Earth, wind and fire: FNB Wines2Whales 2018

Posted by Elise Kirsten on 5 November 2018 Tags:, , , ,

A sudden downpour tore through the clouds. I was standing with all the other E category riders, waiting with our bikes in the starting gate 20 minutes before the start call on Stage 2 of the the FNB Wines2Whales Pinotage race.

‘Bugger that,’ said a rider next to me. He balanced his bike against the rail and ran for cover at the nearest Canyon-branded gazebo. Like a Mexican wave, we all followed suit. A bit silly really given we’d all be cycling in the wet soon enough, but somehow standing there in the cold didn’t make sense to us.

Stage 2 of the FNB Wines2Whales Pinotage. Image supplied.

 

As we huddled together undercover, there was an air of anticipation for the beginning of the ride and the guys around me discussed the previous night’s events. While my husband and I were tucked in bed at 10pm the night before (we hadn’t spent the night in the race village), I had listened to the howling wind outside as the weather began to turn and was glad that I wasn’t trying to sleep in a tent. At 10:20pm both our phones went beserk as a barrage of messages flooded in.

Due to strong winds the decision has been taken as a precautionary measure to evacuate the race village. Please pack warm clothes and sleeping bag and proceed to the bike park. Please follow instructions of safety personnel. Do NOT exit Oak Valley via the main exit but follow staff instructions. Bikes to remain in bike park.’

The 10th anniversary edition of Wines2Whales (W2W) was an interesting one when it came to weather. The start times of the first W2W three-day stage race (Chardonnay) had been brought forward to 6am because of the unseasonal heat wave. Stage one of the second three-day stage race (Pinotage) had also been moved to 6am for the same reason and after the evacuation, stage two’s start time had to be shifted to 11am.

On top of all of this, there had been a fire in the nearby mountains earlier in the evening, and although it had been brought under control, with the howling wind anything was possible. In the race village, a tentpole from a large marquee over the outdoor lounge had been blown over and a section of the marquee had collapsed. From all reports, the evacuation had proceeded seamlessly. The riders who were in the race village had been shuttled to the Paul Cluver Primary School Hall. The next morning everyone was taken to breakfast while the race village was re-erected. All those that were sleeping at home or in guest houses were instructed not to arrive at the race village before 10am.

Under the gazebo, the chatter was all exceptionally positive. I didn’t hear a single complaint about the previous evening’s disruption. Instead, everyone was complimentary of the way the organisers had handled the evacuation. Here we were at 11:20am (the first batches of riders had just started), excited and bursting with positive energy. I heard the phrase ‘there is such wonderful gees at W2W’ repeated frequently.

The rain abated just in time for us to collect our bikes and move forward into position at the start banner. Gerald de Kock began the countdown, ‘five, four, three, two, one…GO!’

Group A at Wines2Whales Stage 2 of the Pinotage race. Image supplied.

We were off. As we left the grassy patch we were immediately greeted by a muddy jeep track, which took us along pastures with cows lining the fences, likely enjoying the spectacle of lycra-clad humans trying their utmost to manoeuvre their bikes through the mud.

After the Jeep track, we were treated to sections of sublime singletrack, which the race organisers had told us would make up 90% of the day’s ride.

We reached the first waterpoint 17km into the ride at the Paul Cluver Amphitheatre, where we grabbed some snacks while a friendly lady applied more lubricant to our bike chains. We’d enjoyed every minute up until this point and things were about to get even better.

With the rain having stopped at the beginning of our ride, the trails began to dry and we headed into some of the most enjoyable sections of riding I’ve ever done.

Watch: Wines2Whales 2018 Pinotage summary video

Stage 2 W2W Pinotage race. Image supplied

We dipped into the forest and traversed numerous bridges: curved ones, long ones, short ones, high and low ones. This network of trails, under foliage which at times reminded me of the Tsitsikamma Forest, sported names like Boomslang, Mamba and Cobra. Exiting the end of this serpentine rollercoaster, we headed up a beautifully-graded climb with sweeping berms called Puff Adder.

As we reached the second waterpoint 34km in, we were welcomed with cheers and music. Because the days’ route had been shortened to 45km due to the late start, we didn’t have much longer to go. We headed up through a pine forest, again beautifully graded so that getting to the top wasn’t too much of a strain. A little while later we were in for a pleasant surprise, as the route took us though a Kromco warehouse and then out onto a manmade structure. This ‘obstacle’ was a two-story tower of wooden crates with scaffolding running through it for us to ride over. It sounds scarier that it was, as the crates formed protective walls around the riders, preventing us from falling.

Dipping back into nature, we drank in the scenery of the last 7km or so. Gently-winding paths brought us to the last, picturesque kilometre back to the race village at Oak Valley, capping off a wonderful day and a fantastic ride.

Stage 1 and 3 sandwiched this unusual day and each held its own reward. The first stage was the toughest. 69km long, it took riders from a misty morning in Lourensford Wine Estate up through vineyards above the mist and headlong into a blinding dust storm whipped up by the wind. This was followed by the beautiful Canarie singletrack and onward to the talking point of the day, the portage over the Gantouw Pass.

Morning mist greeted riders on Stage 1 of the Pinotage Wines2Whales race, but it soon dissipated. Image supplied.

The pass is a historical route once used by ox wagons to cross into the mountain (there was no Sir Lowry’s Pass in those days). One in five wagons did not make it over and yet, incredibly, the wagon wheels carved tracks into the rocks still clearly visible today. Bikes had to be pushed 1.5km to the 40km mark at the top of the pass, as the track isn’t rideable. After summiting, the beautiful view over the Overberg and the Elgin Valley emerged.

There was still quite a lot of riding on the Grabouw trail network on the A2Z singletrack (26 sections of singletrack), which took riders the vineyards, the Grabouw Country Club and to the finish of the day at Oak Valley.

Stage 3 of the Pinotage Wines2Whales race. Image supplied.

Stage 3 was 72km long and was mainly downhill from Oak Valley to Hermanus, although there was still a fair amount of uphill. Nicely drained and compacted trails led us through the vineyards and into Houwhoek. We cycled through the grounds of the Houwhoek Hotel and headed off down the exciting Katpas descent into the welcoming town of Botrivier. About 4,000 people (and 40,000 dogs) welcomed us as we rode through the town as though we were Tour de France cycling celebrities. We reached the first waterpoint at the 24km mark and then on to the Wildekraans trails and Harlow’s Run – 10km of flat flowing singletrack, along the Botrivier.

Stage 3 of the Pinotage Wines2Whales race. Image supplied.

 

We crossed the steel bridge above the Botrivier and then, 43km in, the climbing began. From there, we entered the iconic singletrack of Gaf se Bos. We cycled through a forest with some technical platform bridge crossings. The long but manageable climb up to De Bos Dam was followed by slightly technical rocky singletrack down the mountainside that brought us to the beautiful Hemel en Aarde Valley trails. We then proceeded on to Hermanus and the finish line at the Marine Hotel on the ocean’s edge.

Hot, tired and dusty, the sea looked incredibly inviting to us, and as we gazed on we spotted two whales rolling lazily around at the surface of the water.

The event exceeded all expectations, and after this incredible experience we are already anticipating next year’s race.

The Hermanus whale tail statue situated about 100m from the race finish at the Marine Hotel. Image credit: Elise Kirsten

Note: The FNB Wines2Whales does require some degree of fitness, as well as a comfortable relationship with your mountain bike and surety in its ability to tackle the technical stuff. However, it’s not all about racing. There are large groups of recreational riders who go out just to enjoy the incredible scenery from the saddle, with no pressure to put in any specific time. All the riders we met were friendly and patient and there truly was a wonderful sense of gees.

For more information visit wines2whales.com

Also read: 10 reasons Elgin Valley should be your next weekend destination and Mountain bike trails at Oak Valley Estate, Elgin Valley