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How elite riders are conquering Africa’s harshest terrains as mountain biking booms

EXTREME African terrains, whether mountains or deserts, are proving to be an attraction for the global mountain bike racing community.

MOUNTAIN biking is surging in popularity across Africa, with global race organizers capitalizing on the continent’s diverse terrains—from mountains to deserts—for bike racing events.

Morocco has recently hosted what is arguably “one of the most gruelling ultra-mountain bike races,” the 2024 Škoda Titan Desert Morocco.

The annual, 6-stage, 600km race across the desert was held between April 28 and May 3 bringing together elite mountain bike riders from across the world not only showcasing the extraordinary challenges and beauty of the sport but also underscoring Africa’s growing prominence on the global mountain biking stage.

According to Miguel Induráin, a Spanish professional road racing cyclist, winning the race is not an easy feat requiring one to “have a lot of strength and be very trained, because they are long stages, with heat.”

Passing through varied terrain, this race is not for the faint-hearted, demanding both physical and mental resilience from its participants.

“Then, you have to know mechanics because… I’ve had punctures, some people have their chains break, you have to know how to manage with your materials, you have to know how to navigate, eat well, hydrate, take care of yourself, tactics because there are teams that employ tactics… There are many things you need to handle well here, to win such a race,” he explained.

The race kicked off in Boumalne Dades, with the first stage plunging more than 450 riders into a 104-kilometre loop through the Atlas Mountains, testing their leg strength and navigation skills.

The second stage was a 106 km race requiring up to 1700 m of elevation gain to tackle a loop starting and ending in Boumalne Dades. The stage featured leg-breaking terrain and dizzying descents.

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Key competitors took turns leading the stage, with Spanish duo, Luis León Sánchez and Sergio Mantecón tying in the end. Tessa Kortekaas continued her dominance in the women’s category, increasing her lead over Pilar Fernandez.

As the stages unfolded, the elite riders, known as, the Titans, faced everything from rocky mountain passes to vast, undulating dunes. Each day brought new challenges, with cyclists battling not only the terrain but also the searing heat and unpredictable desert winds.

At the penultimate stage, riders navigated the iconic dunes of Erg Chebbi, a 50-kilometre stretch that required acute navigational skills and highlighted the race’s demand for versatility and endurance. The final stage was a 69-kilometre sprint to Maadid.

Despite the gruelling experience, some cyclists still proved their excellence with standout performances including Josep Betalú, a four-time winner of the race, whose tactical acumen and strength on the climbs were unparalleled.

Sharing insights into his strategy and thoughts on the race, Betalú, attributed his excellence to the uniform nature of the desert terrain which allows riders to compete on a level ground.

“The theory always says that the desert puts everyone in their place, and I still think the same,” he stated.

However, the biggest winner of the race, in the men’s category was Luis León Sánchez, the Spanish cyclist who carried the day having won most of the stages despite facing strong competition from Betalu and Sergio Mantecón.

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“We all like to win… Honestly, it doesn’t change much for me either, but I did it for my teammates, for how well they’ve treated me, because they are professionals in their work, and I want to thank them from here,” he stated at the end of the second stage.

In the women’s category, Netherlands’ Tessa Kortekaas dominated, completing a clean sweep, and winning every stage in the women’s race proving her prowess on both mountainous and flat terrains.

“Well, the first mountain stage, sometimes, looks easier because it has ups and then downs where you can rest because you don’t have to fight, but for me, it is difficult to find a good pace when there are too many ups and downs. Desert is better for me … I’m super happy to take the first victory,” she stated.

Moroccan cyclists such as Ilias Kakas and Rida El Ouardi competed favourably finishing at 48th and 50-place respectively.

While African cyclists did not take the lead in this challenge, the Škoda Titan Desert race is one of the many mountain bike race events held on the continent annually, a testament to the general growth of the sport in Africa.

South Africa leads the continent with major events like the Cape Epic, a 700km ultra-marathon, and the Barberton XCM Mountain Bike Challenge. The South African Cycling Association’s schedule includes three mountain biking events this week alone: the 36ONE MTB Challenge on Friday 24, the Great Zuurberg Trek, on the same day and the Karkloof Festival on Saturday.

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Also, the KAP sani2c is a thrilling three-day, 270-kilometre mountain bike stage race held in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). This annual event features three versions spread over five days.

In Tanzania, the Le Tour de Kii is bracing for its fourth edition slated for September 2024. The 5-day mountain bike stage race is organized by One Bike Tanzania and it covers 340km and an elevation of up to 5000m up the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro.

The 10-4 Mt. Kenya Odyssey in Kenya has become one of the most popular safari experiences. Over three days, participants face six mountain bike challenges around the slopes of Mt. Kenya, traversing the Borana Conservancy at the mountain’s base.

The UltraMad in Madagascar also takes runners and mountain bikers through four major tourist sites in the central and southern regions. One exciting trail is when participants ascend Madagascar’s second highest peak, Pic Boby (2658m), before heading to the Tsaranoro Valley.

ahotu.com, a global sports website, in its calendar of major mountain bike racing events in 2024 lists more than 10 mountain bike racing events in Africa in 2024.