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12 Jan, 2017

A Journey Like no Other!

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Having won the competition in Modern Athlete for a team entry to the FNB Wines2Whales three-day stage race, I found myself riding this incredible event with my mate Devin Atherstone. It truly was an unforgettable experience! – BY JURGEN STRINGER

Modern Athlete magazine was part of my distance running journey in the couple of years leading up to my maiden Two Oceans and Comrades ultra-marathons in 2015. However, then the wheels came off my distance running ambitions after struggling with numerous injuries, and by Christmas that year the inevitable weight-gain and general “out of shapeness” followed. To get out of the slump, it became clear that I would need to do something with less impact, so mountain biking entered the void left by running.

Birds of a Feather
I met Devin after moving from Hertfordshire to Somerset West in 2012 and together with other riding mates we have explored the many trails the Helderberg, Overberg and Stellenbosch area has to offer. With everyone having varying capabilities, Dev and I soon became natural partners – mainly because we want to play on the weekend, but not put in the training during the week! This has made for many a suffer-fest, one example being the Burger MTB Challenge in Stellenbosch a few years ago. After about 50km of the 60km we vowed never to MTB again! Another was completing the 2016 XTERRA long race in Grabouw with zero training in the months leading up to race day. It got to the point where we would opt for the shorter 25km races while our mates were doing 50km.

Continuing in the true spirit of the Weekend Warrior, we did the Karoo-2-Coast this past September after driving to Uniondale on a freezing cold Saturday night before the start and surviving on barely two-and-a-half hours of sleep. We weren’t going to let a family wedding in Elgin get in the way of not participating! After finishing within 30 minutes of each other, we chugged down a beer or three and our group headed straight back home on the five-hour return journey. To recap, in the space of 22 hours we drove for 11 hours, raced for 6 hours and slept 2.5 hours, completing 1,000km of driving and 100km of mountain biking. Somewhere during that epic trip, I entered the Modern Athlete Wines2Whales team entry competition and suggested to Dev to do the same, to double our chances. A few weeks later, Roxanne Martin phoned and when she introduced herself from Modern Athlete, I knew it had to be good news!

Ready to Ride
I have participated in many road and off-road events, but the Wines2Whales has no equal! For a change, I did a bit of training in the weeks leading up to it, 500km mostly on flat tar roads. If Dev did 200km, it was too much. We are actually a mismatch of sorts, with him weighing 20kg less than me, and to make matters worse, he bought a carbon frame before the race! Anyway, whether Dev knew it or not, I appointed myself as the leader of our two-man team, justifying it on the basis that I had done a couple of three-day stage races before, and having done the superior training mileage. But then, as Devin joked, my 500km equates to his 200km.

Packing for the race was seamless thanks to the checklist the organisers provided on their handy mobile app, and with our wives and children in tow to see us off before having to go to work and school respectively, we set off for day one. Fortunately, the car-ride was super quick, as the start at Lourensford is a short 5km from our homes… and naturally, my wife Sarah and I argued and then promptly made up again, as we tend to do before these sorts of things. We seem to like adding drama and romance to the excitement. (Recently, Sarah and I teamed up at a potjiekos competition, and in the build-up to the cook-off we had a heated debate for a full 24 hours about the ingredients and recipe, but it was worth it, as we placed second out of 16 teams.)

Ripping the Trails
Day one was my best day on the trails. The 8km climb during the first 10km was not nearly as bad as we anticipated. Good thing it comes so early on. We cruised through the first water point and as we rolled into the second water point at the scenic Idiom Wines, I caught some air, which was captured by Dev’s amazing photographer wife, Ronel. From there we hiked up the compulsory portage section of the Gantouw Pass. I felt so strong going up and waited for my partner at the top. Ever the gentleman, he helped a lady carry her bike up, along with his own. Thereafter I accelerated and took risks to overtake on the A-Z single tracks, but had to eat some humble pie when a slow cramp started just before the third water point.

Dev gave me two Rennies and once again we went ripping through the home sections around Eikenhof Dam, before the finish at Oak Valley. Our efforts were rewarded as we moved up from the ‘I’ start group on day one to ‘E’ on day two. Later, over beers, I insisted that it was mind over matter and that I can use my brain to instruct my cramping away (as my biokineticist suggested a few weeks earlier), until Devin asked: “Are you sure it wasn’t the Rennies?” Hmmm…

The camp at Oak Valley is super organised. From the hydration options available, chocolate milk, Spur burgers, buffet style catering, fully stocked bar, free Wi-Fi, ablutions and tented accommodations, all one has to do is refresh, refuel and rest for the next day’s riding. Some riders even take the partying seriously with laughter and beats pumping well into the night (okay 11-ish). Earplugs are recommended! And apparently my local bike shop owner and race mechanic joined in the party, because I was semi-panicking as my bike had not been washed and lubed when I last checked on it. But at the start of day two, my bike was in showroom condition.

Ups and Downs
Day two is dubbed “Fun Day,” and it lived up to its reputation, with plenty of single track and playful sections along the only circular stage of the race through Oak Valley and Paul Cluver. Whereas Dev was getting stronger, I was starting to wear, but I managed to keep the pace. Then, finally, day three came along and it felt like I never really got out of bed. Flying down the mountain from Houw Hoek to Bot Rivier, it was as though my mind was two seconds behind on the trails. The inevitable crash came, which put my back out for the second time in as many weeks. This was the low-point for me. With my partner flying ahead and in a much better place than me, I entered that grinding zone where it feels like one isn’t making any progress, but you just must keep moving forward, inch by inch.

It was hot and dusty, but on any other ‘rose-tinted wearing spectacles day’ those are some sublime trails passing through Wildekrans Wine Farm, with powder covered, hard and fast berms. (The farm manager himself is a legendary mountain biker, having completed a few Cape Epics.) Ronel and Sav, her loyal five-year old photographer’s assistant, were on hand once again to cheer us on, speeding to various places along the route to capture fantastic images. A professional photographer covering everything from weddings to family shoots, Ronel told me later that her real passion is sports photography, which comes through in the amazing images she took.

Finally, after grinding out the final long hill of the Karwyderskraal area, we were descending into the famous Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and our spirits kept lifting as we neared the ocean. Finishing at Onrus Caravan Park with the mandatory Windhoek Lager, shower, Spur burger and good friends was sublime. The three iterations of Wines2Whales are called the Adventure, Ride and Race, but the only way to describe it is an unforgettable experience. We will return. Thank you, Modern Athlete!