Sappi Howick Classic Festival
Trail runners and mountain bikers will flock to Howick this weekend for two days of events at the Sappi Howick Classic festival that proudly flouts its status as the oldest MTB race on the national calendar.
The network of single track that has been developed by the Howick Mountain Bike Club over the past three decades has garnered countrywide respect, earning a tough but exciting reputation which lures a big field to the 40km marathon and the 20km half marathon each year.
The philosophy of continually modifying the race routes, often to coincide with harvesting done in the plantations, has helped keep the races fresh, and a must-do for athletes of all abilities.
The weekend is built around the iconic 40km Sappi Howick MTB Classic marathon and it’s more manageable 20km sister race, but is now preceded by a day dedicated to enduro and trail running enthusiasts.
The manicured trails through pine plantations have resonated with trail runners since the event was added to the weekend of adventure sports last year, and under the auspices of KZN Trail Running the entry looks certain to surge for the 20km, 10km and 5km trail runs starting at 7am on Saturday morning.
The entry will include many of the sport’s pace setters in KwaZulu-Natal, including Mxolisi Motaung and strong women’s race podium contenders Apiwe Gaga and Abigail Stuart.
Saturday will also be an opportunity for the gravity mountain bikers to shine in the season-starting enduro, involving timed descents through the Sappi plantations that attracts the sport’s adrenaline and speed lovers.
Sam Bull is sure to be a contender in the men’s race, which is likely to see a battle with experienced local downhill racers like Kiera Duncan and Luke Dinkel, while the women’s race should see a close tussle between the gutsy youngster Beanie Thies and the talent of Charné Dreyer.
Last year multiple downhill world champ Greg Minnaar dropped in on the event unannounced and showed the rest of the enduro racers a clean set of heels to take the honours.
Much attention will be focussed on four young riders who will be racing their first competitive enduro. Aphiwe Goge and Ongezo Mini from the Velosolutions Izimbali team will be the first black women to take part in an endure. Together with Sakhile Langa and Sanele Hadebe they are all products of the GO!Durban Cycle Academy.
Sunday will see the start venue at Howick High School awash with mountain bikes as the MTB marathon and half marathon races wind out of town into the Howick MTB Club’s network of single track trails through surrounding forests and Sappi plantations.
Howick local Stuart Marais (Expedient/Scott), pictured top, is nursing a quiet hunger to finally win his hometown major after withdrawing last year while in the lead of the race when a stick lodged in his wheel, smashing the rim and rear swing arm.
His dreams of adding the Howick title to his impressive CV will be tested by a field that should include Andrew Hill (Darkhorse Wheels/TIB Insurance) and defending champion Tyronne White (Ballito Bicycle Co).
“When I first started racing everything happened in Howick, so it will be good to go back to my roots, so to speak,” said Hill, who is using the race as part of his training for the upcoming Absa Cape Epic.
“The more you race in training, the better,” he added. “It brings intensity and fast starts, which is what you need for the Epic.”
The women’s race will be wide open with the news that Bianca Haw, who ran away with the women’s honours last year, will be away in the Cape for an adventure race.
**As much as the event clings to its history as the oldest MTB event on the calendar, it is permanently evolving and responding to new priorities. One of these is to do away with cups at all the seconding tables to eliminate litter and plastic pollution. Riders and runners are expected to carry bottles with them on the races and refill these at the watering stations on the route.
DATES: Saturday, March 2 and Sunday, March 3.
EVENTS: Saturday, March 2: 5km, 10km, 20km Trail Run, Three Stage Enduro;
Sunday, March 3: 40km Sappi Howick MTB Classic Marathon, 20km Half-Marathon.