With vision clouded by dust and ambitions clouded by uncertainty and a lack of training, I took part in one of the country’s most competitive national cup XCO races. It was interesting to say in the least.
Over the past weekend I boldly lined up next to (quite far behind actually) some of the best cross-country racers in the nation, and indeed the world. It was the first SA XCO Cup of 2023, taking place on the World Cup circuit at Coetzenburg in Stellenbosch. With UCI points up for grabs, the event had attracted a rather potent crop of athletes; and me: the trail rider / occasional enduro racer looking to see what this head-to-head lap racing thing is really all about.
Let the games begin
With the temperature in the mid-30s and enough dust on the ground to make the Great Karoo jealous, it was set to be an introduction of note. I was very much seeded on the back row of about 50 odd riders lined up in 8 per row. The start chute sent us straight into a granny gear worthy forest road climb with about an inch of dust that would immediately fill everybody’s eyeballs and airways. Nothing like a fun day out on your bike!
The XCO format, if you are unfamiliar, is a mass start head-to-head race of typically 7 laps around a mountain bike specific track featuring steep climbs, technical features such as drop offs and rock gardens, with 2 opportunities per lap to grab a bottle and or food from your supporters. You can see a course preview of the track here or below and get an idea of what a pro race looks like here.
I reportedly rolled through the first tech zone (around halfway through the first lap) amongst the top 20 riders and herein lies my first lesson.
Lesson #1: B-lines are great at an XCO race
Many of the more hardcore features on an XCO track will have a much slower but less fear-inducing B-Line. A couple hundred metres into the lap (when all the riders are bunched together and bumping into each other) the single track that you are confined to on the Coetzenburg track enters a section known as Varsity Dropout, and its A-Line can hit harder than a drunk Stellies student if you’re not careful.
While 18 of the top 20 riders decided they all needed to crawl down the A-Line close enough to lick each other’s back wheel, myself and one other clever chicken decided to swiftly move through the longer but vacant B line, gaining at least 10 positions in a matter of seconds. Now I did of course lose those positions very quickly after passing the aforementioned tech zone but that isn’t the point. It does, however,lead to lesson #2.
Lesson #2: Your training for these things needs to be very specific
The majority of my riding is not good for getting fitter and faster. I climb so that I can descend and that means I ride at about 70-80% intensity uphill, catch my breath for a minute and then have a bunch of fun on my way down the trail. I never work hard enough to really advance my climbing speed, and never really go easy enough to absorb the training load and actually build strength.
I got stuck into this “endurance gear” fairly early on – around midway through lap 2 once I managed to retrieve my heart rate from the further reaches of our numerical system.
(There is possibly a 3rd lesson about not going out too hard at the start to be learned there, but I wasn’t exactly trying to catch up to Alan Hatherly and the boys, in all honesty I thought I was being fairly modest with my effort.)
Anyway, once I got into that 70-80% effort “endurance gear” and could not for the life of me shift out of it. Any perceptible increase in intensity had me feeling as though I would be needing medical attention within minutes but to sustain the pace was no issue at all. And thus I came to appreciate the value of high intensity training with generous amounts of rest prescribed to absorb the training load. You need this sort of conditioning if you are to have any hope of being competitive on an XCO course. I might need a conversation with John Wakefield ahead of the next one..
As I was dawdling about in the mid-pack like Lewis Hamilton in the opening rounds of the 2022 F1 season, I did notice that a lot of the cross country athletes in my vicinity could benefit from carrying speed a bit better.
Lesson #3: People need to learn how to carry speed
I found myself running into the back of other riders a couple of times on the climbs, particularly when coming out of a short descent or even a flat section of trail.
Just touching the brakes a little bit when you don’t really need to can sap precious speed that you will then have to work for again on the next climb. This is something (carrying speed) that Matt Beers mentioned Jordan Sarrou (World Cup XCO racer) was incredibly good at when they won the Cape Epic together.
It is a small skill that pays dividends and I was glad that I could rely on it to catch up to competitors when they had slipped away on a previous climb. Another little nugget that bore great returns was actually something I had heard from Alan Hatherly in a podcast last year when he was sharing some advice on racing XCO well.
Lesson #4: Pay attention to segments between the main sections for faster lines
Alan said that it is between all the main technical features where you actually need to pay attention to lines and carrying speed. Everyone susses out the A and B line splits thoroughly (and that is important) but if you can find a couple lines around the track that roll a little faster, or open up a corner, or make the turn a little shorter, you can make a solid dent in your lap time.
This paired with a focus on carrying speed out of the descents, and not just working hard on the climbs but maximising momentum all around the track, will help a rider put together their best lap time. You do need to be fit to do this properly (See lesson #1) and thus the best I could do was to go fast on the descents, stay off the brakes and soft-pedal my way up the next climb.
How things ended
Alan and Victor Koretzky passed me on lap 3 (I think it was lap 3.. I sort of lost count on lap 2) which was a lot earlier than I had hoped for. Actually, it may have been lap 4. Regardless, thinking I was going to be pulled of the course at the next crossing of the start / finish line, I made a rather aggressive overtake of Gunther Katze ( a young rider for team Insect Science MTB) and committed maximum speed down the Liv Khoi Spirit Flow trail and Giant Pickup-Sticks in order to climb 1 meagre position higher on the leaderboard. Pretty unnecessary I know.
After nearly putting Gunter off the track with my questionably timed overtake, I managed to actually put myself off the track coming in a bit too hot on the Pickup-Sticks section, clipping a pedal on a “stick”, sliding all the way across the track, and into the crowd.
Dusting myself off, I raced back onto his wheel and crossing the line together was horrified to begin the next lap without the commissaire removing us from the track. “I HAVE TO DO MORE!?”, I protested. Well. I entered for 7 laps I suppose..
A short stop to repair a puncture (sustained on lap one and slowly release air I needed in my tire into the atmosphere), more soft-pedalling, several overlappings by leading racers and no more falls later (thankfully), I crossed the finish line in 30-something-th out of 50-something rather tired and trying hard to comprehend that last hour and a half of my life.
When I crossed the finish line (this thought was actually in my mind since about lap 3) I said that “I don’t ever need to do one of these again”. Now, as I sit reflecting on the experience and lessons learned, I find myself curious as to how it could be different in future with better preparation and maybe some strategy. We’ll have to wait and see if ever (or when) I shall get between the XCO tape again.
Is it an experience that I would recommend?
For sure! Find a local race, go and checkout the track, snap your lycra on (or baggies), and see what it is all about! If anything, you’ll gain an immense appreciation for the people that race this sport competitively.
Don’t forget to train appropriately (if you can), check out the B-lines in case the A-lines are over-occupied, pay attention to the unassuming sections of track, and learn to let go of the brakes a little more. Embrace the ardour and soak in the satisfaction of doing something hard.