The Western Cape XCO series kicked off again in 2018 with the help of new sponsors Tygerberg Mountain Bike Club and SRAM. The event doubled as the first round of the SA XCO Cup too. The venue, Coetzenburg Stellenbosch is nestled into the hills behind the University of Stellenbosch and will play host the very first World Cup event of the 2018 Series.
The Coetzenburg circuit rivals all other courses in the Cape for technicality and is one of the few tracks that rewards skill and bravery. A-line Bravehearts can gain 10 seconds and up on certain sections if you're willing to take the risks. And risks they are, with the drought taking its toll around the Cape, minimal water has been used to quell the dust and ruts. Dire circumstances however, meant that apparently some 13 000-litres was spread out over the track on the Thursday before the race weekend, but by Saturday it had been converted into dust, crevices, and the odd canyon.
The course layout comprised 200 metres of climbing per 4 km lap. It has been designed to give riders no let up. If you're not struggling to stay upright on a climb then you're fighting for your life down a huge drop or riding a tight-rope through a rock garden. There are no free metres here. The lap starts with a brutal climb up from the sports fields, which steepens in gradient as the lactic acid in your legs begins to combust. Survive that and within 10 seconds you round your way up a long climb passing farm buildings and into the forest. Just in case you may be seeking some respite, the steady drag is littered with rocky burst climbs, where line choice is paramount to staying upright.
The first ‘tech’ section awaits ahead, called Varsity Dropout, choose the A-line here and there are big-time gains to be had as the B-line detours towards Jonkershoek via Franschhoek. The entry was washed out come Saturday, forcing you to the left of ideal, and if your entry line was out by centimetres, your chance of making the right-hander berm below the drop was minimal and an early swim in the river (what’s left of it) below was certainly on the cards.
A short rhythm section followed this, peppered again with rocky and rooty climbs to negotiate before you needed to take a deep breath as the infamous rock garden loomed in front. It was nice to see so many line choices available to riders and not just rocks but actual boulders. The pros make mincemeat of the gaps, launching from rock to rock like they were riding Klipspringers instead of 29ers. Get it wrong here and it was too easy to break a derailleur or strike a pedal on an errant rock.
After a brawl with the rock garden, the pros and Juniors were faced with the wine barrel loop where the rest of the age groups were sent around this section. This seemed to be done merely to keep it in some sort of rideable shape for the main attractions of the day. After the pros were done with it, it looked like a bomb had gone off in the vicinity. Imagine a narrow ravine running down the side of a hill with a wooden bridge linking either side of the ravine together making for a 4 cornered wall ride. Its condition just about held up as even the great Nino Schurter was caught putting a foot down here on the last lap to stave of binning it into the ravine below.
Dribble your way down to the first tech zone, grab a drink and supplies, the course builders are about to show their sadistic nature. A ridiculously steep climb up a rain gutter and about as vertical as a drain pipe. The only consolation is that it’s concrete, enabling a touch of extra traction, although the cemented rocks still made things far from simple. Many a hike-a-bike was taken here - even by the elites.
Climb and climb some more away from the crowds, where it was okay to mumble a few profanities at the course builders and rue those missed training rides in favour of second platefuls of Christmas dinner. Carefully measure a few blown-out corners and negotiate the odd drop, which on any other track would be considered difficult but at Coetzenburg is seen as recovery time, and you were well on your way to completing a whole lap.
You eventually connect on to the BMX section with a few doubles and hip jumps to showboat your whip skills.
All this before you negotiate the final feature, which appeared to be a crowd favourite, pick up sticks. Logs randomly placed (with precision) on a descent at all sorts of strange angles and levels, providing two line choices of either rolling drops or popping off ledges. It was super sketchy down here, as top riders regularly came a little unstuck. I watched a rider in the Junior field pull off the most amazing, unintentional 5-metre nose wheelie that looked certain to end up in a hospital bed but was miraculously recovered and greeted with adulation from the crowd.
I’ve made this out to sound like a bit of an impossible sufferfest, which it is in most ways, but completing a lap of this course is extremely rewarding and character building, something that SA’s courses need in order to upskill its riders and create capable top class professionals too.
The major attraction was the Elite field, which saw a full assault from the Scott international team as it brought all of its men's Cape Epic squad to the race. Our local guys did well to hang on for the first few laps but eventually succumbed to the pace set by Nino Schurter, Marcel Guerrini, and Matthias Stirnemann. Alan Hatherly was the first local home in 5th, grabbing the last spot on the podium.
In the women's race, Helen Grobert took the win ahead of Candice Lill and Kathrin Stirnemann.
The rest of the classes were well supported, particularly the juniors classes where record numbers turned out. The only real exception was the sub-vets and vets classes where the course difficulty may have relegated a few riders to the spectator stands.
Next up is Rhebokskloof on 17 March (the day before the Cape Epic) which if last year is anything to go by will require less body-bags to be brought by the medics. Before that, there's the small matter of the World Cup XCO at Coetzenburg on the 10 March.
SA XCO Cup 1-2018 Results 1.pdf