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Mariske Strauss on her way to winning the Elite ladies race. Photo credit: Tania Horsford.

The first race in the series was held at the Slanghoek Resort, just outside Worcester. We were expecting a small turnout as a result of this somewhat remote location (popping out after work on a Friday to register and practice wouldn’t be possible for many, ourselves included, in this case), and staring down the barrel of a 4am wake up call on Saturday morning, I started to question my decision to ride.

I could not have been more pleasantly surprised by the turnout. Many made a weekend of it, enjoying the camping facilities and cottages on offer at Slanghoek. Others like ourselves made the trek from Cape Town early in the morning, resulting in what looked to me like a record field size in some categories.

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These events develop mountain-biking skills from a young age. Photo credit: Tania Horsford.

We made it to Slanghoek in time to have a quick practice on the course, which was well thought out, and had clearly had a lot of hard work put into it. The first climb was a brutal, long jeep track drag, well designed to spread the field before the first single track, and ensure that heart rates did not stay low for long. A short technical descent followed, this was loose and dusty, and only got more loose and dusty as the day went on. The A-line here had a series of rock drops which were simple enough, but could easily catch you off guard if you were not concentrating, or going too fast.

This downhill respite, was followed by a short punchy climb with the option of a slightly less lung-destroying but awkward B-line option. From here it was straight into a series of switchbacks which brought the course to the highest point of the day. The views of the valley from up here were incredible, but I don’t think too many of the riders were in a state to appreciate them.

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Hard work had gone into the many fun built features on the course: like this corkscrew. Photo credit: Tania Horsford.

The descent from here was rewarding sweeping switchbacks, loose, dusty, and ready to catch out unwary, fatigued, or overconfident riders. A bridge allowed the course to cross over itself and brought you out of the forest briefly, before another heartbreaking kicker: so steep chicken wire was laid down to provide traction.

Now the worst was over and a beautiful, swooping bermed descent brought you back down to the feed and technical support zone. A small jump, followed by flattish jeep track past the feed zone resulted in some spectacular sprinting on the day: keeping things interesting for the supporters.

My least favourite climb on the course followed shortly thereafter: short and innocuous-looking it felt hellishly slow on tired legs. Luckily the climb brought you to a forest tunnel which provided much welcome cool shade, and a bit of flat ground to rest on. The course then split again into an A-line and a B-line. The A-line featured a challenging “babyhead” rocky section, which lurked, waiting for any slip in concentration, and required confidence and a bit of speed to ride sort-of smoothly. Another rocky descent, and the course nipped through a ruined building, before merging with the B-line route again. Shortly thereafter, another split took the A-line through a series of small rock gardens. Again, these were very ridable, but could easily catch you off guard, as the track got looser and more slippery with every lap. I felt very awkward riding through here, and could have used a bit more practice to carry speed a bit better.

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Hanli Cilliers on the A-line through a ruined building. Photo credit: Tania Horsford.

A last slight uphill drag brought you past the feed/ technical support zone for a second time just before crossing the finish line to start the next lap.

The course was perfectly pitched as an introduction to the series: it was not too challenging, and had plenty of B-line options, to keep youngsters and first-timers happy, confident, and hopefully coming back for more, but was still tricky to ride smooth and fast. The large number of dusty shoulders and roasties I saw on the day confirmed this. The track forced you to concentrate every inch of the way.

I won’t go into the gory details of the race itself. Suffice to say it was simultaneously epic, and excruciating. The promise of the next downhill lures you up each climb, then trying not to look too broken as you head past your friends in the feed zone keeps your pedals turning over, while trying not to land in a tree keeps you occupied the rest of the time. It feels endless, but is over before you know it.

ccs-58780-0-49222700-1486382671.jpg Lots of concentration went into safely navigating the many rock gardens on course. Photo credit: Tania Horsford

Aside from the exhilaration of racing: supporting and feeding my friends and teammates in the men’s sub-vet race was a completely different kind of fun. XCO really is a spectator friendly sport. From the feed zone you can see several parts of the course, and watch the racing unfold, without the pain of doing it yourself is pretty satisfying: especially if you have already had your turn. It turns out it is a lot easier to shout “pedal!” then it is to turn the cranks yourself.

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Supporting and feeding the racers can be hard work too. Photo credit: Tania Horsford.

This series is organised and run by a group of volunteers, mostly parents of participants, and every time I attend an event I am blown away by the attention to detail and the quality of the experience. There is never a shortage of toilets, races start and run on time, the course is clearly marked, and the fun factor is through the roof.

Now that the pain has subsided, and shock of the first race of the season has worn off, I am really looking forward to the rest of the series, and hope to see the turnout grow with every event.

WP XCO 1-2017 Results 1.pdf