WINES2WHALES SWITCHBACK

Words By: Shayne Dowling

I have done 5 W2W’s and was quite frankly looking around for other events to tackle. Just prior to the global pandemic and lockdown the organisers announced that the route was to be switched back on itself – Hermanus to Lourensford . I immediately decided this was a must do event. After a year postponement this year the event went ahead and I was lucky enough to line-up for the inaugural SWITCHBACK!

Wines2Whales is one of the iconic stage races in SA – a challenging 3 day MTB stage race from Lourensford in Somerset West to the popular holiday resort of Hermanus. A LOT of people have done the race – and to be clear, while it is a race most of us are riding to finish. Another thing that most forget but are quickly reminded: the route isn’t easy! 200kms on a saddle in the mountains isn’t easy. And it’s not meant to be, you need to train and you need to be fit or you are going to suffer. It’s a challenge and I guess that’s what so cool about it – you can test yourself on a course that is good enough to test the elite. It’s not the Epic and it’s not meant to be, it’s a 3 day stage race that gives you a little sample of what the Epic is about, however you certainly get treated like you were on the world’s premier stage race: everything is done professionally, from the announcers – at all the water tables, to food and drink to what is probably the best race village of any event in SA. I also happened to find out first hand that they have incredible medical facilities – not just on-route but courtesy of MediClinic a full blown ward at the village – including an ICU. Incredible.

But let’s not dally any more – let’s talk Switchback! This was the first event and as you can imagine there would be things to improve. Frankly very little. The “switched” route (it became apparent the organisers did not like me saying “reversed”…) is brilliant. In fact I never heard one person say that they preferred the “down” ride. I have to take my hat off to JK (Johan Kriegler) and the route planners and builders, it’s insane. You think you know the route, you think you know where you are but there are so many new sections, not to mention sections that ride so differently going in the opposite direction (I nearly said “reverse” but that doesn’t make sense does it?) that you don’t realise you’ve done this before. The route is tough but it also has sections that are really clever and frankly make the experience a lot better, a couple on Day 1, some great bits on Day 2 – I’m still recovering from Day 3 and can only thank the local farmers, whose land you traverse, for their God sent additions of irrigation canals, dams and streams – did I mention it was 37 degrees with 80% humidity…. I swore a lot!

 

Image by Sam Clark FNB W2W

DAY 1

Speaking of hot – Day 1 from Hermanus, that had a nice neutral zone warm up before you hit the Rotary Drive climb, a tar road that was long and damn steep but nicely do-able, reached a toasty 35 degrees. After Rotary Drive the Karwyder’s road was a grind and somewhat of a relief as we had expected to follow the old single track route that also had some interesting sandpits in it. Fortunately we went straight up the dirt road and into the Karwyders singles at the top. What a pleasure going down the “pylon” route, along some new purpose built singletrack to finally join up with the contour path across the farmlands on your way to Bot River. The Wildekrans trails are really fun and then it’s water point and the Kat Pass (from Bot River to Houw Hoek hotel) – which I suspect most people were concerned about. The route had a lekker little surprise there in that you climbed a new singletrack that made for a much nicer ascent and before you knew it, you crossed the railway track and were on the actual jeep track pass. The pass is bloody steep and difficult so be prepared! Nah only joking – it’s gradual and really a nice ride. The 35 degrees centigrade with no shade however made it a challenge for someone like me who is a double-cab without a radiator. The legs were good but the heat was a killer – I suspect it hurt a lot of people with a number not finishing . After refueling on those brilliant little nougat Zoom bars and drinking liters of ice cold purple mooty from USN – that was super tasty and I’m sure got me to the finish line – it was a really nice ride to the cold beer at Oak Valley.

Image by Nick Muzik FNB W2W

DAY 2

Day 2 is always referred to as “play day” and while it is certainly the day that offers the most fun, it’s no session on the merry-go-round. The route has changed, not just for our enjoyment but also because of changes to areas available on private land, the changes are superb. The route is tough but fair and it really is fun – with an insane amount of singles! The vibe is the same, the runs are the same and as always your skills are put to the test. I definitely learnt a lesson on this day – DON’T TAILGATE! The trails were dusty and dry and you either back off or follow your partner blindly, the latter is not the right option! 42kms in we came down another fun, fast section of single track and on the last obstacle, a log drop-off and we concertinaed with a fella who was caught out and who had slowed down considerably – my partner was had closed up fast and went over yelling “drop-off” and managed to hold it together – I had slowed down and went over far too slowly, bottomed out my fork and went over the bars… not my finest moment but spectacular particularly with a nice hematoma and forearm covered in claret – enough whining… the new route to the last water table before the notorius Thandi Switchbacks was fantastic and I would suggest it stays! Again after the switchbacks it’s a fairly chilled ride, except for JK’s well-known sting in the tail which in this case was a little kick up the Oak Valley, Harrier Hawk trail and then a stunning flowing run into the race village.

Image by Sam Clark FNB W2W

DAY 3

Day 3 is undoubtedly the toughest. As I said the race gladiators (that’s us!) who take 4-5 hours plus daily, hit the mid-morning open oven temperature of 37 degrees. This really made the going tough as we worked our way up through the sandy A-G section of singles from the Grabouw Country Club to the Gantouw Pass portage. Once there it was short lived relief from the cooling breeze, exquisite view and encouraging cacophony from the ever bubbly Susie Husselman and another welcome face and friend Sean Peters, who never seem to get tired egging on the entire field. A quick pic to prove we had been there and off the bike and walk down the steep and challenging old ox-wagon route then used to cross the Hottentots Holland Mountains. Walking down is definitely easier than walking up! Leaning on the bike and using the brakes makes it seem so – definitely a lot less cramping that’s for sure! This, however, is where the pain cave starts… the heat had really ramped up and the transistion route from Gantouw’s became grueling. Water tables were a relief although the USN tables had been depleted by inconsiderate riders who had filled up their pockets and hydration packs with the gels and energy bars, some people really know how to take the piss when it comes to “freebies”. The last two water tables also indicated the last two climbs – one being short and hellish steep the other being a gradual mind-f*^# that just doesn’t seem to end – not to mention the “bend that isn’t the end” (thanks Ash Moffatt for the warning!), climbing you see what you think is the top – a blind corner that when you turn your mouth falls open as you see the tiny figures of riders what seems miles above you. Head down and trap your mielie off – you’re nearly there. The top is unreal with incredible views over False Bay and the beautiful winelands around Somerset West. You have made it! Or have you? Lourensford Ultimate is the last gnarly, bone-shaking downhill switchbacked (of course), singletrack that seems to be never-ending! I had a little fall again (similar to above – slow learner…) but beside that it was a spectacular rip down the mountain to the finish line. It really was a tough day but damn it was hard not to smile as you head under the gantry. The W2W’s is a partnered race and I quickly learnt how important this dynamic is – at all levels – and why it can be challenging but also rewarding. Thanks to my partner Nick Durrant who certainly kicked my ass, encouraged and pulled me over the line. Also thank you to all the volunteers, marshals, staff and especially medics (in my case) at the event. It is truly a world class event that us weekend warriors are privileged to be a part of. The Switchback has undoubtedly breathed a new lease of life into what was already an iconic event.

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