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

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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.

GET­TING CANED

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.

Pic­ture: Xavier Koenig

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.

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