Cape Town — On Friday Andrew Hill and Shaun Nick Bester begin a 900km journey that will test their fitness and skills as mountain bikers, their equipment and their teamwork.
The Team Darkhorse Wheels will face a stern examination in the joBerg2c mountain bike race which takes riders from Heidelberg just outside Johannesburg on Friday to Scottburgh on the KZN south coast nine days later.
While the Absa Cape Epic is considered to be the pinnacle of mountain bike stage racing in the country, the joBerg2c positions itself as the ultimate mountain biking journey with the organisers attempting to showcase South Africa and its ever-changing landscape.
The event has always been won by South African teams and the favourites to claim victory in this year's events are the proudly South African pair of Hill and Bester from Team Darkhorse Wheels.
"For me, the joBerg2c is a very special event," said Andrew Hill. "Even though it is nine days of hard riding, you really feel like you're on an exciting adventure and you see the country from the inside out.
"We go from the flat farmlands of the Free State to the thorny bushveld and over the mountains of the Drakensberg and finally through the KZN canelands to the sea. Each day holds something different and special. I love the uniqueness of each day and the amazing people you meet along the way. The farming communities really come out to support the riders at the race villages. And the food each night, which is prepared by the local farming communities, is something to be really excited about."
As much as the event is a ready-made tourist attraction selling South Africa, nine days and 900km spent crossing some of the most remote countryside is always going to provide challenges that a team will need to overcome and that makes for some interesting team dynamics.
"Team work and knowing the limitations and strengths of your teammate is the fundamental principal of any team sport, and it is even more vital in mountain bike stage races," said Bester as he prepared for the race this week.
"We will use this as we head towards the coast.
"Motivation for long stage racing events is critical as you go through ups and downs from day to day, and even during a single day or stage you can have good and bad moments on the bike.
"Our team has a great ethos and we know we can really rely on each other to motivate and drive one another when needed. There is a lot of experience between us and both Andrew and I have raced a lot, we know that a stage race can't be won on day one, so to keep the long term motivation will be critical."
At the recent Cape Epic, where Team Darkhorse Wheels finished 25th overall, Bester suffered with illness and their teamwork was tested to the limit.
"We had some great results leading up to Epic," said Hill. "But the Epic wasn't as good as we'd hoped due to us finding out, after a series of blood tests after the race, that Shaun-Nick was fighting tick bite fever during the event.
"We had some great starts on a number of days but as the day went on his fatigue grew to the point where there were a couple of stages where I really thought we'd have to abandon the race.
"On one of the days we literally had to stop and wait to see if Shaun-Nick was going to fall over or pass out. His amazing will to fight and continue riding shows his ability to push his body even when he didn't have the energy to do so. His ability to suffer and fight on was amazing.
"At joBerg2c our overall race strategy is to finish on the podium. As a team we have the necessary experience of this event and know what is required to be up there in the mix for a win. Success in such a long event almost always comes down to staying healthy and being attentive to what racing efforts should be tempered, and which could provide meaningful time gaps in the GC (general classification).
"Our new Darkhorse Wheels Team insured by TIB is built around South African values and products," added Hill. "Our bikes, wheels, nutrition, clothing and even insurance partners are all South African-based companies who share with us what it means to be South African, and we feel the same goes for the joBerg2c.
"The journey from just outside Johannesburg to the sea is a special one for all South Africans, and we are excited to take our sponsors with us, hopefully with some stage wins along the way."
Friday's opening stage takes riders from Heidelberg in Gauteng to Frankfort in the Free State.