Those of you who read my post from last year will remember that my experience at the 2015 FNB 1Zambia MTB was a little different to the norm. Mixed team racing presented a completely new challenge, which my girlfriend and I overcame with great success. Conquering a race like that together was definitely a special achievement, but there was always the question in the back of my mind, “Could I win it?”
2 Months before the start of 2016 event, Tim Hammond, a South African living in Botswana who I had met before, but never actually ridden with, asked if I wanted to race with him for the overall win. I agreed, but when he placed 6th overall at SA XCM champs and 5th place at Sani2C, I began to get a little worried about how things would pan out. It was starting to look like I would be in for a proper 3-day smash fest!
The 1Zambia is now a 3 year old event based at the 5 star Lilayi Lodge just outside Lusaka, Zambia. The race runs over 3 days, the first two starting and finishing at the lodge over plus minus 70km, while the last day entails a great trek off the escarpment and all the way down to the Zambezi River. The race is run by passionate locals who really go out of their way to accommodate you, and the small 100 rider field makes the whole experience feel much less commercial than what many of our home stage races have become. Small, intimate, with great quality riding and food. Just my kind of thing!
The first time Tim and I ever rode together was the day before the race. We seemed to get along well, my bike was working perfectly, and the legs were feeling good. So far things were shaping up nicely. Having ridden day one before, I had an idea of what to expect. It looked like our main rivals for the weekend would be the team of Ryan Ellis and Andrew Johnson, both Zambian locals who knew the tracks well. Tim had been doing some Strava stalking before the race, so we had a slight idea of what to expect from our rivals. Interestingly enough, Strava would be the cause of some huge excitement throughout the weekend. More on that later…
Day 1 entailed short punchy climbs, with tight, twisty, loose single track for the first 40km, interrupted by a massive climb called Profanity Hill, after which was more tight twisty stuff and more short punchy climbs. We decided to test our opponents up Profanity. As we had predicted, it was just two teams at the front of the race. As we approached Profanity, just as planned Tim hit the front and ramped up the pace. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. At this exact moment our opponents were going through a spot of bother, and we managed to open up a gap immediately. We put in a hard effort until we reached the top of the climb, making sure we were out of sight. The rest of the stage was tight and twisty so we managed to stay hidden from our chasers. The hard efforts began to get to me with 15km to go, probably due to some slight stomach issues I was also having, but Tim was an absolute trooper of a partner and helped me get home without completely falling apart. We crossed the line in first place and waited 10 minutes until Ryan and Andrew crossed the line. We didn’t quite expect that and were pretty elated with our result.
Going into stage 2 with a 1o minute lead felt fantastic. Experience has taught me though that it’s not over till it’s over, and with the trails here in Zambia making the Cape Epic look smooth and groomed like Meerendal, anything could happen.
Stage 2 started off brilliantly. Tim and I won the early sprint prize and settled in nicely to the leading group with the legs feeling great. It was 15km in as we were running through a river crossing, that I noticed how soft my rear tyre was. We bombed my wheel quickly but the tyre continued to lose air. This resulted in a frenzy to fix it and after plugging a tiny sidewall cut, what was looking like straightforward stage 2 suddenly turned into a flat out team time trial through the twisty, undulating Zambian bush. We chased alone the whole day and finished second, 5 minutes down on Andrew and Ryan.
Stava later showed us that we had lost exactly 4 minutes 30s fixing the tyre, and throughout the rest of the stage every climb and open flat road each team was almost identical in pace through the different segments. We had made a critical error and underestimated our opponents. They had bounced back and had a flyer of a day and now had their tails up going into day 3. It was game on. Interestingly, there was also an overall Enduro downhill competition (fastest team over 3 days on a set downhill segment) going on where the overall winners would win a Garmin Edge 520 each. We had lost 14 seconds on day 1 and tied on day 2. Day 3’s segment was apparently long and wild and would require risking it all to bring back those lost seconds. Nothing like a little extra spice!
Day 3 was to be the king stage of the event, comprising of 110km of rolling district roads, dense bush single track set in rural foot hills, and un-spoilt, lush ravines most of which had never been ridden before. All this virgin territory would create many possible impediments and challenges and we decided to control what we could, and for the rest we would just have to hang on for dear life!
With the first 40km being relatively straight forward, the race was going to start getting interesting through the next 4okm of dense bush and technical riding. Whilst still within the first 40, I was allowed to ride off the front of the bunch to grab a bite to eat at the first water point, only to find that it had yet to be set up -great! Funnily enough this minor irritation was actually a blessing in disguise which saw Tim and I enter the tight and super technical single track first, just as things got interesting. Andrew prefers to call this move “planned” , but I assure you Andrew, it was purely coincidental!
Being the first ones into the ‘jungle’ allowed us to set our own pace down the techy trails which was a good thing as things actually got quite gnarly to say the least. A small crash by the other team shortly after they entered the trail themselves, let us escape. We weren’t quite sure what had happened to them, we just set about riding our own pace while keeping things tidy. As we hit the the Strava segment of the day, we just couldn’t help ourselves. There were a few very close calls down that rough, sketchy-as -hell downhill and we nearly lost it all a couple of times, but we would have to wait until much later to see if we actually got the time back. Right then were were just glad that our bikes and bodies were in one piece when we got to the bottom.
The trails eventually spat us out onto the flat lands along the Kafue River, a tributary to the Zambezi, where we had 40km of rolling flats to cover before we’d reach the finish line at Kiambe lodge. This actually turned out to be the hardest part of the day for me what with a headwind and rolling, corrugated roads to negotiate. With 16km to go, we suddenly noticed two white number boards floating behind us in the distance -Andrew and Ryan had slowly but surely been hunting us down, and it was apparent that the gap we’d created was not nearly as big as we’d initially thought.
With the end almost in sight, we were determined not to let it end in a sprint finish, so Tim turned on the afterburners and did most of the work riding into the headwind. I was pretty spent by this stage so it was with a massive sense of relief that (After what seemed like an age) the entrance to the lodge finally appeared. We were finally able to relax a little and soak up the moment as we rolled through the finish, enjoying the supportive atmosphere. The win did not come easy, so it was a brilliant feeling pulling it all together. Hats off to Ryan and Andrew for keeping us honest!
The highlight of the whole event was the prize giving, which took place on a sand bank in the middle of the Zambezi River. Pizza, home brewed beer and an epic sunset awaited us. Socialising with all the riders in one place, with lions on the opposite bank grunting in the bush was an incredible experience as we had time to reflect on the previous 3 days and share war stories with one another.
For me, this is where the future of mountain bike stage racing is at. Small, quality events with great trails, great food and amazing surroundings. Owen and Ilke Green have done a fantastic job of pulling this event off for the 3rd time in a row. All their hard work and attention to detail has once again made this an unforgettable experience which has truly reaffirmed the element of adventure into my mountain biking. If you are looking for a race different to the rest, one where you will make memories to savour for a lifetime, 1Zambia is where you will find it.
Oh, and for the record we did manage to claim that Strava competition, sneaking ahead by just a couple of seconds. You’ve got to risk it for the biscuit!
Until next time,
Keep it Rubber Side Down!