The nine hundred-plus mountain bikers gathered at Windmill Farm on Sterkfontein Dam in the Free State with big smiles in anticipation of a great day out at the Grindrod Bank Berg & Bush Descent. The morning conditions were perfect, but a warm day was forecast.
Phil Buys and Matthys Beukes (Pyga Eurosteel) won the stage in a time of 3:24:08, closing out Nico Bell and Wessel Botha in a sprint finish. The women’s race was won by Amy McDougall and Robyn de Groot (dormakaba) in a time of 3:47:47.
In the men’s race the main contenders were all together up until the last 30km, where Pyga Eurosteel and NAD made a break for the finish.
The morning started cool, with clear blue skies and a gentle breeze blowing. Experienced participants of the event would have known that this meant a perfect start but with warm conditions to come in the valley below.
The conditions were of little concern to the riders in A batch though. Primed, poised and ready to pounce onto the trails, the elites, the very fit, and the competitive amateurs stared straight ahead in their starting pen in anticipation of 94km of flatbox riding.
In contention, defending champs Matthys Beukes and Phil Buys (Pyga Eurosteel), Nico Bell and Wessel Botha (NAD) and Rossouw Bekker and Marc Fourie (Titan Valley Electrical Racing). Some familiar past race faces could also be seen, looking somewhat less serious, but still ready to go full throttle.
In the women’s front row Amy McDougall and Robyn de Groot (dormakaba) shared some smiles and banter with their main challengers, Theresa Ralph and Sarah Hill (Galileo Risk).
From the outset, the A batch was right into it. From Windmill, riders carefully crossed a tar road, but then it was rollicking, gravel, trail and bushveld to Em’seni. As is tradition with the Berg & Bush Descent, then men stuck together like sealant and sand until the first single track descent of the day, the world renowned, world class Sollie’s Folly.
Into the Sollie’s Folly trail first was Phil Buys, quickly followed by Matthys Beukes. From there the pace of the racing was throttled back, with the lead riders even stopping to enjoy the waterpoint treats.
“We were all together for most of the stage,” said Nico Bell. “It was only on the last 30km that we split from the main group. We rode with Phil and Matthys, attacking on the climbs and countering their attacks.”
With just 94km to cover and all riders in great racing shape, the winner was always going to come down to a sprint finish, the team entering the final single track trail Garden of Eden with the slightest advantage. After exiting “Eden”, it was a short sharp grassy climb to the finish, and this is where Beukes made the break.
All three riders chased, but ultimately it was Pyga Eurosteel who crossed the line a split second ahead of the NAD lads.
“The trails were great, as always,” said Beukes. “It was really nice riding, with some new single track that cut out portions of district road – all in all, a good day on the bike.”
Meanwhile, in the women’s race it was defending champion Amy McDougall riding with Robyn de Groot home in first place. Riding hardtails in preparation for the Spioenkop Sprint on Saturday 5 October, McDougall and De Groot were still able to steal a march on nearest rivals Theresa Ralph and Sarah Hill.
“The hardtails made it hard work, but we had a great time on the trails,” said McDougall. “We stayed with Theresa and Sarah until the first climb after Sollie’s Folly, but from there we pushed on and left them behind.” Both De Groot and McDougall have had major operations this year, with both confessing to being “new people” on the bike.
“I wasn’t ready to retire from racing,” said De Groot, “so it’s wonderful to be out here racing hard and feeling great.”
In the mixed category, Darren and Candice Lill (Summit) were dominant throughout. Candice has been in tremendous form on the UCI XC circuit, and that showed in her dismantling of the Berg & Bush route today. Some have even suggested that Darren might have been holding onto Candice’s pockets on the tougher climbs (perhaps fake news, though!).
For the rest of the field, it was a day of fun riding, incredible Berg scenery and the chance to stop and take it all in.
Selfies were snapped, photos were bombed, water tables greeted with excitement and enthusiasm and, most importantly, beer glasses clinked at the finish (a good thing, too, as R5 from every beer purchased goes towards the replanting of indigenous trees, like spekboom).
Tomorrow’s day two comes in at 70km and features handcut trails in and around the surrounding bushveld. Red soil, cattle paths, sweet single track and the worlds tallest aloe plant await the riders.
1 Matthys Beukes and Phil Buys (Pyga Eurosteel) – 3:24:08
2 Nico Bell and Wessel Botha (NAD) – 3:24:09
3 Phil Sebona and Pieter du Toit (Pyga Eurosteel 2) – 3:26:04
1 Amy McDougall and Robyn de Groot (dormakaba) – 3:47:47
2 Theresa Ralph and Sarah Hill (Galileo Risk) – 3:50:27
3 Nina Hind and Robyn Assad (LLL) – 4:52:03