When Farmer Glen Haw hopped on his trusty Bridgestone MB-5 for the first of the KwaZulu-Natal mountain bike classics back in 1987, he could not have dreamed where it would lead him.
From organising South Africa’s very first stage race, to creating the world’s largest one, Farmer Glen has become a living legend in mountain biking circles.
A passionate paddler, he took up the then fledgling sport as something to do in the off-season, but the mountain biking bug bit him like a black mamba in the Umkomaas River Valley.
And then, as with most things in rural KZN, it was a slow, natural evolution from oarsman to rider to racer organiser.
“Steve Stamp and I raced the Dusi Canoe Marathon together for many years,” says Glen. “We needed something to keep us busy after that, so we decided to ride the old Wild Coast Hiking Trail.
“This was in the late ’80s and each year we’d invite a few friends along. And they told their friends, who told their friends about the great, pristine riding.”
Before long, Glen and Steve realised the need to get more organised and the Imana Wild Ride, modelled on the Dusi event, was born.
Established formally as the country’s original multi-day race some 15 years ago, the four-day event has been kept relatively small but enjoyed great success in terms of what it has done for tourism and education in the area.
Glen says they have been able to build 20 classrooms for rural schools along the 200km route from the Great Kei River, north of East London, to the Umngazi River.
Seeing the educational benefits for the rural communities got him thinking about the people in his own area near Ixopo.
“I was on the board of our new local primary school. Like all schools, fundraising became a serious matter and we needed to raise some proper money.
“I felt that our area offered some great riding and so the sani2c was born.”
But, true to his nature, Glen put a lot of hard work and a number of years into making sani2c an overnight success.
“We started working with landowners on the perfect route three years before the event. I felt that it was essential to have great riding from the start, as well as getting all the landowners and communities 100% on board.”
The response was overwhelmingly positive, with farmers opening up their lands to riders from Underberg in the Central Drakensberg all the way to Scottburgh on the coast.
Word of the event spread and, with 4 500 riders across the Race, Adventure and Trail components, it is now the largest fully serviced stage race in the world.
What sets it apart, says Glen, is the fantastic community involvement, and the passion of the race’s partners and sponsors. “But, most importantly, it’s the free-flowing route to the sea.”
Sticking to his original vision of great mountain biking has certainly paid dividends, as the event has a 94% return rate among riders.
Inspired by his creative vision, many of these participants have gone on to start their own races, including Glen’s friend and fellow farmer Gary Green of FedGroup Berg and Bush fame.
“There’s also the Wines2Whales, Cape Pioneer, Dusi Mfula and Rift Valley Odyssey. Plus, we’ve given advice to many others.”
Asked whether sani2c has changed the face of stage racing in South Africa and heralded the coming of the corporate sponsors, he remains modest.
“I think that would have happened anyway. But our timing was right, we understand what our market wants and have always put them first.”
Of course, the growth and almost cult status that the event has achieved over the years still leaves him flabbergasted.
“I never, ever expected this. I thought that it would be a small event that would help our one little school survive.”
But Glen has now grown accustomed to thinking big and is also the mastermind behind the Old Mutual joBerg2c – a nine-day, 900km race that crosses Gauteng, the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal. The last three days of the event trace the sani2c route.
Just over five years ago, he roped in Gary Green and Craig Wapnick to roll out his audacious plan.
“I suckered Gary and Craig into it. They’re both great friends of mine and we all love mountain biking.
“Gary was very easy to convince, it took only one beer. But we need to farm so we got Craig to run it for us – he does a great job now and doesn’t need nearly as much guidance from Gary and I anymore!”
Glen says their wives and children are all very involved and supportive. “There’s lots of love in the team.”
When asked whether his primary day job is that of farmer or race organiser, he admits he’s a “farmerraceorganiser”.
“Farming is big business now where all your ducks need to be kept in a row. Unfortunately, come joBerg and sani2c time my ducks tend to scatter and it takes me the rest of the year to get them back in line.”
But, says Glen, these events have proved their worth as invaluable fundraising opportunities for the rural areas and they are here to stay.
“Our philosophy is simple: provide a great route with the support of local communities, treat every one of the competitors with a special farmer’s touch and everything else will follow.”