After doing Sani2C on his cyclocross bike in 2014, STEVE SMITH tackles Berg & Bush … and bites off more than he can chew.
The lime green Cotic arced across the blue sky of a perfect KZN morning, its flat parabolic flight soundtracked by a string of profanities. “&#@% this! I am “&#@%-ing done with this dumb-arse race! Done!” This is not me. Not usually. Usually it takes a lot for Sensible Steve to lose the calm-underpressure persona he’s spent a lifetime layering around a catastrophically combustible Scorpio persona. Turns out, one of the needle-sharp white thorns that abound in and around these parts cannot only puncture a bicycle tyre with consummate ease, but puncture one’s self control too. We were two kays into Day Three of the 2017 Berg & Bush and this was the eighth … possibly ninth … puncture I’d suffered since the start two days earlier at Windmill Farm on top of the Drakensburg mountains. I stopped, got off my bike, picked it up, and hurled it into the thorny bush. I know … what an idiot. It was, of course, all entirely my fault. The day before, I had stupidly chosen to swap my trusty 700 x 35c Continental Cyclocross Kings for a pair of 700 x 40c WTB Nanos figuring the extra volume and more aggressive tread pattern would be a better option. Theoretically sound thinking. Except that on the morning of the start, both tubeless tyres were completely flat. I pumped them up again but little pin-pricks of white liquid kept bubbling though the sidewalls. (I’ve subsequently learned there was a problem with a batch of these tyres.) What could I do but pump them up once more, stuff some extra tubes into my back pockets, and hope the sealant would eventually bung up the tiny holes once we started riding. I know … again … idiot. A KZN storm of biblical proportions wasn’t helping much
either. Rolling up from the coast and slamming into the ‘Berg escarpment, we woke up on Day One to the sound that no-one in a tent wants to hear – especially when that tent is in the race village of a cycle race – thunder, lightning and pelting rain. For a while it looked as though the 100 km stage would be cancelled, but later that morning, the sun appeared and by around 10am organiser Gary Green and his crew made the “It’s a Go” call, albeit with a few provisos. 1. It was a neutral stage and would not be timed, and 2. The legendary Sollie’s Folly drop from the Drakensberg escarpment deemed too dangerous to ride and the event would start with the massed field following a race vehicle down the tarred pass before hitting the official trail route. It was on this tarred road that I stopped for the first time. The tyre couldn’t hold air and I had to pull over and stop, leaving the peloton to disappear into the distance. Five kilometres in and I was not just stone last, but stone last by some margin. Fortunately, a rather concerned Rob Vogel was waiting at the turn-off point and took the lead … and that’s pretty much the view I had of my riding partner and fellow cyclocrosser for the next three days. This basically sums up my race. I’d follow Rob, sweating bullets, puncture, sort it out, and belt off to chase Rob again. Obviously, it wasn’t great for him either, but he’s a standup guy who patiently waited without a single complaint and helped me sort out my rubberised
dramas. Kudos to you mate. The trails themselves across the changing landscape down to Em’seni camp were a mix of technical single track with some tricky climbs, stretches of flat but very bumpy cow trails (not good for a CX bike), smooth, flowing forest trails (quite pleasant on a CX bike) and fast district roads (CX bike heaven). Day One ended with the wonderful “Garden of Eden” trail through the dense, green forest next to the Tugela. What I remember most about the Day Two loop back to Em’seni was the mud. In the aftermath of the big storm, the dark loam and clay had turned into dense stick-to-your-bikelike-shit-to-a-shoe mud. It clogged up my tyres’ small knobblies and closed up what little tyre clearance existed between those 40c tyres and my frame. I slid, I fell, I bled, I stopped to scrape the muck off my tyres, I stopped to fix punctures, and I swore. Day Two was only 60 km long but still a hard day for me and, given the general whine I had going on, Rob probably gives a more realistic take on proceedings: “The route is a decent test of skill and ability and this is where Berg & Bush get it right. They don’t put in any killer climbs just for the sake of punishing the riders. It felt to me like there was always some sort of reward after each bigger climb. Beautiful vistas or some fun singletrack.” And that all brings us back to the start of Day Three and my trailside hissy fit. Fortunately that turned out to be the final flat tyre I had to endure and the rest of the 50 km ride was rather enjoyable. There was a tough but very rideable climb up Lantana Hill and was followed by great single-track riding through the ravines of Grootehoek before the famous climb up Spioenkop loomed. In parts tilting up by 20°, historic Spioenkop is a knee-bustingly steep ascent but tarred so there was enough traction for our CX tyres. The reward though, was epic … a long, flowing descent with big, sweeping berms and beautifully groomed singletrack was a total blast even on our bikes. With one last blast across the flat trail back to Em’Seni and underneath the Peri bridge, Rob and I crossed the finish line as clear winners of the 2017 Berg & Bush Vets Cyclocross category. Would I do it on a CX bike again? Honestly no, I don’t think I would. My steel Cotic Cx bike and I did Sani2C three years ago and I will certainly have another go at that, but Sani’s manicured trails are a far cry from the bumpier and rockier fare on Berg and Bush. It was properly hard and I’m proud to have finished, but the trails of this great event are best attempted on a bicycle that matches the title of this publication.