As the 21st of January 2017, and the Momentum Health Attakwas Extreme, presented by Biogen, looms nearer the effectiveness of the long months of summer training are about to be put to the test. The question on every one of the one thousand mountain bikers’, taking on the one hundred and twenty one kilometre race from the Klein Karoo to the Indian Ocean, mind is: “Am I ready for the Hell of the South?”
The 2017 race will mark the event’s eleventh edition and while the elite riders will race for the converted Attakwaskloof stone trophies, UCI points and early season psychological advantages for the majority of the field the challenge is to complete the Attakwas Extreme for the first, fifth, tenth or even eleventh time.
As South Africa’s premier one day ultra-marathon mountain bike classic the Attakwas Extreme draws many parallels with road cycling’s ultimate classic: the Paris-Roubaix. Known throughout the cycling world as the Hell of the North, the Roubaix awards the champion a sett, or cobblestone to us South Africans. It is also famed for its regularly cold and wet weather and is billed as the Queen of the Classics, the most acclaimed one day race on the WorldTour calendar. Drawing on the one hundred and twenty year history of the Roubaix for inspiration the Attakwas Extreme e has evolved into the Hell of the South; replacing icy rain and mud with stifling heat and dust, and the cobbled lanes of Northern France with the rocky jeep tracks of the Outeniqua Mountains.
The race winners are awarded, among the prizes, a rock from the remote Attakwaskloof, which the route traverses, set as a hefty trophy. Each year the Attakwas Extreme trophies are made anew and for 2017 the, slightly larger, men’s trophy weighs in at just over three kilograms.
Victory in the Attakwas Extreme carries a psychological advantage for the elite riders in the field too, as it’s the first race of the 2017 mountain biking season and an established lead up event to the Absa Cape Epic. For the last two years the winner of the Attakwas Extreme has gone on to win the Absa Cape Epic; as such the renewed battle between Karl Platt and Christoph Sauser will be an intriguing indication of Sauser’s post-retirement/sabbatical form.
Five time finishers of the Attakwas Extreme are honoured as Ratels, an animal notorious for its tenacious nature and which, interestingly, makes its home in a burrow known as a sett. In 2017 thirteen riders, including Ischen Stopforth and Maartin Van Rensburg, could well go on to complete their eleventh Attakwas; while Nico van Zyl, Ian Robertson, Jacques Brink, Wayne Hodgson, Petrus Senekal and Jandri Ferreira are on course to join the prestigious ten time Attakwas Extreme finishers club.
The Attakwas Extreme is not a race to be undertaken lightly; many hours of training are required to establish the fitness to complete the route, while technical mountain bike handling skills and a sound race day nutritional plan are also key. But even the best preparation can be undone by the harsh terrain and fierce African sun, which is why the spirit of perseverance against the odds and the camaraderie among the riders is as famed as the race itself. Digging deep within one’s reserves of mental and physical energy is key to completing the Attakwas challenge. Just as lending a helping hand to fix a mechanical, providing a carbon dioxide bomb to inflate a punctured tyre, or slowing to allow an exhausted rider to follow a wheel are common practices in this great race. The rider who best displays this spirit of perseverance and camaraderie will be awarded the “Spirit of the Attakwas” trophy. A trophy dedicated to the late Douw Steyn, a rider who embodied the essence of the race in his riding and life. Steyn tragically passed away ahead of the 2015 race and already been seeded as number one hundred and twenty one. This race number has been retired in his honour.
For 2017 the Spirit of the Attakwas trophy winner has already been decided and the worthy winner is ten time Attakwas Extreme finisher Stephen Drew. Though entered for the race Drew was forced to withdraw due to a motorcycle accident in December, which resulted in the amputation of one of his legs; so Dryland Event Management, the race organisers, took the decision to award the prize early and make Drew a guest of honour at the event. Not only will Drew’s spirit of perseverance and camaraderie be celebrated when he receives the Douw Steyn “Spirit of the Attakwas” trophy at the race prize giving but he will also be assisting with the ceremonial starter’s duties when the racing gets underway.
And so as the contenders for victory, the Ratels, would be Ratels, and the intrepid first timers gear up for the 2017 Attakwas Extreme the nerves will amplify. But all can rest assured that the spirit of the Attakwas will ensure they have a helping hand nearby; even while suffering through the toughest sections of the Hell of the South.