The dust has settled on the Smithfield Trails at the 2017 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Cairns, Australia, and now it’s time for reflection.
To be honest, we have mixed feelings. On the one side, we are immensely proud to have riders representing Lesotho and Africa at such a prestigious event, but on the other hand there is the realisation that we still have a long way to go to reach the pace of the top riders.
Even the story of our journey to Cairns is in stark contrast to the larger teams with their big budgets and support staff. For us it was a case of scraping together the air fares and hoping to find some kind-hearted people on the other side of the world willing to help … and that’s just what we did. We managed to make contact with a newly opened cycling studio, appropriately called Velo Cairns, which is also connected to The Sufferfest (our title sponsors). The owners, Grant and Gavin, not only accepted us into their homes, but also connected us to many people and made us feel really at home. We also received well-wishes and contributions from all over the world to help with the additional expenses, such as food, visa costs, insurance, rental car etc.
The Smithfield World Championship course is notoriously difficult, but ended up being a real eye-opener to our riders. The obstacles and rock gardens were all rideable, but facing up to them at race-pace with no margin for error was at another level. All three of our riders crashed painfully on the first practice day and were left licking their wounds.
Local Media Exposure
This seemed to be a source of amusement to the locals – as if we were out-of-our-depth in the Worlds – and the local media started to draw connections to the infamous Jamaican Bobsleigh Team. We were invited to an interview at ABC Radio and had a full write-up in the weekend edition of the Cairns Post newspaper. However, we were quick to point out that we had not travelled all the way as some sort of novelty act … but we are serious riders with serious ambitions of becoming world class athletes. Reaching World Championships is just one step on the pathway to the top. To be honest, we were happy to get the extra exposure for our sponsors.
In the team village, we were given the “Pro” treatment with full service on all our suspension from SR Suntour and received a warm welcome from all the other teams. Aa a result of all the publicity, a regular flow of spectators and other team officials dropped by our team area to wish us luck and inquire more about our programme.
Our race schedule was spread over three consecutive days, giving us time to focus on each of the individual riders. First up was Eric in the Junior Men’s race. His goal was to stay up with the Namibian rider. He got off to a great start and came around the start loop in a good position, just behind the two talented South African riders. By the end of the first lap, he had settled into a good bunch with riders from Serbia, Kazakhstan and Czech Republic – way ahead of the Namibian.
Unfortunately, he crashed out of the race near the end of the second lap and was not able to continue. He sustained a few injuries and had to be taken to the ER for a check-up – but he was fine. What a great experience for this 16 year-old boy with a big future ahead of him.
The next day, it was time for Tumelo in the u23 race. Tumelo is our recently crowned Elite National Champion and also won a silver medal in the African Championship u23 race earlier this year. He has a great engine, but struggles to keep speed on the technical sections. This race was always going to difficult for him. The challenge was compounded by a wrist injury sustained in the crash in first practice. From the start, Tumelo struggled with the pace, but fought hard to maintain his position and finished in 64th position. We were however impressed to see that the South Africa rider, Alan Hatherly, managed to win the silver medal. That gives us a good marker that our regular racing in South Africa will help us get closer to world pace.
Top African Rider
The most anticipated race of the Championships was the Elite Men’s race where Phetetso was up against the very best riders in the world. He got off to a good start, but at the point where the track narrowed, was forced off by some aggressive riding. He came around the end of the start loop in last place, but already gaining on the riders in front of him. His main targets were the two South African riders and he managed to pick them off in consecutive laps to finish 64th. We were hoping for something better, but I think that this gives us a realistic marker of where we (and the African Continent) stand in the world of MTB. We came into the event ranked 27th in the world and we were beaten by 26 other countries. The consolation is that Phetetso was the top African rider in the Elite Men category – which we are extremely proud of!
For us, even getting to Cairns is an achievement and an important statement of our intentions to climb up the world standings. Some of our riders will be back in Queensland, Australia, next year for the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, and it was good for them to get used to the travel, climate and culture of the region.
Next up for the team is the last official race of the year, the Lesotho Sky. It has been a long, hard season for all involved and we thank everyone for your great support!