Throwback to November 2014
I was planning to race my first Berg & Bush stage race with my wife, Joanne. It would be her first stage race and it would be a relationship test for sure. After a few long training rides together and 28 years of passing various relationship tests, we figured a three-day bike race wasn’t the worst thing we’d ever had to face together and we’d probably emerge from the experience with a finisher’s medal – and a smile.
By Sean Badenhorst
Photos: Kelvin Trautmann/Em Gatland
I was training hard anyway for the 2015 Cape Epic; she started training five months before. It was another race for me, but it was a significant, routine-shifting goal for her. Then, four days before our departure for the race, on her last training ride with her ladies riding group, bam! She clipped an upright pole on a pedestrian bridge and crashed, breaking her right wrist in the process. Oof!
There isn’t enough space here to describe the disappointment, discomfort and pain that she has endured. On a positive note though, she is on the mend and is thinking of riding again…
If I wasn’t bound to be at the Berg & Bush by the TREAD Buffalo Category commitment, I would have stayed home with her. But duty called and there aren’t many soldiers in the TREAD army. This would be my first solo stage race experience. I’d had a taste of the trails used at Berg & Bush when I did the 2013 Old Mutual joBerg2c’s Stage 4. I knew I had to come back and ride them in a less broken state some day.
I took to the start line in the Great Trek, the middle of the three events – the first being the Descent and the last being the Two-Day. The Great Trek follows the same three-day route at the Descent, but is more focussed on women and couples than the Descent, which attracts the fast men and the men who think they’re fast…. The Two-Day follows a two-stage format that’s shorter and geared for those new to stage racing – and those who don’t think they’re fast.
Day 1 was a 95km stage from high up in the Northern Drakensberg to the Emseni Camp on the banks of the Tugela River, downstream of the Spioenkop Dam. The first 15km or so was undulating and then it started. A singletrack descent that tops all singletrack descents I’ve raced in this country. It’s about 20km long, includes a lot of twists, drops, dips, rocks, cambered turns, off-cambered turns and switchbacks on a soil surface that day ranging from firm to sketchy, to damp. It would be widely considered a technical descent and in my world, a technical descent is my idea of heaven. I made a point of reaching the start of the big descent in front because I didn’t want to risk any hold-ups, so my experience of the descent is obviously different to those that did have to pause politely at times.
There were times on the descent where it flattened out a little and I got the feeling that was the end. But no, it continued. And continued. And continued. What a thrill! What a pleasure! There was more great singletrack on Day 1, but I can’t remember it in detail because I had some mechanical issues and had to jog most of the last 23km. Frustrating.
I didn’t really think much could beat that Day 1 singletrack, so was pleasantly surprised by Day 2’s route. There’s a fair amount of climbing in the first half, but they’ve managed to make it along stimulating singletrack and you seldom actually feel like you are slogging your way upwards.
There was a moment, after about an hour, where I reached the summit of a very gradual, long ascent where what I saw actually took my breath away. The early morning sun at my back was illuminating the Drakensberg mountains that seemed really close with a soft golden light and it was one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. If I wasn’t actually leading the race overall at that point, I would have stopped and taken some photos. But it was the 15th of October, my oldest son’s birthday and I wanted to win the stage for him. To make him proud of me. So I soldiered on and it wasn’t long before I found myself on the steep slopes of Spioenkop. After climbing it in a weary state at the 2013 joBerg2c, I described it then as being too small to be a mountain and too big to be a hill. But on this occasion, I was fitter and fresher and I reclassified it in my mind as a hill. A tough hill, but a hill. Looking at some of the footage later that night, I guess for many who weren’t as conditioned, it was more like a hell…
I knew there was a cracker descent (13km down folks!) to come and despite a stiff wind that was developing, I loved every swooping metre of it. Not long after I crossed the finish line though (I managed to make the birthday boy proud of his dad), that stiff wind became a gale force freak of nature, giving many of the Great Trek riders a bigger challenge than they’d anticipated that day. But what a day!
“We’ve never seen wind like that here,” said a perplexed Gary Green, the race organiser, with not a hint of sympathy for the riders faced with a gusty, gutsy personal battle of Spioenkop…
From the camp banter, Day 3 would be the least exciting in terms of the route. But no, it too was fantastic. There was a lower percentage of singletrack compared to Days 1 and 2, but man, there was great singletrack, whether climbing Mike’s Pass or descending Big Red or Puff Adder Pass, it was top drawer singletrack.
On this final day I was riding with the two top teams for most of the stage. I watched with interest the interaction between the teammates as well as the rivalry at play between the teams as each desired the stage win. It was then that I realised how different a race they were racing to me. Same route, yes, but not the same feeling.
There are some benefits to riding a stage race on your own, but the list is short. The most obvious thing missing is a witness. When you ride a stage race with a teammate you suffer together, you achieve together and you recount race tales with fondness together.
But when you’re solo, there’s no witness. It’s a bit like marriage really. Your spouse is so many things, including a witness. I really, really enjoyed racing the Berg & Bush, but I really, really missed having a witness.
We’re not sure how long it will take for Joanne to be able to ride a mountain bike on rough trails again, but we are determined to one day do her first stage race together. Secretly, I’m hoping it’s the Berg & Bush because I can’t think of a South African stage race that I’ve done or worked at that has better trails than this.
Besides the amazing route…
Every stage race is a complete experience and the trails only form a part of that. The Berg & Bush bases itself at the Emseni Camp, which is where we spent both race nights. Not having to pack and move each day makes the whole experience a little less stressful, but you still have to get your car from the start to Emseni (there is an efficient shuttle service, which I used).
The food was good. It was tasty and there was plenty of it and the rider chill zone was well stocked with beanbags, cold drinks, hot drinks, rusks and biscuits. I developed a dangerous fondness for the nut/seed crunchies that kept being replenished in the big glass jars…
The showers were hot and the toilets clean and well serviced. The bike wash was free and therefore not always perfect, but it sure beat having to wash your own bike if you were in a state of post-stage demotivation.
The tents stood along the bank of the Tugela River, which is a really special setting, albeit a long walk if you had a high race number… Oh and two really important things were virtually uninterrupted in supply – chocolate milk and free wifi!
The general atmosphere was very relaxed with no restricted areas which, when you’re in an advanced state of weariness, is a bigger issue than event organisers might think.
For more info or to enter the 2017 edition, visit www.bergandbush.co.za.
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