The 6 Best MTB Events To Ride This Year

In 2017, without even trying, one casual cyclist caught stage-race fever.


Dave Moseley |

In 2017, without even trying, one casual cyclist caught stage-race fever. Dave Moseley never intended to ride all year long; but somehow, the wheels of fortune simply turned in his favour. – Dave Moseley

In 2017, my intention was to cycle more. Cycle for fun, to work, for coffee. But because part of my job is helping mountain-bike race organisers get publicity for their events, one thing led to another; and without even trying, I ended up with seven stage-type events under my belt. In a year!

From the forests of Knysna to the mangrove swamps of the Wild Coast to the dry, barren
Klein Karoo, my bikes took me all across South Africa. And on reflection, there’s only one conclusion to be drawn: life is much more fun on a bicycle.

1. Tour de Braai & Tour de Braai II

Image supplied

What
A five-day tour of the Klein Karoo and Overberg region of the Western Cape, hosted by South Africa’s braaimaster – Jan Braai.

Last year’s events

I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in three Tours de Braai in 11 months. I was involved in the recce ride in December 2016, then did the first event in May 2017, and the second in November.

May’s ride started in near-perfect conditions, with 20-odd excited if slightly confused participants.

The start time for each day was 9am; not earlier, not later. Jan Braai had instructed riders that we don’t breakfast in riding gear, and that there is absolutely no need to be ready for breakfast at 6am.

Cue stage-race robots kitted up, helmets on, and knocking on the dining room door at 6am. It took a few shakes of the head from Jan to get everyone on board, but from day two it was smooth sailing.

Every day was a highlight, but the memorable moments for me include the passes the Tour de Braai travels over: Montagu Pass on Day 1 (with your first braai and pinot noir at Herold Wines, just 18km in), and Rooiberg Pass on Day 3 (with a braai, courtesy of De Krans Wines, at the top of the pass).

On top of that, the 90km ride from Oudtshoorn to Calitzdorp, in the shadow of the Swartberg Pass and through the Groenfontein Valley, will in time surely become the iconic stage of this event.

Bikes
May – Trek Crockett, with 700×38 tubeless tyres. A very capable bike that handled the five days of gravel riding really well. I battled slightly on the rocky downhills of Rooiberg, but overall the bike was a fun ride.

November – Momsen R355, with 700×40 tubeless tyres. A far better-specced ride than the Crockett, and the R355 only weighs in at 9.5kg. The slightly wider tyres felt like a huge step up on the ride, and are probably the ideal size for this kind of gravel riding.

Where
George to Swellendam, via Oudtshoorn, Calitzdorp, Rooiberg Lodge and Riversdale.

Why do it?
If you’ve conquered every stage race in South Africa, or need a new challenge that doesn’t involve porta-loos and energy gels, then the Tour de Braai is the ride you’ve been looking for. The challenge is also to tackle the tour on a gravel bike. Mountain bikes are welcome, but the Tour is squarely positioning itself as the number-one tour for gravel-grinders.

The riding is doable if you’re reasonably fit, but far more fun if you’re a well-seasoned cyclist. The days aren’t aggressively long, but the gravel roads and night-time activities do eventually add up to make this a challenge worth training for.

This year’s model
6-12 May 2018
braai.com/braaitour/tour-de-braai


2. Old Mutual joBerg2C

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What
The longest stage race in South Africa; a stunning nine-day journey from Heidelberg in Gauteng to Scottburgh in KwaZulu-Natal.

Last year’s event

For the past two years, I’ve ridden the joBerg2c as a solo rider; it’s a real test of mental fortitude and character, but if you enjoy the sound of your own thoughts and stopping to contemplate the numerous mielie fields of the first three days, then it’s a great way to ride.

On day four I raced out of the starting blocks, only to puncture immediately after catching the batch ahead of me. My good friends Des and Phil pulled over to help repair my flat, so I thought it prudent to spend the next five days riding with them. The two of them enjoy their ‘off-bike’ activities as much as their riding; so while the rides were filled with good banter, the evenings were filled with good red wine and good Nottingham Road Brewery beers.

Bike

Specialized Camber Comp – on the long district roads I struggled, due to gearing-ratio inadequacies; but once the climbing started, the bike came into its own. The joBerg2c has upped its game considerably with regards to singletrack, so the plush ride of the Camber was highly agreeable.

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Where
Everywhere! (Okay – Heidelberg, Frankfort, Reitz, Sterkfontein Dam, Winterton, Nottingham Road, Underberg, Ixopo, Highflats and Scottburgh.)

Why do it?
The joBerg2c is essentially a nine-day tour of South Africa’s back roads and farming heartland. Whether you’re a local or a foreigner, it’s probably the best way to see what goes on in South Africa outside of the cities. Tiny towns like Reitz and Frankfort welcome you with open arms, providing feasts fit for royalty.

The best part, if you weigh under 90kg, is that the tannies and oumas at the race villages see it as their duty to fatten you up overnight. Local farmers, their families and various community members also provide the water-point catering, which is some of the best food you’ll eat at an event. This year, in the middle of a long, dusty road, one such water point was making fresh Nutella pancakes.

This year’s model
20-28 April 2018
joberg2c.co.za


3. The Knysna Bull

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What
A four-day stage race in Knysna, with the quirk that the first day is a town-based prologue past suburban lawns and through shopping centres, with a sprint finish along the famous lagoon.

Last year’s event
‘The Bull’ was held for the first time in 2017. Each day started in a different part of Knysna, with all routes finishing at Thesen Island. Highlights were definitely the elephants watching us start at the Knysna Elephant Park, and the incredible trails through Harkerville on Day 3. From a racing perspective, this was a mellow effort, with five of us riding together for
the three days.

Where
Knysna

Why do it?

The prologue is special (especially the last twist into a parking garage, when you’re racing your chums and the cheeky buggers have done a recce without you and send you out the wrong exit). No tents required; you set up ‘camp’ in your favourite B&B or hotel. For serious racers, it’s perfectly timed to stretch the legs ahead of the Absa Cape Epic.

This year’s model
22-25 February 2018
knysnabull.bike


4. Grindrod Bank Umngazi Pondo Pedal

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What
A three-day mountain-bike ride, through unspoilt Wild Coast terrain. Featuring goat tracks, dramatic ocean vistas, mangrove swamps and weed-smoking locals, the Pondo Pedal is the most unique MTB race on the local calendar.

Last year’s event
I received an invite to this ride completely out of the blue. Up until that point, I’d never heard of it. To get there from Cape Town is a helluva schlep – I drove to Grahamstown, spent the night there, then carried on to Umngazi – but after riding the event, I can confirm that the effort is worth it.

The route includes goat track with actual goats on it, district roads, hand-built singletrack, and jaw-dropping ocean views that pop out of nowhere. I have to claim this as my ride of the year – mainly thanks to my partner and me coming second overall, and winning the third and final stage!

Bike
Cannondale Flash – in hindsight, a dual-sus would have been better suited to the rough terrain.

Where
Umngazi River Bungalows & Spa, Port St Johns

Why do it?
It’s wild and untamed; and the distances are short enough that if you can handle yourself on a bike, you’ll be back in the pub by 10am, enjoying your first round of G&Ts for the day.

The beauty of this event is that it’s a clover-leaf format from start to finish. Each day begins and ends at the exquisite Umngazi River Bungalows & Spa resort – with accommodation included for the final day, too. That means there’s no manic rushing to pack and leave when you finish; just a slow descent into boozy giddiness, as you sip fine wine or gin on the banks of the Umngazi River. The Day 3 beachfront finish is also jolly good fun.

This year’s model
13-17 June 2018
pondopedal.com

 


5. FNB Wines2Whales Adventure

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What
Three options for riding the best trails in the Western Cape: the Adventure, the Ride, and the Race. Recently acquired by the company that owns the Absa Cape Epic, it’s uncertain what shape or form the event might take in the future.

Last year’s event
I was a late call-up here, courtesy of Bicycling’s deputy editor, Jonathan ‘Goose’ Ancer. Our intention was to ‘attack’ at the water points, but much to our dismay they were woefully inadequate.

The usual water and Coke were present; but potatoes, Marmite sandwiches and sickly-sweet koeksisters for three days in a row meant we had to attack our own provisions instead.

The riding, though, was excellent. The attention to detail on the W2W route is second to none; and after suffering through an insanely powerful headwind on Day 1, we rode freely from D batch on Days 2 and 3. A personal highlight was starting in I batch on Day 1, only to outpace the batch after two kilometres, all while enjoying a philosophical conversation about batch starts and riding at a leisurely pace.

Where
Somerset West to Grabouw to Onrus

Why do it?
For a long time, Wines2Whales was the benchmark for South African stage racing. And probably still is, when you look at the overall package: good event garment, great trails, well-maintained race village, and generally slick organisation. For mountain bikers outside of the Western Cape, this is certainly the one to do if you’re planning a trip down south.

While the emphasis of the event always seems to be on Day 2’s ‘play day’ trails, the best day of overall riding is almost certainly the Day 3 trek from Oak Valley to Onrus. Day 2 feels like you’re going around in circles, simply to make up distance; the final day has a much better combination of trails and challenges.

This year’s model
Wines2Whales Chardonnay: 26-28 October
Wines2Whales Pinotage: 29-31 October
Wines2Whales Shiraz: 2-4 November
wines2whales.co.za

 


6. Grindrod Bank Berg & Bush Great Trek

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What
Three options for riding sublime trails in the Central Drakensberg: the three-day Descent, the three-day Great Trek, or the original two-day.

Last year’s event
Foul weather did its best to dampen spirits at this year’s Berg & Bush, but riders were having none of it. As always, the atmosphere was excellent and the trails world-class. Although all three days are exceptional, the reason to enter this event is to experience the final 14km Day 3 descent into Em’seni from the top of Spioenkop.

In 2017, my goal was to improve on 2016’s middling 300th position, which I achieved by finishing 44th overall. However, that meant no time to stop and enjoy the bountiful water points or friendly banter with the locals. It’s a catch-22; this is a great event to race, but it’s also one best enjoyed at a sedate pace.

Bike
The Camber was a no-brainer for this mixture of bushveld, animal tracks and handcrafted singletrack. Two buffoons rode cyclocross bikes. Beats me.

Where
Em’seni, just outside Winterton, KwaZulu-Natal.

Why do it?
The Berg & Bush is a family-run event, with a massive heart. In 2017, before the first day of the Descent, rain hammered the area. To make sure the 99km stage was safe, race founder Gary Green woke up at 3am and rode the route before participants had a chance to unzip their tents (he also got lost, on his own farm). That’s real commitment, from a man who just wants people to enjoy their mountain-biking experience.

The race village, wo-manned by a quartet of ladies – Gary’s daughters Roxanne and Spoen, the unflappable Jani Maritz, and the port-fancying Mrs Nikki Green – is a spectacular venue to end a day’s riding. Set on the banks of the Tugela River, there’s a large deck over the water, beanbags for everyone, and a bar that serves ice-cold craft beer for R10 a pop. Some riders ran up such impressive bar tabs that they had to ride off Spioenkop and straight to the airport.

This year’s model
5-7 October 2018, 9-11 October 2018 , 13-14 October 2018
bergandbush.co.za


THE BEST BITS OF THE BEST RACES:

BEST WINE TASTING
Tour de Braai (Herold Wines, De Krans, Boplaas, De Doornkraal’s Aan’t Vette Wine Estate)

BEST PARTNER
Has to be the LOPPers, Andrew, Jonathan and Chris, who all waited for me at the Knysna Bull when the intense heat had rendered my cycling ability useless.

BEST TRAIL SECTION
Berg & Bush’s Spioenkop descent, & joBerg2c’s Day 6 Rock ‘n’ Roll section.

BEST WATER POINT
I think Day 6 of joBerg2c, where I had a sandwich with bacon, pork sausage and grilled cheese. Okay, maybe more than one…

BEST KIT

Tour de Braai

BEST LOOKING
Berg & Bush

BEST PORTAGE
Wines2Whales.

BEST OVERALL EXPERIENCE

Pondo Pedal, purely because we won the last stage and have a wooden fish trophy to prove it.

BEST MEDAL
Tour de Braai (spoiler alert – the medal is actually a three-day hangover).

BEST CREW PARTY
(and last-ever crew party): Berg & Bush.

READ MORE ON: featured races STAGE RACES