There is an old Ottoman proverb that states, “There is an uphill for every downhill, and a downhill for every uphill.”
But for seasoned pros like Brandon Stewart, who navigate both with equal skill, the FedGroup Berg & Bush Descent offers thrills sweeter than a boxful of Turkish delights.
“It’s definitely one of the best descents in South Africa,” says Stewart, who is looking forward to defending his title in the 220km stage race, which starts at Sterkfontein Dam in the Free State on October 26 and finishes at Winterton in the Central Drakensberg three days later.
“Besides the fact that the single track is so much fun with sweeping bends and technical rock sections, the views on the way down are breathtaking.”
The 90km first stage starts in dramatic fashion as riders plunge off the top of the escarpment into KwaZulu-Natal, winding down old wagon trails like the 6km Bezuidenhout’s Pass for a total descent of almost 2 000 metres.
“The trip down into Sharks country is absolutely amazing and takes you down trails like Solly’s Folly, which have become synonymous with the event.”
The FedGroup-Itec Connect rider says day one caters for mountain bikers who are not afraid of one or two tumbles and those seeking the ultimate adrenaline rush.
“You need cahonies the size of watermelons to smash it down the pass. There are rocky, rutted sections, as well as jumps that send you metres into the air.
“The not-so-tough can take it slow because it is still doable, and the real roadies can walk too.”
Even the pros approach the stage one descents with caution, while still trying to put the opposition under maximum pressure, says Stewart. “Your race isn’t won here but it is lost if things go a little wrong.
“For example, falling off the edge of the cliff as you come down Solly’s Folly could somewhat hamper your racing ambitions, and would generally see you fall out of the top 10,” he adds drily.
For those who make it to the overnight stop at Emseni Camp on the banks of the Tugela River, the 75km second stage with the famed Spioenkop climb awaits.
At 400 metres vertical, it is the biggest and most challenging ascent in the race, says Stewart.
“This climb gets a lot of people talking because of its historical significance, as well as its ability to snap your spirit in half. If you conquer this beast mentally, the battle is half won.”
According to the Hilton resident, it is on the climbs where possible podium contenders could force a split and where the race is often decided.
Although the third stage is the shortest at 70km, Stewart says it still holds some surprises in store, with both the total ascent and descent hovering at around the thousand-metre mark.
“Mike’s Pass and Big Red Mountain have a good sting in the tail, so even though the final day is nice and relaxed, there are still some big hurdles to clear.”
The 31-year-old says he will be riding the race with a new 30-year-old partner, whom he calls “secret weapon” and whose identity he has yet to reveal.
“He brings quite a few strengths to the team in terms of professionalism, training, and commitment, and of course the will to win while having a good time.
“Having fun and focus is really important in this sport, as this is what creates longevity.”
Social riders can look forward to experiencing the challenging route during the new Great Trek event, which follows the Descent on October 30.
For more information, go to www.bergandbush.co.za or find the race on www.facebook.com/bergandbush and @bergandbush.
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