These days the South African mountain biking stage race calendar is literally bursting at the seams. We are one of the luckiest countries in the world to have such a variety of races to choose from. Our beautiful country plays host to various events ranging in distance, difficulty, and format. I was lucky enough to get an entry into the 2016 Grinrod Berg and Bush Great Trek. This is one of the longest running and most popular events on the racing calendar. It is held in October each year and due to popularity, they host three events. The Berg and Bush Decent, which hosts the racing snakes, the Berg and Bush Great Trek which is held in the middle of the week and usually hosts the more informal “social” crowd. Then the 2 day event happens the following weekend. The Decent and Great Trek follow the exact same route and format. A 3 day event with distances ranging from 97km on day one to 50km on day 3. A true highlight has to be the location and if you want to ride some the most diverse and varied trails, then this race is for you. The race begins on the Free-state border with Kwa- Zulu Natal at the top of the infamous Drakensberg escarpment, which you drop down. The following two days are spent exploring the bushveld of KZN on cattle paths and hand cut single track. To try and explain my excitement for this race is near impossible.
My partner and I had a proper preparation for the event. We covered the distances and trained diligently to ensure we would enjoy the race as much as possible. Stage racing is a different kind of racing. You have to consider all the different factors which come into play. Riding your bike for three consecutive days, the weather, recovery, hydration and nutrition strategies all play a part and you need to be very clear and have a plan in place to cover all of these. Also keep in mind you are sleeping on a mattress in a tent in the bush and people around you have very different habits to your own. We had a good build up and we were ready to tackle the race. We arrived at registration and like any well-oiled machine we were greeted by friendly and efficient worker ants who had us sorted with our paperwork and logistics for the following three days. The first night was spent at the race start, a beautiful location on the Drakensberg drop, our tents overlooking the Sterkfontien dam. The evening unfolded with a delicious dinner and the race briefing where all the nitty gritty details are explained and you start feeling a lot more at ease about spending three days in the middle of nowhere. As we exited the dining tent we were greeted by a ferocious wind. My worst fear. I knew the next day we had to ride Solly's Folly and the Drakensberg Drop and from their names I knew it would involve descending on cliff trails from the top of the Drakensberg escarpment into KZN. That’s a long way down… But now we had an extremely strong wind to deal with too. I am not the heaviest girl in the camp and so you can imagine my vivid dreams of being blown off the drop and the event organizers finding my body and looks of “shame, poor skinny girl didn’t make it, she just couldn't keep the rubber side down.” The restless night’s sleep with tents flapping wildly in the wind was not making for a positive race energy. Up early to get organized and ready, the wind still howling, we fluttered around getting dressed, dropping off luggage and getting bikes sorted. Day 1 consists of 97km of riding, 1200m of ascent included, so not all downhill. The weather forecast showed a cracker of a day peaking at 40 degrees. This could be a long hard day in the saddle. We made our way to the start chute and the announcer explained how we would need to be re-routed away from a section on the drop called “great wall my china”, because of the high winds. The trail runs about 5-10 meters from the edge of the cliff and you ride for about 200 meters along the escarpment with magnificent views. The visions of me blowing off my bike returned and my stomach dropped. Would I be able to stay on my bike? Oh well, too late to back out now. I suppose I would make the TV highlights should that happen... hee hee. The one saving grace mentioned by the announcer was that the wind would be, for the most part, behind us as we covered the 97km. I guess if it pushed me, I would want it from behind to get me home a little quicker.
And just like that the buzzer sounded and we were off on our journey. I generally don't like the first 5km of ANY race. Everyone has a feverish energy that translates into the pace being too high. You feel slow and sluggish and yet people look like they are flying by and all you can think is you are going to be left behind so you too speed up to hold the group you are in. This race was no different. Cyclists shot out of the venue and rode the first 5kmas if the end of the world was approaching us. Soon enough everyone settled and the riding could be appreciated. The first 15km leads you towards the escarpment and it is just amazing to ride amongst some small peaks of the Drakensberg.
The terrain begins to change as you get closer to the drop, you can literally see where the escarpment falls away and you are cycling straight for it. The wind was howling and my partner and I decided to descend with caution as it wasn’t worth getting injured in the first 40km of our 210km journey. The Berg and Bush is infamous for this drop. In 30km you drop down the escarpment via hand cut single track and rolling trails. It is spectacular. The riding is free flowing and exciting. The trail cuts into the side of the mountains and you can roll all the way down with ease. Very few trails can provide an hour long super tube of descending fun like that. It truly is indescribable. We made it down in one piece, often forgetting about the “caution” part and having loads of fun. The trails are challenging but not too technical, perfect for a fun descent for all levels of rider.
Once you are at the bottom the route flows through farmland, bush veld, district road and single track. The wind mostly played along by blowing behind us but we did have times of cross winds which required a little more concentration. The water points are a treat. Stage racing requires you to fuel for the following day so my partner and I made it a rule to stop at every water point and sample the delights. And this stage race does not disappoint. Cakes, sandwiches, sausages, sweets, fritters, pancakes, fruit. It was a dining experience, not just a water stop. After a long, hot and dry day in the bush you are rewarded with a sweet little section called the Garden of Eden just before the finish. It is a 10km single track section hugging the Tugela river and is a welcome change and breath of fresh air under the forest canopy, and just like that the finish line rolled around on day 1. The race village is well thought out and every amenity is easily reachable. After a tough day on the bike, the last thing you want to be doing is walking around trying to find your tent, or the bathroom etc. The location on the banks of the Tugela river is magnificent. The Chill Zone under the trees and your tent literally on the river was very special. This year the event offered free beer and free chocolate milk. Ill repeat that. FREE BEER and CHOCOLATE MILK. Now tell me why you don’t want to do this race?
After a good night’s rest Day 2 arrived, a 60km circular route ending back at the race village. The day included some tough climbs but also some fun descending sections of trail. We set off at a gentler pace and soon found our rhythm. The weather was perfect. An overcast day and temps reaching 25 degrees. Perfect riding weather. The highlight of this stage has to be for every hill you climbed and swore at, a flowing, fun single track descent followed. A fun day of challenging climbs, fast descents and bush veld splendor at every turn. It must be said that this race is enjoyable for all. The advanced rider will find as much enjoyment as a novice. That’s how well built the trails are. You can ride at your own pace and leisure, be that fast or slow, be cautious or ride with careless abandon. There are overtaking opportunities and no bottle necks, a great achievement for any stage race trail builder. The stage is only 60km and so that leaves plenty of time afterwards to spend under the trees in the chill zone with an ice cold beer, getting a massage, or taking a nap. You feel like you are on a mini holiday and the stresses of your everyday life seem so very far away. The afternoon was spent chatting, feet up and (free) beer in hand. The food in the camp is excellent. Being in a farming district, and the event organizer being a cattle farmer, you felt like you were being served food freshly sourced and prepared. Farm veggies and salads, huge steaks and fresh bread. True hospitality and care was put into the menu and preparation. Another plus when you are away from home.
Day 3 began with a certain sadness knowing this would be over very shortly. The day has some great highlights, the most popular and well known being the infamous Spioenkop climb, and then the decent off the mountain. The climb is only 1.4km long but features a 22% gradient at times. It is a true test to make it to the top and receive your “I conquered Spioenkop” sticker being handed out to the riders who made it up without getting off their bikes. The climb also comes in the last 15km of the day so it is a true challenge. The day's riding again features such amazing trails, riding dry river beds, climbing red rock hills, following natural cattle paths carved by the cattle moving across the farms and then arriving at the Spioenkop climb. I am happy to report I made it up and got my sticker. The most welcome sight was the last water point, with its delicious treats, at the top of the climb. The decent is again spectacular. 13 km of flowing single track and cliff paths taking you all the way down to the race village. Another gorgeous day of riding. There are truly unique and special features to this race. It caters for all types of riders who are fit enough to complete the distances, but the trails are truly first class. The organizers and team behind the event are passionate and you can feel the heart and soul of the event. Often women are few and far between on stage races. Perhaps they don't believe they could complete a race like this or the bug has not bitten, but I know that all of my riding girlfriends would have loved doing this race and I will defiantly be back for some more Berg and Bush magic!
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