Mountain bike racing is back in full flow after the December hiatus and ‘base’ training period. The downhill hooligans have already had their first provincial race and the Tankwa Trek was well into day 3 by the time the XCO at Bloemendal got underway. The first XCO of the year is always a test, and for many, it’s the first real ask of legs and lungs over a sustained 1h30(ish) effort.
Tygerberg Mountain Club has taken over as headline sponsors of the series this year putting money and resources behind the series that’s producing prodigious talents. As a platform to go pro, XCO is the best option for aspiring young mountain bikers with its Olympic accreditation and recently televised races. The Western Cape series is producing the goods too, with the current top-ranked Junior in the world, Luke Moir lining up at every event. It’s not only the boys too, but the likes of Mariska Strauss and Candice Lill have also used the series to sharpen their skills before heading overseas to take part on the world stage.
XCO has a bit of a reputation for being too technical or above the skill level of most club riders. For this event, the course layout was revised to make it physically tough but not technical. Time is always made on the climbs in an XCO, very rarely is there more than a few seconds to be had on a descent anyway. Tygerberg head shovel, Patrick Roberts oversaw some of the course layout, using his extensive knowledge of keeping around 8 000 club members happy to create a course everyone could ride.
The Sprogs, Nippers and other younglings categories got the best of the conditions, getting their races out of the way before the mercury climbed well into the 30s and according to the odd Garmin, 40s!
Out of the blocks, the track sent you skyward from the base of the Bloemendal hill to the summit. Of the 4.4km lap, this climb alone took up 800 metres but was easier to find a rhythm as it was mostly jeep track climbing. The famous (for Tygerberg riders) Lombard’s Terra descent gave you a chance to breathe for a second and try and get the sweat out of your eyes as you railed the big berms and manicured singletrack. Over the years this section has been revamped, adjusted, modified and improved to make it family-friendly but still challenging for those looking to beat the stopwatch.
If you had managed to get the sweat out of your eyes down Lombards, the following singletrack climb was sure to cascade a waterfall of sweat back down your face. I don’t know if that climb has an official name but it felt like heart-rate hell. It’s not hectically steep but takes a lot out of you mentally as you pick the smoothest line through the rocks and switchbacks. A foot-down here will cost you time and a whole lot of energy to get going again. The tangible relief of every competitor was visible after this climb as the hardest part of the lap was behind them.
A quick breather could be had as you traversed a small vineyard ‘block’ before ascending again to the far corner of of the farm, where things were eerily quiet and far away from the crowds. A new zig-zag section was installed for this year which reversed the climbs and descents (so we went up the down and down the up of the usual trail). This made things interesting on what would normally have been stepped log hop-overs (similar to those you see in cyclocross) except we were coming at them with speed. Many riders tried to find a rhythm through here by doubling the logs or manualing over them but the most effective route seemed to be rolling them individually as fast as you could and holding onto the bars and letting the bike dance underneath you like a professional twerker (twerkist? I dunno).
One last short singletrack climb led to the main and longest descent on the track where most of it was familiar to those who rode the course last year. It’s a great descent, whether you go for the Elite and Junior only A-line or the flowy B-Line. The A-line is a treat for the skilled rider with gaps, pallet jumps and a rhythm section crammed into 350 metres of riding, nothing here is particularly difficult but if you get the flow right you can make things more comfortable for yourself, save some energy and probably a bit of time too. Most categories were detoured through the B-line here to avoid unnecessary ambulance visits. The detour was all about keeping up the minimum speed and staying on line through the off-camber corners.
After this, you got to have a chat to your tech crew, take on some fluids and descend the few extra hundred metres of jeep track before starting it all over again for another lap.
Huge respect must be given to the riders who took part on one of the hottest days of the year. It was excellent to see the younger categories pumping out 30 riders to a class, while most of the Elites were off doing their bit at Tankwa or even the 99er road race.
The less-young crew (of which I am one) put out a respectable field of familiar riders, with the Masters Men accounting for the largest quantity of riders outside of the Junior categories. Still, more riders are always better so if you find yourself without an Epic entry, head to Rhebbokskloof for round 2 on March 14 and join in fun.