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Magic in Process

Oscar Foulkes September 11, 2022 Uncategorized No comments

I get all kinds of responses from people who hear me speak for the first time. I don’t blame them – before I open my mouth, I’m never entirely certain exactly what sound will come out. Usually, people think I have laryngitis. Once, a Woolies cashier openly laughed at me, and I often have call centre employees call me Ma’am.

I would have thought that the name Oscar is a big enough clue as to my gender, but hey, who knows these days?

At several points since 2006 I haven’t been able to do anything other than whisper, so I take this as a win. Being saved from phone calls is also a win, but it can be extremely frustrating to ring someone’s doorbell, and for them not to be able to hear me over the intercom. Joining in on dinner table conversations was generally impossible, and I went through periods of actively avoiding parties or restaurants. Even now, I often prefer to remain quiet.

I was once on my way to have a meeting with someone called Luke. At the entrance, the security guard asked me whom I was there to see. I don’t think he saw the humour of my Darth Vader-ish voice telling him I was there to see Luke (“I am your father, Luke”).

From about 2003 or 2004, my voice got progressively more hoarse, until I lost it entirely, in 2006. The cause of this was found to be cancerous growths on my vocal chords, and since then I’ve had six surgeries, as well as a six-week course of radiation. Vocal chords are extremely sensitive bits of equipment; while these treatments have left me without cancer, I have extensive scarring. Hence the voice.

There was a time that I referred to myself as the Boardroom Whisperer. My brother called me Il Voce (the voice).

Before this started, I had already started reading the Harry Potter series to my daughter. The growing hoarseness was progressive, but I just kept going, complete with made-up voices for all the main characters. Believe me, you’d rather listen to the Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter, but we’d already started, and even though she was perfectly capable of reading The Deathly Hallows herself, we had to finish it the way we’d started. The main problem was that the final book was more than three times as long as the first!

Books are a process. They have a defined structure, complete with start and end points. Words make up sentences. Sentences make paragraphs. Paragraphs make pages. Pages make chapters, and chapters make books. One step follows from another. Small bits cumulatively make something big. This also works in reverse for people writing books. Even writing just 500 words a day can be life changing for an aspirant author.

The point of this is that all of us who loved the Harry Potter books got completely drawn into the world of supernatural powers. I’m here to tell you that every one of us has superpowers, and they don’t require the use of spells, or finding horcruxes.

There is magic in process. Let me give you an example.

By the end of 2015, my surgeon had decided that he couldn’t keep cutting away at my vocal chords. He prescribed a six-week course of radiation, which resulted in the worst pain I’ve ever experienced. I lived on soup and morphine for something like two months in the first quarter of 2016. At the end of it I’d lost nearly 15% of my body weight, and it’s not as if I ever had much in reserve.

I already had an entry for the 2017 Cape Epic, which was almost exactly 12 months after I finished radiotherapy. I was a keen mountain biker, so it just seemed like a simple process of starting to ride again, and the rest would fall into place.

After my first few rides, I realised that this wasn’t going according to plan. In fact, I felt so bad on the bike that if I didn’t have the objective of getting fit for Epic I might have stopped right there. I could barely cycle around the block, and even the tiniest bit of exertion had me sounding like Darth Vader because I could barely breathe.

I went to the Sports Science Institute for a proper training programme. I stuck the programme onto the fridge, just as I had done with the schedule for my 33 radiotherapy appointments, and I followed the instructions to the letter.

13 weeks later, I completed the four-day Imana Wild Ride, along the coast from Morgan Bay to Umngazi, which is one of the most awe-inspiring bits of landscape in South Africa. I can highly recommend the experience!

Training continued from August until March, and then we rode the 2017 Cape Epic. It’s one of the toughest mountain biking stage races in the world. Over the course of eight days we covered nearly 700km, climbing 15000m. My body had got stronger, but I still made a lot of noise when breathing. I can’t tell you how many times fellow riders offered me asthma pumps, or how many times they rode ahead to let my partner know that I might be in trouble.

That we reached the finish line is a testament to the power of following a structured training programme – in other words, the Magic of Process.

After finishing Epic, I discovered that I’d trained for – and ridden – the event on something like 50% of my breathing capacity. It’s not quite the same as breathing through a straw, but it gives you an idea of the effect. Sometimes it’s better not to know things like this, because I might not even have attempted it if I’d known about this limitation.

I need to tell you a bit about my riding partner, Piet Viljoen. We met as a result of a blog I posted in February 2016, entitled Will You Be My Epic Valentine? At that point, I could barely whisper, I certainly wasn’t strong enough to exercise, and I still had nearly a month of treatment left. Piet, on the other hand, was about to run the Two Oceans Ultra, was in training for a full Iron Man, and would go on to do a bunch of extreme endurance events in 2017.

Piet is a value investor, but even a ‘reversion to mean’ model would have had difficulty forecasting the extent of my recovery. In my darkest days, I was the equivalent of buying into African Bank while it was in curatorship, or purchasing Greek bonds under threat of default. We couldn’t sensibly cycle together until the end of 2016, and yet Piet didn’t waver. His level of commitment puts his immediate “yes” on the level of “I do”. I have spent many hours looking at the back of Piet’s RECM cycling kit, with the strapline: “Follow your conviction.” Even if I’ve been the one doing the following, I can tell you that the conviction part is real.

And this was on the back of a brief coffee meeting with someone who until that point had been a complete stranger. It says a lot for the power of making a choice … and sticking to it.

I can tell you that it makes a HUGE difference to share a challenge with someone who has the kind of values, energy and commitment that support your objectives.

Far from the 2017 experience scaring us off, we repeated Cape Epic in 2018 and 2019.

There’s a little bit of synchronicity to my Epic story, in that a racehorse I co-owned with my mother, Sergeant Hardy, was at point the country’s top-rated sprinter despite having impaired breathing. Our Cape Epic team name was Hoarse Power (with an ‘a’), and we rode the first one in pink kit that was inspired by my mother’s racing colours.

There are a number of other learnings from the experience of riding Epic, or indeed any other endurance event. The simplest, and most obvious, is that as long as you keep turning the cranks you will get to the finish. What I’ve also learnt is that pain is not permanent. While you’re working your way up the mountain, it may feel as if the pain will never end, but before you know it you’ll find yourself having fun on the descents.

This is a phenomenon I’ve experienced in all kinds of real-life situations. Those feelings of difficulty pass. Whether it’s the “are we there yet?” of long journeys, or troubled times, they all pass.

A few months ago, I even found myself applying ‘Epic Mind’ during particularly unpleasant root canal treatment.

Attitude is a big contributor to how we deal with the stresses and difficulties that we encounter. Do we turn molehills into mountains, or the other way around?

I can’t point to empirical evidence, but I believe that one of the things that has helped me is that since the age of 17 I have meditated for 20 minutes twice a day. That’s well over 8000 hours of being in a deep state of relaxation. The daily benefits are release of stress, greater clarity of thinking, and better sleep, and I believe that the effects are cumulative. Whether this has helped me to be more resilient, I don’t know, but I couldn’t imagine living my life without it.

Every moment we’re alive, we’re being invited to answer the question, “What action are you going to take next?” The most obvious benefit of taking part in a series of directed actions – or what one could call a process – is that we are more likely to move closer to our objective.

The second benefit is that it’s very hard for us to feel that we’re victims when we keep taking conscious actions. There are times we may feel that we have no power, but the one thing that no-one can take away from us is the choice of how to respond. Even if all other power has been removed from us, we still have control over that choice.

A structured sequence of actions may seem like an extremely boring way of doing things, but it has a knack of delivering results … almost as if by magic.

What I like about having them listed on a sheet of paper on my fridge is that there’s no negotiation. Especially when it comes to training, if there isn’t a programme or plan, one can easily create all kinds of reasons to justify why one shouldn’t get onto the bike.

I like that the programme’s daily steps are binary. Either one has done what’s required, or one hasn’t. The power of those daily steps is cumulative. Each increment brings one closer to the objective.

By making each step manageable, we get positive feedback on a daily basis, which reinforces commitment to the process. People who work in the field of motivation recommend having a mental picture of oneself as the complete article. So, if I visualise myself as a Cape Epic finisher it’s easier to follow the actions that will get me there.

But this thing isn’t just about visualisation, or working my way through lists posted on the fridge. There has to be an element of selfishness to the way I allocate my time every week to make sure that I do the training that is required. Plus, if I have to be on the bike early on a Sunday morning I’m not exactly up for a big night of partying on a Saturday. In this respect, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have the buy-in and support of my entire family.

The other key person in the process is my coach, Erica Green. She may not be pedalling the bike, but she is as invested as each of her athletes.

The point is that we’re better off with a network of support around us.

While planning this talk, I’ve had the thought that it might have greater impact if the person standing here were an Olympian, or had national colours. However, that could create a disconnect because of the athlete’s superior capabilities. It could make the achievements seem out of reach.

I’m just a regular person. I didn’t start this with superior physical abilities.

Apart from the proper preparation, the one thing that all endurance activities share is the endurance part. Basically, no matter how tough the going gets, one needs to have the mental power to keep going. Mind over matter is a ‘thing’.

My friend Jonno Proudfoot, who swam from Mozambique to Madagascar, talks about creating a web of accountability, in which you are so committed to key people and sponsors that giving up is just not an option. This is the power of not just making the choice to tackle a challenge, but also telling family and friends about the decision. Once you’ve added sponsors and a support team, there are a LOT of people that you don’t possibly want to let down.

If you are well enough prepared, and pace yourself properly, you’re unlikely to find yourself in the zone where it’s too hard to keep going. However, even with the best preparation, there are days when the conditions are adverse, and you have to dig deep. When this happens, there are just two things to think about:

  • firstly, by maintaining movement you keep getting closer to the finish … in other words, what is the next action I need to take
  • secondly, giving up is not an option

Sometimes you just have to ‘vasbyt’.

Each of us has different dreams at different times in our lives. Putting together a series of directed actions is the magical process that turns dreams to reality … no wands required!

It was through reading to my kids that I discovered Dr Seuss’ wonderful book, Oh The Places You’ll Go. I highly recommend that you go out and get a copy, but I leave you with the first two paragraphs:

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself 
any direction you choose.

(This was a talk I presented in 2018, with update reflecting the third Epic, in 2019)

The Elephant Outside the Room

Oscar Foulkes May 1, 2022 Uncategorized No comments
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There’s something a little bit extravagant, if not indulgent, about room service. Firstly, you have to be staying in a hotel of some luxury, because many hotels just don’t offer it. Secondly, someone has to spend the roughly ten minutes ferrying a specially packed tray or trolley to your room.

In my travelling days, I did occasionally make use of room service. A few occasions stand out. A pot of rich hot chocolate on an icy day, at a hotel in Oslo. A Sunday morning flask of coffee at a hotel in Hong Kong while reading the FT Weekend in bed.

There’s a lot to be said for the convenience of food and drink arriving at your door without you having to get properly dressed before going out in search of it.

I can’t recall the location of eating the inevitable club sandwich, that somewhat ridiculous multi-layered standard of room service menus, but I do remember the oral gymnastics required to eat around the skewer without piercing my lips or impaling my gums.

I’m almost certain that none of my room service experiences took place in a room large enough for me to eat a meal ‘properly’, and this seems one of

the dark secrets of the service. Hotel rooms deliver the minimum amount of space in which to sleep, wash, use the toilet and work. This doesn’t strike me as being the ideal space in which to also eat. Or, to sleep in the same confined space in which we’ve just eaten.

You’d think that this simple fact would be the elephant in the room, and you may not be far wrong.

No, the elephant is in the passage.

Having finished your room service meal, you definitely don’t want to sleep with it. So, the trolley gets wheeled outside, or the tray is dumped on the floor. Guests on their way back to their rooms, having dined in more salubrious surrounds, have to walk past the detritus of these meals.

I’m a big fan of leftovers when they’ve been retrieved from a sealed container in the fridge. Messy room service plates with congealed bit of sauce and pasta do the genre no favours.

What is needed, fellow travellers, is a shroud to cover the tray or trolley when it’s in the passage. We don’t need to be confronted with this horror.

It’s not (just) the legs

Oscar Foulkes April 4, 2022 Uncategorized No comments

Earlier this week, while checking on a colicky weanling at 9.30pm, I found myself in the path of a dozen charging baby racehorses. I’ve spent many hours with these guys, so I had no sense of danger. Not, for example, like the times I’ve encountered Cape Cobras, either on foot or while cycling.

In retrospect, it’s obvious that horses will be disorientated when they’re on the opposite side of a torch. And, in the absence of them wearing head torches, how are they supposed to know what’s in their way?

So, they kept coming straight at me.

The first one struck me with its shoulder. As I fell to the ground, I was hit by another. All I can say with certainty is that no hooves were involved (thankfully!).

Weanlings weigh around 200kg. Substantially more than the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Bakkies Botha or Jonah Lomu, and I really wouldn’t want to be shoulder-charged by any of them. Significantly, weanlings run a lot faster even than Makazole Mapimpi.

It hurt a lot.

My major injuries are to right thumb (badly sprained), ribs and chest on left side, and extensive, deep bruising to glutes/hips/pelvis/sacroiliac region. There are no slow motion replays (obvs), but it’s possible that the second weanling to hit me did so from behind. There are reasons why this is a red card offense on the rugby field.

Whatever the injuries, though, it could have been a lot worse.

Six days later, I ventured back on my bike. I had planned to go off-road, but after the first few turns of the cranks, I knew that a recovery spin on the road was all I was capable of.

There were a few spots where I tackled some singletrack, which brings me to my point in telling this story. The experience was clearly illustrative of how much of the body is involved in this sport that is theoretically based upon power in the legs.

I have previous experience of riding with a sprained wrist (no fun at all). Seeing as all gear changes on a mountain bike involve the right thumb, I was happy to not be on terrain that required frequent gear changes. There is also the small matter of being able to properly grip the handlebars, which does require the full use of both thumbs.

I also felt the lack of power in my glutes when climbing. The largest impact of all, though, was when I needed to engage the flexibility in my hip area to propel myself up little technical bits of trail. It’s a movement I generally do without thinking, but today my body made it abundantly clear that this was not going to be an option.

I have previously described the undertaking of getting up rocky trails as the act of wrestling the bike up the mountainside. Let’s just say that today I couldn’t wrestle a light summer duvet off the bed.

There’s nothing like losing some functionality to be reminded how much of a full-body exercise mountain biking can be!

Emotional Rescue

Oscar Foulkes July 14, 2021 Uncategorized No comments

Events like the Absa Cape Epic have done a great job of positioning the Western Cape as one of the world’s prime mountain biking destinations. We truly are spoilt for choice, with a multitude of trail options within an hour(ish) drive of Cape Town.

For outdoorsy types, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect city than Cape Town. It occupies a long peninsula that has a mountain running down the middle of it. Pick your sea- or land-based activity, and it’s all possible, most of it without much of a drive.

The rest of my family surf, dive, rock climb, walk and run. My activity is mountain biking. Cape Town’s network of trails used to be based upon some of the jeep tracks in the national park, but concerted efforts by persistent people have led to some hiking paths also being opened to mountain bikers.

We share the trails with runners, walkers, and dogs, so courtesy (and bells) are a basic requirement.

So far, so good. Everyone was more-or-less content with what we had. However, doing a loop of the mountain, whether via Noordhoek or Constantia Nek, required a lengthy section on Victoria Road from Camps Bay to Suikerbossie. Seeing as we’re mountain bikers, not roadies, this was not ideal.

Working via ‘someone who knows someone’, Rob Vogel made contact with the owner of the huge tract of quasi-reserve between Camps Bay and Oudekraal. Permission was gained to build a trail, so that we could ride off-road all the way to Llandudno, and so was born The Missing Link.

A bunch of people got involved in fundraising, and Walter Brosius started building. He also built the Belgian Waffle trail on Signal Hill (and others). Sadly, he’s returned to Europe, but the legacy he’s left us, in the form of many kilometres of sublime trails, has earned him the gratitude of Cape Town mountain bikers for many years to come.

Once the Missing Link was completed, it was discovered that the final part of the trail inadvertently traversed SAN Parks land, which turned it into a cul-de-sac for a while. Riding along the same trail both ways is no hardship, because it ‘rides’ differently, but a loop is better.

More money was raised, and Walter continued building. When he left, the team he trained remained, under the guidance of Harry Millar. We now have two return options. About 1.5km into The Missing Link is the Lobotomy DH (it cuts off the front part – geddit?), exiting on Ottowa Road. Another return loop starts beyond the Twelve Apostles Hotel, linking up with Lobotomy.

The entire loop, from Theresa Avenue, to Ottowa, is something like 11km of rugged singletrack overlooking the ocean. The setting is nothing short of magnificent, particularly for late afternoon sundowner rides.

The trail opened during the 2020 Lockdown, when other parts of the mountain were closed. For this reason, as well as the novelty factor, there was a lot of traffic to start. Now it’s a lot less busy, but that may be more a product of the trail having got harder to ride as small rocks have become exposed.

Actual trail building was done, but it was more a case of threading the trail through or around the worst obstacles than imposing a sculpted path onto the topography. It’s pretty close to natural, complete with some rock-strewn sections. All of it is rideable, and there’s nothing I would class as scary (i.e. crazy steep descents or drops). The parts one might call technical are the rocky inclines. These are best ridden in a gear that allows some torque (leading me to label one of my rides on Strava as “Torque, torque. All you do to me is torque, torque”).

The most appropriate song for the trail, though, is Emotional Rescue. While it’s obviously a physical experience riding it – and it’s certainly challenging – it is an experience that feeds my soul. It’s a special kind of rescue, and yes, there are some stones involved.

(There are several Missing Link videos on  YouTube. The one above isn’t the slickest production, but it does a pretty good job of illustrating the terrain and the landscape – and it has footage of a little crash.)

You can use the Table Mountain Bikers Snapscan code to contribute to trail maintenance.

This Little Piggy

Oscar Foulkes June 4, 2019 Uncategorized No comments

Masterchef has many opportunities for drinking games. For example, when a contestant describes produce as “beautiful”, or when a dish is “me on a plate”. Then there is the old stand-by, “my food dream”. Every time these phrases are used, it’s time to drink.

I can’t say that I have a “food dream”. I cook because I love eating. Deliciousness rules my life (hence the name of this blog), whether it’s food or drink.

I regularly give loaves of my homebaked sourdough bread to friends, but I have less than no desire to open a bakery (a case of ‘zero dreams given’?).

And yet.

David Gelb’s brilliant series Chef’s Table and Street Food tease out the chefs’ stories. The food looks beautiful, but it’s more about the artist than the pieces of art (although there are times I’ve wished I could instantly teleport myself into their dining rooms).

Especially while watching Street Food, I could feel my insides swelling with a feeling of needing to express something. This also happens to me when I am driven to writing. I write to communicate, but I also write because there are things I need to express. The process of writing gives me pleasure.

I’m not going to open a bakery. For the same reason, I’m not going to open a restaurant.

But, there are other ways around this.

Pork belly, I’ve learnt, is a dish that can successfully be pre-cooked, and warmed up after spending some time in the fridge. Most importantly, I’ve done it WITHOUT LOSING THE CRACKLE.

Of all the animal proteins, pork is possibly the least well-supplied when it comes to being ethically pasture-reared. After much searching, I have finally found a farmer who will supply me with what I need.

As of this week, I therefore bring you This Little Piggy, with the headline offering of Slow-Roasted Pork Belly (complete with crackling, of course). It’s available to order only, with a minimum of two portions (at R160 for two portions).

Online orders are via the widget on this page. You can also drop me an email or whizz me a WhatsApp (083 297 3402). You can also order via Dish Food & Social (here). Collection is in Oranjezicht.

If your “food dream” is to be able to almost effortlessly serve delicious dinner to your family or guests, I’ve got you covered.

(Alongside, thanks to Pinterest, are some pork belly dishes you can easily knock together with pre-cooked pork belly. There are loads more on The Little Piggy Facebook page.

Use This Little Piggy’s slow-roasted pork belly to present a cutting edge plate like this, simply by adding the vegetables.

Use This Little Piggy’s slow-roasted pork belly to serve pork belly ramen.

Some People vs Most People

Oscar Foulkes October 23, 2018 Cape Epic, Uncategorized No comments

I have sat through many extremely dull and unnecessary race briefings during mountain biking stage races. As farm manager Rickus Jooste put it while doing duty during The U, the fit and skilled riders will say afterwards, “What were you talking about, that was easy.” The unfit and unskilled will say, “Jeez, they didn’t say it would be this difficult.”

But, it helps to know – basically – what to expect. In his dry, understated way, Rickus prefaced his route briefing by putting up a slide of a bell-shaped curve, recording the previous year’s results. The fastest and slowest riders were annotated “some people”, sandwiching the main part of the curve, which was labelled “most people”. Along with a few other dry-as-Swartland-in-summer comments, it quickly descended into the funniest race briefing I’ve ever attended.

He repeated the humour on the second night when using dance/music videos to illustrate the need for “rhythm and flow”. The all hips and generally loose bodies in Uptown Funk were juxtaposed with a wooden Theresa May doing her wooden best to sashay onto the stage to strains of Dancing Queen.

The some/most people comparison could equally be applied to pretty much the entire event.

It’s the kind of outlier experience that one hesitates telling others about, because you don’t want to put pressure on the 200 available slots for the following year’s event. However, when as much thoughtful attention to detail has gone into the planning and execution, it is only right to heap praise. They deserve nothing less than deep and profuse expressions of gratitude.

It was striking how much more peaceful the event was with just 200 riders, as opposed to the 1200+ of Wines2Whales or Cape Epic. There was no sense that we were in the middle of a hyped-up jamboree. This was about great trails, a stunning setting beside the dam, country hospitality, and the fellowship of keen mountain bikers. The closest one can get to the same experience is by doing the Imana Wild Ride.

There are very few parts of The U that follow jeep tracks or farm roads. This is all about trails that have been finessed through the fynbos. Of course it took a lot of work, but it’s generally a case of accommodating rocks and protea bushes, or finding a way uphill that doesn’t involve going straight over the top. There’s a lot of twisting and turning, and at times it almost felt as if the trail had been routed to specially traverse flat rock outcrops, of which there are many.

One has to concentrate all the time, watching for rocks in the trail, or the ones adjacent that could snag either pedals or handlebars. Some turns or passages are extremely tight.

With all these mini obstacles, one is often required to apply a little extra power. Also, due to corners sometimes being taken a little slower than usual, extra power is required when exiting. The Piket-Bo-Berg (PBB) trails also have more switchbacks than any other route I’ve ridden – getting up and around the tight, steep turns is also power hungry. As a result, a large number of riders (myself included) cramped on day one, and I was in danger of cramping for much of day two.


Liberal use has been made of bridges that keep the trail flowing across parts of the mountain where there is no trail.

Due to the technical terrain of the PBB trails, downhills are seldom free miles, but man oh man, are they fun to ride!

I don’t want to scare people off, because it’s all rideable (by “most people”), but there might have been more technical stuff in the two days of The U than in all the stages of the two Epics I’ve ridden. There are certainly more switchbacks.

I’ve never been a confident rider of downhill switchbacks. Eventually I was riding pretty much all of them. What helped was having secure berms on the outsides, in just another example of sensational trail building at work. I’m hoping my switchback riding has turned the corner (I promise I didn’t mean that as a pun).

This is not quick riding – if we rode Epic at the same pace we rode The U (and we were “most people”) we would be in danger of not making cut-off.

The landscapes we rode through – and viewed from afar, generally up high – are spectacular. Given that the PBB trails can only be ridden during an organised event, of which there are just two per year, one must grab those opportunities when they come along.

I need to make mention of the catering, which falls into the “some events” category. The lunches were in the style of Ottolenghi – mostly vegetarian, with loads of fresh, crunchy things – which might not have been to the taste of “most people”, but I loved it. Dinners were tasty, if somewhat under-catered from a quantity perspective, especially considering how many calories we were burning on the trails. Breakfasts were fine, although curiously lacking in butter for the bread.

The orange juice station involved two fruit bins of oranges from the farm plonked next to the juicer. Can’t get fresher than this!

Truth Coffee did a roaring trade, as well as CBC beers, the delicious Piekenierskloof wines and the Sugarbird gin. Pura’s “adult sodas” were handed out as we crossed the finishing line.

Race medals comprised little handmade wire bicycles. The organisers’ attention to detail showed in the bike boards on these miniatures being printed with the actual number of the rider receiving them.

Back to real bikes (of the carbon variety) – our Santa Cruz Blurs performed very well. I got pushed beyond my comfort zone a few times, but that was more about what was happening in my head. I had more than enough bike for the job. While the Blur might have been pitched as a marathon bike when it was launched, it is so much more than that.

I urge you to work your way through Chris Hitchcock’s event pictures on the PBB trails Facebook page.

These are “some trails”.

The Stuff of Motoring Legend

Oscar Foulkes October 10, 2018 Uncategorized No comments

If I had a workshop attached to a motor dealership I’d do the same. It should be relatively easy to sell a new vehicle to someone who has done 100,000km. One would think that at 200,000km it’s a slam-dunk, and at 300,000km, well, it should make taking candy from kids look difficult.

My Totoya Fortuner has clocked up 325,000km. I get those calls.

For the sake of brevity I’ll skip the pleasantries, which always involve the sales person asking me if I have a cold. Even without me dropping cancer into the conversation, she is left speechless for a bit when I tell her that this is my voice.

It doesn’t take long for her to come back at me, though: “Would you like to upgrade your Fortuner, Mr Foulkes?”

At this point, I feel like AB de Villiers with his eye in, the part-time bowler has dropped one short, and the ball is sitting up beautifully, preparing to be launched into row 20 behind the mid-wicket boundary.

“But I already have the most upgraded Fortuner.”

Then she starts fumbling through her notes, throwing features of the newest models at me, eventually moving to exit the conversation as elegantly as possible.

Before I get onto my rationale for my car being as upgraded as claimed, here’s my view on how to conduct this conversation. Begin by congratulating me on having a vehicle that has covered this many kilometres, which might also lead into chatter about the big trips and memorable family holidays. Perhaps also praise me on keeping a pristine service record. At this point it might be appropriate to guide the conversation in the direction of a new Toyota. After all, the record with my vehicle has proven the reliability and longevity of the brand. OK, maybe not quite as easy as AB slapping long hops to the boundary, but the bit of verbal footwork improves the chances of success.

Right, so how is my ten-year-old Fortuner, that has done the equivalent of eight circumnavigations of Earth, the upgraded version?

For starters, it is paid off. I owe nothing on it. A vehicle that has no corresponding debt has to be an upgrade on one that is encumbered.

Secondly, this is a vehicle with epic history (as befitting its mileage). It’s the stuff of legend. It’s been involved in the creation of many memories, with road trips to Namibia and Lesotho, not to mention the breadth and width of South Africa. It’s done five Tankwa trips for Afrikaburn, countless family holidays, and general running around the Western Cape.

Yes, there was also the time I got stuck on the N1 in Paarl when the alternator gave in, but that was at about 270,000km. One has to expect these things to happen eventually.

My Fortuner gets upgraded every time I put my (sponsored) Santa Cruz Blur on the bike rack, because the bike is worth much more than the car. I couldn’t claim the same if I switched to a brand new model.

I will, eventually, be forced to update my wheels. Hell, the sound system is so old it doesn’t even have a slot for an AUX cable, leading to much incredulity on the part of my young nephews. The vehicle will reach the point where a set of new tyres will be a significant portion of the its value.

Until then, I’ll be on standby for the six-monthly phone calls from the sales person.

With a brace of Santa Cruz on the bike rack, which seriously upgrades the value.

A not so Uber rating

Oscar Foulkes May 21, 2018 Uncategorized No comments

Have you ever checked your Uber rating?

I did, a few months ago, and was a little put out to discover that Uber drivers considered me no better a customer than 4.5 stars (out of 5). A variety of distributions are possible, but this suggests that half the drivers gave me 4, and the other half the maximum possible.

I’m not the most chatty person (in fact, my voice issues often inhibit me from speaking unless it’s absolutely necessary), so I’m not one to initiate a conversation with drivers. However, I’ve never been abusive, nor have I done anything as extreme as vomiting in an Uber. Basically, I’m your standard low-maintenance customer … up until the point when the service provider is falling short. For the most part, Uber drivers do what they are required to, so I’m seldom going to put myself in the cross hairs for a low rating by getting tetchy about bad driving.

My view is that I’m contracting the driver to ferry me across town, I’m pleasant about it, and I pay what I’m required to. In what way have I been so deficient as a customer to earn a less than perfect rating?

When I first aired my ire about this at home, it was pointed out to me that in a country where a matric pass requires just 40% for three subjects and 30% for three others, the driver must think I’m a rock star if he’s rating me 4 (i.e. 80%).

For several months, I’ve been making a special effort to be uber-friendly when getting into the car, and generally bringing a glow of good cheer into the driver’s life. My rating inched up from 4.50 to 4.51 and then 4.52. I got it to 4.54, after which it summarily dropped to 4.52 and then 4.50. WTF?

As a customer, I treat it as something of a binary issue. Either the driver has delivered a service, or he hasn’t. Almost every time, I give drivers a full five stars.

Uber has made taxis cheap, cheaper even than the Hong Kong taxis I used on regular trips between 2003 and 2009. This, we are told, is at the expense of drivers, who are forced to work insanely long hours to make enough money to get by. It’s another version of the sweatshop, although in this case, we are not conceptually removed from the sweatshop, in the same sense as buying clothes in a branded store. In fact, the rank body odour of some drivers – especially ones who have been on shift for an extended time – can turn an Uber ride into a fully-immersive sweatshop experience.

Especially for immigrants (and my guess is that the majority of Cape Town Ubers are driven by people from other African countries), working as an Uber driver is entry-level employment. In this respect, it’s no different to conventional taxis around the world. I’ve been driven by a Ghanaian in Dusseldorf, by a Lebanese in Montreal (click here to read about my shawarma and falafel experience, thanks to him), and by countless other nationalities elsewhere.

Given their marginalised place in the economy, perhaps it’s understandable that they would be less charitable in the giving of star ratings. Certainly, it seems to be apparent that, as a whole, drivers have higher ratings than their passengers.

There’s another side to this, which is that by definition the Uber workplace has no co-workers with whom to communicate during the course of a working day. All that the drivers have for company is an endless succession of transactions – people sitting themselves down in a back seat, barely looking up from their phones, making hardly any contact other than establishing that this is the correct vehicle.

Unless they are particularly grumpy individuals, one assumes that Uber drivers would appreciate a little human warmth, if only for a few minutes at a time.

Companies are always telling us how much they value our custom. However, it’s never occurred to me to establish from their staff how satisfied they were with having me as a customer, on the basis of personal interaction. If I’ve never given any thought to a notional star rating from other commercial interactions, why should I suddenly be bothered by an apparently low level of appreciation from Uber drivers?

If I were the most charming, warm and engaging person to ever use an Uber, perhaps my rating would remain to fall short of the perfect score. Maybe that phenomenon is hard-baked into the system.

However, the world could certainly do with more of us being ‘nice’ to each other, even when it’s not required, nor of immediate benefit to us. Perhaps we set the bar too low when are the customer.

Who would have thought that a technology company that has tried to make the hailing of taxis frictionless by removing/minimising human contact could have made me aware of how much effort I was putting into being nice to strangers?

Common sense from an Uber driver (although if he had been my driver for the majority of my rides, my rating would have been much higher).

Like a bat out of hell

Oscar Foulkes April 23, 2018 Uncategorized No comments

I recently realised that Meat Loaf gets hardly any airtime on radio. Well, not the broader range of his epic, almost operatic, balls-to-the-wall rock marathons. I suppose the issue is that they are ‘marathons’ and not neat little numbers that fit into three minutes with a couple of repeats of the chorus. In the spirit of research I did a 150-minute ride while streaming his music, and ever since then I can’t get the raise-the-dead chorus of Bat Out Of Hell out of my head.

Since Thursday last week my brain has been similarly active, getting to grips with the experience of riding the Santa Cruz Blur. When I took delivery of the Tallboy in December, I knew that a top secret, super-light marathon bike was on its way. The timing didn’t quite work out for us to ride Cape Epic on Blur, but I’m pleased I had that time to bond even more closely with the Tallboy.

I felt extremely conflicted to hand it over in anticipation of the Blur taking its place, because, well, Tallboy. That bike just takes whatever you throw at it in its stride (assuming that a bike could have a stride, of course).

While waiting for the Blur to arrive, I was back on Yeti for a couple of weeks, which gave me a gradual transition. The Yeti is a bit lighter than Tallboy, and the Blur is lighter still, weighing under 10kg.

It might be an exaggeration to say that Newton’s Second Law rules my life, but not by much. The weight carried by racehorses (i.e. jockey plus saddle and any lead added to get up to the weight the horse has been allocated to carry) has a measurable drag effect. Over 1600m this equates to 2 lbs per length (approximately 8 foot), which gets scaled in either direction. So, the drag effect over 1200m is 3 lbs per length, and 3200m is 1 lb per length. Weight also enters the equation via weight-for-age (WFA), whereby horses of different age are allocated different weights to make up for the difference in maturity (younger horses carry less weight).

Similarly, a lighter bicycle enables you to go faster while expending the same effort, or to take it a little easier and still ride at the same pace. So, my post-Epic rides on Yeti delivered a bunch of new PRs on sections that were flat or uphill. I wasn’t necessarily a slow coach on the descents, but I had to think about it a lot more than when riding Tallboy.

Then I rode the Blur. I purposely rode the same routes as I’d ridden with the Yeti. The times improved again, and not by marginal degrees. By a lot. I smashed my remaining 2015 PRs, from when I had close to 100% of my breathing capacity (and I was still in my 40s).

If this seems like vanity, please forgive me, but there is another angle to this. I could be taking advantage of the bike’s lightness to save effort. Making climbs easier is the reason why people ride ebikes. The Blur effect might be low on the scale of percentage power provided by an ebike, but up to a point it does the same job.

Riding the Blur, compared with the other bikes I’ve ridden, is like putting your car into Sport mode. It’s just so responsive to even gentle turns of the crank. And, of course, if you put the hammer down it flies. When you feel you want to take a little break on a climb, the bike’s lightness enables you to expend less energy getting to the top.

That it’s lighter and faster is measurable. The rest of what follows is my experience/opinion. I’m not a pro rider, so bear that in mind when reading my comments on the experience of riding the Blur.

If you’ve ever sat on a racehorse in full training (i.e. fit and geed up) you’d have some sense of the feeling that absolutely anything can happen at a moment’s notice. Plus, looking down on the horse’s muscular neck between the reins accords with the sleekness of the Blur’s design.

Following on the experience of bonding very closely with Tallboy, it’s not unexpected that I’d be looking at the Blur’s descending capabilities first. Coming from a stable that has downhill in its DNA, I knew it would be there.

Thus far, I haven’t ridden really sketchy trails, but on everything I’ve done thus far, it’s been quick on downhills as well. The difference is that I found myself being more conscious of using body weight to keep everything under control. It’s definitely a more cerebral experience, in the sense of me having to think more about what I’m doing.

Which brings me to the tyres. The standard kit for Blur is 2.25 inch tyres. I’m a big fan of riding 2.35, because one can ride them softer. It took me a little while to get in tune with the rhythm of riding the Blur (i.e. for my body to adapt to the point of being able to subconsciously anticipate how the bike is going to respond to the trail). Now I just want more of it.

I started off questioning Santa Cruz’s choice of 2.25 over 2.35, because I think the wider tyres ridden at lower pressure will give a better ride. However, the 2.25s give more than enough traction, and one does get used to the slight bit of extra bounce of the harder tyres on rocky sections (I think I’m still going to change the tyres, though).

I love how responsive the bike is to small shifts in body weight, especially on twisty-turny trails.

The Blur’s single lock-out for both shocks works well, leaving the bike pretty much as rigid as a hardtail, for times when one is out of the saddle.

I’ve done a bit of comparing of Tallboy and Blur, which isn’t entirely fair, because they are built for slightly different purposes. They are both great bikes, it just depends what kind of riding you want to do. Which is not to say that there isn’t crossover – we had a great Epic on Tallboys, and there will be plenty of casual trail riders picking the Blur because it’s easier to ride up hills.

The Blur experience is more racehorse than rock music, but it goes like a bat out of hell.

Blur comes in matt black, and this fetching tomato red (pic: Forrest Arakawa)

Blur comes in matt black, and this fetching tomato red (pic: Forrest Arakawa)

On a racehorse, anything can happen, or in this case a Thoroughbred stallion. This was me in my early 20s (the mountains in the background were part of the 2018 Epic route).

On a racehorse, anything can happen, or in this case a Thoroughbred stallion. This was me in my early 20s (the mountains in the background were part of the 2018 Epic route).


Sharing the Road

Oscar Foulkes August 27, 2017 Uncategorized 1 comment

We need to talk about bikes, specifically when they share the road with motor vehicles. I have to put it on the table, right up front, that not all riders are shining lights of responsible road use. I see far too many cyclists riding two or three abreast. For those same riders to then get aggressive with motorists that point out their transgression is beyond the pale.

It’s a subject that comes up on talk radio from time to time, which generally airs strong views at the extremes of the debate. In my view, it’s part of a much bigger issue, relating to the non-defensive and often negligent way in which many people operate their motor vehicles.

Road ‘accidents’ are rightly referred to as crashes by road management authorities. To call them accidents would be to absolve drivers of any responsibility for the actions that led to the incidents, when we know that error, negligence or outright criminality is the cause of the majority of crashes.

While cycling, I have twice been struck by cars. The first, on 16 March 2002, was a car driven by a young woman who had been out partying all night. She shouldn’t have been driving. I was hit from behind, and was extremely lucky to walk away from the scene. Ironically, I was on my way to ride on the mountain to get away from cars.

I avoided riding on the road since then. However, training for marathon mountain biking races does require time on the road as well, so Cape Epic training has lured me back onto the road.

The route for yesterday’s road ride necessitated getting through the Salt River-Woodstock precinct, for which there is a handy bike lane along Albert Road. As you can see from the picture alongside, the City has attempted to give it maximum visibility. However, it seems that the green paint is simply an invitation for the space to be invaded by cars, car guards and other parts of the Saturday morning ecosystem around The Biscuit Mill.

I dodged all sorts as I led through this section, riding as defensively and proactively as possible. However, I had no way of knowing that a car approaching from behind was about to turn left across the bike lane, wiping me out in the process. Once again, I was very lucky to get away from this with nothing more serious than roasties, bruises, and a scuffed saddle. Yes, there is a certain amount of irony to getting taken out in a bike lane.

The thing is that, over the course of three hours, we experienced several incidences of careless driving that could have caused us harm if we’d been in the wrong place at the right time (or is that the right place at the wrong time?). The final infraction resulted in my riding partner riding to catch up with the vehicle, so that he could express his feelings on the driver’s lack of road awareness (there was, admittedly, some shouting involved).

Bicycles don’t belong on all roads, but is it too much to ask motorists to take extra care when there is a clearly demarcated bike lane adjacent to the road?

My experience along the Atlantic seaboard stretch to Hout Bay is that motorists generally give the multitude of recreational riders a safe berth. On Chapman’s Peak, the tolerance is even greater, perhaps because it’s a sightseeing route, so drivers are more patient.

I’ll continue to cycle responsibly/defensively, and ask other cyclists to do the same.

To drivers, no matter how great your frustration, I ask you to bear in mind that every person on a bicycle is more vulnerable than you. If there is a rock-paper-scissors of road use, surely vulnerability trumps all other considerations?

The bike lane in Salt River (Pic: Abbas Harris)

The bike lane in Salt River (Pic: Abbas Harris)