Words- Doug Bird

I’ve done a lot of racing in my time as a multi sportsman. It’s taken me all over the world to places like Austria, Spain, Hungary, Germany and Morocco. It’s taken me to parts of South Africa that one wouldn’t typically visit like Cradock, Bethlehem, Reitz and the Witteberg Mountains in the Free State to name a few.

When I sit back and think about all those experiences, they all fall short of what the Old Mutual JoBerg2c was for me.

So, when I got offered the opportunity to hop on my bike for the eighth edition of this great ride (as opposed to being on the microphone as I have for the last seven years). I jumped at it! Now, if there is one thing I’ve learned from my seven years as the event MC, it’s that this is not an easy ride. For some reason, most riders I meet think that it’s an easy stage race option but by Stage Four and 400km later they begin to realize that there is work to be done.

I like to break the ride down into thirds, as each third is so different to the other not only in hospitality but in terrain. Each is unique and challenging in its own way.

Credit: Em Gatland
Credit: Em Gatland

The Flat Lands:

The first three days for me were the most difficult. Although I had put in the hard work in the lead up to the event, it takes some time for your body to come to terms with the task at hand. By the time you line up to take on the 122km of Stage three, your wrists, hands and ass aren’t feeling great. It’s simply one of those things you must deal with and overcome. But somehow, when you wake up for Stage Four, your body has found its groove. Climbing onto your bike, you feel as one.

When you look at the route profile, one would think that the first third would be the easiest since there is under 1200m of climbing each day. The reality is that is what makes them so tough! They are long and flat (116km, 93km & 122km) meaning you must pedal for each kilometre! There is nowhere to hide no matter how much time you have put into the saddle in the lead up to the event. Another thing I learned about the first third is not to go too hard. Try not to get caught up when those around you are averaging 32kph 60km intoStage Two! You need to play the long game at this race!

That being said, the first three days are incredibly rewarding. From a route builder’s perspective, the flat lands of the Free State are hard to work with. But somehow, Craig “Wappo” Wapnick and Glen Harrison have managed to strike the perfect balance between the fast “km munching” dirt road sections and flowing single track.

What struck me the most was how beautiful the Free State is, how welcoming the people are and the size of the farmer’s tractors! It is without doubt the bread basket of South Africa and we got to ride through the heart of it!

The highlights of the first third for me was “Boer Bull Descent”, “Jabulani’s single” track & Mt Paul. Mt Paul is towards the end of a very long Stage Three and is the first real climb and single track descent of the race. It is so well built you can simply trust the trail and let her fly! It was the perfect end to the “flatlands” and a sign of things to come!

The Transition:

From a route overview perspective, Stage Four is a definite highlight as it marks the transition from the flat Free State into the mountainous KwaZulu-Natal. It’s the official Stage One of the Berg & Bush Descent and the first real taste of what the race organizers refer to as “proper mountain biking”!  I couldn’t agree more! After the flat terrain already travelled, riders were like kids in a candy store! Unless of course they were “dirt roadies” … Their days of being able to push big watts and go fast in a straight line were over. Thank goodness for that because the lads made me bleed at times!

The Stage Four trails are a perfect balance between being challenging but totally ridable. The faster you go the more technical it gets! I got to chase Ollie Burnett of PYGA Industries down “Bezuidenhout’s Pass” where we reached speeds of 62kph. Let’s just say that the stoke levels were at an all-time high when we reached bottom but we were also happy to be in one piece!  And just when you think the trail couldn’t get any better you arrive at “Long Drop Pass” which snakes its way off the back of Spioenkop Mountain. This section of trail has had a total revamp headed up by Rob Dormehl of the Garden Route Trail Park. He focused on making the trail a little wider and has peppered the drop with perfectly placed berms which allow you to carry your speed nicely.

Stages Five and Six are tough, it’s as simple as that. With four days in the legs we approached the two largest climbing days as we had to make our way up to the town of Underberg from Winterton. We also moved from the typical African thorn-veld and into the mist belt of the midlands. These stages do not make up part of the Berg & Bush, and as such, the trails have had to be developed from scratch, a job that Gary Green (one of the event organizers) had his team shot the lights out on!

A highlight for me was the “Rock & Roll” trail on Stage Six as we dropped down into the Umkomaas River. This raw, rocky and natural trail has been worn out by herds of cattle over the decades. Thus, the flow was fantastic and you had multiple line options. I ride a PYGA Stage Max and this trail allowed me to get every inch of confidence out of my bike, take on the rock gardens with confidence and generally just pin my ears back.

The fun didn’t last all day as we then had some big climbs to conquer in order to reach our next destination, Glencairn Farm just outside of Underberg.

My highlights for Stages Four through Six were, “Great wall my China”, “Bezuidenhout’s Pass”, “Long Drop Pass”, “Harrison’s Pass”, “Rock & Roll” and “Sky Fall”. None of the climbs jumped out at me in terms of being memorable but they do test you!

joBerg2c 2 credit Em Gatland

To the Beach:

Enter the final third of the race! Waking up at Glencairn Farm for our Stage Seven signalled that we were in the heart of sani2c country. Lush green fields, plenty of dairy cows and timber. The mood on the line was buoyant as it was the shortest stage of the race being only 82km with 914 meters of climbing. The “rest” day of the Old Mutual joBerg2c … Or so we thought! Personally, I found day seven to be the toughest. Despite feeling strong on all preceding stages, I struggled. I guess it was inevitable. After speaking to a few veterans of the race, they all noted that everyone that takes on the nine-day challenge will have at least one day where they pay their school fees regardless of how much training you have put in.

So, what did I do? I took it easy! I took the day to just enjoy my surroundings, the trails and the people I met along the way. The trusty GoPro was taken out on many an occasion to capture the beauty that surrounded us. I also wanted to ensure that I had some gas left in the tank for the beast that is Stage Eight!

Waking up to the prospect of dropping down into the Umkomaas Valley along the world-famous trails that Farmer Glen and his team have created had me running around like and excited Jack Russel with a ball! I can confirm that the hype is real! Man, that trail is fantastic! It has something for everyone. It’s completely ridable regardless of your skill set. Its fast and seems to last forever. The hardest part is trying to hold back a little and not burn all your matches in the first 36km as the second half of Stage Eight is a stone-cold killer if you are blown.

Enter “Steve’s Spruit” and the new “Iconic Climb”. You will notice that I have not mentioned any climbs in my story so far, but these two little gems are deserving! It’s a bit like taking a double jab after a long seven and a half days in the saddle but a fantastic challenge. I managed to get through “Steve’s Spruit” with a half smile, half grimace but “Iconic” got me. I managed to ride about half of the climb and simply ran out of gears. I am running a 1×11 – 32/46 ratio which offers great range but I was calling out for my 2×10 and thumbing my shifter hoping to find that extra gear on a few occasions. Iconic is very steep; 3.2km long with an elevation gain of 400m. There is only one riding line that winds its way up an old rocky jeep track with many little kickers to test your resolve and climbing control. Lose a wheel and it was game over, time to get walking.  To those riders that made it, respect! The climbing for the day isn’t over once you summit, but in comparison to what we had just overcome, it was manageable. We also got to sample the newly built “Sally’s Dance” which lifted the spirits immensely.

Stage Nine. The champagne stage! In similar fashion to Stage One, Stage Nine in a non-racing neutral stage. Everyone gets the same time. The typical batch start format is shelved and riders got to leave Jolivet Farm, at their leisure, between 07H00 and 08H00. This meant that we had the likes of team PYGA EuroSteel, Phil Buys & Matthys Beukes, starting late and riding through the field. I thoroughly enjoyed the concept. It was great to be able to hang on to the wheel of the big dogs for a few 100 meters or so! It also gave the field the opportunity to slow down and chat through their experiences.

A team (We Fear no Beer) I met back on Stage Two ended up becoming mates over the nine days as we rode much of the way together. I can now call Brandon and Raymond mates. We had some great laughs reminiscing over our journey, the beers consumed at the water points and the few sketchy moments on the trail where we nearly ran out of talent! Just another awesome take home from the event!

Pic credits- Em Gatland
Pic credits- Em Gatland

As you hit that floating bridge in Scottburgh on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal, you realize that you have just completed something truly special and unique. It’s an experience that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. To add to the sense of occasion, we all got handed a bottle of champagne as we crossed the line, popped the corks and celebrated!

Would I recommend this event? Let’s just say that if you consider yourself a mountain biker and you don’t do this race, you are doing yourself a disservice!

Is it an easy stage race? Absolutely not! You will need to do your homework and put in the saddle time if you are to enjoy the experience. Just because the three musketeers (Glen Haw, Gary Green & Craig Wapnick) have worked hard at ensuring a relaxed atmosphere at the event does not mean it’s a walk in the park.

The Old Mutual joBerg2c’s tag line is “The Route is King” but if I am honest, they could apply that same tag to all aspects of the experience. Every aspect of the event experience was carefully planned and supported by the local communities across all nine days. Well done Farmer Glen, Gary and Craig, you guys have created something very special. It was privilege to take part.

Until next year, keep it pinned and your wheels on the ground!

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