MTN National MTB Series - 3 Races, 3 Experiences

Words: Kurt Schultz, Anja van Zyl & Janine De Gouveia | Photos: various photographers

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MTN XCM #1 Barberton Marathon, Trials and Tribulations

By Kurt Schultz, regular mountain bike enthusiast

While celebrating New Year in Lesotho with my girl, all I could think of was the upcoming 2012 MTN National Marathon Series. The first leg was scheduled for 28 January in Barberton, Mpumalanga, and it is considered to be one of the best events in the series. My thoughts were interlaced with excitement and some trepidation, as I'd had two bad experiences at Barberton last year, and it would soon be time to face my fears.

MTN XCM #1 Barberton Marathon

After a festive holiday filled with socialising around a braai, biltong, more braaiing and indulging in a few cold ones, this would be the first real race of the season and one in which I would have to take on the challenge of the daunting Barberton mountain. Whoever thought of building that track up there really had a great sense of humour …

Departing early from Hazyview I headed towards the beautiful town of Barberton, with my heart racing and the burning question of whether I had prepared enough. My uncertainties were somewhat pacified by the anticipation and thrill of what awaited me at the crest of the 15km climb; an amazing ride, beautiful tracks, plenty of river crossings, great water points and a cold Castle Lite at the end.

More than 1500 riders, consisting of a blend of enthusiastic recreational mountain bikers and the country’s top professionals, lined up at the start at Barberton High School, the atmosphere friendly yet electric. As the starter's gun went off, the riders sprinted forward, snaking their way through the town and towards the mountain. I pushed hard and found myself doing really well, Max Knox's motto, 'It never gets easier, you just get used to the pain', helping to spur me on, endure the pain, enjoy it. Now past the second water point, I was motoring down a huge downhill when I passed two unfortunate race billys who didn’t look too good. But thanks to the plentiful and ever-efficient medics, they received the attention they needed and were back in the fray in no time. A word of advice for anyone who hasn't done this event before; once you reach the top of the mountain, stop and relax before you attempt the downhill, as it has claimed plenty of victims.

Back on more level ground, I thoroughly enjoyed the numerous river crossings that tested rider skills to the max, before finding some relief at the well-stocked and welcome water points. The return route is quite spectacular as it passes through the beautiful Mountainlands Nature Reserve and Greenstone Wildlife Estate. Flying through this incredibly scenic area like Buzz Lightyear seemed almost a shame, and I asked myself the question: Is it about the race or the ride? Tough one ...

Crossing the finishing line in 100th position overall, I was really stoked with this result as it was 1 hour 35 minutes faster than my time last year. Special thanks to Nissan and my ex, who left me one week after our best-ever holiday for another guy, leaving with me with more time to train. You can take away my heart, my wallet, my car, my house, my braai stand, my cooler box, my DSTV, but you can't take away my GHOST ... my freedom …

MTN XCM #2 Tulbagh Marathon, A Diva’s Take on the 20km Fun Race

By Anja van Zyl, Miss SA 1st princess 2008 and 20km winner

With some sound professional advice and coaching from Phillip Buys and my brand new Giant 29er all set up, I was ready for some interaction with the beautiful Tulbagh Mountains at the MTN Tulbagh XCM #2 mountain bike race. Or so I thought.

From fashion diva to aspiring mountain bike cyclist, I swopped my high heels for some cycle shoes and was really excited about the adventure that lay ahead as I set off towards the Tulbagh Valley on Friday 17 February. After registering as a late entry, I walked away with a goody bag filled with USN protein bars and energy drinks, a water bottle and more, and felt like a pro in the making, and the weekend held great promise.

I now needed to find a place to sleep and struck gold when I was able to get a reservation at one of the most beautiful vintage wine farms in the area, MONTPELLIER. The hosts opened their doors, and hearts, to me and I enjoyed some of the best hospitality I've experienced in a long time, and their award winning 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon was a treat too.

At the crack of dawn the next morning, footsteps on the wooden floor introduced me to the glory of a new day. A hearty traditional farm breakfast, followed by ‘moer koffie' and an invigorating shower got the morning off to a perfect start.

Upon arrival at the starting line at Saronsberg, the excitement in the air was tangible and everything was organised to a T! Energetic tunes added to an already festive atmosphere and the MC was fantastic, making all the riders feel an important part of the vibe. And then the count-down began ... and off we went! Initially I struggled to get my cleats into my peddles (only because everything on my bike was brand new), but once I found my groove there was nothing stopping me - the race and chase was on.

Doing the 20km fun race was a lot of fun, but I also pushed myself to ride to the best of my ability. The indication and directions on the course were spot on and easily visible, so that I never wondered or stressed about whether I was on the right track. I had hoped that there would be a few more technical areas or a nice single track, but by the end of the ride I was glad that there had only been one little dip that required concentration, because I didn’t keep my eyes on the track for just a second (the awesome mountains are a bit distracting I must say) and ended up on my bum in the mud. I did have a soft landing though, so I'm not complaining. However, the chain came off my gear and being the 'princess' that I am, and not having a prince charming to come to my rescue, I struggled to get it back on. But I did figure it out eventually.

Looking the part of a serious rider, all covered in dust and mud, I picked up the pace and raced towards the finish line, trying to make up for lost time. My herculean attempts were somewhat thwarted by an illegal congregation of 'mad cows'. Completely intimidated by these harmless creatures, I had to do something to get past them, and quickly. So with all the nerves I could muster, I cycled as fast as possible leaving a trail of dust in my wake for them to chew on. With my newfound freedom, I raced forward, laughing at myself.

As I crossed over the finish line in first place, with a bike full of dust, hair a bit sweaty and adrenaline still pumping in my veins, I felt like a courageous warrior that had just fought a tremendous battle. The entire race was a complete joy! A definite 'must do and will do again'. With a small climb here and there, and beautiful scenery everywhere, I had fun and was able to finish in a good time. It's definitely a race I would love to do again!

Thank you to the Advendurance team for organising this great event.

MTN XCM #3 Sabie Marathon, Joys of a First Timer

By Janine De Gouveia

A welcoming Mpumalanga sunrise saw the start of my first-ever mountain bike race on 26 February 2012 – a mere five weeks after purchasing my first mountain bike. After being a 'roadie' for many years, I finally plucked up the courage to embrace the mountain biking culture that seems to have gripped the hearts of so many South Africans.

By 7am I was nervous, yet excited as I waited at the start line. After watching the ultra-marathon and marathon athletes struggle it out the day before, I had no idea what to expect in the Sabie half-marathon, driven by Nissan. Equipped with a strong mind, full water bottles and a great group to ride with we started off, the heat already rising. Sabie is known to be a tough route and as we embraced the first climb I realised why. Luckily a magnificent view of the Sabie mountain range inspired me to keep peddling.

We were a group of five that started and vowed to end together. Through thick and thin, cramps, punctures and a lot of uphill walking by me, we managed to do it. The route is beautiful as you cross over streams and ride through thick forest. The volunteers and water points created a great atmosphere, and as I reached the last station I was assured it was downhill all the way. The route was well marked and made for great riding. Four falls later, many bruises and covered in mud, we smiled all the way to the finish line. Greeted by an enthusiastic crowd, the rest of the day was enjoyed by all. I truly loved every moment.

This popular and fast growing sport has definitely captured my heart and Clarens on 5 May will see me there – tougher, better prepared and ready to bring it on!