THE HEAT IS ON
Beachcomber’s mountain-bike race across Mauritius is not for the faint of heart — but there’s a whole lot of pampering on the sidelines for those who dare, writes Paul Ash
The invitation went something like this. “Do you ride mountainbikes?” “Er, yes. Why?” ‘ There’s this mountain bike race in Mauritius, see, across the island ...” Me (nearly beside myself with excitement), “Yes, yes, yes! I mean oui-oui-oui! Choose me! Choose me!” So they did. For the annual Mauritius Tour Beachcomber, a 200km, three-day stage race across the island, riding by day and spending the nights at the beautiful, lagoon-kissed Shandrani Beachcomber Resort and Spa at the southern end of Île Maurice. With some gloating, I e-mailed a colleague. A social ride, I said. Down the island …
He sent me a gradient profile of Mauritius. At that moment, I thought a background check could prove useful. Just how serious is this race, I asked?
“It’s not the Cape Epic,” replied the Mauritius office, “but there are some technical parts and you have to have been riding regularly, about three times a week.”
Three times a week? Would the Sunday morning ride to have coffee in Delta Park count? Of course it would, I said. Ah, the war stories we would have to tell afterwards …
The Gods had other plans. The airline refused to carry my bike — for reasons beyond the scope of this story, my bike is what’s known as a longtail, a two-wheel bakkie, and too long to fit in a standard airline bike box.
“Pas grave,” (that’s French for hakuna matata) said my hosts, we’ll arrange a bike for you on the island.
In the end it didn’t matter. I flunked the medical. Allergies? Oui. Asthma? Check. EEG? What, I need an EEG?
THE SPORTS WRITER
I went to Mauritius anyway, to cover the race from the sidelines — a bit like Hunter S Thompson going to cover the Kentucky Derby in 1970, only without the horses, mint juleps, depraved Kentuckian alcoholics or Mace. Definitely no Mace in my carry-on, although Acsa security, thoughtful as always, did confiscate all my bike tools and sunscreen.
Also, while Thompson found digs at the poxy Horn Suburban Hotel, I was at the Shandrani Beachcomber Resort & Spa. In racecourse terms, HST was in a donkey derby while I was at Ascot.
I had a full day at leisure at Shandrani. To prepare, you see. My race prep day consisted of a slow breakfast overlooking the lagoon followed by a nap on a lounger, lulled to sleep by the breeze susurrating through the palms and the distant roar of surf on the reef. I broke from training for lunch.
For an afternoon warm-down, I borrowed one of the resort’s Laser dinghies and set off into a stiff afternoon breeze, beating up and down the lagoon.
Unlike the resorts up on the island’s crowded west coast, where sea-room is confined to each resort’s beach frontage, Shandrani has most of a vast, reef-protected lagoon to itself. This means wake-boarders, water-skiers, kayakers and sailors can exist
in a rare state of harmony.
I sailed up and down the lagoon for an hour, sun on my back and the Laser slicing through the sea like a blade. On the downward runs I could — if I peered under the foot of the bellying sail — see the hazy, green bulk of distant mountains, the same mountains that the riders would cross on the first 65km stage the next day. Happy is the sailor who does not have a mountain-bike race in the morning.
RIDERS, ARE YOU READY?
In the early morning coolness, the peloton gathered under the palms at Beachcomber’s Victoria resort up on the northwest coast.
There were croissants and coffee, oranges and juice — and an ocean of lycra.
In the middle of the flock was a cohort of lean and lupine bikers — from Réunion, I was told — who had eschewed the spandex in favour of baggy shorts and wraparound shades. They drank coffee and sucked on lastminute smokes as the start crept closer.
Clanking and whirring like a strange manylimbed animal, the peloton moved to the start line. The riders leant on their bars as the race officials gave a rapid briefing in French, followed by a rough summary in English.
“Bonne chance,” shouted the official, and stepped out of the way to avoid the sudden rush of aluminium, carbon and muscle. One of the trés cool Réunionnais riders trundled past near the back. It was hard to be certain but he may have been eating a croissant.
I spent the day in the air-conditioned comfort of a chase car driven by Beachcomber leisureand-events manager Arianne Devienne Bellepeau. An excitable supporters’ group from Réunion in the back seat screamed
“courage“and “allez mon coq” (Go, my rooster) at every Réunionnais rider they saw.
The plan was to follow the peloton away from Pointe-aux-Piments and then race ahead to the first water stop at the top of a punishing climb from the Camp Thorel forest to the Quartier Militaire.
As we skirted the little village of Arsenal, the last riders were swallowed by a rippling sea of green sugar cane.
The water stop may have been the best in the whole known mountain-biking world. There was a gazebo, where a chef — still wearing his toque — and his helpers had laid on a spread: coffee, tea, Cokes and energy drinks and the traditional Beachcomber buffet breakfast, along with mounds of cooked sweet potatoes and bowls of salt.
The first riders came ploughing up the hill like runaway locomotives, blowing off steam and sweat. The pros grabbed a drink, chowed a sweet potato dipped in salt, and rode on; others, less fazed by the competition, coasted to a halt, dismounted, had a leisurely cup of coffee and a chat with the officials and the chef, before mounting up and pedalling off.
By then the field was strung out. The leaders would have been rattling down to the coast and the finish line at Shandrani while stragglers were huffing up to the water point under the implacable gaze of the 823m-high mountain named — improbably — Pieter Both.
It was when I saw a fellow journalist come into the water point, panting like a racing greyhound, that I realised the Mauritius Tour Beachcomber is not a weekend jolly, despite the chain-smoking Réunionnais and the coffee-drinking cool cats at the water point. If I had tried to race, I would still be out there now, lost somewhere on the island, watering the sugar cane with my tears.
THE DAYS ARE JUST PACKED
The rest of the event passed in a blur. The day after the 65km punisher, the riders lined up at dawn for a 45km circular ride through the cane. In the evening, there was a 20km ride, followed on the third day by a last 63km circular trek from Shandrani — a race with a GPS profile that looks like an EEG of someone being chased by a lion.
By then, I had settled into a nice training routine at my island paradise home. I had spent my evenings eating well — Ponte Vecchio, the Italian restaurant, is great but Le Sirius, at the end of the beach, overlooking the marine park, is my land of dreams.
There were early starts to watch the action and speak to the riders camping out in the race village, followed by active mornings under the palms. Then lunch and an hour or two on the beach, listening to the island breathe.
In the evenings I would amble up to the “wild beach” — a beautiful stretch of sand where the waves jack up over the reef — and take a small beating in the pounding surf. It was some consolation for my not being a bona fide mountain biker. Next year, then.
AT A PUSH The sun and sea make for an inspirational support team in the annual Mauritius Tour Beachcomber.
COMPLIMENTS The chef attends to a competitor at the “world’s finest” water stop.