Words by Sean Badenhorst
Images by PC Photography and Black Tulip Visuals
The lead bunch in the Extreme event early on Stage 1
Everyone has his or her own view of what proper mountain biking is. And it’s great that our sport offers so much variety because it means everyone can find their own personal fix on a mountain bike. Every single one.
My idea of proper mountain biking is a combination of testing my strength, my stamina and my skill as well as offering a test for the bike I’m riding. A long time ago, when mountain biking was still considered a fad in South Africa and we used to ride very basic 26-inch hardtail bikes, almost every race or ride was just that.
Not a grumpy face in sight!
Grins or grimaces?
We never had mountain bike-specific trails. We would ride on what was there. What the event organiser could piece together for a loop.
At the risk of being criticised for being stuck in the past, I’m a huge lover of progress! I love that South Africa has become probably the world’s leading country when it comes to mountain bike events. I love that the sport has grown from a ‘fad’ to one of the dominant participation sports in the country. I love that technology and design progress has given us the incredible bikes we ride today.
Alan Gordon – second place in the men’s Extreme event
Yolandi du Toit – second woman in the Extreme event
At some point though, mountain bike events became a viable business. On the one hand, this is great because it’s helped grow our sport in South Africa significantly. On the other hand, though, it’s meant that what I consider proper mountain biking has been confined to the niche category.
That’s why when I heard about the Bezhoek Extreme MTB Challenge, I got excited. Day 1: 94km with 1900m ascent and rugged terrain. Day 2: 45km with 850m ascent and rugged terrain.
Nicol Carstens – Men’s Extreme winner
Theresa Ralph won the women’s race in the Extreme event
In mid-September 2018 I had a fall. My first serious fall as an adult… I fractured two vertebrae, developed double pneumonia, spent 10 days in hospital and 10 weeks off the bike. Since early December 2018 I have been in recovery mode. Rebuilding my strength; rebuilding my stamina and rebuilding my confidence on rugged terrain. The rebuilding appeared to have gone really well but I needed a good test to confirm this. The Bezhoek Extreme in early June 2019 seemed to be that test.
Author Sean Badenhorst takes aim at a sketchy corner
And that it was. That it sure was…
I can confirm that Day 1 was proper mountain biking. I finished the 94km stage in 6 hours 06 minutes, but this was about an hour before the stage finished me…
It’s one thing riding rugged terrain, of which there was plenty – mostly firm, uneven, stepped bedrock – it’s another thing to ride rugged terrain on steep gradients.
Just under 2000 metres of ascent in 94km wouldn’t normally be considered extreme. It’s the steepness of the gradient here that’s the challenge. While not particularly long (the longest climb is just over 2km), there are many climbs and you are frequently faced with gradients in the teens, with peaks at over 40 percent! Of course, this means there are numerous steep descents too, some rather rocky and challenging and some simply just very steep (according to my Strava, up to minus-49%!).
All of this combines to make one huge challenge! My legs, my lungs, my mind and eventually, my soul, were truly tested to their limits. The bike I was riding, a Santa Cruz Blur, seemed to manage fine, although I certainly maxed out the 100mm of suspension on a number of occasions.
At just on 5 hours of riding a longish sandy jeeptrack the course turned onto a gradual rough singletrack climb. It wove its way up a steady slope for around 6km and it took me over 30 minutes (which felt like 30 days). It was at this period of the event where I realised I was completely spent. Not surprising really, since I’d not done many training rides longer than four hours. With almost 20km to still ride, I was forced to dig super deep. At the start of the day, I’d had a personal goal of trying to break 6 hours for the stage. But at 75km I didn’t care what my time was, I just wanted to reach the finish. I wanted to curse Roan Rossouw, the event director, for making the course so damn hard. But then I realised that I actually should thank him.
Thank him? Yep. Thank him for having the balls to create an event that so completely tests every aspect of a mountain biker.
So many event organisers find themselves opting for easier routes to accommodate the masses. And you can’t blame them because that’s their business model.
I’m not saying other mountain bike race routes are all easy. If you ride fast enough, almost any route is a challenge. But steep gradients and rugged terrain should always feature when you’re describing a proper mountain bike race route. Well, in my world anyway…
Day 2 wasn’t easy, but it was certainly a pleasant way to end off a memorable weekend. Quite early on there was a super steep climb. One of those where you ride it until you get to that point where you’re either going to have to vomit or stop. I stopped. I generally don’t like to push a bicycle unless it’s absolutely essential. So, once my heart rate had dropped to a more reasonable level, I remounted and rode – or rather wrestled my bike – up the last section.
Dewald Lotter negotiates a rocky section
There were a few more rocky sections but generally, it was a stage that allowed some relaxation and the ability to take in the scenery and spot some animals (I noticed giraffe, wildebeest and a few species of antelope).
There’s plenty of wildlife at Bezhoek
Off the bike, the event was as good as any other top-end stage race in terms of accommodation (there are different levels, from tent to luxury), food and vibe. I love that the main sponsor, Jurgens Bekker of Jurgens Bekker Attorneys, with his passionate team, got personally involved at the water points (this year water point support, next year the short event on an e-Bike, Mr Bekker?).
That it’s just over a two-hour drive from Joburg and Pretoria makes the Bezhoek Extreme a short hop for many. If you’re interested in tackling a proper mountain bike race, then add this to your 2020 to-do list. There are shorter Day 1 options than what I did, including a half-marathon and a marathon, making it possible for all committed mountain bikers to experience Bezhoek – to varying extremes…
The third edition of the Bezhoek Extreme, presented by Jurgens Bekker Attorneys, will be on 29-31 May 2020.
For general information on mountain biking at Bezhoek, click here: https://www.bezhoekextreme.co.za
For results of the fast humans at the 2019 event, click here: https://www.bezhoekextreme.co.za/the-bezhoek-extreme-2019/