Wines2Whales 2023

Chardonnay Recap 

Challenging Trails and Unpredictable Weather

Words by: Nick Durant


The Wines2Whales (W2W) mountain biking event has earned its reputation for presenting exhilarating trails and showcasing breathtaking landscapes year after year. As a seasoned participant, I can personally attest that W2W never fails to surprise, with each edition introducing new obstacles and adventures. The 2023 Chardonnay event, the first of the three editions in the FNB Wines2Whales series, proved to be no exception.

Teaming up with Sean Paul in the FullSus squad, I eagerly anticipated the unique dynamics of the Chardonnay race. The Chardonnay focuses on the fierce competition among professional female mountain bikers. Despite the intense racing up front, the event maintains a festive atmosphere, marking the end of the mountain biking season with abundant enthusiasm curated by the organisers.

The first curveball came just before race registration, with organizers forced to alter the Stage 1 route due to recent floods in the Western Cape. The original plan, from Hermanus to Oak Valley, was scrapped in favour of a course within the extensive trail network at Lourensford, setting the stage for a distinctive W2W experience.

 Stage 1 – A Surprisingly Shortened Challenge

Expecting a formidable 59km ride with 1800m of climbing, we embarked on Stage 1 with a mix of excitement and nerves. However, the day unfolded differently than anticipated. The morning presented us with favourable cool and overcast riding conditions, considering how Lourensford can bake in full sun.

We set-out from what would be the finish for Stage 3 and after a few warm-up kilometres. We started our climbing. We were taken up the familiar forest roads for 18km to Saaltjie and water point 1. We felt strong and continued at our respectable pace. Navigating through the familiar trails, we encountered damp terrain on the mountains given the recent wet Cape winter. A minor mishap in a forest single track section served as a reminder of the trail's unpredictable nature. Despite expecting more distance and elevation, Stage 1 turned out to be only a 56km ride with 1300m of climbing, concluding with smiles and a sense of accomplishment.

This year's unique aspect included transportation to Oak Valley in Elgin, foregoing the traditional magical reveal of the Oak Valley Race Village. Nevertheless, the event's usual amenities and atmosphere did not disappoint. Always one of the most impressive race villages around!

 Stage 2 – Rain, Mud, and Unforeseen Challenges

Day 2 brought a drastic change in weather – rain persisted throughout, turning the trails into a muddy battleground. Organised announced route modifications, aimed at rider safety, and removed sections like Tierkop and Boomslang. Despite being familiar with wet and muddy conditions, this stage would become memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Starting under drizzle, the initial sections demanded focus through slippery trails, forest roots, and bridges. The challenges intensified as we witnessed fellow riders struggling on route. A short distance after the first water point, a significant setback occurred when my partner's innocuous fall ascending through a berm resulted in broken ribs, prematurely ending our team's event. Kudos to the medical teams who were quickly on the scene and he was soon whisked away in the arriving ambulance.

Continuing alone, I navigated slippery trails and mounting mechanical issues in the heavy Elgin clay, witnessing many riders questioning the stage 2’s feasibility. Despite the arduous conditions and a non-functioning electronic derailer, I persevered albeit single-speed, completing the stage in over 5 hours, reflecting on the challenging day with my wounded partner at the finish line.

 Stage 3 – Redemption and Technical Triumphs

After a night of rugby celebrations and a sunny morning, Stage 3 offered a chance at redemption. Determined to finish the event despite the previous day's setbacks, I embarked on the solo journey.

Technical issues with my electronic shifters resurfaced early in the stage, requiring assistance from mechanic friends with an hour delay at Water Point 1. Despite a delay, I soldiered on, embracing the picturesque landscapes and enduring the climbs and descents. Navigating through Wederville Nature Reserve and Vergelegen farm roads.

The final stretch included a little kicker climb in the heat and onto a new singletrack section called the Canal Trail, and a floating bridge, concluding with a descent into the finish line. Bad luck returned with a puncture 600m from the line which I peddled through careful to make the finish. Despite the unexpected technical hurdles, the completion of Stage 3 marked a triumphant end to a unique Wines2Whales experience.

As I reflect on this adventure a few weeks later, I appreciate the ever-changing nature of Wines2Whales, where each edition brings something new to the table. The 2023 Chardonnay event, with its route changes, adverse weather, and mechanical challenges, provided a memorable and character-building experience. Looking forward to the next, I embrace the unpredictability that makes this event a perennial favourite in the mountain biking community.