Words by: Frans le Roux / Max Sullivan
Very few races in SA can claim that they have 3 000m of vertical ascent on offer. The first ever Imbuko Big 5 MTB Challenge took place in Wellington at the end of February – here’s how it went down.
When I met up with renowned route builder Pieter van Wyk back in 2018, he told me about his plans to create the ultimate one-day climbing suffer fest of an event in Wellington. He mentioned some very optimistic distances and altitude gains and a few weeks later the Imbuko Big 5 MTB Challenge event was officially launched. The event combines all of the notorious climbs in the greater Wellington area and somehow manages to link them together to create a 78km loop with a scary 3 000m of ascent.
Let’s start off with a disclaimer – I was ill with a stomach bug before the event and three days prior also jumped on a different bike. Needless to say, this hampered my progress and I found the going tough.
The event got underway at a buzzing race village at Imbuko Wines and the 320 strong field was greeted by
unfamiliar cool temperatures. The route started out by heading directly towards the Dutoitskloof Pass and the first climb of the day – Hawekwa. Although being the second longest climb of the day at 10.2km, we rode in the shade for the entire time which was an absolute blessing. The trail pointed down towards the first waterpoint, but riders had to navigate a tricky section surrounding the Brooklyn Bridge. Trails here are
mostly powdery sand and grip levels were extremely low. The second climb, Seven Peaks took us up a tight
singletrack with some giant rocks thrown into the mix. At 4,4km in distance we managed to gain almost
400m in altitude. My favourite section of the entire route was the famous Cool Runnings downhill section
which followed and the stoke was high for the next couple of minutes.
We covered a longish tar section to arrive at the tough and technical Bainskloof Trails. Starting with the switchback laden Aap D’huez we safely made it to WP2. After a fast downhill singeltrack section we
started with the longest and arguably the toughest climb of the day – the Obiekwa. At 11.1km and a heart
rate pounding 820m of ascent myself and the riders around me gave up on thinking we’ve reached the top
every time we summited a corner/turn. It was also during this section that I got dizzy, stopped, unloaded
my breakfast and crawled my way towards WP3. Needless to say, I was in trouble and after spending
four hours in the saddle I decided to call it quits.
Luckily, I managed to get a report on the last 20km from Full Sus mate and top rider Max Sullivan.
I too was having a tough time on the bike, struggling with a bit of back pain and a lack of condition in the mountains prior to the event. Nonetheless, I would suffer on the way up and forget all about it on the way down, exiting the singletrack sections with a smile on my face. Once you reach WP3, it is relatively smooth sailing, with only two climbs remaining you can start to feel the sense of accomplishment as the bulk of the climbing is behind you. The heat had picked up and was slowly edging towards 30 degree’s plus, luckily WP 4 and 5 weren’t too far apart. The second to last Groenberg climb went by in a flash as the terrain smoothed out and the average speed picked up. Thankfully there were some easy flat km’s before the penultimate climb of the day, which was tougher than expected. It is a concrete jeep track section called Beulah, that has featured in the Cape Epic before and it gets steeper and steeper as you wind you way back towards the Imbuko Wines farm. If it weren’t for the smooth concrete surface (which I had trouble staying on at times), I might have found myself slowly pushing my steed as the African sun baked our backs. It is a rather tough finish to say the least, but once again, after the suffering, we were rewarded with a truly downhill coast to the line.
It was a fantastic feeling to free wheel into the finish to meet friendly faces, ice cold refreshments and a wet cloth to keep you cool or clean up a bit. After a quick shower it was time to kick back on the grass in the shade. With wine, beer or coffee on offer, I found myself hanging around in the picturesque Winelands for the afternoon. I believe this event will become an iconic classic on the South African calendar.