The two most popular types of mountain bike in South Africa currently are the sub-R15 000 100mm-travel hardtail 29er and the sub-R65 000 100mm-travel full-suspension 29er. But that’s starting to change. And within five years you can expect the big demand to be for the following bikes…
Be Sean Badenhorst
Commencal Meta HT AM – a bike of the near future
If you read our recent nod of approval to the progress being made by the Pretoria mountain bike trails parks, you will know that mountain biking in South Africa is undergoing a transformation. It’s both unavoidable and exciting and it’s being driven by the next generation of South African mountain bikers in their teens and early 20s.
I need to go back in order to go forward, so bear with my detour.
Most mountain bikers in our forties, fifties and older came into the sport from road cycling and triathlon, which were both a lot bigger than mountain biking at the end of the 20th century.
In the 90s and early 2000s, mountain biking comprised cross-country racing, downhill racing and a sprinkling of ‘Classics’, which were essentially marathons between 35 and 60km long. That was it. I was the editor of Ride magazine for a while and I recall having a brainstorming session with then owner, Attie Koekemoer about how we could try persuade more people to take up mountain biking.
“We need to change the perception from what people see on TV,” I said to Attie. “Cross-country and Downhill look too difficult and too dangerous for most people, who are used to doing 100km road races. We need to maybe even change the name to ‘dirt road racing’,” I suggested.
Canyon Spectral 6 – a bike of the near future
This idea eventually morphed into an event called the Crater Cruise, a mostly gravel road race in Parys, Free State, which Attie organised (it’s no longer around). It was a start, but it didn’t quite change mountain biking on a national level to be more appealing.
Two years later, as the editor of the newly launched Bicycling magazine, I sat in a boardroom across from a guy called Kevin Vermaak who came to tell us about his new mountain bike stage race called The Cape Epic that would take place from Knysna to Stellenbosch in 2004. Did we want to be a co-sponsor or media partner?
I thought it sounded quite cool. Tim Brink, who was our marketing manager/deputy editor, thought it sounded quite cool. Paul Ingpen, our publisher (essentially our boss), had his doubts. In the end, we didn’t become a co-sponsor or media partner. Tim did get a media entry to the first one. Tim and I got media entries to the second one and the event went on to become the world’s most prestigious mountain bike stage race.
But what the Cape Epic did was capture the attention and imagination of South African endurance athletes. Cyclists, runners and triathletes were drawn to the toughness of the race and the point-to-point ‘journey’ style of the event. After the first edition, there was a rush to enter the second one. There was also the launch of shorter 3-4 day stage races to help riders prepare for the Cape Epic. Sabie Experience and Sani2c launched in December 2004 and February 2005 respectively and after that, more and more short stage races launched as mountain biking started to become more popular than road cycling and triathlon.
Around the same time (2002/3), three-time South African cross-country champion, Fritz Pienaar, began to focus on his future and started both a bike shop and a mountain bike events company, Advendurance, which created a marathon series by combining most of the existing classics. This was also highly appealing and soon marathon races began to enjoy growth too.
TREK Slash 8 – a bike of the near future
The big focus was endurance. Marathon races added ultra-distance options and stage races took the average rider around five hours per stage to complete. Marathon-style racing became big, bigger than anywhere else in the world and the demand for marathon-style bicycles was high.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, gravity-style riding and general trail riding gained traction and growth, mostly because it’s fun and doesn’t involve life-altering commitment in terms of time, money and energy. And also because the ski resorts became mountain bike trails parks in the summer, with chairlifts removing the need to spend an hour of climbing for one fast, fun, 10-minute descent. And the demand was for trail and gravity bikes, with bigger suspension and slacker frame geometry.
Fifteen to twenty years after we first got obsessed with endurance mountain biking, our children are at a life stage where they ride mountain bikes because we encouraged them to ride mountain bikes, but our penchant for pedalling for hours from one point to another hasn’t caught on. Why should it? Endurance marathon racing and training is just seen by them for what it is, time-consuming toil.
Why toil when you don’t have to? Our kids see mountain bikes as a means to having fun, not a means to character-building suffering. That’s not a bad thing. And that’s why our kids are drawn to what is broadly classified as Slopestyle mountain biking. Some tricks. Some jumping. Short bursts of focussed effort. Some risk taking. Actually, lots of risk taking. Mostly on varying grades of descents where the climb back up is where friendship bonds are cemented at slow pace and low heart-rate.
My 14-year-old son, Cade, is a full-time member of this new mountain biking generation, which I refer to as the Senders. Because we ride together regularly, often at jump lines in Joburg and Pretoria, I have discovered that there isn’t just a minority of them. Most young mountain bikers, even those that compete in XCO races, are able to rail a berm and send a gap jump. The kids send on which ever bikes they have, often hand-me-down 29er hardtails from their parents.
The best bikes for this kind of riding are not the marathon-style 29ers that dominate bike shop floors and websites currently. The best bikes for this kind of mountain biking are trail-style bikes, which can be hardtail or full-sus, with 120-160mm of fork travel; they can also have 29-inch or 650b wheels, but the latter is more appropriate, with tyres ranging in width from 2.4-2.8 inches.
These bikes don’t need to be particularly light. They don’t even need to have carbon frames. These bikes just need to be able to deliver stability and the confidence to attack berms and ace jumps, which means slacker geometry, shorter stems, wider bars and dropper seatposts. These bikes are what you can expect to see more and more of as the general South African mountain biking mindset changes in the future. The near future.