There’s a certain toughness to the South African psyche. An edginess that comes from being raised on these shores. We want to go further, deeper, harder and for longer than most. – By Nic Lamond
Traverse the hottest desert and you’ll find a South African running across it. Swim the coldest ocean and a South African is there doing backstroke in his Speedo. Glance at the most inaccessible mountain peak through your binoculars and a team of South African climbers, with flags proudly stitched to their shoulders, will be inching their way to the top.
We hike, drive, fly, swim and ride where most people would never dare. We continuously fight well above our weight category in global sports, producing some of the world’s most revered athletes – particularly in endurance events.
It’s appropriate then, that we have some of the finest endurance sports competitions in the world. Think Comrades Marathon, The Two Oceans, The Puffer, The Dusi Canoe Marathon. And when it comes to mountain biking we have literally left the world in our dust. Iconic events like the Absa Cape Epic, Joberg2C, Wines2Whales and Sani2C have made South Africa the global headquarters for mountain biking stage racing.
So what makes for a great stage race? Thankfully, the essential ingredients are different for everybody. And it’s why the market is bursting at the seams with new events. Your first job in signing up to ride a stage race is to understand why you’re doing it. Then choose an appropriate event.
For some – and it’s not just the pros – it’s about testing physical limits with exhilarating, technical riding or tough endurance odysseys. For many more a warm social atmosphere afterwards is why they cough up the cash – where beers and high-fives are more important than recovery shakes and race times. Preparing for and then riding with a partner – be it a friend, family member, spouse or stranger – in a stage race can be a profound bonding experience. For those with a penchant for the exotic, it’s the thrill of experiencing a strange new culture and exploring unfamiliar scenery that can only be truly felt on a bike.
The most popular events are held over three days, usually Friday to Sunday. And it’s obvious why: most of us can afford to take a long weekend away from work and family commitments. Although a number of events go to great lengths to cater for the entire family, the harsh reality is mom and dad are often too tired to be winning any parenting awards after five, six or even seven hours in the saddle. Two or three nights in a tent is also about the limit for those of us used to the creature comforts of city living!
Of course, you can always choose to upgrade your accommodation and book a night in a nearby B&B or hotel. But be aware that moving around can add unnecessary stress to your race. There is plenty of preparation for the next day’s riding to be done around the race village – cleaning and servicing your bike, massaging your body, washing your clothes, eating, preparing your nutrition and getting the day’s race results. You may also be sacrificing some of the ‘gees’ of being mixed up in race village life.
Some events offer a luxury tented option which can be the best of both worlds – proximity to the dining marquee, start line and beer tent, while making sure you are tucked up in a bed and pampered with soft linen. You can rest in relative comfort while your fellow competitors crawl onto a fetid mattress in a tent strewn with at least a day’s damp riding apparel festering in the corner.
Typically, three-day stage races cover between 200 and 300km and about 2000-4500m of vertical ascent. Yet route profiles can be deceiving – a seemingly short or flat day’s riding can easily degenerate from a comfortable spin to an intense battle for survival when the terrain is harsh or the weather turns wild.
Of course, there are longer stage races out there. Anything from two or three days extra to months of cycling and camping along a set route. If you’re really into immersing yourself in the stage race culture you could tackle the Tour d’Afrique – a 12000km trek from Cairo to Cape Town. But you will need to ask for four months leave… or resign.
The key to choosing the right stage race is to know what is important to you and to research, research, research. There’s a reason the well-known races are pricey and often oversubscribed – they have a well-refined formula that keep things humming along and the large majority of their participants happy throughout the journey by bike. But there are plenty of upstart mountain bike stage races that offer fantastic value, are easier to get into and are building strong reputations for quality experiences.
If you want to know which races are decent, go online. South Africa’s leading cycling forum thehubsa.co.za will provide rider comments on how new events were received by participants (We also have a stage race guide of the year’s events TREAD Stage Race Guide, available on Zinio). Make sure you scroll through a few responses for balanced feedback. There are certain things, such as water point placement, that can only be perfected over time, and with real-world user experience to guide organisers. Water point placement is a dark art that the more established stage races have perfected over years of trial and error, so cut a completely new event a little bit of slack…
Alternatively, follow the event on facebook and/or twitter. You will soon get a sense for how they deal with challenges of staging an event and, more importantly, how they treat their customers – the riders. Successful race organisers value rider feedback and tackle the criticism head on, making improvements for the following year, or their next event. If it’s a new event, call or email the organiser with you queries and concerns. How they respond is an easy way to tell how well they’re going to take care of you when you roll over the start line of their event.
TREAD Magazine is sold throughout South Africa and can be found in: Spar, CNA, Exclusive Books, Discerning bike shops and on Zinio
*Originally published in TREAD Issue 33, 2015 – All rights reserved