It was Shayne Dowling’s first three day stage ride, he had seen all the guys wearing their jackets with pride like a medal and knew he had to find out what Wines2Whales was all about. And to get the jacket of course.
So with my programme by Dr Mike Posthumus behind me I felt the butterflies in my stomach as I drove to what was supposed to be the toughest day of Wines2Whales Adventure. Let me change that slightly, it wasn’t butterflies because they couldnt have survived in all that rain – more like a school of fish!
I need to kick off with mentioning the organisers. I know it’s normally something one would do at the end of a piece, but this ride deserves the change. Despite the scale of the event, the challenges of the weather, the logistics of three events over eleven days, safety, water stations, marshalling, technical back-up, accomodation, food, transport, utilisation of local communities and their upliftment, contributing to the maintenance of the environment and special places like the Gantouw Pass, the Stillwater Sports crew took everything in their stride and provided a world class event. Nothing is forgotten and all are treated like top athletes. I would like to give a personal thanks to all the marshalls and crew that manned the stations, particularly on the first day (the lady marshall at the top of Gantouw deserves special mention, it was pouring down, wind howling and freezing – you were a real trooper, thanks!). Johan and his route building team once again did a superb job too. The commentators were also fantastic, they never welcoming you home enthusiastically, no matter if you were in the top group or crawled in eight hours later.
Day one was a shocker. Not because of the route, but solely due to the weather. It proved challenging and a real test of patience and commitment – I say this as someone who took over eight hours on the day. Our day, besides the weather, highlighted by the fact that a partnered stage race emphatically proves that the most important dynamic of taking part in such an event is the partnership. Despite my grumbling at the pace and Richard’s constant mechanicals we finished the day with smiles on our faces and enough humour left in the tank to sit together in the rain next to our car, had a beer and thank God that we didn’t have to stay in the quagmire that the tented village had trasnformed into – silver linings I guess.
It was a miserable day, but it was awesome! The route was stunning, with terrific climbs and long exhilarating descents. I can only imagine how much fun it would be in dry weather. Like most W2W’s newbies I had huge trepidation about the infamous Gantouw Pass compulsory portage – I have to admit that despite being soaking wet, it was actually amazing. Not nearly as tough as I had imagined, bearing in mind that we were tyre to tyre on the portage, with some fine chirps along the way (sort of like the seven dwarves going off to work…) I would do the ride again just for this – oh and the sublime single track through the young pine forest on the Elgin Valley side – open only to the W2W’s – it’s an absolute treat and a must to experience!
Day two saw the sun coming out and the front runners (and in our case there were at least 1 000 of them – in a field of 1 200 – yes, yes, I know…) ensured that if the trails werent tough enough we had to plough through the perfect chocolate mousse. In my opinion the second day is the toughest, it is slightly shorter, with less altitude gain, but what they don’t tell you about is the gradient. This day was all about a lot more shorter climbs with much steeper gradients – the kind that you either walk or you tough it out and feel the burn. In and around Oak Valley the routes are fantastic with sublime single track, the Paul Cluver Amphitheatre bridges and tracks, and of course the climb out of Thandi on the switchbacks stood out.
The final day was always going to be a cooker, but after a massage the day before, my legs felt remarkably good and having done the Houwhoek Tour a couple of times we knew what we were in for. A little vasbyt to the Houwhoek Inn, their tricky but fun switchbacks, followed by the complete jol and priviledge of blasting down the old wapad and now jeep track from the top of Houwhoek down to the happy village of Botrivier. The next few kays follow what is probably them easiest piece of riding on the rolling farmlands heading towards the climb into the Hemel en Aarde valley. The climb has one real highlight in Gaf se Bos, where the switchbacks wind tightly through Blue Gum forests. The Hamilton Russell climb is the last challenge with magnificent views from above Hermanus waiting for you. A short, gnarly, descent and some single track lead us back down to sea level where we speed along the Onrus beach over a huge scaffold bridge feeling like a million bucks.
The end is festive. A time to have a cold one, tuck into a burger and share the war stories. I have the jacket and can wear it proudly – we dieselled along and took forever to finish – but we did. This is a ride you have to put on your bucket list. Will I be back? Hell yeah! See you in the 2014 start chute!