Late September to mid November is one of our favourite times of the year as three fantastic events straddle this part of a busy end-of-season race calendar. All these races are characterised by the commitment and passion shown by their organizers, creating events that are mightier than the sum of their parts.
First off is the Mankele 3 Towers event, followed by the Berg & Bush and finally the Cape Pioneer Trek. This year we unfortunately missed out on 3 Towers owing to The Rift Valley Odyssey – I suppose you can’t have your cake (or in this case chicken) and eat it! Due to logistics and an extensive race season, we regrettably also won’t be attending the 2017 Cape Pioneer Trek, which meant we wanted to make the most of our opportunity to race Berg & Bush.
Gary Green, better known as ‘Farmer Gary’, and his team make annual improvements to an already successful event, refining the race to deliver a very unique experience. Over 3 days riders drop off the Drakensberg Escarpment down into the Natal Bushveld on trails that seem to get better with the passing of every edition. Is it possible that Farmer Gary trains his cattle to march out a perfectly sculpted singletrack…?
In between stages rider’s camp on the banks of the mighty Tugela River, dining on food fit for a king and an endless supply of chocolate milk…to enhance recovery of course. Walk around the host village at Em’seni Camp and all you will hear is chatter about the day’s singletrack and the trails that still lie in wait.
Team Garmin MTB split up for the Berg&Bush with Yolandi teaming up with Theresa Ralph w
hile I raced with another du Toit – Arno du Toit, from the LCB Racing team. Pitting ourselves against our contemporaries at stage races is a great way of measuring ourselves and staying motivated while not falling into the trap of complacency.
From the heat and dust of last year it was cool and wet as we set off from Windmill Farm atop the Drakensberg on Friday morning. In fact it was so wet that the first 31km was neutralized as we dropped down the escarpment on Sollie’s Folly. For once we could enjoy the views granted from this signature singletrack as the mist slowly gave way. Once at the bottom it was a short stop before we were set off in batches and racing started in earnest.
The men stayed together in a large group until the big climb about 20km from the finish where all hell broke loose. Arno and I had just chased back from an earlier puncture so we were one of the first casualties as Team PYGA Eurosteel and Team NAD battled for supremacy. Team NAD won the day after PYGA Eurosteel rode into each other causing a crash and a broken wheel. Luckily their back up team wasn’t too far away and could help them save the day with a borrowed wheel. Arno and I could also do with a spare wheel as we punctured again, finally rolling in for 7th place on the day.
Yolandi and Theresa had taken the neutral start quite literally thinking that everyone would be set off together from waterpoint 1, so they were surprised to get there and find the first bunch containing 3 ladies teams had already left. They started in the second bunch and time trialled their way through the remaining 69km’s battling the muddy course and a puncture to finish 4th on the day.
Day 2 was only 60km but most of it was on singletrack making the fight for position vital and consequently the start a veritable free for all. The strongest teams soon separated themselves from the rest and a second acceleration saw Teams NAD and PYGA Eurosteel go off the front. About halfway we passed a stricken Team NAD as they struggled to fix a puncture. They would make a comeback after some assistance from their back up team, but Team PYGA and the overall win had slipped from their grasp.
Arno and I had a fantastic day until about 3 km to go when I suffered a hunger flat while we were fighting for 3rd place on the day. We finished 4th a few seconds off the day’s podium wondering what might have been.
Yolandi and Theresa raced to their strengths going out steady and picking up speed as the day progressed. They finished 4th again, but much closer to the podium than the day before.
Day 3 was a short and sharp 48km stage with the famous Spioenkop climb thrown in towards the end. The rolling roads at the start made for a steady start to the day and once we turned into singletrack it was Team PYGA Eurosteel leading the way and setting the pace. This left about 5 teams in contention when we hit Spioenkop from where it was an all out effort to the finish. The climb took its toll but the downhill off it was so exhilarating all pain was soon forgotten. Arno and I finished 5th on the day placing 4th overall at the 12th edition of Berg&Bush.
Yolandi and Theresa rode their hearts out catching up to 3rd place but lost a bit of ground in the second half of the stage taking 4th again and 4th overall after 3 days of fantastic racing in the ladies category.
Then it was time for a final bike wash, bush shower and a scrumptious meal before we said our goodbyes to Gary and his team leaving the Berg&Bush behind knowing we will have to wait another year before the playground is open again!