- The annual Berg & Bush is one of the first mountain bike stages to go ahead since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic
- For local communities, stage races are so much more than a mountain biking event
- Spectacular trails, eager organisers and willing riders made for a great event
Wanting to congregate and race your mountain bike amid a pandemic might appear selfish, but stage races are so much more than that.
The organisers of the Berg & Bush really involve the community. They pay locals per kilometre for trail building and maintenance. Not to forget about the hundreds of gate minders that ensure that precious livestock don't go astray are compensated.
Race organisers employ a myriad of people to assist in running the race village. The influx of visitors is also a boost for the tourism industry, with the local guesthouses popular with those riders not keen on tented accommodation.
In summary, events like the Berg & Bush mean a cash injection that the community desperately need.
To comply with all the necessary Covid-19 regulations the mid-week Berg & Bush Trail event only accommodated 150 riders. This allowed riders to enjoy the pristine, flowing trails around the Emseni campsite, near Winterton, free of congestion.
The trails that we got to ride over the three days of the Berg & Bush Tour were excellent. Organisers have put in an immense amount of effort, in conjunction with surrounding landowners and local route builders, to add new trails and refine existing sections.
These routes are made up of a few farm roads, some jeep track, a couple of cattle paths and a plethora of purpose built singletrack. The bespoke cycling trails have been sculpted in such a way that they will entertain the pros and delight those that are fairly new to the sport. There are berms in the right places and the jumps are easy to roll over should you prefer to do so.
That very 'famous' climb
Although the event’s trails offer a real mountain biking challenge, the days are manageable with an average of 55km and 850m of climbing.
The event culminates with singletrack carved in the canyons at the base of the Spion Kop mountain, followed by an ascent to the top of this iconic monument.
The Spion Kop monument commemorates one of the bloodiest battles of the South African war, in the fight for Ladysmith, where historical figures Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi and Louis Botha played a significant role.
Over five kilometres riders climb approximately 300m, to spectacular views of the Spion Kop dam and surrounds.
A word of warning about the Spion Kop climb: 100m of it is gained in the last 1km, presenting a real 10% gradient challenge. Participants who can conquer this stretch without stopping, or putting a foot down, are rewarded with a bumper sticker and a place on the Berg & Bush Spion Kop wall of honour.
Camping during COVID
Accommodation is along the Tugela River at the Emseni Camp near Winterton and farm style hospitality means that no rider goes hungry or thirsty.
The organisers went to great lengths to host this event within the current Covid-19 restrictions and most of all keep riders safe. Numbers were considerably reduced and the mid-week Berg & Bush tour had a small field while the amount of riders for the two day and descent events were limited to half of what they normally are.
Space available on the large campsite was cleverly utilised with multiple dining tents, shower facilities and rider tents spread out across the property to ensure that no area was ever crowded.
Start batches were slimmed to around 30 riders, which quickly spread out as soon as the trails go up, and most days on the Berg & Bush start with a bit of vert. Sometimes I rode for 20 minutes without seeing another rider. At water points, snacks and drinks were individually packaged to avoid contamination.
Being in such a large race village with so few riders during the three-day tour had an eerie feeling at first, riders kept to themselves for the most part. What was soon evident is that everyone who was there, really wanted to be riding.
Dealing with level 3
After 18 months of lockdown, stage racers were longing for the simple race village life. A time to switch off your phone and simply ride, eat, sleep and repeat.
Riders were respectful of each other and the practices out in place to keep everybody safe. But when President Cyril Ramaphosa called a family meeting on the eve of the first day, everyone held their breath. Would we be allowed to keep riding or have to head home? What about the two events still upcoming?
Fortunately the Berg & Bush organisers had structured the event in such a way, that they were safely within the government’s recommended practices. Only slight adjustments are required for the other Berg & Bush events.
More marquee tents were ordered to further spread out the camps. Those riders who weren’t comfortable were given the option to postpone their entry to next year, with fewer than ten teams choosing to do so.
The last 18-months have been stressful for everyone in South Africa, many have faced retrenchments, uncertainties or heartache at the loss of loved ones.
For those that love riding their mountain bike, three days of spectacular single track is exactly the therapy needed to press the reset button and escape this chaotic world, for a brief moment.