Hello! My name is Paul LaCava. This entry starts, like so many things, somewhere in the middle. It seems like life is full of beginnings and endings, all connected by an odd assortment of ways to get there. And it’s rarely at the start or the finish. The main point is to just leave, start the journey, and then figure out how to get where you are going at some point along the way. This is a perfect introduction to my next journey in life.
A year ago I embarked on a rather large undertaking. I am a cyclist and a general fool for getting into trouble of many sorts. I have a short attention span, so am always looking for new ways to find adventure. I’d like to be able to say I’ve gotten the true feel of many things in life when I die, but definitely a master of none. Within the world of cycling there are many distractions. Between huge mountain bike rides deep in the forest and across mountain ranges, in the middle of the air somewhere between the lip and landing of a jump, or between the tape of a race course travelling at high speed, there are many ways I feel alive on two wheels. But last November I decided to try an entirely different thing…
There is a bicycle race, -er, more of an event, held on an endless supply of rural gravel roads in the vast farmlands of southern Iowa that has happened for eight consecutive years each April. It is called Trans-Iowa. I stumbled upon this race somewhere over a beer and the rumblings from a friend who is from the area nearly two years ago. I quickly dismissed this idea as a horseshit idea worthy of nothing, dumb as anything I’d heard of. And boring, too! Gravel roads? Iowa? You’ve got to be kidding me! My home is the Pacific Northwest in Portland, Oregon and we are surrounded by beautiful mountains, rivers, lakes, and an expansive coastline.
The Midwest hadn’t exactly been a target destination before. But then somewhere last fall I crossed paths with this idea again and the curiosity started to form. There were so many things foreign to me about the idea that it lured me in fast. The excitement of the unknown was immense, and the legends about how hard this event is kept popping up. I was committed.
Fast forward a few weeks and I’d sent in my entry to gain acceptance into this “free” event. This required sending in a postcard in the mail, yes, US Postal mail, with nothing much aside from one’s name and such. About six months later I’d done more riding and work than I’d care to admit in preparation over a long winter, gone on my first trip to the Midwest, started the race and failed miserably. There were lessons learned, admissions of fault, excuses, and pain. Lots of pain. I won’t go into the details of the past. That was then and this is now. Even with how hard the event was, I knew right afterwards that I’d attempt this again, and soon.
So recently I just sent in a new postcard. It’s always amazing how a simple little act can turn into something of epic proportions.
I don’t care much to think about what has happened so much as what will happen. And like many of us, I have a vision on what I want to try and accomplish, seek out, and make happen. And in April 2013 I plan to find a way to finish this race in the cold wind-struck hills of Iowa in the tail end of winter when the gravel is painfully soft and slow, the corn fields bleak, the skies gray, and the mind clear. Oh, and the race? It’s a 325 mile brutal self-navigated slog across the endless rolling farmlands near Grinnell, Iowa, with nothing to aid oneself but the power in one’s legs, the spirit, and what goods you can carry with you or find in a convenience store from the many small towns in the middle of this journey. A person has 34 hours to finish this event and of the very few that find their way from start to end each year, it’s rare that it takes much less time than this.
It’s going to be a long road ahead.
Tune in later for the stories that lead up to this day…stories of the adventure into the unknown. Because if I knew what it took to accomplish this feat, I’d have done this and moved onto the next idea already…
This was 2 years in the making, so the event had some serious build up (at least in my mind). After first visiting South Africa in 2010, I was looking for any excuse I could get to go back.
Sure enough, when Singlespeed World Champs went down in New Zealand in 2010 – I was cheering loudest for Grant Usher and his South African crew. Alas, the hosting honor went to Ireland for 2011 after many rounds of intense battles.
Having lost in 2010, Grant and the crew were bound and determined to bring home SSWC at the hosting competition a year later in Ireland. Luckily, the hosting competition level was lightened when the Icelandic/Moroccan ROAM LIFE team got waylayed by an ill-timed ferry from Wales due to Mike ‘boozy-the-clown” Yarnall having a freakish love affair with old buildings and shit in Wales.
Alas, I digress, as that is a story for another time. Anyways, South Africa won the intense bidding war (justifiably).
So I would be heading back to S.A. for a third time, after a particularly memorable trip down for Cape Epic earlier in 2012.
Before I get into the story of the trip, I should really try to get ya’ll to understand SS culture. See the thing is, most people just don’t get it. Most people have gears on their bikes. They are content with encountering an obstacle, pushing a button, and taking the easy way out (a metaphor for most people’s lives maybe?). What’s more than not understanding singlespeeds – people tend to be confused by a race that is not a race – it’s more of a “ride”. Well there are multiple reasons for Singlespeed Worlds to exist – so let’s make a list!
1) To explore new parts of the world
2) To expose ourselves to others (literally with certain costume wear & expose SS culture)
3) To sample, often in excess, adult beverages from around the globe
4) To get the singlespeed family together
5) To take the piss out of other types of two wheeled racing
6) To remember why the hell we do this sport in the first place – to have a shitload of fun!
7) And least importantly – to determine the fastest guy/girl on one gear.
While there are plenty of other reasons for SSWC, those are just a few that come to mind on the 17 hour plane trip home. Speak of, let’s talk a little about the trip itself.
With a busy work schedule, lots of trip, and the fact that Fun Size couldn’t come along, I needed to make this into a short 6 day trip. Turns out that a flight in the right price range ended up working out so that I could actually come. Fast forward from the flight booking to the actual trip, and I start by getting a ride to the train station, take a train to JFK, the fly from JFK to London, London to Johannesburg, and finally get picked up by my need friend Matt Karan for our 375km journey down to Winterdon. Now that really makes for a long day of travel.
The SSWC organizers had put together a buddy list to arrange for transport for the 40 or so international attendees. I’d be making my way to Winterdon with Matthew Karan, and would be accompanied by the entertainment of Boozy the Clown(aka: Mike Yarnall from PA). Upon arrival into S.A., Matt and Mike were waiting for me at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Jo-burg. We’d also be picking up another guy from Zimbabwe and then we’d be on our way. I have to say that it was solely out of the goodness of his heart that Matt was picking us up. One thing I am continually amazed with is the hospitality of so many good people in South Africa. It is what keeps me coming back.
After our mate from Zimbabwe arrives on his flight from Harare, we make our way out to Matt rig to get loaded out. Only issue was that his rig was too long to actually get out of the airport parking area gate. So after unhooking the trailer with the help of some amused airport security guards, we were finally able to hook back up and get rolling. On the way out of the airport, we noticed some guards blocking off some exits. Turns out that shortly after we rolled out of the airport, there was an airport worker strike that closed down the airport. Arrived just in the nick of time!
The GPS guidance was a little funky, but we ended up finding the Winterdon Country Club. This is where the whole debacle would take place. Turns out, as we learned from Matt, that one of the organizers for this event (Craig Wapnick) also organizes a 9 day MTB stage race in S.A. called the Joburg2C. His experience, amazing amount of gear, and know-how to be able to put on a top notch event showed – including the stage race classic – tent city.
With our spots sorted out in tent city, Boozy the Clown and I were pretty keen on finding some riding to help shake the airplane out of our legs. With our kits on and bikes built, we rolled in the direction of the alleged trails. But, of course, right as we began to roll, black clouds and thunder also decided to roll. Not being a fan of being burnt to a crisp, we opted to drink beer instead. Never a bad option. Turns out the rain, thunder and lightning never actually came – but the beer sure did. And it kept flowing too…
The Winterdon Country Club were some pretty killer hosts for SSWC. The most key ingredient, as with any SSWC, is the beer. From Black Label to a bright green cane drink called a “John Deere,” to Klipdrift (also know as “karate juice” – because when you drink it, it makes you want to fight), the booze was cheap and strong.
We met up with some good blokes from S.A., Colin and Richard and the rest of their crew, as well as Mandy, Dejay , Chris, Jake, and Janet from the States. Boozy was tying one on pretty hard, so it was up to the rest of us to make some decisions for tomorrow. Our new friend, Max Cluer, who does the announcing for the UCI World Cup and this event as well, suggested to take a spin down to Spioenkop Game Reserve in the AM to check out some game, and then go pre-ride the course in the afternoon. Sounds choice!
After another amazing breakfast provided by the organizers, I roused Mike from a drunken slumber and Chris, Mandy, Janet, Mike and I were off to check out the Spioenkop Game Reserve in the undersized Honda Jazz. Ideal for this trip.
Impala, wildebeest, giraffe, and white rhino were all on the menu today (figuratively anyways). It was pretty unbelievable.
To think that these game were an everyday fact of light for South African citizens was amazing. I suppose, like anything though, you spend a certain amount of time in a particular environment and just about anything begins to seem normal.
After some power slides through rhino poop in the Jazz (which, it turns out, might have done some tire damage to the old car) we made our way back to camp to get kitted up for the afternoon ride on the course.
The course was actually about 20km from the camp, so a shuttle, or long pedal, was necessary. While there was an alleged shuttle headed out there in the afternoon, we couldn’t get anyone to confirm it was actually coming. Turns out this was OK, as our friend Graham was able to give us a ride to the trailhead. Once again, though, the black clouds were chasing us to the trail. These ones looked decidedly more serious than the ones yesterday. Screw it – we were in Africa, and it was time to ride.
We were only about 2km into the ride when the thunder started, 3km in when the rain started, and 4km in when the lightning started. Luckily we rode under a bridge about 1km back, so we opted to double back and wait out the storm there.
We weren’t the only ones with that idea, as we met a husband and wife team from Jo-burg hiding out under the bridge as well. After about 20 minutes of shivering and dodging raindrops, we ventured back out into what was now sunshine.
The track, however, was sopping wet, and was nothing like it would be the next day. About 8km into the ride, the inky, black clouds returned, as did the rain, thunder, and wind. We were trying to make it to the turn off to head up the Spioenkop climb, but we got turned around by some emergency service personnel who said them were 110km/h winds up top, and we couldn’t go up. All fine by us, so we chatted for a few before the bloke sent us off into the killer bee infested tunnel (allegedly – we made it through fine).
I’ll tell you what didn’t make it through fine though – the river trail on the way back to camp. Downed trees and branches everywhere! Mike, Janet, and I did our trail work duty though, and removed about 75% of the downed trees and branches on our way back to camp. It was the least we could do to pay our admission onto these rad trails.
Just like we had no shuttle to the trails, there was no shuttle back either. Damn – 20km of pavement was on tap. Luckily we got picked up by Nikki, the wife of the Farmer Gary, whose land we were riding on about 12km into the ride. The night ahead was full of Zulu dancers and beer.
Not too much beer – as there was some ‘serious’ racing happening the next day. Luckily Gary was able to give us a race briefing before the night was over, so we would know exactly what was happening – if only the race briefing wasn’t in Zulu, we might have understood it. I think we got the gist though – up, up, up – then, beer!
7am came early. Bikes were prepped. Shuttles boarded at 9am. Scantily clad people were freezing by 9:10. Luckily I was dressed much better than I was in Ireland. Phew. Clear skies, and a hot sun meant it was going to heat up pretty quickly. Pre race pictures were had, a bottle of J.D. was passed around, bikes were scattered as we went out for the Lemans start run up, and Boozy decided his underwear were too covering and opted to streak the start. Wise choice Mike, wise choice. My Disco Diva outfit was not comfortable in the slightest while standing up. The leaning forward position on the bike was crucial to make that outfit work.
The start signal was given, and the scramble was on! My bike was about 50 meters away from where I left it, not that it made a difference, as we were then corralled into a riding circle to neutralize the field (not that it actually matters). Once the field was finally released, it was a super fun track, and was different than the soupy mess we had ridden in the day before. We also were able to ride the Spioenkop climb today (once was enough), and we needed to make our way to the top to climb our rider’s medal, and not suffer ridicule for not having it at the finish.
The only two spots I walked were on that climb. Luckily they were the same two spots that everyone else walked too. The first beers stop was halfway up the climb, and I caught up to Boozy there. I couldn’t believe I actually beat him in the beer chugging competition. This was a first for me.
After climbing some more to collect my rider’s medal, I made my way onto a super rad descent in which I caught and passed several people that were ruining my roost. The only unfortunate piece of the descent was that I dinged the hell out of my rim on a shadow hidden rock. Lame sauce. Fortunately for me, though, I was running the ever reliable Stan’s NoTubes Crest wheelset, which held air and got me through to the finish. Two more beer stops and the finish line was upon me. 40km never went by so quick.
Burry Stander and Amy Beth McDougal claimed the tattoos. Bunny chow was had. And sunburns were left untreated. Now the real competition would start though – the post race party. Red Bull came out to DJ, the varying kinds of booze were flowing, and the dance party was on! Straw was flying in the air, and at every turn, Mike was getting deeper and deeper into the drunken pain cave. Ultimately, Mike was put to sleep in his tent, covered in glitter, after having many, many pictures posted on the internet. You would think he might finally learn one day.
The next morning came far too early for everyone, Mike in particular. With no memory of the night before, he had to rely on the stories and laughter of others to fill in the blanks. With a long 375km drive back to Joburg, Mike opted to crash in the back seat of Matt’s car. Good call. While on the way back, Matt brought us to his family’s cattle feed lot. With 130K head of cattle, and a full game reserve, we were truly astounded at how big this place was. What an unbelievable operation. We were so grateful to Matt for taking the time to show us the place.
Matt dropped us at the hotel, and we said our goodbyes. We couldn’t thank him enough for how much he had hooked us up. He wasn’t through yet though. While Mike was off to a safari, I was chillin’ in Joburg for the majority of Monday. Matt sent over a driver to take me around to Giant Bicycle retailers in Johannesburg and ultimately to the airport. All at no cost. It was unbelievable. I was super grateful, and I really value his friendship. As I said in the beginning, I am always astounded by the generosity and nature of South African people. It is the main thing that keeps me so excited about always coming back to this country. Hopefully I can do it again for the JoBurg2C.