Most mountain bikers will at some stage in their MTB ‘career’ ride a race like the Sani2C, Wines2Whales or Berg & Bush. They will ride it with an eye on the clock, with batch start times and cut off points, Strava segments and will measure how many metres of climbing they do over the two or three days…
We race from start to finish, beating our mates, and doing all we can to better the previous year’s record times. But in the midst of the racing adrenaline, we forget, more often than not, to stop, smell the desert roses, and look around at the routes that have not only been crafted to be physically challenging in all the right ways but are also located in some of the most pristine wilderness areas.
We forget that, unless we are one of the elite few who get paid to ride our bikes, whether we finish 53rd or 298th, it’s the same race for everyone, and we need to enjoy it as much as possible. When you consider how much effort we put into the training, how much money we put into the gear, how much time we spend talking about the event… If we are not enjoying it then we are wasting a huge amount of energy and time!
For many years I’d heard stories of the Nedbank Tour de Tuli (NTdT) and about how it was a ride, not a race. In my mind, this made it sound like an event for beginners, not for serious mountain bikers. For me the first stop was Wines2Whales (W2W), then in a few years, the Cape Epic. Onwards and upwards. I wasn’t going to go backwards in my progress and only ride. I wanted to race.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for pushing yourself (and the bike if need be) on the day, and there have been times when I’ve raced as hard as everyone else. We spend most of our riding time staring at Strava, analysing our PB’s and every segment.
But there came a time, doing my third W2W, when I was waiting for my partner in a field of flowers on day two, when I realised for the first time how truly beautiful the scenery I was riding in was. For the first time I actually got off my bike, sat down and just soaked it up.
I started thinking about the difference between riding W2W and racing it… because for five years before that I had doubted my friend and NTdT veteran, who trained at NTdT pace year after year, while I waited ahead for him, having trained at VO2 max and race pace.
While I went off and did the races, he admirably stuck to the NTdT and each year he came back with mythical stories of elephants, zebra and giraffe during the day, and hyaena and lion calls at night, of GPS and game trails (this event was the first to use GPS and no trail markings), of stopping under a tree at high noon and just watching the animals go by – a true MTB event following Africa time!
“That’s not mountain biking. That’s not what it’s about!” I said. “You’ve got to push yourself,” I thought… “Test the barriers of speed and take your body to its limits.” At least that’s what I thought was important.
But Graham was always happy when he came back from NTdT. Always at peace. And then it happened. I asked to join him on the 2015 event as a volunteer guide. I remembered my last W2W experience, of riding and not racing, and thought about a change in pace. Maybe just one NTdT to “tick the box”, so to speak.
So I committed. We trained at NTdT pace (to be fair I still struggle with this but experience has since taught me its value). I arrived at the 2015 NTdT nervous (I may have fudged my wildlife knowledge a bit to get in the door) but from the moment I arrived, I fell in love with the event. Four days of riding – not 1 km of racing – through the African bushveld.
Four days of soaking up every experience. No Strava segment to push through (only the occasional sandy riverbed), no technical zone to hammer through, no mountains to climb, just riding my bike for the sheer thrill of riding a bike. The very reason we all fell in love with riding in the first place.
But as an African with the bushveld in my blood, this was a new kind of cycling high, a new euphoria. Long days in the African sun (my first intro to NTdT was an August heat wave with highs of 42° C), we sat for hours each evening, tired yet exhilarated (70 km on a MTB with no downhills means there are no free kilometres… you pedal all day), and although we didn’t do one bit of racing, I came back from my first NTdT exhausted, having ridden my bike for the sheer joy of it. A ride, not a race.
Having now completed three Tours, I have memories of each and every day out there, all of them so different and unique. I have ridden my bike for the sheer thrill of riding a bike, starting each day watching the sun come up as my legs warm up slowly, breathing in African dust and actually hearing the birds, seeing the elephant tracks, looking for game, all the while having made friends for life and had wildlife encounters that still give me goosebumps. I have partied, I have chilled and I haven’t raced once. All the things that I could do on a ride, most of them I couldn’t do on a race.
I will still do races, I will still push myself on my bike. I still give my training schedules tough days, and still spend time checking out segments on Strava.
But NTdT has changed the experience of every kilometre on a bike for me. Because just like life itself, it’s a ride, not a race!