South Africa was never that high on British mountain biker, Leona Kadir’s list of places to visit. She’s seen photos of the Namaqualand spring flowers and always thought she’d go to see them one day but wasn’t in a rush. It all changed when she was offered the chance to ride the Cape Epic in 2013.I was (and still am of course) a keen mountain biker but I’d never heard of the race. In England we only really have XCO racing, so a marathon stage race was not on my agenda. I didn’t really have to think about it. It’s not the kind of offer that comes up often! I was blissfully ignorant as to how hard it was going to be…
I knew flying into Cape Town, that first time, it would be a country I would like and very quickly I came to really love it. The Epic was a total life changing experience. I could never have imagined what that ‘epic bubble’ would be like. Living in this little village for a week surrounded by hundreds of likeminded people was just unreal. Unfortunately a nasty crash on day four meant I had to pull out. I was devastated.
Awful though those four days were (I rode the last 30km of stage 4 with a badly broken rib), I knew I would have to come back and finish the race. The country had just blown my mind, I remember our mechanic and I looking out of the van window en route to the Cederberg and just shaking our heads, we simply couldn’t believe the scale and beauty of the place.
Coming back to England after the Epic was a real turning point in my life and I knew I had to go back to South Africa.
I was very lucky to be able to do just that. In November 2013 I packed up my bike and set off not really knowing anyone, but having a rough plan of moving to Stellenbosch on the advice of ‘the Hub’ forum members. I spent the first month staying in Hermanus shuttling around to races and to ride in places I’d read about online. It took me a while to find somewhere to live in Stellenbosch so by the time I moved I’d already been riding there a few times. I won’t ever forget riding in Jonkershoek for the first time, but my strongest memory will be my big Christmas Day ride looking down the valley towards Stellenbosch feeling like the luckiest person in the world.
Wines2Whales was my first race when I arrived in South Africa and I was so impressed by the whole thing. The riding was great, the organisation was fantastic; everything was just there and sorted. I followed this up with the Eselfontein Festival in Ceres, Val de Vie in Paarl and then the inaugural Origins of Trails in Stellenbosch. Eselfontein is still one of my favourites and it set the bar high for my expectations of future South African races. The route was fantastic and there was a real party atmosphere afterwards.
Having never really done any marathon racing, November was a real baptism of fire but I finished up that first month with a few medals, some nice prizes and a load of new friends. Everyone I met at races was so welcoming and generous. I don’t think it would be unfair of me to say Brits are generally quite reserved and I certainly don’t think I’d have had anything like the same welcome as a foreigner in England.
That first month also showed me the huge variety of riding the Cape has to offer and left me excited for every weekend’s race. The choice here is simply amazing, most weekends I have to decide what race I want to do and it has taken me to places I just wouldn’t have dreamed I’d see.
I’ve been to Clarens, Sabie, Cederberg, Durban and the Garden Route to mention a few and each has been so different. Every time I fly or drive somewhere I marvel at how this can all be contained in one country. Just riding Attakwas in January showed how much the scenery and terrain can change even within one race! Racing MTB has given me the opportunity to go to places I bet most people never get to see (a good example would be the top of the Merino Monster in Tankwa Trek).
I’ve loved watching the highlights of the races I’ve done, this would simply never happen in the UK! Ok, the coverage tends to favour the pros and I know a lot of people would like the chance to see themselves on TV wherever they were in the pack, but still, you get to relive the race on TV! With footage from helicopters!
Within that, every race is so different. The PPA races are totally different to the Advendurance ones and the independent races are different again. Some races have better atmospheres than others, some more serious, some more fun and relaxed. The extent of the race calendar is just amazing; you really can race almost every weekend of the year with no really defined seasons like we have at home.
February threw up a really good problem. Which of the three stage races should I do? We used to have a stage race in the UK called ‘Trans Wales’ which was over a week but this gradually got shortened until it ceased to exist at all (2015 sees the debut of a new British stage race, called Xcalibre). How amazing then to have a choice of three different stage races on consecutive weekends!
I had entered Ride the Rock from England before having any idea as to the extent of the race calendar in SA. Driving the 50km of gravel road between the N7 and the race village was an experience in itself (quite a nerve wracking one) but wow, it was worth it when I got there. You would have to travel to the far north of Scotland to have dark skies like that. Getting up at 5am was no hardship when you came out to a sky full of more stars than I had seen in my entire life. The Cederberg is truly spectacular.
I chose to ride the Tankwa Trek the week after and it rates as the best race I have ever done. I can honestly not find a single bad thing to say about it (okay, maybe that horrible climb on stage two if I’m pushed…). It was quite amazing hearing people complain about a final kilometre of sand on one stage and a big puddle at the end of another. I reckon there ought to be a mountain biker exchange programme between South Africa and England so people learn to appreciate what they have here.
As I said, we don’t have marathon racing in the UK. There are a few reasons for this but essentially you are not allowed (by law) to race on public land (bridleways) and there are few, if any, farmers that would open their land up for races. We have a big sportive (organised, marked rides with water points) culture but this is mostly on road and they are not races, though a lot of the riders treat them as such.
There are time standards to reach but no placings. There are a few similar off road events but these are generally quite relaxed affairs along bridle paths and fields with bits and pieces of single track. They are often called enduros, some do attract ‘racers’ but they can’t actually be races. The only ‘proper’ marathon we have is the national champs which is in Scotland where the land/racing rules are different.
It is wonderful how the farmers/land owners of South Africa have embraced mountain biking and mountain bikers to such an extent as to allow all these races to be held as well as give you different places to ride every day of the week.
I have often heard people complaining about race routes in SA and wonder how they would feel if they had British rules imposed on them…
Leona’s Pros of SA racing:
– Paul Valstar who seems to remember everything about everyone and is never scared to encourage or make fun of people!
– Routes – Normally well thought out with a real focus on riders’ enjoyment. Organisers are often happy to bring you back down a bit of tar if it means squeezing in some really good single track, not just off road for the sake of it.
– The people – I think this is what I will miss most of all when I go home, you have all been amazing.
– How encouraged children are to ride here, it’s so lovely to see so many of them riding.
Leona’s Cons of SA racing:
– Sometimes too much tar!
– Sand sand sand sand sand
– Saffa men who can’t bear for women to be ahead of them and will pass them at all costs. I’ve lost count of the amount of men who have sat behind me all ride only to sprint past me at the end or killed themselves to come past me on the descent of a climb I just passed them on.
Leona Kadir is a British mountain biker, she’s been here since November 2013 to train for the 2014 Epic and keeps renewing her Visa to stay for another race. She’s now planning on returning to the UK after the UCI XCM World Champs in June, but she might be convinced to say a little longer.