Why Berg & Bush remains so special
24 October 2016
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Gerald de Kock: Hello and welcome to the Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast, all matters mountain biking is of course the topic of conversation. Which I hope is why you’ve tuned in to find out a little bit more about this wonderful sport that has in many ways transformed the lives of so many of us who have been fortunate enough to get bitten by the bug. It has taken people to incredible places to ride mountain bikes.
There are events every weekend all around the country, stage races, single day races, cross country races, whatever it is. Between September and end of November is the traditional start of stage racing, if you like. With the proliferation of stage races and one of them that takes places over three different events is the Grindrod Bank Berg & Bush. I’m sitting alongside Gary Green, the originator of the Berg & Bush concept, some 11 years ago?
Gary Green: That’s right Gerald, we’re in our 11th year.
GDK: That year you only had a two-day race, how many riders did you have?
GG: We had 56 riders and as I’ve said before, most of them were my friends or my family. I begged them to come and ride.
GDK: It’s a different era now and it takes an enormous organisational, logistical effort to get this event going. Because now you’ve got three events. You’ve got a Descent, you’ve got a Great Trek and still the traditional two-day, how many riders do you reach over those three events?
The growth of Berg & Bush
GG: Once the two-day started filling and we reached about 1 000 cyclists, we decided we need another event. So we opened up the following weekend and with that came the three-day event which is what I always wanted to do. I wanted to ride from the top of the Drakensberg down. So we started the Descent.
It also got a thousand people and so when both weekends filled we decided to do a bit more of a niche event in the middle of the week where we had half the numbers. The real connoisseur rider, the person who really likes just getting out there and riding good trails can ride the Great Trek. So that number is half of the other one.
GDK: It’s still an incredible organisation. You specialise in some incredible trails here as well. A lot of foot paths, cattle paths, game paths, how do you go about plotting those trails every year? Every year there’s a little twist isn’t there, a little something different each year?
GG: I think we’re very lucky we’ve got so many trails in our area and most of us around here are cattle farmers, so cattle make incredible single track. They often walk the line of least resistance, so that’s a good cycle track. What we do is we go and follow them. We’ll open them, fix them, shape them and use them for mountain biking. We’re very lucky with the amount of animals we run in the area.
Why the terrain is so special
GDK: Describe, you’ve ridden a lot, you’ve ridden pretty much every race around the country. Describe the terrain in a nutshell, what sort of riding would one get at the Berg & Bush?
GG: We live in the Tugela Valley bushveld, so that immediately means that we’re going to follow part of the river, which gives us some river riding. We are in heavy bushveld, so it does mean riding through the bushveld. Then with the Descent we’re actually coming off the Escarpment, so we’re riding down off the Escarpment, which gives us a tremendous variety. I think people that come and ride are going to ride through a lot of variety of trails.
GDK: As you can tell, we’re sitting in the huge food marquis, post-ride people here are just enjoying lunch and generally relaxing after a fantastic three days of riding at the Descent. Gary, you’ve got the family involved haven’t you?
GG: Yes, Nicky my wife was involved in the beginning and then she decided no, that she would rather not be as involved as in the past. Roxanne my oldest daughter, she came home and she decided that she would also like to get involved and so she’s here helping.
GDK: Dad just said you’re helping.
Roxanne: I think that’s my special job title.
GDK: Can you give us your official job title?
R: Marketing and Sponsorship Manager, fancy.
GDK: That’s very fancy. That illustrates how this event has moved on from being a two-day event to what it is now, these are big business events aren’t they?
Taking the event to the next level
R: Yes, definitely and with Grindrod Bank coming on this year, they’ve agreed to a three-year sponsorship with us. That just takes the event to the next level and you really just have to look after the sponsors as well. Just ensure that all the riders have a great experience through the sponsorship ultimately, just lots of new companies wanting to get involved. So you can’t deny the growth of the sport within the commercial sphere.
GDK: That’s an interesting thing, the established events such as yours now and we know Sani and Epic and a lot of other events. I’m not saying they don’t have difficulty in getting sponsors, but you’re able to attract it because you’ve got a good brand.
R: Yes, if you look at the race calendar, I think there’s over 60 events a year which are full stage races. So you have to keep being fresh, keep being innovative, keep coming up with ideas to differentiate yourself. Luckily, because dad started it 11 years ago and has kept the reputation as having the best trails, that’s given us more longevity and just a little step ahead. When it comes to sponsors, I think they look for that, they look for ones that have a good reputation. That people always want to do, like a must-do event.
GDK: Is it difficult to go and find those sponsors?
R: Not really, to be honest, they generally are riders who have come from big corporates and they understand the sport. They understand the market and then they get in touch with us and they want to get involved. Sometimes we do have to go out and find various sponsors to cover large costs which we incur. Like the large food costs or chill zone costs etc. So we found sponsors to cover specific costs, but in general, yes, it’s lots of fun otherwise.
GDK: This is an aspect, it’s a thing we need to address nowadays is people know how much these events costs and how many riders are riding it. They do the sums and say you’re all making so much money. But these things cost a lot of money don’t they?
R: Definitely, as we’ve discussed before, people say: Oh, I see the entry fee is R10 000 or whatever it is and they don’t understand the massive costs which go into the event. Also just the community which work directly for the event, a lot of the staff don’t have full-time jobs. It’s temporary staff and temporary labour that come in. We employ a stack of people and obviously the food bills are well over a million rand.
So a lot of people look at events now and say: Gee, these guys are making stacks of cash, look at the entry fees, but they have no idea of costs. That aside, we just try and put on the best show so people don’t really question the experience as being worth it. People leave having an amazing time and they just absolutely love it, which is what we strive for.
Giving people something exciting to talk about
GDK: You certainly hit it on the button here, it’s been an amazing experience at the Berg and Bush Descent. I’m going to turn back to Farmer Gary as mum Nicky wonders off, she’s had her time, she’s done with this now. Gary, what differentiates? I know the trails and Roxanne was talking about innovative things coming up. You’ve got the race up Spioenkop for a couple of years, that’s something different isn’t it?
GG: I think that’s really what makes things unique. You look for innovative things. We can go ride some good trails, but I think people need to go home and say: Sjoe, I did an amazing thing. I would say, really, what got us well-known was we had a boat crossing when the numbers were small. So on the two-day event we used to race people across Spioenkop Dam, all the farmers used to drive them. So that was a real take-home story. Subsequent to that, we managed to go over Spioenkop Mountain, this iconic mountain that everyone rides up and rides down the other side. So we’re just always out there looking for something that they can talk about.
GDK: There’s a lot of competition in the market, there are big stage races hot on the heels of yours around the country. We know why people come here, but where do you think this is all going to go? Is there a tipping point in stage races? Is there a stage where maybe your event and maybe Glen Haw’s Sani2c, the numbers start dwindling, do you think?
GG: I think we’re going to reach that stage, so we’ve got to be out there, we’ve got to be the best. So we just think that we’ve got a good combination. I’ve seen a bit of a shift in not only good riding, but camp life is really important.
We think we’ve got a wonderful camp on the banks of the Tugela River, we’ve been working on it. It’s just a really good weekend away. It’s a combination of good trails, a good ride and a really good camp life. So we’re trying to get that combination going.
There is no experience like personal experience
GDK: Do you keep an eye on what the others are doing and try to make sure the competition are kept in their place?
GG: Absolutely, I go and ride every race I can. I’m lucky enough, I get to ride overseas as well quite a bit. So I just bring back, I think, will that work for my event, won’t it work. But I think we’re pretty unique in that a lot of this just comes from what we’ve got. We just what we’ve got and hopefully create the best trails.
GDK: You’ve got these three events, you’re also involved with the Old Mutual joBerg2c. Now also Trail Run around here, I’m looking around for Wesley, Roxanne’s brother, he’s on the farm is he?
GG: One son, he’s a farmer. So I’m also a full-time farmer, but definitely not at the moment, over Berg and Bush. But the rest of the year, a full-time farmer. Then my youngest daughter Spoen she started Oxpecker Trail Run, that’s also gained in popularity.
She’s all filled up on her second attempt, so we’re doing it over two weekends as well and there’s a growing sport. A lot of people, a bit of crossover now, mountain biking, trail running, so you’re not quite sure which direction it’s going to take.
GDK: Ultimately this came from your passion for mountain biking and sharing the trails?
GG: Absolutely, we’ve been runners as well for many years and living in the most incredible area. We’ve got mountains, we’ve got the Drakensberg, we’ve got the river, it’s really a good place to run and cycle.
GDK: Gary, thanks very much, I’m going to give Roxanne the last word. Roxie, the entries and the numbers, you’ve had 900 at the Descent. You’ve got a similar number, thereabouts, maybe a few less at the Trek. Then a big weekend with the double, the two day. Are they all sold out?
There is always next year
R: The most popular one this year will definitely be the two-day event, we don’t have much more creative name for the event. We’ve tried but at the end of the day it’s the Two-Day and that’s what everybody knows it as, so we embraced that. That one fills up very quickly, but it’s not sold out in a day. So what people expect it to be.
People moan: I can’t get an entry, but if you just enter within the first week of when entries open, you can definitely get an entry. That one is filled up, we’ve got 1200 riders for that. The Great Trek has actually grown astronomically in popularity, I don’t know if my marketing strategy was just so good last year!
GDK: Of course it was.
R: Last year we put a huge focus on the Great Trek, you get your own tent, which is quite a luxury these days for a stage race. Much smaller field, less congestion, that kind of thing. This year it’s grown by about 300 riders from 420 riders to 700, my math isn’t right there.
But we’ve got 700 riders in the Trek this year, which we’ve had to close or else it was going to lose that differentiator. Then the Descent, we had 950 riders, went very well and guys just raved about the trails. I think had an all-round fantastic experience, which is what we hoped for this year.
GDK: Where to from here, how do you keep this rolling?
R: For the rest of the event?
GDK: For next year, the year after, the long term?
R: Just focus on innovation, keeping our ideas fresh, not to look at other events and do what they do. Like we said, we’re doing a huge focus on camp life, so we’ve invested in 50 luxury tents this year. Which means that we can help 100 riders stay in a really comfortable environment. We think that’s a really good place to focus as well. Just big ideas. We’ve got big ideas, we’ve got an awesome team this year. We’re looking to just improve and grow as an event.
GDK: Entries for 2017, when do they open and what’s the story there?
R: We’ll most likely open in January again, that worked really well and so just keep an eye on our social media channels and your newsletters. We’ll let you know, but it looks like January this year, end of Jan.
GDK: Social media, do you still have a website?
R: Absolutely, we have live timing and daily highlights from the event. So if anyone at home is keen to check if their rider has come through, there’s finish time live timing as well. Which is great for the people at home and they can watch our daily YouTube videos as well.
GDK: What’s the website?
GDK: All those social media things?
R: Berg & Bush, Berg & Bush and Berg & Bush, it’s very easy, simple enough.
GDK: Which is actually, essentially, what this event is all about. It’s the simplicity of mountain biking, riding off mountains, riding up mountains, the trails are simple but beautiful. They’re raw, they’re rough, they are just magnificent mountain bike trails. Farmer Gary Green, he’s gone to get some lunch, Roxanne is just going to finish her lunch, thanks very much for chatting.
We hope you’ve enjoyed that chat about the Grindrod Bank Berg & Bush Descent, Great Trek and the Two-Day, they are a festival of mountain biking that any mountain biker in SA really must, if you haven’t done them, put it on your calendar now, get those entries in. Because it is a special experience to ride in this part of the world. Thanks for downloading, hope you enjoyed that, and if so, download once more. Until next time, take care and cheers.