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09 Jan, 2015

Winds and gales at the Wines2Whales

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Modern Cyclist editor Raymond Travers decided to break his stage race virginity by tackling one of South Africa’s toughest three-day stage races, the 2014 FNB Wines2Whales. Fortunately there wasn’t that much mud … but there was just about everything else.

Story by Raymond Travers, photos by Raymond Travers, Cherie Vale/New Sport Media and Jetline Action Photos

It’s a scary feeling. Lying in a two person tent with the wind gusting so strongly that you can feel it rippling the tent’s built-in ground sheet below you … and the mattress you are sleeping on.

I suppose I could’ve “pulled rank” and requested other accommodation. But I didn’t. I chose to sleep in the tent town to experience the “real feeling” that participants experience when competing in one of South Africa’s most popular mountain bike stage races.

And this thought went through my mind as one particular gust made the tent wobble like jelly on a mechanical bull.

It was “night one” after “stage one” of the 2014 FNB Wines2Whales Adventure. And I was sleeping in a tent town on a sports field at Oak Valley in Grabouw, Western Cape.

Stage one, the stage that my body was recovering from as I lay in my sleeping bag on a mattress, with my tent only-just tethered to the ground, was a rather scary affair of 72 kilometres and 1620 metres of climbing.

It started from Lourensford Wine Estate in Somerset West and all went well until the first climb started. “They” (the team of announcers) did warn us that the climb was first on the agenda. And they did say it’d last for five kilometres. But what they didn’t say, was that the wind would be with/against/next to you all the way!

And what a wind!

Winding up that five kilometre climb, it either tried to knock you clean off your bike – as it did to one competitor who broke a few ribs in the fall and retired from the race – or it doubled the distance by pushing you two metres back for every forward metre you pedalled or less frequently it actually pushed you up the hill.

Fortunately, like all hills, it came to an end and was replaced with the first single track of the Wines2Whales route. With all sorts of obstacles, tight corners, rock gardens and drop offs, I managed to stay on the bike for most of it, apart from a rather tight hairpin bend which got me off the bike quicker than I normally dismount. The crash didn’t hurt anything, apart from my pride, so I was able to continue.

More used to one-day events, where I’ve only ever stopped at the water points when desperately needed, stage race water points are a must-stop refuge from the blustering wind and incessant hills where smiles and generous hands will pass you encouragement, food and cold liquid.

The other nasty hurdle – the obligatory portage over the historic Gantouw Pass – was next in line to challenge my weary legs. This three-kilometre long “walk” – or perhaps it should be described as a rock climb – follows the old route used by ox wagons and you can still see the ruts left by these huge wheels as they were pushed and pulled over this mountain.

After scrambling over the crest of the hill, you are still not allowed to get back onto your bike until you reach the jeeptrack and the effects of the climb can be seen in the wobbly legs as mountain bikers push their steeds onwards and downwards.

Called the Grabouw single track, riders then wind down towards Oak Valley through forests and over koppies. A canopy of trees providing some respite from the now pretty-hot sun, and giving that section an almost enchanted forest feel conjured out of a fantasy writer’s keyboard.

These images drifted in and out of my vision as I drifted in and out of what little sleep I had. The idea of “if that was the first stage, what’s going to happen tomorrow?” kept me out of sleep for a few more precious hours until I can’t remember anything. Then the noises of awakening mountain bikers urged me back to consciousness.

Pushing the perhaps inevitable “I think I might throw in the towel today” to the back of my mind, we started stage two. And I’m infinitely grateful to everyone involved for this piece of mountain biking heaven.

More than 70% of this 66.7 kilometre stage is single track. Ranging from a rocky path through wild-growing protea bushes to purpose built bridges over deep ravines, my inbuilt fear of heights just had to take a back seat on this particular stage.

I did crash.

It was on a hairpin bend. A manoeuvre that I had completed well, up until then.

On that particular bend, I decided for some particular reason that the inside line might be a good idea. Well it wasn’t! And I went over the handlebars, shortly after my handlebar end embedded itself in my thigh.

A rider behind me – who will remain nameless for now – told me at dinner afterwards that he heard the crash rather than saw it.

Fortunately my partner, 2013 Absa Cape Epic Finisher Raymond Bezuidenhout, who agreed to do his third W2W with me, didn’t see it either. I traded this complement with him a few kilometres later when I heard various rude words and a crash sound behind me after the last water point, where he had enjoyed a beer while I stocked up on cold water.

After negotiating a few interesting, man-made obstacles which converted the fruit packing factory at Kromco into a bike park, my legs and I decided to finish strong and we rode ourselves into the next start category and – hopefully – entertained commentators Gerald de Kock and Paul Valstar with a sprint to the line finish.

That night, one of the other great things of the South African stage race community revealed itself to me. The esprit de corps found in the race village during a stage race isn’t only highly contagious, but is also very motivating for any newbie like me.

Guys will slap you on the back and say: “heard you had a tough one on the first stage. Don’t worry, stage three is awesome … keep going!”

So it was with this hype that I started stage three. In only 73.5 short kilometres, I’d be at the finish line at the Onrus Campsite in Hermanus. Easy … or so I thought.

After a dash through mostly district road and jeep track, we attacked the first section of single track and this effectively freaked me out. It wasn’t as much the technical nature of this track but the memory of yesterday’s incident with a hairpin which caught me on occasion grabbing handfuls of brake and even unclipping for a foot scurry over something.

We eventually reached the high speed dash down the HouwHoek Pass, effectively “free kilometres” of downhill freewheeling until the first water point at a school in Botrivier.

A rather tough but enjoyable mixture of district road and single track led to the second water point. Then, a nasty collection of sandy switchbacks, climbs and hard riding corners brought us to the last waterpoint at Hamilton Russell Winery.

After filling up the necessary, the climb began and this is where the wheels nearly fell off completely. A climb which will make many elite cyclists baulk with fear leads you to the top of the ridge overlooking the town of Hermanus and the sea.

Unfortunately we couldn’t see any whales which help give this stage race its name before we dashed down a pretty hectic descent called Mine Shaft (no kidding on both counts) before yet another piece of single track heaven took us into the town.

Raymond and I said our thanks and congratulatory speeches to each other then, but there was still one more incredible prize before we finished properly. A beach ride over packing cases and up over a specially constructed bridge, surrounded by cheering onlookers – what an amazing experience.

A dash on a tar road in front of the beachfront homes led us to the entrance to Onrus Campsite and the usual comments from Paul about the two Raymonds crossing the line.

2014 FNB Wines2Whales Adventure done and dusted. Good friends made. In excess of 210 kilometres ridden. In excess of 4 000 metres climbed. And perhaps more importantly, Modern Cyclist has officially joined the stage race family.

Why don’t you try it? It’ll blow you away too!
Raymond Travers

Raymond Travers

Modern Cyclist Editor |

Editor