After 63km and 1600 metres of climbing I began to wonder, ‘why does Jeep track even exist and why do we ride so much of it in MTB races?’ Especially in the Western Cape. The stats suggest that there was only 65% singletrack to be had throughout the Piket-Bo-Berg race, but whoever came up with that number may not be all that good at Math. It was clearly 66% or 105%.
The Piket-Bo-Berg Cycle Challenge and Trail Run allows participants a one day only ticket to the exclusive trails of the Mouton's Valley Farm, 1h30 up the road from Cape Town. With a bitterly cold front just on its way out, snow-capped mountains sat on the horizon with riders still feeling the chill of a 5 deg C start temperature. Doug Bird kept things lively on the mic, chirping away at the racing snakes who were looking to rip through the moist, tacky singletrack ahead. Gert Heyns had pitched up, fresh from a National Marathon title. So to the likes of Matthew Keyser, Dr Octopus (Posthumus) and Renay Groustra. The usual batch of fast sub vets turned up, replete with the odd Savage and defending ladies champ, Katie Lennard.
We were warned that the first singletrack section comes just 2.5km into the race so best to get a good position going in there so as not to get held up. The self-seeding structure seemed to work well and added somewhat to the fun nature of the race.
The first climb was just enough to test out the legs without sapping all the juice from them early on. The singletrack occasionally broke out into dual-track allowing for a quick overtake or bite to eat and drink.
While gaining in elevation, the views opened out before you, I'd like to say I had time to take them in but I was mostly focusing on what was happening on the trail in front of me, all while trying to stay latched onto the wheel in ahead.
For the first hour, it climbed up on flowy, switchbacked singletrack and dipped down for a quick breather before resuming the elevator ride up. Those quick descents, just short enough to catch a breather, but lose focus and you'll strike a pedal on a rock or overcook a corner and come face to face with a boulder. It was tight and twisty, rewarding if you're agile and nimble on the bike, able to sling it between a chicaned crevice of a giant rock formation. A strong sidewalled tyre is a must up here.
Once at the top, a few fast descending switchbacks got you warmed up for a traverse along the cliff face of the mountain you'd taken an hour to summit. A rocky descent with the whole valley on view below, the wild colours of spring out in full bloom. It somehow didn't feel treacherous to be this high up on a sliver of track with the world below you, the twists and turns and line choices kept you focused.
For the next 30km or so the scenery and landscapes seemed to change around every bend. One minute I was bouncing over the rocky mountains of the Cederberg, then I was in the tufty grass of the Karoo, that changed to Alpine forests and pine needles underneath my tyres, I rode through a cave and then I was transported onto the set of Avatar. Seriously, I thought greens and purples like that only existed in Star Wars lightsabers. Incredible beauty.
The 63km route consists of two loops where the second loop began with a steep singletrack climb. I may have been a bit excited on the first loop and was running short on matches to burn for the climb and it hurt. I found a less powerful rhythm and began to take in a few more of the sights around me. Those snow-capped mountains, for example, that's sure to help with the dam levels right?
In spite of all the rain leading up to the race, there were very few big puddles or mud pits, extraordinary drainage out here, most likely down to cleverly thought out trail building.
But back to that singletrack hey, it felt endless, and yes, there was a fair amount of climbing, even in the descents, but each section offered something a little different. I did pick up a common theme that the trail builders around here enjoy, and that's a surprise waiting around a blind corner.
Whether it be a steep punchy climb, a quick rolling drop or a tight squeeze through some rocks, it always offered up a challenge. What I enjoyed most is that it rewarded smooth and skilled riding, rather than attacking and hammering the descents at speed. After a section of track, you came out the end having tried a new skill or honed and existing one to perfection.
It's the type of trail network that builds confidence in your skills rather than scaring you into attempting something beyond your comfort zone.
The last 5km opened out into jeep track, following the river on your left. I was poked by then and running on fumes, but full up on stoke and enjoyment after nearly 4hrs of insanely brilliant riding. The term ‘the one race you have to do’ gets bandied around a lot, but this is categorically it - for me.
A shoutout has to be given to the marshals and staff out on the track. They all seemed genuinely happy to see mountain bikers coming past. The water points all cheered loudly and one chap put me to shame as he skipped alongside me up a climb taunting me to ‘pedal harder’ and ‘get out of the saddle’. Of course, I duly obliged and set about giving him my best Nino Schurter impression. As soon as I was out of sight I just about littered the trail with my expiring lungs. Can't wait for next year, and those of you lucky enough to have your hands on a The U entry are certainly in for a treat.