Written for In the Bunch
I recall the day Hoffie bought his first mountain bike during the sport’s pioneering days in the eighties.
That evening, like so many others, we congregated in his garage at Seringa Gardens, coffee in hand, to admire his latest acquisition.
I can’t say that I remember the make or model – it may have been a Nishiki – but it was black and somewhat awkward-looking.
As members of the straight block generation (our clusters generally ran from a 12 or 13 to 19 tooth), the gear ratios received immediate attention.
Hoffie declared the “Nishiki” unsuitable for riding without one of these at the back and a 52/42 chainring combination at the front. End of debate.
Apart from using less than half of them, he felt it would be embarrassing to be seen riding with these “sissy” gears – which, in time, became the “granny” gears that we all now love so dearly.
Barely two days later, I received a call from Hoffie. He had taken the bike, still due its conversion, for a spin in a park far from the public eye.
He hated to admit it, he told me, but the gear ratios were, in fact, perfect. He had used every single one of them. Who would’ve thought?
With the sport still inventing itself at that point, the technical issues relating to the purchasing process were somewhat negligible: no suspension and 26-inch wheels were standard issue.
The sport has evidently moved on because when I recently decided to upgrade my “tired” bike to something more representative of the times, I stepped into the epicentre of the 26er/29er debate.
Not being one for gambles, I used my “phone a friend” lifeline – he was involved in the industry – and his advice for a mid-range solution was a full-suspension 26er or a hardtail 29er.
He added that he had the latter and that there was a growing consensus that it “rolled” better over obstacles than its counterpart – so all that was left for me to say was: “Sold”.
With my new 29er hardly road-tested, I was invited along on the dry run of the Fairbairn Capital/Old Mutual joBerg2c. Okay, truthfully, stage eight.
We started our trek at the front gate of the Mackenzie Club “race village”, only minus the traditional fanfare.
My 29er drew suspicious glances from the touring party, all of whom were on fully suspended 26ers and had the look of hardcore mounties. The group included the cool guys from iRide Africa and two of the three organisers.
By then Farmer Glen and Gary Green had extradited their colleague to the farmlands of the Free State with strict orders to get his house in order. Wappo’s brief had been to produce “awesome” single track on the first three days of the race . . .
The dirt road tilted down as we set off for the Umkomaas River Valley and, having faffed around at the start (code for a natural break), Farmer Glen and I found ourselves a few hundred metres behind the pack.
Even while free-wheeling, my 29er rollled up the dirt road so efficiently that he had to pedal violently to remain in its slipstream, he would later tell the group. He seemed impressed.
The roles were reversed when we hit the technical single track. Even allowing some latitude for my technical ability, I had to admit that the others seemed to cope with the twisty bits more serenely than I did.
Then we came to the mighty Umkomaas, which was filled to the brim. I laughed loudly when Farmer Glen showed the point from where we would be swimming across – and then nervously when I realised he was serious.
Mountain bikes, I found out, float.
He led the way into the river, which must’ve measured a hundred yards in width. Hopes of making the journey on foot, with my prized possession held aloft, sank when my feet failed to make contact with the riverbed.
The rest paddled across effortlessly, but the current got hold of my 29-inch bell buoys and spat me out several hundred metres further downstream.
Meeting up with the rest of the crew, I found farmers Glen and Gary seriously discussing the notion of making the swim a feature of either this race or the Subaru sani2c, which shares the stage.
The rest of us shook our heads as we headed for the uphill section of the course.
On the steepest of jeep tracks I found myself crouching over the handlebars to keep the front wheel from becoming airborne.
My best efforts seemed less successful than what I could remember from my 26er days. I attributed it to a possible difference in frame angles and higher front end.
Then, at last, we hit what I termed semi-track and the 29er was once again on a roll.
Whether the top spots in this year’s Absa Cape Epic were locked out by 29ers due to superiority of equipment or pilot, is open to debate.
But what is written here is my word, and therefore beyond contestation.
Coetzee is a former journalist and full-time cycling fanatic whose PR company focuses on sports communications. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit www.inthebunch.co.za or follow him on twitter (fullstop).
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