Cape Pioneer Trek Getting Soft or More Accessible?

Andre Valentine |

One of SA’s biggest MTB multi-stage races is finding the balance between tough and enjoyable – a recipe they feel they’ve finally got right. – By André Valentine

Image from 2016 Cape Pioneer Trek by Zoon Cronje from #GondwanaGlory
Photograph by Zoon Cronje

For years the Cape Pioneer Trek has been viewed as one of toughest races on the calendar. But Seamus Allardice, Media and Communications Manager for Dryland Event Management, the company responsible for making the Trek happen, says the event is evolving. As a matter of fact, this evolution started in 2016, with the aim of becoming more accessible, and also more enjoyable for participants. We caught up with Allardice to chat about the idea behind these changes, moving out of the Cape Epic’s shadow and the ambitions for the future.

There have been a few changes to the Cape Pioneer Trek, take us through some of them?

In the early years of the Cape Pioneer Trek the route was famously difficult. There were days when riders rode the entire Attakwas Extreme route plus another fifteen kilometres, or crossed from De Rust to George over the Kammanassie Mountains. 100km plus stages were the norm and every night the riders slept in a new race village. It was exhausting for everyone. Last year we changed to a more compact format with just two point-to-point, or journey, stages and five out-and-back, or exploration, stages. That route change has allowed us to really refine the riding experience and look for the best bits or trail or the most amazing scenery and area has to offer. The Cape Pioneer Trek is now focusing on showcasing the very best of the Southern Cape and the Klein Karoo. For those daunted by the old distances the change has also meant the stages have organically become a bit shorter and easier, in 2017 for example the average daily distance is eighty one kilometres. Also, staying at least two nights in each race village also allows us to roll out more luxury for the riders.

What are you hoping to achieve with these changes?

We know that the Cape Pioneer Trek still has a fearsome reputation, and we’re hoping to gradually change that so that riders realise that any fit mountain biker can come and ride the Cape Pioneer Trek and have a great time. It really is a special experience, as the field isn’t as big as it is at the Tankwa Trek and because of the time of year even the elite riders are fairly relaxed. Everyone rubs shoulders in the dinner queue and the vibe is really social. Taking the sting out of the event a bit will definitely help the non-elite riders to enjoy the experience more. We want people to get off their bikes with smiles on their faces and be able to have a beer in the afternoon while swapping war stories from the trails. It’s still a seven day mountain bike stage race, so it’s not easy, but the aim is to ensure the stages are “tough enough” as Henco Rademeyer (Dryland Co-Founder) likes to put it.

It’s seems like you’re trying to distance yourself from the Cape Epic and its toughest race persona?

Ja, we’d like our entrants to have both Type A and Type B fun rather than just Type B fun. We want riders to enjoy the experience at the time, and to suffer a bit and realise on reflection that climbing the Swartberg Pass was actually amazing – even though at the time when their heart rates were sky high and all they wanted to do was get off the bike and walk for a bit. It’s about striking a balance between the two and we think that the new format allows the Cape Pioneer Trek to do that, especially with the addition of the mountain top finish. That said the Cape Epic is the Cape Epic and all events in South Africa use it as a yard stick to judge themselves by. We definitely take elements from them which we think can work but we’re also trying to clearly differentiate the Cape Pioneer Trek from the Cape Epic, they might attract some of the same riders, but perhaps for different reasons.

The iconic Swartberg Pass returns in 2017, what does that mean for the event?

The Swartberg Pass is synonymous with the Cape Pioneer Trek. Logistically it was difficult to add to the route for this year, but we just couldn’t leave it off. It’s like a Tour de France without Alpe d’Huez. We’ve finished stages on top of the Swartberg Pass before and it has always created amazing drama in the elite races, especially in the years when there was R125 000 up for grabs as the King and Queen of the Mountain.

What is your most memorable moment from one of these mountain top finishes?

In 2014 when James Reid rode with Herman Persteiner, Persteiner attacked in the final kilometres and the plan was for Reid to ride across to him, but when Philip Buys and Matthys Beukes upped the pace and Reid couldn’t go with them. He cracked within sight of the finish. It was heartbreaking to watch as Persteiner waited beyond the finish line for his teammate knowing that R125 000 had just slipped through their fingers. They ended up getting an hour time penalty to add insult to injury too, as Reid finished the stage outside of the two minute separation limit. But it’s drama like that which makes the mountain top finish so great for the fans.

There was the famous giraffe incident during last years race. Do you plan the route for incidents like this?

No, not at all! While it was very cool that the photo Zoon Cronje took ended up being the most viewed image on Pink Bike in 2016, it was not a great moment for the event. The risk of serious injury in that situation was too high to hope for anything like that to be recreated again. It was a freak event, when the herd of giraffes spooked four of them trotted away from the helicopter and the riders while the fifth came towards the riders. Mark le Roux, who was filming for the TV production and Zoon Cronje just kept shooting out of instinct while the pilot kept backing away but the giraffe was a juvenile and clearly in a panic. We can all laugh about it now but at the time it was terrifying. The riders didn’t even know it was happening until it burst through the bushes and onto the trail. The Cape Pioneer Trek will be returning to Gondwana and Chandelier Private Game Reserves again this year but we’ll be a lot more cautious about where the routes go exactly and where the big game is at that point in time.

What did you learn from that experience?

We’ll be mitigating the risks this year, but we do still want to provide riders with the opportunity to see big antelope up close from the bike, so it’s about balance and especially about being aware of how animals might react to the helicopter. That said the only animal which caused a race ending injury last year was a tortoise. Lukas Islitzer, of the Craft Rocky Mountain team, hit a big cape mountain tortoise on a rocky road through the hops fields on Stage Four and injured his shoulder.

Where do you see the Cape Pioneer Trek in the next five years?

With a field of 500 riders, riding 70% of the distance on purpose built singletrack through the same beautiful areas we visit now – but live streamed to the world. Or with a time trial up the Swartberg Pass on the final day with riders setting out at their time gaps to the leaders… first team across the finish line takes the Cape Pioneer Trek victory and a massive cash prize…

Check out the video below to see what you can expect from this year’s race…

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