Buddies, bikes and beer
Where else in the world can you ride exclusive trails, get a taste of stage racing, catch up with mates while doing a bit of networking on the side and, even without trying, help your alma mater beat the opposition?
The inaugural Varsity MTB Challenge looks set to become such a versatile and unique event that riders might have a hard time deciding which part of the race they most enjoyed.
Granted, that’s probably not what most participants will be thinking when they line up on 1 October at Nederburg wine farm. Two days of sublime riding on some of the finest Western Cape trails might lie ahead, but front of mind will be the thought of 15km of uphill that looms straight after the start.
It’ll be a baptism of fire for all concerned, from the five official university teams to the rest of the field stacked with both alumni and unaffiliated entrants, and there’s no doubt that by the first waterpoint (near the top of Du Toitskloof Pass) the war stories will already be flowing.
The rest of Stage One is mostly downhill, skirting the Hottentots Holland mountains on the way to the fully serviced race village at La Paris estate in Franschhoek. A hearty lunch and plenty of Winelands hospitality awaits at the varsity-themed tents – the perfect setting for riders to catch up with friends and rekindle old university camaraderie or rivalry.
The most memorable part of the race will almost certainly be the fine art of managing the team dynamic between partners – whether that’s sharing fatigue and frustration on the trail, or enjoying post-stage liquid refreshments together. But, adding to the atmosphere, prize money will also be awarded in twelve categories daily, giving every competitive rider something to aim for.
Although the Varsity MTB Challenge is open to the general public, alumni and students, within this race is another race – Varsity Sports MTB – featuring the best student mountain-bikers in the country.
Ironically, opportunities which others take for granted are rare for pro riders such as Mariske Strauss, the reigning SA cross-country champion who will be representing Stellenbosch University. “It’s really nice to be able to race for my university seeing as I am usually away for events like this,” she says.
Stage Two brings with it the best of the stage-racing experience: an iconic start in the shadow of the statue of Nelson Mandela at the Drakenstein Correctional Centre, followed by the chance to test endurance and skills on the sharply undulating singletrack of Boschendal farm.
With stage distances being significantly longer than the average XC course, yet short of a full marathon distance, by now riders will have worked out how best to gauge their efforts, bearing in mind that each day will also feature a secret Strava segment, with a leaderboard in the race village tracking the fastest riders.
In a final twist to the tale, each team across the finish line will earn points that will accrue to their nominated university, which makes every rider a potentially valuable contributor to a greater competitive cause.
In the very first Varsity Sports event to be opened to the public, being part of the famous inter-varsity rivalry comes standard. No-one would expect anything less.