It was becoming more and more clear that I was actually good at cycling and I really enjoyed it. The funny thing is that a frozen chicken actually pushed me in the direction of professional cycling.
The chicken incident happened at a place close to Pretoria called Rooiwal, if you’re a cyclist living in Pretoria your first race will probably be at this God forsaken place. Rooiwal is however a very special place, and not in a good way, the only way I can describe it is that it’s like racing on Mars. It’s like another planet, again not in a good way, it’s dusty, hot, windy and weird, or in the words of Gilbert Grape, “It’s like dancing to no music”. I have over the years raced there many times but my first race that I won really stands out. You never really win anything big at Rooiwal with a few hundred bucks or a box of koeksisters being the maximum prize, my first win was however not a few hundred bucks, but a frozen chicken. I didn’t take the chicken home with me as I rode there on my bike and had to ride home after the race as well, and a frozen chicken would never fit in my pocket, and even if it did it would defrost and give anybody that ate it salmonella by the time it arrived home with me. The Rooiwal chicken did however start a train of thought that was very enticing, I could train hard, race hard and win money to buy stuff with, not a plan with a lot of depth but a plan none the less. Over time the plan seemed to work.
Before the plan of winning chickens and then eating them would be set into motion I still had to do a normal job. In 2002 I started working for building contractor in Hazelwood called Michielsen and Hofman, I was the receptionist and very far from researching seabirds on Marion Island or winning duathlons. At this stage I hadn’t yet won my Rooiwal chicken and my big plan had not yet been set into motion, I was however training hard and had started spinning at a studio called The Crank Shop in Brooklyn. Spinning is really a very intense form of exercise and when you went spinning at the Crank Shop you would learn to know all new kinds of joy and suffering. The first few spin classes can only be described as torture for a body that is not used to bouncing up and down on a hard saddle with your legs going round and round fast enough to generate enough electricity for a small village on a cold day. But soon when you’re ass gets used to the suffering and your toes become calloused from zipping around at 130 rpm it can be classified as a masochistic kind of fun. The rush of endorphins makes falling off the bike at the end of the class and regularly hacking up a lung seem not that bad. The hard exercise and hard work made my body fat melt away and I had already lost about fifteen kilograms. In retrospect I’m sure my tender age of 22 had something to do with it because my body fat has over the years become unmeltable and it now takes a much greater effort to stay in shape. It is no longer that easy to lose weight, ten years ago if I was training two hours a day I could almost eat what I want and still lose weight, now I train harder, work longer hours and eat only a few salad leaves and look at a biscuit and the weight creeps back.
It was here at the Crank Shop where I ventured onto the road for the first time. It was probably the most memorable ride of my entire life, and not in a good way. After going on one or two rides of about 40km I decided to join the club on a long 80km ride to Hartebeespoort Dam, I remember seeing the group arrive all of them looking ultra cool and fit, I wanted to run back to my car and rather go home. Most cyclists have lost a few litres of sweat, blood and tears on the toll road to Hartebeespoort dam and I am definitely one of them. At the beginning of the ride I was full of bravado but as any cyclist will tell you there is only about one day a year where the wind does not blow right from the front on the way back home. This day was not one of them.
So after we turned around at the toll road and started heading back to Pretoria I soon realised I was waaaaay out of my depth. I didn’t bring enough food, I didn’t like taking my water bottles out of the cages as every time I did this I would swerve dangerously in front of the other riders provoking what can only be called panicked shrieks! The further I went the more dehydrated and hungrier I became, so there I was riding along a road that felt like a highway to the gates of hell with a ticket allowing me free entry.
And there in my darkest hour with spittle running down my chin as red as a beet, a knight in shining cycling kit pulled up next to me, I was immediately smitten. He asked me why I was riding such a heavy gear and I was a bit embarrassed to tell him that I wasn’t sure about how the gears worked. The very friendly and equally hot knight then explained to me how to use my gears properly, gave me a push and disappeared into the distance. Thinking back this knight was not put off by appearances because if there was a Cycling Fashion Police I would have been at the top of the Worst Dressed List, 10 weeks in a row. Not only did my cycling ensemble make me very uncool, but what happened after the ride to the dam added to my status as a complete plonker. About fifteen kilometres from Pretoria I simply could not hang onto the group anymore and there I was all alone with my ticket to hell watching the vultures circle waiting for me to ride into a bush and check my ticket. I think the last fifteen kilometres took almost the same amount of time than the preceding 65, I was experiencing my first ‘bonk’. Another name for this is hitting the wall and that is exactly what it feels like, your petrol tank runs empty and if you don’t fill it quickly road kill will soon look like French cuisine. At this stage I had hit the wall, went through it and was looking for road kill on the other side, luckily I reached the clubhouse before I turned into road kill myself and this is where the next phase of solidifying my ‘Queen of the Plonkers’ status began. Everybody was already there enjoying coffee, muffins and flapjacks looking fresh and recovered when I made my entrance drenched in sweat and emitting a very disturbing aura and a few odd sounding grunts. I’m sure everybody went quiet for a moment watching me stumble toward the plate of muffins and flapjacks even thinking maybe somebody from the mental institution joined the club for the ride also wondering if they should maybe call an ambulance. I didn’t even take my helmet off before I started shovelling down muffins, maybe I was sweating all over the food but nobody had any flapjacks after I spent a good long time at the counter grunting at anybody who wanted to reach for a snack…
So there I was standing with crumbs on my cheeks feeling more and more like my old self as muffin after muffin hit my stomach and my blood sugar levels returned back to normal, it was round about then that I spotted the cool knight in shining cycling kit sitting at a corner table the sun hitting his perfect blond hair. There was a very pretty blond girl sitting next to him and it was also then I spotted my crumb covered, red and sweaty face in the mirror and quickly slithered out to my car to go home and try and recover from my first experience of hitting the wall.
Winston was also a spinning instructor at the Crank Shop and I proceeded to get up at four thirty in the morning to go and do his class, I would book the bike right next to him but I was apparently a bit late as years later I would learn that he and the blond girl sitting next to him on the fateful flap jack day started going out that very same night and of course I never expected him to become my husband four years later.
A big hurdle to overcome when you start cycling is crashing, it’s not really a question of if you’ll crash but more a case of when… Following this you either get back on or wave the sport goodbye and I’m clearly a sucker for punishment because even after I almost killed myself going down a pass in Golden Gate National park I still got back on. The first time I crashed I was all on my own riding on the Boschkop road just outside Pretoria East. I was riding along when a truck came from the front and I got so nervous that my back wheel went off the tar and whilst trying to get back on the road I whipped out landing in the rocks on the side of the road. There I sat for a while before phoning my sister Marlise who stays on a small holding not to far from ground zero. While sitting there with dust on my face I saw two black ladies speaking in Sotho with smiles on their faces obviously not understanding what this crazy white girl is doing all by herself out in the middle of nowhere sitting in the dirt with her bike next to her. Marlise picked me up and it would only be about a month before I met tar again.
I don’t know if a crash can be special but this one was. I was riding with Louise, a fellow lady cyclist who would later become one of my best cycling friends. We were so busy talking that our handle bars got stuck together, we did what can be called synchronised bicycle riding and when they became unstuck I went flying and landed next to the road, in a pathetic heap of dust and blood. The whole club stopped to help me and Gary Blem fixed my bike for me. The special thing about Gary is that he would years later work for Team Columbia HTC where he was one of only 3 South Africans to be part of the Tour d France and his team won 5 stages in the 2010 tour! Years later he would be Winston’s’ best man at our wedding, where he passed out during the ceremony, but that is different story… Another very important thing to remember when you crash is to always have a qualified professional look at your wounds. I was the but of many a joke after I crashed riding around Rodeplaat dam and hit the ground with my chin first, I had two nasty cuts and decided with my sister Marlise we would treat it ourselves, it wasn’t that deep that it needed stitches but it was deep enough. Marlise being the owner of a Stud Farm with over fifty horses possessed of a very interesting medical aid kit. She decided to treat the wound with a gel that you apply to similar cuts on horses, I don’t know exactly what went wrong but the next day my whole chin had a type of burn wound, so where I had only two cuts the day before, I now had something that looked like a little beard… Even though she tried I never let her come close to me with the wound gel again!
During this time I was still getting up at four in the morning doing about seventy kilometres before going to my receptionist job at Michielsen and Hoffman in Hazelwood, Pretoria East. I did however at this stage won at least one chicken and the thought of making a living with this chicken winning business sat at the back of my mind whilst typing away behind my desk listening to Jacaranda FM.
Possibly the lack of sleep from getting up at 04h00 every morning led me to my next impulsive decision, but one Friday I went to my boss and told him I felt sick and needed to go to the doctor, it turned out to be a very long doctors visit as I never went back. That was ten years ago and the best decision I ever made, I still sometimes see some of the people that worked there and then very quickly duck behind whatever is close enough as I still feel rather bad about walking out on the glamorous job of being a receptionist at a building company… I have to say that my mother has a very good poker face because when I got home and shared the news with her that I wasn’t going back to work she didn’t seem to panic. She admitted later that she almost had heart failure when her daughter shared her plans of winning chickens at cycling races short on the heels of the planned o, luckily she didn’t send me away for being nuts because that is what I would probably do to my kids if they come forward with a plan of supporting themselves by winning frozen chickens!
I do however think my parents calm demeanour helped me achieve my goals, because it was very soon after at the age of 22 ‘retiring’ from Michielsen and Hoffman that I won my first very big race, and the prize was more than just a chicken. I have always believed that before you can win big you first have to win small and this happened in a place called Mooinooi about two hours drive from Pretoria. I went there with a few of my cycling friends hoping to win a few bucks as it was my first race after leaving Michielsen & Hoffman, things didn’t however work out exactly as planned when the race was cancelled. We decided amongst ourselves we would have our own little race and myself and Braam, who is a successful veterinarian in Brooklyn, Pretoria made a little wager that we would race to the top of the biggest hill in the area. If he won I would buy him a case of beer, If I won he would give me R300.00, again things didn’t work out exactly as planned because after I beat him to the top of the climb I turned around in the road and crashed his poor wife Daleen who was coming from behind and the both of us ended up lying bruised in the middle of the tar road. I think poor Daleen was hurt much worse than me because I ended up landing on top of her and she weighed about 20kg less than me as well, funny enough after almost landing Daleen in the hospital and taking Braams R300.00 I didn’t get invited to ride with them again any time soon! This little race was the start of a good thing and I would win my first big race soon after this.