For the first time ever I was lucky enough to take part in the pinnacle of Marathon racing at the UCI Marathon World Champs in South Africa. South Africa is an interesting country with beautiful landscapes, huge game reserves, and one of the Worlds largest gaps between rich and poor. Its the economic backbone of Africa and supplies over 2/3rds of the continents electricity. It also has one of the biggest Mountain bike Marathon scenes in the World highlighted with the Cape Epic, The Munga (million dollar bike race), and this year the World Champs.
Racing in Europe beforehand was the ideal place to prep and get adapted to the high level of fitness which would be on display. Even with that, I was nervous as heck when I saw the start list and realized the top 50 or 60 riders were all World class and use to winning all the races on there side of the globes including 6 past Olympic and World Champions. Too have all these guys converge on one place was going to create an epic battle as you were basically putting a pile of sharks in a small fish tank . Race day started early in the brisk South African morning under a beautiful African sunrise with 90 of us nervously waiting to ignite our fuses and kickoff the firework show.
Booom! the start pistol went off and it was a pure out sprint for position as there were a number of xc World Cup racers here eager to show off there snappy legs. This sprint continued on for the whole 97 km race which was insane. From the start I could feel I had good legs, but was still fighting to stay in the top 60 and was somewhat worried if the pace didn’t slow down a little.
Once things started to simmer down I found myself around the 40′s riding with some really strong dudes in French champion Thomas Dietch, Colombia champ Leo Paez and German Karl Platt. Things started to splinter about 45 minutes in with a lot of riders already cracking, pretty soon I found myself in no mans land, just back from a group of 6, and just ahead of a couple solo riders. The mind wasn’t completely focused and I ended up losing a great deal of time over the next 1.5 hours. There was one portage section which helped get the momentum going again as I used some tree planter moves to hop down the hike a bike descent passing a couple guys and catching back up with Dietch.
Struggling to stay on his wheel we headed into the first of two big climbs on the day when out of the bushes came two 30 ft camels. It was unreal, I figured they were fake as they limbered along in an out of this world fashion. Seeing this flipped a switch and soon I dropped Dietch and over took 6 other guys on the climb as I started my fight back into the race. Getting told I was in 35-40th position wasn’t what I was looking for and further ignited the legs.
The next 2 hours were great charging past riders, having a helicopter hover above for a couple minutes and hitting some sweet single track to finish off the first 74 km loop back into the stadium. Here it was announced I was in 21st as I headed out onto the final 19 km loop. Having missed a feed the tank was running on empty for the first part of the loop, fighting off a chasing Dietch, and just 30 seconds behind 3 riders, including the top 2 South Africans. Holding on I made it to the final feed where Saya had a bottle waiting which lifted the spirits and energy reserves. 4 cute feedzone girls were dancing, singing “Oh Canada” as I rolled bye which further boosted the moral. This was enough for one last surge to get past a Spaniard and into the top 20. With a bit more realestate a top 15 was in the cards as there was just 2.5 minutes of separation and it was coming down fast.
Coming across the finish line was a great feeling to have come so far from Canada and accomplished a top 20. There were a lot of obstacles in the way this spring of getting this result but with some help from sponsors (Kona, Mongolia bike Challenge, Wild Mountain, Russ Hayes, Freewheel Cycle) and some friends along the way things came together just in time for a great ride.
I will look forward to working on staying focused and maintaining a better position in the early start of these races so I can be up there to fight with the big guns towards the end. In the last 2 hours my times were within the top 7-10 and not far off the top 5 which is really motivating. Until now these top riders seemed untouchable but I can now see the light and will be refining a few things to get up there with them.
Huge hug to Saya for zipping around to the different feedzones to make sure Yuki and I were fed. Travelling to these races without support adds another element but with you there it made it possible to have a good ride!
After the race Yuki, Saya and myself headed up to the tourist town of St Lucia on the north east coast to set ourselves up for a Safari in the HluHluwe Game reserve. Getting up at 4:30am to get the Safari was like having teeth pulled, but being at the Game reserve at dawn to see a Lion 30 ft away eating a water buffalo was insane. Elephants, Giraffes, Zebras, Warthogs, Gazzel, Water Buffalo, Condors and even some Rhinos were witnessed on what was an unforgettable experience.
The amount of life in the African Savana is ridiculous with animals wandering round everywhere. It’s said these grasslands have over 30 species per square km, a greater biodiversity then that of a rainforest. We have some cool animals up in the Canadian Rockies but the abundance of them is about a tenth of what is over here. After a short nap following the Safari we headed down to an estuary by the ocean to see a pile of Hippos. Those things are a cross between a cow and a submarine as they float about the lagoon making weird grunting sounds.
The next morning was another early one as we headed down to the sea for one last South African sunrise before my Japanese friends returned to Durban to catch there flight to the USA, and I started an epic 8 hour back road journey to Johannesburg via Highway 2. 15 minutes into the drive I started to get bored so changed the route to go through HluHluwe game reserve again, heading northwest on hwy 618 towards Nongoma. This made things a little more interesting with some more game sightings and then a drive along some ridge tops overlooking a poverty stricken region of the country and some beautiful landscapes.
Getting into Nongoma I couldn’t locate a petrol station but was advised by some guys there was a gas station 40 km north on hwy 66 which would return me to the main road and back to Johannesburg in time for a 8 pm flight. 10 km from the gas station the gas warning light came on and the paved road turned to a pot hole infested dirt track. Not quite what I had envisioned for the day. Rolling into the gas station there was a pile of vehicles lined up, and soon found out the station was out of gas and they were waiting for the gas truck to come, sometime later that day. Uh oh, I asked around but no one had any gas to spare. With no time to wait I crossed my fingers as I started back north hoping there was enough fuel to get to the city of Pongola 40 km away.
The heart rate went up as the gas gauge went down, luckily the angles were watching down and provided just enough fumes to roll into Pongola. South Africa is a really nice country, but it does have a certain edge to it. It wasn’t exactly a place I would want to be sitting on the side of the highway with a load of gear and $7000 bike. That being said I ran into no troubles on my visit, rather just a lot of nice and helpful people.
After a rather long 30hr + journey I made it back home to Victoria BC and have since been hit hard by some jet lag. Totally cracked I opted for 7 cliff bars for dinner the first night home. Going to bed at 10 pm, waking up at midnight and up for the night, it’s always a struggle getting back into the groove but it seems after 3 or 4 days things slowly come around. The 2nd and 3rd days back with little sleep left the mind in the thought field that jumping off a bridge would be fun. Returning from these trips is the biggest challenge of racing. Back down for some R&R in the cave to let this pass as there’s a stellar Canadian Summer waiting up ahead!
Over and out.