“It was incredible,” said Kleinhans, “We kept going up; it felt like we were all alone in the mountains. I kept looking around at the scenery, amazed at how beautiful this area is. I tried to tell Matt to look too, but I didn’t really have the breath to talk.”

Erik Kleinhans and Matt Beers (Topeak Ergon/RED-E) were convincing winners on stage 1 of the 2017 Gravel & Grape Extreme MTB, claiming the 67km stage in a time of 2:55:26. The three-day event in the Breedekloof Valley features a mix of rugged, rocky riding and technical single track. Despite the challenging terrain, the winners were delighted with the course layout. “This was incredible riding,” said Kleinhans, “absolutely real mountain biking from start to finish. I loved it.” Photo credit: Chris Hitchcock.

Stage 1 of the Gravel & Grape Extreme started in the cellar of Botha Kelder, one of the region’s largest wineries, and finished at ATKV Goudini Spa. The rest of the weekend’s riding will follow a clover-leaf format from Goudini.

The early pace was set by Jurgens Uys and Nicol Carstens, with Kleinhans and Beers happy to let them do the work early on. At the first climb, Kleinhans and Beers managed to pull away, but tyre valve issues for Beers meant the pair kept losing time, and allowed Uys and Carstens to stay in the hunt.

“Jurgens and Nicol were very aggressive right from the start,” said Kleinhans, “but Matt and I were not concerned. We knew that once the trails appeared we would be able to do some damage.”

Last year Kleinhans and Beers raced to victory in a strong field at the Berg & Bush in KwaZulu-Natal, so the pair clearly have a good race understanding. It came to the fore again at the Gravel & Grape Extreme as they pulled away from the chasing pack on the technical single track.

“This is probably some of the best single track I have ridden,” said Beers. “The trails really flowed, and you could just trust your ability and the bike. Although, I should add that it was super technical, which made it even more fun. The rough terrain and the technical riding made this a proper morning of mountain biking. You really had to concentrate, but it was a great challenge. I liked the fact that there were no surprises; it was just good riding from start to finish.”

Although just 67km long, the stage 1 route was not without its challenges. Kleinhans said that it was a course that required maximum effort. “There was a climb right at the end that seemed to never end. In fact, it was one of those climbs where you don’t realise you’re climbing because you’re going up and down over and over again. But I agree with Matt; this was incredible riding, absolutely real mountain biking from start to finish. I loved it.”

Second on the day went to Charl-Pierre Esterhuyse and Robert Hobson (BREEDENET) in a time of 3:02: 39, with Uys and Carstens eventually rolling in for third (3:02:40). Last year’s winners Chris Wolhuter and Dylan Rebello were late withdrawals due to illness.

Stage 2 of the Gravel & Grape Extreme is a 68km stage, which will once again challenge riders’ technical skills and send up and down some big Breedekloof Valley climbs. But after that, the riders will be able to enjoy a wine tasting at the finish from some of the regions excellent wineries.