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.