Pictures: Kelvin Trautman and Ian Macleod
They’ll call you mad. “Nine hundred kilometres on a mountain bike?” they’ll query. “Across farms, through rivers, down precipitous slopes and up rugged hill after rugged hill?” the more intrigued will go on. Yup. And if you’ve ever been a part of the joBerg2c, you’ll relish this genuine concern for your sanity. This is not just a bike ride. We’re talking about a journey of the soul, to places precious few get to see, with people you’ll never forget.
To be fair, your disbelieving audience will have a point. It’s not immediately obvious that riding a bike from Joburg to Scottburgh for nine days isn’t completely loony. Starting in late April, it means successive mornings of aching muscles turning through biting cold. Survive those and you’ve got as much as 2 000m of vertical ascent to climb for anything between 80 and 120km per day as the heat sets in.
Add in the obligatory prang or two, a quota of mechanical failures and a handful of perilous-sounding segments – like Death Valley, Hou Duim Vas and Face Plantation – and ‘mad’ won’t be far from your list of adjectives.
But that’s only the story the prefects might tell the new boys on the first day of school – a scare tactic. This race is about that deep breath of Drakensberg air after summiting a climb, usually followed by the most staggering views as you swish down the other side.
Perhaps even more important than time in the saddle are the chats you’ll have at water stops, and the sporting banter every evening with a new pal in a small dorpie you’d otherwise skim through en route to somewhere bigger and brighter. Even making a home in the tented village each night feels a little special, be it on the high school rugby field in Frankfort or in the orchard at Highflats.
In fact, I used the term ‘race’ incorrectly. That may apply to the muscley whippets up front, but for most of us the joBerg2c is a ride. It’s about the people – most importantly, yourself. As veteran sportscaster and joBerg2c stalwart Gerald de Kock puts it, “This is pure South African soul. You learn a lot about yourself out there.” And you really do. When you spend as much as eight hours every day alone in your mind, you have thoughts you can’t conjure up in the office or driving your car.
While I relished the intoxicating solace of long stretches of nothing but wind rustling through crops, or the rolling dairy belt of KwaZulu-Natal, encounters with comrades on the trails were often pure gold.
Just the sight of the man I knew only as ‘Super Cyclist’, on account of his Superman cycling gear and (by my estimation) 6-foot-10-inch frame, was enough for a chuckle. ‘Ou Trev’ (I estimate 5’4”) had a way of scurrying up on my shoulder with a wisecrack just when the long road was getting me down: “I need to cut down on the boerewors at those water stations – okes behind me are all getting brush cuts, boet!” I also found the approach of an Aussie or Scottish accent an excellent indicator of a dinkum kink to come.
‘Water station’ is another misnomer. I suppose ‘festival of bright colours, pumping tunes and delicious country grub’ didn’t fit on the advertising. We had three of these to salivate for each day. Run by local institutions, farmers clubs, the Rotarians and schools, the food and drink did for our bodies what the gees did for wavering spirits. Bottomless frikkadels and mielie brood, washed down with glugs of Powerade, all presented with a smile and a hearty word of encouragement, felt almost good enough to be the next doping scandal to hit the sport of cycling. Without fail, superhuman powers were restored for the next push.
No less important than any other participant is the countryside itself. As the J2C slogan goes, ‘route is king’. The expanses of Highveld, complete with the iconic crossing of the Vaal by floating pallet bridge, define the opening salvo. Day three, the longest at 129km, concluding with a dramatic dash across the Sterkfontein Dam wall, earns you the right to visit Great Wall My China the following morning. Rarely witnessed by anyone not on a mountain bike, skirting along the rim of this imposing ledge is the frightening highlight for many.
From there, the lush Midlands dairy farms and timber plantations are just the next transformation in scenery. Blink and you’re scampering down into the Umkomaas Valley (where you’ll want eyes pinned wide open) on the penultimate day. Your final few hours pushing to the beach on stage nine inevitably turns out to be a melancholy spin through cane fields, banana plantations and the Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve until you cross the lagoon and (at last) dismount on the beach at Scottburgh.
For perspective, I asked Kris Achten, a Belgian journalist who rode and covered the 2014 joBerg2c, for his opinion. “Nothing comes close to the sheer ‘epic-ness’ of the journey and the miles upon miles of great single track. I found the ride fast, hard, long and flatter than the ones I’m used to. The landscape was unlike anything in Europe, except for the last day or two, which was very similar to riding from the Ardennes to the coast.”
Chief organiser Craig ‘Proper Wappo’ Wapnick gives a typically down-to-earth explanation of his philosophy when designing the route. “It’s all about having fun, hey. We could easily be one of these races that you hurt your way through just for the kudos. I could take you up the Drakensberg proper and nearly kill you. We’ve decided that’s not what we’re about. This is a journey across the countryside.
“With my section, the first three days, there’s lots of single track and a fair bit of district road. Overseas riders, especially, rave about this because they’ve never seen space like that before. You should feel you can get a vibe going at the water stations, meet people and take in the atmosphere.”
Gary Green and Glen Haw, ‘the two farmers’, control the next two three-day chunks in turn. Wappo’s sidekicks have far less choice of route, given the limited number of ways down the escarpment. But the general aim is consistent: tough but fun riding and spectacular views.
The keystone this entire voyage rests on is relationships with farmers and communities. The ‘Three Stooges’ who run the show spend months travelling around to scout trails and meet with landowners. Scores of the best tracks are on private land we’re generously allowed access to. Much of that can only be secured by coffee and a handshake – the personal touch.
There are changes afoot for two of the race villages this year. Stage five will start in Winterton, as usual, but the finish has moved from the Glengarry Resort to Clifton Prep School on Nottingham Road. This means better access to “lots of quaint little hotels, eateries and craft breweries with a lekker little vibe in the area,” explains Wappo. The stage six conclusion moves to Farmer Glen’s new land from the usual stop at Hazeldene Farm. This gives more energetic riders the chance to take a spin to the lookout point on Sani Pass. Of course, extra riding like this risks allegations of madness even from comrades who share your oft-misunderstood love for gruelling expeditions.
Heck, maybe it is all mad. You could fly to Durban at a fraction of the cost these days. That way you’d miss repairing a puncture in sub-zero conditions on the side of the dirt road past Kerkenberg. But I think you really would miss it.
If so, embracing madness may be the sane solution. If you do ride the joBerg2c, you’ll do well to answer dissenters with Lewis Carroll’s stance on the matter, as expressed by Alice to the Mad Hatter: ‘You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret – all the best people are’.
You’ll need the right equipment and expert help to enjoy a ride like this. Here are Ian’s recommendations:
1. Cycle Lab is your one-stop-shop for all the advice, nutrition and gear you need.
2. Garmin Edge. You’ll need your own GPS device with all nine routes downloaded.
3. Barrow Physiotherapy. A sports physio is essential if aches and pains crop up during training.
4. TREAD Skills Clinic. Their beginner course will save you from plenty of unnecessary falls.
5. Anatomic. For some fun, have this local kit maker custom-design you cycling shorts and shirts for the occasion.
In a Nutshell
The sixth annual joBerg2c runs from 24 April to 2 May 2015, but don’t take it lightly. Anyone with a bit of heart can do it, but it requires a solid training programme and, ideally, a shorter stage race under the belt. You’ll need your own GPS for navigation, and don’t even think about doing it without tubeless tyres, cycling kit for sub-zero mornings and baking hot afternoons, and a resilient sense of humour.
Read our #CountryCyclist blog (www.outoftheoffice.countrylife.co.za) to review Ian’s experience and visit the joBerg2c site for route maps, entry information and useful links. Entries for 2016 are officially open. See details here: www.joberg2c.co.za