Subaru, which has claimed mountain biking as one of its signature lifestyle sports, came to the party with big-time backing of the Sani2C mountain bike race. We took a Subaru Forester to have a look at a hard-core of South Africa’s pedal-pumping off-roaders doing their stuff…
Text by Stuart Johnson
Photography by Craig Dutton and Stuart Johnson
Here’s the thought process – if I have to be up at 4.30am…
If I have to be pushing far too hard in conditions that change from coal-truck-black to misty-white-out in seconds, as the clouds tumble down from the nearby Drakensberg…
And if I have to contend with slush-puppy farm roads, the grip ranging from poor to downright diabolical, and a looming start-line deadline, according to the mountain bike race schedule, of 5.15am. This means covering another 60km in half-an-hour. There’s also the small matter of start line pics, tripod setups down the dirt road for the massed start and then somehow finding out where the next watering point is…
Well, then, I’m delighted to be doing all this in a Subaru Forester!
If ever a vehicle was designed for the fast, sweeping, undulating, high-quality back roads of the south-eastern KwaZulu-Natal midlands, then this is it. In fact, it’s like driving a Porsche 911 Turbo on perfect tar. You can push so hard that eventually you wonder what happens when things let go. Will all the Hounds of Hades be snapping at your ankles?
In the case of the Forester, the answer seems to be no. Arrive at a corner which suddenly describes a decreasing radius tucked behind the pine trees and your heart rate tends to spike. With the Subaru, though, there’s simply a gradual transition to understeer that hauls the tail into line – and the pulse rate down. Even lifting off mid-corner doesn’t send the power-transfer between front and rear axles – or your mind – into a state of confusion.
The reason we were in a Forester in this almost forgotten corner of the Midlands was to cover the Subaru Sani2C mountain bike race. And if that name is a bit confusing, it refers to the fact that a hard-core of South Africa’s pedal-pumping off-roaders start a three-day race in Underberg, in the shadow of the Sani mountain range, wind their way deep into the Umkomaas Valley and end up being sprayed by the surf on Scottburgh beach.
So while we were decrying the damp, miserable, water-logged conditions that were making driving in a cosy all-wheel-drive five-seater wagon a challenge, imagine how the 1000 bikers were feeling!
If there is one overriding impression of Subaru Sani2C that will stay with me it is that of the incredibly good vibe. From the hectic dawn start on the Friday morning in early March, through to the finish on the beach on Sunday – 255km of mud-filled drama later – everyone involved seemed to be having the time of their lives.
The event was held for the second time this year, and the organisation was mind-blowing. Each night hundreds of tents were erected for most of the 500 two-rider teams – in other words, a tent city with accommodation for 1000 people.
Each morning, camp was struck and set up again in a different field further down the route.
The first night was in Underberg and the second at MacKenzie’s Country Club, a few kilometres outside Ixopo. Night three was the most rustic, 10km south of Highflats on a farm called Jollivet.
The bikers rode almost exclusively through farm and forest land for the entire 255km, and just organising this took years to set up.
The event was the brainchild of Underberg farmer Glen Haw, who had been planning it with his friends since 1998, when they began exploring route possibilities on their bikes.
Last year they ran the inaugural event, known simply as Sani2C, and this year Subaru, which has claimed mountain biking as one of its signature lifestyle sports, came to the party with big-time backing.
Underberg is about a 2-hour drive from Pietermaritzburg, and it seems no coincidence that for the past couple of years, the city’s dealership, run by brothers Howard and Mark Christie, has been named dealer of the year by Subaru SA.
We were using a non-turbo two-and-a-half litre SX. It cranks out a reasonable 121 kW at 5600 r/min, and yes, up-front, we’d have to admit we would have preferred the hotrod-hooliganism of the 169kW turbo model, with identical trim packaging.
On the other hand, the power characteristics of this horizontally opposed big-capacity 4- cylinder sans boost turned out to be the perfect power solution for three days of mud, slush, and potholes turned into small Midmar dam replicas as we sped towards the next, umm, watering point.
Water was something the riders didn’t seem to need too much of, but their mechanical steeds were crying out for it.
Bikes were literally grinding to a halt out on the route as mud jammed chains, gear clusters, and the space between forks and wheel rims and brake blocks.
That first day run of 85km probably required the energy for a 200km ride along dry, undulating farm tracks. In fact, the last guys in took more than 12 hours, and many of the teams were not comprised of Men’s Health cover boyos.. You had 60-something-year-olds competing, mere slips of women and great fat guys, too.
As compensation for all the energy expended, the route took the 1000-odd pedal pumpers through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country. But if you were a front-runner like the winning team comprising Raleigh’s Kevin Evans and Mannie Heymans, or the first guys on the beach (and Day Three winners), Team Trek’s Shan Wilson and Brandon Stewart, you didn’t have time to smell the pine needles.
“There’s not much time to look around,” said Wilson, a professional mountain bike rider from Cape Town who competes all over the world.
“The wet weather made things tough, no doubt about it, but that’s part of it. You just stay focused.
“The Sani2C already rates among the top races in the world because the organisation is so fantastic. And it caters not only for us pros, but for the weekend warrior. The logistics were mind-blowing,” he said
With the brief for this story being to rate the Subaru’s behaviour as well as write about the race, we felt it only right to book in to lodgings a fair distance from each day’s start. Hence our second night sojourn in The Log Cabin – well, that’s what owner Dave Biggs calls the place – on what was once Dick King’s farm. King, as history buffs will know, was the man who rescued a garrison of British soldiers besieged by Zulu warriors by riding hundreds of kilometres down the coast to the eastern Cape for help, 160 years or so ago.
On the very quick dirt road leading back towards Ixopo from King’s Grant – that’s the official name of the area – the high ground clearance and low centre of gravity combination of the Forester came to be much appreciated.
So, too, did the experimental coarse fabric seat covers fitted to our loan vehicle, which protected the fancy cabin trim admirably. On one occasion when we’d wrong-slotted and had to make a muddy U-turn with earth banks hemming us in, we also had cause to appreciate the low-range transmission which saved us from a “scoop-the Scoobie” exercise.
The Subaru’s cabin has been refined in recent years to the point that it is bright and cheerful and classy in a no-nonsense way, without making any pretensions to being at the cutting edge of the info-age.
Subaru seems to spend about 80% of its developmental budget on the mechanicals – the engine, drive-line and suspension – and we were grateful for that. We are sure the farmers in the Underberg-Ixopo area are even more thankful, and the sales figures in the region prove it.
As for the trip back to Joeys, well, a mini-front moved in just after we’d celebrated our first sunshine of the weekend and departed from Scottburgh on the Sunday, just before noon, thus ending the Subaru Sani2C the way it had started – with good, solid, soaking rain. No doubt the farmers appreciated it!
As for the Scoobie Jo’burg bound, it was a cinch to cruise at 120 to 130km/h (indicated) without shifting gears on the highway, even in the hilly terrain climbing up towards Mooi River. And on no-tolerance KZN motorways, you are wise to cruise at the speed limit.
Overall, despite our hard-dirt endeavours, we were looking at a mid-12 litres/100km effort, which for an SUV is good going.
A class act, then, the Subaru Forester 2,5 XS, and at R265 000, a lot of car (or SUV if you like) for the money.
From the bike’s saddle
“It was an unbelievable rollercoaster ride – both literally and figuratively – on a mountain bike through the hills and valleys of KwaZulu-Natal, a 240-odd kilometre odyssey which tested my physical and mental resilience to the extreme,” writes Leisure Wheels correspondent Adrian Burford.
“Danie ‘Skrik vir Niks’ van Niekerk was my partner for what turned out to be the three most intense days of my life. In three mud- and sweat-caked days I benefitted hugely from a crash course (literally and figuratively) in off-road bicycle riding from one of the real maestros of the sport.
“We were Subaru’s All We’ll Drive Warriors – to all intents and purposes Subaru’s ‘official’ entry in their own event – and joined the throng of 500 two-person teams which left a cold, misty and dark Underberg.
The final day – with the weather much improved and Warrior Burford riding with a strapped right hand after falling heroically in pursuit of his faster team mate on day two – was one of barely contained elation as we soared through some of the most picturesque terrain imaginable.
“For the Warriors, a finish in the top 100 teams beckoned. Once the timekeepers had finished crunching the numbers we were officially classified 98th – just six numbers higher than our combined age…”