Following the Swallows

It’s not only birds that fly south during the winter. As you know from some of my previous posts, the heavy men of the British rowing team also head to warmer climes during the cold dark weeks of the British winter. Despite being marginally less dainty than swallows, we also thrive in the African warmth and training for this two-week period is seriously good fun.

At our annual cross-training camp, we complement the grueling ergos and weights with a daily cycle over the hills, passing through town after town in the Mpumalanga countryside. Actually, the bike rides aren’t that much fun. We push down hard on the pedals, working to maintain as constant a speed as we can for the duration of the ride, usually around three hours. As a group we aren’t natural cyclists – carrying body weights of around 100 kilos means progress uphill and on the flat is exhausting. As I mentioned just the other day in an interview for BBC Radio 4’s today programme, the risk of accidents is reduced by using heavy mountain bikes to reduce speed and increase control – it’s only training after all. We’re not trying for any speed records here, but as coach Jurgen says, “We can’t wrap you up in cotton wool”. Two days after saying on air to the British public that accidents are rare and we are a sensible bunch of guys, I took a tumble off my bike and left a fair amount of my skin on the road.
It was the very last 30 seconds of a three-hour cycle, during which we had to shelter for 20 minutes on the road side as thunder and lightning crashed around us. The storm slowly moved away so we clambered back onto our wheeled steeds. Shivering and wet through, we cycled the last 10 kilometers back home like mad men.
Coming into our town, Dullstroom, the rain had stopped but the roads were slick with water. As I turned into the driveway of our hotel I very lightly tapped my rear brake in an attempt to make it round the corner. Instantly my back wheel slipped out from underneath me as if it was on ice and I found myself crashing onto the road using my right elbow and hip as a brake. Adrenaline surged, frustration and anger immediately came to the surface. I was on my feet before I knew it lifting my bike off the road and hurling it into the verge. I was so angry with myself that I’d let that happen so close to the end of the ride. It was a stupid mistake, which could have meant a season ending in injury or worse. I was hurt, but luckily no real significant damage had been done. Wheeling my bike back to the hotel on foot I walked straight into the shower to discover the extent of my skin loss. Thankfully I had landed well – with deep grazes on my elbow and a scrape on my hip, healing would be quick and I wouldn’t miss any training.

Despite an uncomfortable night when I woke stuck to the sheets and a pretty constant stinging, I was able to get back in the weights room and on the ergo the next day. No harm done and I learnt a few lessons: 
• Firstly, don’t touch the brake as you ride around a corner on wet tarmac. No matter how good at skidding you think you were as a kid, it’s different as an adult and there’s nothing you can do if the back wheel goes. 
• Secondly, at the end of a ride, when you’re exhausted, wet and desperate to get back home, use your last bit of energy to think clearly – unlike me who just wanted to be back in bed! It’s never worth the pain of an accident.
• Finally, I’m no cyclist – I knew that before and it had just been confirmed!

Although I started this blog on a negative note, the camp really is a highlight of the year. Jurgen writes a programme that is relentless, physically and mentally taxing, but we are human. We all need a break every now and then. Over the years, Jurgen has learnt that he gets better performances from his athletes when they’ve had a chance to recover, recuperate and rest their bodies and minds. This comes in the form of a half day, when training is finished just before lunch and the afternoon is ours to do as we please.

In the past we have taken a trip into the nearby Kruger Park for a short safari afternoon. This year we chose to visit the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre. It’s a fantastic place that specialises in breeding and releasing cheetahs which, like many species of African wildlife, are threatened. Spending a couple of hours being driven round the centre by the incredibly passionate and knowledgeable guides gives a real insight into the plight of wildlife in Africa. The breeding programme for the cheetahs has been very successful and the centre is well-known throughout Africa for its work. Other residents include two young, male white rhinos whose mothers had been killed by poachers. The youngest is only three months old and lives with a tiny sheep that has become its closest companion – the little rhino was terrified of anything bigger!

As a wildlife lover with an interest in conservation this afternoon trip was fascinating. It allowed us to experience the country in more depth than we could ever have done on a normal training camp. It prepared me for the next few days of hard graft on the road and in the gym, and was an experience I’ll never forget.

As the camp draws to a close, I’m looking forward to my early return back home to my family. The camp has certainly done its job – I’m fitter and stronger, have escaped the arctic conditions in England for a while and I’m mentally prepared and excited about piling up some serious miles in the boat. Here’s to 2015!

Posted on March 16, 2015 .