The wilds of South Africa

"Getting there is half the fun" was not a phrase coined on a trip that started out with back-to-back overnight flights. This is certainly the case with our current travels from our winter home in Northern California to the exotic lands of South Africa.

Our two-person all-inclusive team program was pushed to its limits in the past weeks as we battled to time product shipments, build up our new and impressively re-designed race bikes as well as handle the extensive logistics required for this solid three months of travel that encompasses the first half of the World Cup season.

Packing the essentials to meet the needs of our professional race program within current airline weight restrictions is no easy task and in this case our managerial duties eclipsed the normal delicate balance required to be on top of our physical preparation in place of getting on the plane with all the right equipment. Logistics are always a challenge especially when the travels include changing continents or are spread out over a longer period of time. We started preparing for this three-month trip several weeks in advance but much like a term paper from the long gone college days, it came down to some serious hours of sleep deprived cramming to get the job done.

Disoriented by the crossing of seven time zones without moving from the confines of our budget airline seats, we found ourselves laughing nervously as we finalized our rental contract for a right hand drive (yikes!) economy car and pulled directly into the volatile Johannesburg traffic. The excitement of potential "Big 5" game sightings and exploring highly acclaimed singletrack that lay across the foreign landscapes of the KwaZulu Natal region of this southernmost county on the African continent were most of what kept us from crumbling on the spot and checking into the nearest airport hotel to begin on some much needed recovery.

We emerged from a tedious city crossing into wide open plains where black thunderheads plowed across an impossibly huge sky framed by table flat plateaus and the jagged peaks of the Drakensburg mountains that lent more than a hint of the potential for outdoor adventure found in every direction and stoked our excitement for what lay ahead.

There is little doubt that South Africa packs more outdoor activities per square meter than most countries as such the majority of the locals seem wired with an interest in an outdoor lifestyle. Opportunities for game sighting, hiking, surfing, canoeing, moto riding, skydiving and the like are pretty much found outside every town. Luckily to simplifying things for us, we have come here with a mission to race our mountain bikes.

Our seasonal plan was all but solidified by our inclusion to the US Olympic Long Team - an exclusive pool of athletes including eight American men and nine women from which the eventual four-person (two men and two women) US Olympic team will be selected. The criteria for selection is straightforward and includes little more than our performance at the first four World Cup races of the 2012 season. Being that the first World Cup is taking in place in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa and accounts for 25 percent of the Olympic selection, it was a given to come with our game faces on.

Although Mary and I compete in several disciplines of cycling that effectively slim down our off season to a matter of weeks, the World Cups are something all together different. The difficulty of the World Cup courses often pale in comparison to those of some of the other competitions we are involved in but the caliber of the athletes competing at these races would effectively elevate a dash across a parking lot into a world class event. Significant national team cycling budgets are typically spent sending a select few of the best riders to these events, often accompanied by highly acclaimed coaches, nutritionists, massage therapists and team managers to help elevate each to the best version of their A game.

It came as no surprise that the competition was stiff at the World Cup opener, especially since this was effectively the first cross country race of the season for both Mary and me. In my case, the battle for the first singletrack was lost by a combination of back row (of 120 total riders) start position and a bit of bad luck that saw me walking up the majority of the opening climb behind a swarm of congestion that allowed those at the front to put on an insurmountable lead. The rest of the day was just damage control battling with those unfortunate enough to have been dealt a similar hand and just trying to ignore the absurdity of the overall picture in place of getting in some good racing.

Mary was little better off in the middle of the women's field, where she was able to fight the good fight only after losing some considerable time due to a poor start as well as the mistakes of those surrounding her. Every touch of the brakes is a guaranteed place lost or more but when not braking means guaranteed contact the choice is an obvious one.

We both came out of the race experience with a feeling of disappointment but also an important lesson re learned that the World Cups are an experience all together different from the racing we have recently been competing in. The World Cup races are a strategic battle that fitness alone will not fully prepare you for. These races require tremendous mental strength and the ability to include every effort over the entirety to have a chance to make it through with any level of success. A good start position, having the best lines dialed, making no mistakes and timing your body to lay everything on the line past the point of exhaustion, are all components that would help to garner a successful result.

We want to give a shout out to all the people who helped us to make this trip something special to remember. The strength of the friends and family end of our program was once again a saving grace throughout our travels. Having a safe quiet place among friends to recover and get our spin back into circles after the travels is an incredibly important part of our program and overall success. Huge thanks to both the Duncans and the Stark families for their tremendous generosity and willingness to open their homes and take us in!

Mary and I are looking forward to re shuffling the deck and preparing ourselves for the next round now just three weeks way in the classic race town of Houffalize, Belgium. Time to get out the welleys!

Charging onwards!
Mike and Mary

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