Paul Ingpen draws on nearly three decades of riding the Double Century to deliver hard-earned wisdom that could save your butt, your ego and your team friendships over 200 watt-sapping kilometres.
Most riders who enter the Old Mutual Wealth Double Century have never ridden 200km, or if they have, it’s only once a year at this race. Experienced and super-fit riders finish in sub-6 hours, most take 8 hours – and some ride for as long as 10 hours to finish this wind-blown, hot, hilly tour of the Klein Karoo that includes some 2 000m of climbing.
For many, the dark lords of bonking and cramping hover over their shoulders – and at some point in the long, hard day they’ll hit the wall or succumb to cramp’s hideously painful clutches. Bonking or cramping happen when you make your body do something it is not conditioned for, and are made worse by poor nutrition and hydration – and because 200km is a rare distance for most participants, they often don’t have the conditioning or a dialled-in six- to 10-hour eating and drinking plan. When cramp happens, or you simply bonk, it’s hard
to come back. That means you drop your teammates and either hop into the sweep wagon or ride home alone in serious discomfort. You really don’t want to end the most beautiful day out on your bike with friends like that.
I’ve been riding the DC since the 1990s. Back then we didn’t use heart rate monitors and scientific training, or have advanced hydration or sports nutrition. There were no support
services, limited feed stations and no other races in which to practice riding with teams. We raced with no neutral stops nor respect for the distance, so we simply suffered – and all those who made the finish, almost never with the teammates they started with, limped over the line encrusted with salt and broken. It’s taken nearly 30 years and almost as many DC finishes to earn some hard-earned wisdom which I’d like to pass on to you.
1. Start in a team where you have a good sense of everyone’s capabilities and a mutually
A goal time and number of riders over the line together needs to be clear before you roll out of Swellendam. Do not plan to meet at the start to discuss strategy, let the captain dictate it, or let the strategy unfold as the race goes on. You will not finish as friends.
2. Plan your nutrition and hydration.
One bottle per hour means you most likely need to refill at the top of Op de Tradouw, 65km in, if you don’t have a seconding team on the route. Unless you plan to stop at what can be crowded drink stations every hour/90min, or ride with more than two bottles or a backpack
(which isn’t ideal given all the steep climbing to that point), you won’t carry enough fluid to last to the first neutral stop in Ashton. If you have protein, carbs or electrolyte preferences, pack a cooler box and leave it in your support vehicle to access at both neutral stop points.
TIP: Work out what your body likes and don’t try new magic recipes. Prehydration beats rehydration.
3. Service your bike and don’t try anything new on race day.
This goes for any race, but when your team has to pay the price of waiting ages on the hot roadside fixing chains and spokes while others cruise by, or they have to push you up climbs they can barely manage themselves because your derailleur seized, they will most likely despise you more than you will yourself.
4. Carry enough spares
Make sure there are adequate tubes, bombs with working adaptors, and chain links between
your team members before you get to Swellendam on Friday. A few spare wheels, bottle cages, pedals and cables are ideal to have in your support vehicle. Trying to borrow spares from other teams will make you feel worse than a beggar at the traffic lights and leave you riding the final climbs in the worst of the heat or wind.
5. Test ride your custom-made team kit before race day
If you’ve ever raced in a badly fitted, under- or oversized cycling kit, you’ll know what chafe feels like. Double that distance and you’re bleeding, with salt finding its way into open wounds. Many custom kit manufacturers offer ‘race’ fits – that doesn’t mean it’s for racing, it
means it’s designed for Froome-like T-Rex racing builds, all legs and no upper body.
Order a size up at least or make sure you order standard fit and give it a wash and wear before you line up at dawn unable to breathe or screaming for ass magic.
6. Let your team’s voted captain control your average speed, stops and individual rotations
Communicate with your trusted leader – you can’t hide a bad day for 200km. Accept help or a break in coming to the front. Your captain’s job is to listen to each of you and read group dynamics, then either stick to or tweak your plans as the day unfolds. If they decide that a
mechanical or human breakdown is too severe to wait, then it’s their call only.
7. Ignore other groups
This is hard, very hard – but it’s also illegal if you don’t in this team time trial format. Given
standard road racing practice, which is to hang onto bunches as long as possible, it’s beyond tempting to jump onto a passing group and score some free speed. The problem is that
it takes real effort to do that, and if the passing group’s average speed is too high or they tend to surge, your weaker riders will suffer quietly while burning matches and not make it far
past Bonnievale without a painful push. It’s your team day out and you want an honest time and happy riders – so let other groups go.
8. Learn, decide on and and practice echelon formations
2 x 2 x 2 is more social than 1-1-1-1-1-1 for 6 to 10 hours, plus you get side-wind protection without spreading dangerously across the road. If you are trying to win and your team includes sadomasochists who prefer to suffer in silence, then ride single file, but know you’re likely to shelve.
9. The first 2km tells a story
The short but steep climb out of the sleepy town of Swellendam at dawn often dictates the day. Those with bike tech issues caused by transport or lastminute tinkering tend to squeal early. If it’s real admin, turn back to where support is available, but decide to do it as a group
or leave the soldier behind to fight another day. There will be posers in your team who want to show how fit they are – rein them in fast and let the slowest climber set the tone for the day. Anyone who rolls their eyes or makes snide comments will become a cancer as the day progresses – take control captain!
10. The long flat fast sections are key
If a fast finishing time is what you desire, especially with all riders together, team work here will deliver an optimal overall time. However, while those smooth, straight roads are great for
making up easy paced climbing time, they can be fatal. Bigger riders have greater power so let them roll upfront, always at talking pace, but be sure to keep tabs on back markers loving the tow but possibly being burned. Beware the long fast section to Suurbraak, its early and spirits are high – damage here can’t be undone later.
11. Downhills are not fun for everyone
We all enjoy gravity when it pays us back for a legsapping climb, but not everyone
has the bike control to descend fast and you can easily drop a rider here who then has an even rougher time catching up. Ideally, like on the climbs, the slower descenders should set the pace. Freewheel to when pedalling becomes necessary again and then regroup and start
working together as a team again.
Most crashes happen on descents. Watch out for mid Tradouw Pass and the two drops after the drink station at Op de Tradouw. A tip for nervous descenders – find the midway balance point with your feet level, grip the bars gently like a small child’s hand and softly squeeze your top tube with your knees. Don’t wait too long to brake gently, but if you can resist brakes, rather sit upright to let the air slow you down.
12. Choose a puncture repair squad
Everyone knows how to repair a blown tube or tyre but many are hopelessly out of practice,
usually relying on others. This process can either be quick and painless or a greasy and retarded affair that sets off bad tempers. Let those who know how fix it properly and buy them a beer afterwards. Tips for avoiding punctures: communicate glass or cat’s eyes on the
road, avoid pre-race rides on industrial roads and check your tyres are in good condition. Also, after removing the tube, always check that the thorn, glass or whatever has been removed and that rim tape is secure – or the repair won’t last, and neither will your friendship.
13. Pick your seconding team carefully and reward them well
It’s not fun driving all day to see your riders for an hour. These angels can make or break your big day out. How they react to your strained emotions, how they unpack and display your team’s coolers, keep ice frozen, whether they offer a shoulder or calf rub, and if they help you get back to your hotel – it will all depend on who they are and how you make them feel.
Be lekker to them.
14. Use your Ashton stop wisely
The clock stops and your start time is based on the first five riders into the official rider
support station. Allow the stragglers to catch up properly with sunscreen and bum butter application, bottle refills, a proper feed, a loo break, sunglasses clean and some off-bike stretches, ideally in the shade. This luxury was started in more recent years and can make the world of difference to anyone who’s already hurting after a little more than half way. Keep an eye on the clock and your support vehicle parking spot consequential number captain.
15. Beware the second stop
In more recent years a second support-vehicle stop has been created. This is a godsend when you’re falling apart at 160km after a tough rolling stretch and are about to enter the gates of hell.
But, how often do you stop more than once for coffee on a training ride? We’re not used to that at all… When you try to stand up and remount your bike after a 10-minute ice bath or cat nap, it can be like firewalking – possible but horrible.
I suggest a bottle refill, sun and bum cream, pockets loaded and head out of Dodge before your body thinks it’s couch and rugby time as usual. Otherwise lactic acid becomes a given and your final 40km grind over the Three Stooges could be your worst bad dream.
16. The Three Stooges
These my friends are what make or break your DC. Arrive at 160km in a happy state and work together to get home for beers, smiles and war stories. Each climb that would normally be a cruise can feel longer and steeper as you limp home in the no-go zone that you most likely haven’t practiced since at least a year ago. To add insult to injury, that stretch is often very hot or into a headwind. Stronger riders now need to provide the hand of god to strugglers –
but without disrupting cadence, so push gently and consistently. Or let them grab your pocket if they prefer, and stay together over the top of each climb.
17. Start slow, finish strong
Risk this conservative strategy and your team is likely to end up crawling to the finish line – the final 40km will seem an eternity and the final climb will feel like Everest. However, treat the race, your teammates and other teams with respect, and you are in for the most scenic
and rewarding ride of your life. Either way, finish in a line, making sure you don’t crash, and fake it if you can’t smile – you will cherish that finish line photo for years to come.
18. Eat salty foods in the second half
Chances are strong that sodium-depleted riders will crave fatty snacks like biltong, cheese,
chips, etc, rather than another sweet gel or sports drink. Pack sodium-rich electrolyte drinks and your snack box accordingly. Don’t be shy to give your body what it wants. Energy in = energy out.
19. Cramp stop – myth or truth?
I always believed that cramp was punishment for those who didn’t train or hydrate, but it does seem that some cramp more easily than others. I certainly never believed that cramp could be solved by a soothsayerlike remedy until the first time I seized up with mice crawling under my skin and involuntary breakdancing contractions.
A Coke with bubbling Enos was thrust into my face by an old timer who wanted me to finish. Before I had got my bike to the back of the bakkie to load it and quit, a calm, soothing peace washed over me. I was miraculously able to hop and ride away with the team. Apparently it’s about neutralising stomach acid, so pack a cramp-stop gel, Rennies, Alka-Seltzer or similar – it could save your day.
20. Don’t drive home until Sunday unless you have to
Nothing beats a swim, shower, sleep, dinner and dance with mates, sharing tales of the long day and celebrating team work. It’s a long drive back to Cape Town or the airport and you will be sleep deprived and sore. Indulge yourself – you earned that medal, podium pic and cold beer!