Old Mutual joBerg2c – Ride the beloved country

8 May 2015



Words: Ico Schutte & Jessi Stensland | Photos: Ico Schutte, Jessi Stensland & Em Gatland


The Old Mutual joBerg2c is a nine-day, 900 km journey from the south of Johannesburg to Scottburgh on the east coast of South Africa that celebrates landscapes, cultures and the human spirit. It’s a feat unimaginable for most, but made possible by the passion of a few good men and women and their world class-organisation. Together, Farmer Glen, Farmer Gary and Craig ‘Wappo’ Wapnick put together a stage race that captured the imagination of racers and riders from South Africa and the world alike. From the first edition, they wholeheartedly adopted the mantra that ‘the route is king’ and year by year they continued to improve it with more purpose-built trails and ever-smoother terrain. Riders can always count on the course being scenic, challenging and often very rewarding.

However, the joBerg2c is not only focused on fun. It also has a very serious side to it and that is the upliftment of the communities along the way. The organisers involve schools, churches and charities along the way and pay them for their services, such as water points, catering, road crossings and so on. Not only does this offer a great sustainable fund-raising event for them but it also creates a unique and very personal experience for the riders.

On 24 April 2015, together with my partner Jessi Stensland (USA), we set out on the 6th rendition of the annual Old Mutual joBerg2c. It’s the second time for me but the first time and also the longest stage race for Jessi. After racing abroad, I am very excited to be back in my home country and showcasing it to her, as well as 101 other international riders and about 700 local riders.

From the get go you get the feeling that it will be a special event and it starts at registration with fantastic goodies from Stuf, First Ascent, Biogen and a really sweet Amped Carbon portable charger. That same night we were introduced to our three organisers; Glen, Gary and Craig, who took the stage with a relaxed and somewhat comedic approach to a race briefing.

Day one - Heidelberg to Frankfort (116 km)

Riders from all over the world arrived at Karan Beef in Heidelberg to start the 900 km journey from Heidelberg to Scottburgh.

Day one is a 116 km slug from Heidelberg to Frankfort and even our organisers called it the ‘ stage of the race’ due to its long, flat farm roads that require riders to pedal nearly every metre, especially when a bit wet and therefore good and muddy. It is also a neutral stage, which allows for plenty of time to meet and greet different riders along the route.

After driving through rain en route to Heidelberg, we arrived to a calm, though chilly race start, leaving riders wondering what to wear. Most opted for something a bit warmer, hoping to shed it at the Subaru Strip Station further down the road. Then we dropped our bags in the Avis Van Rental trucks, which transported our bags between stages every day.

Surrounded by a beautiful mist, we got going. The race started with a very short climb, the only one for the day, then rolled into a fun, single track before setting off on the farm roads between the mealies and cows.

Having battled a bug over the last couple of days, I finally felt good this morning and ready to give it horns. However, I soon realised that my body wasn’t responding and we had to slow down to a crawl.

At the halfway mark, riders had to tackle the daunting floating bridges to cross the Vaal River into the Free State. This 300 m long obstacle always provides great thrills and spills, as some unfortunate ones get it all wrong and go for a plunge in the river. Thankfully, the National Sea Rescue Institute was on standby to fish out the soggy ones. The trick here is to get up to a good speed and maintain it all the way to the other side. Unfortunately for me, this effort was too much and I ended up on the far bank in a fit of coughs and sputters. I had to make a very hard decision and decided to withdraw from the stage. This is a first for me and I had to hold back tears as I got a lift from the NSRI back across the river. The saddest part was missing out on water point 3, which is famous for its fantastic vibe and the great food provided by the Bambi Nursery School. On the plus side we did get a lift in the very fancy Subaru Legacy to the race village at Frankfort. Thanks to a fantastic shower, a couple of burgers served by smiling locals and an amazing spread of fresh fruit and veggies, this aching body felt better. After taking lots of meds and serious R&R, I hoped to be back on the bike in a day or two to complete this amazing journey.

Day 2 - Frankfort to Reitz (93 km)

By Jessi Stensland

Rain and wind shook the tents from time to time overnight, but fortunately we awoke at 5 a.m. to a still morning; cool but not cold. Ico had decided not to race and by default I found myself with a very handy assistant for the day; picking up my bike and a Seattle Coffee for me. The Seattle coffee company sponsored coffee for all the riders and would go on to make over 10,000 cups of coffee over the nine days for all the riders. The weather looked promising, though I still opted for my rain jacket, just in case. At 7 a.m. we were off. It was a casual, neutral start through the town and then onto the farm roads.

The first hour or so of the route had puddles from the night’s rain. Most riders chose to find the driest line on the road, even opting to slow to a snail’s pace as all funnelled through the one spot. I preferred to have a little fun, and having ridden in much muddier situations and knowing that my bike can handle it, I opted to cruise right through the mud. It turns out the only time my rain jacket came in handy was at the deepest crossing. While others chose right, I went into the unknown on the left and was knee deep and blinded for a moment before coming out ‘clean’ on the other side. I enjoyed that bit of entertainment, although I knew I would pay a bit for the early effort, as most of the remaining course - though beautiful - was a whole lot of wide open, flat road pedalling. An exception was a fantastic 10 to 15-minute stretch of single track just after the second water point with 25 km to go.

I felt re-energised as I navigated a few rocks and twists and turns for a bit, but a headwind most of the way back made it slow going. As I passed through the Wolf Sanctuary, I couldn’t help but stop for a few minutes to appreciate their beauty so close up.

I have to mention that water point 1 was a standout and beautifully situated in the hillside. Ico, my super helper, was there to fill up my CamelBak and clean and lube my chain, while I got some food. The boerewors, oh my, maybe the best I’ve ever had? I’ll never forget the face of the darling young boy, five-years old at most, who walked over to me, peered up and asked so sweetly, amongst the mayhem, “Would you like your glasses washed?” They came back cleaner than when I started that morning.

After six hours in the saddle I was stoked to make it to the finish. I cleaned up, ate and relaxed a bit and felt rejuvenated and able to tackle another day. I was hoping that Ico would soon be back in the saddle.

Day 3 –Reitz to Sterkfontein Dam (130 km)

We woke up to a cool, crisp and clear morning in Reitz. Using my TomTom Multi-Sport Cardio watch, I noticed that my resting heart rate was almost back to normal and decided that I couldn’t leave Jessi alone for the mammoth 130 km trek to Sterkfontein Dam. So I stocked up on meds, recalled the training I had done and applied bum to the seat of my bicycle.

And what a great decision it was! Soon after the start we passed the Lion Farm and had a quick stop to look at the mighty cats strut their stuff for the crowd.

Day three was a long one, but also the turning point in the race. It was the last time we pedalled hard and straight over the Free State flats. In the distance, the vast Drakensberg patiently awaited our arrival. Although we still had long, arduous stretches of district road to cover, the route was more entertaining than the previous days, with fun bits of single tracks in-between.

Water point two was a big hit, thanks to the Free State farmers who braaied buckets full of delicious boerewors. Jessi even used a bit of our break to try her hand at Afrikaaner art. After helping ourselves to a generous amount of food, we set off on the long 40 km stretch to the final water point.

At this stage, the wind picked up again and made for slow going, but we were in good spirits as most of the riding was on single track that flowed through the farm lands, with the locals who provided cheers, danced around and high-fives as we rode by.

In the meantime, the terrain started to change from flats to small hilltops, which most riders seemed to enjoy. After the final water point there was the matter of Mount Paul that had to be crossed, but this single-track climb offered stunning views and beautiful boulders to cruise through. Lucky for us, what goes up most come down and we were rewarded with a fast, fun and flowing descent. On the last couple of kilometres, we skirted around the massive, deep blue waters of the Sterkfontein Dam, to cross the line in just over seven hours and with big smiles plastered all over our faces.

Lunch was provided by Debonairs along with an amazing array of baked goods supplied by Harriston School; the perfect recovery after a long day in the saddle.

Day 4 - Sterkfontein Dam to Winterton (120 km)

Today things got serious! The scenery was seriously beautiful, the single track was seriously spectacular and the water points a serious feast! It was a day of never-ending fun and smiles.

We started with a quick 25 km fast and flat district road section that took us to the first climb of the day, a single-track climb that delivered us on the escarpment from where we had ridiculous views over the KwaZulu-Natal province. This section, known as ‘great wall my China’, is a ride on the edge of the cliff face to the border between the provinces.

Next up, well down actually, was Sollie’s Folly, an ears-flapping-in-the-wind downhill trail. I remembered this trail from a couple years back and man, it was still fantastic. I dropped the seat and ripped down. This neatly flowed into Bezuidenhout’s Pass, an old cattle track between farms. I was joined by two other lunatics and we raced and jumped our way to the water point.

Let me expand on these water points. They were not your average table with some old, flat coke, but rather a culinary buffet feast of boerewors, spuds, doughnuts, pancakes, fruits, chocolate fudge cookies, muffins, ice cream, brownies and on and on. I feel sad for the guys who took the race too seriously and missed out on these awesome treats.

From water point one, the next 30-odd kilometres were on fun, fast and flowing single track through different farms and into the African bush. This year they made the route easier and we rounded Spioenkop instead of climbing over it as previous years. It was a good decision. We still had a super-sweet descent on the long-drop single track and into some berms and jumps before the last water point.

From here, we had one more climb to go, aptly named the Puff Adder Pass; a good 5 km on single track and a climb that has bitten many riders. Luckily, we still had some left in the tank and made short work before the last 10 km into Winterton.

To end off the best day ever, we were treated to a performance by the world-famous Drakensberg Boys Choir.

Day 5 - Winterton to Nottingham Road (115 km)

By Jessi Stensland

The good news - it was the warmest morning of the event thus far. The bad news - it was also the sorest. Admittedly, the work of the last 450 km was taking its toll. Nonetheless, the race was long and we knew that any of our aches, pains, mojo and motivation would come and go hour by hour, so we kitted up gingerly but happily and with plenty of baby bum butter.

Unlike yesterday's jol on the single tracks, today was another pedal fest up and down the rolling hills, a few of which were steeper than the rest. Although the hills are a challenge, we preferred them to the flat sections as they offered a bit of relief, stretch and speed on the descents. The scenery beyond was captivating; bright green fields and bright blue sky, sparkling dams in the distance and even a river with a few fantastic waterfalls.

We cruised through the Midlands Meander to the finish at Clifton Preparatory School, which has been described as ‘heaven’ by the riders. The school kids took care of our every need at the finish line and there was so much food, so delicious and home-made with heart, that we were left wishing we could fit more of it in our full bellies. We felt incredibly lucky to have this opportunity, including the strength and spirit to get here by bike.

Day 6 - Nottingham Road to Glencairn Farm, Underberg (97 km)

The day got off to a good start as we received our fresh laundry from the staff at Clifton Prep School. Somehow they had managed to do all the riders dirty laundry overnight; not a small task! What sets this race apart from others is the constant contribution to the community. In this case, Miele, the laundry sponsor, paid the school for the services, giving back in that way.

We had challenging conditions at the start with mist filling the valley and forcing the organisers to have a long, neutralised zone on the first 25 km of road. It took roughly 45 minutes of riding for the mist to lift before the race got underway. The first half of the race was fairly undulating; first on pavement and then gravel road that led us to a big climb that finished atop Snow Mountain where, thankfully, there was also the much-needed first water point at the 45 km mark. I later found out was the highest point of the entire route at 1,844 m on top of Snow Mountain.

Jessi had a burst of energy going up the climb, while my tongue was dragging in the dirt as I tried to keep up. Although not much excitement in terms of riding, the scenery was still spectacular as we cycled through the mountains towards Underberg, in the southern Drakensberg region.

From here, we screamed down the 15 km of mountain pass to the ‘imaginary bridge’ at the Loteni River. Mentioned at the race briefing the night before, we were left not knowing exactly what to expect, but soon found out as we walked knee deep across the river, bikes over our shoulders. The legs did enjoy the cool water though.

From the river we had a long and hard climb up the aptly named ‘Valley of Death’ and finally, after four hours, my legs woke up and I felt really good going up. I even popped a wheelie for the camera. Unfortunately Jessi’s earlier burst of energy faded and we traded places for the rest of the ride. We soon made it to the water point on top of this long climb and enjoyed fresh-cooked boerewors right off the grill before heading on.

Next up was 10 km of hillside contour roads leading up to the first and only bit of technical riding for the day, Face Plantation. It was a fun little section that had some riders white knuckled on the brakes.

The last challenge of the day was Jack’s Lunge, a super steep and hard, technical climb. Many riders opted to walk this bit, but I still had the legs to give it a go and was stoked to make it to the top without putting a foot down.

For the last 10 km, we wandered through the picturesque Glencairn Farm and its beautiful little dams surrounded by trees with leaves in the fiery colours of autumn. Arriving broken and exhausted after seven long hours in the saddle, we settled into the splendid setting with the Drakensberg looming in the background.

Day 7 - Underberg to Mackenzie Club (84 km)

Day seven was scheduled to be a short, easy flowing, rest day. It was also the same route used for the famous sani2c race. To avoid congestion, the organisers batched us for the start and with our unofficial status, due to the withdrawal on the first day, we got the last batch. However, this worked out perfectly for us as we got to the front of the group and had the sensational sections of single track all to ourselves!

Single track and more single track was the order of the day. The ride was fast, flowing and too much fun. To keep things going, the route comprised of two single tracks built side-by-side, thus giving us the chance to pick a side and also cross over to pass other riders. On the steeper sections it felt like slalom skiing, my handlebars barely missing the trees as I raced down. At one point we sailed over a sturdy, sleek floating bridge sparkling in the sunshine. And for every climb we were richly rewarded with a fun downhill; the pain from the day before a distant memory.

Some riders had the pleasure of riding these trails on the new Pyga bikes, generously provided to keep them going after suffering terminal technical failures on their normal rides. Pyga, a South African bicycle manufacturer masterminded by Patrick Morewood, helped more than 20 riders cross the finish line during the event.

The scenery started to change as we got closer to the coast. We rode through spectacular indigenous forest and were surrounded by green at the Mackenzie Club. It was not yet 3 p.m. and all the riders were in.

Day 8 - Mackenzie Club to Lolivet (99 km)

This was undoubtedly the best day ever! There was 100 km of pure mountain biking heaven. Again we started in the special batch at the back of the group and worked hard to get to the front, to have clear tracks down the valley. Unfortunately, we caught the batch in front just as we hit the first of the day’s amazing descents, Ant’s single track. After manoeuvring our way through, we found some clear tracks down Yankee-doodle, a super-fun stretch.

Next up was Murray’s Meander, a sweet ride with breathtaking views over the mighty Umkomaas Valley. Although being batched from the start helps break up the groups, thanks to our technical riding skills we were often held up by slower riders. What really astounded me was the poor trail etiquette of some of them. Riders seem content to simply sit behind the rider in front and when politely asked if we could pass, would simply either refuse or tell us that, “There’s nowhere to go,” and “It’s like this the whole way,” when, in fact, the trail was often safely wide enough for two bikes. It seems people either lack the skill or understanding that they can move over just a bit.

When we created the chance and were able to get around each pack, we found some great open trail to enjoy, like Nick’s Pass, which gave my brakes a well-deserved break as Jess and I raced down the eight switchbacks to the next set of single track and down into the valley. All in all, there was about 20 km of stupidly fun trails.

From there the route flattened out and the newly cut trails followed the valley crossing the river a couple of times to the first water point at 39 km. At this point it been all downhill and we were well aware that we would have to pay our dues and climb out the valley. A full 35 km of climbing lay ahead of us to water point two, however we found this easy going and even has some fun single-track climbing. The last 4 km was hot and hard and I arrived at the water point famished.

After wolfing down a full boerewors dog and about a litre of Coke, we attacked the rest of the day. A steep and technical section dubbed Push of a Climb waited for us right out the gate and many riders were reduced to a push. However, the previous seven days of riding paid off and both Jess and I made it to the top without stopping.

The trail then flattened out into a section named Out of Africa, a spectacular trail through thorn veld. Once again the scenery changed as got closer to the coast and in the distance we can see the first of the sugar cane fields. At this point, there was only 15 km of undulating forestry roads with touches of single track in-between us and the finish at Jolivet Farm, where we would camp for the night between the rows of fruit trees.

This has got to be the best 100 km you can do on a bike and is a must do for every mountain biker. But be warned though, it’s not an easy ride and many riders found this to be another tough day in the saddle. For me, it was just too much fun to even notice that it was also a bit of work.

Day 9 - Jolivet Farm to Scottburgh (84 km)

And so all good things must come to an end and what a way to end a very special ride.

Right out the gate I notice the change as we found ourselves between the lush, green sugar cane fields, a startling contrast to the brown mealies we started with nine days ago.

The day’s ride promised to be fast and furious, as it is mostly downhill to the beach. We started off with fun roads and single tracks through the sugar cane fields of various farms. Although it was an easier day, we still had some short, steep climbs to contend with, the biggest being Work to be Done, which led us into Vernon Crooke’s Nature Reserve and more fun single tracks through the pristine South Coast bush.

This route has seen many changes since I last rode it in 2012. It is way more fun, with lots of extra single track, especially the riding in Ellingham Estate. With about 30 km to go, we were teased with the sight of the ocean sea as it came into view in the far distance. However, there were still many green, rolling hills between us and it.

In the very end, there was one last obstacle to contend with, another floating bridge. This one was 600 m long and dropped us onto a wooden palate pathway over the main beach and in front of many eager spectators to the finish line. Fun for most, but it can also be tenuous. This was the case in the women’s solo race when the third and fourth placed riders were battling it out, with mere seconds separating them on the bridge, and a rider in-between them crashed and took the chaser out along with him.

This year we had to use GPS navigation and our PowerTap Joule™ GPS led us all the way to the finish line without fail. We crossed the finish line stoked, thankful, strong and relieved all at once. It being Jessi’s first time to the Indian Ocean, we celebrated by jumping into the warm, refreshing water.

I am super grateful that I can live life to the fullest, and I’m also so proud of Jessi for taking on such a long event. Big congratulations to all the finishers, especially those that overcame serious challenges en route.

If you love riding your bike on great trails and enjoy good food, then this is absolutely the best ride in South Africa and a must do for every mountain biker!

Some tips on preparing for the race:

What I found is that many people can cover the flat roads and distance no problem, but the moment they had to deal with climbs they struggled. I would strongly recommend riders, especially living in the flats of Gauteng or the Free State, work on power-to-weight ratio, hill repeats (in heavy gears), strength work in the gym or heavy resistance training on a stationary bike.

The second part would be skills training, as many riders struggled on the single track even though these trails are only moderately difficult. Here, I would suggest finding bike parks in your area and riding the trails instead of just wide open roads. There are also many skills clinics on offer.

Make sure you can ride your bike for a six or seven-hour period over weekends and fit in some shorter interval workouts in the week.

For city dwellers, indoor training can be very effective in the week. Fifteen hours a week is more than enough, especially if you do some good hard intervals.

See you all at next year's joBerg2c.