The thundering sound of thrashing hoofs woke me up from my pedal-induced trance. The world went into slow motion when a herd of 50+ frenzied wildebeest, zebras, and kudus stampeded just 30 feet in front of me. A wildebeest from the fast moving herd panicked at the site of 30 mountain bikers, tripped and fell to the ground. Several others collided and rolled over him. The stampede began to change direction heading straight for us. I braced myself during what felt like several helpless minutes as the charging mob of African beasts barely missed us. The adrenaline spiked and shivers of excitement ran down my spine. I exclaimed, “Holy Shit! This is Africa!” It’s easy to forget that you are in the habitat of wild animals when you’re on your mountain bike and then you suddenly get that thrilling reminder that you are on their turf.
I was only 25 minutes into an arduous 900km, 9 day stage race across South Africa called the Joberg2c
. Sure, it was a race with number plates and lycra-clad racing snakes (myself included racing the Mixed Team category with Yuki ). However, the Joberg2c is so much more than trying to go fast on a bike, it’s an adventure for the soul, traversing 4 provinces. Originating just south of the largest city in South Africa - Johannesburg, the journey crosses corn and dairy farms in the Free State and through mountains to the coastal resort town of Scottburgh on the Indian Ocean. Each day, over 800 riders explored an average of 100km of the point-to-point self navigated course. For some, the Joberg2c was their very first mountain bike race and the level of ability ranged from novice all the way to world-class professional level. The light-hearted attitude of the event organizers and participants downplayed the difficulty of the course and each day, most riders found both their physical and mental limit.
We saw several stampedes of exotic animals throughout the vast African savannas. To the locals, beautifully striped zebras were as common as deer to a mountain dweller. Stage racing is about having an adventure you will never forget. A special aspect of the Joberg2c is its involvement with uplifting the local communities in the event’s 8 years of existence. The villages along each stop of the route were fully engaged with the event. School children crowded the finish line each day cheering, jumping up and down, handing off water and offering to wash bikes.
More poignant was the daily interaction with a leader from each local community. That person would give a touching speech about how cycling and racing tourism partnered with thoughtful event planners improved lives. The race donated hundreds of liters of clean water in times of crippling drought. Joberg2c has also improved literacy rates by nearly 20% with the construction of new libraries.
The South African hospitality is unlike any other countries. Endurance sports are mainstream in South Africa, there are over 40 stage races, and the organizations aim for 5-star race villages as well as challenging race courses. The tent village of Joberg2c had free wifi, free laundry service, live local bands, clean bathrooms with hot showers, and even an espresso bar! Each night felt like a party with local craft beer, big screen TVs displaying the happenings of the stage, professional videos and photos from the day with bumping tunes, and great storytelling about the region. It hardly felt like camping for the 9 days. Each hand cut trail had an anecdote from the trail builder. The three race promoters provided nightly entertainment on stage with funny jokes and passionate descriptions of the following day’s stage.
The first few days of the race were mostly through flat, windy farmlands on district roads with sporadic fields of bright sunflowers. The big-hearted farmers welcomed cyclists onto their land, who granted access solely for the Joberg2c. In fact, two of the three race promoters were farmers but also accomplished cyclists. You could find yourself winding across tufty grasslands and through corn mazes. Pack riding and drafting were essential with relentless wind blasting through the area.
With winter imminent, and the race course being in close proximity to the Drakensburg mountain range, the morning temperatures hovered just above freezing. Each day became progressively more rugged with elevation gain, dramatic escarpments, and roller coaster like descents.
Most unique to this event were the floating bridges which rested on top of small bodies of water and bent and swayed under the weight of a cyclist. At times, the bridges were hard to follow due to the movement and riders would crash into the water! As the days progressed, the rural farmlands changed to picturesque hilly grasslands dotted with umbrella like trees. The occasional forested areas and alluvial valleys would be a relief from the daytime heat that reached nearly 30 degrees.
The voracious appetites of fatigued riders were satiated with large farmers market style food tents. The Joberg2c offered a cultural culinary adventure for South African residents and the foreigners from 31 countries. Local chefs and volunteers from each village worked tirelessly for 18 hours a day to prepare food for famished racers. The dining tents often had several tables full of cakes, treats, and koeksisters (pronounced “cook sisters). When I heard people talking about koeksisters, I thought maybe it was what they called female chefs. Koeksisters are extremely sweet, fried twists of bread.
Karan Beef was a sponsor of the event so red meat was a big part of the daily feed. Grilled steaks cooked to perfection and lamb were regular offerings over the 9 days. Each day included national dishes like oxtail soup (called potjie) served from large metal 3 legged caldrons or Boerewors (bore-a-voss); a popular type of sausage made of mostly beef with lamb and pork chargrilled over an open flame.
The aide stations also included children offering boxes of koeksisters, condensed milk coated marshmallows, men clutching overflowing bowls of boerewors, and yet another type of meaty treat- Biltong. Biltong is a dried, cured meat that can be found at almost any store or gas station with many varieties. The event also had great vegetarian options.
The final three days of the Joberg2c were the same course as the famous Sani2C 3 day event that would take place 2 weeks late. Those days were the favorite of all the racers with the longest downhill called the Umko Drop, steep climbs, and trails undulating their way to the sea.
Crossing the final finish line of the Joberg2c is so much more than a physical milestone. It’s an adventure, a challenge, and an unforgettable experience that adds substance to your life. The scenery and rural civilization you see from your bike are unique and the community of people you meet will be a part of you forever.Em Gatland Photography Jetline Action Photo Instagram: @looneysonya
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