Fast, dusty and tactical racing for Ariane

Swiss Bike Cup Basel, 28 August
Basel, Switzerland

Ariane: 11th place

The 2016 Swiss Bike Cup in Basel was always going to feature red-hot racing of the highest order. A number high profile athletes were fresh from the Rio Olympics, including Ariane Kleinhans’ Swiss compatriots Jolanda Neff and Linda Indergand as well as international stars such as Australia’s Rebecca Henderson and Russia’s Irina Kalentyeva.

But it wasn’t just the incredibly stacked field making temperatures rise. Unlike in previous years, which have typically featured rain and muddy conditions, riders pitched up to a hot and dry course on race day. This would allow the high profile riders to push the pace and fly through each of the 6km laps.

A frantic start by the younger riders resulted in Ariane being dropped from the lead bunch as they entered the first climb of the day. Ariane would have to call on all her skills to close down this gap. Knowing her limits, Ariane timed her efforts to perfection in first minimizing the gap and then keeping enough in the tank for a strong finish. “Riding with Elisabeth Brandau, I was feeling strong and felt I could hold her wheel to the line,” said Ariane.

Catching the lead bunch required a team effort from a group of individual riders, something never easy to organise. Ariane fought hard to claw back time but the leaders had bolted and she found herself in seventh. “I tried a few different scenarios on each lap depending on how the racing changed,” said Ariane. But as the race entered the final laps Ariane’s chain slipped off and, in the time it took to remount it, she lost sight of her group.

The frustration of having to make up lost time proved a powerful motivator and Ariane joined the wheel of German rider Nadine Rieder. The pair worked together and were able to close down the time gaps. As the finish line loomed riders ramped up their effort to close out a tight top 10. Ariane just missed the sprint for the line and finished a respectable 11th. “It was definitely a good race for me,” she said afterwards. “But I would have liked more intensity in my legs to fight up the climbs”.

James: Reflecting on Rio

Olympic Mountain Bike XCO, 21 August
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

James: 42nd (-3 laps)

An opportunity to represent your country at the Olympics is a rare privilege. It’s an extremely complex dream to hold onto, and one that escapes many more hands than are able to grasp it and cling to it. It’s not just the years of hard work and preparation that very few are willing or able to sacrifice, it’s the constant flirting with fate you have to engage in.

To perform on the biggest sporting stage on the planet, you need to stress your mind and body enough to grow mentally and physically. Finding the very limits of your comfort zone and pushing these out into the painful unknown again and again. It requires deep stores of resilience and perseverance. This endless dance is what forges the greatest athletes.

In a sport like mountain biking participation alone requires putting yourself in harm’s way. At the zenith of the sport, where James Reid chooses to play, exploring the edge of your physical and mental abilities is a fine balance of confidence, control and surrendering to the unknown. Being selected to represent your country at the Olympics in the mountain bike event is one thing, getting to the start line in peak physical shape is another challenge altogether.

James and our team mechanic JP Jacobs left for Brazil with our hopes and expectations filling their hearts and minds. Both as ready as they could possibly be. We are proud of the lofty high-performance goals we have openly spoken about and pursued this year – even so, the Olympics was a huge moment for Team Spur. We had to pinch ourselves numerous times in the build-up to 21 August. After all, we are a fledgling team, with just two riders and two full-time staff and less than eight months competing in top-flight competition in South Africa and overseas. Sending two of our tight-knit team to the Olympic Games was a dream come true.

We have celebrated Ariane Kleinhans’ scintillating exploits in Europe recently (she won Grand Raid and placed second at Eigerbike earlier this month) but you’ll notice our facebook, twitter and instagram accounts have remained conspicuously devoid of feedback from James and JP after the Olympics.

Partly this is due to the very restrictive rules imposed on brands around marketing athletes at the Olympics – the famous and controversial Rule 40. Partly it’s because we were left just as deflated and disappointed as James by his 42nd place in Sunday’s race. In James’ own words the result “broke the mast out the boat, it didn’t just take the wind out of the sails”.

Knowing how much James, JP, his teammates, his friends and family had put into his moment at Deodoro Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro made writing about the experience near impossible. So we were incredibly fortunate that James’ father (and coach) Steve Reid penned his thoughts below, and posted them to James’ Medium blog a few days ago.

To call it a Race Report doesn’t do Steve’s writing justice. This is a powerful description of the Olympic journey and what’s at stake – both before the big dance and after the dust has settled. We simply couldn’t do the job any better.

Over to you, Steve:

Being in Rio, with all the excitement and buzz at the events, the emotional turmoil of James’ race, and then the incredible experience of the closing ceremony, has made us reflect on what all this means at a wider level than these events themselves. This is really for friends and family who have supported us all and especially James, through this extraordinary time.

Going back over the past year, James and I had set the goal of Olympic qualification as the first priority. Second to that we said we would aim for an improvement in his international ranking, and then local ranking. We strategized and planned around those priorities, choosing certain races and leaving others, and built a training plan that would lead to a crescendo in August. A year ago it sounded feasible, if daunting, as he was at that stage the favourite relative to the two other contenders, Philip Buys (who went to the London Olympics in 2012) and Alan Hatherley, a young up-and-coming rider, for the two coveted South African places. Olympic qualification looked like a foregone conclusion. But this was not to be.

Out of the 8 races that the selectors used as criteria for team selection, the later ones before the cut-off date of May were more highly weighted than the earlier ones, with the intention of ensuring that the chosen athletes were getting better through the season and not relying on past successes. The penultimate qualifying race, with 100% weighting, was held in Pietermaritzburg, and James was in great shape, expecting to win. But in the few hours before the race, a huge cloudburst dropped tons of water on the course and turned it to sticky mud. Racing on new tyres with little clearance between the wheel and the frame, James’ bike quickly jammed up and very soon into the first lap, he was unable to even turn the pedals. He tried a few times to unclog the system in order to carry on riding, as others were able to do, but his bike was completely jammed, and he had to withdraw from the race. So he earned no qualification points for this race, and this put him at the bottom of the ranking with no chance of redemption in the final qualifying race. Suddenly things looked very different. Was the rain an act of God? What was going on here, we asked ourselves?

He won the final qualifying race in Port Elizabeth convincingly, ahead of Alan by a minute and Phillip by more, which is a long way in mountain biking. But then followed weeks of soul searching as the selection committee delayed the announcement and hopefully “applied their minds”. In the meantime, James won the national championship from Phillip in dramatic style on the same track in Pietermaritzburg, now bone dry, but this was beyond the qualification period. The SA Olympic Committee dragged its heels in announcing the team, and we were forced into introspection, Janet to prayer. According to the published criteria, James was third on points as a result of the mechanical failure in the muddy race, but the selection committee was charged with applying its collective discretion. We wrote to the committee, suggesting that mechanical failure should not exclude James from the team, but by that stage they had already made their selection.

And then finally it became official, and James was chosen, along with Alan! It felt quite unreal, and we felt the pain and anger of Phillip who was excluded. One of the three was always going to be left behind. Janet [James’ mom] and I decided to go to Rio for a once in a lifetime experience. As preparations drew nearer, James went to Europe for a final block of training and two races, but he didn’t do particularly well in them, probably as a result of overtraining — a common result of the anxiety anticipating a big event. But we planned the final weeks before Rio in fine detail, and the preparation was perfect. He had seldom been in better shape.

So fast forward to the week before the race, a tremendous amount of preparation and hype, and as the games got going, so the interest in the whole event started gaining prominence in the popular press and imagination. The most unlikely people expressed their interest in the most peculiar athletic events! James got to the Olympic Village with TeamSA and was overwhelmed by the size and significance of the whole thing. He wrote “Mind blown by the magnitude, intensity and diversity of the Olympics. Started swapping country lapel pins as an icebreaker to meet all sorts from all walks — ours went up significantly after last night’s 400m win by Wayde van Niekerk, which left us all with a hearty shot of inspiration and cheering as a nation for our first bit of golden action”.

But things were not as easy as it seemed — it was very hot (35+ degrees C) with high humidity, and two days before the race he crashed badly in practice, coming over a blind rise to find someone fixing the track where they shouldn’t have been. He was concussed, which necessitated a brain scan at hospital, taking the whole afternoon, at the end of which he was subjected to random drug testing when he got back to the Olympic Village. Although the scan was clear, he was not feeling well, with some upper airway obstruction, so he was not a happy camper, and the race was imminent. But he practiced his lines on the course one last time the day before, and felt a bit more confident. The course suited him.

The race itself was unbelievably popular with spectators — at least 2 to 4 people deep on all the places on the course where spectators were allowed, and huge crowds around the start/finish area. It was a cool day, and 50 riders took off on a fast first lap. James was looking strong and lying under 30th position for the first 2 laps, but on the 3rd lap he came across Peter Sagan (of Tour de France fame) lying across his path in the ‘rock garden’ and fell when trying to avoid him. He picked himself up, straightened the bike out and carried on, but slashed the front tyre on a rock very soon after. In his own words: “Explosive start but I had strong traction and fantastic sensations. A crash in the rocks was par for the course somewhere in those conditions, so when it happened as I was moving up on 3 of 7, I took it on and sorted things quickly. Rolling through the feed, straightened out, I pinned it back and dived back in. Not 3 corners later and I heard a loud hiss from the front, and there was little I could do as I realized it was nearly 3kms round back to the feed. No doubling back, and it was fairly early stages. Catastrophic. After a long run & a fresh wheel, +9min meant it was game over.” At the end of the next lap he was pulled off the course as per the rules.

We are all struggling with the emotions after such an intense build-up and sequence of events. What does it mean? Why did it happen? Why to James? Why then? There was nothing he could have done to alter what happened — nothing to do with his preparation or training or even the bike itself, just an unfortunate puncture that could have happened to anyone at any time, and there were many other punctures in the race. So was it just ‘bad luck’? Thinking back, why did those tons of water hit the Pietermaritzburg track just before that qualifying race, and affect James specifically? What did that mean? And was there any connection to the puncture in the race?

I suppose it depends on whether one sees life as a series of random events that may arbitrarily turn out to be good or bad, versus life as a process of learning and striving towards a goal in terms of a broader purpose that holds meaning beyond our individual comprehension. Most atheists would subscribe to the former, whereas theists would say that God gives each of us a purpose, both individually and collectively. The philosopher Bernard Suits described sports as “the voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles.” Winning a race in a man-made event like the Olympics might appear to have nothing to do with God, and everything to do with extreme human effort and dogged persistence: the much vaunted idea that if you believe in yourself enough, you can do whatever you want, on your own. But this sort of experience of unpredictable catastrophe suggests otherwise: there is a message here that depends on the receiver as much as on James’ story, which is why I am telling it in such detail. I am not suggesting that the rain in Pietermaritzburg and the puncture in Rio were divine interventions, but that identifying the broader purpose for which we are given this precious thing called life, creates a coherence that makes sense of senseless events.

For us, one enormous sense of meaning came from the experience of the closing ceremony, an extraordinary spectacle of exuberant Brazilian music, colour, dancing, fireworks and 60 000+ people all united in celebration. But the most remarkable thing was feeling the unity in the diversity of athletes as well as spectators, while the athletes by the hundred processed into the stadium following their national flags. Huge groups of them kept on coming into the stadium, from Japan, from Ethiopia, from Chile, from Canada, from Jamaica, from Kenya, etc, etc, etc for an hour. It was literally amazing. As James’ USA friend Howard Grotts wrote after the ceremony: “Sport is about much more than just results. In its own way, competition can be incredibly unifying. And that is special in a world where so many labels and circumstances and hateful acts undermine our common humanity.” The unity came from being subjected to the same ‘unnecessary’ obstacles, competing under the same conditions regardless of who you are. The meaning was in the collective experience of understanding what it means to be human in terms of our diversity.

We also experienced enormous support and solidarity from friends and family, to an extent that felt very significant. We realised that people around us really care at a deep level, and the very personal and reflective messages both before and after the race were profoundly reassuring and meaningful. Some of this sense of meaning comes from the painful experience of James’ exit from the race. Athletes live on the extremes and take huge risks publicly, with which we can identify vicariously. When James loses a race, it is the symbolic value that affects us so deeply. Having built up hope and a dream, it is not just the race but the hope that is lost, and we all grieve. Sport is as much about how to lose as about how to win: how we pick ourselves up after defeat (or a crash in mountain biking), and carry on. It is about resilience: how we try again despite the setbacks. And there were many desperately disappointed athletes at the games after their events, when things didn’t go as they had hoped, so James was in very good company (in the mountain biking event 20 riders did not finish). The very public risk and vulnerability that athletes take on in tackling the ‘unnecessary obstacles’ represent to each one of us our own propensity for risk and vulnerability — we see in them our own human striving. When James wins a race, we take some of that elation for ourselves; and similarly when he punctures, or crashes, his human helplessness is displayed for everyone to identify with.

It is with this sense of vulnerability, in contrast to the invincibility misleadingly portrayed as the athlete’s persona in the media, that we return from Rio. I believe that God gives each one of us a purpose and a calling, which is our individual quest to discover and enjoy. This dependence on God to redeem our all too human helplessness, together with an experience of the diversity of the human experience, made us realise that we have been given one another to help to face our anxieties and insecurities, in this one life we are given. So when things don’t go according to plan, when disaster hits out of the blue, or when pain and grief lays us low, we can find solidarity with others who identify with the situation, we can appreciate the support of friends and family, and we can use the opportunity to discover or confirm our sense of purpose in the world. The statue of Christ the Redeemer was our ultimate destination on this trip, which was a fitting symbol of a wonderfully disturbing experience!

Thanks James boy, you made a lot of things happen for a lot of people, and your resilience carries enormous significance for us all.

 

Raid Evolenard: Ariane’s Swiss XCM Title Race

It was jaw-droppingly beautiful. A true privilege to traverse the precipitous valley walls, handing Ariane her water bottles and carrying spare wheels in case of mishaps at Raid Evolenard. Ariane planned her race to perfection, and rewarded our hard work with a superb win and her second Swiss XCM national title. Check out the magical Alpine terrain in this dramatic video the organisers put together.

Six Spur Schools MTB League Races This Weekend

The Spur Schools Mountain Bike League is gaining momentum as riders across South Africa are giving it their all to qualify for the 2016 National Finals in Magaliesburg in October.

On Saturday, 27 August, keen mountain bike riders in six provinces will have another opportunity to generate points to secure their spot on the team and their school’s spot in the finals. Excitement is mounting as schools battle it out for the top positions on the mixed, men’s and ladies’ logs with fierce competition and small point differences at the order of the day.

The League runs on the Olympic Cross Country (XCO) lap racing format whereby participants complete a set number of laps, determined by age category, of a short mountain bike course.  Lap distances vary between 3-5km and the format makes for technical riding and great spectator value.

The Eastern Cape Final will be hosted at Hopewell Conservation Estate with Daniel Pienaar top of the Port Elizabeth log, followed by Pearson and Grey PE. For event details click here http://eastcapemtb.co.za/schools-mtb-league-event-1/

Ficksburg will play host to the third Free State regional race with Grey College top of the log sporting an impressive 399 points, followed by Witteberg High School with 208 points and Ficksburg High School in third place with 170 points.

The fourth race in the North West leg will take place at Wagpos High School in Brits.  Event details can be found on http://www.bikebeat.co.za/event/spur-tour-de-bos-presented-by-anatomic/ and the top five schools to watch are Potchefstroom Gimnasium, Rustenburg High School, Wesvalia High School, Hartebeespoort High School and Hoër Volkskool Potchefstroom.

Penryn College in the Mpumalanga Lowveld will play host to the third Spur Schools Mountain Bike League race, which has been dominated by Lydenburg High School sporting 292 points with closest rival Nelspruit High School in second place with 169 points, Uplands College in third place with 125 points and Rob Ferreira fourth with 105 points.  Top of the Highveld log and overall fifth is Secunda High School with 71 points.

Schools in the Northern Cape will take to the track at 8 Mile Adventure Centre just outside of Kimberley to battle it out.  Currently lying comfortably in first is Diamantveld High with 369 points, Northern Cape High follows in second, Blinkklip High third and Landboudal High School in fourth with 26,25 and 24 points respectively. For event details contact Wimpie on 082 899 8970 or click onhttps://www.facebook.com/150942738293335/photos/a.184664168254525.54719.150942738293335/1070034123050854/?type=3&theater

Top Western Cape schools to watch this weekend are Paul Roos Gimnasium, Parel Vallei High School, Montana High School, DF Malan and HTS Drostdy. Registration for Saturday’s Western Cape event at Montana High School in Worcester will be open from 08h00 to 13h30 and riders must enter 30-40 minutes before their race.   The course will be open for practice from 08h10 to 08h50 with the first primary schools race setting off at 09h00.

Riders will have a second opportunity to test the course between 11h10 and 12h00 when the Sub Junior Boys will start followed by the Youth Men B at 12h40 and the Youth Men A at 13h30.  All the girls (sub junior B, youth A & B, junior) will set off at 14h15 with the Junior Men wrapping up racing at 15h00.  For more information visit www.spurmtbleague.co.za  or contact Amarider’s Michelle du Preez at 021 8844547 or michelle@amarider.co.za

League director, Meurant Botha of Amarider said that the league has been growing at a steady pace with a marked improvement in rider skills as well as a large number of first time participants, which according to him shows that the league is achieving its goals of more kids on bikes as well as competitive participation.

Follow us on Facebook at SpurSchoolsLeague, twitter #spurMTBleague and @spurMTBleague.

Third Grand Raid Title for Ariane

Grand Raid BCVS, 21 August
Verbier, Switzerland

Ariane: 1st place

The Grand Raid is one of the biggest one-day MTB races out there, attracting some of the top riders from around the world. Having won two previous efforts (2013 and 2014) Ariane Kleinhans was back in 2016 to assert herself once more on the dramatic course. The race takes competitors from Verbier to Grimentz, a 125km trek with over 5000m elevation. The weather forecast looked ominous and race day proved to be a muddy affair. Yet Ariane finished with a new record time of 7 hours and 33 minutes, improving on her previous course record (from 2013) by four minutes.

Ariane arrived at the start line in the centre of Verbier together with her friend and main rival for the day, Cornelia Hug. Pro mountain biking offers many opportunities to forge lasting friendships both on and off the bike. Ariane and Cornelia had teamed up to share race support but they also knew despite their shared planning they would be locked in a serious battle of endurance. Once the racing got underway it was every woman for herself and the focus shifted to trying to outsmart their opponent on the many climbs and descents which lay ahead.

The two Swiss riders led the Elite Women’s race for the majority of the first half of the day and looked to be an even match for each other. As they arrived at the start of the 7km climb up to Les Collons, Ariane forced the pace on Cornelia. With the long climb ahead Ariane put in a significant effort to test Cornelia’s form on the day. After a few attacks on the harsh gradient, a gap began to form between the two lead women. Maintaining this fierce pace took its toll on Ariane and she knew in the back of her mind it would make the final climbs much tougher, but her confidence spurred her on up the mountainside. Then it was up to her technical skills and descending ability to force home the gap she’d fought for. By the time she had reached Evolène at the 90km mark she had built a 7-minute lead. But the challeneg was far from over: the weather was turning sour high in the Alpine mountains above her and she still had over 30km of the steepest terrain to navigate.

Ariane rode the final half of the route knowing that the race was hers to lose. But her experience came to the fore as she paced herself on the climbs and negotiated the descents cautiously – preventing unnecessary mechanical issues or crashes. As rain began to fall, the terrain became slippery and Ariane had to remain focused on the finish line in Grimentz and her third title.

Feeling she had enough of a buffer, Ariane decided on a tyre change as this would give her more confidence with the now wet terrain. “It was a good decision because some climbs were quite slippery and with the Fast Trak Control I definitely had better traction there,” Ariane said “Also for the downhill I just felt a little bit safer.”

Ariane takes immense pride in her race planning. When racing in the high mountains of Switzerland and over varying terrain the weather is always a factor to consider, and riders need to communicate with their support crew to have extra clothing as well as equipment options. Having managed her pacing and tyre change to perfection, Ariane was able to hang onto her lead up the massive Pas de Lona climb and make it safely down the other side to cross the line in first.

Spur Sizzling Skillz: Episode 8

Trackstand

Sometimes it’s not about being the fastest! Trackstanding is an essential skill to master on the trail. It’ll help you climb and descend better when the trails get really steep. Besides, it’s impressive to watch and fun to learn this balancing technique with friends. South African Mountain Bike Champion James Reid shows you how to focus on staying in one place.

Tread MTB: A beer with James Reid

On Sunday James Reid takes on the biggest race of his career so far. In 2014, just after winning his second South African Marathon jersey, James chatted to Tread magazine about his journey, the challenges of choosing the life of a pro cyclist and what youngsters (and parents) can do to get the most out of mountain biking. Read more here.

 

 

A true Swiss battle

Grindelwald Eiger Bike Challenge, 14 August
Grindelwald, Switzerland

Ariane: 2nd place

The Swiss landscape offers stunning backdrops for mountain bikers. But the beautiful postcards also reveal an unbelievable mountainous challenge at every turn. Whether competing for the podium or riding for  enjoyment, there is no doubt the Eiger Bike Challenge made every competitor question their decision to take to the start line.

The challenging 88km route offered riders 3900m of elevation to test the legs before the welcomed finish in Ziel. “It really is crazy steep!” our team rider Ariane Kleinhans exclaimed afterwards. “I forgot how tough this race actually is… you kind of delete that in your head as soon as you’ve done the race”.

The pace was high at the start despite the intense climbing in store. Ariane’s main competitors in the Elite Women’s race, Esther Süss and Cornelia Hug, both attacked early on the first climb and managed to create a gap. Maintaining her composure, Ariane kept within her limits and used her technical descending ability on the downhill section of the second climb to close the gap back to Hug.

Around the halfway mark on the third climb up to Bort, Hug began to struggle with cramps, giving Ariane the opportunity to distance her. Süss now held around a 6-minute buffer over Ariane and despite Ariane’s efforts to close in on the leader, the early break Süss forged was enough to take the win.

Ariane accepted defeat to the day’s strongest rider graciously: “She [Süss] was in her own category today, I really didn’t have a chance against her.” Cornelia Hug came home in third, with each rider on the podium receiving the race’s traditional cowbell prize. As Ariane joked afterwards, “I’ve got quite a collection of these now. All I need is to start winning cattle to go with them.”

MTB Action at Stanford Lake College this Weekend

For the third year running, Stanford Lake College will host the “Spur Tour de Lake” – the second regional Spur Schools Mountain Bike League race of the season in Limpopo and another chance to qualify for the 2016 finals.

The Spur MTB League consists of 11 South African regions including neighbouring African countries Zimbabwe, Namibia and Lesotho who compete for a spot in the season-ending National Final in Magaliesburg in October.

Passionate coach and track builder, Tiaan Fullard has dished up a challenging track amidst the picturesque terrain. Starting at the top sports fields, the track goes down into the valley on the Northern side though the pine plantations. Down in MTB terms means single track, jumps, drop-off’s, rock gardens and river crossings, while the uphill to the finish promises to be a challenge.

The 2 lap short course for the Nippers and Sprogs is less technical, but still demanding placing the emphasis on fun and technique.  The Sub Juniors will also do a shorter course than the big guns racing the final two races.

Louis Trichardt High School is leading the log with 119 points, followed by host school Stanford Lake College in second with 79 points and Merensky High in third with 64 points.  Piet Potgieter High School and PHS Pietersburg High take up fourth and fifth spots.  Pietersburg East is lying first on the primary school log with 122 points.

Registration on Saturday opens at 07h00 and the track will be open for practice from 07h15.  The Nipper Boys will start of the day’s racing at 08h00 followed by Nipper Girls, Sprog Boys and Girls 11 and 12 years old, Sub-Junior Boys and Girls 13 and 14 years old, Youth Boys and Girls 15 and 16 years old with the Junior Boys and Girls wrapping up the day’s racing with an 11h00 and 11h05 start.  Prize giving will be at 12h30.  More info available at Limpopo Schools Cycling – MTB on Facebook.

According to league director, Meurant Botha of Amarider participation at local events has been growing at a steady pace as schools accept mountain biking as a recognized sport.  He also stated that although many kids are finding their competitive edge on their bicycles, the Spur Schools Mountain Bike League’s focus is still to encourage more kids on bikes, more schools in action.  “It is important for all children to enjoy participating whether only starting out or having participated for a couple seasons.   We also urge the regions to support local cycling development programmes and assist more kids to get out and ride,” says Botha.

For more information on the 2016 edition of the Spur Schools Mountain Bike League, visit www.spurmtbleague.co.za, or contact Amarider’s Michelle du Preez at 021 8844547 or michelle@amarider.co.za

Follow us on Facebook at SpurSchoolsLeague, twitter #spurMTBleague and @spurMTBleague.