Text Annelien Robberts
Text Annelien Robberts
O wing to Namibia’s diverse terrains and sunny weather, mountain-biking has seen a spike in popularity over the last couple of years, attracting local and international cyclists alike. With the vast variety of races and events offered, adventure junkies and extreme sports enthusiasts can pick and choose crags, slopes and dune crests that will ensure they get their fix of speed, flow, technical, endurance or a combination of these elements.
Namibia offers diverse terrains to satisfy any biker’s desires. Rugged and mysterious landscapes in the relatively lesser explored north. Rocky terrain and rolling hills in the south. Long flat stretches of dusty gravel roads where cyclists soon learn to take heed of road signs warning against crossing wildlife. The Namib Desert stretching from horizon to horizon is a central attraction in the country and has prompted the introduction of fatbikes, to match the challenge of the tough terrain. Mountain-bikers are undeterred. On the contrary, it only makes them yearn for more. More dunes. More demanding terrains.
Cyclists with a passion for nature leave nothing behind but tracks, that is to say if the surroundings allow it. Tracks left in the soft dune sand are shortly afterwards erased by restless winds with a new blanket of fine grains. Elsewhere in the country, signs of bikers on single-track trails are likely to become covered with animal footprints or washed away by rain in the summer months. The only proof of bikers’ presence remains in the gallery of their memories.
Tubeless. Hardtail. Full sus. 1x gearing. 2x gearing. Huck. Shred. Bail. Berm. Booter. Travel News Namibia writer, Annelien Robberts, talks mountain-bike with five enthusiasts to discuss the do’s, don’ts, how to’s and all the nuts and bolts of this ever-growing obsession. Learning by trial and error, and having a talent for crashing hard but mostly emerging unscathed, these bikers give us a glimpse of their personal experiences in the saddle and what makes cycling in Namibia so spectacular.
Life behind bars (no illegal mountain-biking activities took place for this article)
Rather a downhill kind of guy, Mario has been living behind handlebars for 22 years. He is currently the cycling department supervisor at CYMOT and also takes part in various competitions organised by the company.
Although he does not consider himself a full-out racer, he has had his fair share of desert heat during almost 24 hours in the saddle at the Nedbank Desert Dash, described as one of the toughest mountain-bike challenges on earth. He and his partner completed the race in 23 hours and 25 minutes. Mario sees this as his biggest accomplishment, thus landing the race on his list of favourites, yet carved into his memory as the toughest.
Mario has explored Germany and South Africa on two wheels, but Namibia will always have a special place in his heart. He loves being able to take his bike out of the city within a couple of minutes and riding off into the bush. At any given moment riding in Namibia can easily turn into a safari, as free-roaming wildlife can be found in abundance.
If there is something that really grinds his gears, it is a lack of trail etiquette. In the same breath he adds that there are generally no bad feelings between riders. Being included in a group is part of the experience and a ride is not complete without a round of beers afterwards.
His favourite trails are the IJG trails on Farm Windhoek: over 70 km suitable for mountain biking, hiking, running and bird watching in pristine nature. As gravity rider he prefers downhill, because it provides the rider with everything from technical to speed and flow.
In his biking circles they are known as beer drinkers with a biking problem.
Inspired by a friend, André bought his first bike in his student days in 1991 – a Diamond Back equipped with the bare basics.
He strongly advises not to take a new bike on your favourite trail… The worst that has happened to him, he reckons, was when he took his new bike for a spin in the Kleine Kuppe hills of Windhoek and lost the bike on a downhill. He limped back home, scabbed from shoulder blade to knee.
Another time he shot through a golden orb weaver’s web spun between two trees at the foot of a hill, and slapped himself off his bike in an attempt to get rid of the unwelcome eight-legged passenger he picked up. André reckons that break-dancing on a bike is an activity that every Namibian biker has to endure at one time or another. It offers great entertainment for co-bikers.
He regards mountain-biking as a gentleman’s sport in which camaraderie plays a pivotal role. He highly praises legendary Mannie Heymans who was the first in a group of riders to turn back to help a boy with a flat tyre.
After 26 years of mountain-biking, André’s advice is not to take things too seriously. He has learned the art of slowing down along the way and taking pictures of the spiders that he claims to have a phobia of. It’s a love-hate relationship. Should you consider taking up this sport, André advises to invest in a quality bike at a shop where you can build a relationship with the people.
Our country lends itself to mountain-biking. There is a huge variety of races and events to participate in on many different terrains, be it bush, desert or road. His favourite event was RMB Namibia Ride for Rhinos – one for the soul. His favourite race, he says without the slightest hesitation, was the Kuiseb Classic that started off with 70 km of cross-country cycling and ended with 30 km of steep hills. He still has his number 92 race cap.
According to Martin, 32-speed bikes and the likes are a myth just like snow in the Namib. If you want to go the extra mile… or any mile at all, use your legs.
Martin grew up riding bikes and gained a lot of exposure to the sport when he started working as a technician in a bike shop, a role that has earned him a place in the field at races and events. One of the most memorable events was Ride for Rhinos in Damaraland, a Venture Media initiative organised by Rièth van Schalkwyk and Elzanne Erasmus which combined the sport with the cause of saving our rhinos.
Martin is a joyrider rather than a competitive cyclist and recalls a less joyful experience when riding a race close to Cape Town. About 70 km from the finish line he got a serious puncture and the tyre was deflating at the speed of a biker racing downhill. As riders were zipping past he knew that the race must continue. He pumped his flat wheel, cycled between 3 and 5 minutes, then stopped again just to repeat the procedure. Deflating tyre and all, he climbed some steep slopes and finally crossed the finish line. Endurance in a nutshell.
He prefers cycling in the ruggedness of Namibia where “what you see is what you get”. Nature is not disturbed to make way for man-made luxury. Our raw trails make cycling in Namibia so special. For him the cycling culture in Namibia completely differs from many other places in the world, because only a very small part of the Namibian population uses bicycles as a daily means of transport. This means anyone who cycles is quite serious about the sport.
Speak to a bike expert when you are new to the sport and get all the right advice. As soon as you have the right equipment, everything will fall into place. And Martin will ensure that the bicycle parts do not fall out of place.
If you don’t see her on the hockey field she is probably swinging away on the golf course or cycling through the desert.
Marcia has finished races with a bike twice her size. She explains that as a medical student in her fifth year she uses what she has at her disposal, in this case a huge bike, but she does not regard that as a setback. Though she thinks that investing in good cycling shorts is a must.
Marcia started cycling at the end of the hockey season and has completed the Desert Dash twice with a group of friends. She describes the race as an ever-changing challenge due to the fact that you never know what to expect. Last year the biggest challenge was braving the exhausting heat and whizzing winds, but seeing that this event takes place in one of the most beautiful areas of Namibia she regards it as a real treat. The toughest part was the night stage when she was encircled by darkness at three in the morning with only the lights in front and behind her for orientation.
She had a funny encounter during the night stage of that race when a rider came to cycle next to her and chatted away. Marcia did not have a clue what he was going on about and felt ‘lost in the desert’. When she rode off he continuously called out somebody’s name, but since she did not know the person she simply focused on her goal. Eventually at the finish line she recognised the guy – accompanied by a lady wearing a bright pink top that matched hers.
Marcia loves to escape the city for training and regularly sets off on gravel roads like the one leading to N/a’ankusê, or any gravel roads around Windhoek that are mostly ideal for training. Though she is more of a Desert Dasher, she has also enjoyed the Klein-Aus Vista race in the south of the country close to Lüderitz, a tough climb that stretches over two days.
You have to be a student to realise that you do not need much to cycle. A bike, Namibia’s beautiful landscapes and a little bit of time are the essentials to get a handle on this sport.
Cycling means meeting like-minded people who combine a healthy lifestyle with an enjoyment of the outdoors.
As the son of Namibia’s cycling pioneer Claus Theissen, it is no surprise that Axel was involved in cycling from a very young age. Claus started the first road-cycling club in Namibia called Windhoek Pedal Power, which still exists today.
Sunday mornings were reserved for fun rides. According to an ancient law, bicycle owners were obliged to emboss a number on their bicycle frames that served the same purpose as a number plate on motorcars. When bicycles stopped having such numbers due to the impossibility of punching them into modern chromolite or carbon frames, they were fined by the police during one of their excursions.
For approximately five years Axel served on the Rock & Rut committee, the oldest mountain-biking club in Windhoek that was started in the early 90s. This club still organises races and continues to be popular especially because it caters for the entire family.
Namibia is unique in the sense that you can effortlessly get out into nature and onto single tracks for proper mountain-biking. Another great plus is our weather that permits almost 365 days of cycling per year. Axel participated in the solo Dash in 2016, which he describes as a hectic ride due to the elements, but he nonetheless completed the race in 19 hours. Proper nutrition is key, as well as physical and mental preparation.
Previously he exchanged sand for snow by participating in the first-ever Snow Epic held in Engelberg, Switzerland, in 2015. Kitted out in multiple layers of clothing and braving sub-zero conditions, he had to learn about temperature control and cycling on snow.
For him the six-day Namib Quest is the most extraordinary race. During such a race, he and his partner encountered a herd of wildebeest when coming around a bend. He still remembers the flash of uncertainty in his partner’s eyes, wondering whether they should accelerate so they wouldn’t fall behind in the race or hit the brakes full-on and wait for the herd to cross the road.
TOP 10 RACES AND EVENTS IN NAMIBIA:
GET ‘KITTED OUT‘ FOR YOUR NEXT MTB ADVENTURE AT CYMOT:
This article was first published in the Travel News Namibia Winter 2017 issue.