I debated long and hard with myself whether I should be blogging about my third Sani2c mountain bike race. Firstly there is very little to report from a birding perspective and secondly I did a long and detailed blog about my ride last year. It got me thinking that people were unlikely to read a repeat of last year’s blog, so why do it?
Well, there are a few counter arguments. The first of those is that my blogs are really a way of documenting events that I may find interesting to read in the future. In addition, no matter what my experience was last year, every year is so different and it is such an amazing experience that it feels worthwhile writing about.
Last year was also very disappointing in that I rode day 2 and 3 on my own as Bruce, my partner, had a serious chest infection and had to spectate for those days. In a race that is built on the basis of a partnership that was a disappointing one for me and, naturally, an even more disappointing one for Bruce.
This year, in a complicated set of circumstances I actually rode with my good mate, Andrew, whilst Bruce rode with Dave Winter (adding some birding skills to our group) and we had Paul and his partner, another Bruce (this could get confusing) making up our travelling contingent for the experience.
This time around we figured we would all travel together which would make it seem more of a boy’s weekend rather than a slog through the hills and mountains of KZN.
Sani2c has become the centre of the mountain biking universe for most of us. It is three days of sheer riding pleasure. It is by no means a doddle but it is far more palatable than the monstrous Cape Epic and it is also set out in a way to ensure the participants enjoy it as much as possible.
Farmer Glen, as he is known, is the man behind the most popular race on the calendar. The event has been running for seven years and is now split into three separate events running on consecutive days one after the other containing over 1400 cyclists in each event. The oldest of the events is called the “Race” and is taken the most seriously with the “Adventure” going off a day before and the new addition, “the Trail”, a day before that. Each of them follows the identical route and all competitors share the same experience whether you are the South African MTB champion or a casual weekend warrior. Well, maybe that is not true – the weekend warriors do the route in around 23 hours whilst the winners this year raced down to the sea in just over 8 and a half hours. I suspect the warriors see a lot more scenery…
Our group of 6 were all lucky enough to get into the Race which probably suited all of us being a little closer to the serious side as opposed to being complete novices.
We flew to Durban on Wednesday on the red-eye flight, rented a Kombi and headed for Underberg at the foot of the Sani Pass after stocking up with more than an adequate supply of nutritional items at the airport Woolies. The closure of the N3 at Camperdown was a real spanner in our works and we sat in the most horrendous traffic jam for what seemed like hours. To this day we still do not know what calamitous event caused the closure of both sides of the N3 but it was all soon forgotten when we arrived in the beautiful southern Drakensberg town of Underberg.
Not easily being able to travel anywhere these days without listing bird species we logged all the birds we saw or heard for the duration of the 4 days. The real highlight of the list was a very surprising Broad-tailed Warbler as it whirred across the road in front of our vehicle, crashing into a flooded patch of grassland narrowly avoiding being splattered on our grill. I have not seen this bird that often but it was unmistakable as its broad tail dragged behind it. Fortunately Dave was in agreement with my snap-ID and it went on the list.
After registering and collecting our bikes we headed to the foot of the pass where we were booked to stay at Mkomazama Cottages just beyond the Sani Pass Hotel. We couldn’t have picked a better spot to stay despite the distance from Underberg. The extremely comfortable cottage accommodated all 6 of us as well as being located in amongst the lower peaks of the pass on the edge of a fast flowing mountain stream.
Being so close to the pass we decided to give the race briefing a miss and drive as far up the pass as our rental Kombi would take us. With Paul at the wheel we negotiated about 6 kilometers before we decided we should turn around. The four wheel drive vehicles coming down the pass did not fill us with too much confidence in our two wheeled people-carrier.
The brief sojourn not only gave us a small fraction of the Sani Pass experience but we also picked up a few endemics. The three most notable were Buff-streaked Chat, Gurney’s Sugarbird and Ground Woodpecker. I was the only one with my binoculars and it was my compact pair to boot so there were the 6 of us passing these tiny binoculars around the car for some views of the birds we saw. A far cry from the super-optics we usually have with us on our birding trips.
It was a nervy and icy night before the race. We woke up to a clear, still morning with the temperature hovering very near the freezing mark. The choice of riding clothing was the main topic of conversation as we drove down to Underberg with the car heater dialled up to 30 degrees. The inside of the car was toasty but it was going to be very, very cold at the start line. The mist was settled in all the low-lying areas and the fields were covered in frost. It was a ghostly but beautiful scene as we drove into Underberg.
I eventually settled on my normal short-sleeved cycling shirt and shorts much to my companions’ surprise. I knew I would be warm within 10 minutes of chasing after Andrew after a frenetic start but I was the only one wearing short sleeves. Mountain biking is not for sissies, is it? I suspect my slightly heftier build in comparison to the near-anorexic elite cyclists may have had something to do with their apparent over-dressing.
Day one is a relatively moderate ride in terms of course length and difficulty. The focus is on showcasing the scenery as we rode through the pastoral scenes before dropping through some single track amongst the alien plantations. The semi-submerged bridge crossing is a real marker of day one, but, for me, the highlight is probably the 5 or 6 kilometers of contour that winds through the indigenous Xumeni Forest. I have birded this forest in the past at a more sedate pace and there was little to hear or see as I made sure I didn’t end up in the ferns on any of the muddy corners as Andrew led the way. Dave mentioned hearing a Barratt’s Warbler whilst he pedalled through the forest which obviously meant he was not really riding fast enough.
The 81kms of Day one was over pretty quickly as we crossed the finish line in 3:32 in 150th place. It meant a promotion from our E batch to the last spot in C batch for the next day. 150th spot sounds pretty mediocre but cycling is a relative game and we felt good with our finishing position out of 700 teams. Bearing in mind that Andrew is on the wrong side of 40 and I am rapidly approaching that milestone it is not really fair to compare us to the 19 year old “racing snakes” who all weigh about 12 kgs and spend their lives riding up and down mountains. The Race is the most serious event of the three and the top teams all race professionally, so for us as the middle aged crowd it was a good result. It is also always nice to be promoted to faster batches and all 6 of us were promoted into improved seedings for the next day.
Day 2 is a completely different prospect to day one. It is almost 20 kms longer at 99kms (you’d think they could find an extra kilometer for us just to make it sound better) and it contains far more arduous riding with long gradual climbs out of the Umkomaas valley coupled with slower single track sections. Despite the longer distance and the thought of being in the saddle for much longer, it is day 2 that brings everyone to Sani2C. The descent into the Umkomaas Valley after about 10kms of the day’s stage is legendary and I am certain there is nothing in the world that compares. Over the last 7 years Farmer Glen and the communities living in the valley have carved about 25 kms of unbroken single track that is smooth, fast, exciting, awe-inspiring and, at times, slightly terrifying. A narrow 2 meter track cut into the valley side drops from the gums at the top, through hillside grassland and Afro-montane forest in the gullies until eventually reaching the valley floor where it pierces through acacia woodland and riverine bush.
Not only is the track exhilarating but the sheer inaccessibility of the valley for emergency services adds an edge. The pre-race briefings insist we all take care as we ride through the valley as the highly manoeuvrable medical helicopters are not even able to get within 5 kilometers of certain sections. Despite this warning the top racers descend at the most ridiculous speed. A pair of A cyclists that had been held up with a mechanical issue came clattering past us about half way down and scared the living daylights out of me. I was certain I would be picking up their pieces on any of the rocky corners or precipitous ledges. How they make it down in one piece at that speed is a testament to their phenomenal skill and advanced dementia.
There is payment for that stretch of single track – the ascent back out of the valley, albeit relatively gradual, goes on for what seems like absolute ages and by the time the finish line arrives the legs feel a little shattered. My partner was useful this time around – he kept spirits high on the ascents and on the flats and downs I tucked in behind him to take advantage of the drafting.
I believe that the success of any day of mountain biking is measured firstly by how injured you are at the end of the day, followed by the number of times mechanical issues slow you down and finally by the time and position in which you complete the day’s racing.
We finished day 2 without falling which was a great relief. There was one particular rider that had not been so lucky and he limped around the race village that evening with his arm in a sling and the one side of his face looking like it had been inflated by a bicycle pump. Impressive hues of purple, blue and yellow were spreading their way across his face and he looked particularly uncomfortable. We were all grateful to have avoided this fate.
We didn’t, however, fare so well on the second success factor. About half way through the day’s riding my chain simply snapped in half. This is a common mountain biking occurrence as the chain is often put under pressure when changing from fast descents to slow, arduous climbs but it is always very frustrating when it happens in the middle of one of the more important days of cycling.
This occasion, however, had a very low impact – Andrew is without a doubt the best mechanic amongst us and whilst I stood and watched he fixed my chain in less than 4 minutes. I felt like a surgical assistant passing Andrew the various instruments as he brought my bicycle back to life. We were soon back on the trail and it is doubtful whether that mechanical cost us any time at all as it gave us a chance to refuel and rest the legs. Well, at least I felt rested while Andrew slogged away at fixing the chain.
The mechanical hardly slowed us down at all and we finished the stage in 5:06 which was a good 9 minutes faster than our expected finishing time. We progressed from 150th spot to 148th and so we were now well entrenched in our C batch for the final day of racing.
The last day of Sani is more like a road race. It is a very fast 75kms that gets eaten up by almost all the riders in very fast average speeds. The winners complete it in a crazy 2:22 but our 3:04 was also not too shabby. Aside from the first few steep sections of the day where the skinny C riders left me a little behind we had a very good day. Most of the day’s stage follows the farm roads through the sugar cane fields that are so characteristic of coastal KZN but the real delight is the 10kms through the Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve. Part of this is a single track section through a hillside forest which must be absolutely amazing for birding but the speed at which we rode through it left very little time to appreciate anything other than the sheer exhilaration of the narrow track.
We crossed the line at the Scottburgh High School in a cumulative time of 11:42 in 143rd position making it an extremely successful ride all round. Once the medals were collected and the stomachs were filled with the free Nandos burgers for the finishers all that was left was the very tedious task of packing bags and bikes and getting to the airport.
One would have thought that getting on the plane was our last hurdle but we were greeted with an announcement from the pilot that the plane had to have additional fuel taken on, meaning that all our bags had been offloaded. Out of 180 passengers on board I doubt that there were more than 30 people that received their luggage. The Mango baggage claim kiosk in Cape Town was an absolute shambles with tired cyclists clamouring for lost luggage forms.
The bags eventually arrived 2 days later and the cycling kit that I had ridden in on Thursday and packed tidily away (unwashed) into a ziplock bag literally walked out of my bag on its own and into the washing machine.
So, despite the rather inauspicious finale, it was yet another Sani under the belt and this one was a good one. None of us had to withdraw due to illness or injury and the track was the best it has ever been making it the most enjoyable one ever. I had thought that this would be my last one given the admin and expense involved in getting there but I may just have to reconsider that.