When a meeting between two of South African cycling’s foremost race organisers saw them tuned in to the same wavelength, neither of them doubted that they stood on the verge of creating something special.
Fast forward three years and the Liberty Encounter Series has evolved into one of the premier multi-stage mountain bike offerings in South Africa.
The brainchild of ASG Events chief executive Wynand de Villiers and MTB Adventures boss Johan Kriegler, the tours in the Winelands (April 21 to 23) and the Waterberg (June 9 to 11) are again shaping up as races not to be missed.
The opportunity came when De Villiers moved to Paarl several years ago and found it amazing that a region with such spectacular mountain biking terrain did not offer any multi-stage events.
“Up to that point ASG hadn’t ventured into the mountain bike stage race market because I had been looking for something really special,” said De Villiers.
“I didn’t just want to start something for the sake of having it in our stable.
“I started formalising the idea and was introduced to Johan by former South Africa road champion Hans Degenaar at the Sanlam Invitational.”
He said their association seemed like destiny because they immediately struck a chord, sparking a process which has developed into the Encounter Series.
After absorbing De Villiers’s ideas, Kriegler, who had made a name for himself as a mountain bike aficionado by creating the Wines2Whales race, responded by saying he believed strongly in the concept.
“With both parties’ experience in presenting cycling events it was a partnership made in heaven,” said De Villiers.
“His experience with Wines2Whales was of exceptional value for us to set up the Winelands Encounter without making silly mistakes in the forming years.
“So it was a strange encounter which I can’t help but feel was almost destined for the creation of these two special events.”
Remarkably, the Winelands Encounter emerged from what De Villiers said was basically a ride to test the waters.
“Three years ago it was just going to be a ride with friends as a pioneer effort,” he said.
“But when we sent out some media on our pioneering effort, Johan was almost immediately contacted by Liberty, who wanted to be involved from the start.”
Five weeks before the ride, De Villiers said they suddenly had to fast track their efforts to present a proper stage race offering.
This is where the cooperation between two influential figures in the cycling fraternity proved a masterstroke.
“Johan and I have very much the same organisational style and it’s wonderful to work with him.
“In the first year the venues worked really nicely, but we weren’t even close to presenting the route experience we wanted.
“Three years later it’s a different picture and the route has lots of purpose-built trails, plenty of fast single-track and bridges. It can compete with any of its counterparts.”
De Villiers, who has been in the business for 17 years, said he felt their strengths complemented each other to form a durable partnership.
“Personally I believe my strong point is around the positioning and marketing of the events and leveraging the event for sponsors,” he said.
“And I also love taking part in them because I believe route-wise you can’t find anything better.
“Johan doesn’t have his equal when it comes to planning and creating mountain bike routes, and that’s what ultimately gets the buy-in from cyclists.”
Acknowledging their working relationship as “laid-back and informal”, Kriegler said he had been involved in mountain biking for three decades.
“I’m one of the oldest mountain bikers in the Western Cape,” he said. “We started off 30 years ago on ‘bombers’ – no shocks and chopper-type handle bars, although it had ‘dik wiele’ with knobbies.
“Then we migrated to the first mountain bikes. Initially they had no shocks so we celebrated the introduction of the first shock, an air and elastic combination called the RST.
“With these bikes we explored most of the Winelands mountains and gravel roads, and we had access through all farms.
“We organised one of the first mountain bike events in the Cape – the Vergelegen Classic – as a church fundraiser.”
While familiar with the routes in the region he had created, Kriegler said De Villiers opened his eyes to even more possibilities.
“As a Gauteng expat, Wynand saw the beauty and potential of the Winelands region,” he said.
“I, being born and bred in Stellenbosch, had become beauty blind. He convinced me and healed my eyes.”
According to De Villiers, the proof is in the pudding.
“We have only received good feedback and the testimonials on our event site reflect this,” he said.
“We’re almost full for the Winelands Encounter and I have no doubt the series will go from strength to strength.”