Photos by Erik Vermeulen
DAY 3, 20 May 2017: This year’s inaugural Trail & Trout 3 Day MTB Stage Race was never conceived as a hard-core test of technical prowess and physical endurance. Right from the outset, race organisers WildTrail SA and BoutTime, wanted a fun-focussed stage race that not only celebrated mountain biking, but could be enjoyed by anyone who was relatively fit, regardless of their experience levels. And the 220 km route they picked – from the scenic Ezemvelo Nature Reserve, with its rolling grasslands teeming with game, to the magical Elanskloof Trout Farm 10 km outside Dullstroom – provided just that.
That said, if the first 83 km stage was the “down day”, and the second day’s 84 km ride the “up day” – then Day Three, the shortest stage of the race, covering just 67 km, was definitely the “fun day”. Here competitors got to experience the Mpumalangan Highlands in all their glory as the route provided a good mix of single track, jeep track and gravel road riding.
Riders started out from the remote Fountain Valley Nature Reserve, surrounded by expansive farmland and headed towards the distant hills shrouded in light morning mist. The day began with an easy 6 km downhill ride through open farmland that ended at the banks of an impressive old quarry, now reclaimed and full of bright, deep blue water. From there, competitors experienced a longish drag up to the crossing at the Stofberg/Belfast road. Once across the tar, riders were treated to a bit of downhill before having to put their backs into another short climb on their way to Water Point One at Farmer Johan’s house 22 km into the ride.
By the time they’d reached Farmer Johan’s place and sampled the excellent boerewors on offer, the light mist and crisp morning air was long gone as temperatures climbed into the mid-twenties. It was also when the field experienced their first real challenge of the day. Immediately after leaving the water point, the single track cutting across his land passed through a short section of dense forest and crossed over a small stream twice, making things a bit slippery in areas. Then came a rocky section that only the more experienced riders bothered to ride, followed by a brutal climb up the hill that saw many competitors pushing.
The only other real challenge of the day left was the “Spine” (also known as the “Swine”) – a single track pass custom made by the Trail Team to get riders to the top of the mountain and reconnect with the old Dullstroom gravel road. It was a tough, steep climb, lasting for about 3 km but, once at the top, the day had been well and truly conquered.
With the last of the big climbs behind them, riders were treated to the best the Eastern Highlands had on offer – an awesome, fun ride to the finish along single track through plantation forests, paths around trout farms, sections of lovely jeep track and the rough district roads winding through the Dullstroom Hills. The stage ended with an exhilarating 3 km downhill ride, allowing competitors to really pick up some steam and cross the finish line at the Elanskloof Trout Farm in style.
Once across the finish line, everyone agreed – this final stage was what mountain biking was all about, an inspiring experience that made the tough grind of the previous day well worth all the effort. Being an inaugural event, organisers purposefully limited numbers to just 60 entrants. The small field comprised a wide mix of riders; from those completely new to stage racing to more experienced riders who simply wanted to experience the area. But regardless of their differing experience levels, many riders expressed interest in entering again next year. And, just as importantly, a good few new converts to MTB stage racing were made.
Well done to WildTrail SA and BoutTime for pulling off an excellent event.
Stage 3 in numbers
Distance: 67 km
Total ascent: 970 m
Total Descent: 800 m
Steepest uphill: +14.4% (at 21.96 km)
Steepest downhill: -10% (at 22.05 km)
Longest uphill: 5.13 km (at 11.97 km)
Longest downhill: 4.05 km (at 49.14 km)
Highest point: 2 009 m