With foreign riders comprising almost 20 percent of this year’s field, the Old Mutual joBerg2c is clearly starting to register on the international radar.
Featuring 112 riders from 20 countries beyond South African borders, the nine-day mountain bike race is proving to be both a tourist attraction for social riders and a real competitive challenge for racing snakes.
According to Belgian rider Steven “Kroki” Pauwels of the Reevax amateur racing team, it is perfect for adventure and endurance mountain bikers for whom the experience is more important than the result.
“But although the atmosphere at the event is much more relaxed than other races, this year’s race was already quite a bit more competitive than the last.
“The extra international attention attracted stronger riders in general, and we expect this will be even more so in the coming years.”
Pauwels, who opted to take part for a second year running with team-mate Peter “Pepe” Paelinck, says exceptional organisation and hospitality set the race apart.
“We thought long and hard about coming back as there are so many other events still to be done.
“We really enjoyed last year’s event; the quality of the organisation, the excellent food, but especially the amazing riding in a great country made us come back.”
Having raced all over the world over the past 15 years, the Reevax duo has built up a solid base for comparison.
“Going across the country from one race village to the next, with varied landscapes, is so much more interesting than staying in one location for the whole race.”
Pauwels says the fact that organisers Glen Haw, Gary Green and Craig Wapnick are themselves passionate mountain bikers is clearly evident in the set-up.
“The organisation of the joBerg2c could hardly get any better. Everything you need, or wish for, is there at the moment you need it – hot showers, clean toilets, great food and spacious tents.”
One of his few “complaints” is that – with Wi-Fi internet access and charging stations for electronic devices – the event overdoes the creature comforts, which impacts on rider interaction after stages.
He suggests an “unplugged” race for riders, with these resources allocated to the media instead.
Pauwels says the genuine hospitality shown by the rural communities who run the eight race villages along the 910km route was another determining factor.
“It couldn’t be better. We received a warm welcome every time – incomparable with European events.”
To be worth travelling to, he says a race needs to cover a substantial part of a country, be at least a week long and demand several hours in the saddle each day.
“You also need excellent trails, amazing landscapes, good weather and food as well as value for money.”
Pauwels believes the Old Mutual joBerg2c has all these ingredients and offers an excellent alternative to the established stage races in Europe.
He says Team Reevax first stumbled across the event while doing a Google search for new stage races.
“We do two to three every year and always try to find new races.
“We came across the website, then we found some more information through previous participants’ blogs and we were immediately interested.”
Now dedicated converts to the event, they have set about spreading the word to their fellow countrymen.
“We write daily race reports with photos on our website, which are not about the racing as such, but rather the adventure, atmosphere and landscape we are riding through.
“In this way, we try to spread the mountain bike virus and bring the races we participate in into our readers’ living rooms, so they can live the race from home.”
Pauwels, who hails from Flanders in northern Belgium, says he and Paelinck are often among the first Belgians to participate in new stage races. Therefore try to give an objective opinion and spread the word when they like an event.
“We notice that many Belgian and Dutch riders follow in our footsteps when the event gets a ‘thumbs up’ from us.”
Which was once again the case this year, as avid mountain bikers from these nations and as far afield as Russia, Romania, Saudi Arabia and Norway joined the trek from Heidelberg in Gauteng to Scottburgh on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast.
To get ready for the event, Pauwels (38) and Paelinck (45) put in long training rides during the European winter and wrapped up their preparations with a training camp on Gran Canaria.
Although nine days is a long time on a bike and requires a lot of endurance, Pauwels says he would give the route a moderate difficulty rating, and a low to medium score in terms of technicality.
He rates stages four and eight – which feature breathtaking descents off the Drakensberg escarpment and into the Umkomaas River Valley respectively – as some of the best mountain biking in the world today.
“Both stages contain fantastic single track, spectacular scenery, plenty of excellent descending and climbing, and they require hard work to earn the stage.”
Despite both team-mates going down with a 24-hour illness on day six, they recovered sufficiently to enjoy the above-mentioned stage highlights.
Pauwels says his best piece of advice for prospective participants is to “get prepared, pace yourself and stay focused until the beach in Scottburgh”.
Although he and Paelinck have only just gotten home, Team Reevax has not ruled out a return to South African shores.
“Farmer Gary, Farmer Glen and their urban friend Wappo have a fantastic event that is certainly worth doing again.”
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