Memoirs of the Accidental Athlete Chapter 2: The Chicken Incident

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.



Walking like John Wayne – Part 2

I’m not sure when I stopped looking in the mirror but in 1999 being back in Pretoria under my parents roof I heard the pony lady’s voice saying “My girl, you don’t want to hurt the pony do you?”.  My best friend Janine was also back from a year’s au pairing in Holland where she became very good at eating Nutela and drinking beer and she aptly described our mutual condition by saying “Altie, my boob roll and stomach roll is the same size.  This is not good”.  In retrospect it sounds hysterical but that was indeed the case and I see now that I actually had a chin roll as well at least that wasn’t the size of my boob roll as I would then officially have turned into the Michelin man’s girlfriend…  I was back to some semblance of reality in Pretoria but still had the crazy plan in my head of moving to Marion Island to study sea birds.  I was studying BSc Zoology to try and achieve this rather unrealistic goal, not knowing what was hidden in the ice of Marion Island that would fill the hole in my chest, at least there my layer of blubber would have been put to good use.  The Jane Goodal plan was ill thought out as I never had Biology or Science in School and obviously BSc is a very science orientated field, needless to say the studying did not go without incident and again I realised this was not it for me.  After attending the Zoology practical at Potch university where I was more interested in eating chip rolls at the cafeteria than dissecting crabs in the lab, I gave up on the studies panicking a bit because what was I going to do with my life?  The answer to this vexing question would only become clear a good while later.

I cannot remember the exact moment I got tired of being out of breath and wearing a size 38 pants but the first thing I tried doing about it was aerobics.  This was never a very good idea as I do not have very good coordination and always ended up going left when everybody else was going right, or up when they were going down.  The aerobics stage ended after an ill fated attempt to take part in a Hip Hop class and being so hopeless at pulling off the moves that the fellow HipHoppers looked at me with shock and pity in their eyes, so after flailing around for about ten minutes like a spastic monkey I left the studio as it was clear my shocking dance moves was distracting the serious Hipsters, attracting an unwanted crowd outside the class!  After serious thought I decided that not much can go wrong whilst running or swimming, except for drowning, so I started my fitness quest by pounding it out on the tarmac and splashing away in the swimming pool.

In the beginning the running was really more of a shuffle and the swimming was more panicked splashing, I soon added spinning to the mix and immediately realised this was something I really enjoyed.  A problem soon presented itself, my extreme competitive nature would prove to be both my driving force and my downfall, In every spin class I would try and spin faster than everybody there until I had blisters on my toes, and run faster and further every day often to the detriment of my bowels.  I realised I had to get rid of my competitive need before I scared everybody away from the spinning class or go through the studio wall crashing into a innocent gym bunny doing the bench press.  The need to get rid of this competitive beast in my chest was what drove me to entering my first running race.  The only problem with running was that I was never really good at it, after a few races and more than a few blisters on my feet I realised running on its own wasn’t going to satisfy the beast in my belly!

My first bike was a Yellow and White Giant I bought from Bruce Reyneke cycles that I paid R3000 for. Now ten years later a pair of cycling shoes costs the same but it was the best R3000 my dad ever spent.  Before venturing into the addictive world of road riding I first tried out triathlon, this was however a period of time filled with yet more embarrassing lessons!  The excitement of entering my first triathlon obviously did something to my brain as I did about twenty things wrong during that first race.  Except for the fact that I almost drowned and swallowed around ten litres of green dam water the swim was not a total disaster, after swimming like a water snake zigzagging across the dam and probably doing double the distance than everybody else, I exited Rodeplaat dam tripping over clumps of grass approaching my bike with more than a little bit of trepidation.  I jumped on my bike still very motivated, not really knowing what was waiting for me, the bike ride was only 20km long and about 5km from the finish I started really suffering, not knowing that I actually had a puncture on my back wheel.

The scary thing is that I knew so little I actually finished the bike leg with that flat wheel.  Later that year after I learnt how to fix a puncture, or at least identify one I entered the Afriman Duathlon which was a ten kilometre run, sixty kilometre cycle followed by another ten kilometre run.  It was here that I got my first glimpse of the lean mean racing machines having their sport as their jobs.  The first run went relatively well and the cycle wasn’t that bad but I realised I was out of my depth when I started the second run and passed the winners of the race in their tracksuits looking like they’ve already gone for a shower and taken a long nice nap.  It has become clear to me over the years that I don’t embarrass easily and despite being a backmarker struggling along I went back time and time again for more punishment and I didn’t realise it then but I was very good at suffering.  People often have a bit of a misconception about suffering, they think when they look at the leaders of the Tour d France or the winner of the London marathon that it’s easier for them than it is for the poor unfit and overweight backmarkers.  This is not true, suffering is suffering and the only thing that makes it a little bit easier, well for me personally is where you’re suffering.  For some reason when you’re struggling to breathe, you feel like your heart is going to jump out your chest and you’re trying your best not to throw up it’s bearable if you’re in the front of the pack and you’re the one dishing out the pain to the strong and respectable riders or runners around you.  It’s however very different when you’re experiencing the same type of misery and you’re in the back of the bunch surrounded by guys with hairy legs breathing like bull dogs and you’re the one wanting to lose your breakfast while bull dog man leaves you in his wake.  Across the board, if you’re in the front middle or back, with champions or hairy legged fun riders, suffering is part of sport and who ever can suffer the most and deal with it best will probably win the race at the end of the day…

Walking like John Wayne

1.         In the Beginning


I searched my whole life to find something that I would be good at. When I ultimately found the thing I would excel in, it was a complete unplanned accident and took me completely by surprise.  My mother always had dreams of the orchestra as over the years I played the piano, violin, flute and guitar but the expression on my numerous teachers’ faces only bode ill for my mother’s symphonic hopes.  I’m sure my father had dreams for me to jet all over the world as a successful something or other as I did gymnastics, played tennis, netball, hockey and swam but after throwing up in the dustbin outside the school pool I seemed to loose my motivation for school sports.  After the dustbin incident my school sports career can pretty much be summed up in as many words as the fake sick notes I took to school to try and get out of PE!

Until I started cycling my sports ‘career’ was one pathetic incident after another, one of them that stick out in my mind was when everybody had to try out for the track teams in primary school and we were doing the long jump.  I can’t remember exactly what was going through my twelve year old brain but I don’t think it was anything good because as I jumped I never even make it to the sandpit, I landed short and fell flat on my ass on the grass.  This clear lack of talent, which later proved to be more a lack of motivation led to me always skulking and sneaking when there was sport involved to try and not be noticed and in turn not to have to take part.  I was frankly tired of getting hit in the face by softballs, tennis balls, squash balls, volley balls, foot balls, falling on my ass, knees and getting embarrassed on so many different levels that there was only so much one child could take.  I loved sport but seemed to suck at it no matter how hard I tried.

This is why, when in my twenties I became a Springbok Cyclist it took me completely by surprise! When I left school I was so happy to not have to do any PE ever again that I soon walked the road so many students do.  The road of beer, fast food, late nights and many, many hangovers, and we all know where that road leads to!  To strong arm muscles from lifting countless slices of pizza and pints of beer to your muscular and well trained mouth!!!  Plainly put, it leads to the ‘Land of Flab’ and I was the president!

I have always been pretty concerned with my weight, so as soon as the carb rush of countless pizzas wore off, the reality of my situation hit home!  I had turned into a FATTIE!!   Being fat is definitely not the worst thing that can happen to you but when I was small two very silly things happened that would cement my views on body image forever.

When I was young I think my mother realised that my lack of coordination and big feet did not bode well for ballet so we opted for gymnastics, I rather enjoyed it until my coach told me I had to slim down a bit. I couldn’t get in my gymnastics outfit ever again without looking at myself very critically in the mirror, I was ten.  The other incident was when we went shopping at Sunnypark Shopping Centre in Pretoria, it was school holidays and there were ponies, roller skates, ice creams and all kinds of fun things to do to give wary mothers a break from dealing with bored children.  Of course I wanted to go for a pony ride and to my great horror the lady taking the bookings told me I was a little bit big for the ponies, I’m not sure if she thought I was going to break the poor animals back but a huge big ice cream soon made me feel a whole lot better.  The pony rejection together with the Gymnastics dragon telling me to slim down was all a bit much for my ten year old brain to process.  It was the start of a lifelong battle with the often non existent bulge.

I have to admit that my mother was very good at teaching me good eating habits but I think there is an evil and very hungry beast in my stomach that torments me, and the only way to appease it is to feed it chocolate, cake and rusks.  When I was small my father always let me pick two Quality Street chocolates and then hid the box thinking I would not find them, big mistake!  I knew all his hiding places and would regularly help myself to a few extra toffees hiding the wrappers in the couch, until one day when my mom moved the couch to clean and saw the bulges where I had attempted to conceal all the evidence of my chocolate thievery.  My dad got a new hiding place, I found it, but at least this time I covered my trail by throwing the papers in the dustbin.

To further illustrate the unlikelihood of the outcome of my life I have to go into further detail of my school sports career, or lack thereof!  I was the girl standing in the corner of the volley ball field that would get knocked unconscious whilst trying to look cool catching the ball.  I also remember taking a tennis ball to the eye and not being able to see properly the rest of the day, then of course I once sprained my finger playing softball, and got chased of a netball field for arguing with the referee during a C Team game we lost by about 90-3.  A lot of things have changed since then but I still can’t play volleyball and I still argue with officials and referees.  I always went to great lengths to miss out on PE and would tell elaborate stories of fake injuries or rather spend the time in the Sick room and later the toilets reading a book and smoking a cigarette.

After school I moved to Cape Town to further my search for what I would be good at only to find that I was very good at drinking lots of beer, eating pizza for breakfast and smoking twenty cigarettes a day, this led to me being very good at putting on weight.  It didn’t really bother me that much until one cloudy day, for reasons unknown I became very bored with my usual routine of lying around, eating, watching telly and surfing the internet, so I decided to walk rather than drive the 1.5km to our local video store to go and rent ‘Live and Let Die’ starring Roger Moore.  I can’t remember my reasons for wanting to do this but there I went down the road full of excitement not fearing what would happen to my unfit body!  Halfway to the video store sediment started to shake loose from my ‘pipes’ and I felt like a very old car puffing black fumes shuddering to a stop.  The next problem was when because of very bad blood circulation my body started itching like there was no tomorrow, it was obviously not used to having fresh, oxygen rich blood pumping through it’s lazy veins.  All the blood that was pooled in my ass and feet was finding its way back to the rest of my body and I didn’t like it.  It felt as if an army of angry Amazon fire ants was crawling over me consuming me alive.  So there I stood next to the road cursing, scratching and puffing black smoke, attracting quite a few worried looks, I am not sure if I looked more like a crazy person or somebody in serious need of medical attention, but at that stage I was a bit of both.  Contributing to my mounting state of unease was my thunder thighs that were getting so badly chaffed that not only was I itchy, sweaty, hot and very bothered but I was now also walking like John Wayne.  I must have been quite a sight swaggering into the Video store all sweaty and itchy…

The only other thing that I am as passionate about as sport is animals and during my time in Cape Town I became a volunteer at the SANCCOB sea bird rescue centre in Blouberg Strand.  When you start out as a volunteer they make you clean cages and prepare the penguins food, which entails defrosting boxes of sardines and distributing them until you yourself smell like a sardine that has rolled around in penguin crap!  More than once I had to apologise for the smell that clung to me as it kind of seeps into your skin, after a while you no longer notice it but believe me when you’re standing in line at Pick n Pay you realise why nobody really wants to stand that close to you.  So basically, the volunteers that are willing to put up with the smell of fish and bird poop evolve to more pleasant tasks like washing oiled birds and feeding.  I enjoyed being at the centre so much that I soon became furniture and went there as much as I could.  It was here where I decided to study BSc Zoology and started nurturing dreams of becoming a researcher on Marion Island.

Woolworths was one of the centres sponsors and they would deliver food for the volunteers’ everyday, I was in heaven!  I’m not sure if it is because they live in South Africa, as other penguins are actually very tranquil and easy to handle, but wild African penguins bite like hell!  Maybe they’re afraid of being eaten, but I still have scars on my hands from getting bitten by unruly penguins, seagulls and Gannets!  I was having a grand old time but I think my sister Hannelie who lives in Cape Town picked up that I was very close to jumping on a Green Peace boat and get arrested while vandalising a oil tanker.  Soon some motherly tug made my mom come and visit me and I’m sure when she saw me and heard my ambitions to move to Marion Island and be a research assistant, she summoned my father to come and fetch me and my things as soon as possible.  The search for that illusive thing that I would be good at would have to be restarted in Pretoria, hopefully it would not include doing something that involved a permanent smell of fish hovering over me like some strange halo, nor putting on weight and lying around.  By this time I weighed almost ninety kilograms and the hole in my heart was filled with pies, cigarette smoke and the smell of fish and it was poisoning my system.  The drive back to Pretoria with my father was the start of my journey to becoming the accidental athlete.