Ride The Beloved Country: The Old Mutual joBerg2c 2015
Catriona Sutherland, who I know through the Mountain Hardwear brand, signed up to ride the The Old Mutual joBerg2c last month. I asked her to write me a blog.
What is The Old Mutual joBerg2c?
Setting off from the outskirts of Johannesburg, as I lined up among 800 fellow riders to begin day one, it was clear it was going to be much more than mountain bike race.
The nine-day event crosses 900kms of trails that are less travelled over four provinces of South Africa. It’s for serious racers and passionate enthusiasts alike.
The joBerg2c was the brainchild of three community-driven spirits, farmers Gary Green and Glen Haw and Craig Wapnick.
The land we would ride required extensive permission. You wouldn’t want to attempt to do it without, or you’d reap the consequences of being uninvited.
Beyond just bike riding, it’s the investment into each community along the way that makes the joBerg2c so memorable. By ensuring each organisation at the event is paid, it nurtures a true sense of belonging from those involved.
For these communities, the benefits live long after the nine days, as they are able to raise funds for local schools, churches and charities.
Never before have I seen such harmonious integration of a mass sports event and the communities with which it passes through.
Why ride joBerg2c?
I signed up as one of the 101 international riders because of a persistent and untimely running injury. Finding myself in late January with a chronic tendon issue in my right ankle, my dreams of trail chasing in the Ultra Fjord Race in Patagonia were fast fading.
Months before, good friends and I had been discussing the Cape Epic, a world-renowned and brutally tough South African mountain bike stage race near to Cape Town.
With that thought in my mind I spotted that the joBerg2c was at the right time for me and I could sign up as a solo rider.
I also decided to book a travel package with GameOn Sports to keep travel and luggage transfers to a minimum hassle.
I also followed the packing list to the letter, even buying a slime-filled inner tube, much to my doubting mind. Tubeless is the only way to go in South Africa, the thorns are like toothpicks, although not as frequently on the trails as I thought, it’s an absolute must in this race.
So it begins
Following the most relaxed race registration in history, which combined deck chairs with beer drinking and sun worshipping, the race scene was set on the Thursday evening with Glen, Gary and Wappo bantering merrily like a Top Gear tribute act. I liked this race already and we’d not even started.
My adventure racing experience told me ‘the race organiser is never your friend’ but believe me, these guys and their team are only out to see you smile. This is a race where shaved legs, poker faces and podium chasers are not the kings or queens of the trail.
Day 1: Waking up to rain
We spent the first hour of the day chasing the blue skies as we left the hotel to reach the start line at the Karan Beef Feedlot in Heidelberg. As the skies dried, we met with our mechanical team from Sprocket & Jack, led by Grant Usher, a local mountain bike legend and top 10 finisher in previous years.
After a quick water fill, we began: 116km of mostly district and farm road that would gently break us in with 855km of climbing and 867m of descent.
I was in Category D and I lined up middle-back, not too sure what the standard and pace would be like and reciting my riding strategy to be “in it for the long game”.
At this point, it’s important to state this was not and never was going to be a race for me. This would be a journey at my own pace, in my own way and a chance to find balance.
Meeting new people, stopping to absorb my surrounds and enjoy the ride were top of my priority list. Hanging on the back of a screeching partner, caught up in the first sniffs of competition, was certainly not.
The day went well, just steady-eddy pedalling and lapping up the muddy challenge.
Along the way I rode with tandem duo, Jonathan and Douglas, the humbling riders from Kenya who were taking on the incredible feat to show the world that adversity can be overcome. Douglas had been blinded by the Nairobi bombings.
As the day drew to a close, there was cheering and hand slapping with the excited local children of the town, as I rode into camp. Amazingly our tents were already pitched and a team of strong men poised to carry our bags – how civilised!
After a hot shower (and only a short queue thanks to only 10% of the riding fraternity being women) I was eating an awesome spreading of fresh and tasty gluten-free food.
The first of many a massage followed and this is a must. Don’t think you’re choosing the soft option by buying into the packages offered. I advise you to make life simple and sweet and free the legs for what is some crushing and hard riding in the later days.
The night ended with a round up of video footage, covering both the racers and the majority riders, best crash prizes were offered up and the night concluded with a briefing for the following day. Worried about the snoring, I had invested in as many ear plug brands as I could buy, however with a 9 pm lights out, I had a surprisingly very quiet and peaceful night’s sleep. This routine was to be my world for the next 9 days of riding.
Day 2 Mud and gears
The mornings were billed as chilly; however being a hardy Scottish lass the cold evades me mostly, so I dressed with the motto “Be bold, start cold”. We were lucky this year, with much warmer temperatures than previous editions, and I was glad of it after 10 minutes of waiting at the start.
We were led out slowly, controlled until we’d left the town. There was barely a metre of tarmac before we bit the sweet, dry pack trails and yet more glorious patches of mud that saw many quiver on their bikes.
I bashed through it and used this time to get a comfortable position. Even without a race-head, you need to try to avoid the bottlenecks that appear at muddy holes and short, sharp technical climbs that can halt many riders.
Much of this day was a combination of the rough rural roads, which on a hardtail were a reminder not to wear cheap shorts.
A cheery and chatty team riding for Surgeons for Life became my trail angels for the first half of the ride.
Day 3 Going longer
Every morning began at 5 am, which was a shock to the system in the first few days but quickly adopted as routine. As my eyes opened and I made the first movements, I did a mental check of pain. How are the legs? Backside intact? This was the longest of our days to date with 122km of riding that would up the anti on the ascents and give us a testier 1188km of climbing, mainly towards the end as we reached Mount Paul.
We were reminded of our African location as we passed Hansies’ lion farm, catching glimpses of the magnificent manes of male lions roaming their patch behind reassuringly high fences.
Trying to recall every moment is impossible and the beauty of most days was the rhythm of the ride, the flowing of tracks to trails and only being sharply woken from my bubble by the terrorising tufts of grass that reminded me of my lack of rear suspension.
I enjoyed that connection to the ground, absorbing the variety of terrain we covered. Much of this riding takes you through the warm maize fields, but edging you closer to the mountains every day.
I stopped with 30km still to go to take in the view of mini table mountains and a wide expanse of landscape, with Acacia trees appearing in the distance. With the headwinds picking up, I joined a group and found myself flowing nicely along the Jabulani river singletrack, named Zulu for happiness, which summed it up perfectly.
Cheering locals took photos and sang us through. I was in a fabulous rhythm here and enjoying the company of my silent and strong companions, including a strong South African female rider, who reassuring knuckle high-five’d me, acknowledging my solo efforts.
Mount Paul Mount Paul was an exciting challenge to end the day. It was a subtle and creeping climb up towards the top and looked like dripping layers of wet sand that had set to form a triangular peak. We rode round the side to find a deliciously fun route, with some more technical riding to keep my daily smiles going.
Day 4 Bright and beautiful
This is billed as one of the most incredible days, when the “riding really gets to be fun.” And it wasn’t long before we were on a winding ascent up towards the escarpment that was to fund our weary legs with rewarding technical features and steep, sharp climbs.
After the Mineshaft shoot, a fairly vertical plummet that pops you back up and along a sheer cliff face trail, we got closer to the famous Sollie’s Folly that drops us into KwaZulu-Natal.
Carved by farmer Sollie Prinsloo, there was a tricky balance between looking out toward an incredible valley view and keeping the bike flowing through the fast, dry and loose singletrack.
The rest of the day just flowed with a great mix of up and downs and another highlight being the drop into the last water station, the only section of the race to have some manmade berms and jumps, if you so choose.
After a break and a fairly short distance by GPS measures, I jumped back on the bike and took off for the last climb, feeling the rising temperatures. This section took us into the stifling heat of the afternoon and a brutal, but brilliantly technical climb called Puff Udder. We camped in Winterton.
Day 5 Short but tough
Heading out from Winterton, we didn’t have to wait long until we hit more of the farmland singletrack and a fun blast to keep us all entertained and alert. With 112km to go, this was a “shorter” day but still had plenty hills to keep the heart rate high. We camped at Clifton.
Day 6 To the highest point
The chilly morning began with the usual routine of breakfast, butt cream and bike collection and saw us pedal off with a slow start due to low fog that the organisers rightly took caution over. The start would be a 28km section on tar road, which I wasn’t too sad about if only to give my backside a steady start to the long day of 123km.
This was the pinnacle of the uphill with the route masters promising us some unforgiving climbs of the technical variety.
Once on to the Loteni road we started a steady and lengthy climb to the highest point on the course, the 1844m marked by a water station on the Snow Top Mountain. This was a tough one and I smashed in a glorious amount of freshly homemade fruitcake, loading up on water and bananas, eggs and potato,.
A long 16km descent on the district road was a big relief, despite the bumpy sections toward the bottom, which left me cursing the hardtail momentarily.
On to the river and as promised, farmer Glen’s imaginary bridge met riders at the bottom, a refreshing moment of wet feet to then start a gutsy and rocky climb up toward the Valley of Death.
I loved those moments, having to really work and pick a line and the feeling of achievement as you top out over the rocky outcrops. Whilst some rested, I was in my stride and feeling great, so carried on to the longer climb, covered in loose red rock, sand and a steep but consistent gradient.
The next negotiation was the terrifyingly named Face Plantation. Stories of blood and gore had me a bit apprehensive about this part, but my technical ability saw only looks of joy on my face as we cornered round, marshals waving flags to slow us down.
Once on to the descent, I took the opportunity to blast down as fast as I could passing a number of riders less keen to charge at the boulder field.
Almost at the end of day six and while the legs were starting to tire, I looked up to see a cracker of a climb.. Glencairn farm was the seventh location for a night. It had newly built shower blocks and an impressive range of food options,
Day 7 A rest day?
Pitched as the rest day, the seventh day sees a more relaxed profile and an almost evenly matched ascent and descent. Not to be lulled in to any false sense of rest, this day is still tough with 600km of distance in our legs, but it was a massively rewarding mix of forest singletrack.
As the forest trails continued my flow was interrupted by a newly carved ditch that saw me superman from the front of my bike and roll around laughing. Shocked men stood by my side. I’m not afraid of falling having done many a tumble in my mountain bike career.
Sickness was spreading in the camp, despite the best efforts and the most impressive levels of sanitation I’d ever witnessed at a mass participation event. I felt a little tender that evening and relaxed with friends, hoping it wouldn’t strike and I’d be completing my journey the next morning.
My inner competitor had struck as I took my first proper look at the results. I was sitting in fifth and a minute off fourth female place.
Day 8 Race is on
Waking up to a beautiful morning and sunrise, a hearty breakfast saw me get to the start line and meet fellow rider Markham. We’d agreed to ride hard and limit the stops to see how it felt. Not before long, we’d happily shot through to Ant’s Entrance and caught a glimpse of the Umkomaas Valley as we ripped down Yankee Doodle, gripping the bars to get us up the steep climbs and on to the hotly anticipated Nick’s Pass.
I connected to the path, loving every second and feeling wired to the wheels. The trail flowed effortlessly and I find it harder to recall specific sections as I was chasing down Markham and lapping up the adrenaline.
Water point one saw us combine efforts as he filled up my hydration pack and I stuffed hot dogs and coke into my mouth, as much as I could manage.
At this point I’d overtaken the third placed female, so Markham and I carried on at a solid pace to the next challenge called Push of a Climb. This was another of those technical ascents, guarded on both sides by the famous thorns I’d be warmed of, armed with deathly toothpicks keen to bite into the tyres of tired riders. A few strong words came out of mouth as I dug in, get up and over and picking my lines carefully.
We then rode into the cooler forest and recovered the legs nicely, agreeing to miss the final station and push on to the end. As with most days as we neared the end, there were swampy mud pits.
We then hit the tarmac road and it was a relieving downhill to the finish. Cheered on by happy children, I took my eye off the trail and swung into the road, only to finally face a sliding extravaganza and wiped out, my right leg smashing on the gravel. Ouch.
With no time to stop, I knew the next female,Aurelia, was in close pursuit, so wheeled myself down to the finish line. Moments after they announced my name they had a double take. Starting at group D, I’d smashed the time and had taken not just 4th but 3rd stage for that day. That was a lovely result to reward the effort! Aurelia congratulated me on a great day of riding as she came through.
The final night was a South African display of the finest steak BBQ I’d ever seen. Smoky scents of meat wafted around the food court and we enjoyed the last night of conversation and fun.
Day 9 Into C group
I’d moved up to C group, so loosing my fellow riding friends I kicked off the day with a confident pedal. I wasn’t aiming to race today, it was a survival to end and I’d heard too many tales of disaster on the last stage. Not to be deluded by the profile or the fact that we were heading to the coast, the last day delivers some of the sharpest climbs.
Up and over, the legs were in great form so I just kept that rhythm. After smashing Work to be Done, a steep technical climb fondly touted as a true test of strength, I felt great.
From there we rode steadily before I suddenly felt the women, Aurelia, I had overtaken the day before come up behind me. I left the last water point untouched, caught up again in the fun of racing.
I felt super strong, pacing well and enjoying the fast and flowing trails in the trees. But then, nearing the last 500m, disaster struck. There were no marshals at the crucial point directing to the last floating bridge, which saw us and other riders miss the turning and stop momentarily to assess the path. It was too late by the time we found it and righted our route.
Aurelia had caught us and was now on the floating bridge heading to the finish. I was gutted to have lost it right at the end, but that’s racing and I wasn’t going to take third overall having not raced the previous seven days.
A spectacular finish was to follow as the rider in front wobbled on the last metre or two of the bridge, taking myself and the guy riding behind me into the seawater with a fantastic fall.
Grabbing my bike and sorting the chain, I hopped on, soaking wet, to pedal gingerly to the finish and soak up the feeling of completely 900km of South Africa’s incredible trails.
I felt joy, relief and perhaps a little drop of sadness that it was over. After stopping to talk to Joburg Today TV, jabbering at them with my positivity for the last nine days. I vowed I’d be back for another sometime.