Ride The Beloved Country: JoBerg2c

Setting off from the outskirts of Johannesburg, as I lined up among 800 fellow riders to begin day one, it was clear to see this was so much more than mountain bike race. Combining trails that are less, or perhaps never travelled, the JoBerg2C crosses four provinces covering 900 km of South African soil, attracting serious racers and passionate enthusiasts alike. Combing existing events and then some, the JoBerg2C was the brainchild of three zealous and community-driven spirits,farmer Gary Green, farmer Glen Haw and Craig Wapnick.

Old Mutual Joberg2C

Despite a wide spectrum of abilities and reasons to ride, the combining factor for those people stood beside me was an unfiltered desire to absorb an unforgettable adventure with a heightened sense of community spirit, as well as ‘lekker’trails. What I hadn’t realised was that most of the land we would cover required extensive permission. You really 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 9 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.

Joberg2c-south-africa-start-line

 Why ride it?

Making up just one of the one hundred and one international riders, signing up for the joBerg2c was in fact the result 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 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. Technical, enduring and rough, this had captured my imagination and had a firm place on my bucket list. However, faced with injury and making the final call to suspend my place on the

Ultra Fjord race, I remembered the conversation with friends as they convinced me the one to try was in fact the JoBerg2c. The timing was perfect; I could also ride it solo, so no need for another to join me. This was an opportunity to take on my own journey, unaffected by other people’s ideas or opinions.

Within moments, I had decided – completely inspired by not just the photos, but by the ethos of the race. I could sense this was more than a ride – it was a holistic experience that would shape my now hugely positive outlook on South Africa.

Now was the tricky bit, breaking the news to my Mother, whose friends had left South Africa due to their personal experience of crime and violence. “You’re going where?!…” This was the expected response. I could sense her trying not to dampen my growing enthusiasm to take on my own adventure, knowing how much I needed a focus at this time in my life.

After much convincing that it was a perfectly safe, well organised event, I was comfortable that my family wouldn’t fear for my life the entire nine days. This is something I really would stress, as South Africa and its people showed me nothing but care and a level of social and political awareness that I seldom see in the UK. Wishing to focus on the race and limit any possible concerns, I also decided on a travel package with GameOn Sports.

For one, I had no desire to spend stressful time dragging my bike box and bags on my own to a country that needs to be treated with respect regarding crime. For two, I spend most of my waking hours working, training, commuting, managing a team and generally never sitting still – this was a holiday after all and I wanted to focus all my attention on the positives.

I’d recommend this step to anyone – Ryan the owner of GameOn was more than an organiser, he became a friend by the end of the trip. I was able to learn so much more about the country and it’s people, which I’m certain I wouldn’t have done had I spent those days before alone.

Joberg2c Jabulani Singletrack

 Time to train

The lead up to the race was a pendulum of good and back luck. As soon as the entry was in, it seemed the dreaded flu bug came knocking, wiping me out for weeks and knocking my training to the ground. A seesaw of good and bad weeks saw me fit in a mix of holidays to the sun (weather acclimatization I told myself) and ensured I had the back-to-back days in the saddle needed to feel both physically and mentally ready. A gnarly 7 hour impromptu mountain bike race whilst on a trip to Scotland gave me the chance to test out a non-stop day in the saddle at race pace, the rest of my time spent on the road bike to get the miles in.

With weeks to go, I had 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.Come pre race weekend, loading on antibiotics from my second dose of tonsillitis, I was packing my bags and bike box and getting ready to leave for the sunshine of the southern hemisphere.

 Getting to South Africa

A dream flight saw me spread myself 4-seats long and sleep soundly all the way, landing in Johannesburg feeling fresh and ready to go. Nervously, I met the taxi driver at the arrivals gate but jitters quickly turned to stiches as he spent a reasonable length of time trying to squeeze my bike box into his saloon car… Full marks for effort, Sam got it in.

At the hotel I was thanking good fortune after hearing stories of others with lost passports and £1000’s worth of excess baggage costs… I’d squeezed all of my kit, including bike to 29.5kg, expertly coming in under the 30kg Emirates limit. Be warned, this is a costly mistake if you make it and to be honest, you really need only to take the kit on the list.

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

Let me never say again that going to a hot country means it will not rain! Having raced last year in France, confidently touting that it would be warm, sunny and dry, it ended in disaster after three days following freak storms and flooding. Again the raindrops had followed me to the start line of joBerg2c and we spent the first hour of the day chasing the blue skies as we left the hotel to 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, I took myself to the start line to begin day 1: 116km of mostly district and farm road that would gently break us in with 855km of climbing and 867m of descent.

I was 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’. I’ve kindly been told in the past I’m a bit go a Hippo, slow to get going, so positioning myself nicely behind the man in the cow costume, I thought I’d be fairly safe.

Joberg2C Bridge Crossing

Once the gun went, it wasn’t long before the short, sharp first climb claimed its first victims of testosteronitus… So track stand practice came to play and I was able to get up and over, pedaling on to get to a better position. 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 pedaling and lapping up the muddy challenge. My only regret at this point was my choice of bright white jersey and shiny new shoes as I ploughed through the fiery red muddy tracks. Oops.

The challenge of the day came in form of the floating bridge. Stories of mass sinking came flooding back as I watched riders wobble and crash into the water, causing some nerves to spike. Catching up with Pete, a superbly chilled Australian who wasn’t quite sure what he had in fact signed himself up for, I kept my distance and did as instructed,pedaling in the granny gear to make the first crossing. No worries! Once over the two bridges we launched into a very soggy, muddy field and over to sheep trails that were by now, shin deep bogs of doom. Internally laughing with joy, I loved the gritty challenge of riding that stuff and got through it happily, sympathising with some bewildered folks clearly from the land of dry and extremely terra firma.

One of the attractions to this race was also the food stations. I’m a girl that will happily eat on the hour, so I was quite excited to find the last food stop in full swing with music and a festival feel, overlooking the river. Meaty treats and marshmallows with condensed milk were chowed down with not a trace of guilt and I caught up with Markham and Charles, my US buddies I’d met the first night. Both were strong riders, Markham was a 61 year old mountain goat, later to be my lead out man on day 8 when I decided to see what I had in the tank and get a taste of the race pace.

Joberg2c Day 9 3 Bitches Singletrack

At this point we met with the tandem duo Jonathan and Douglas, humbling riders from Kenya who were taking on this incredible feat to show the world that adversity can be overcome. Douglas had been blinded by the devastating Nairobi bombings and his trusted pilot would lead him on this testing 900 km course, showing strength and courage beyond what we thought possible.

The day ended frustratingly from them as I passed them into Frankfort, our first stop, as they snapped a chain. This was the first of a number of hard moments, which was to include a devastating broken collarbone injury on the 8th  day for lead rider Jonathan, but incredibly saw them ride the entire way to the finish the next day. Cheering and hand slapping the excited local children of the town, I rode into camp, feeling the warm and satisfying sensation of making it to the finish.

Frankfort

Now, if Carlsberg made race villages… This was insane! Lined up to military perfection, 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 the 10% of the riding fraternity being women) I was noshing into an awesome spreading of gluten free, fresh and tasty food. Usually when you tick the special diet box, you might expect a token effort rice cake – this was incredible. Every food allergy covered and a selection that I’ve rarely seen in any restaurant or cafe. A recovery shake later, consisting of Lyo Foods beetroot and raspberry powders mixed with chocolate milk, I was feeling full and happy.

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; 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

The mornings were billed as chilly; however being a hardy Scottish lass the cold evades me mostly, so I dressed with the moto ‘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 waiting at the start.

We were led out slowly, controlled until we’d left the town. There was barely metres worth of tarmac before we bit the sweet, dry pack trails and yet more glorious patches of mud that saw many quiver on their bikes tentatively. I bashed through it and used this time to get a comfortable position. Even without a race-head, you need to try and 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… Assos all the way for this event! I made that error and found myself hopping side to side on the saddle.

As a solo rider, I’d been nervous of the navigation as I was relying on a computer now and not map and compass. Worry not needed. Fondly know by the end as ‘Scotland!’ I found myself chatting to so many groups, interested to know where I was from and why I was riding. “You’re brave!” Became a common call as those I spoke to realised I was on my own. I loved this aspect, the freedom to come and go, to push on the hills that I love and to focus on my riding, or choose to slow it down and catch up with the chatty locals and learn some Afrikaans along the route.

Joberg2c Day 8 Switchback

A team riding for Surgeons for Life were to become my trail angels for the first half of the ride, a cheery, chatting bunch of riders supporting hospitals dedicated to saving the lives of less fortunate children affected by some of the simplest of problems. Dressed in the their familiar pink or blue jerseys, the guys kept me chatting and laughing whilst giving me someone to chase on the long kilometres of trail. The day was complete with the last 10km raising us up through maize fields and giving the first taste of singletrack glory as we dropped down into the valley to reach the second night’s stop at Reitz. Passing the wolf sanctuary, I was torn to stop. At this point and on day two, I was feeling it, mainly on my delicate derrière! Waving to the wolves, I made the last 5km watching the metres tick by on my Suunto to get me into the finish. Once in, the LYO Food beetroot shake was made and devoured, a comforting symbol of a satisfying end to a day’s riding.

This was the first night I felt the kick of the kilometres since the start, an impromptu sleep gave me a boost to keep the eyes open for the night’s entertainment and meeting one of the magnificent wolves. I was touched by the moment Douglas was led to pet him, wondering what that must be like to not be able to see this great animal and trusting someone with your hand.

Day 3

Every morning began at 5 am, 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; 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, 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 terrorizing 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 close to the mountains every day. I stopped close to the last 30 km 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.

Stopping to take it all in after a time, I found myself alone. I breathed in the peaceful and dramatic landscape around me. A lone African lady watched me curiously as I took photos, then as discretely as I could, recharged the soothing chamois cream on my shorts… I wondered what she though of these Lycra clad men and women zooming past her. A quick wave of goodbye (and sorry for the chamois moment), within minutes all I could hear were shouts from a peloton of riders flying rapidly towards me as I ploughed through the leg sucking, sandy trail.

“OH FLOWER OF SCOTLAND!” 

Willem and Jaunty were catching up with me; two hilarious Afrikaans speaking natives that made me smile each day with their cheeky banter and chatter. They would sing and talk away until I’d find my legs most often in the last 30-40 km, as I would spin off into the hills.

Mount Paul was an exciting challenge to end the day; it took a subtle and creeping climb up towards the top, looking like dripping layers of wet sand, 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. This was steeper by the kilometer and I loved it. I work well at climbs and have a consistent spinning rhythm that got me up and over. Once on the other side, we were treated with a fantastic descent. A less confident rider was in front, but she sensed my excitement and let me past. I set into a fast and snaking downward rush, sneaky rocks and slabby sections satisfying my inner thrill seeker. Grant from the Surgeons was ahead, I caught him at the end as he settled into a mid-ride rest and waiting for his troops to catch up.

The final 5km was like the sweet dessert to end a tasty meal. It brought us to the Sterkfontein Dam. Not normally accessible (as is most of the route in South Africa) it overlooked a deep, dark blue dam and we rode the perimeter to the final stop. Greeted once again but the enthusiastic children and families of the communities this race so genuinely supports. Our bikes were whisked away to be cleaned and bags carried by inquisitive children, often keen to ask about my accent and why I was alone.

The cool dam water was too tempting and I took the chance to get the swimsuit out and headed to the cliff edge to dip into the water. A number of bright white bums met me as some guys had already made the same pilgrimage to wash away the day’s aches and chill the muscles.  This was the kind of moment where I cherished being along. Mostly because no other nutter would likely have joined me, but I sat for a while taking photos of the huge circular dam and the vista in front. Moments of calm and reflection like this need to be savoured.

Interrupted only by the pangs of hunger, I headed to the food tent to once again be met by a glorious array of food delights. The cake stall putting the poshest of patisseries to shame! Relaxing in the afternoon sun, I met the families of the Surgeons and sipped creamy Seattle coffee that was given to us daily, freshly made by the talented baristas. As I sat on one of the giant beanbags, spread like a lazy house cat, I was firmly in the groove of this event.

Dinner was a special, local treat called Potjie, a fabulous stew of oxtail meat and rich saucy goodness. This was made with genuine care and community. A satisfying end to warm the bellies of 800 riders.

Joberg2c-pipers-south-africa-stage-race

Day 4

On arrival to Johannesburg, whilst preparing my bike at Sproket & Jack, I’d looked at the coffee table books filled with emotional and beautiful images of the race from previous years. Grant kept telling me, “Day 4 is incredible! That’s when the riding gets really fun.”

 Not to be disappointed, 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, this is a tricky balance between looking out toward to see an incredible valley view and keeping the bike flowing through the fast, dry and loose singletrack. With batches of riders dropping in, I was lucky to get a clear run, most riders stepping off to the side to let the insane ones fly past with glee.

The rest of the day just flowed with a great mix of up and downs, 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. Met with a rather cheery group of water station tenders, they were fast to offer up their brandy and cokes and beers to thirsty riders wilting in the heat of the afternoon sun. I chuckled as the crazy Brazilian duo, with their bright red lipstick, took to the bottles and shot ‘selfies’ as they laughed and enjoyed the atmosphere.

With a fairly short distance by GPS measures, I jumped back on the bike and took off for the last climb, feeling the rising temperatures start to pervade my Scottish blood. This section took us into the stifling heat of the afternoon and a rather brutal, but brilliantly technical climb called Puff Udder, which confidently checked the legs and got the heart pounding. Riding these can be so tempting, especially as I relish the uphill, but the sensible head tells you there a long way to go and to keep that steady pace. The last of these technical climbs was a push for us all.

The muscles certainly twitched by the time Winterton School came to view, this was a day I’ll never forget on the bike and satisfied every one of my bike loving bones. The evening was yet another top notch treatment on the food front, with dinner nicely rounded off with a colourful rendition of ‘The Circle Of Life’ by the world renowned Drakensburg Boys Choir. The first chord saw me screeching with happiness as I’d be quietly singing ‘hakuna matata’ to myself, reciting lines from a childhood favourite The Lion King along the trail.

Day 5

Heading out from Winterton, we didn’t have to wait long until we hit more of the farmland singletrack, a fun blast to keep us all entertained and alert. With 112km to go, this was a ‘shorter’ day but still plenty hills to keep the heart rate high. A steady and rolling start then saw us climbing more of the district road, this was a chance to take stock of the Drakensburg, the dramatic mountain range that we were following as we headed towards the coast. As the climbs gained momentum from 40km, I halted for a moment, seeing a couple head the other way. Questioning, I asked if they were okay, checked my Suunto GPS then looking to my left, saw a line of black and white stripes.

By this point too you’re only getting fitter and stronger, but it’s still a hard call to make. Unlike my experience of adventure racing, where a steady but consistent pace is needed, the long afternoons at the finish offer you a good recovery, so there a chance to push it more and more.

As the final chase down the valley began, I slowed and remember to take time to look up. On this last 15 km, I met with Graham, Peter and John, a strong group of experienced riders keen to chat to ‘Scotland’. The lush green valley was incredible and we stopped for a group photo, cementing my new friendship that would come to life on the last day.

Tired legs groaned at the sight of the last climb, albeit a fun, technical challenge, it seemed each day was destined to end on an incline. Hearing familiar sounds, as I turned the corner to see the final 150m sign and a delightful descent to the finish, two bagpipers stood on the hilltop, blasting out their Scottish anthems. Amazing!

Despite the proximity to rest, I jumped off the bike and grabbed my camera, eagerly pointing to the Scottish flag on my bike. I am pretty sure I win best reception for that day! One of the pipers took my camera and ushered to me to the other, so with a big smile, I had my photo taken with him and jumped back on the bike to make the final meters to the finish line.

Arriving in Clifton, you get a real sense of the change in temperature and the heat was a progressive inferno. Ka-Ka, one of the Avis rental bag carriers kindly helped to my spot and the usual routine of LYO Food powders and chocolate milk took place, a slightly colourful explosion of fruit powders marking my territory in a very feminine pink fashion!

Clifton didn’t disappoint, this privileged school had pull out all the stops and even treated us to Clarins beauty product in the bathroom. Really?! This was the ultimate novelty, certainly for a girl not known for the size of her make up bag…

 

Day 6

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, the route masters promising us some unforgiving climbs of the technical variety. I was the only one looking particularly happy at that prospect, my ever-so-sadistic-self reveling in the suffer-fest!

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, the commonplace station food we’d come to know.

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 love 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. Spinning was definitely winning and my thighs were up to the job, as I gathered pace and places on the way to the top.

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 down. Once onto 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 6 and whilst the legs were starting to tire, looking up as we crossed Jack Lund’s farm, a cracker of a climb faced us. Challenge accepted and I went for it, with cheers from other riders with bikes in hand as they walked wearily up the nippy ascent. Almost to the top, it was tricky to get the line with a number of riders on the top, so I stepped down and hauled the bike over the last metre. A lovely Itailan-South African called Luca cheered me on, having ridden with me the previous day to the finish, so we both gave each other the energy to go for the final kicker of a climb. Almost to the top, but not quite, I had to remind myself not to go to the bottom and try again, as I would back home. I had many more miles to give these legs.

Glencairn farm was the seventh location for a night stop, marking top ten for vista. Newly built shower blocks and an impressive range of food options and the obligatory cake station rounded off another day, as we sat watching the sunset.

Day 7

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 over 600 km of distance in our legs, it’s a massively rewarding mix of forest singletrack. A batched start saw the congestion controlled and all of us free to whip round the fast corners of clean singletrack, towards another floating bridge.

Halted for a short time, a poor rider had found himself face first in the water, with both the rescue man and the photographer coming to his aid to get him back on the dry. A short break then let me ride on smoothly and in no time find the mid water point, not stopping too long to keep the legs moving. The forest trails continued, my flow interrupted only 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. Swiftly back on it, the route took us to the highly experienced Mackenzie Club, who had left nothing amiss as we chilled in the shine, enjoying a snooze on the hay bales complete with pillows and food aplenty.

 

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 and relaxed with friends, hoping it wouldn’t strike and I’d be completing my journey the next morning.

The evening saw my inner competitor strike and I took my first proper look at the day results. I was sitting in 5th and a minute off 4th, so consulting with my fellow riders, Markham was keen to lead me out and go for broke on day 8. At this point I was getting stronger and stronger and knew my recovery was good, so would it hurt to go for it? This was the day to go for it too, as it would reveal some very special downhill.

Day 8

Waking up to a beautiful morning and sunrise, a hearty breakfast saw me get to the start line and meet Markham, the agreement being we’d 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, gripped 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, I negotiated some short sharp corners, coupled with smooth track that was intersected by numerous rocks and features. Picking your line was vital here and I kept my eyes on the trail, my heart pumping from the excitement of a true race day.

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 3rd place 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.

Sadly those ahead were struggling a bit, so I grabbed my bike and ran round the slowing group, hopped back on the saddle and pedaled on to get to the top. Gutted for the interruption, it’s an inevitable part of mass racing. Once I caught up with Markham, we 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 on the last 5 km of the route. We soon hit the tarmac road and then it was a relieving downhill, with a left hand sharp turn 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 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! Not long after, Auralia came past and congratulated me on a great ride. To get that kind of reply from someone your competing with was lovely, just reinforcing my thoughts on the South African racers and their friendly and open respect of others.

The usual route of LYO Food shake, shower and food was followed by a very simple podium call to all riders for the day. No fuss was ever made of prize giving; just photos, hugs and smiles then back to cake, beers and conversation.

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 final night of conversation and fun, knowing it was going to come to an end finally the next day. This had become my world for the last 9 days, a blissful bubble of fun, energy, new friends and a memory that would forever imprint on my mind.

Day 9

The ultimate morning saw me move 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 of the day. 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. Once on the top, Peter, Graham and John caught me and gave me congratulations for my climbing effort. From there we rode steadily, not sure what mind I was in at that moment but it was quickly sealed as Auralia came behind me, working well with a group of guys supporting her to the finish. Seeing my position, Peter called to the guys to lead me out and Graham shot in front. Seeing the gap I took it and we went for the chase.

We left the last water point untouched, caught up again in the fun of racing. We were super strong, pacing well and enjoying the fast and flowing trails in the trees, then nearing the last 500m, disaster struck. 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 3rd overall having not raced the previous 7 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! Smack down again in the last few hundred metres! 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. It didn’t quite feel like the end. I was tired but wanted to keep going, wrapped in a routine of ride, eat, sleep. Seeing my newfound friends at the finish line, it was time to hug and cheer each other’s efforts and finally put the bike away. The sun was hot and the beach full of bikini clad tourists, looking on in wonderment at these dirty bikers cheering and partying on the sand.

We’d finally made it. 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 9 days, I made my way over to the blue sea and crashing waves, stopping to take it all in and vowing to be back for another.

To find out more about Joberg2c, visit their website.

 

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