Words: Rudolf Zuidema│Photos: Cherie Vale & Jetline Action Photography
In South Africa today, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to mountain bike stage races. In fact, South Africa boasts more mountain bike stage races than the rest of the world - combined! So, it comes as no surprise that event organisers are doing their utmost to capture the imagination of local mountain bikers and get the numbers to satisfy sponsors that are always hungry for bigger ROIs and higher engagement rates.
Photo credit: Cherie Vale, Newsport Media
At the top of the pile are a number of events that are always looking for new ways to improve the rider’s experience. One of these is the FNB Wines2Whales (W2W). Now in its fifth year, the event is firmly embedded as one of the must-do events on the annual calendar. And with the addition of a midweek W2W Ride in-between the weekend W2W Adventure and W2W Race, even more riders are able to experience the trek from the Lourensford Vineyards via Grabouw, to the beach in Onrus and the blowing of the whales.
There are a few things that set this event apart from all the others. Among them is the quality of the food provided by Food Lovers Market - who would have thought that you could have a perfectly cooked, tender fillet steak at a buffet catering for 1,300 people. The other stand-out luxury in the race village was the FNB riders’ lounge, with its designer interior, free WiFi, and air conditioning! Most of all, this event stands head and shoulders above its peers in what it gives back. Like many major events, the organisers have their selected charities in the local community, but unlike any other event, W2W is leaving a legacy of well built and beautifully sculpted single track for all mountain bikers to enjoy for years to come. Then there is the ride …
Lourensford to Oak Valley - (76 km and 1,700 m climbing)
Starting off with a lung bursting 5 km climb 400 m, you got to know pretty quickly whether you had done enough training for the event. Once we had made it to the top, the effort was well rewarded with sweeping vistas of the Helderberg Mountain and False Bay, followed by long sections of sweeping single track, river crossings, and undulating jeep track through the Vergelegen Nature Reserve. This brought us to the foot of the historic Gantouw Pass, a compulsory portage section. While hauling our steeds up this 1.2 km section and admiring the ruts made by the Voortrekkers when they took their wagons over the mountain, I couldn’t help wondering how bad the Brits must have been to force such an endeavor.
Once over the top and back on the bike, the lush green fields at Oak Valley were calling, but only after we had negotiated the pine forest trails that the Grabouw area is famous for. Thereafter, it was time to find a tent, put our feet up and rest for what Johan Kriegler, the man behind the W2W, calls 'Play Day' (playing on the single track sections and obstacles without too much grafting).
Oak Valley - (68 km and 1,350 m climbing)
The crisp morning air was alive with anticipation and excitement as riders lined up for PLAY DAY and a route that consisted of 70% purpose-built single track. And let’s not forget the seven bridges that criss-crossed the streams of the beautiful Paul Cluver Wine Estate.
The bridges were definitely the highlight of the day and a prime example of the legacy that the organisers and land owners are building, with Paul Cluver himself getting hands on with the construction of the bridges with names like RAKA, AASVOEL and LUISLANG to name but a few.
This stage was an absolute treat, with flowing trails, wide berms, and no serious climbs to overshadow the joy of spending the day on your trusty steed. All too soon we were back at Oak Valley and swopping the day’s war stories with fellow riders, which continued well into the night over the flow of cold beer and smooth red wine. Thoughts of day three’s 'cruise' down the mountain to the beach and the sound of cheering fans and crashing waves were far from thought.
Photo credit: Jetline Action Photography
Oak Valley to Onrus - (77 km and 1,450 m climbing)
This stage was decidedly different to that of stage two, as there was an air of excitement mixed with something else. Whether it was the after-effect of all the cold beer and smooth red wine, or the realisation that it was the last day of riding before returning to the humdrum of daily life, or the fact that we realised it was not all downhill to the beach, who knows. After a couple of small climbs to warm up tired legs, we hit some more single track, which the race has become known for, before a mad descent down the old Kat Pass to Botriver and more flowing trails down the Botriver valley.
Before long, a glance at the GPS informed us that we’d covered more than 40 km in well under two hours, and I was still feeling fresh. Brilliant, but wait, we’d only climbed 450 m. Cruising along the Karwyderskraal Road, I looked up to see the turquoise FNB gazebos at the next water point, halfway up the mountain, and a long line of riders slowly climbing towards it. Behind that mountain there were another two clearly visible in the distance and beckoning. With most of the climbing lying ahead, it was time to put the head down and crank those pedals up the long, steady climbs, while getting baked in the windless valleys of the Hemel and Aarde area. After a brief stop at Hamilton Russel and with 13km to go, we put in a last push up the final climb to the top of Rotary Drive, and hoped to see some whales in the bay for our efforts.
Our efforts were richly rewarded with a sighting of a few whales chilling out in the noon sun. From there, we kicked in the high gear for a fast, flat finish along more flowing, forest single track, across the Peri Pallet boardwalk and Onrus River bridge, before crossing the finish line at the Onrus Caravan Park.
There is no doubt that the W2W team has got the mix right with this event. The route is challenging yet tremendous fun, the vibe and food in the race village awesome and with FNB as sponsor things can only get better. And if more riders watch Sven Lauer’s training tips videos, hopefully the trails will be less congested.
Entries for the event usually open in mid February and fill up almost immediately, so make sure you follow the event on Facebook and Twitter for updates because believe me, you don’t want to miss out on this one!
For more information about the W2W, visit www.wines2whales.co.za