After having utterly confused Google Maps along the valley roads, we turned to instinct (and the unmissable sign posts) to find our way to the race village for the inaugural “The U” MTB Stage Race. Arriving at the Moutons Valley Farm in Piket-Bo-Berg we were taken aback by the setting. Surrounded by rocky, fynbos-clad koppies and blossoming apple trees and set alongside a dam our race village was nothing short of idyllic.
After a painless registration, we unpacked the car and contemplated what could be a very lazy afternoon beside the dam. Beanbags, stand up paddleboards and kayaks were among the many distractions on offer (not to mention the beer).
Before we got too comfortable, we decided that we best have our turn on the 6 km Prologue course. It was an optional part of the event, only influencing seeding batches for the following day.
After a short briefing from Rickus we set off to experience some of the Piket-Bo-Berg trails. The short course took us through some fast, winding pine trails in between the apple orchards and up onto the rocky hills behind camp. Some sharp inclines woke up the legs and lungs before we descended back towards the village. A little taster of what was to come, the tight switchbacks, rocky drops and punchy climbs had us excited.
The first stage of The U took us on a 47 km ride with around 1300m of climbing. Having been warned by those who had done the test ride in 2015, I knew that the relatively short distance was not to be taken lightly. With 95% single track on the day and a long climb up the old Ossewa (Ox Wagon) pass, there were few “free” kilometers on offer.
Leaving camp we soon found ourselves winding up the hillside along rocky trails. Gentle climbs and the occasional downhill, with a good helping of switchbacks brought us to a not-so-floaty floating bridge. We had been warned not to dawdle across this and as we arrived we saw two victims clambering out the other side of the dam. Realising my make-shift cellphone pouch was not up for swimming, once the bridge was clear, I opened up the gas to scamper across with my dryness, and dignity intact.
More fun, twisty rocky trails took us to the start of the Livingstone descent. Dropping down over 4 km we encountered just about every type of trail imaginable: steep, sandy, and rocky sections which made way for firm and fast grass lined tracks and finally into a dense and damp forest trail.
As “punishment” for our indulgence on the downhill, the Ossewa pass found us grinding our way back up the close on 500m we had just dropped. At this point, my 1x10 (34/40) caused some hurt on what would otherwise be a comfortably manageable climb.
At the top, we guzzled down something cold at the waterpoint and set off. The now tired legs laboured up the punchy climbs as we continued to slowly ascend through the farms and quickly into more remote valleys and more single track. There was so much great riding it’s tempting to describe the whole route. The selection of technical rocky climbs, fast and flowy descents, and tight switchbacks seemed endless until finally we popped out among familiar orchards in sight of our camp.
The second stage was just short of 50km with 1100m of climbing. Said to be an easier, faster day we were excited to explore more of the single track sanctuary that is Piket-Bo-Berg. After some light rain overnight and cool conditions on the day, this episode was all about hard packed rocky trails. We traversed over rocky slabs, through outcrops of rocks, over bridges and all over the surrounding peaks. A look at the Strava map from the day and you’ll see just how much of the mountain we covered.
Again there was so much to enjoy it’s difficult to describe the day without producing a mini-thesis. The imagination of the trail builders is truly remarkable. Sections which to most would look impassable by bike have been transformed into the most incredibly intricate nest of mountain bike goodness with a few well-placed rocks, gravel and the occasional bridge.
Although the stage did not include any big climbs the general trend for the first half of the day was definitely an upward one. After traversing the koppies of Sonop, Moses and Gryskop we finally began to descend, starting with a fast and loose section aptly named “Suicide Run”. With close on 100km of Piket-Bo-Berg trails under the belt we were attuned to the terrain. It was a bittersweet moment as the final sections through The Canyon and Porcupine Avenue went by bringing a close to a weekend of rewarding mountain biking surrounded by great people with great food in a postcard worthy setting.
The U is a new must-do event on the stage race calendar. The riding is world class, at an incredible venue with great facilities and warm hospitality. Don’t let the distances fool you though, although highly rewarding the riding is challenging and the route requires your constant attention to navigate the tricky terrain.