When I was summonsed to be a judge’s mountain-biking sidekick, it was really a butt-bruising, hair-raising sentence
The wheels of justice turn slowly … but 59km into the second day of the sani2c the wheels of justice stopped turning altogether. That was when Western Cape High Court judge Lee Bozalek fell off his bike.
From gavel to gravel, trials to trails, cross-examinations to cross-country, Judge Bozalek took a break from putting criminals behind bars to spend some time behind bars; a bicycle’s handlebars, that is.
A few months earlier we had met for coffee where he asked me to be his riding partner for the KAP sani2c – a three-day mountain bike ride in KwaZulu-Natal. Judge Bozalek was wearing a hard collar. He had been riding in Tokai Forest, Cape Town’s mountain-biking mecca, when he took a wrong turn and found himself on a downhillers’ track. Downhill is extreme mountain biking, where riders leap over obstacles and jump over gaps.
The judge misjudged a drop and landed at the bottom, hitting his head. He didn’t know it at the time – and, unbelievably, rode the rest of the way down the track – but he had broken his neck.
He was sentenced to three months in a hard collar. It could have been much worse. He didn’t want the crash to end his mountain-biking career. He needed a challenge to keep him motivated, which was when an e-mail from sani2c plopped into his inbox. It was a sign. There was just one snag: this was a team race and he needed a sidekick.
And that’s where I came in.
I was reluctant so I played the race card. I have taken part in a few mountain bike stage races and don’t particularly like the Mamil culture that goes with it. Mamils (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) ride expensive bikes, are obsessed with their cycling data, and wear clothes that are too tight, parading package-protruding bulges in coffee shops. They also take themselves far too seriously. I started out as a Mamil but after my second midlife crisis graduated to a Camil (Curmudgeonly Ageing Man in Lycra) and have now become a card-carrying Wombat (Wild Old Man in Baggies And Trendy Socks).
“Think about it,” said Lee, who is a Jackal – Judge, Addicted Cyclist, Keenly Avoiding Lycra.
A few things made me reconsider. Firstly, the sani2c Adventure – the event he’d entered – is not competitive. It would also be a break from a constantly pinging phone.
Besides, Lee had an unspoken ace up his sleeve – the old school tie. We are both alumni of the rough-and-tumble Johannesburg school Highlands North Boys High, aka Haaailands. When a Highlands boy (or, in our cases, a Highlands Very Old Boy – Lee is a class of ’68 graduate, I’m from the class of ’88), is in a pinch you came to his assistance; no questions asked. Back in the day, the pinch was “backstop” at a Doll’s House punch-up with our KES arch rivals. Loyalty is the Haaailands way come schoolboy scuffle or sani2c high water (more about that high water later).
I had to make a decision quickly because justice delayed is justice denied. I agreed. If I turned him down he might hold me in contempt.
We met for a few pre-trail motions to discuss logistics, training, and a race strategy, which was: We survive from water point to water point.
The judge explained: “We go at Bozalek pace: not bad on the flats, reasonable going downhill, and slowly-slowly uphill.” Cyclists talk about a magic power-to-weight ratio, which is the indicator of your performance in the saddle, but Lee was warning me that on the climbs I’d better exercise my power to wait. I didn’t mind. We weren’t doing sani2c to get a good time, we were doing it to have a good time.
Our training didn’t get off to a good start. On our first ride Lee crashed. Blood poured out of a deep gash on his arm. A good Samaritan drove him to the hospital, where he was stitched and patched. The next ride we managed to lose each other. Things improved after that and on our final ride we tackled Cape Town’s twin peaks – a first-degree murderous climb up to Tokai’s Mast and then a killer climb up Noordhoek Peak. Lee dubbed The Mast and The Peak, The Meak.
“Mission accomplished,” he said. “The Meak – shall not inherit the girth.”
On May 14 we were as ready as we’d ever be and, with the most important gear for a multi-day stage race in our pockets (earplugs), we made our way to the Underberg – the start of the sani2c Adventure.
The following morning, a hiss of racing snakes, a spandex of Mamils, a caravan of Camils, one Wombat and one Jackal set off on our three-day adventure from the foothills of the southern Drakensberg to the South Coast.
We cycled along farm roads and in cool pine forests; we floated down smooth, flowing singletrack, and huffed and puffed up steep climbs.
Eighty-five kilometres later we arrived at Mackenzie. It had been a tough day. Proceedings were adjourned and we retired to our tent for a night of rest and recuperation. If only. Supplements riders take cause explosive flatulence and the tent village was popping and fizzing with phaaarrrrtts so I wasn’t sure if I should put my earplugs in my ears or nose. The tent village erupted in a cacophony of snoring and a kak’ophony of farts.
I turned to my learned friend to ask what he recommended but on this occasion justice wasn’t blind, it was deaf – Lee had already inserted his earplugs into his ears. After hearing our neighbour’s death-rattle snoring, I plugged my ears.
The next morning, snoring was replaced by the sounds of smacking as 1,450 riders slapped chamois cream on their saddle-weary butts. Soon we were back on our bikes to confront the monster 97km Queen Stage from Mackenzie to Jolivet.
An hour later Judge Bozalek stopped to answer the call of nature: The Leak of Justice.
South African cycling could have its own league of justices; pedalling is popular among these legal titans (see sidebar).
I understand why judges swop the bench for the saddle: cycling clears your mind of clutter and helps you focus. I imagine judges who cycle have weighed evidence, considered arguments and wrestled with an accused’s fate while riding.
For Lee, cycling is a de-stressor and he says that in the long, blank periods of cycling, a small but important part of his brain unconsciously works on legal problems he is grappling with.
That morning though our focus was on the descent down the Umkomaas – a 40km drop, considered the jewel of sani2c – and then the agony of climbing out of the valley.
Unfortunately, we got stuck behind a couple who were crawling down slower than a stalled criminal trial bumbling its way through the legal system. The riders objected to my polite request to make way, but Lee overruled their objection and they moved aside so I had the freedom to enjoy the mountain-biking bliss of whooping and swooping down the fast switchback descent.
We eventually landed on the banks of the mighty Umkomaas, which means “the place of cow whales” in isiZulu (whales once used the estuary as a nursery, giving birth in the shallows), and after some river crossings it was time to tackle the event’s toughest climb, a 3km grind up a steep, loose-gravel and rocky hill known as The Iconic. So many riders were pushing; you could say it was a push of a climb. As we reached the 59km mark Lee tried to squeeze past a rider who had stopped on the trail and was giving us the thousand-yard stare of a battle-weary soldier, and that’s when Lee crashed. He may have hit the dirt, but his Honour remained intact.
He got up. He wasn’t going to bail. After all, The Law must take its course.
The final day saw the intrepid Haaaailands Old Boys ride through sugar cane farms, singletracks and climbs as we travelled to the sea. We had ridden about 85.5km of the 86km ride without any drama when we arrived at the floating bridge that snakes across the lagoon at Scottburgh Beach to the finish.
As we started to make our way across the bridge I thought about the judge ensuring I had an unobstructed ride down the Umkomaas descent and it occurred to me that our judge-journalist cycling adventure was a metaphor for the relationship between the media and the judiciary: the judiciary protects the interests of the media and ensures the freedom of the press; the media’s job is to keep justice and the spirit of the law alive.
But our adventure wasn’t over. We still had 500m to negotiate.
The judge was ahead of me as waves started to whip the floating bridge which, like a sexually adventurous couple, was swinging wildly. I tried to stay in the middle but the middle kept shifting as the bridge pitched aggressively to the left and then rocked savagely to the right. I looked up: the judge was wobbling precariously.
With only a few metres before the end of the bridge it looked like justice was about to plunge into the depths of the ocean, but, Lee, like a good judge, retained his balance and managed to cross without falling into the lagoon. Miraculously, so did I.
We conquered the 265km journey from the mountains to the coast in about 20 hours. It took us double the time it took the racing snakes, but the snakes weren’t distracted by the tasty snacks at the water points. Besides, we won the Haaailands Old Boys Overachievers (HOBO) category.
The verdict: it was a heart-thumping, lung-bursting, eyeball-popping, jaw-dropping, teeth-shattering, butt-bruising, hair-raising, bone-rattling, body-shaking three days on a bicycle – and we loved (almost) every minute. We were treated to nature reserves, rural villages, farms, flowing rivers, cows, bouncy trails, mountains and breathtaking views. There’s no better way to appreciate SA than on the back of a mountain bike. My only complaint is lugging a weighty bag with all the cycling gear. When I arrived home I put my bag down. Finally, after an epic adventure with the judge, I could rest my case.
SIDEBAR: The League of Justices
Western Cape High Court Judge Lee Bozalek is two Cape Town Cycle Tours away from being admitted to the elite club of cyclists who have completed 21 editions of the world-famous ride. His colleague on the Western Cape High Court bench, Judge Elize Steyn, is a formidable cyclist, completing more than 200 races, a number of them on the podium in her category. Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron has a dozen Cape Town Cycle Tours under his belt and a clutch of 94.7 Cycle Challenge medals in his drawer. When judges Azhar Cachalia and Ashton Schippers are not sitting in the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein, they are sitting on their bikes. Judge Schippers is probably SA’s fastest judge on two wheels. His best Cape Town Cycle Tour time is three hours, five minutes, agonisingly short of the magical “sub-three”, considered the holy grail of road cycling.