We took a trip to the Garden Route with the team from Knysna Bull to learn about the event, ride parts of the race route, and see how the fire damage has affected the area.
About the Bull
The Knysna Bull is a three-day stage race replacing what was previously known as the Knysna RECM 200 and with a new slot in the mountain biking events calendar. Only three weeks before the Absa Cape Epic, the event fits in nicely for those looking for a final leg test before tackling the Mother of all stage races.
The event features a short seven-kilometre urban prologue around Thesen Island and through the town, followed by three ±65 kilometre stages, making use of the best riding the area has to offer. Entries include dinner on Thursday, and Lunch from Friday to Sunday. Participants need to organise their own accommodation, encouraging them to bring their families along to enjoy a weekend in Knysna. As the start and finish venues differ each day, there is the option of a twenty kilometre warm up ride to the start daily. Ideal for those looking to pack a few more base miles into their weekend.
The first thing you notice as you approach Knysna is the randomness of the burn. There is no pattern, no consistent path that the fire took. The flames leapt about at random obliterating swathes of forest and leaving others unharmed.
Our first ride took us over the railway line bridging the lagoon to inspect the fire damage first hand. Riding the narrow grid alongside the track posed an unexpected challenge in the stiff breeze that had developed. Made all the more exciting by missing railings- it was hard work to keep focused on where you needed to go, and not get distracted by the water a few metres below or panic when a gust of wind caught your front wheel.
With this ordeal safely out of the way, we cruised through Brenton-on-Sea, and began the climb to the top of the ridge. The panorama of the Knysna Lagoon nestled between half-burned, half-forested ridges unfolded as we climbed until we could see the ocean to our left and the lagoon to our right as we crested the ridge.
Heading onto forestry roads we were exposed to more fire damage. One minute we were riding through shaded pine plantations, the next, only the blackened stumps of trees remained as a reminder of what had been there.
A wonderful side effect of all this destruction is the opening up of views that would otherwise have been obscured by trees. It is now possible to see for kilometres: where previously the horizon consisted only of tree trunks. This gives you a real appreciation for the landscape you are moving through.
Although not part of the race route, this ride gave us a good understanding of the terrain and broad overview of the effects of the fire. We also got a great view of the stage starting at Rheenendal which hugs the Outeniqua passing through natural forests and possibly even the chance of an elephant sighting.
The following day we headed out to the legendary Harkerville Forest mountain bike trails. These trails are managed by SANParks and feature incredible clifftop views of the Indian Ocean, forestry roads through pine plantation and flowing singletrack through ancient indigenous forest.
This stage of the race starts at the forestry station, nestled just off the N2 and follows shady district road to the start of the trails. Under race conditions, this will make for a fast and furious start, and I was grateful for the luxury of time to take in the scenery.
The route follows forestry roads which wind along the cliff tops, with a spectacular drop to the crashing waves below. This is another instance of the burn as a blessing in disguise: the cliffs and plunging river gorges are now visible, where the view would previously have been obscured by vegetation. After a quick stop at a now-burned out lookout deck to admire the coastline, we were headed into the cool dark of the Harkerville forest.
The trails changed with the vegetation, becoming flowing and fun, but littered with slippery roots to keep you sharp. The almost tropical appearance of the forest, with its ferns, vines and low hanging branches forms a stark contrast to the burned out plantations and coastal plain we had been riding through. The effect is surreal as if you are travelling back in time. Emerging into the sunlight again it felt as if hours had passed underneath the trees.
All too soon the adventure was over and we were back in the real world, following plantation roads towards Knysna, where on race day lunch and cold Mitchell's draught overlooking the lagoon will be waiting for tired riders.
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