What do you do once you’ve created what is by all accounts the world’s largest paired mountain bike stage race?
You add six days and call it the Old Mutual joBerg2c.
That’s what “Farmer Glen” Haw did when he created the 570-mile bicycle safari across South Africa, which is basically an extension of his legendary three-day BOE sani2c event.
Every year, entries for the latter sell out within an hour, necessitating three separate runs through southern KwaZulu-Natal in 2012. Over 1 200 riders will take part in each of the Race, Trail and Adventure components.
“The joBerg2c was always something I had in the back of my mind,” says Glen, who had initially visualised it as three separate races of three days each.
Last year he finally roped in Gary Green, creator of the three-day FedGroup Berg & Bush race, which finishes exactly where his starts, to put his idea into action. They were now effectively two-thirds of the way there.
Apparently they then approached slick-talking ad man Craig “Wappo” Wapnick to come up with a further three days of riding, starting in the country’s commercial capital of Johannesburg. This would complete the series.
The trio of friends agree on very little, including how the race originated.
“After Glen pitched his idea, it was my vision to join up sani2c and Berg & Bush to create a six-day race,” says Gary.
“Then they came along with the idea that we should cycle all the way from Johannesburg to the sea in one go. I thought they were mad.”
Glen, however, blames Gary for the nine-day concept. Whatever the truth is, their attempts to outdo each other in building their respective sections have resulted in a world-class route with some of the best single track imaginable.
The three musketeers, as they are now known, are on an annual quest to replace more and more stretches of district road with smooth-flowing single track. Their ultimate aim is to have one long uninterrupted off-road trail.
“The route is king,” says Wappo. “It’s made by mountain bikers for mountain bikers.”
Gary agrees, for once. “The joBerg2c offers a great variety of riding. If you’re a mountain biker wanting to see South Africa, it’s just about the best thing you can do.”
Riding across the rural heart of the country, over more than 100 private farms, participants get to experience genuine local hospitality and the full diversity of foods, cultures, scenery and wildlife.
The race, which is sponsored by London-listed financial company Old Mutual, starts in Heidelberg on the southern fringes of Johannesburg in the province of Gauteng.
The highveld grasslands turn into endless maize fields and sandstone mountains as riders cross the Free State province before dropping down the escarpment into the thornveld of KwaZulu-Natal on day four.
From there it is upwards into the alpine mists of the midlands and the foothills of the Drakensberg, swiftly followed by a plunging descent into the Umkomaas River Valley on day eight.
Climbing out of the valley, all that remains is a short stretch through sugarcane plantations and sub-tropical vegetation to finish on the beach at Scottburgh, near Durban.
“It’s a big achievement to cycle this kind of distance,” says Glen. “There’s a lot of camaraderie because the riders suffer together, which is something you don’t get in shorter races.”
Wappo says the toughness of the event is overshadowed by the relaxed nature of camp life at the eight purpose-built race villages. “It’s hard riding but the reward is an ice cold beer, a good meal and a great vibe.”
Everything is laid on for the riders: they arrive at each overnight stop to find their boxes of kit delivered, tents set up and eager volunteers standing by to wash their bikes.
Other essentials include a laundry service, hot showers, massage therapists, bottomless cappuccinos (our personal favourite!) and internet facilities to let loved ones know they’ve survived another tough day in Africa.
“For me, there’s a whole lot more to inspire you about joBerg2c than just the racing,” says Glen, referring to the community-centred model that drives the event.
The farming communities are paid to run the race villages, which becomes an important fundraiser for their local schools, churches and charities.
As a result, the organisers’ friendly rivalry is echoed as each race village seeks to outperform the previous one.
“There’s no better way to get the South African flavour than to let the communities decide what their menu’s going to be,” says Glen. “They’re masters at cooking their own traditional fare.”
In the Free State, this means meat, meat and more meat – usually in the form of boerewors and steaks as thick as your bike tyre sizzling on the braai (barbecue).
According to Wappo, the farmers here are larger than life, and often larger than the Springbok rugby team.
When told that another race village had fish on the menu, one burly chap shook his head in disbelief: “Fish? Isn’t that a vegetable? ”
Riders enter his turf from Gauteng in rather spectacular fashion on day one. This stage, spanning 70 miles between Heidelberg and Frankfort, is untimed as it involves swapping pedals for paddles to cross the Vaal Dam, once the country’s largest, in Chinese dragon boats.
The serious racing starts on day two as they head out on a 58-mile stage to Reitz. Upfront the professionals vie for the plus-minus £27 000 prize purse, while those following in their wake couldn’t care less.
Wappo’s section culminates on day three at the Sterkfontein Dam, the second biggest earth-walled dam in the world. Riders go over the wall, which is over two and a half miles long, to finish at the local resort after 78 miles in the saddle.
On day four, cattle farmer and amateur historian Gary takes centre stage. “From the eastern Free State, we follow some breathtaking passes into KwaZulu-Natal, riding adjacent to the wagon route travelled by Piet Retief’s Voortrekker party in 1837.”
Another historical highlight on this 77-mile stage is the famous Spioenkop, or Spionkop depending on who you ask. This was the scene of a bloody battle between the British and Boers in 1900.
As an aside for football fans, The Kop at Liverpool’s Anfield stadium is named after this site.
Here, riders wage psychological warfare as they make their way up and over the top of the mountain, cycling among their forefathers’ graves, before dropping off the other side on some technical sections into the lush Tugela Valley.
Part of Spioenkop’s historical value also comes from some interesting coincidences.
On the battlefield that day was Boer general Louis Botha, who went on to become the first prime minister of the Union, the forerunner of the Republic of South Africa.
On the British side, young war correspondent Winston Churchill was covering the fighting and a slightly built stretcher-bearer named Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi was transporting injured troops.
“They say that three stray bullets would have changed the course of history,” says Gary.
The present poses dangers of an entirely different nature. Last year one of the event’s international participants, Kenyan David Kinjah, was frightened off his bike by wild horses on Spioenkop.
For those who live to fight another day, the overnight stop at Winterton – the gateway to the Central Drakensberg – provides welcome relief.
Day five, a 63-mile ride from Winterton to Kamberg, brings with it a dramatic change of scenery as the Southern Drakensberg looms and riders start anticipating big climbs ahead.
Incredibly beautiful lowland farms with huge rolling climbs and even longer descents are the hallmarks of day six, a trek of 58 miles. Riders finish amid the autumn colours of Underberg village.
When they wake the next morning, they are officially in sani2c territory. This is an easy-flowing 53-mile “rest” day featuring some technical riding on sections of single and dual track through evergreen pine forests.
Known for his innovative routes, Glen does not disappoint and takes riders across the world’s first curved, floating still-water bridge (okay, in a mountain bike race) en route to the race village at Mackenzie Club near Ixopo.
The penultimate day over 60 miles is the big one, if you give Glen the benefit of the doubt.
Riders hurtle down an endless series of flowing switchbacks into the Umkomaas Valley before crossing the fast-flowing river on yet another world first – a semi-suspended floating bridge.
Jolivet farm near Highflats is a beautiful sight after a gruelling climb out of the gorge. Glen says this day will be one of your most unforgettable on a bike.
At 47 miles, the ninth and final day is the shortest and fastest. The stretches of single track through manicured sugarcane fields are punctuated by a few short technical climbs before riders burst out of the coastal bush onto the beach at Scottburgh.
International riders, among them legendary British commentator Phil Liggett, made up 10 per cent of the field this year, says Glen, and he’s expecting even more as word spreads around the globe.
In true African tradition, the joBerg2c is a single-track safari where the destination is far less important than the experiences along the way.
Next year’s race gets underway on April 27.
For more info, visit www.joberg2c.co.za, follow joBerg2c_journo on Twitter or like the joBerg2c page on Facebook.
Full Stop Communications
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041 368 4992
On behalf of:
Old Mutual joBerg2c