We've been asked our opinion on an alarm bell raised recently regarding young mtb'ers seemingly having no real desire to ever do stage races and thus a threat to the future of these long standing drivers of our local industry.
The concern raised is that the old school South Africans who thrived on ultra distance races are a dying breed and that the youth prefer unstructured free riding. 'Fun first' is indeed what should, and what we believe still does, drive riders who pay to participate in events rather than simply ride free. Nobody doesn't enjoy exploring trails at their own pace and playing in bike parks and on flow trails, but that doesn't make longer distance stage racing redundant. It's not an either or.
The key to the survival of any business is its ability to keep attracting existing or new customers. In the case of stage races, those that have survived tough times have constantly improved their trails and participants' experience. Having done many international events and all of SA's major stage races on multiple occasions we have borne witness to the evolution of each and return annually in eager anticipation.
Rather than rely on our potentially old-school biassed theory, we opted to ask young riders themselves. We spoke with many riders under 25 years old at the 2022 Wines2Whales and their response was emphatically that they love it and that accessibility is simply an issue of life stage affordability.
The Cape Epic was intentionally designed to be a sufferfest. A test of the best marathon mtb'ers on the planet. It remains the benchmark, attracting competitive riders from every continent. Most amateur riders are past their XCO days and have the money to travel to the untamed african trails to draw swords. The majority of young riders in the Epic field are aspiring or current professionals, the bulk are middle aged riders who spend a lot on their passion for racing at the highest level, half of these from overseas.
The rest of our local stage races are doable on less than 8 hours training per week with only batches A&B being really competitive. They're held in beautiful places, offering 2 to 7 days of custom built, often manicured trails. The 5 big races Sani2c, Tankwa Trek, Berg & Bush, Cape Pioneer and Wines2Whales each offer incredible single-track through beautiful landscapes with breathtaking views. Throw in sumptuous food in wonderful social settings, bike wash service, on site tenting and ablution, wifi, medical, great gifts and endless other spoils, and you have what most mountain bikers crave and are willing to pay a lot for.
It's no surprise that these events attract over 2000 riders. Even in 2022, after two scarily tough economic years, most of these high profile events and many other bespoke by-invite & niched events like Great Zuurberg and Transkei Trek, all in vastly different areas, attracted solid fields. Single day events too continue to flourish, such as the national Trailseeker series which remains the biggest on earth.
XCO has a very important place in the journey of riders. It's explosive, an adrenaline rush which is both physically and technically challenging, it's an ideal format for brave and fit, mostly younger riders. Many comments from our interviewees included reference to stage races as the next phase of a riders life. "I loved XCO and still do a few, but now I just love being on my bike - with my family/friends, camping and exploring cool places with cool people." It's real quality time out.
What became increasingly relevant was the team dynamic and how relationships bonded over multiple days riding in support of each other, through good and bad days, dealing with technical issues, sharing tents, meals and late night chats under the stars. Riders became teams, no longer dad and son, boss and employee, etc. A real positive relationship shift that's unlikely to develop in the home or workplace.
We spoke to male and female youngsters alike and it was encouraging to note that over half the younger generation riders were female. Perhaps the safety of a fully supported event appeals to ladies who are less inclined to risk rides into the unknown, especially at an event like Wines2Whales who like Berg n Bush actively encourage and support women with ladies only groups etc.
The issue of 'expensive' pricing was put into perspective by a few youngsters who noted that the price of single day events like Ironman cost more than half the price of 3 days of all inclusive stage race riding and also comparable to going out for dinners and drinks at restaurants and nightclubs. It's definitely more than they are comfortable spending while at varsity or early in careers, but unanimously felt it worth the money.
With trails vastly improved from the jeep and cattle tracks of days gone by, the fun factor of stage racing is guaranteed. It's no longer a long dull slog, while the risks of jumping, downhill racing and XCO generally become less attractive beyond 30 years old.
Why are certain stage races opening Grand Master categories? It's not because they're the only riders still stuck in the 1900's, it's because 60 is the new 40. What was historically considered grand-dad age at 50 is probably now closer to 75. After a lifetime of healthy activity there's no longer a need to slow down and play lawn bowls, or hit the armchair if and when you retire from work. Times and lifestyles have changed, health is wealth.
Stage racing, like posh restaurants and sports cars are a rite of passage, needing to be earned and enjoyed in good time.
And just like trendy restaurants close as cooler ones open - quality is key. Those that survive need to remain fresh and unique. This often entices event sponsors who enable the races to add huge value to riders and in the process make the shift to bucket list events that continue to thrive and grow.
We have seen the same with the likes of Ironman triathlon. Longer distances with a higher profile are generally more successful as modern generations seek the social media digital dopamine of peer recognition and others who witness that are hooked to join in by the FOMO factor.
All businesses ultimately evolve to being fresh, fun and original, or they die out. This is increasingly challenging to sustain, but that's the cycle of life, so it will be interesting to see what pastime survives as mountain biking takes on alternative lifestyle choices such as skating, surfing, nightclubs, bodybuilding, fashion, football etc. We believe that over time human values typically graduate towards health, friendship and time out, as such we see a great future for the sport of mountain bike stage racing.