This year saw Pietermaritzburg host the annual UCI MTB and Trials World Championships, with Greg Minnaar having to defend his title on home turf. The only man that could possibly have been feeling more pressure than “Mr Min”, would be course builder and course manager for the event, Nigel Hicks. We caught up with him prior to the event. – By Wesley Reyneke
A geologist by trade, Nigel has been racing XC and downhill since 1993, with four provincial DH titles under his belt. He spends his free time building and maintaining the infamous Cascades course, to “give something back to the sport”, as he says.
How long have you been responsible for the Cascades World Cup course?
During the lead up to the 2009 World Cup, when Gary Browning and Brian Dinkelman were in charge of the World Cup, I helped them with the track by designing and building the N3 tabletops, as well as helping out with a number of other sections on the track. When South Africa was awarded the event in 2011, Brian approached me to take over from him and Gary as track builder and that’s how it all started. I have since been in charge of the DH event at the 2011 and 2012 World Cups and now again for the 2013 World Championships.
Can you give us a brief overview of what goes into building a World Champs level course?
Lots of time and stress (laughs). It’s exceptionally difficult to design a track that all the riders will love. When it comes to the actual building I am totally indebted to Nick Floros of NES Trails for all the help I get from him and his staff who cut the trails. Without him, the trails at Cascades would not be there. The track has been built using predominantly manual labour, with the use of TLBs and Bobcats for the big jumps.
I am also so lucky to have the backing of all the enthusiastic DH riders here in KZN, who are always willing to lend a hand with the course. The support we get here is incredible and it’s awesome that the youngsters get a chance to build on their home track and then race it in a World Championship.
The Cascades course has become a bit of a talking point on the World Cup circuit, particularly its physical nature. What are your thoughts on this?
This question comes up in every interview… good! You will never be able to please everyone, but you try your best. Downhill is a cycling discipline, so pedalling and fitness need to also be factors. On the one side you have tracks like Champery and Val Di Sole, and on the other side you have Pietermaritzburg. All are testing tracks in their own way, so it’s good to have variety to test an all-round cyclist. The track is the fastest on the World Cup circuit but you need to be really strategic about planning your race run here. The race is not won on the 40-second pedal, with riders who push on the pedal losing time on the bottom sector through fatigue. The top of the track is steep and brutal, with the bottom requiring a total change of riding style. You need to be on it to win here.
What are some of your favourite sections on the course?
Dr Evil, and the Gully section before the Tabletops is the most fun ever. It’s just so fast, and all you can do is hang on for dear life.
Are there any other tracks on the circuit that you like, or that inspire you?
Wow, that’s a tough one! Being from the “old school” I love the natural style tracks with off-cambers and rocks – I’m not a big fan of jumps. Top marks would have to go to either Hafjell or Mont St Anne. Also, it’s impressive to think that the whole top of Fort William is man-made, cut and built onto the bog on the hill. That has given me lots of inspiration for man-made rock gardens at Cascades, as we lack proper rocks or roots due to the geology in the area and the commercial forestry in which the track is set.
What is your World Champs weekend going to look like, and what will be running through your mind as racers take to the course?
Will the track hold up!? That’s the main thought. The World Champs are way bigger than a World Cup, with more riders battering the track, so the main issue is making sure that the berms hold up as best they can and that no dangerous ruts form anywhere. We try not to groom the track too much, just do basic repairs. The rest of the days are spent making sure the uplift is working properly and the marshals are doing their jobs correctly.
Obviously the atmosphere at World Champs is something special…
One cannot even begin to imagine what the vibe is like at World Championships, it’s just that big! The World Champs is something really special, and for South Africa to have the honour of hosting it really is amazing. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to be a part of and something I will remember for the rest of my life.
TREAD Magazine (Sold throughout South Africa and can be found in: Spar, CNA, Exclusive Books, Discerning bike shops and on Zinio)
Originally published in TREAD Issue 25, 2013 – All rights reserved