Second Overall for Team Spur-Wallonie at Perskindol Swiss Epic

Ariane Lüthi and Alice Pirard won the final stage of the Perskindol Swiss Epic on Saturday, 16 September to finish second overall on GC in the women’s category. “What a great week of racing!” commented an ecstatic Ariane after the finish of the 45km final loop around Zermatt, which included some 1900m of climbing. The Team Spur-Wallonie pair finished in 3 hours and 24 minutes, six minutes ahead of the Meerendal CBC outfit of Jennie Stenerhag and Esther Süss who did enough to win the overall.
“It was tight racing and a good fight throughout,” Ariane said. “Congrats to Esther and Jennie for the win though – what a successful year they’ve had, winning the Absa Cape Epic and various other stage races.”

“We’re just happy to have challenged them as much as we could,” she said.

The final stage was a continuation of the theme from throughout the week’s racing: Ariane and Alice dominated on the descents and over technical terrain, while Meerendal CBC owned the climbs and tempo flat sections.

“Today we could get away and stay away, however,” Ariane said. “The first climb was really steep towards the end and went to almost 2600m altitude,” she explained. Meerendal managed to get a two-minute cushion on Team Spur-Wallonie on the climb, but the descent down the other side was technical and they took full advantage.

“We caught Jennie and Ester really soon [after the climb]. We managed to drop them and continued to increase our gap to two minutes at the bottom of the last climb. From there we stayed ahead of them before the last downhill which was a huge success for us. It was the first time all week we could stay away on the climb.”

“We knew if nothing happened to them they would win the race, but we still raced flat-out to the finish, so we were super happy to take the stage win.”

Aside from the win on Saturday’s fifth and final stage, Team Spur-Wallonie also won the Prologue over 19km in convincing fashion and took charge of the weather affected Stage 3 for a total of three stage wins. The third stage served up a wet and muddy day and race organisers were forced to shorten the stage due to severe rains forecast, the already short stage was cut to just 42km with 1700m of climbing.

As on the final stage, they made their move here on the final descent and kept the pressure on through the last flat section and finished 24 seconds ahead of Süss and Stenerhag. On every other stage Meerendal-CBC crossed first with Ariane and Alice in second. But even those second places were not gifted.

The week served up its share of challenges for the pair too, including a double puncture on Stage 1, but throughout they endeavoured to manage their losses and stay positive, while having a good time on the beautiful trails. “Alice was a great teammate and we had so much fun together,” Ariane said.

Gruelling weekend of racing for Team Spur

Marathon specialist Ariane Lüthi was up first in the Swiss National Marathon Championship.

Run over 137 kilometres with some 4000 metres of climbing it was always going to be a tough day in the saddle. Ariane went into the race in arguably her best form of the year and was feeling strong right from the gun. “Esther (Süss) was the clear favourite,” says Ariane, “having beaten me by something like 20 minutes in the previous marathon race, the Eiger Bike Challenge, 2 weeks ago, I knew I had to stick to her wheel.”

As expected, Süss attacked on the first climb, shortly after the start. “I managed to follow her and felt good up the first 1000 metres.” Ariane managed to get ahead and squeeze a small gap on the descent and, ironically, this would be her undoing on the day.

“When I got the gap I put my head down and really went for it,” she explains. “But, I went for it a little too hard and actually missed a turn on that downhill and just kept on riding on the main road without looking back.” It was only when she got all the way down the mountain that she realised she must’ve gone wrong. This meant she had to climb back up, which added an extra 300 metres of ascent and turned her day into 144 kms.

At this point it would’ve been easy to throw in the towel and call it a day. However, Ariane knew that in such a long race anything can happen, so she knuckled down and buried herself to race as hard as possible. “I made up a good few places, but was never really sure where in the field I was. At the end, the third placed rider was apparently less than a minute away, but I didn’t know because I never saw the her on course. So that was a little bit difficult to take because bronze was actually still up for grabs.”

After a gruelling day out, she eventually finished 6th overall (there were two Austrian riders in the field) and 4th in the Swiss Champs. While she obviously wasn’t happy with the result, she was satisfied in her efforts after the navigation error. “It is what it is, a silly mistake cost me, but I gave it my all.”

On Sunday it was the turn of XCO hotshot, Alan Hatherly. Alan lined up for the final World Cup of the 2017 season at Val di Sole in Italy. “We had some overnight rain and I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to effect the course,” Alan picks up the story. “The U23 women raced in the morning so that didn’t really allow us an opportunity to have a look at the course beforehand. You could judge by their bikes that it wasn’t that wet, though.”

“I felt really good from the start and, while the course was slightly wet, it was nothing worth worrying about.”

According to Alan the start was once again super fast, with that pace being sustained for nearly the first two laps. “The course didn’t suit me as much as I thought it would,” he explains. “The back half was really flat and I’ve been working a lot on my climbing speed so on the extended flats I struggled. I also ended up riding solo in-between the bunches on these flat sections which sort of didn’t play to my favour,” he says. Adding that the course was brutal because you had to be on the power all the way round.

“Very different to the other world cups where you could go maximal up the climbs and recover on the descents and then sort of repeat, this was sub-maximal for the whole way round.”

With about two laps to go the pace became too much and he had to drop back from around 10th to 15th and regain a rhythm. He worked steadily there and that was the position he finished in. “It’s obviously not where I wanted to be, but I spoke to John Wakefield, my coach, and we were happy with how it went, with the big goal being the UCI MTB World Championships in Cairns, Australia on 4-11 September’. This gives us some time to build up and nail World Champs.”

Alan’s goal for the World Cup series was to podium in the overall results. After Italy he managed to move up a few slots and ended up fifth in the U23 World Series. “This is my best overall World Cup series result, so I’m stoked with that and ready to take it forwards to World Champs.”

Although Alan finished fifth overall in the UCI MTB World Cup Series, his stellar performances at the African Continental MTB Champs, the South African XCO Nationals and his consistent showing at the UCI MTB World Cups, Alan is the highest ranked U23 rider. With this, Alan will line up at World Champs with the #1 board for his U23 race on Friday 8 September.

Emphatic SA Cup Series hat-trick for Alan Hatherly

(Pietermaritzburg) Team Spur’s Alan Hatherly is the undisputed king of XCO racing in SA. The young Olympian claimed his third victory on the trot for the season as he won the fourth round of the SA XCO MTB Cup Series in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, on Saturday.

Despite still being eligible to race in the U23 category for another year, his start-to-finish win on the demanding Cascades track sealed the 2017 SA XCO Cup Elite Men’s title, his third in as many years.

“The race went really well,” said the 21-year-old who recently returned from a successful European campaign. “I managed to get the hole shot from the start and pretty much lead from there all the way through to the end.”

According to Hatherly he was preparing for a ding-dong battle with Pyga-Euro Steel’s front-man Philip Buys. But Buys suffered a pinch flat in the first lap, effectively taking him out of the hunt for a win.

“From there I was pretty much racing myself,” Hatherly says. “I managed to go through the first lap, with roughly a 20-second gap and managed to extend it by about that much on each lap.”

While the win and hat-trick of SA Cup overall series titles satisfied Hatherly, it is where his form and preparation is for his second block of European racing which made him really happy.

“My form is really good,” he says. “I struggled with a bit of illness after I got back from the first block of European racing so I didn’t manage to get quite what I wanted from that first week back (in terms of training) but I did manage to get a lot of volume and strength work in leading up to this event,” he says, explaining how he felt it on the day. “I definitely wasn’t as sharp and fast as I would’ve liked to have been, but in a way that is good. I’d rather do some crazy speed work this week and then taper nicely for the next block of World Cup races.”

Hatherly leaves for Europe on 25 June as he heads into the Andorra and Lenzerheide legs of the UCI XCO MTB World Cup series, before returning to South Africa in July to support the Spur Schools Mountain Bike League and compete for the national jersey at the South African Championships.

Team Spur’s XCO wizard talks us through his steed.

Alan Hatherly recently took out the second round of the 2017 SA National MTB Cup Series XCO at the Wolwespruit Bike Park in Tshwane in fine style.

On the eve of round three – which takes place in Bloemfontein on 6 May – we quizzed Alan and Team Spur’s technical manager, JP Jacobs, on the S-Works Epic 29 World Cup.

Suspension setup

“Suspension would be the key factor for me with regards to bike setup,” explains Alan. “I run my fork harder than my rear shock with the rebounds being fast upfront and slow at the rear,” he says.

Alan runs the bike’s Brain platform in the fork and shock fully activated. According to Specialized the Brain suspension differentiates between rider input and trail bumps, ensuring that pedalling forces aren’t being wasted in compressing the suspension. “This combo gives me the ability as a complete package to smash everything full tilt both up and down without feeling like I’m going to go OTB (over the bars).”

Tyres

“Next big factor for me would be tyres – I’m running the new Renegade Gripton series tyres which have a really soft compound meaning I can run slightly harder tyre pressures without loosing traction which equates to lower chances of punctures.”

Rotor crank

Drivetrain

Alan runs 12-speed SRAM Eagle with Rotor cranks. “I’m able to run a Rotor 36t front ring with this drivetrain, whichs allows for major top end speed without comprising the easier gears for steep climbs.”

Race ready

JP Jacobs is the man who spins the wrenches to make sure Alan transfers every Watt of power into bike speed. For an XCO race he has a few tricks up his sleeve to get the bike running as light and smooth as possible.

“We start by removing all the moving components off the bike – I’m talking wheels, pulley wheels, anything that has a bearing in would get taken out,” JP explains. “These get cleaned out completely. We then might even remove one or two seals depending on the weather.”

JP also applies a special lube to the bearings that will either make them spin super fast or run at a lower resistance.

SRAM Eagle

To shave weight, he removes, the second bottle cage, the multitool under the rear shock as well as the chain breaker gets taken out of the fork. “Fork service gets done to make them run as smooth and efficient as possible so every bit of energy is transferred to the pedals,” he says.

“We are  running Rotor cranks this year, which gives us very nice feedback from the computer and we can see exactly where he peaks in his pedal strokes and we can fit the correct size chainring for the particular course and terrain.”I also add some jewelry in the form of Titanium bolts on the rotors, stem and calipers just for race days” JP Jacobs

After the third round of the National Cup Series in Bloemfontein, Alan and JP head off to the island of Mauritius for the African Continental Championships. Thereafter they will jet off to Europe  for the UCI MTB World Cups in the Czech Republic and Germany.

Hatherly, Strauss dominate at the spruit

Hatherly (Team Spur) commanded his race over six laps of the short and punchy four-kilometre track in a time of one hour 22 minutes and 54 seconds, winning the Elite Men race by less than a minute over Philip Buys (Team PYGA Eurosteel) in 01:23:38, with Matthys Beukes (Team PYGA Eurosteel) finishing third in 01:25:21.

Speaking about his race, Hatherly said: “When racing at altitude, you always have to play it smart tactically. If you start too hard, you will pay the price at the end.”
Mariske Strauss (OMX Pro Team) surged ahead in complete control, posting the fastest laps in each of her five laps and claiming her victory in a time of 01:27:15 at the second round of the 2017 SA National MTB Cup Series XCO at the Wolwespruit Bike Park in Tshwane on Saturday 15 April 2017

Hatherly completed the first lap in Buys’ wake. “I was sussing out the first lap and playing it safe. I felt good, but Phil seemed to play tactically and was trying to get Matthys to link with us. That wouldn’t have worked to my favour so I pushed off on the first main climb of the lap and rolled off and settled into my own pace.”

The Rio Olympian’s attack placed a suitable gap between himself and Buys, which he managed to maintain throughout the remaining laps. “I gapped it and kept the pace up, and kept the gap up, attacking every descent and finding the flow. On the whole it was a good race.”

Hatherly’s next race is the third round of the National Cup Series in Bloemfontein on 6 May, before he heads off to the island of Mauritius for the African Continental Championships. Thereafter he returns home briefly before jetting off to Europe on 14 May for the UCI MTB World Cups in the Czech Republic and Germany.

The Elite Women’s race saw a battle for podium positions between Ariane Luthi (Team Spur), Frankie du Toit (Absolute Motion) and Bianca Haw (Red Bull) as race winner Strauss (OMX Pro Team) surged ahead in complete control, posting the fastest laps in each of her five laps and claiming her victory in a time of 01:27:15. Luthi was the second rider home in 01:33:30, with Du Toit rounding out the podium in a time of 01:35:07.

The current National Champion said: “My race went smoothly – I have to admit I was a tiny bit nervous as I wasn’t sure how my legs would perform. My game plan was to gradually open the valves and that seemed to have worked for me.”
Ariane Luthi (Team Spur) navigates her way to second place at the second round of the 2017 SA National MTB Cup Series XCO at the Wolwespruit Bike Park in Tshwane on Saturday 15 April 2017

Strauss adopted the approach of trying to chase the men’s lap times, in a racing format where every category races on the exact same course (apart from the Nippers and Sprogs on a shortened course). It showed in her lap times, which were in the 17 and even 16 minute bracket.

“I am happy with how it went,” she said. “Now to pack again as I prepare to set off for the Swiss Cup next week.”

The Junior Men raced four laps, with Pieter du Toit claiming victory in a time of 01:00:36. Ryan Conradie and Mulder Oosthuizen’s tight battle ensued until the very end, with the former taking second place in 01:02:43 and Oosthuizen third, five seconds behind.

The Elite Men’s podium from left: Jan Withaar, Philip Buys (PYGA Eurosteel), Alan Hatherly (Team Spur), Matthys Beukes (PYGA Eurosteel), Stuart Marais at the second round of the 2017 SA National MTB Cup Series XCO at the Wolwespruit Bike Park in Tshwane on Saturday 15 April 2017

Fresh from her recent European campaign, Tiffany Keep kept a one-minute buffer between herself and second placed Danielle Strydom to take the victory in the Junior Women’s race in 00:56:35. Azulde Britz rounded out the podium in 01:00:28.
Philip Buys (PYGA Eurosteel) gets some air over the jump section at the second round of the 2017 SA National MTB Cup Series XCO at the Wolwespruit Bike Park in Tshwane on Saturday 15 April 2017

Luke Moir, who has also recently competed in Europe, managed to keep Jamie Penfold at bay to secure his victory in 00:48:54 in the Youth Men’s race, with Penfold taking second place five seconds behind in the three-lap battle. Daniel van der Walt finished in third place, only one second behind Penfold. Also competing over three laps, the Youth Women’s race saw Zandri Strydom take victory in 00:57:24. Christelle Coetzer finished in second place in a time of 01:05:55, while Andrea De Waal finished in third place (01:07:16).

All Systems GO for Absa Cape Epic

It’s the classic case of ‘all hands on deck’ ahead of the world’s premier mountain bike stage race.

“We’re in for a tight battle,” commented Ariane Lüthi ahead of Sunday’s start of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic. “This is the strongest field I’ve ever faced in the women’s category. I know I say it every year, but this year I believe it more than ever.”

According to Ariane, the biggest challenge is likely to come from the new Team Ascendis Health pairing of Robyn de Groot and Sabine Spitz, as well as Team Meerendal CBC – Esther Süss and Jennie Stenerhag.

“Then there is Mariske (Strauss) and Annie Last, as well as Candice (Lill) and Vera (Adrian). Candice rode well in the Tour of Good Hope and I’ve never seen her this strong,” she said.

“One can never say how it’s going to play out because it’s such an unpredictable race, but there are three or four teams in with a very good chance.”

As defending champion Ariane and new partner Adelheid Morath will set off at 10:35:25, as the last women’s team on Sunday’s prologue at Meerendal Wine Estate. It is often said that the race cannot be won on the prologue’s serpentine 26km route (with some 750m of climbing) but it can easily be lost on its dusty trails.

ariane

Knowing a fierce challenge lies ahead, from both the unforgiving terrain and the world-class competition, Ariane and Adelheid are confident and excited to start the battle.

“Adelheid is a super accomplished athlete and has prepared so much harder than for last year’s race (where she finished third overall with Sally Bigham),” Ariane said. “We had our last big training ride on Tuesday and I was amazed at how fast she was climbing.”

“We’ve also focused a lot on our teamwork the last few weeks – getting to know each other and building that trust is crucial for this race.”

“I feel very good after the Tour of Good Hope (a five-day road stage race held recently). It was good for my condition and form,” Ariane said. “It gave me a lot of confidence. I’ve definitely improved from last year, both strength and endurance wise. Also, I’ve worked a lot on my technical skills with Jo Dobinson of Biking in the Bosch.”

A first in the women’s race this year is the addition of a true back-up team, with Alice Pirard and Sabrina Enaux riding under the banner of Team Spur Foundation. Alice and Sabrina will ride in support of Ariane and Adelheid, but also to raise awareness for Spur Foundation’s charity, the Full Tummy Fund. “I’m really excited that it worked out,” Ariane said. “It’s an experiment, but for me it was about giving a second team a chance to benefit from our setup and getting two strong athletes to the event to help grow the depth of the women’s racing. We are also privileged to be able to draw attention to the amazing work of the Full Tummy Fund in this area.”

Alice and Sabrina set off at 10:19:35 on Sunday.

According to Team Spur boss Nic Lamond, who is riding his 10th Absa Cape Epic in 2017, and, alongside brother Simon, is gunning for a Masters GC podium, the 2017 route is likely to once again favour “the more technically-accomplished all-rounders.”

“The Epic is not a slog fest anymore, where the biggest engine wins,” he says. “Using the region’s more exciting technical terrain means teams need to know their strengths and exploit them. This rewards mountain bikers who do their homework and build on all their skills. Of course, this has been true for the past few years, but is definitely different from, say, five years ago. I’m incredibly proud of the entire Team Spur’s preparation and focus.”

The 2017 route will take riders through 691km of the Western Cape with some 15 400m of accumulated climbing over the eight days.

After the prologue it is on to Hermanus, for the 101km opening stage on Monday 20 March. Stage 2 sees riders heading inland to Greyton for two nights, with Stage 3 starting and finishing in the quaint town.

Stage 4 is another transition day, as the travelling circus moves on to Oak Valley Wine Estate. Stage 5 takes riders on a circular route around the Grabouw/Elgin area as does Saturday’s Queen Stage over 103km with some 2 750m of elevation gain.

Stage 7 will finish at the new Grand Finale venue, Val de Vie Estate near Paarl.

Catch all Sunday’s racing live on SuperSport and cape-epic.com. The Grand Finale – the final stage on Sunday, March 26 will be live from 9.30am to 1.30pm.

In addition, this year will see more live race coverage than ever before. Stages 1, 2, 4 and 6 will be live streamed from 9am to 12.20pm on cape-epic.com and Stages 3 and 5 from 8am to 11.20am.

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Alan Hatherly Signed to Team Spur for 2017

Team Spur, South Africa’s most progressive mountain bike team, has added Rio Olympian, Alan Hatherly, to its line-up for 2017. The 20-year-old finished a respectable 26th at the Olympic Games in Rio earlier this year, confirming a bright future as a cross-country (XCO) racer.

With Team Spur’s backing, the reigning Under-23 African XCO champion will continue to focus on the XCO discipline in 2017, with a number of high profile European races on his schedule, including selected World Cups.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to be racing for Team Spur next year. The people involved are very athlete-focussed and the results they achieved this year are testament to that, with James winning SA Champs and qualifying for the Olympics and Ariane winning the Swiss Champs, getting into XCO and winning the Cape Epic,” said Hatherly.

“My short term goals are to win SA Champs and finish top five at World Champs in 2017, but my longer term goal is getting a medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia. Team Spur are fully behind me and have ensured I get to do to a lot of European-based racing next year,” added Hatherly, who recently moved from his home province of KwaZulu-Natal to Cape Town.

“We are very excited to be working closely with Alan next season. He is a fierce young talent who will make a fantastic ambassador to the Spur Schools Mountain Bike League,” said Nic Lamond, Team Spur Director.

“No doubt he will grow under guidance of Ariane Lüthi and our expert staff in full support. With our sponsors, Spur and Specialized, we look forward to exposing Alan to a level of professionalism and world-class competition he has yet to experience,” added Lamond.

“I’m excited to start working with Alan. I think he has amazing talent – what it takes to become a very special athlete. He has already been to the Olympics so I can’t wait to see what he will do in another four years after more training and experience,” said Lüthi.

“I have travelled with Alan in Europe before and know how professional his approach is. I’m excited to be part of his journey on Team Spur,” added Lüthi.

James Reid, the current South African XCO champion, will not be racing with Team Spur in 2017. He has chosen to take a break from full-time racing to focus on his studies.

The full-time team 2017 line up is: Ariane Lüthi (rider), Alan Hatherly (rider), JP Jacobs (mechanic), Tim Bassingthwaighte (manager), Nic Lamond (director).

Ariane and James gear up for World Champs battles

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.

James’s Long and Winding Road (to Rio!)

Whoa! Before you go quietly into a(nother) long weekend of beers and braais we thought you should know what’s happening with Team Spur’s James Reid tomorrow. Truth is, if you’re a local mountain biker with dreams of wearing South African colours at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August, this is not a relaxing long weekend. In fact, you’re probably not getting much sleep tonight.

At 2pm tomorrow (Saturday, 30 April) the bell rings for the start of the penultimate round of what has been a year-long brawl for Olympic selection. Appropriately, the fight takes place at Cascades MTB Park in Pietermaritzburg, a world-class venue famous for hosting the 2013 UCI MTB World Championships and a number of UCI World Cups. Although the Pietermaritzburg MTB Festival taking place this weekend is a Cycling South Africa sanctioned event, it is not part of the Stihl SA XCO Cup Series.

However, it is a UCI HC (Hors Categorie) event, carrying plenty of valuable UCI points. More importantly, it is one of the last chances South African mountain bikers get to impress our Olympic selectors. Essentially it’s do-or-die for any Olympic hopefuls. The team will be chosen after Round 4 of the SA XCO Cup in Port Elizabeth on 14 May.

In the heavyweight category (UCI Pro Elite Men) our James Reid is locked in a tight three-way tussle for (what will hopefully be) two spots to Rio. It’s a long and complex algorithm that has James, veteran Phil Buys and youngster Alan Hatherly pitted against each other. All you need to know is it boils down to tomorrow’s XCO event in Pietermaritzburg with one last-ditch chance in PE in mid-May.

With so much to race for the tension is already palpable and race day will feature no-holds-barred action of the highest quality over five laps of the punchy 5.4km route. The technical course will suit James’s explosive riding style and although he now trains in Stellenbosch, he can claim a hometown advantage as he was raised on the loamy Pietermaritzburg trails.

James holds a strong position in the eyes of selectors, with his 2015 Elite South African XCO title and two wins from three rounds at the 2016 SA XCO Cup Series. Unfortunately, he relinquished his 2015 Elite African Continental Championship title to rival Phil Buys in Lesotho in early April, falling victim to a late crash and the negative effects of racing at altitude (the African Continental Championships was hosted at a staggering 3000m).

So, if you want a ringside seat for all the action tomorrow, head to www.streamit360.tv at 2pm.

C’mon, James!

 

An Epic Retrospective

Mountain-bike racing is very much like life – you have good days and bad days. To be happy, you have to know how to deal with the bad ones. In bike racing, it’s easy to handle a good day, because it’s all smiles, high fives and hugs, the true test however is how you manage the bad days.

Now that the dust has settled on one of the most exciting women’s races in Absa Cape Epic history, Team Spur-Specialized’s Ariane Kleinhans reflects on what was a far tougher race for her than most know. In fact, it very nearly ended after Stage 1 in Tulbagh.

Broken

“Crossing the finish line after Stage 1 I just didn’t know how I was going to manage another six days like that,” Kleinhans says, explaining how on the longest stage of the 2016 race – a 108km loop around the Tulbagh Valley from Saronsberg Wine Estate – she and partner Annika Langvad got away early and were working hard to claim back the women’s orange jersey Team Ascendis Health had won on the Prologue. “Then a little crash happened, I kind of felt that my brakes weren’t working as well as before but I didn’t think about it too much and just tried to get on with it and get to the finish,” she says.

Langvad tried to keep the pace up to cross the finish with a good time buffer, but Kleinhans simply couldn’t hold her wheel, something that was hugely frustrating for both. “Annika was just riding away from me and I could feel she was also frustrated because she couldn’t understand how I could be so slow, even on the flat sections,” she says.

“It was absolutely horrible, I tried my hardest and then when Jennie [Stenerhag] and Robyn [de Groot] caught us with 2km to go it was like a hammer in my head. We were leading the whole way. The entire stage… How could I be so useless?”

Photo by JB Badenhorst/Specialized

A dejected Ariane Kleinhans at the finish line of Stage 1 of the 2016 Absa Cape Epic. Saronsberg Wine Estate, Tulbagh, South Africa. 14 March 2016
Photo by JB Badenhorst/Specialized

Prelude to a Breakdown

Kleinhans took the defeat as confirmation that her build-up had not been what it should’ve been, that she had not done enough. “It was like: you’re not going to win this race,” she says of the demons in her head.

If the physical part was tough for her to deal with, the mental aspect was nearly impossible. It was a symptom of a trying, emotional time for Ariane during the crucial training months leading up to the Epic. Ariane was wrestling with a painful divorce from her pro mountain biker husband Erik Kleinhans.

“In December and January I really struggled with motivation,” she says. “Something which is really hard to admit, because it’s a privilege to do what I do. You know, you feel like you should be happy and enjoy it, but I just struggled with myself. I was depressed for a long time there and just a normal day was quite difficult to manage sometimes. Despite the ups and downs, I knew I just had to do the training, so I got it done and never missed an important training session,” Kleinhans says.

“I just wanted to train alone and be by myself because I always compare myself to others and feel bad if I can’t keep up and that puts me down,” she says, admitting that she’d often be crying on the bike.

In later February – a crucial stage in her build-up to the Epic – there were two big hiccups. “I couldn’t do Tankwa because of a fever,” Kleinhans says. “That was quite a knock mentally because part of Tankwa went through the [Cape Epic] route… and all that sand and stuff… it would’ve been good just getting into stage race mode again. So missing out on that was quite difficult,” she says.

A week later Kleinhans finished second behind Robyn de Groot at the Ashburton Investments National MTB Series event at Sabie, a race she’d won for the previous three years and had always used as a gauge of her fitness. By her exceptionally high standards, she took the loss as further confirmation that her form was poor. “It was a really hard day for me,” Kleinhans wrote on her Facebook page after the race. “I was suffering horribly trying to chase her down and was only left with disappointment after crossing the line. Coming second is just not good enough for me at this race. It hurt.”

There was another factor at play that Ariane didn’t properly examine at the time, as she was locked in her own self-doubt. Both Robyn de Groot and her Acendis Health teammate Jennie Stenerhag had done the hard work to reach Ariane’s level, and even surpass it. In 2016 the South African women’s marathon race scene was transformed into a genuine world-class showdown.

Perspective

“Something really helped me to not spiral into the dark hole of depression that time,” she says. That something, was adoring fan little Emma Charlotteaux. “With Team Spur we planned a question and answer session for the kids at the race venue on Sunday, the day after the race. As ambassadors for the Spur School Mountain Bike League, our team is trying to inspire kids and young adults to follow their own passion and motivate them to live an active healthy lifestyle,” she says.

Emma came up to Ariane at the Q&A and asked how she could be like her. “It’s very humbling that people would find me inspiring. Kids like Emma make you want to be a better person, it took me back to when I was a swimming coach [in Switzerland]. They really copy you if you are a role model for them, they look at what you are doing and then do the same,” she says.

“It was challenging for me because I was suffering in my heart a lot. Obviously then you get frustrated and you appear grumpy and it is difficult to be nice and be a good person. But when you think of those kids who look up to you, you get some perspective.”

If the serendipitous meeting with Emma had been the mental catalyst she needed to kick into Epic race mode, then the arrival of Ariane’s Team Spur Specialized partner Annika served as the physical bullet. The pair teamed up at the five-day Tour of Good Hope road race in early March.

“To really go into the hurt zone and to know that I can still do it, I would have never trained that hard on my own – [former British road champion] Sharon Laws pushed us really hard and that was good,” she says, reflecting on her third place overall. “It was very good racing it with Annika because she is kind of the benchmark. Although I couldn’t keep up with her, I knew I was feeling strong and ready to race the Epic and that did a lot for my confidence.”

That self-confidence all but evaporated at the Stage 1 finish line in Saronsberg, until Team Spur mechanic JP Jacobs examined her Specialized S-Works Era.

Bouncing back

“After the stage, we first had interviews and press to do, I didn’t know about the brakes until much later.” Ariane’s support team rallied around her when she crawled across the line. Team Spur soigneur Brent Botha and Specialized team manager Kandice Venter wiped away the tears and dirt etched into her face and readied her for the podium presentation. Ariane was broken and it was a tense 15 minutes just getting her ready to receive the bouquet for their second-place finish.

Photo by JB Badenhorst/Specialized

Slipping through her fingers. Ariane Kleinhans at the finish line of Stage 1.
Photo by JB Badenhorst/Specialized

JP had picked up the problem in the wash bay, hosing Ariane’s bike down: a high-pressure washer applied directly to the rear wheel wouldn’t turn it. When Ariane had crashed roughly 15km from the end of Stage 1 she had bent her rear disc brake rotor, effectively jamming her brakes for the remainder of the stage.

It was an insignificant crash, something that happens countless times over eight days of challenging terrain. In her rush to get moving again Ariane didn’t check the rear wheel was spinning freely, and in her end-of-stage fatigue she just assumed her legs had given up. Ariane had been dishing out huge power just to keep her bike upright and edging along on Annika’s wheel…

Photo by JB Badenhorst/Specialized

Ariane’s bent rotor at the finish line of Stage 1.
Photo by JB Badenhorst/Specialized

“When JP showed me how bad it was, I thought, okay, it’s not your training and preparation, you still have something in the legs,” she says. The feeling of dread was starting to lift.

The following day Kleinhans and Langvad won the women’s category of the 100th stage of the Absa Cape Epic. And they did it in fine style. Playing a classic tactical game, the pair bided their time in third place behind Team Sport for Good’s Sabine Spitz and Yana Belomoina and Sally Bigham and Adel Morath of Team Topeak Ergon for much of the stage as it explored the rugged Witzenberg Valley. They were closely marking erstwhile race leaders, Team Ascendis Health. Then, on the final steep and technical singletrack descent back into the Tulbagh Valley, they let rip. Ariane led a wild charge down the mountainside and caught both Sport for Good and, towards the bottom, Topeak Ergon. They dispatched Bigham and Morath on the flat run into the finish line and turned their 58-second deficit to Ascendis Health into a three-minute, 17-second lead.

Photo by Gary Perkin/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Bouncing back: Annika Langvad and Ariane Kleinhans of Team Spur-Specialized win stage 2 of the 2016 Absa Cape Epic at Saronsberg Wine Estate in Tulbagh, South Africa. 15 March 2016
Photo by Gary Perkin/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

The Stage 2 win saw them slip into the women’s orange jersey. “I had a lot of doubt in the build-up,” Ariane admits. “It came in waves – sometimes they were huge and I felt like I couldn’t even do a two-hour training ride. But Tour of Good Hope helped with confidence and I got more positive then. So in the week leading up to the Epic and round about the press conference I started getting that feeling again, you know, we had done it the past two years so maybe we could do it again,” she says.

“After the Prologue and Stage 1 that feeling was gone… so to win Stage 2 was really special, it was the turning point.” The win ultimately set up an emotional third straight overall victory when the world’s most prestigious stage race finished at Meerendal Wine Estate some five days later.

Yet the racing was far from over and Team Spur-Specialized had to cross swords with the powerful and highly-motivated Ascendis Health as well as Topeak Ergon and the late-charging Sport for Good. The new separate start batch for women had transformed the battle for supremacy and the honour of wearing the orange jersey. The stages were fought at close quarters and the margins were tight. It was undoubtedly the most exciting women’s racing ever at the Cape Epic.

Photo by Sam Clark/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

The ladies bunch charges up an early climb outside Saronsberg Wine Estate in Tulbagh. 16 March 2016
Photo by Sam Clark/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Stage 3 saw a monumental battle with the top three women’s teams hitting the final singletrack together and arriving at the finish line in Wellington within just over a minute of each other. Sadly it also saw the sudden withdrawal of form team Ascendis Health’s Jennie Stenerhag, with heart complications on the finish line.

“Stage 3 was another long one. We were hanging with Topeak all the way and that’s when I knew it was possible to take the overall, but that it would be a fierce fight toward the end,” she says.

“I was very sad to hear of Jennie’s withdrawal. Robyn and Jennie are up there. South African racing is tough. I hope people appreciate that you have to be world-class to race with Yana and Sabine. It would have been very interesting to take on Ascendis all week.”

Pushed to the Line

Ariane and Annika claimed Stage 3 and 4, before veteran German multiple World Champion Sabine Spitz and Ukrainian U23 World Champ Yana Belomoina took the race by the scruff of the neck and won the final three stages.

“I didn’t quite expect Sabine and Yana to come so strong towards the end. I thought our battle would be with Ascendis and then Topeak, but there were a few surprises and we were racing all the way to Meerendal!”

Photo by Sam Clark/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

The ladies peloton during the final stage (stage 7) of the 2016 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race from Boschendal in Stellenbosch to Meerendal Wine Estate in Durbanville, South Africa on 20 March 2016
Photo by Sam Clark/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

According to Kleinhans, her and Langvad kept having to change their mindset and were forced to adjust their race strategy every stage. “That made the racing really interesting,” she says. “By the last two days I thought I could pull through in a relatively okay time. Maybe I wasn’t strong enough for a stage victory anymore but I knew we could hang in there and not lose too much time,” she says.

Kleinhans believes it was her and Langvad’s race experience and teamwork which were the deciding factors in the overall win. That, and Langvad’s sheer strength. “Annika was an absolute champ! She was by far the strongest woman in the field,” says Kleinhans. “Through all eight days she was always thinking how she could improve and help me – where she could push me and pull me or just let me slipstream. She kept encouraging me. The entire time she was just trying to figure out how she can make me a little bit faster.”

Photo by Sam Clark/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Annika Langvad and Ariane Kleinhans being congratulated after the final stage (stage 7) of the 2016 Absa Cape Epic. The stage took riders from Boschendal in Stellenbosch to Meerendal Wine Estate in Durbanville. 20 March 2016
Photo by Sam Clark/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

But it wasn’t all down to physical prowess. Ariane received a mental boost on the penultimate stage of the race. A gift from young Emma – a picture of her in a bike helmet wishing her good luck with the Epic. The circle was complete – perspective gained, challenges faced head-on, adversity overcome with the end result a third-straight Absa Cape Epic victory.

From Ariane Kleinhans' facebook page

A good luck wish from Emma on Stage 6…