What could be better than racing your mountain bike on a tropical paradise island, sharing time with good friends and eating local cuisine (yip, that’s a French word...) to refuel for the next day’s ardour? That’s exactly what the Southern Tropical Challenge in Mauritius is all about.
This Mauritian 4 day stage race attracts riders from all over the world with grand champions such as Julien Absalon, Thomas Dietsch and Stephane Tempier all toeing the start line at some stage. As well as being a sponsor for the event, Mauritian logistics company Velogic allowed me the opportunity to start this year’s edition alongside my regular partner Yannick Lincoln, who just happens to be the race organizer and founder too.
As you can imagine the cycling community on an island stretching a mere 60km x 90km is pretty small, but boy do they pull together to produce an outcome far greater than the sum of its parts. Yannick has a full time job as a biokineticist and in his spare time he is trying to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. With his limited time he relies heavily on the brilliant team around him and some committed volunteers to ensure that the event runs smoothly.
The race retained its popular format of a Thursday afternoon prologue followed by 3 longer stages, raced in pairs as is the norm at MTB stage events. Paradoxically, a puncture on the way to the start was actually good to get the adrenalin flowing and would prove to be our only slice of bad luck during the whole race. Another South African/Mauritian coalition of Ian Pienaar (Europcar) and Olivier Le Court beat Yannick and me by 7seconds over the 8,5km prologue course at the Dodo Club to take the first leader’s jersey of the 2014 race. The fact that I took an ignominious tumble in some long grass while attempting to pass a team close to the finish might or might not have had an influence on our narrow defeat...
Despite threatening rain clouds, conditions stayed mostly dry for the next day’s 65 km stage. Overnight rain had turned the Marc Bassingthwaighte signature cross country course at Domain Lagrave into a skating rink, making for some anxious moments on the tree root invested sections of the trail. Afterwards we continued descending away from Curepipe for the first half of the stage which meant a tough latter half as we had to climb back up to the finish venue at the Dodo Club. Most of that vertical gain was made on the Le Vallon climb where Yannick and I managed to separate ourselves from the 3 other leading teams. We extended our advantage on the interminable drag back to the finish with Thomas Dietsch (Team Bulls) and his partner Julien Nayener (Velo Vert) finishing second on the stage.
Day 3 featured the intimidating 10km Camphrier climb which starts out on painfully steep concrete strips, slowly merging into a mere footpath over the 750m of ascent. Loose stones, peaty earth and moss covered rocks are but a few of the challenges which make this climb so daunting. The beautiful approach to the climb through the antelope rich Yemen Reserve was like a death march as everyone knew what was coming. Towards the top of the climb Yannick and I finally broke free of our competition and we raced home steadily to take another stage win. We also extended our lead, but were always riding conservatively to minimise all potential risks.
The race's luck finally ran out on the last day of the race as a threatening cyclone that made its way past the island brought with it strong winds and copious amounts of precipitation. In reference to the previous night spent in tents Yannick said in his inimitable French accent – “eet was like sleeping in ze chopper!” Enough said.
The mud was thick as we left the tea plantations of our hosts at Bois Cheri and made our way toward the finish line at Point D’Esnay on the coast for the final stage. Yannick and I played it safe, watching as Ian and Olivier battled with Yannick Cornille and Stephane Urbain (team explosive Riders) for stage honours. The Mauritian coalition finally broke free of their Reunion Island competitors, taking the stage win a few seconds ahead of Yannick and me who rode in vigilantly for our 3rd consecutive STC title. In one of his last races as a professional Thomas Dietsch extruded the best from his partner and despite 3 punctures during the race they managed to hang on to 3rd place overall.
1. Yannick Lincoln & Melt Swanepoel
2. Olivier le Court & Ian Pienaar
3. Thomas Dietsch & Julien Nayaner
In the 6 years since its inception the race has really matured, annually improving on the previous rendition to become a premier event. Every year the accommodation, venues and catering improve and the trails on a lava born island are quite unique making for a singular experience. This race has the makings of a spectacular event and with the added benefit of a holiday in idyllic surroundings afterwards, who wouldn’t want to put this event on their bucket list...?
Until next time, happy trails!