Jean Biermans had planned for the 2016 36ONE MTB Challenge to be his final professional mountain bike race but when a chest infection forced him to withdraw from the race at the half-way mark he decided he had unfinished business and put his retirement on hold. In 2017 there has been no mention of any intension to hang up his bike, allowing Biermans to focus on the race itself. As recent months have painfully illustrated, to Christoph Sauser and Tom Boonen, the cycling gods are not romantics and will not just hand a victory to a retiring champion.
Biermans is still the course record holder having stopped the clock on an impressive 14 hours, 3 minutes and 57 seconds for the 361 kilometre long route in 2015. Tom Wetton’s 2016 winning time was over an hour slower, but given the massive distances, changing terrain and lengthy time many external factors can impact the times. The weather conditions in particular play a significant part, though the men’s race winner tends to finish between 08:00 and 09:00 on Saturday morning so the heat of the day hardly impacts them. What can affect their time though is the wind. A light breeze from the South East is predicted throughout the race and while this will aid the riders on the, 140 kilometre long, Westerly section from Daskop to Rooiberg it will be a head wind for much of the final 81km, from Calitzdorp to Oudtshoorn.
One rider who will not be intimidated by a breeze is Ramses Bekkenk. As a Dutch beach racing champion Bekkenk is accustomed to racing into the wind. Bekkenk is also an ultra-marathon specialist having completed an astonishing 850 kilometres in the Dutch 24 uur van Zandvoort twenty four hour race. He is also bringing form into The 36ONE MTB Challenge having placed second in the 120 kilometre long Kellerwald Marathon in Germany on the 9th of April.
In the women’s race Hannele Steyn and Katja Steenkamp are focused on breaking the women’s course record. Steyn holds the title as the fastest solo female finisher with a time of 17 hours, 41 minutes and 48 seconds in 2016; but the fastest ever woman to complete the route is Jeannie Dreyer who rode it in 16 hours, 32 minutes and 14 seconds as part of a mixed team with her husband Martin in 2015. The three leading women each boast an impressive ultra-marathon palmarès; Steyn is the Last Lioness (the final woman to have completed every Absa Cape Epic), Steenkamp is the 2016 Tour d'Afrique champion having ridden every inch of the 12 000 kilometres from Cairo to Cape Town, and Dreyer – aside from being the fastest women ever on The 36ONE – finished a very narrow second in the 2016 Munga.
While his wife Jeannie will be racing for victory, Martin Dreyer has other plans for The 36ONE MTB Challenge. 361 kilometres in one go is not quite far enough for the mad-cap adventurer, rumour has it that he will be attempting to undertake the loop twice; in so doing riding a massive 722 kilometres. Dreyer is set to start sometime on Friday morning, with a Dryland Event Management vehicle following behind him for support, and he will probably start catching slower riders on Saturday afternoon as he seeks to complete his second pass of the route.
The 36ONE MTB Challenge gets underway from Kleinplaas Resort in Oudtshoorn at 18:00 on Friday the 21st of April, with a 3 kilometre long neutral zone before the racing starts. The half distance riders will start at Volmoed at 06:00 on Saturday the 22nd of April and the first rider is expected to finish just after 08:00 on Saturday morning. Riders have 36.1 hours to complete the 361 kilometre long course and prize giving will take place at 09:00 on Sunday the 23rd at Kleinplaas. You can follow the action live on Twitter, @The36ONE, or view all the photos and videos from the 2017 36ONE MTB Challenge on the event Facebook page. For more information on the race visit www.the36one.co.za or click here to read advice on how to take on an ultra-marathon event and to view The 36ONE MTB Challenge split calculator.