Matt getting to grips with the European mountside in Val d'Allos, France. Photo credit: Ewald Sadie.

How did you get into riding mountain bikes?

I started when my parents introduced me to it. They were into the downhill and cross-country scene at the time. I picked up the cross-country pretty quickly and focused on that. My mom was always for the hardtails and did not really want me riding downhill or motocross.

I got big into cross-country, came up through the school ranks and national series, and I got some really good results. I always loved the technical side of cross-country. My dad and I agreed one day that I'd get a dual suspension and keep it away from my mom so that she'd only know once it was too late.

Then I started getting into the enduro racing. I started with a few Dirtopia races and noticed that I was doing really well. I thought maybe let's give this a bash. I grew up on Helderberg mountain, so the trails were easily accessible to me.

Having come through the schools riding structures, what do you think of the current set up?

The Spur Schools League is awesome. There are so many participants of all ages, at all levels. I always had competition in the Spurs League which was great.

The format of the racing is not too technical allowing everyone to get a taste for lap racing. Then there are the provincial and national XCO events with more difficult tracks and longer laps.

Starting in Grade 8 at Paul Roos, which at the time was the best MTB school in the country. For a good 3 to 4 years, we were winning all the time. I had a good group of older guys that really helped me out. I was always this young kid that came on the group rides.

Coming from the cross-country background, how much endurance riding do you still do and how does it relate to enduro racing?

I still really like it. I am enjoying the marathon and stage racing events at the moment. I've done Tankwa Trek and Wines2Whales and I am doing them again. It is good motivation to keep fit for enduro because it so demanding. Enduro is long days with 6 to 8 hours a day.

The enduro training is not as structured. When I am on my cross-country bike, I just ride. I try to do any intervals that I do on my enduro bike to get a good feel for it. Enduro race stages can be 6 to 20 minutes with climbs that can be up to one minute long, so you have to be ready to sprint them hard as you are being timed.

Can you compare Enduro World Series to marathon riding?

It's different. You never consistently ride hard like in a marathon race. You are riding long liaisons. There is more gym work and preparation for a high intensity over a short time. It is similar to a downhill regime but probably with a bit more base miles.

Does the local enduro scene prepare you for racing overseas?

No. There is still a long way to go to match the overseas levels. I don't think people really have a great understanding of what is out there and what the guys going overseas have to face.

We have awesome trails that are fun to ride but they don't have the gradient or technicality that the overseas trails do. You can see it immediately, the local riders feel completely comfortable riding stuff that I look at not even knowing how I am going to ride it, let alone race it.

There are some really nice local trails but the race organisers do not seem to put them all together. There was an enduro in Jonkershoek that did not use the black line which is a must for an enduro race, otherwise it's just a cross-country race where you are not timed up the hills. Local races cater for everybody, and it is understandable, but hopefully, in the next few years, there will be more support for the race organisers to pull it off.

All focus racing a stage at the Enduro World Series round in Millau, France. Photo credit: Ewald Sadie.

How much riding did you do overseas before heading to the Enduro World Series?

I did a few junior world cup cross-country races overseas. Once I decided that I wanted to do the Enduro World Series, I went to New Zealand to participate in two qualification races. It was an eye-opener. The Kiwis are so fast, they have such awesome trails there. Each time I rode there it was the best place I had ever ridden.

Which EWS races did you take part in this year?

I did all the EWS rounds. Rotorua, Tasmania, Madeira, Ireland, France, Aspen, Whistler. Unfortunately, I decided to give Finale Ligure in Italy a miss. It clashes with exams and it's a big cost for just one event.

Rotorua and Tasmania were the first two and both were completely rained out and a mud-fest. Actually, the first five races this year were muddy really.

This was a big challenge coming from South African summer, dusty, rocky, and loose to riding in rain forests. The international riders are at home racing in the muck. I was second-guessing my grip on every root.

Speaking of mud. What kind of support did you have?

None. I think the toughest part of the whole year is that privateering is not luxurious at all. You spend most of your time cleaning your bike and making sure that everything is working for the next day.

I enjoyed it. The whole year was spent solving problems. Even just making it to race day was hard enough. Especially in some countries with language barriers, like France. They're not too interested in trying to help you out.

In Tasmania, we were too young to rent a car, so we had to find a company that would rent us one. This meant three of us in one car with three bikes, three bags, a bunsen burner and a pan. That was us for the week.

As a privateer, it is important to keep an open mind and not stress about the small things or else it will overwhelm you.

Who did you travel with?

Two friends, I met in New Zealand. We planned to race each event together and meet up in airports. We were all newbies and figuring things out at the same rate and learning from each other.

We'd sneak around the pits and look at what the pros were doing and learned new things.

How do the one day races compare to the longer two day events?

I preferred the one-day races. Yes, they are very long days of riding but the preparation for the two-day races is tough. You prepare your bike for the first day and during racing you do not have time to be careful so it gets damaged and at the end of the day you have to get it all fresh and ready for another day of racing.

The single day races are also better suited for me as they are longer. I am definitely on the upper levels of fitness where the other guys start to struggle after 5 hours.

Most of the riders come from downhill. The downhill guys are fit now so it is not impossible for them to get fit for these races. There are only a handful of riders who come from cross-country but they are doing well. I don't think it matters too much. But while I am pushing my boundaries on the gnarly trails, they are totally comfortable coming from downhill.

Are you satisfied with your results?

I am happy. I got really good results for a first timer. I am currently sitting 10th overall. [interview was conducted pre-Finale Ligure. Matt ended up the season in 12th overall after not competing in the final race].

I got a couple of top 3 and top 5 stage results but I struggled to consistently go fast. I'd have a few good stage results and then crash or lose a bit of time, which damages your overall. It's good to know that I can ride fast but I need to work on getting it consistent over the whole race which seems to be a challenge.

What have you been racing this year?

I was racing a Giant Trance. It was a decision between a Trance (150mm/140mm) or a Reign (160mm). I looked at the race calendar and did a bit of research and saw that five of the eight events would probably be fine on the more efficient Trance. I just dealt with the big technical features as well as I could. At the end of the day, I think I made a good call.

How did the Trance handle the Whistler trails?

Whistler is amazing. It is better than they say it is.

My bike choice was not suited to Aspen and Whistler though. They were two completely different races. Aspen was fast and flat out at 80 kmph trying to tuck to go faster through seriously rough terrain while Whistler was slow, almost trials riding stuff, in deep roots.

Most people know Whistler for all the bike park features but we didn't really race any of that stuff in the EWS. We raced the natural tracks outside of the park which are exceptional.

Whistler had the craziest stage that I have ever ridden and probably will ever ride. It was 20-minutes long, including Top Of The World that goes into a track called Ride Don't Slide, which is known to be one of the most gnarly tracks that Whistler has to offer. I passed four people on that stage who had to pull over to rest their arms.

Matt's Trance was stolen recently which means you'll spot him riding this Reign. Photo supplied.

Is it tough competing with locals/ experienced that know the trails?

On each round, there were definitely riders that benefited from knowing the trails, especially Whistler. France was very unfair. The stages were signposted. You can go ride the stages any time of the year. The French dominated that round. Tasmania the tracks were all brand new and Madeira no one really goes there.

Madeira was the coolest stop. A tiny little island off the coast of Africa with so many trails.

What was the biggest challenges as a privateer?

Getting around the races is really tough. You've come from the airport in a Uber or shuttle and don't have any way of getting around other than riding. The pros pretty much get uplifts from their team managers in practice, allowing them to fit in multiple runs where privateers can do just one.

The first two were the fairest because it was only riding, there were no shuttles allowed. So it was up to the riders. But in Madeira, it was a free for all. There were shuttles, but you had to queue and pay while the pros had their own private shuttles.

Affording spares was also a big problem. Without support, you have to nurse your equipment all the time. Tyres are a big one. You can ruin them in one day. You quickly learn to change your equipment to handle your needs as you go along.

I also did not take a minimalist approach. I rode Eagle for most of the year but as soon as I broke one thing, I changed it all back to 11-speed. It is much cheaper and in European and America, they haven't taken to it that broadly and it was hard to find parts in many shops.

How do riders get into a good position racing enduro?

Many of the names in the top 30 come from downhill and there are not so many young guys. It is still new, so if you've made a name for yourself already, it is going to stay that way, but there is not too much space for new guys coming in.

It is difficult to break into the top 30 in the elites. Of the juniors that went to elites from last year, only one of them is getting good results.

Even in downhill, it is getting harder and that is why Stefan Garlicki's race in Val di Sole was really amazing.

Are you going to race the EWS again next year?

I am not. I'm going to focus on longer enduro events, 5 to 6 days races in more remote areas. I'm looking at doing Trans Costa Rica and Trans New Zealand. I think it will suit me better as it will be blind racing with greater fitness demands.

I think the EWS has almost become glorified downhill. I think going into elite is just going to be a step too far for me, especially being unsupported. One or two juniors will get a pro contract next year and I am not one of them. It will be very hard to go into elites unsupported and I do not think it is worth it for me. Unless you're a pro rider, I do not think it is possible.

What are your local racing plans?

I've got the Ezelenduro which is a highlight for me. That's the best South Africa can offer at the moment. I have to give Dan credit. He has created an awesome race that can compare to some of the international events.

I'll also be doing SA Enduro Champs at Hakahana. I have never ridden there which could be a problem.

And then some fun at Wines2Whales with Tim Wilkins.

Matt was the winner of the inaugural EzelEnduro. Last year, he placed third. Photo credit: Ewald Sadie.

What are you currently up to other than riding?

I'm in my second year doing a BCom in Business Management. I am doing it over 5 years to accommodate my riding.

Do you have ambitions to become a full supported pro rider?

Realistically, I do not think so. I have had a taste of it this year. It is definitely not glamorous at all. I really enjoy racing bikes and always will. I am happy with how this year went but I want to try something new next year. But who knows, maybe something will come with that. Next year, I will do less overseas racing and maybe focus on building something locally for myself. But of course, if the opportunity arises I will certainly take it.

Maybe two years ago when I was younger, it was certainly a major goal. Now I have realised that there are a lot of fast guys and it takes a lot to get there. Unfortunately, I am geographically limited. Just not having the infrastructure, like a ski lift to pump out as many runs as you can. If I were planning on going pro, I would definitely need to spend at least half the year overseas training.

For marathon riders though, we have that dialled. There is no reason you can't be a marathon World Champion based in South Africa.