This is a story about food and cycling I was told years ago by Mike Kluge. At the end of a long interview about his careers as a pro cyclist and founder of the Focus bike brand, the German told me about a bike race in South Africa which gave him a new appreciation of the little things in life.
Years ago, after a long, formal interview with the charismatic Mike Kluge, the two of us kept talking. We covered a wide range of topics in a discussion that continued for another hour or so. His tone and take on matters was often amusing, sometimes insightful, and generally worthy of a longer #TalkingCycling episode.
– Watch the Mike Kluge interview from 2017, click the link below. –
Alas, with the battery depleted and the camera off, he began to explain a scenario from a visit to South Africa a few years ago that highlighted how good exercise is for appetite, and how easy it is to appreciate the simple things in life when you’ve pushed yourself to your physical and emotional limits.
It is an anecdote that I believe we can all relate to, and one I’ve shared in many discussions since the original telling by Kluge in September 2017.
As we ride through the quagmire of confusion surrounding COVID-19, I thought it was as good a time as any to share his story. Kluge explains how the humble potato – something that is cheap, readily available and often overlooked as a culinary delight – became a more memorable meal than what he ate during a Michelin-star dining experience.
Chapter 1: Fine dining in Johannesburg
In South Africa early one year, Kluge spent some time in the city before setting off to more remote parts of the country to participate in an early edition of the MTB stage race, the Cape Epic.
As a pioneer of MTB racing in the late-1980s and early-1990s, Kluge has experienced a lot in his sport and accomplished more than many of us could dream of. He was excited about the prospect of the challenge that lay ahead: a week of off-road racing, traversing all kinds of terrain, often in grubby, difficult conditions.
Before the race, however, a friend invited him to dine at a Michelin-star restaurant in Jo’burg.
“I’m not a huge fan of fine dining,” Kluge told me, “but it’s something my friend really enjoys. I’ve done well in business and wasn’t too concerned about money, so the price didn’t put me off and I agreed to go to the restaurant.”
Off they went, into the city, to the address of the place his friend had heard of. It wasn’t a typical eatery, and that was part of the appeal.
“We had to knock, weren’t allowed to enter until we understood the conditions of eating there and agreed that we would participate in this ‘culinary theatre’.”
Once inside, they saw nothing. It was pitch black and a voice instructed diners to switch on the lights of their mobile phones. Kluge was thrilled at what his phone’s torch revealed: stunning hors d’oeuvres. “It was beautiful,” he confessed. “It was food as I’d never seen it before.”
He described a quail egg topped with gold flakes on a “tiny bed of salad, like a miniature flower – all exotic and confusing and,” he added, “absolutely delicious!”
With the event now formally underway, Kluge and his fellow diners were ushered into another room and the culinary acts kept on coming. For hours, they were whisked from one room to another, and poured wine to suit each plate to perfection.
“It was a 10-course degustation and it was like nothing I’d ever imagined,” explained Kluge.
He told me that, over the years, he had been lucky to have eaten in all kinds of fancy establishments and drunk more than his fair share of good wine. And the Jo’burg dinner outranked them all for taste and experience. It was, by all accounts, one of the most magnificent meals of his life.
It didn’t come cheap, he said, around the equivalent of 250 euros for food and wine. He scoffed at the memory and admitted honestly, “It was good, but I would not choose to do that sort of thing myself.”
It wasn’t his idea though, and he was happy that he enjoyed an experience his friend wanted to share.
“The strange thing is,” the rider later confessed, “I was still hungry after leaving the restaurant.”
The friends eventually bid each other goodnight and then Kluge went on a late-evening mission. “Once he was out of sight,” he said of his friend, “I ran to the nearest service station and went to the counter, grabbing all the Biltong that was left in the shop.”
He had eaten 10 courses of fantastic, memorable food, but his stomach was calling out for more. Kluge scoffed down the dried, cured meat as he exited the service station.
“I sat there, in the gutter and finished off a few bits of Biltong and finally started to feel satisfied,” he laughed.
“The next day, we had to travel to the start of the Cape Epic and I didn’t want to be hungry.”
Chapter 2: Finding satisfaction on a dirty table at a bivouac
The Cape Epic isn’t an ordinary bike race. It takes riders to the extreme of their physical and mental limits. It pushes world-classic cyclists to breaking point. Eventually, they say, there is an amazing sense of satisfaction when it’s all over. Those who finish find elation in having beaten the challenge of the terrain.
Those who win are lauded by the fans and their peers alike.
It is a brutal setting with potentially nasty surprises at every turn. The heat is intense and the pace set by the best is enough to frighten even the most disciplined, well-trained athletes.
Kluge explained how he coped with the challenges, but only just, surviving more than thriving from one day to the next. But, he insisted, “It was curiously captivating – although I was hating it at times, I couldn’t quit.”
For a few days, he pushed on. Through deep sand, over tough climbs, and across barren lifeless landscapes he pedalled and pedalled until his legs were full of cramp and pain was becoming second nature. If it hurt only a little he was “almost happy”, because when it hurt a lot, it was enough to bring him to tears.
By this point in his life, Kluge no longer had to prove a point. He was a respected cyclist, a successful businessman, and there were plenty of things he could choose to do. Somehow, however, he was in a desert, without much water, and his food supply for one stage was all gone before the halfway mark. He told me that he crashed “so many times, I’d forgotten about my injuries until I fell again and made things worse”.
Determined not to surrender, he pushed through the thirst, the pain, the hunger, as he knew the next bivouac wasn’t far away. Soon he could eat. Soon he could rest. Soon he’d feel normal again…
Head down, onwards…!
Eventually, finally, he saw the camp for the end of the stage, up there on the horizon. It gave him the motivation and the energy to push on through to the finish.
“I was covered in cuts and bruises,” he said of his arrival at the food station. “My face was a mask of dust and dirt and grease. My hands were filthy. My legs were sore. My body was broken.”
And that’s when he saw a “magnificent sight”, the punchline to this story.
“There was a plastic fold-out table,” Kluge said. “On top was a jug of water and little cups.”
He ignored the cups and drank all he could, straight from the jug and, he says, that helped him regain some of his sanity.
“And that’s when I saw something I’ll never forget: a huge metal bowl that had been filled with boiled potatoes with the skin still on. They had been sliced in half and cooked on a gas stove.
“It was like a mirage,” he says. “It was ordinary food and it was beautiful!”
There was no garnish and no extras. It was just a big bowl of boiled potatoes. And the memory of it almost made him salivate.
“Next to the bowl,” Kluge concluded, “was a dinner plate that was layered with about a centimetre of rock salt.”
And that’s when he found satisfaction, contentment even.
“Once I’d finished the jug of water, I looked at that bowl and that plate of salt in fascination: how could it be that this delight was there, in front of me, in the desert!? It was a gift that I’ll never forget.
“I reached in and grabbed a handful of potato,” he gushed. “I had grease all over my fingers and dirt was everywhere – and I didn’t mind at all.
“I pushed the potato into the bed of salt and ate with such pleasure that it remains a highlight of my dining experiences.”
The exhaustion of a few days racing his bike in a hellacious setting made something simple, something affordable to most, more rewarding than a fine-dining meal. “It was so basic but so delicious! But the restaurant in Jo’burg was completely forgettable, it now only comes to mind when I think of the joy that came from the meal of potato and salt.”
– By Rob Arnold