Stage races and one-day marathon events are big business in South Africa. With over 80+ events taking place annually, we take a look at what they offer and how they differ.
WORDS: SHAYNE DOWLING
South African’s are mad about marathon mountain biking. This is pretty evident if you look at the Full Sus stage race calendar and even the one-day calendar. There is an event on every weekend and on some weekends, there are more than one. We have embraced the stage races or rides and have filled up just about every event on the calendar. Or have we? If you look at the calendar each year, there are new events and each year some have fallen away. Understandable, but then there are the countries big boys, the go to events, the ones that sell out in minutes; what makes them so special and are they feeling the economic pinch? Are the big races still as popular? Are you getting bang for your buck? What are the other options out there and what about touring?
Frankly I have to admit that I can only do the same route, even if we are told about the odd 100 meters of change that is made to convince us we have to go back and do it again, so many times. For folks that live in areas where you can go and do most of the race routes whenever it suits you the route becomes a factor. In fact, I would say this is probably one of the most defining factors when choosing an event. Route and cost are what most of us base our decision on. Yes so? I hear you saying … well my point is that with the bucket list races have become (exorbitantly?) expensive and so what besides small changes or improvements to the route would keep you going back?
Do organisers encourage return riders or is there a never-ending number of riders that are waiting to sign up? With more choices and touring, where you arrange your own trip with specialised MTB tour organisers, gaining traction, these sort after races are having to lift their game, or do they? Are these big races not just chasing the big bucks and forgetting about what made them so great in the first place? Those little nuances that made them so special? The personality of each ride.
To a large extent I don’t think so, organisers tend to make an effort and the big rides in SA are becoming slicker and certainly more efficient. After years of perfecting the events and in most cases not having to move villages on a daily basis, the events have got the recipe sorted. It makes for a complete experience and with various accommodation options becoming the norm, so you pretty much want for nothing. You feel like a pro and are to most extents treated like one – well certainly as someone special. And we like that … but again is it enough to keep us coming back?
There is the camaraderie, again I come back to the personality of the ride, that resonates with MTBers. We like an ethos, the feeling or “gees” of a particular ride – conquering the highlight of the particular race, whether it’s the portage up Gantouws pass (W2W’s), the climb out of the Umkomaas valley (Sani2C) or making it to the top of the notorious Spioenkop without putting a foot down (Berg&Bush) – but after a couple of times is this enough? No, I don’t think so. There are other factors that make or break a race, whether multi-day or one, let me give you a few of my thoughts on this, in no specific order:
Gone are the days of warm coke and water with a few jelly beans. Organisers need to make an effort here. There is nothing like an ice-cold chunk of watermelon or the famous Berg&Bush soft serve in the middle of absolute nowhere. A cup of hot chocolate when it’s freezing – Sani last year set up a heated room (arranged on the day!) with hot chocolate and coffee after a freak storm saw us freezing our butts off – nice one! Yes, snakesters you are wondering WTF but you guys are back in a couple of hours, for the rest of us – who let’s be honest make up the majority of the field, these small touches matter. Also make sure you have enough on the table for the last rider – time and again we get told about the tail reaching tables and they are either being packed up or there is nothing left. This is unacceptable! You took everyone’s entry fee and the last rider deserves exactly the same treatment as the front runners – if not more!
SINGLETRACKS & TRAFFIC
Yes, we all have different skill levels but for heaven’s sake please have chicken runs and passing lanes wherever possible. The passing points make the experience so much more fun, not only for the faster folk but also for those who just want to get out of the way and enjoy the ride in their comfort zone. Having chicken runs or alternates may also ease some of the traffic jams that inevitably happen at the trickier sections.
MEDALS & MEMENTOES
Everyone wants a souvenir after a race. Yes it’s lekker to have a “winners” medal when crossing the line, a tangible lasting memory – not a single drinks coaster or a trinket that will probably get tossed because it just means nothing to anyone – a medal – everyone likes a medal! On the bigger rides or the more expensive rides we also expect (expectation created by the legendary rides and the price) a decent keepsake: a cycle shirt and something we can wear like a badge of honour when we cruise the malls afterwards (yes we go and buy our coffee inside the mall when we have our shirt or jacket on!). The W2W gear bag is probably just as famous and is proudly used at every other race (even though you need a headlamp to find anything in it).
Yes everything is going up, but people aren’t stupid. There is nothing worse than feeling fleeced after a race. Everyone understands that organisers are also a business and that they need to make a profit, but when you see a major sponsor attached and a tent and mattress are presented like a four-star hotel please remember that that is the absolute minimum requirement and for the big bucks we expect the big bang. Value for money is becoming more of a factor, particularly with more choices now available.
ROUTES – SPECIFICALLY ONE DAY EVENTS
These are particularly contentious. There are a number of rides that really don’t think things through. Again, it seems to be a numbers game with more emphasis put on the jolly after than the actual ride and route. Most one-day events seem to offer distance options and this can get very messy particularly when the distances merge. Youngsters, first timers, old timers and weekend warriors meet race snakes, wannabee Nino Schurter’s and carb-deprived hangry speedsters – a recipe for disaster! Slow drivers don’t move over on our roads so the chances of things changing on the trails is slim. Please consider bigger start gaps, again passing lanes or if possible completely different routes or trails for different distances. Also, on the route situation – most people want to have a tough race but not an Absa Cape Epic day – climbing vs recovery! You want us to come back again!
Take a look at the Stage Race Table we have put together for you. We have tried to choose races from various provinces. These are the cost for a team entry and unless you live on the doorstep you will need to consider travel costs, shuttles and any accommodation before or after events. Finally, I would like to mention self-touring. This is becoming increasingly popular as groups of mates or riding clubs get together and choose their own dates, areas and routes. There are a number of tour organisers who also put all of this together for you, so you get to stay in B&B’s, hot showers, private poo times, classic food and even temporary water tables with a back-up vehicle. When you do the maths and come out at similar costs, even including making up your own cycle-shirt, it is a consideration and one a lot of people are doing. It is a great option but let’s be honest, it’s a very different option. Organised multi-stage races are generally timed, have safety and security personnel, offer fantastic race villages and the opportunity to meet and share with like-minded folks from all over the world. The vibe is there, the pro’s are there, the feeling of training, slogging, pushing yourself and completing a big race is an achievement and feeling that can’t be beat. Choose a bucket list ride, start saving ’cause they aren’t cheap, start training and see you in the start chute!