Maverick Citizen

CYCLING FOR GOOD

To South Africa with love – new six-day mountain bike race with an unusual mission

To South Africa with love – new six-day mountain bike race with an unusual mission
Riding through the heart of South Africa – Day 1 of joberg2c, through Willie Venter’s farm. (Photo: Em Gatland)

Craig Wapnick and farmer Gary Green are two men with an unusual mission: to combine mountain biking with economic empowerment; to connect local beauty with international tourism; to facilitate community upliftment with pedal power. All while having a good time cycling through some of South Africa’s most scenic parts.

On 3 June 2023 South Africa’s newest mountain bike race, the Old Mutual go2berg, will start in the Free State town of Frankfort, and head for Champagne Castle in the central Drakensberg, where it will finish six days and 526 off-road kilometres later.

With only weeks to go to the race, I caught up with Craig Wapnick on a ride. He admits to being nervous. Seeing 200-plus riders set off on an exciting adventure and getting them safely across 600km – some of them South Africa’s best and fastest, and others amateurs like me – is a major responsibility. But he waxes lyrical about the vision and objectives of the race.

The Old Mutual go2berg is the successor to the highly successful joberg2c , which had 11 editions and ended in 2022, to be replaced with a new iteration with the same ethos.

Over its 10 years,  joberg2c put R40-million into schools and communities along its route, as well as raising funds for 14 container libraries. The aim now is to raise funds to digitise some of these facilities. They are the brainchild of Robert Coutts and are supported by the Mandela Education Programme.

joberg2c was also a fundraiser for Surgeons for Little Lives, a charity run by doctors at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg that aims to improve the quality and accessibility of care in the hospital’s burns trauma unit.

According to Dr Chris Westgarth-Taylor, director of SLL, they raised more than R2-million through the race: “joberg2c had a huge impact: meeting people, getting our name out there, noticing our riding shirts. It gave us huge advertising. That, with the money, is something that cannot be calculated.”   

The Old Mutual go2berg will maintain this tradition.

A rider contemplates the magnificence of South Africa. (Photo: Em Gatland)

Rebuilding to support SA on a bike

“We are rebuilding the event into one of the best ways to see South Africa on a bike and, in doing so, also support local communities,” says Wapnick.

Most of the race is across private farmland, not usually open to riders. Farmers readily agree to allow riders through their “backyards” because of the benefits the race brings to local communities and schools.

Two days of the new route have never been ridden before: Day 2, from Reitz to Clarens (110km with 1,400m ascent), and Day 3, from Clarens to Sterkfontein Dam (86km with 1,200m ascent).

I ask about how the new routes are navigated and how access to land is negotiated.

Wapnick explains that, after plotting a course on district (read gravel/dirt) roads on the map, they look for “breakthrough sections” that might shave a few kilometres off the route and add to its beauty. The breakthroughs are across farmland. Once farmers understand how the race will benefit the community and/or hear by word of mouth from farmers already involved, there’s a ready enthusiasm to collaborate, he says.   

“We are a moving off-road show. The race allows you to feel a connection to all the people of South Africa, our country’s challenges and its complexity.”

One of the slogans of j2c was “The route is king”. And that’s key to the success of drawing riders to a race that requires a reasonable cash outlay.

Each day, participating schools are given a generous amount of money to run the race village: erecting tents, washing bikes, providing food. The more local sponsorship they can get to cover their costs, the more “profit” they make for the school.

“They will make over R100,000 from hosting a night of the Old Mutual go2berg.”

It’s a kind of public interest quid pro quo.

“That’s how we get this amazing route,” Wapnick says.

One of the joberg2c competitors during an energetic part of the race. (Photo: Em Gatland)

Biggest school fundraiser of the year

For most of the schools, it’s their biggest fundraising event of the year and “brings a special local flavour to the race and the riders. These are not handouts; schools are being paid for a service.”

The race passes through the historic Free State town of Clarens, where, he says, people are “so excited to host us”.

Wapnick says that, despite Clarens being host to many sporting and cultural events, “this is the first time anyone has asked a school to be part of an event. This is what keeps us motivated”.

The main sponsor is Old Mutual, who in 2018 pulled out of sponsoring sports events, including joberg2c. However, they are back for this race. As Wapnick sees it, “they are sponsoring South Africa, not a MTB race”.

Iain Williamson, CEO of Old Mutual Limited, says: “go2berg is a unique endurance experience that resonates with us. Old Mutual is proud to be the naming sponsor. Its community-focused model, which creates opportunities for employment and fundraising … is innovative and inspiring. I am excited to be taking part and riding alongside so many enthusiasts.”

Events like this often depend on big personalities and their ability to inspire a team behind a big idea. As an alumnus of joberg2c, I can testify to having seen Wapnick, Gary Green and their team in action. But now I try to probe a little deeper into understanding what moves their pedals.

Members of The Soweto 10 get ready for go2berg. From left: Noko Malikhetla, Justice Ditlopo, Thando Ngwenya, Bontle Phepiso, Kabelo Sello, Makena Moagi (not riding), Busi Msimango (not riding), Lindokuhle Kubheka and Mark Heywood. (Photo: Supplied)

Green passionate about communities

Green is a beef farmer who is passionate about uplifting communities in his area. He jumped at the chance to help with go2berg. He brings a calm, wise head to the table. While Wapnick is full of ideas, he admits he does more of the talking and Green more of the work.

On our ride, I learned a little about what inspires Wappo. His life journey is an interesting one: 10 years as a professional squash player, 10 years as a design and advertising specialist, then 10 years as one of the likely lads (“Farmer Glen, Farmer Gary and Wappo”) who developed, drove and rode joberg2c.

He’s on his next 10-year mission, to establish go2berg as one of the world’s best MTB races and a dependable source of support to the communities it travels through.

Like many South Africans, Wappo has had hard knocks, which “make you realise how short life can be and why you must make the most of it for yourself and others”.

He grew up in Johannesburg. In 1980,  when he was 10, his father was murdered. He described the impact of the murder in a moving 2016 article for City Press:

“My dad was murdered by a black man in the apartheid era. There was a lot of anger. My dad was a well-loved and respected man. How dare a black man take his life?

“Amid all the noise, my wise and rational mum took us kids aside and explained that ‘your dad was murdered by a bad man, not a black man’. Just think about those words and their relevance to my life.

“My mother shaped my views with this simple but brutally truthful statement.”

Later in the article he states:

“I don’t blame oppressed people for hating their past and even hating me. All I ask is that we start treating each other as individuals and not lazily lumping everyone together.

“You have a choice: you can be a stupid, angry, backward racist or a positive South African.” Wapnick’s choice is evident. At this moment, all his energy goes into making the go2berg a success on every count by which its riders will measure it: a competition, a holiday, a fundraiser and nation builder.

A spectacular crossing of the Wilge River. (Photo: Em Gatland)

Ride and revive the beloved country

But his vision doesn’t end there.

He’s aware that, in South Africa, mountain biking as a sport is not accessible to the majority; it is expensive and has a bad rap about “white men in Lycra”.

“We are trying to change that.

“We always try to make a better price for people from disadvantaged communities,” he says, and 10 riders from Soweto are given free entries. Participation of “The Soweto 10” has boosted black mountain biking, seeding a new generation of riders.

According to Busi Msimango, the funky and dynamic founder of Soweto Rocks, a pioneer of cycling in Soweto and by Sowetans: “Being part of this cycling community brings hope to a disillusioned group of ambitious riders. With every new team who has participated, they come back with an inspired perspective to make a difference in where they come from, Soweto.

“I guess this is the go2berg mission, to make change where it can, through the valleys and communities we ride past and that same motto stays in the heart of the rotation of The Soweto 10.

“A spirit to ride is a spirit to build.”

Despite the challenges, Wapnick still believes in the power of mountain biking to uplift communities.

“My mission is to try to find a balance between a race that is accessible (price-wise) and sustainable.”

As we prepare to wrap up our ride, his thoughts stray into a dream he has about how bicycles can be used to change people’s lives, and of bikes as mass transport. A bike, much like the proverbial dog, has the potential to be man’s (and woman’s) best friend.

He talks of how the Rea Vaya rapid transport system could be repurposed to add a bicycle lane covering the short distance between Soweto and Johannesburg and how if a “bullet-proof bike for Africa” could be built, millions of people could move to a greener, healthier, more satisfying mode of transport. It’s happening in other cities, he says, so why not here? DM

 

Mark Heywood will be riding the go2berg from 3 to 9 June. Look out for his daily dispatches from the route.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Gill Green says:

    This is SUCH a great model for indulging city folks’ need and love to get out of the city and enjoy our magnificent country and at the same time benefitting local communities and charities. Our area Bergville/ Winterton has benefitted for years from the Berg and Bush event also organized by Gary Green and his team. Incidentally, running a water table on one of these events doubles as a fantastic team- building experience! Wonderful to see the blessings being extended to other communities!
    All strength to their arms. Viva go2berg, Viva!

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