Seventy-five thousand Rand. It’s not a perfect, actuarially verified number, but one with the least disagreement when a price point is fixed to what a new South African mountain bike, with a stage racing number cable-tied to its handlebars, is valued at.
Inflate that number with race entries, fuel (as in food), logistics (the fossil fuel to get you to an event and home), component wear and maintenance over a season, and I think R150 000 is a fair expression for the value of your mountain biking experience as a South African. That said, a South African who participates in one or two of the more noteworthy local stage races.
That’s just shy of R13 000 a month, which is a not insignificant investment, preliminary long term health benefits notwithstanding.
I say preliminary because there has never been a mass participation sport with such reach and popularity in South Africa, which has such severe medical consequences if you get it wrong. And we all do, some many times more over than others.
Unless your boss is the other half of your 2017 stage racing team, sympathy for being absent, or less than efficient in your presence at work, due to a mountain biking injury between negligible and none at all. Pure mechanical failures are hardly ever to blame anymore. Most of the training or race crashing which inflate your medical aid premiums are self-inflicted.
Have bikes become too good?
In principle, two gatekeeping functions have always prevented riders from accessing features and terrain that could be well beyond their ability: fitness and bike failure.
A decade ago rims folded, tubed tyres punctured at the merest hint of any square-edged terrain, stems were long enough to bridge rivers and fully extended seatposts were always keen to tip you over the bars. Those bikes capable of sending features were so heavy, only the truly committed had the fitness to pedal (or patience to push) them anywhere.
In 2017, stage racing 29ers have dropper seatposts and impressively robust suspension platforms. The riding fitness of many South African weekend warriors is worryingly pro-am too. And that’s where the problem is: capable bikes, with unskilled riders, fit enough to pedal themselves into trouble – at speed.
You see some brilliantly conditioned working – as opposed to riding – professionals suffer the most horrendous crashes at South African stages races. Joel Stranksky’s crash on the 2017 Epic prologue gruesomely revealed this reality: here is a man with focus (crisis, he won a Rugby World Cup for us), impeccable fitness and riding experience (7 Epics) who admitted that he simply found himself in a situation beyond his skill level.
Skill level. We invest obscene amounts in power meters and endurance base-building riding camps, VO2 max tests, and supplements, but precious few people will admit their bike skills are poor. Even fewer will make any attempt to improve them.
The risk of ending your race, in probability your season and in worst cases – your riding – with a skills deficiency crash is very real. Inexplicably, most choose to ignore this issue – despite excellent tutoring being available, at a fraction of the cost you are already investing in your mountain biking.
Is pride the price to pay?
What is the psychology at play? This notion which prevents people who are highly proficient in all other spheres of their life, to prioritise all training elements of their biking, besides the competency to ride said mountain bike safely across terrain that could pose risk?
When you wish to fly a private plane, you go for exhaustive training. If you buy an expensive, high-performance car, you attend an advanced driving course for the day. Nice boat? Skippers license. Mountain bike capable of speeds across broken terrain that would cause most SUVs to fail? “There’s some lube for you, Sir, enjoy your bike…”
Unless you have a background in BMX or riding off-road motorcycles, any ability at most non-wheeled outdoor sports (bar trail running, perhaps) will not transfer into intuitive bike riding skills. And if you are training and riding in a group of like-minded riders, as we all do – gravitating to people of similar interests and priorities - there’s no possibility of you improving skills. You can ride for years with deficient technique, or you can spend an afternoon with a proper coach, and revolutionise your mountain biking experience.
There are skills coaches and there are skillz coaches. Suffice to say the best riders do not always have the manner to impart knowledge, for those who are gifted even the most elementary inputs could be intimidatingly advanced to a student. But South Africa does have some capable people offering skills clinics in most of the metropoles.
Using the Golf analogy is cruelly ironic, but the probability of perfecting a golf swing, as a novice player starting in your 30s, is virtually impossible. A skilled technical rider, observing a fit student descending over some rocks and navigating a corner, will immediately analyse all discrepancies and be able to set about remedying them.
No. You don’t require a desire to race DH or Enduro. But exchanging bad habits for superior technique will make you safer, love your inherently capable bike more and most importantly – also make you faster.
Does all of this source in pride? A defiant sense of shielded inferiority, that if one has the income to buy a R75 000 bike and the budget to race, one is successful at most ventures in life – and as such should be entirely skilled at riding a mountain bike over technical terrain too? Could be. But it certainly does not have to.
My advice? Suspend the pride, use a pseudonym when enquiring if you wish, pay with cash if you want to be truly untraceable, but ride around some cones and then some corners, with a skills (instead of conditioning) coach watching. It’s inarguably the best money you’ll ever spend on your mountain biking. Because skills work, all of the time. Could perhaps be the cryptic meaning behind S-Works…