Backsberg MTB & PPA

On Saturday the 6th of September Seamus Allardice went back to Backsberg to tackle the climb that defeated him last year. The result was a mixed bag to say the least…

Sus the Backsberg MTB Challenge

Date: 6 September 2014

Venue: Backsberg Wine Estate, Stellenbosch

Distance: 43km

Total Ascent: 1 798m

The 45km Backsberg MTB Challenge route and profile.
The 45km Backsberg MTB Challenge route and profile.

After having foolish attempted the 45km route on the Backsberg MTB Challenge in 2013, as my first proper mountain bike race, I was eager to give it a proper bash this year. So keen in fact that I planned around my cousin, and normal riding partner Warren Fincham’s, bachelor’s party and managed to fit the two big events into one jam packed Saturday.

Having to be in Paarl by 13:30 meant that I was pressed for time – so I was eager to start as early as possible, which put me at odds with the PPA officials, but more on that later – and I knew that in order to finish in time to dash home for a shower and change I’d have to ride the entire Backsberg climb unlike last year.

It – and averaging over 15kph were my only goals for the ride (read the great article by Imogen Smit on Marathon about the importance of setting goals). According to Strava the Backsberg climb is 10.7km long and gains 737m at an average gradient of 7%, Erik Kleinhans holds the King of the Mountain record at an astonishing 40:24, a full 20 minutes faster that the respectable (I feel at least) 1 hour and 39 seconds I managed it in. What the stats don’t tell you though is that the final two switchbacks of the climb are the steepest and, while the rest of the climb is on nice hard packed clay forestry road, terribly eroded. They make the climb psychologically battering, as your nearly exhausted legs scream for you to throw in the towel and walk when you round the corner and see the loose rocky nightmare climbing up ahead on you.

The climb's Strava stats.
The climb’s Strava stats.

I achieved my first goal of the day and rode the entire climb, so I was exceptionally chuffed with myself for that. The 15kph average speed was another issue however but given the long portage off the top of the climb and that I stopped to help a fellow rider fix his broken chain but all in all it wasn’t a train smash as I still made Paarl in time to catch the taxi to the bachelors.

But now for the negatives at the Backsberg MTB… And they I’ve got to say fall squarely with PPA and their ridiculous enforcement of rules. Being a PPA event the Backsberg has a batched start, which is great because nobody likes being held up by slower riders. But what is less ideal is the crazy implementation of said batching, especially considering the 45km field consisted of under 300 riders and the first bit of single track of any note came in the portage from the top of the Backsberg climb at the 15km mark. PPA seeding was strictly enforced. Officials wearing PPA gear checked every single rider making sure that they started in their predetermined batches. And non-PPA members, like myself where forced to start behind all the seeded riders. There are a few issues with this. Firstly in none of the pre-race communications or on the event webpage is this mentioned. Secondly it penalises riders who have already had to pay more for their race entry as non-PPA members again. And finally it is utterly pointless in such a small field.

PPA seeding is essential at the Cycle Tour, or a MTB race with 1 000 entrants. But then the fact that it’s seeded needs to be communicated clearly – and not rely on the fact that non-PPA members should just know they start last (it’s on the PPA website under “Benefits of PPA Membership” I’ve subsequently discovered). The problem is, that even if I, or any other rider keen on doing a PPA event and starting near the front, would have to do three or four (the PPA seeding system is pretty complicated – but if you’re keen on statistics, beta values and linear programming give it a whirl here) PPA races before getting a seeding. But just being a member isn’t enough either, you have to have a RaceTec timing chip too, which isn’t included in your PPA membership.

Now the PPA does some great charity work and joining them is probably a good thing to do. But I have a natural aversion for bureaucratic organisations like this and I’ll happily pay extra in race entry fees not to be part of the club. And the rigid adherence by all the marshals and officials to the seeding rules, even when they were plainly not necessary did little to convince me of their bureaucratic benevolence.

Seeded batch starts, not always a great idea.
Seeded batch starts, not always a great idea.

There were a few other marshalling and water point issues on the route, but rather I’d rather not harp on about that, as this is already coming across as sour grapes. I think the lessons to learn from my Backsberg experience can be divided into three categories.

For the race entrants, it’s essential to take note of the rules of the organisation governing the race, because they could assume you are aware of their policies when as a non-member you simply are not – and arguing with them on the day could well end up ruining your ride.

For the race organisers, it’s essential that you communicate clearly with the race entrants. A pop-up saying that as non-PPA member that I would be starting behind the PPA seeded riders would be fantastic, especially if that could be scheduled in the transaction process after I selected the non-member entry fee and before I proceeded to the online payment page. Also for smaller rides let non-members filter in to batches on a self-regulating system, actually, in fact scrap the seeding for small races (under 300 entrant races) altogether and just enforce three self-regulated start groups. A fast, medium paced and slow group would have more than adequately spread out the Backsberg MTB field – sometimes a bit of common sense needs to be implemented rather than just blindly following regulations.

And finally back to race entrants, if your riding has hit a plateau try setting process goals for each race you enter – it’ll help motivate you and you’ll be surprised at how much fun it is to reach little goals within a ride. Reaching one of my goals at the Backsberg MTB Challenge certainly helped me get over the annoyance of the race start.

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