South African marathon MTB series makes changes to attract foreigners

The MTN National Mountain Bike Series has changed the face of mountain biking in South Africa. What started as a small series with a couple of hundred participants in 2002 is now the biggest national mountain bike series in the world with tens of thousands of participants. The events that formed part of the series in the past have all become institutions on the local and international racing calendars. Advendurance, organizers of the series, are making some changes to the list of events that will be part of the 2014 Series.

Key to the success of the MTN National Series has always been their careful consideration of its dates to allow South Africans to shine on the international cycling stage.  In 2014, Advendurance director Fritz Pienaar has been planning around the Cape Epic mountain bike stage race and the UCI World Marathon Championships in Pietermaritzburg.

The changes should also make the races more attractive to international racers based on how they fit in the overall international calendar. The current economic climate makes it near impossible for South Africa's young riders to base themselves in Europe to gain international racing experience which means it's all the more important to get experience at home racing top international riders.

Four of the eight races in the MTN National MTB Series are recognized as fully fledged UCI-sanctioned events, making it easier for local riders to get international racing exposure. The MTN Sabie and MTN Clarens events form part of the UCI World Series while the MTN Tulbagh and MTN Hilton Nationals are also listed on the international calendar.

Riders competing in the 2014 Cape Epic from March 23-30 could start their preparation by competing in the MTN Dullstroom on February 8. Two weeks later, it is the world series event and MTN Sabie on February 22 followed by the MTN Tulbagh on March 15.

The MTN Dullstroom National will be a must-do for anyone keen to test themselves at altitude. Dullstroom (2100m above sea level) is listed in the Notes from Higher Grounds: An Altitude Training Guide for Athletes as one of the top 15 high altitude training venues for international athletes.

The MTN Hilton National will take place on June 22, one week before the marathon Worlds in Pietermaritzburg. Pienaar predicts that quite a few of the top international riders will be competing at Hilton so as to get a feel for the local racing conditions.

The ever popular Van Gaalen event is now also part of the MTN National MTB Series next year.

The Barberton and Wellington events are the races that have been dropped from the 2014 series. Asked why for the first time in 13 years, the Barberton event won't be part of the MTN National MTB Series, Pienaar said that a change is sometimes as good as a holiday. "Don't get me wrong. Barberton is fantastic race. We just felt it was time for a change to freshen up the series a bit with new exciting routes and venues."

The 2014 series will also be more compact as a result and will span eight months as opposed to the 10 in 2013 making for more exciting racing

"We are always careful that we don't stagnate in our way of thinking as organizers of the MTN National MTB Series. We see the MTN Dullstroom event as a new challenge. What I personally like about it, is that it is a real weekend breakaway for families. After racing there is so much to do and see in Dullstroom. It is very similar to Clarens."

The series not only caters to top professionals and international riders but through the various distances on offer, the masses also get to ride. A half marathon series coincides with the full series and usually takes place the day after the main events. The shorter distance series develops junior and youth mountain biking while providing an easier option for all the weekend warriors.

The 2013 addition of an under 23 category in the MTN Marathon event aimed at encouraging growth in the "gap years" for young riders between the junior and elite categories is hoped to enable them to bridge the jump to be able to compete and not just ride in full distance marathon races.

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