The 31st of January saw most of South Africa’s top mountain bike pro’s, as well as many top international mountain bikers line up for the first round of the Ashburton National Marathon Series at Meerendal wine estate. Being a home event for me, you would expect to see me on the start line ready for some action, but instead I found myself halfway around the globe on a slightly different start line.
After being loaded into Omanie military buses at first light, and surviving the 90 minute long journey over gravel road passes high in the Arabian mountain range, my start line was at 2500m high, on top of a mountain called Jebel Kwar. Slightly different to the Cape wine lands! You must be asking yourself: “what on earth?”. Don’t worry, so was I!
For 2015, the Trans Hajar 5 day mountain bike stage race in Oman attracted 75 riders from surrounding countries all eager for some stage race glory. For some, it was a perfect opportunity to get some much needed Cape Epic training in, which can prove rather difficult in Arabia, and for others it was their first attempt at a multi day event. With a field of mostly ex-pats that included many South Africans, it certainly added a feeling of solidarity whilst standing on top of a mountain in the middle of absolutely nowhere!
After the previous day’s 40km individual prologue, the real racing began on stage 2 which featured a 15km neutralised downhill start in order to reduce the risk, and enable us to take in the spectacular scenery at a slightly more relaxed pace. Despite this, within the first few km’s of descent the first casualty was claimed when Britain’s Matthew Page experienced some brake failure and had to dismount at 30km/h! It was a long walk down the hill for the Britt but thankfully he escaped with only a few roasties and was able to continue once his brakes cooled down to finish the 127km stage. In the lead group we found strength in numbers on the flat stage, and after surviving some testing terrain it came down to a sprint finish which resulted in 3 Saffa’s on the podium. James Reid, Max Knox and Andrew Hill, who had all also made the trip out to Oman.
For the 2015 version of the Trans Hajar, now in its 5th year, the event found itself a new home 3 hours outside of Muscat. With the recruitment of the Omanie Military to help run the event, it didn’t take much to convince them to bust out their fancy demolition toys, which resulted in a football pitch size piece of land being completely levelled to create the perfect race venue, albeit a little dusty. Nothing is too big a task in the Middle East! What was great about this event was it’s rurality, which means that all competitors stay at a race village where everything from tents, to food, bike wash, mechanical servicing, ablutions, massages and chill out areas are catered for by Oman Sail, the event organisers who really went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable out there. This created an extremely friendly, comfortable and festive atmosphere out in the Arabian wilderness, and despite the harsh conditions made the event extremely pleasurable.
Again the third stage wasn’t without excitement. I completely surprised myself after having a rather rubbish first 2 days for various uncontrollable reasons, and after another 90 minute crack-0f-dawn bus transfer to our start line I proceeded to fly up the first climb which was a rather long 15km, and took us 53 minutes to summit. This time only James Reid could follow, and on this shorter 64km stage things were looking good for a podium. Unfortunately any hopes were dashed (or should I say slashed) when I pinch flatted on a really rocky downhill, which ended that notion. The excitement wasn’t over however. With 5km to go I came across Andrew Hill standing at the side of the road at the bottom of a fast downhill section, Enve(read very expensive) wheel folded completely in half and looking rather sheepish. A little later after finishing the stage I found out he had collided full tilt with a goat who decided to test Andrew’s last minute reactions. I’m not kid you not! Unfortunately for Andrew the crash was just too bad and he had to withdraw from the race.
The next morning we woke up to a stunning Arabian sunrise, and with all bad luck(hopefully) and the remote starts out of the way were were able to have a stress free morning before heading out onto the shortened stage 4 leg. Unfortunately they only took a few km’s of flat road out and left us with a staggering 25oom ascent to achieve in only 47km. The amazing thing over in Oman is that they don’t have to adhere to normal road building requirements and regulations, because it barely rains. Instead the tar road climbs hit insane gradients of up to 20-30%. Again, the lead group found strength in numbers climbing up the tar road to Jebel Shams, a 3000m high peak, the highest on the Arabian Peninsula.
It was at the top of the 10km climb that James and I again found ourselves off the front, nose bleeds and all, and worked on building a bigger lead on the others. Chasing back down that same tar road climb it was hard not to imagine the result of a brake or equipment failure while descending. Never in my life have I had to get behind my seat while descending a tar road! By the bottom of the descent my brake rotors were burnt black, and still are. James and I had managed to extend our lead and with me setting the the pace back over the last climb home I was able to out sprint the youngster for the line and take my first international race win ever. What a memory! With 1 day left I was now 8 minutes off a podium spot. Having learnt one or two things over the years of racing, one of them has been that it’s not over till it’s over.
One thing I was beginning to discover by now, was that although not a typically sporting nation, the Omanie people LOVE sport. With the quiet roads not being fully closed off while racing, our encounters with the odd 4×4 usually resulted in vigorous hooting. Normally in South Africa this is associated with aggression, but over the days I was beginning to realise that these people are incredibly warm and friendly, and are absolutely sport crazy! Bring on the hooting.
With all the big climbing out of the way, the last and final day saw the field do a 100km circular route around our base camp mountain and back. The final day’s route was 50% tar with roughly 1500m climbing and large groups formed again with riders finding strength in numbers. At the Trans Hajar, we didn’t just have high mountains, heat, dry conditions and other competitors to contend with, but as you saw earlier some wildlife to negotiate too. Being an arid landscape, with very little vegetation it makes grazing your animals pretty difficult and much to our dismay the pink paper route markers looked far too tasty to resist for the camels and goats. Riding down one of main long gravel roads we encountered a caravan(I had to Google that one) of camels, one casually chewing on a pink route marker for a mid-morning snack. Looking perturbed by a bunch of skinny lads in lycra the route marker was quickly discarded and they proceeded to gallop down the road in front of us for a few hundred meters. All pretty amusing stuff! Along the way we had lost 2nd placed Max Knox to a puncture as well as the 4th placed Romanian rider Tudor Opera.
To our disappointment at the finish line, only after putting our heads down and nailing the uphill tar road finish we found out that we had taken a wrong turn somewhere along the route, and the 5 leaders were handed a 15 minute penalty which again dashed the podium result I achieved on the final stage, as well as my hopes of moving up overall. I told you it’s not over till its over! It was an easy pill to swallow as luckily that did not change any of the general standings.
To finish off our incredible experience, our final night was spent having a celebratory barbecue where the all the riders could share war stories and strengthen the bonds made over the last 5 days of adventure, followed by a movie on the projector under the Arabian night sky. Leaving Muscat the following evening after having a chance to see the city which blends the new an old beautifully as well as getting to know some of the locals more closely, I was definitely sad my trip had come to an end.
With next years event promising to be bigger and better with a new location yet again, those keen for an adventure, the effort of going out there is well worth it. Put it on your calendar. It’s on mine.
Keep it rubber side down.
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