LAAITIE!

Words by: Seamus Allardice

Tristan Nortje is just 20 years old. His 21st birthday is only in September. Yet he raced alongside South Africa’s most potent marathon rider, Matt Beers, at the Momentum Medical Scheme Tankwa Trek, presented by Biogen. The race was a challenge for the youngster, but one that should stand him in good stead for later this year and in the years to come.

When Shayne Dowling, Full Sus’s publisher, asked me to write about the Tankwa Trek he specifically requested a story about the normal riders. A tale of what its like for the heart and soul of the field to ride the country’s toughest four-day stage race. But when thinking about what stood out for me at the event it wasn’t the dominant performances of Cornērcard (Nino Schurter & Filippo Colombo) or Faces Rola (Mariske Strauss & Candice Lill); nor was it the delicious food, great beer or incredible trails. The story that I took from the long weekend in the Koue Bokkeveld was that of Tristan Nortje.
I picked up his nickname, Laaitie, from his former team manager and my first encounter with him was at the 2020 Knysna Bull. Pre-pandemic, in February, two years ago he was the only rider who could hang with Matt Beers for 85% of each of the Bull’s three marathon stages. Though he couldn’t challenge his now teammate for the R100 000 cash prize back then he did emerge head and shoulders above the rest of the U23 Young Bulls in the race. I was impressed by his performances, but more impressed with his attitude.
Subsequently, I’ve watched his progress with keen interest. In December last year Nortje was all set to remain with Imbuko Giant, who were in the process of morphing into the Imbuko {type}DEV equipped by Giant team. His final stage ride at the Absa Cape Epic and Beers’ own admiration for Nortje’s talents led to Specialized making the 20-year-old from George an offer he couldn’t refuse.
To his great credit, Imbuko Wine’s owner and team principle, Theunis van Zyl allowed Nortje to break his contract. With promises of overseas racing and the potential for global recognition on the card Van Zyl put the young athlete’s career above the needs of his team. Imbuko {type}DEV equipped by Giant’s loss was Toyota Specialized’s gain.

Nortje made he debut for his new sponsors at the Momentum Medical Scheme Attakwas Extreme, presented by Biogen. There he raced through stifling heat to claim second position behind Simon Andreassen. A few weeks later he was lining up alongside Beers, as a partnership for the first time, at the Tankwa Trek.
It wasn’t a smooth debut by any means. The rugged trails of the Koue Bokkeveld are anything but the ideal terrain for a lightweight climber. Nonetheless he managed to hold Beers’ wheel on the opening stage and race to second on the day, just 6 seconds behind Nino Schurter and Filippo Colombo, of team Cornērcard. Stage 2 was far tougher on the youngster.
The relentlessly technical terrain of the Witzenberg Valley slowly beat Nortje up until he was unable to follow the stage winning move Colombo launched. Ascending back out of the Witzenberg, along the Old Wagon trail, the Swiss rider upped the pace; dropping first Nortje, who was joined by Beers, and then the Imbuko {type}DEV equipped by Giant team of Marco Joubert and Wessel Botha.

Nortje hung on as best he could, but the Toyota Specialized team conceded 3 minutes to their South African rivals and 4:48 to the Swiss combination. He was visibly upset on the finish line. The pressure he places upon himself clearly weighs heavy on his shoulders. No words of commiseration from Beers or Nortje’s father Pieter could off-set his disappointment..

Despite this he was clearly resolved to perform the following day. Though he did not say as much openly, Nortje clearly felt he let his teammate down and wanted to make it up to Beers. The Queen Stage is the only one, at the Tankwa Trek, which actually suits the slighter built riders. Unlike the riding in the Koue Bokkeveld and Witzenberg the Ceres Valley’s dual tracks are relatively smooth, while the long climb to the summit of the Merino Monster is tailor made for Nortje.

On Stage 3 he came into his own. Schurter and Beers blew the race apart in the mid-phases, capitalising on a puncture for Botha which put Imbuko {type}DEV equipped by Giant, on the back foot. Then on the ascent from the Ceres Valley back to the Koue Bokkeveld plateau Nortje started to race aggressively for the first time. The steepest slopes of the Merino Monster allowed him to transfer the pressure from the nine-time World Champion and his Swiss partner. Slowly Toyota Specialized were able to pull away from Cornērcard.

Sadly, with the King of the Mountain prize beckoning the South African’s luck failed them. Nortje’s rear derailleur battery died, leaving him in a gear too light to up his tempo as the gradient eased. This allowed Schurter and Colombo to sprint past and win the hotspot award. Nortje was forced to stop at the summit and swap batteries from his dropper seatpost to his derailleur.

 

 

Photo by Ewald Sadie/Shift Media Co.

Schurter and Colombo sat up over the summit allowing Nortje and Beers to regain parity with them before racing together back to the race village, at Kaleo Guest Farm. The overall leaders then opted out of contesting for stage honours, allowing Toyota Specialized to win the prestigious Queen Stage. The following day they finished in fourth, to wrap up a hard fought second place overall at the Tankwa Trek.

 

Photo by Ewald Sadie/Shift Media Co.
Afterwards Schurter had quiet words of advice for Nortje. Apparently, the world’s most successful mountain biker was impressed by the youngster, though what exactly he said remains a mystery. Hopefully the guidance included pointers on how to manage the pressure of one’s own expectations. Nortje is clearly his own harshest critic, which is undoubtedly a good thing for an elite athlete. But it still needs to be managed.

In Beers he has a teammate whose own rise to the premier marathon racer in South Africa was anything but linear. If Nortje can learn from the advice of others, rather than making the errors they did, he will be an even more formidable force very soon. He has the talent, dedication and intellect to succeed. He now needs to find a way to balance physical progress with mental freshness and emotional stability. I have complete confidence in his ability to do so, but the next year will be key to his career long-term. Not from a results point of view, but from a holistic sport/life balance perspective. I look forward to following his progress.

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