Sani2C: It’s not just about the ride

RYK VAN NIEKERK: I am speaking to a South African mountain biking legend and not so much for his achievements on a bicycle but rather for his achievements to conceptualise and develop the largest mountain bike stage race in the world, the Sani2C, and I am, of course, speaking to Farmer Glen Haw, the father of this iconic event. Farmer Glen, welcome to the show, the first Sani2C was held in 2005 with around 600 riders and this year the event attracted more than 4 200 riders from all corners of the world, did you ever expect this race to become so big?

GLEN HAW: No, no, Ryk. It’s a pleasure to be on your show. It was started for a reason, it was started before stage races in this country, basically we used to run a stage race called Imana Wild Ride and that hoodwinked us into starting a stage race for a little private school in the community where I live and never in my wildest dreams did I think it was grow into the biggest race of its kind in the world.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: South Africa is also the country in the world with the most number of mountain bike stage races; I believe there are nearly 60 of these multi-stage events. Farmer Glen, why did the Sani2C become so popular?

GLEN HAW: We ride a lot ourselves, so we understand exactly what the market wanted and it was started for a real reason to raise money for the school, so we had a real need in the community for a private school. The community really got stuck in, I think we were fortunate that we were in early, so we got a bit of a head start, we got the numbers and we were able to do things that maybe other events that started later aren’t able to afford to do because they just don’t get the numbers. So we focused always, the route was king, so first and foremost we understand that mountain bikers come to ride a great route and we feel that over the years we’ve been able to develop that. So it’s a point-to-point event going through so many different terrain types and vegetation types, it’s always interesting.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: Let’s talk about the route, it starts on your farm near Himeville in KwaZulu-Natal and then it takes riders on a 260-kilometre snaking route through the Southern Drakensberg into the Umkomaas Valley, all the way through to Scottburgh on the KZN south coast. 

Now most of this trail is custom built for mountain biking and has some spectacular views, and this is one of the key reasons why so many riders participate.

GLEN HAW: Yes, exactly, we’ll never lose sight of the fact that first and foremost it’s all about the route and then other things are important after that. If the route is not good then you won’t get the riders talking about it and you won’t get them coming back.

So we understand fully what is needed to make a good route, our whole family rides flat out, we’ve been involved with mountain biking before it was even mountain biking. We compete in a lot of other different events, we are always
riding and we can judge what the market wants before most people do so.

We pride ourselves in being innovative, we’ve done a whole lot of things that other events have copied, so we feel we are on the cutting edge of events. It’s a numbers game as well, so that helps us with running three events, those help to cover the cost of the route and the 3.32, bridges that we put up and we’re able to pay communities properly because of the numbers, so people at a water table then get paid for 4 200 people and not just for 150. So it does make life a lot easier for us and it motivates all the communities, it’s a real community-based event, these aren’t all professional people who offer all the services to the event, so it’s important that we keep them well paid and happy, and they do a great job.

Logistical challenges

RYK VAN NIEKERK: Glen, the race is a massive logistical challenge, you have three different events being hosted over a period of five days in which 4 200 cyclists participate but what are the logistics behind it, how many people actually work to put this whole event together?

GLEN HAW: Ja, the logistics are massive and because people aren’t employed by the event itself, they work for their community organisations and we pay those organisations, so they’re pretty much volunteers for the organisation, whether it be a school, a church group or some essential organisation within the community, what a community needs to function and to attract people to work there, to stay in the area and raise their kids. So I’ve never really understood or come to grips with exactly how many people there are but I imagine at any one time in any race village during the running of the event there are probably close to 500 people who are actually working, preparing meals, washing bikes, making sure the tents are serviced, the ablutions are run properly. We have electricians full-time, we have a whole team of medics and doctors in each village, we’ve also got mechanics and masseurs, so I think at any one time we’ve got at least 500 people in the race village. But the preparation before that is also massive, so I’d hate to know exactly how many people are involved.

Birds-eye view of tents set up at the Sani2C race.

During the event Super Group sponsors vehicles for us, so they partner with us logistically and they have over 30 vehicles at the actual event, eight ton high volume trucks, just to move competitor kit, it’s just the competitors’ bags and clothing they need to move from one event to the next. So coordinating that on its own is bug. Clover supplies us with water trucks for the seconding tables, at any one time they’ve got over ten vehicles out on the route when all three events are running, which is Thursday of that race week, there will be ten vehicles around.

We’ve got three helicopters always out on the route and a medical helicopter to make sure that we can get advanced life support to riders. We have people at the various hospitals because a rider may be brought in literally in his cycling gear and he’s got to get admitted to hospital and he’s got nothing, and from where he’s come from the hospital is often a good three-hour ambulance trip, so we’ve got people at the various hospitals making sure that they’ve got toothbrushes and pajamas, and their next of kin has been spoken to and they are being looked after, and we find accommodation for the wife if she decides she needs to come down and be with her husband when he’s landed himself in hospital.

So it’s a massive logistical task but because we’ve used the same service providers literally from day one everyone knows their game, everyone knows what they need to do, everyone each year improves a little bit and that’s all they have to do is just up their game slightly each year and that combined effort makes a huge difference to the overall experience of the riders and that’s what we’re basically here for.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: But the race is not all about mountain biking, you also do a lot of development work in the communities along the route and you see a lot of investment into infrastructure and other services within these communities, tell us about that.

GLEN HAW: It was started, as I mentioned at the start of the show, it was started for a real reason and if you read our mission statement it’s basically to improve the lives of the people in our community. First and foremost is education, to have good schools, so we support schools fully and thereafter we’ll support all the other worthy organisations. But ja we focus on schools, this past year for the services that they provided for the event, the event paid out over R10 million to various organisations.

School children and performers on the sidelines of the Sani2C race.

No individuals get paid for doing stuff, they work for an organisation and the organisation gets paid, they need to pay someone individually maybe for travelling or someone who’s done a lot of work and they need to get compensated then that organisation does that. So we literally chat to different organisations and we set up some sort of partnership with them and agree to pay them a certain amount and then they carry on and do the job. So it’s huge, I don’t know of many events that put that sort of money back into community… more than R10 million in this last year and then more than that there are a whole lot of other spinoffs, there are a lot of B&Bs and accommodation for supporters and spectators and family who will stay, they are fully sold out. So the injection to the community is huge and it’s really valued, and I think that’s why the community pull out all the stops because they realise that this event means a whole lot for their school or their organisation.

Economic spinoffs for local business

RYK VAN NIEKERK: The area must benefit tremendously, if you look at the entry fee, I think it’s around R15 000 for a team, which consists of two people, and with 4 200 riders you are looking at around R30 million just on entry fees and then the additional costs are accommodation, food and drink, and that type of thing, and that must stimulate that whole area and can be seen as a cash injection into the area.

GLEN HAW: Ja, absolutely, we try to get all our help from the area firstly, so we would be reluctant to go and order medals from some big corporate, we’d rather get some organisation in the community to actually make the medals. The route is built by people who live adjacent to the route, so that’s a huge cost for us. It’s not a route that can be ridden every week like a lot of other events will utilize existing trails, over 300 kilometers of our trail is purely used for the event, it’s closed for the rest of the year. So that on its own, just keeping that busy, we use a lot of people to keep that in
the condition that it is and it’s literally blown each night before the riders come, so that’s our standard and we’ll stick to that.

We also have race villages, a lot of events are clover-leaf based and a race village is a huge expense. We’ve got three different venues that we’ve developed over the years, the one venue has got at least 70 showers and over 120 toilets and those are fully tiled, so the standard is really high.

We’ve bought properties and erected permanent buildings on them, at Jolivet, which is the last overnight stop, the structure there is 36 meters wide and 100 meters long, it can seat 3 000 people and that’s really purely for the event. We had to do that sort of thing just because of the logistics around it, setting up marquees and electrical and the safety standards, the kitchens and cold rooms and cooking facilities, it’s near impossible to cater for 4 500 people, with the crew and the media and so on we’re probably catering for over 5 000 people over the three days and to do that in a temporary setup for three days of the year is very difficult. So we’ve gone permanent, we’ve stuck our necks out and invested a lot of money into property and into building a race village, and part of that has been to create opportunity and that’s what we are about. We’ve got teams of tilers, plumbers and bricklayers who work in all the race villages year round now.

We’ve created opportunities for the, some of the people we have upskilled are now running their own businesses. A tiler, for instance, Musa, is a guy who we upskilled, together with Tile Africa, one of our partners, and he’s running his own business and we’ve got to book him. So if we’ve got a project we need him to do I have to book him long in advance because he’s running a successful tiling business. That’s what it’s about, if we can create employment for people and create opportunities that’s part of what the event is doing, it’s not all about the ride and our hashtag is that, it’s not just about the ride but basically it’s about everything else that goes on around the ride as well.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: You also own a big dairy farm with more than 2 000 cows, so who are you, are you a dairy farmer who organises a little mountain bike stage race on the side or are you an organiser of this big mountain bike stage race with a little dairy farm on the side?

GLEN HAW: As you speak to me now I am doing the last burning of the fire season, so we’re busy burning some brushwood and we’ve got a bit of forestry as well but predominantly we are dairy farmers. I am third generation; my son is back on the farm now so he’s fourth generation. My first love is obviously farming and our kids needed to go to a school in the area and there wasn’t one that was any good at all, so we decided that we needed to do something about it and we started a school called Lynford Primary School in the Ixopo area, and its success has been due to Sani really. I plan to live here for the rest of my life, hopefully my kids and my grandchildren farm here too, so it’s a long haul this, it’s not just a short-term opportunity that we saw that there was a market to make money out of event organising. So first and foremost I’m a farmer and who just loves mountain biking and loves supporting communities. My passion really is farming but when it’s Sani season and it’s time to organise the mountain bike race then the farm plays second fiddle. Fortunately my son is here now, so he keeps everything on the straight and narrow while I am away. But running 2000 cows is a big job but it’s part of our life, it’s in our blood and it’s what we love doing, so primarily I am a farmer who organises mountain bike events and rides mountain bikes. I’ve done pretty much every major race in the country, I paddle, I canoe, so life is busy but it’s all good.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: Thank you, Farmer Glen, you have established a wonderful event, which allows mountain bikers from all over South Africa and the world to come and visit and see our beautiful country, and especially the spectacular route that you have developed in the Southern Drakensberg. Thank you for the wonderful development work you are doing in the area.

GLEN HAW: Thanks, Ryk, it’s been an honour to be on your show and good luck into the future, we are privileged to be able to be in this position to do what we do, so it’s my honour.

RYK VAN NIEKERK: Thank you, Farmer. That was Farmer Glen Haw, he is the father of the iconic Sani2C mountain bike race.