It’s deeply embarrassing when one is required to unclip, and push one’s single-speed. Especially in Stellenbosch, where you are more likely to be passed by a pro mountain biker than almost anywhere else in South Africa.
For someone who’s life revolves more around cars than bikes (though I am biased towards the latter of late), it’s even worse when you’re questioned why you are pushing, in a Boland accent, by a man who drives better than any of us do. Giniel de Villiers, South African motorsport ambassador without compare and absolute cycling fanatic.
Gentleman that he is, Giniel slowed down his pace and waited for me to remount, and as we traversed a link trail, sedately, the conversation turned to weather. Or rather, the extreme nature of it. I knew Giniel had been in KZN for an off-road motorsport event around the same time many people were discovering just how much mud clearance wasn’t enough, on their chainstays or pedals, during the sani2c.
Giniel spoke of bitter cold and terrain turned near impossible by water. This is a man who’s reference for what is rideable (or driveable) is beyond anything you or I could imagine. Before we parted ways, he made an observation of where we were riding. Stellenbosch. The border of Boland and Cape Town and currently a place starkly drought stricken. It highlighted the massive diversity of weather affected terrain South African mountain bikers can experience, and how often the variety of conditions can defeat the assumed awareness of our preparations for a race or Sunday ride.
Mud and mountain bikes don’t get along
When snow started to blanket Sani pass, most knew this year’s eponymously named race to the sea was going to become an extreme weather event. The rain was unrelenting too, converting some of South Africa’s most renowned trails to flowing tributaries of mud, instead of navigable singletrack.
I followed friends’ social media feeds, who were competing, and completely surrendered myself to trusting in the tagging discipline of those involved – for there was no way of recognising anyone, faces caked in midlands mud.
Bikes? Crisis. The punishment suffered by the bikes appeared to be nothing less than frightfully expensive. You can lube all you like, but a drivetrain will become a grinding paste conduit in conditions like sani2c 2017 and brakes, down there at the hub-line and in a mud-projectile path of that back wheel you’re following, suffer badly. Suspension stanchions collect a terrifying coat of contaminants too.
As pity welled within for the mechanical wear and admiration built for those riders who had endured (and dare I say: enjoyed) the race, I couldn’t help but wonder if a rather cheap component could not have made a substantial difference to most sani2c competitors. Something really cheap. We’re talking R100. Or even a quarter of that if you have the time and mindfulness to make it yourself.
Borrowing some off-road motorcycling wisdom
The mystery component? Fenders. You can call them mud-guards, but I prefer fenders and if you’ve ever ridden with one in muddy or wintery conditions – well, you’d never go without one again.
South African mountain bikers are masters of heat and dust. We speak with indisputable authority on hydration and correct cadence when temperatures are close to melting grips. Our group riding tactics in dust, and methods of coping with it, are proven. Wet weather and mud? Not so much.
Northern Hemisphere riders deal with mud and rain as a default. And from their commuter to mountain bikes, you’ll see fenders on a great many things in the Alps and British countryside. Because they work, keeping you safe and your bike’s suspension in better condition.
Safe? Yes, safe. That fender over your front wheel does a great job preventing projectiles of mud hitting you in the eye, avoiding that momentary flinching and potentially catastrophic steering reaction that can ensue. Some might mock this as an impossibility due to the angle required, but with the appropriate speed and trail surface you’ll be amazed at the reach of mud and small stones, capable of a target zone way beyond the forearms and chest, and into the face.
Fenders moderate your maintenance costs too. You’re not going to keep all the gunk off those fork stanchions, but a fender increases shielding and if you consider how crucial your front suspension is on a bike, that’s an investment worth protecting.
Mud also adds weight, especially if it is being sprayed onto the downtube over the course of 100km, a fender will protect your downtube from some residual mud build-up. Better yet, with its angle, shape, and flexibility, you’ll shed most of the mud build-up on a fender every few kilometres, as it vibrates - thereby shedding mud at speed over trail undulations.
Despite all of these benefits, we remain an anti-fender nation. Inexplicably. Quite possibly because of fashion and an undesirable association with MX bikes. Both are rather shallow instances of ignorance. I’ve ridden with fenders in the dry, and they catch a fair number of small trail projectiles too, which I’m very grateful for – having been clipped in the eye often enough by debris in the past.
There’s a notion that they’re not particularly aero, but then again: most of a mountain bike, even a negative stem carbon stage racer, is not remotely aero either. If I was packing my kit bag for this year’s Sani2C – or any stage race - there’d always be a fender in there: it’s only 30 grams and worth that weight in gold in when you need it.