XCO difficulties from the rider’s perspective

Renay Groustra was milling around his local bike shop last month, killing some time when the latest copy of Full Sus caught his eye. On the cover it advertised an article about the recent World Championships in Pietermaritzburg, and made some bold statement about where XCO is going wrong. Having participated in the Elite men’s race at World Champs, he couldn’t help but turn to that page.

After reading the article I was slightly upset, to say the least. The writer acknowledged some of the good results, while asking some tough questions about the other results of riders in the South African Team. Naturally my first reaction was to go on the defensive. In 2013 I invested a lot into XCO racing. I funded a three month trip completely out of my own pocket (which I am still paying back) to Europe where I based myself out of Germany and raced four World Cup events as well as a handful of smaller races. The result was that I came back to South Africa, raced the World Champs in Pietermaritzburg, and was the highest South African finisher in the Elite men’s race. How is that not good enough?

To those looking in from the outside, having never raced an XCO race before, 47th place seems pretty far down, especially with a home ground advantage. Even to me, with the amount of work I put in, I can’t help but think that surely I can finish higher up? Truth be told, XCO racing is a brutal sport. 2013 was not the first time I had invested in an overseas trip. I spent four months racing the Swiss National series in 2006. In 2009 I made two overseas trips and raced four World Cups, and again in 2011 when I raced two World Cups as well as a couple of smaller UCI races. All of which I funded out of my own pocket. In total, I have raced fourteen World Cup races and only managed to finish three (Bromont 2009, Pietermaritzburg 2012 and Andorra 2013), without getting lapped. Luckily my World Champs record is better as I have managed to finish all my races (France ‘04, Italy ‘05, Italy ‘08, RSA ‘13).

Having been in the sport since 2002, I have seen many top South Africans pit themselves against the best in the world, almost always out of their own pocket, only to come back with their tails between their legs. So the big question is: “Do we have the talent?” Undoubtedly yes, we do. One only has to look at the amount of good U23 riders we have and developing elite riders. So what are the other countries doing that we aren’t? Take a look at the country of cows and chocolate: Switzerland. Although it’s one of the smallest countries, at any given World Cup you will see at least three Swiss riders in the top ten. I’ve seen it happen twice where the top three riders in the Elite men’s race at World Champs have all been Swiss. 1, 2 and 3. That seems almost impossible. Why is that?

I figured this out for myself when at a regional XCO race in St Gallen, Switzerland last year. The elite men’s race was smallish but competitive, but what really struck me was the amount of kids racing at this small, very local event. There were literally 50 kids racing in their equivalent of the Nippers category. This was one event of a five race series, and every Canton (Province) in Switzerland has a series. Switzerland has 26 Cantons. Another thing the Swiss do very well besides making cheese and chocolate is developing talent. Riders like Christoph Sauser, Nino Schurter, Vlorian Vogel, Ralf Naf and the Fluckiger brothers have all come through development programs that Switzerland have put in place to develop talent from a very young age. Training camps are held regularly with national coaches heading different categories such as training, bike skills and various other components that go into developing world class cyclists. Riders that don’t cut it get kicked out of the programme so that more attention can be paid to the promising ones. It’s a harsh environment, but who said being a pro athlete was easy?

So back to the question, where are we going wrong? One thing that I can say, is that in my whole career as a cyclist, from beginner to professional, I have never seen any type of program like that in South Africa, put in place for any extended period of time. Any effort to start such a process quickly gets shut down due to funding issues or politics, and the good people behind these efforts get disheartened and often walk away. The issue here is continuation, which requires a huge amount of vision, passion and a lot of funding. How effective are we being when we stop and start this process, and on the way lose people with valuable skills and knowledge?

The other issue here, which was touched on in the previous article, is the pressure felt by athletes to compete in high exposure events to create “value” for their sponsors. We have a unique mountain bike industry in South Africa. We are one of the few countries where corporate companies put huge amounts of money into our sport. They do so because TV coverage is cheap in South Africa, so corporates get a lot of exposure for athletes they sponsor doing races with TV coverage. These being stage races and our very strong marathon series, where there are large numbers of people competing creating an ideal place to create brand exposure. This is fantastic news for riders wanting to focus on marathon, and it’s actually quite profitable, but it leaves riders focusing on cross country in a bit of a pickle. Race marathon, or focus on the Olympic discipline where support is limited.

I’ve made my decision, and I paid my rent with my credit card last month.

Renay Groustra is a professional mountain biker, bike fitment specialist and wannabe surfer from Cape Town. He rides for the Team RSA Web and you’ll see him flying up and down the tracks of Table Mountain on his Rocky Mountain steed. He’s also a prodigious blogger and you can read his latest views and experiences on his website: www.tablemountainbiker.co.za.

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