I have always wanted to do a Mountain Bike stage race and I finally managed to make this dream a reality this year. My husband and I decided to enter the three-day Berg and Bush Descent race that took place on the first weekend in October this year. You cover a total of 214km over the three days starting in the Drakensberg and descending down into the bushveld farm area near Winterton in Kwa-Zulu Natal.
My husband and I had very good intentions to put in some solid training for this stage race to ensure we could hopefully do well as a mixed team. However we both had a less than ideal build up to the race. About 8 weeks prior to the race my husband ended up with a very deep wound in his elbow after his wheel slipped out when he hit a berm line in the Delta Spruit. He ended up having to go in for an operation for the doctor’s to clean out the wound. I also had a freak fall off my bike during the Garmin MTB race this year where my wheel slipped out in a corner and I smashed my knee into the frame of my MTB leaving me with a bruised bone in my knee. So all in all our training plans leading up to the race had to be altered to ensure we both recovered from our injuries and ensured we got ourselves to the start line in one piece.
We both managed to pull ourselves together and managed to get a few good rides and wattbike sessions at gym in before the race. However, in the week leading up to the race I ended up getting a serious sinus infection and could hardly breathe through my nose as I was so blocked up so I had to rush to the doctor again who managed to give me some antibiotics that I could take up until the race which was less than ideal.
So after a very bumpy few weeks of training we made it to the start of Berg and Bush. The race starts at a place called Windmill Farm, which is on the crest of the Oliviershoek Pass. We camped at Windmill Farm the night before the race but barely slept as the wind was pumping during the night. When we woke up there was still a very strong wind and it was forecast to be a very hot day, which meant it was going to be a tough ride ahead of us.
The first stage is around 91km and starts at the top of the Drakensburg and you ride along the cliffs of “Great Wall my China” before descending down the escarpment along purpose-built single track including what is called the “Sollys Folly” descent. You then ride through various farms and make your way to the Emseni campsite on the banks of the Tugela River near Winterton. Other than the incredible descents there are still a number of notable climbs along the route that certainly test your endurance strength.
Day 1 was certainly not an easy day out on the bike. My husband got a puncture about a third of the way into the race but we thankfully were able to sort it out fairly quickly and continue on our way. After halfway I really started to suffer which I believe was due to a number of factors including the sinus infection during the week, the heat and my nutrition on the day. At around 80km into the race I even had to stop under a tree to gather myself as I was just feeling very weak. I always use Racefood as my chosen nutrition during MTB races but for some reason I was finding it very hard to eat and consume during the day and ended up relying more on Gu sachets to get me through to the end. My husband was very understanding and helped push me up some of the hills and keeping me motivated until the end. We finished Day 1 in just over 5 hours. We then met up with our other riding buddies who had already found a suitable spot for us to setup our camp. We found our car which had been kindly driven down to Emseni from Windmill Farm by volunteers. We got showered, setup our tent in the heat of the day (not advisable!) and spent the rest of the day chilling in the shade and trying to recover as best possible with two days of riding ahead of us.
Day 2 is a 65km bushveld ride starting and finishing at Emseni campsite. It includes a few notable climbs such as Mike’s Pass as well as the Puff Adder Pass descent. The route takes you along cattle and game farm tracks before making your way back to the Tugela river to Emseni. After a tough day 1, I was feeling very nervous as to how I was going to get through another day. The ride ended up being a lot better than I was expecting. I did find I struggled again with my nutrition towards the end of the race but definitely felt stronger and we ended up finishing in just over 3 and a half hours.
In the afternoon of Day 2 the Spioenkop challenge takes place. Anyone is able to enter the challenge which involves riding from the bottom of the infamous Spioenkop mountain to the top in the quickest time; the top female and male winners take home R20 000 each. It is encouraged to go and support the challenge and watch the pro’s kill it up the mountain so my husband and our mates all jumped into a car to go up to watch the action. It was also good to do a recce of what we were in for on Day 3 as it includes the climb up Spioenkop. The challenge was won by Robyn de Groot and Phil Buys. After the race there was a history talk about the Anglo-Boer war at Spioenkop, which is very interesting and definitely worth staying for.
Day 3 arrived and my legs were definitely feeling a bit fatigued. We were in for a shorter ride of 50km but it includes two notable climbs starting with the Lantana Hill and then making your way to Spioenkop mountain. I felt stronger today and just had one goal to make sure I rode up Spioenkop mountain without stopping or walking. I am pleased to say I managed to get up the steep climb and then really enjoyed the fast flowing single track down to Emseni camp. We finished Day 3 in 2 hours 40 minutes and ended up coming 10th in the Mixed Teams category overall. I was very grateful to my husband for riding with me on my first stage race. He definitely helped motivate me every day and was very patient when I was suffering during the race. Teamwork certainly is key when it comes to stage racing and adds a great new element and challenge to the race. The stage race bug has definitely bitten and I am eager to do some more stage races in the future to explore more beautiful MTB trails in South Africa. Let me know if you have any suggestions of must-do stage races I should look to enter?