There were no course records, but there was plenty of drama as Tom Wetton and Hannele Steyn won the men and women’s individual titles respectively at the 2016 36ONE MTB Challenge, an ultra-endurance mountain bike race based at the Karoo town of Oudtshoorn, in South Africa’s Western Cape province.
The fifth edition of the 361km non-stop race attracted its largest field yet, largely comprising endurance-crazy South Africans in 11 sub-categories. The full-distance Solo category was once again the most popular with 479 entries, including 40 women. Teams, relay teams and half-distance riders made up the remaining 696 entries in what has developed into a prestigious event on the South African sports calendar.
The 36ONE MTB Challenge is South Africa’s longest full-support, single-stage mountain bike race, taking the competitors over a distance of 361km with an accumulated elevation gain of 5 250 metres. Participants have a maximum of 36.1 hours to complete the course, the first 12 hours being completed through the night.
Wetton’s win came at his first attempt at the event. The 36-year-old Johannesburg-based international banking executive, racing in the colours of Oakhaven Capital, clocked a time of 15 hours 11 minutes 54 seconds, just over seven minutes ahead of Christo van den Heever. Ricardo Stermin rounded out the podium places in 15:27:22.
Wetton’s time was over an hour outside the course record of 14:03:57, set by Dutchman Jean Biermans in 2015. Biermans was the favourite going into the 2016 event, but he withdrew at halfway after having been in a competitive lead group, which also included last year’s runner-up, Stermin, last year’s third-placed finisher, Warren Squires, Van den Heever, Wetton and Deon Kruger.
“It was quite a strong group of us leading for the first half. In fact, after 75km I was feeling pretty broken,” admitted Wetton.
“For a race that long the pace was seriously fast to start with. Jean (Biermans) was very active with his early attacks and responding to them started to wear me down. I actually considered stopping after 75km but then realised that all my mates wouldn’t be too impressed if I came all this way and pulled out. So I started to eat and drink and manage my energy levels and as the race rolled on I began to feel more composed,” explained Wetton.
“Approaching halfway, our lead group discussed the fact that staying compact and working together for a while would be a sensible way to eat up some distance and share the effort. But Jean told us at halfway that he’s stopping and another guy put in a silent attack. Then it was game on. I was quite happy to be riding with my training mates, Warren (Squires) and Deon (Kruger), as I felt a little less alone in the pitch dark…
On a relatively testing 10km climb just before the better-known Rooiberg Pass, Wetton felt good and pushed the pace, which left only three in the lead group, Wetton, Van den Heever and Stermin.
“I realised I was riding with two pedigreed bicycle racers and decided that I had to start racing smart if I had any chance of beating them. Just before Rooiberg, I asked Ricardo to come through to the front for a bit, but he admitted he was completely spent and gradually dropped behind. And then Christo chewed me up on the Rooiberg climb!”
Van den Heever summitted Rooiberg six minutes ahead of Wetton, but the latter took a less cautious approach on the descent and took four minutes of that lead back again and set about riding a steady pace for the final 140km.
“At the break of dawn I saw Christo’s red taillight and I began to reel him in. I decided to put in a massive attack when I caught him and it worked. He wasn’t able to respond and I was then in the lead with 40km to go. But man that was a hard last 40 kays! With 20km left I was feeling finished and realised that the win might not be on. But then I got a time split that I was about 4km ahead of Christo and that motivated me. That and the thought of an ice-cold beer at the finish,” grinned Wetton.
In the women’s Solo race, Steyn was the firm favourite to claim what would be her third title. She’s the only woman to have finished all 13 editions of the Absa Cape Epic and she set the women’s record when she last won the 36ONE MTB Challenge in 2014.
But while the record was out of her reach this year, the win wasn’t; and Steyn was put under pressure throughout from eventual runner-up, Rene Schoeman.
“My race went to plan, but also didn’t go to plan. I was hoping to win, but was aiming for a new record time of around 16 hours 30 minutes. But I got a mild stomach bug on Thursday and that messed a bit with my nutrition strategy. For these long races, the secret to success lies in the correct nutrition,” said Steyn.
“Once the race had started, I struggled to eat or drink. But after 200km I began forcing things down because I knew that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t finish. Where I normally ride stronger in the second half, I was weaker and I really had to ride with my mind, as my body was weak. My lights also died at the top of the Rooiberg Pass. I couldn’t descend as fast as I would have liked, but luckily it became daybreak as I got to the top and I was able to see a bit on the way down, which helped.
“I was very fortunate to have such a good support team. My Cape Epic partner, Anneke and her husband, Pete, were phenomenal. Thanks to their support and encouragement I was able to win my third 36ONE title, despite not feeling my best. As always, the organisation was superb and I can highly recommend this race to anyone looking for a different challenge,” smiled Steyn.
Steyn’s winning time was 17 hours 41 minutes 48 seconds, (just over 12 minutes outside her 2014 record 17:28:57). Schoeman clocked 17:47:05, becoming only the second woman in the five-year history of the race to break 18 hours. Christiane Brenzel was third in 18:18:01.
While the top finishers had completed their challenge in less than 18 hours, the bulk of the field was engaged in more lengthy battle. Very few flaunt with the 36.1-hour limit, but Claus Meinke and Robert du Preez were the last two Solo finishers in just a shade under 24 hours.
The Challenge Solo
1 Tom Wetton 15 hours 11 minutes 54 seconds
2 Christo van den Heever 15:19:09
3 Riccardo Stermin 15:27:22
4 Andreas Studer 15:50:38
5 Warren Squires 15:54:46
6 Deon Kruger 16:22:38
7 Gideon Joubert 16:37:20
8 Marco Lambrechts 16:37:25
9 Martin Cilliers 16:45:26
10 Sthembiso Masango 16:45:31
1 Hannele Steyn 17:41:48
2 Rene Schoeman 17:47:05
3 Christiane Brenzel 18:18:01
4 Edgar Stafford 19:35:49
5 Desiree Strydom 19:37:16
6 Liza Mason 19:37:30
7 Ann Harrison 19:52:49
8 Janine Stewart 21:36:07
9 Adele Ambrose 22:00:59
10 Ingrid Avidon 22:14:19
The Challenge 2-Rider Team
1 Dane Walsh/Craig Edwards (HotChillee Lunatic Express) 16:53:42
2 Sipho Kupiso/Ndumiso Dontso (RMB Change a Life) 17:18:20
3 Jaco Schoeman/Jacques Rossouw (Astute) 18:29:33
The Challenge 2-Rider Mixed Team
1 Sharon Holgate/Gary Campbell (Gale Squad) 22:37:36
2 Peter Mesk/Pauline Tunstead (Peteandpauline) 23:41:30
3 Carlien Engelbrecht/Leon Engelbrecht (Nipple Nut) 23:44:39
The Half Challenge Solo
1 Billy Stelling 7:18:29
2 Mark Pienaar 8:24:44
3 Carlos van der Merwe 8:55:00
1 Melissa Swanepoel 9:28:45
2 Kirsten Jacobs 9:32:53
3 Kelly Huber 9:35:13
The Half Challenge 2-Rider Team
1 Pieter du Plessis/Johan La Grange (Biogen Tweeling) 9:21:01
2 Lance Muller/Nadine Pansegrouw (The Mullers) 9:59:02
3 Maryke Groenewald/Marzanne Kriel (Team Altech Girls) 10:32:21
The Relay 2-Rider Men
1 Jacob Theron/Marthinus Eloff (Dream Team) 17:59:29
2 Jason vant Slot/Martin Freyer (Beauty & The Beast) 18:17:32
3 Wynand van Zyl/Paul de Klerk (Team Green Tech) 18:29:36
The Relay 2-Rider Mixed
1 Beverley Wingfield/Neill Upton (Endless Possibilities) 18:11:22
2 Ingeborg Winsauer/Arnulf Winsauer (Huffin Puffins) 22:10:37
The Relay 2-Rider Women
1 Carol Bernard/Anne De Swardt (Sum of Parts) 21:58:19
The Relay 4-Rider
1 Christo du Plessis/Bannox Lennox/Kobus Barnard/Willem Serfontein (Klein Karoo) 14:22:11
2 Corne Bence/Marchall Hendricks/Rico Bence/Niell Ungerer (Eden Cycling) 14:50:46
3 Ben Olivier/Zane Schmahl/Christo du Preez/Herman Niewoudt/Sollie van der Linde 18:05:22