It has been a month of hard lessons and hard-fought victories spanning both hemispheres for mountain bike stars, Ariane Kleinhans and James Reid of Team Spur.
The final local Olympic selection races had our South African XCO Champion, James battling rivals at cruel altitudes and in a variety of harsh conditions throughout April and May.
James bounced back quickly after the disappointment of failing to defend his African Continental Champion’s jersey in Lesotho in early April, where the altitude (over 3,000m) had got the better of him.
Training sensations were very positive and a solid build up to the Pietermaritzburg MTB Festival at the end of April in his hometown had him excited at the opportunity to assert himself on fellow Olympic contenders. But fierce weather scuppered that chance in under 20 minutes, as debilitating mud caused a mechanical failure and James recorded a humbling DNF without even completing Lap 1 of the UCI Hors Catégorie race! It was a bitter disappointment for James and the team as well as his many fans. Cycling South Africa had moved mountains to host the race at the old UCI World Cup venue and James barely fired up the engine.
Despite leading the Stihl SA XCO Cup Series by a healthy margin and having contributed the bulk of the UCI points that had allowed South Africa to qualify two Olympic mountain bike places, James now found himself locked in a tight battle for one of those coveted two spots in Rio.
Meanwhile, after some downtime immediately after her historic third Absa Cape Epic victory, Ariane was scoping out the UCI Marathon World Champs course in Laissac, France, and getting her mind and body ready for the big day in late June.
Her first chance to fly the Team Spur banner in Europe came at the Rothaus-Hegau Bike Marathon on 8 May. A decorated field had pitched up in the German town of Singen and Ariane was among the lead pack inside the first 10km when Great Britain’s Sally Bigham launched an attack. Bigham was familiar with the course from previous years, and timed the surge to perfection. Ariane and fellow Swiss powerhouse Esther Süss found themselves in a singletrack bottleneck, caught behind slower riders. The Swiss pair teamed up and quickly started working their way through the slower pack together. Unfortunately, Ariane flatted and then encountered a technical issue with her tube’s valve. This put her way back in the field. But she was determined to claw her way back to the pointy end, and called on all her racing experience to secure a resilient fifth place. Bigham took the honours, with Süss in second.
Back in South Africa James’s chance to race in the Olympics in August would now hinge on Round 4 of the Cup Series, held at Settlers Nature Reserve in the heart of Port Elizabeth on 14 May. The country’s top riders heaped praise on the technical nature of the world-class course – many saying it was one of the few truly international-level XCO loops in the country.
James knew he wouldn’t be given an inch by his rivals so decided to dictate the pace from the gun. In the first five minutes James piled on the pressure, with only Alan Hatherly able to respond. The talented U23 rider was tough to shake but James turned the screws when Hatherly faltered through a technical section and the elastic snapped. James steadily built his lead to well over a minute, until a crash into a backmarker on the final lap reduced the gap to Hatherly, who came in second, 55 seconds adrift.
“After Alan’s technical error I opened the taps as wide as they could go and pushed the gap,” James admitted. “Hats off to Alan, it was a pressurised race, everyone knew the stakes and I am super happy to come away with a win”
It was a good confidence booster on a number of levels. James’s Specialized S-Works Epic was flying, sure-footed through the technical obstacles and climbing like a rocket. James felt physically powerful, able to push a race-winning pace throughout. Technically, James was the only Elite Men’s rider on the podium to clear the entire race course, which included a steep and highly technical descent, without dismounting.
James’s Olympic ambitions were now in the hands of Cycling South Africa selectors, but he received the exciting news that he had been selected to represent the country at the UCI XCO World Champs in the Czech Republic in July, which immediately became the next point of focus.
Two days after the PE race James took to the skies, he was jetting off to Europe for his first round of the 2016 UCI XCO World Cup series. He was accompanied by Team Spur mechanic JP Jacobs, and the pair were met in Zurich by Ariane. The three headed off to Albstadt to the Squirtlube athlete house to prepare for their first UCI XCO Cup of the 2016 season.
Albstadt was a rude welcome to the high-intensity demands of World Cup racing. Ariane lapped consistently to a solid 53rd but found passing on the tight track extremely tough. James had a string of mechanical issues after being rear-ended by another rider that erased his powerful start. He ended up being lapped while in 88th position.
Then it was onto the most recent round of the UCI XCO World Cup in the pristine French town of La Bresse on Sunday, 29 May. Both Ariane and James had a point to prove after tough racing in Albstadt. With showers predicted for race weekend, and an incredibly challenging course, the team moved into town early in the week and set about familiarising themselves with the 4.3km test of lung capacity, climbing power and handling skills. JP had his work cut out for him, keeping the bikes rolling smoothly despite the muddy build-up from each practice lap.
Although race day dawned with pleasant, if overcast, conditions, overnight rain made for some very sketchy sections. Many of the world’s top pro riders came unstuck on the rocky and slippery descents, and knee-deep ruts were quickly carved into the fastest racing lines. This had a capacity French crowd chanting at riders all day. The atmosphere was charged with frenetic energy – from the racers as much as the vociferous fans on the sidelines.
Ariane started at 11.20am in 52nd position on the grid. She had opted for her lightweight S-Works Fate hardtail, and was hot out the start gate as a result. She was in a decent position for the first technical climb as the race strung out. Up front it was her countrywoman Jolanda Neff who, despite crashing heavily and flatting on the final lap, put on a masterclass of technical riding to claim first place. Ariane decided to play it considerably safer on the slick course with two critical marathon title races looming on the horizon.
“It rained during the night on Saturday. Certain sections were very slick,” Ariane said. “I struggled a bit with it and decided to ride cautiously. I had a really good start but just wasn’t good enough in the technical stuff and got pulled back by other riders. It wasn’t my best result. But I’m learning and figuring this thing out and I’ll get better – we just have to try again.”
Ariane had high expectations for her two World Cup ventures and was disappointed with the outcome. Yet the learning from the high-intensity bar-to-bar racing will stand her in good stead for her Swiss and World XCM Championships next month.
James had a mental mountain to climb after his underwhelming 88th finish in Germany. Although he could take some solace from the fact that it was mechanical bad luck that had pushed him way down the results list, he knew the French race would be brutal as a scrum of highly motivated European athletes were gunning for Olympic selection. A long Olympic qualification period for James in South Africa prior to Europe was starting to take its toll, and he would be asking increasingly tired legs to perform one last time before a scheduled break…
Starting in 41st position James dropped the hammer with a seething mass of 133 riders. The pace through the sleepy town of La Bresse was electrifying as the peloton hit the first bottleneck climb. As with Albstadt, James had a strong start and jumped from 41st on the grid to 34th in the first lap despite being held up in the manic traffic. The plan was to control his effort though the intensity of the first lap, keeping it steady rather that burning all his matches early on. James kept to the plan for the most part, passing riders who let the buzz of La Bresse get the better of them.
“I just had to start conservatively up the climb so as to not burn my cards early on,” James said. “I ended up coming through the start lap in 32nd but was still running a little hot. I lost a few places on the second lap where the cards settled themselves and then just plugged away at it consistently .”
It was a consistent performance, and James is happy, if not ecstatic, with his 40th place. Importantly, it was a technical and mechanical trial that James and his S-Works Epic passed with flying colours. No crashes and no flats!
The first tests of Team Spur’s European tour are over and Ariane and James have acquitted themselves well. Plenty to learn from as the pieces of the high-performance puzzle come together neatly.
Ariane now switches to marathon-mode for a fun jaunt with James at the famous Elsabike Trophy on 12 June in Estavayer-le-Lac in Switzerland, followed by the Swiss XCM Champs on 19 June in Evolène and a (short) week thereafter the UCI XCM World Champs in Laissac, France.
James has plenty of time to get the legs fresh again with his next big performance the UCI XCO World Champs in Nové Město na Moravě in the Czech Republic on 3 July, followed by Round 4 of the UCI XCO World Cup in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.