Old Mutual JoBerg2C: Keeping up with the M&G's bike trek
On Friday the Mail & Guardian's Nic Dawes and Craig McKune will start the Old Mutual JoBerg2C, a mountain bike race on cattle tracks, farm roads and purpose-built trails from Gauteng to Scottburgh on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast.
Endurance racers think about suffering a lot, and can anatomise its infinite varieties; the big pain of utter physical depletion, injury and sheer endlessness, but also the manifold little pains: chafing, neuropathy, tendinitis, boredom and nausea.
For the student of exercised induced agony, few sports offer as rich a palette as does professional road cycling – with its brutal three-week grand tours – and inhuman one day classics. That is a rarefied world, however, accessible only to a tiny elite.
For a few thousand type-A amateurs around South Africa, mountain bike stage racing offers a needle-in-the-vein charge of prolonged, pro-level pain.
At the apex of the booming local race scene is the eight-day, 750km Absa Cape Epic, with world champions duelling at the sharp end, and a long tail of very fit lawyers, bankers and ex-Springboks stretched out in varying degrees of disarray across vineyards and mountains behind.
This race is a truly great event, and one which rightly gives its toughness top-billing.
I rode the Epic in 2005 in undistinguished style, and it utterly transformed my attitude to riding my bike, and yes, suffering.
A proper journey
While I am as interested in the many colours of hurt as the next person in lycra, it isn't the thing that pulls me onto my bike early in the morning, or keeps me coming back to a sport that is utterly ludicrous in its demands on time, cash and attention. The reason I ride stage races is similar to the reason I became a journalist: story.
The Old Mutual JoBerg2C – which stitches together a 900km ribbon of singletrack and farm road from the high, dry plateau of Gauteng to the mangrove-fringed river mouths of the KwaZulu-Natal coast – drew me because it is a narrative line, a proper journey.
On Friday, Craig McKune and I will head out of Heidelberg, behind a huge Massey Ferguson tractor, and spend three days amid the rolling mielie fields and grasslands of the Free State.
Day four plunges off the escarpment near Sterkfontein Dam, before the route tacks toward Camberg and skirts the foothills of the the Drakensberg.
At Underberg the race jinks east into the Midlands, and on day eight an improbable path drops us into the Umkomaas gorge – which we ultimately have to climb out of before bombing through alleys of sugar cane and coastal forest to the beach at Scottburgh.
There are lush commercial farms, communal lands and nature reserves en route, and the organisers' deep local contacts get them permission to access some obscure and extraordinary bits of the country.
Meanwhile, extensive community involvement at each of the overnight stops, and along the trail, means there is a sense of place about the event that goes beyond the landscapes that form its backdrop.
There will probably be some hurting – a slow-to-heal whiplash incurred in a silly fall while training, legs unused to successive100km-plus days, and more hills than you might expect on a descent to the coast – but that really isn't the story.
An extraordinary sweep of this country is the story, and as we repeat like a catechism at the M&G: the best journalism begins when you leave your desk.