Bike city, here we come

2008-12-22 00:00

We’ve got the Comrades and the Dusi, the Midmar Mile and even the Amashovashova — they might as well call Pietermaritzburg the capital of sport in South Africa. As if we need to compete harder for this title, the city council and the cycling fraternity have been hard at work preparing Pietermaritzburg to expand its range of international sport to include mountain biking, BMX and road racing.

For the first time in Africa, the Nissan UCI Mountain Bike World Cup will be held in Pietermaritzburg from April 10 to April 12 next year — the event will be held annually until at least 2012. Then there is the 2010 UCI BMX World Championships that will be staged at the Golden Horse Casino in Pietermaritzburg in July 2010 as well as the 2009 (on March 13 and March 14) and 2011 UCI BMX World Cup events, also in Pietermaritzburg. There is also the World’s View Challenge international road cycling race, which will be held from February 13 to February 15.

One of the most significant newcomers is the Mountain Bike (MTB) World Cup, mainly due to the world stars Pietermaritzburg has produced in this discipline. There is Greg Minnaar, the two times world cup champion, world champion and Norba champion, and then there is U23 world cup champion and Olympian Burry Stander.

The event means more money for Pietermaritzburg as teams from around the world descend on our city and more international exposure in terms of tourism. PMB Tourism director Melanie Veness says that at least R12 million will be spent in the city over the tournament. “We are very excited about the upcoming UCI MTB World Cup,” she said. “It is the first world cup of the season and the first leg of the junior world cup for national federations, so we are hoping that this will draw really big numbers to the city.”

Treble Entertainment director Alec Lenferna, who is in charge of organising the event, said Pietermaritzburg is an ideal venue because it has great event infrastructure. “It also has an enthusiastic council and city staff who have an appetite for events of this nature,” he said. “The city is a willing partner in the endeavour and is large enough to be able to handle the requirements, but still small enough to need events such as these to assist in raising its national and international profile.”

Maverick’s Mike Bradley, the director of MTB for Cycling South Africa and chairman of SA-MTB, says the event will lift the profile of the city to international visitors as an MTB haven. “Mountain bikers are a different breed of sporting people,” he said. “We envisage the event will result in more international visitors throughout the year coming to visit and ride. Teams and federations can come here to train in their winter months and at the same time experience this truly African city. Increased tourism means an increase in jobs and income, and will create opportunities for the residents of Pietermaritzburg and its surrounds.”

Apart from direct spending, the event will also be aired on television networks around the world, with Eurosport and Supersport holding the key rights to airing the finals. “There is no way that we can calculate a value in advance, but it is easy to see that we will enjoy extensive television coverage,” Veness says. “From a marketing perspective, it’s a dream come true.”

The course that is being developed will also be utilised as a recreation area. “The tracks have been built to last for years and there will be another six events at Cascades next year,” says Bradley. “The venue will be a free-to-use facility for walkers, riders and hikers. The grassed areas will create a nice venue for family picnics and whatever purposes the council may decide to use the venue for. Much of the area has been rehabilitated during construction with indigenous flora, as opposed to the previous gum and wattle, which is helping to reintroduce bird life to the area.”

Bradley also sees the course as a place to inspire young riders. “The more we can introduce children to the sport of MTB, the more it will provide them with opportunities to become sporting heroes instead of just trying to participate in the normal mainline sports,” he said. In order to achieve this, they are building infrastructure such as offices and ablution blocks and will have equipment for children to use. “Then we can start hosting clinics to get youngsters from all walks of life riding bikes,” he said.

“We can also use the area for our top riders for training camps to prepare them for events like the world champs, Commonwealth Games and Olympics.”

From forestry to mountain biking

The state-of-the-art mountain bike course being built in the city will be kept as natural as possible

Recently, heavy rains washed the bridge away, delaying the construction effort a few more months. The day I arrive, a grader and its operator churned up the course a little too soon considering the continual downpour of rain, also delaying construction. There is also the budget, which is R400 000 short, to design the course. In all, it is a very stressful job being a “volunteer” chief course designer. For Kim Phillips, it’s still a pleasure and he is confident the course will be built well in time for the Nissan UCI Mountain Bike World Cup next year.

“I have been responsible for building courses in this area for seven years,” the construction company owner tells me as we wade through the muddy track. “Our team is driven by passion to be volunteers on this project.”

As Phillips takes me on the tour of the extensive course located behind the Cascades Shopping Centre, he shows me his designs for fast-flowing tracks that are made without disturbing the natural element of the ground. “Once we’ve cleared a path we leave it for some time and cyclists start churning up rocks and roots, which we leave as obstacles on the course.”

It is quite amazing how soon you feel like you’re in the country here, something most other courses around the world could never dream of. “In most other countries, bikers have to travel far out into the countryside to reach their course,” he says. “Here, we’re right in the city.”

Turning a forestry area into a more natural environment has taken a lot of hard work. “We’ve cleared the invasive plants and have planted various types of grasses and trees,” he says as we look at the vista of the course. “Wildlife such as buck often come down into the wetlands in the evening to graze,” he says.

“This part of the municipality’s forestry area is along a watercourse, so they can’t do much with it in terms of planting more trees,” he says. “So we are working alongside the Department of Water’s requirements, which means taking out exotic trees and planting indigenous ones instead.”

Although Phillips is confident in his course-designing abilities, the world union still had to send their design consultant to give it the thumbs up and design certain other aspects of the course. “He was very impressed with our designs,” says Phillips. “He had just come back from the Beijing Olympics, where he was tasked with redesigning the whole course after the Chinese made theirs too artificial. They were sweeping the outdoor course to keep it clean!

“There is nothing worse than forcing a track out of nothing,” he says, “Wherever we can, we try to keep it as natural as possible.”

They were tasked with building the four-cross course, a much wider track that accommodates four riders at a time flying down a dirt road scattered with life-threatening rocks jutting out in places. “He also asked us to build more bridges and to make them wider, which is something we are still going to do.”

Phillips is clear on one thing: ensuring the bikers love the course so that the tournament remains here for good. “There are some countries in which the courses are permanent venues,” he says. “We have a four-year contract, so we have to ensure they love what we do now for the sake of the future.”

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