Wines to Whales – more mountain biking

I know that this is a birding site and most of my blogs should be restricted to matters that are birding related however there are a few occasions that warrant blogs of a slightly different nature.  The birth of my daughter was one of those special moments that needed to be fully documented and, although not quite on the same level as the emergence of a new life on this planet, my love for mountain biking has justified a non-birding addition to this site, on occasion.

In May this year my good friend, Bruce, and I participated in the Sani2c 3 day mountain bike race (see related blog here).  That event was not as enjoyable as expected due to Bruce’s illness causing him to miss out on the latter two days of the race but we sought redemption from that unfortunate episode with our second ride together in the Wines to Whales race this last weekend.

As much as Sani2c has a very “KZN” feel about it, traversing from the foot of the Drakensberg to the south coast of Natal, Wines to Whales is very much a Western Cape thing.  The race starts on the spectacular property of the Lourensford wine estate in Somerset West, travels over the Hottentot’s Holland range of mountains to Grabouw and snakes its way towards the Overberg with a coastal finish in Onrus.  The daily distances vary from 65 kms to 85kms with a healthy dose of ascents, descents, single track and jeep track but, all in all, a course that is designed to challenge all entrants but yet ensure a significant dollop of enjoyment.

Our preparation this year was good and to celebrate the event Bruce went out and bought himself a shiny new bicycle the week before the event.  Well, not that shiny really – it was a carbon frame with a matt finish but you know what I mean.  We had also ensured that we had covered plenty of miles on our weekly weekend rides and we both managed to avoid any last minute illnesses so we were good to go on the morning of the race.

Day 1 – Lourensford to Elgin Country Club – 71kms

The Lourensford wine estate has become a bit of a mountain biking Mecca in the last few years being home to the finish of the annual ABSA Cape Epic so it is always a good place to start a race.

Day one took us straight up the side of the mountain in the first 20kms before we headed along the contours in the direction of Sir Lowry’s pass.  I use the word “contour” quite loosely as there were not too many flat roads on our way across.

There are two standout features of day one.

The first of these is a brute of a climb called Hans se Kop which is a back-breaking, technical ascent of over 300m in altitude through pine, eucalypt and fynbos before a short and sharp turn downwards through some hair-raising switch backs to almost exactly the same place as we had started the climb.

It would be hard for a non-cyclist to understand this pointless up and down to the same place but we certainly knew what we were in for yet still approached it with enormous enthusiasm.  Despite the months of training it seemed that we were still not particularly well prepared for Hans se Kop.  We reached the relatively flat contour at the foot of the descent and both Bruce and I went into simultaneous cramp.

It was a comical moment as we both leapt off our bikes and contorted our legs in any position that would cease the spasms.  All the hard work gaining some ground on our fellow competitors was undone in a few minutes of stationary time which was spent pushing and pulling various body parts as one bike after another rolled past us feeling some sympathy for sure but certainly very pleased that they were not in same boat as us.

Our legs eventually returned to some degree of normality before we had to embark on the second significant feature of day one.  It was the compulsory portage up the Gantouw Pass.

For those of you that are regular followers of my blogs, you will know the Gantouw Pass well.  It is the classic site in South Africa (and hence the world) for getting a view of South Africa’s most handsome endemic – Cape Rockjumper.

You will also know that I have dragged Tommy (see blog here) and Jeanie (and see that blog here) up to this spot on separate occasions. Those trips, however, have always been from the eastern side of the pass which is a relatively mild ascent in comparison to our route for W2W.  Due to the historic nature of the pass (it was the original route over the mountain before the current gap over Sir Lowry’s pass was established) the cyclists are required to push or carry their bikes up a steep incline over slippery rocks and loose gravel.  The threat of errant wildlife is not insignificant either with the pair of cyclists in front of me dancing in a panic to their left as a Puffadder slithered away into a pile of rocks to their right.

This hike comes towards the latter end of the day’s stage and after more than 4 hours of exertion we finally crossed over the mountain.  As hard as I tried to hear the piping whistles of the Rockjumpers up by the cannons at the top of the pass, it was not to be.  I knew Tommy would ask me as soon as I got home what birds I saw on the route and it would have been quite memorable to add Cape Rockjumper to the list.

For the non-birders I have added a pic of a Cape Rockjumper so you know what I was missing!

You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that I make a bit of a habit of counting bird species as we ride.  Since Bruce and I have done much of our riding together he is all too familiar with the sudden stops along the trail whilst I listen for calls or try catch a glimpse of birds that have darted through the undergrowth.  Mountain biking takes us on these hard-to-reach trails and the birdlife is often very rewarding.  This weekend’s featured bird seems to have been the African Paradise-flycatcher.  It seemed that every thicket of alien stand that we rode through there was always the distinct contact call or the melodious warbling song of the flycatcher emanating from some hidden spot.  After pointing this out to Bruce on countless occasions I expect he now knows it well.

Once the Gantouw was conquered it was a mere 12kms of single track and some of the largest puddles to reach our destination at the Elgin Country Club in Grabouw.  We stopped our watches on a time of 4:31 in 131st position.  It was a dramatic improvement from last year’s effort but still a little disappointing that we had crumpled with cramp with 20kms to go.

At Sani2C earlier this year Bruce and I had opted for the tented village as our accommodation of choice.  It was not so much as an option as that was all we had access to.  Wines to Whales is a little different.  Bruce’s in-laws own the farm next door to the Elgin Country Club and whilst the majority of riders slummed it in the tents, the two of us were treated to all the benefits of an extremely comfortable farm house, a swimming pool and the peace and tranquility away from the hustle and bustle of race village life.  Although we are often abused for our lack of the “full experience” I am pretty sure it is a blatant case of jealousy.

Day 2 – Grabouw to Grabouw – 65kms

After a very comfortable night under our down duvets it was hard not to be looking forward to Day 2 of W2W.  Day 2 is traditionally known as the fun day as the route crosses through the open grasslands of Oak Valley, through some wonderfully crafted single track through the exotic plantations of the various wine farms of the region before crossing the N2 and heading into the mountain biking haven of Lebanon Forestry Reserve.

Lebanon and Oak Valley are two world renowned mountain biking properties and combining them in a figure of eight stage of a 3 day stage race is truly a privilege.  Aside from the wonderful views and the challenging yet enjoyable single track, we were also blessed with the most perfect weather – virtually no wind and sunny blue skies.  In retrospect we should have enjoyed the weather even more as we would have to pay for that boon later on in the race.

Bruce and I rode as a perfect combination with our legs in serious recovery mode from the previous day’s cramps for the first 20kms but once they were warmed up we slotted into a rhythm which worked symbiotically. It was certainly our best effort as a pairing and will be remembered for a long time.  We worked our way a little up the ladder into 129th position overall despite the relatively slow and cautious start but it was far more about the enjoyment and team combination than about the result.

Day 3 – Grabouw to Onrus – 85kms

I’m a bit of a weather watcher.

I have all the useful weather sites saved as favorites on my Internet explorer browser: www.windfinder.com, www.windguru.com and SAWeather.co.za, but, by head and shoulders, the most accurate site for localized predictions is a Norwegian weather site called www.yr.no.  I’m not at all sure what the “yr” stands for and you also need to ensure that you click on the English version otherwise it is pretty confusing but once you do you are able to get the most amazing long range, accurate forecasts for the most specific areas.  It will certainly have a prediction for the suburb in which you live so it was not much of a problem to get a prediction for Grabouw.

The problem, however, is that the prediction the website had showed for at least 6 days out from day 3 was for torrential rain.

What?

In November?

The problem was compounded by the fact that as we got closer to the morning of Day 3 the prediction remained unwavering.  In fact, it seemed to get even worse and it was also exactly aligned to the hours that we would be riding.  It was no particular surprise when I woke up this morning, peered out the window and looked into completely leaden skies and pouring rain.

Totally miserable.

Many people may think that all this mud and wet is what mountain biking is all about.  Well, not for those of us that actually have to get out and ride in it.  Bicycles don’t work that well in this muddy weather – the chain gets bunged up with mud and the gears stop working; the brakes pads wear through at an alarming rate making them partially ineffective and riding through mud is considerably tougher than riding on a dry road.  And, all of this is not to mention the freezing cold weather we would be exposed to for 5 hours.

This all sounds like a bit of a moan and considering the fantastic weather we had ridden through in the first two days it was time to “zip up our man suits” as they say in traditional mountain biking parlance and get on with it.

So, we left the comfort of our luxuriant accommodation and dashed to the car in the midst of a particularly unpleasant downpour.  Not for one second had the thought of bailing on the day’s ride even entered my mind.  One of the driving motivating factors for me was that I had decided to raise charity for my company’s foundation through the completion of the race and the thought of sitting on the side-lines as a result of a bit of miserable weather was unthinkable.

We arrived at the country club and sat in the car waiting for the downpour to abate.  It certainly wasn’t going to ease up so we bundled out of the car to get ready for the start.  Whilst doing our best to stay as dry as possible before the start (which was a pretty pointless exercise given the state we’d be in within minutes of the kicking off) we were turned back by the organizers with the rather unexpected announcement that the start was going to be delayed by at least an hour.

What? Delay a mountain bike race as a result of rain? Surely not?

Well, considering the nature of this downpour it seemed marginally reasonable. So, it was back into the car and back to the farm for a little more comfort.  It was short-stayed as we soon got word from the organisers via sms that the route was determined to be too dangerous in the muddy and slippery conditions and in one fell swoop our race was over.  It was a little bizarre finishing the race in the comfort of the dining room of the farm with not a single bead of sweat for our troubles but there it was.

We returned to the finish area to collect our bikes and say our farewells and a sign of the dramatic weather was clearly seen on the tops of the mountains surrounding the country club.  They were blanketed in snow.  Yes, snow.  Middle of November. Huh?

It was certainly a big disappointment to hear of the cancellation of day 3 of the race as the sense of achievement is drastically diminished, but one has to respect the decision making of the organisers and accept that they know the risks were just too high for the cyclists.  Putting ourselves in their shoes, the last thing that they would want would be for a serious injury as a result of the conditions and then the endless questions of why they did not make the right decision.

Despite the anti-climactic conclusion to the 2011 edition of the Wines to Whales MTB, we were still treated to 2 days of spectacular riding in superb weather over beautifully prepared trails.  There is no doubt that we will be lining up again next year.

3 Responses to Wines to Whales – more mountain biking

  1. Olga says:

    Great post Mike – thanks especially for the descriptions of the route and each days riding, as you know, Andrew isn’t usually that forthcoming with the details! And you could also have ” sucked it up princess” instead of zipping up the mansuit 🙂

  2. Bruce Mommsen says:

    Hey Mike. Great blog but you forgot to mention the Blue Cranes, Red Chested Cuckoo (first of the season?), Sunbird (Malachite?), Jackal Buzzard… should I go on?

  3. Mary-Ann says:

    Hi Mike (and Bruce), well done on what sounds like a great day 1 and day 2. Pics make it all look so beautiful and sorry to hear that day 3 was cancelled. Great blog Mike x

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