Sani2C – Biking, not birding

For those of you that have been wondering whether Buckham Birding had ground to a halt, I certainly have to admit that there has been a bit of a quiet period but there are possibly two good reasons for that.  The first reason is that a promised outing for the boys last weekend was thwarted by a severe bout of food poisoning/stomach bug which had me kneeling over the toilet bowl for a good portion of Sunday.  I had promised the boys the day before that we would take an early morning drive out to Intaka Island to see if we could catch a glimpse of the Painted Snipe that is resident there.  Unfortunately no amount of will and desire could tear me away from my alternating position between the bathroom floor and my bed and the excursion was put on an indefinite delay.

The second reason for the lack of birding updates of any nature (those that are following my progress with my Birds updates will know that I have been stuck on Bulbuls for quite some time) is due to the fact that I had my big mountain bike ride this last weekend and a lot of my focus had been devoted to that.

I have mentioned the Sani2C mountain bike race in previous blogs but perhaps a warning for those that are here for the birds – there is precious little in this blog that will satisfy you.  This blog is almost entirely (and selfishly) devoted to my mountain bike exploits and the only thing that you may take away as a birder is the solitary mention of a Cape Parrot some way down the blog.  Truly not much to go on, is it.  Well, this blog is probably aimed at my family and close friends who will hopefully read this and therefore not have to suffer through a live story telling of the event.

So, on to the story (strap yourselves in – it is a long one).

The Sani2C mountain bike race is a three day mountain biking extravaganza which starts at the foothills of the Drakensberg in the quaint town of Underberg (birders know it for its access to Sani Pass with its plethora of endemic birds) and travels 245 kms over three days to Scottburgh on the Kwazulu Natal south coast (hence the “2C” in the name).  It is an event that was spawned by an idea to try and assist the communities in the midlands and in the breath-taking Umkomaas Valley with fund raising, schooling, employment and the other benefits that go with an event of this nature.  It certainly has become an enormous undertaking with over 2500 riders descending the course over a period of 3 days.  It all sounds relatively simple – most people would say that descending from 1500m to zero must involve a lot of freewheeling but those that know the midlands and the Umkomaas Valley will know that “Life is not all Downhill” (a quaint catchphrase borrowed from the sponsors of the event which they liberally plaster all over the course every time you are about to undertake another challenging uphill grind).  The trail we “descend” has bits of everything – farmlands in their late autumn pastel hues, rolling mists, exotic plantations (gums and pine are unfortunately all over the place), miles and miles of indigenous forest and grassland, river crossings, rocky mountain-sides, sludgy muddy sections and a wonderful feeling of riding onto Scottburgh beach at the end of the event. 

Sani2C is, however, primarily famous for its high quality single track.  Now, for those that do not know mountain biking it is important to note that there is plenty of jargon that accompanies a sport of this nature.  Just like birders refer to GISS, bins, twitching, gripping and dipping (refer to Birding Glossary at the foot of this blog), mountain bikers will refer to hard-tails, soft-tails, travel, chain-suck, roadies and single track (refer to Mountain Biking Glossary after the Birding Glossary!).  Single-track is a section of trail that is generally “cut” or prepared specifically for mountain biking.  It is usually relatively narrow and snakes through the route in varying habitats but is usually most enjoyed when unreasonably dangerous and has a high risk of personal injury involving trees, rocks, rivers and cliffside drop-offs.  All three days of Sani2C have plenty of single-track but day 2 is considered to be utopian.  There are some people (hopefully not many of them biased) that say that the single track on day 2 of Sani2C is the best in the world (more of that later).

Anyway, I rode Sani2C with a good friend of mine last year and it was everything and more than we expected with the exception of the fact that the weather was miserable and we were unable to ride the planned route due to dangerous conditions on the descending single-track sections.  They re-routed us on a different trail in certain areas on day 2 and although spectacular we both left realising that we had missed the signature section of the race.  It meant another entry was submitted for this year and soon after we were confirmed as entrants. Sani2C is remarkably popular and severely oversubscribed.  There is space for 700 teams and any more than that causes congestion at the overnight villages but more importantly it causes bottlenecks at the single track sections resulting in long delays for the backmarkers. We were relieved when we were accepted into the race as there are plenty of people turned away.

The lead up to the race was not ideal.  Andrew, my partner from last year had to pull out about 2 months prior due to work commitments and so he was quickly replaced by another very good mate, Bruce, who had been riding with us during much of our training and so it was an easy decision. 

Sani2C is a “pairs” race meaning that you have to enter and ride as a team with your time for the race determined by the slower finisher and a disqualification imposed if you are separated from your partner by more than 2 minutes at the finish.  It is entertaining to watch some of the partnerships in the race.  I am sure they all start with great intentions but as the toil gets tougher and the days get longer, small issues turn into medium sized issues which ultimately result in relationship-breaking issues.  I recall a married couple from last year who finished day one in fantastic spirits.  They were sharing the tent next to us and they couldn’t be more happily married.  As we were lying in our tent on the afternoon of the second day (traditionally the toughest day of the race), we saw the husband arrive at the tent looking pretty grumpy.  About 20 minutes later his wife arrived carting her own box with a grimace on her face that suggested all was not well.  The two of them never spoke another word to each other for the rest of the day.

With our training behind us and the race looming the admin involved becomes particularly burdensome.  Just getting to Underberg from Cape Town with bikes, cycling paraphernalia and overnight clothing is an exercise in itself.  Further consideration needs to be given to the fact that you start the race at the foothills of the Drakensberg and finish it down by the sea in Scottburgh.  May is traditionally cold in the Drakensberg but the coast is generally fine.  This adds the further complication of what clothes to wear during the race.  All in all it becomes not too unlike a military operation with key decisions needing to be made at critical times.

We flew up to Durban the day before and were very kindly chauffeur-driven by Bruce’s father through to Underberg (a 7 hour round-trip for his father from Durban – Bruce’s dad seems to love his son).  The arrival in Underberg was exciting, particularly for Bruce as a first timer.  The town is completely taken over by race fever – there are cyclists, bicycles, camper-vans and flags all over the place.  There was, however, a slightly ominous feel about our arrival in Underberg – Bruce was starting to feel the initial onset of a chest infection.  For weeks Bruce and I had been popping vitamins and staying as healthy as possible knowing that for a big event of this nature there is nothing worse than falling sick shortly before.  All the training and excitement withers away as thoughts of just being healthy enough to ride dominate every thought. Our day before the event was unfortunately shadowed by this storm-cloud. 

With Bruce wrapped up tight under the covers trying to fight off the lurgies I decided to stretch the legs over 20kms of district road in the midlands.  Perhaps 20kms is a little far to have pushed the legs the day before but it certainly is a good idea to do something after all the cooped up travel and with the scenery as beautiful as it was at this time of year I couldn’t resist.  On returning to our guest house we packed and re-packed our boxes (they issue all entrants with a plastic box that must hold all your kit for the next 3 days) and we held thumbs that Bruce would be right in the morning.

Day 1 – Underberg to McKenzie Club (somewhere west of Richmond)

Distance:  78.4km

Time:  3:56:47

Ascent metres:  1,170m

We woke up on day one of Sani2C and Bruce quickly made the decision to ride the first day and see how things went.  His heart rate was normal and he did not have a temperature and bearing in mind all the other people around us coughing and spluttering it seemed the right thing to do.

We loaded our boxes and shortly thereafter we were standing in the holding stalls waiting for the starter to fire his gun.  It needs to be said that it was freezing at 7am waiting for the race to start.  It was 4 degrees and a heavy mist was curling around the riders making everything even colder as it blanketed us in a layer of moisture.  There are always lots of ways to prepare for the cold but inevitably these worries dissipate the minute the adrenaline starts pumping as the starter’s flag is lowered.

Day 1 is by no means an easy day of riding.  There is quite a lot of district road to get through but several nasty climbs break the rhythm at just the most inopportune time.  The single-track generally takes riders through the alien plantations but the true highlight of day 1 is the dam crossing on the floating bridge which comes at about 32kms.  Sani2C prides itself on being innovative and slightly different to any other race on the calendar.  A few years ago they built a wooden floating bridge across one of the larger farm dams (my guess is the length of the crossing would have been about 150m).  That was quite innovative at the time but 2 years ago they took it to a whole new level by adding three significant curves in the floating structure – it seemed too easy to simply cross the bridge without having to manoeuvre in any direction.  A further complication to the crossing is that it is so designed that purely standing still on the bridge causes it to sink slowly into the water with inevitably disastrous results.  Farmer Glen (the inimitable organiser of the event) mentions in his race briefing the night before that there is only one option and that is to ride the bridge.  If you try to walk across they will push you in.  So, now the dam crossing has every rider (no matter their skill level) nervously wondering if it is going to be them that falls in the dam while crossing the bridge.  Last year there were apparently no casualties but this year there was a spectacular one in the form of one of only two tandem bikes in the event that was simply too heavy on one of the corners to get across and so ended up in the dam.  Fortunately the whole episode was caught on cameras and proved to be quite a highlight for the evening’s post-race slideshow.   Further entertainment was provided by one of the riders in the race doing a wheelie the whole way across the dam.  It is hard to describe how impressive that feat is – I was petrified going across on both my wheels but one guy managed to ride the whole way across on his back tyre only.

(Click here to see a clip of the crossing from a rider’s perspective)

The other highlight for me on the first day was riding through Nxumeni Forest just outside Donnybrook.  The race directs you through this wonderful, but sadly rare, patch of gallery forest which is one of the remaining strongholds of the Cape Parrot.  At breakneck speed through the forest (it is one of the faster sections of the day’s riding) I was unfortunately unable to savour any birds at all, never mind this highly endangered South African endemic.

The first 50kms of day one went well for us but slowly but Surely Bruce’s infection started to fester and the last 30kms were a bit of a slog.  He still did amazingly well considering his condition and the fact that he climbed the dreadful finishing climb with any strength at all was testament to his will to get at least one of the days of this race ticked off.

The overnight stop is at McKenzie Club which is seemingly a gathering point for all the famers of the area and provides some flat ground for the tent village.  It was a relief to finish the day in one piece but the admin of washing bikes and repairing any mechanical issues makes sure that we do not lose our sense of reality!!

During the course of the afternoon Bruce’s condition deteriorated and after numerous visits to the medical tent for ongoing monitoring the decision was firmly taken that Bruce should not ride day 2.  As it ended up he would not make the start line for day 3 either and it was a devastating disappointment for him as well as for me.  Even though I was able to ride the remainder of the race the whole event is focussed around team spirit and it was always sad when fellow riders asked me where my partner was.  Perspective is important though, and with two young kids at home there was no point in Bruce taking any more risk with his health than was necessary.  There will always be another year for Bruce to conquer the remainder of the race.

Day 2 – McKenzie Club to Jolivet Farm (somewhere east of Ixopo, I think)

Distance:  95.5kms

Time:  5:51:17

Ascent metres:  1,630m

I always wake up with nervous tension before a big day in the saddle but today was worse than normal.  The initial contributor to this problem was that our tent was situated next to the food hall and when the pots and pans started clanging for the preparation of breakfast at 3am I was suddenly wide awake with the thoughts of a tough day ahead.  Day 2 of Sani2C is certainly the signature day with the world famous single-track descent into the Umkomaas Valley in the first half of the stage but everyone knows that “what goes down into the valley, must come out” and the 25kms of climbing out of the “Umko” Valley was going to be a challenge for all of us.  A quick look at my heart rate monitor’s profile shows just how dramatic the drop into the valley is and just how painful and long the climb out was going to be.

Putting aside my fears of the length of the day there was also some serious injury to worry about.  The race briefing was punctuated with tales of how many riders’ races had ended on the descent to the Umko and we were warned strongly to look after ourselves on the way down as there was no telling how long it would take medical assistance to get to some of the most remote pockets of the province.  Not only were the areas completely inaccessible but cellphone reception was non-existent so reliance would rest with fellow riders to inform the officials at the next water stop. 

To balance these negative thoughts was the prospect of the greatest ride of my life.

It took no more than 6kms before we dived into some single track in a rather ugly stand of gum trees.  This exotic distraction would be very brief as 2 or 3kms later we exploded out of the gloom to face the best view mountain biking could offer.  The next piece of single-track was appropriately named “Wow” and before us lay a path snaking along a grassed hillside with the Umkomaas Valley deep below.  There was still an early morning mist settled in the valley and wisps were floating up on the slowly accumulating thermals rising from the valley floor.  The vegetation on the way down varied from grassed hillsides to tangled indigenous bush and there were moments where there were sheer drops to the left of us (I have attached a clip of video which may take a while to download but it shows part of the descent into the Umko valley – click here to view it).

These were the sections we were warned about and the energy consumed by this stress was surely going to affect me during the rest of the day.  There is something about the adrenaline rush that is what attracts us to mountain biking instead of the steady tar roads that excite the roadies.  There may be an adrenaline rush on the roads as well but it is more likely a result of the danger of whizzing taxis and their thoughtless drivers.  

This piece of single-track couldn’t have been more different to monotonous road riding and I felt truly privileged to be a part of it.  At times my thoughts drifted to how sad it was for Bruce to be missing this, but a slippery corner would generally jolt me back to the present to make sure I didn’t have a race ending event myself.  The single-track continued for over 25kms all the way to the valley floor and alongside the river itself where the grassed slopes and indigenous gullies gave way to open grassland dotted with stands of acacia trees and the occasional glimpse of the mighty Umkomaas.  The descent and the ride along the river took us over an hour and a half and our progress down was cheered all the way by the local residents of the valley who have become such a part of the race through their involvement in preparing these trails.  It is also these communities that benefit so greatly from the proceeds of the race itself and the enthusiasm of their cheering should be directed to Farmer Glen and his team.

All good things must come to an end and the crossing of the river at yet another floating bridge meant we were at the lowest point of the ride and we all knew that there was some substantial payback ahead of us. 

Incidentally, the floating bridge was yet another innovation from the Sani2C team and was a new addition to the 2011 edition of the race.  The bridge was designed to float in the strong flowing river and was built some time ahead of the race in order to test its longevity, but an afternoon downpour of 200mm further upstream some weeks before the race dislodged a large tree which swept the hard labour down the river in one fell swoop.  It was back to the drawing board and the bridge was rebuilt learning lessons from the first attempt.  We were threatened with yet another “ride, or be pushed in” the night before and there was nothing more sobering than seeing two kayakers on either side of the bridge who were there as a safety measure in case anyone tumbled in.  In fairness to the organising team, the bridge was sufficiently wide to ensure that there were no casualties on this bridge and the kayakers went through their day untested.

From the 40km point we slogged uphill for 25kms before reaching the next water point which was still not the end of all our hard work.  We had another 10kms to the top point of the ride before a reasonably comfortable 20kms down to the finish.  One or two nasty climbs right at the end had us muttering profanities in the direction of the course designer but we weren’t here for a picnic and I suppose we had to accept what we had signed up for.  I rolled into Jolivet Farm (a Macadamia farming operation) after almost 6 hours in the saddle and I was well and truly shattered.  To put it into perspective as to the dispersion of the results, the winners of the day’s stage (Kevin Evans and David George – two of SA’s best mountain bikers) completed the course in 3:48 and the last finishers who came into Jolivet in total darkness arrived in a fraction under 10 hours.  I was more than satisfied with my result.

Despite Bruce’s race ending decision in the morning he managed to get access to a vehicle and was at least able to absorb some of the atmosphere as he was at every single water point when I arrived there and provided the necessary support to keep me going.  I am sure he would have been more of a support on the bike but I was certainly taking what he was giving.

Day 3 – Jolivet Farm to Scottburgh School

Distance:  70.3kms

Time:  3:07:52

Ascent metres:  860m

Day three is well and truly a relief after the hard work of the day before.  It is primarily a downhill stage and there is a lot of riding amongst the sugar cane and on district roads to ensure that the roadies that have squeaked an entry into the race are able to flex their skills in an appropriate way. 

After the spectacular nature of the day before it is hard to enthuse too much about day three but there is a section at about 40kms which rides the length of the Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve which against any other ordinary cycling event would be considered sublime.  Some hard rocky climbing took us to the top of the ridge at Vernon Crookes before sweeping down into some indigenous forest single-track which ran as a contour for an extremely enjoyable 4 or 5 kms.  Once out of Vernon Crookes the route ascended two “sting in the tail” climbs called “Baby heart rate” and “Big Heart Rate” before a frantic dash to the beach for 15kms.  The legs burned and the chest swelled but the race for the finish line ensured we kept going at maximum effort.

I believe it has always been Farmer Glen’s aim to race from Underberg to Scottburg without the riders’ tyres touching a single bit of tar.  Last year there were a few tar sections on day two as a result of the route change so his plan was thwarted through no control of his own.  This year they were much closer to achieving that goal and some of the reworked route was a clear indication that he was determined to do it in 2011.  We were taken on a convoluted detour at the end of day two which quite justifiably ensured we avoided an extremely hazardous section of tar due to the high volume of logging vehicles and taxi traffic.  I had to chuckle to myself, though, as I was racing down one of the district roads towards the end of day three where it intersected with a main tar road.  There were no bridges or culverts as an alternative for Farmer Glen to fall back on and it seemed he had only one option.  It was pretty clear that he had trucked in a whole pile of gravel and the section of tar we crossed had been covered with this gravel.  It may sound a little contrived but it showed the level of commitment to the small detail items that went into the race this year.

Ultimately we arrived down in Scottburgh and at least we were spared the pain of riding through beach sand as plastic mats had been laid down to make our path easier over the beach sand.  It was a few twists and turns before arriving at the Scottburgh School after a long, hard ride down from Underberg.

Shortly after the finish we were bundled back in the car on our way north to Durban to catch our flight back home.  It was with mixed feelings that I sat in the plane and contemplated the preceding days.  I was enormously disappointed for Bruce for not being able to make it all the way but I was enormously grateful to him for sticking it out in the tented village for two days whilst all his surrounding competitors were a constant reminder of the experience that he had missed.  I am pretty sure many partners would have caught the first lift back home but he was there for the support that I really needed on day two.  I also looked back at how privileged we all were to have been a part of such an incredible race.  I hope to be back next year…


Birding Glossary

GISS – General impression of size and shape

Bins – binoculars

Twitching – spending inordinate amounts of money and time to see a rare bird

Gripping – phoning your mate from a rare bird twitch and “gripping” him off about the awesome creature you are currently looking at.

Dipping – arriving at a twitch only to find out that the bird that you have travelled miles to see has just taken flight and headed west, never to be seen again

Mountain Biking Glossary

Hard-tail – A mountain bike that has suspension on its front forks

Soft-tail – A mountain bike that has suspension on its front forks as well as its rear end allowing for more comfort and grip when descending uneven surfaces

Travel – the amount of cushioning you get from your suspension (the more the better!)

Chain-suck – an irritating consequence of riding through mud causing your chain to “suck” against the chain ring and grind your bike to a halt

Roadies – a disparaging term used to refer to those cyclists that prefer to ride their bicycles on tar rather than dirt


9 comments on “Sani2C – Biking, not birding

  • Well done Mikey, hard lines Bruce. Sounds like a great event. Glad you boys got a sense of the Umko valley, and its real purpose of testing hardened kayakers…

  • Great reading, Mike. Although I don’t actually ride, having supported John for the last 4 years I feel like I know the track well, so it was fun reading your comments.

  • Now I understand what Sani2C is all about. Well done Mike – sad for Bruce but no doubt he will want to be part of it next year.

  • Great commentary Mike. Feel sad my riding partner and I did not take up an option for a late entry. Will have to try and secure next year!

  • Hey Mike, sorry for the late reply, but I read it in stages:)
    Awesome report, mine i still on its way – things have been busy since I got back – I know that is lame because my life can’t be nearly as busy as yours but sometimes I also get busy relaxing…

    Awesome report and I may have to steal some of those pics:)
    Hope to find myself in the Cape soon, also planning to do Knysna Big 5, you going up?

    Cheers buddy

  • martin horne says:

    I am an ex SA and live in New Zealand where Mountainbiking is huge. I how lekker to see the SA countryside. I have sent this blog on to many of my local mates to so they can see what other MTBers also get up to. Well done on such a great article.
    PS for scenery and Mountain biking NZ i amazing but birding …. very sparse!


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