Aaaah the euphoria has faded the adrenaline gone and even the mild sun tan and bug bites have shown signs of recovery. A week back into the UK swing of things and those roaring crowds are all but a fantastic memory, Stellenbosch was truly something else!
I may be a tad biased and admittedly the last XC World Cup I went to was the first one Scotland hosted (a great affair but it was massively overshadowed by the Downhill event) Stellenbosch served to highlight the seemingly insatiable sporting appetite the South Africans have and their very capable ability to host top flight competitions.
This was yet another crowning achievement for the Western Cape Province in the month of March which by international standards was absolutely killing it. By the end of the month they will have hosted, one international road stage race with multiple classifications, The Tour of Good Hope, the worlds biggest mass participation event The Cape Cycle Tour, one privately operated multi day tour event, the Cape Rouleur, one UCI sanctioned XC World Cup event and finally one of the most highly regarded multi day mountain biking stage races the Cape Epic!
All with a crippling drought, all managed off-grid and all done with the complete support of local communities and authorities. Its a bewildering and staggeringly impressive achievement. March is simply THE month to have a bike and be in Cape Town, end of!
Back with a thump
So what did I do, well I went to Johannesburg!
Its home turf after all, this is where I am from, the mad, bad utterly chaotic, slightly shambolic culmination of heavy industry, mining, manufacture, politics, crime, culture and corporate and urban expansion. Johannesburg is edgy, fast paced and intimidating and if the truth be told….very normal (to me).
I hit out to my favourite trails most days, Johannesburg sits atop a 1400m escarpment so the old altitude is the first factor on your morning spin. You will no doubt have also lost a litre and a half of your own blood to the battalions of mosquitos that suck themselves stupid on ever exposed appendage the night before, forehead included. If you did manage to get any sleep then you will have missed the morning cycling rush hour of 4:30-5am and hit the neutron bomb hell that is normal commuter rush hour 6-8am.
There is nothing more depressing than trying to negotiate safe passage on a bicycle in Johannesburg during these 2 hellish hours, take my advice, just don’t do it. Taxis are unroadworthy wrecks driven by callous pigs who will feel nothing to ignore literally all rules of traffic law, getting anywhere near one is like dousing oneself in petrol and running through a match factory. The rest of the traffic is made up of infuriated and volatile Joburgers who are very nice outside of a car, terrible in it, once prodded they are like crocodiles on the kill, they will tear you to shreds and burp up your innards, its a crap experience.
On the positive side, you time it right, and you are treated to some of the very best dusty trail goodness the Gauteng province has to offer all on your doorstep. Joburg is very much a North, South, East and West type of city, the city has extensive riding available but it’s accessibility is governed by your own location, for me the easiest trails to get to were Central, East and South of Johannesburg. So I took in three main venues; Modderfontein, Rietvlei and Thaba, these are purpose built trails on private land. The ‘Spruit’ dissects suburbia and is a true staple of most riders trying to jam in early morning miles. My favourite, and not really pure mtb but simply for its immense size is Suikerbosrand, the nature reserve one Mr Froome frequents, its a massive place, after London this feels like the edge of the moon, the reality, its just a 45min drive from suburbia and its a 60km single direction road loop perfect for straight forward mile munching and hill repeats session.
Go bro go!
You quickly find as mad as Johannesburg is, there is simply so much to do and its addictive, you want to soak it all up, go everywhere and do everything. Joburgers never seem to rest. Its GO from before sunrise, by week two you are a little more used to the super early wake up time for rides and the frantic energy that abounds but you always feel you are in deficit or are missing some epic ride someone else is doing, and the fatigue starts to tell.
The parts I miss come flooding back into my mind. The smells, the air, the horizon, damn.
Just as you are getting nostalgic its time to pack up and ship on down to Cape Town. Car hired, bag packed, and regretfully, bike left behind. I was on a mission, I needed to get around the Cape, see friends cover a race and basically sort out some life admin.
Stellenbosch World Cup
Setting off for ‘Stellie’s you quickly see why riders like Christauph Sauser, Ariane Luthi, Jaroslav Kuhavy, Karl Platt and many more call this their second home. Its a beautiful place, full of the rugged landscapes that dominate the marathon racing season but with less of the distractions. For the Euro riders this is the perfect escape from Europe’s bitter winter, but its also a place where the pros become their own family, the Girona of mountain biking.
No one does enthusiasm quite like the African mountain biking fans. Entering the Coetzenburg Sports Environment of Stellenbosch University you are hit by the familiar South African sporting event sights, smells and sounds – boerewors braais, random vuvuzela blasts, throngs of very eager fans – standard!
Conversations track side are educated and animated, half the throng seems to know each other from other events and walking about with Grant Usher my long time buddy and local ledge meant you never got more than two steps without a ‘Hey Grant you racing?’ ‘Doing Epic?’ ‘Well done for that ride man it was awesome’, me the token nobody just trying to find a space in the masses.
Course wise this was a typical blend of very technical and hurtbox climbing that is ‘de rigueur’ on the UCI circuit. A melee of crazily positioned logs in ‘Pick Up Sticks’ made for excruciating watching as the riders came within a whisker of doing themselves serious damage and some quick thinking shock compressing punishment in the rock garden which left one marvelling at the the skill level required from top flight XC riders as a prerequisite to ludicrous lactate threshold.
Racing wise, it was a visceral explosion of adrenaline, amazement and tension and dust, lots and lots of throat closing dust! The year’s first and biggest upset in the mens, Schurter’s unbeaten record coming to an end to the magnificent Sam Gaze. And in the women it was Langvad’s metronomic consistency and power that held off the unrelenting attacks from Canyon’s Pauline Ferrand Prevot. It was without a doubt the pumping heart of XC racing in all its glory.
Nothing beats an adventure, and if fear was your guide, you really wouldn’t get very far at all. For all Africa and in particular South Africa’s challenges and failings there is so much that it doesn’t get enough credit for. Its people, its attitude, its astounding beauty and its ability break misconceptions. For cyclists its a mecca, you may just need a little guidance from the locals but once you’re in, you’re family and you better get used to it, its addictive!