Monday, November 1, 2010

Groups rush in where angels fear to tread

Our only female rider
It was 8.15 when I stopped at the Engen Garage in Plattekloof to join a couple of guys for our next road trip. Geoff, the Leader of our Pack, did a quick welcome and gave a brief rundown of our itinerary, what we can expect, the do’s and don’ts and last but not least…telling us to have fun. There were sixteen bikes, mostly F800's and some of their big brothers. As usual everyone introduced themselves knowing that they will never remember all the names in any case, and of course making small talk. Usually the small talk involves motorbikes and the latest gadgets. You have to be careful what you say, because you might not know who you are talking to. When I told Andrew*, a gentleman in his late 40's, that one of the bikes looks as if it had never seen a dirt road before, he said: "Yes, that's mine, I just bought it yesterday". With only 70 km on the clock, he was about to do his first gravel road trip to Piketberg. That gave me some hope, I wasn't the most inexperienced rider in the group. When the only female rider (let's call her Veronica) pulled up, I knew that I cannot feel better either because I have seen women ride bikes like I can only dream of and it would be totally unwise to consider any female rider as "less experienced" than myself.

My only "gadget", in amber
I am always amazed when looking at other people's bikes, especially when noticing the gadgets. This one has replaced his brake levers with two-finger levers, the other one has handle bar risers, some guys change their exhausts, their seats, everything you can think of. I always wonder why they don't sell bikes in parts, then everyone can put together his or her bike the way they prefer. I also noticed that I was about the only one without crash bars. Compared to what these guys have I can confidently call myself a "naked rider"...if there is such a thing in biking circles. Mind you, considering the prices of these accessories, I would probably remain a "naked rider" for the rest of my life.

Arriving for the first "roll call"
After Geoff assured us that he will stop and warn us when the road becomes too sandy, we mounted our fired-up engines and hit the road to Piketberg. I left my nice camera at home knowing that these guys don't stop for pictures. Armed with my small point-and-shoot I was hoping to take a few snaps in the ride, but what was soon to follow made me realize that this was nothing but wishful thinking. It was only at the Slent Pad (Slent Road) where we hit the first gravel road that I have never been on before. It was actually a good thing that this was the case, because I would not have gone on this trip had I known what was lying ahead. I don't know Geoff's definition of "too sandy", but for me it felt like we were riding on the beach. Geoff never stopped to warn us here and never after this either. At this point I was about 9th in line, and my only consolation was that if the 8 riders in front, including Veronica, could stay on their bikes, then why should I be any different? A few kilometers down the road emerging from the dust I saw a couple of bikes had pulled off. I also stopped, relieved that I could get my feet on stable ground again. It was Gustav* who decided that he is going to let out some air from his tyres to see if he could have better control over his bike's floating feeling. Boy, what was I supposed to do if Gustav cannot handle his bike in these conditions? At this point Andrew also caught up and I used the opportunity to ask him how he was doing. "What?", he said in disbelief, "I actually pulled off because I thought I had a flat front tyre!" OK, I was not the only one riding on "jelly" and not alone in this either, which made me feel a bit better. Some of us got on our bikes again and rode on to meet the other guys who were waiting at the end of this gravel section.

Gustav* letting out air
From the end of the Slent Pad we were on tar on our way to Wellington. Before Wellington we turned off towards Malmesbury. Not much further on we hit another gravel road. This is basically where I lost all my sense of direction and location. It was farm roads and more farm roads. I had no idea where we were, I was just following the dust through the farms like the Israelites were following the cloud through the desert. Let me tell you about the dust. Geoff mentioned that the strong wind that was expected might be good as it blows the dust from the road. What Geoff did not mention was that most of the road would be directly in line with the wind, leaving us smack bang in the middle of the dust cloud. In my rear view mirror all I could see from time to time was another orange light. This amber light works perfect in these conditions, one of the few "extra" gadgets I have on my bike. I put it on some time ago, even though at that point I only thought it looked cool. Now I am that glad I did. In front of me I could see pretty much NOTHING. It was just dust. Not only is this very unpleasant when you inhale particles instead of air, but you cannot see oncoming traffic, the guy in front of you, potholes on the ground or farm animals who also believe (like many of us) that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Fortunately there weren't any disilusioned cows on the road. I think some animals actually got nervous by what looked like a sand storm scene from The Mummy, fast approaching and accompanied by a lot of noise. . I was concentrating too hard on my own predicament to worry about some soon to be tough braai meat hitting the shelves in a couple of month's time. For obvious reasons I could not take any pictures of the dust while riding, but my other pictures will certainly prove that besides the dust it was an awesome day nonetheless.

Entering the sleepy town of Gouda
Better than GPS at times

The plan was to have lunch at the Piketberg Spur. Halfway there, we stopped for snacks and water. All I knew was that we had just completed the Porseleinberg Road. And the only thing that led me to that conclusion was an informative road sign with an arrow saying: "Porseleinberg". When I opened my top box to take out my water, I discovered that I had no more water left. Just wet car keys, remotes, soaked spare gloves, and other insignificant goodies that fortunately could not get damaged by a water-filled top box that had just turned into a trendy wishy-washy . Fortunately my beef sandwiches inside a well-sealed plastic container survived, so I finished them off before the remaining wishy-washy cycle could do that for me. Joan*, a friendly pillion, offered me some water from her bottle. I made the mistake of leaving my banana there "for later", a discovery I made only as I arrived home. It was getting rather hot, 27 degrees, but while riding the heat was bearable. At this point I was completely lost. I knew we just passed Porseleinberg, but I had no idea where in South Africa Porseleinberg was. And I knew we were heading towards Piketberg, but on which road I did not know either. We took some more farm roads and when we reached civilization again we were actually riding into a small settlement called Gouda. Not that Gouda could be described as "civilization", but there was a shop and on a Sunday afternoon it was surprizingly very much "buzzing with activity". Some of us had more refreshments and we all agreed that despite the dust, we were all having loads of fun.

Stopover at Gouda
When we left Gouda I probably came the closest to falling than anywhere else along the route. I nearly dropped my bike while riding on a very short section of single track. When Andy* who was in front of me suddenly stopped, I put my foot down in a hole and nearly toppled over . With brute force I managed to keep my bike upright. It would've been an embarrassment if I had to fall like this, especially after I've already had so many opportunities in loose gravel to do that. I was actually standing while doing this short section of single track, like all the guys in front of me were doing. Monkey see, monkey do. Off road riders have this strange belief that you have better control over your bike when you stand and ride. They all use this where technical riding is required, or when they hit sand or bad road surfaces. So when you see a guy on a GS standing while he is riding in town to work, then he is just showing off...or adjusting his tackle. In town you don't need to do it. I do it sometimes just before I turn into my driveway. Not because it requires technical skill to go into my driveway, but just because I need the practice and I know that no-one sees me. Anyway, the explanation for this is that when you stand you lower your point of gravity. This helps you from toppling over in sand. It also takes the vibration out of your arse when you ride on very bumpy surfaces, and spare you from losing tooth enamel in the process as well. When you have a pillion, your pillion also stands up when you do. Not only does this improve the point-of-gravity effect two-fold, but it is also not nice for your pillion when you stick your backside into his/her face. So, despite the fact that it looks rather funny when people do this I learned on this trip that it actually works. I was checking out the other guys to see when they thought it necessary to stand up, then I followed suit. After a while I got so into this standing up thing that I later forgot to sit down again. What I do know is that I crossed some really bad sections and sand patches with ease, and all because I was standing. Maybe that sand riding course would not be needed after all. Spending time in the presence of some experienced old hands really teaches you a lot.

Stand-up position demonstrated

Unpredictable single track

Before we rode into Piketberg, Geoff decided to do another loop through some of the local farms. By now I was 4th in line, hoping to avoid most of the dust and riding like a maniac to keep up. The road here was really bad (for me as a novice of course), and if there was any chance of seeing my arse, then this was it. I think the whole group at this point had some elevated levels of confidence and adrenalin and we were really going at it. Sitting down, standing up, whichever position she preferred ("she" is of course being my bike). When we finally arrived at Piketberg for lunch all of us except Geoff looked like we were in a dust fight. I was thinking about the benefits of riding in a group like this. This is not your average Sunday breakfast run with some nice pictures along the way. This is confidence building like you will never experience riding alone. "Groups rush in where angels fear to tread", I was thinking to myself. Even the less-fortunate at the Piketberg Spur noticed us when we pulled up. Had they only known how much fun we had getting there, they would've dropped everything and started surfing the Internet for bike prices.

Before lunch was even ordered, some guys were thinking of heading home. I was thinking along the same lines, hoping to spend time with my family as well before the sun goes down. I had a lot of fun and managed to survive a lot of sand and bad gravel. Covered in dust and completely contented I headed home early with a great feeling of accomplishment. Not only did my level of skill and confidence get a boost today, but I also met a couple of very nice like-minded bikers who I would share dust with at any time. But most of all, I had fun. Unfortunately I cannot say the same for the banana that was still in my top box....

The banana's version of the ride
* Names were changed to protect identity


  1. Excellent ride report. The banana brings back memories of my first attemt to carry food in the top box, nogal muffins in a plastic bag. Ha Ha........Scraped them out with fingers, and we were so hungry! Now I know nothing shakes and mixes stuff as a top box on an off road trip. Welcome to the dust riders! Also look at Wilddog's site - lots of stories there.

  2. Nice report. On a point of accuracy, standing up raises the centre of gravity. What makes the technical riding easier is the decoupling of your body from the bike, so that you can move independently of it. Also, you can use your feet to control the lean of the bike.

    On a more technical note, being 'taller' increases the 'moment' of the rider/bike ensemble and makes it more stable (balance a broomstick on your hand vs a quarter broomstick and see how a bigger 'moment' makes it easier).

    I also have no crash bars, but at least I have the 'pots' sticking out either side to prevent the bike from coming to harm.

  3. One of three GeoffsNovember 1, 2010 at 10:07 PM

    Lekker report about a lekker day

  4. Well put Manie! You remind me of my chicken, rice and sauce lunch in a Tupperware container in the top box on the way to work. The speed bumps in Pentz drive were so inviting that morning...
    I arrived a work to find a rice-lined top box - 360'! Rice lined work shoes, rice lined scarf, rice lined documents. I would have made a Chinese rice farmer proud.

  5. Great report. Thanks for calling me a "gentleman in his late 40's" very late 40's....maybe past sell by date ! Wish I could say that I enjoyed the ride back with you. The wind was not pleasant. See you at the next ride.

  6. Adrian, I had early 50's, but then I was worried that I might be offending you and changed it to late 40's ;-) Anyway, you were riding like you were in your late 20's!