Monday, August 29, 2011


The second Zuurberg Mtb Challenge was held on a fantastic course at Bushbuck Lodge on 28 August 2011. The race is a corporate charity event where teams of four riders (two riding 20km and two riding 50km) try and post the best combined time. In the past, I have ridden both the Herald and Mondi sponsored annual races at Addo and on every occasion have found it hard and boring - not a great recipe for upping yourself in the popularity stakes. Both races are basically long open roads with rare highlights of single track. I have also believed, that neither the Mondi or Herald are good representatives of the mountain biking potential in the area.

Well, the Stonehouse Capital Zuurberg Mtb Challenge has changed all that. When Mark Ward from Grinaker Lta offered a ride on their team, I was initially reluctant. Mark Willamott convinced me that it would be a great ride and promised a good course.

The race was hosted on the farm of Trevor and Rob Hayter, Bushbuck Lodge. The farm is picturesquely situated at the foot of the Zuurberg pass. Few people know the centrality of this area in the historical development of the Eastern Cape. Around 1860, Port Elizabeth was the dominant economy in South Africa. Exports, imports and tax revenue from Port Elizabeth, were ahead of Cape Town by a healthy margin (see statistics hereunder from an 1880 Parliamentary "Select Committee to consider Plans for the Improvement of Port Elizabeth harbour").

Much of the growth was fueled by a road network which enabled competitive logistics (based on the Ox Wagon) between the wool farms of the interior and Port Elizabeth. The Stonehouse Capital Zuurberg race was going over the exact same road which gave Port Elizabeth its economic dominance for that brief period. The Eastern Cape lost its economic edge when Cape Town outwitted the Eastern Cape and established its rail infrastructure into the diamond and gold fields, killing the ox wagon trade and ushering in a new economic era.

The race started straight up the Zuurberg pass with Andrew Briggs nailing the pace from the outset. No chance to warm up - simply on the hammer. Five of us went off the front, and then Briggs gassed it with Kevin Taljaard in tow. I lagged off the back of the ever strong Louis De Villiers and a resurgent Mark Willamott and simply did not have the lungs going up the pass (and I think I know the reasons for that). The Zuurberg pass is a great place to reflect, and left me with some nice ideas on the old Ox Wagon routes of the Eastern Cape and my current state of health!

Coming off Camp Fig Tree, I closed down Mark and Louis who had stopped for a mechanical. I rode with them for a while, but, my bike handling was strangely off song. There was no flow and my Scott Spark was not on rails like normal. On the hardpack clay and dewy grass of the Zuurberg slopes, I was slipping and sliding all over the place and feeling decidedly uncomfortable. Either my Continental tires were not up to the game, or I was rusty, probably the latter.

The terrain was absolutely stunning. The Southern slopes of the Zuurberg are covered with Valley Bushveld or Mesic Subtropical Thicket. The entire route was a healthy mix of dirt road, jeep track and twisty game paths with lots of thorn to keep one honest. In contrast to the Herald and Mondi, the Stonehouse Capital route flowed and had a mix distinctly biased towards jeep track and single track.

At a water point, I battled to get my race nutrition (GU's and PowerBar) and lost contact with Louis and Mark, preferring to let them go as I wanted to ride alone to enjoy the flowing jeep track and to regain my singletrack Mojo.

The Mojo came back in the last 10km as I managed to get the Scott Spark to flow and from then it was pure Single Track grin. Andrew Briggs ripped his sidewall and I stopped to pass him a bomb. Clearly Schwalbe Rocket Ron's and Addo thicket don't mix very well. I topped up with Stans sealant just before the ride and did not have a problem with my full UST Continental tyres. They are very heavy and I have been considering a lighter tire, though I am still looking around. It is difficult to find the right mix for Eastern Cape conditions. At this stage my UST Contis are strong, but, too heavy. I was also disappointed by how the tires were slipping out on the riding surfaces of Addo. However, in all honesty, I don't know whether it was my Mojo, fitness or tires - or perhaps all three. Nonetheless, there is sufficient doubt, to warrant exploration of fresh rubber.

3km from the end I managed to close down Louis, but, lost out to him when I moved on him too early and he comprehensively outsprinted me. Congratulations to Mark Willamott on a great ride to take the win and tough luck to Andrew Briggs who was the strongest rider on the day.

The involvement of Stonehouse Capital in this race is good news for the Eastern Cape. I believe it will open some eyes as to the potential that the area holds for a quality mountain bike event with top class riding terrain. As pointed out in the past, we should be using race events for people to come back to an area on a sustained basis. The way the Mondi and Herald events are currently run, they only serve to put people off the area. Thanks Stonehouse and everybody else involved - you've breathed new life into a stale riding area! Special thanks to Mark Ward and Grinaker Lta for the invite to ride on their team which eventually ended up finishing in third place!

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