine, but somewhere along the line a horse’s name escaped me, or maybe a few. The speaker at Greyville – and thousands in off-course Totes and bookmakers’ rooms around the country, went silent. The crackle was no indication of technical problems. This was commentator malfunction, or put it another way, this was crackle without the cackle.

Soon after the horses turned for home I was able to pick it up again, and managed to finish the race. There must have been a stand-in commentator, although I can’t recall whether it was Neill Duffy, Mike Wanklin or Shaheen Shaw. It could even have been James Bester, so long was the list of Jehan’s successive understudies, until Rouvaan Smit came along.

This was not my finest moment, to put it politely. I knew that I’d screwed up big time, I felt terrible about it, and I was determined to fix it next time. Things weren’t improved by the article that Annabel Andrews wrote for the Cape Times in the week thereafter, with a headline that clearly didn’t tax the sub-editor: “No Oscar for this commentator”, or something to that effect.

The following race meeting, with Jehan back in Cape Town, we did it the way it was supposed to happen first time around. As I was calling the horses into the stalls, the phone rang. It was Mike Louw, the course manager (although I can’t be sure that I’ve recalled his job title correctly): “Get Oscar out of the commentary box!”

“I can’t”, said Jehan, “I haven’t learnt the colours.” And then he took the phone off the hook.

The call wouldn’t have won any prizes, but it was fine. I got through it. That should – or could – have been the first step to redemption, but racecourse management had other ideas. The following week I received a letter from Mike Louw banning me from the commentary box for life.

Of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, this was possibly the one with the greatest cringe factor, demonstrated by the fact that it’s taken me nearly 30 years to tell the story. Until a clean-out six months ago, I had both the newspaper clipping and Mike Louw’s letter in a dusty file. Instead of keeping glowing school reports, I kept a vicious newspaper article and a letter of rejection. I couldn’t tell you why I kept them, but now that I’m finally telling the story, I’m sorry I threw them out. It would have been fun to post them here.

Partly because of what’s happened to my voice, I listen with pleasure and admiration to people who employ their voices by singing or speaking in public. Beautiful voices are like birdsong. Perhaps the reference to beak is a good one, after all.

If you think you have what it takes to be a commentator, send a commentary sample to

Here are some fun commentaries: