A few things you didn’t know about Craig Wapnick
01 January 1970
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Gerald de Kock: This is another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking, welcome to it, thanks for downloading. Today we’re going to be meeting a personality involved with the great sport of mountain biking who has got such passion for the sport. But that is a theme of mountain biking in that so many people get into the sport for fun and for passion and end up earning a living and being deeply involved in it, in a business sense.
Today we’re meeting Craig Wapnick who is one of the three partners involved in the Old Mutual joBerg2c which is an event you’ll hear a lot about on our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike in the future and you did last year. Craig is a passionate mountain biker and thank you for joining us. Where did this mountain biking thing come from?
Craig Wapnick: Gerald, I’ve loved sport all my life and one day I got to ride in Cape Town with a mate of mine who said, let’s go for a mountain bike ride. We went up the steepest, rockiest climb ever, we couldn’t get up and we spent about 10 goes trying to get up. That was my introduction to mountain biking and we didn’t leave until we got up the hill.
It was rolling rocks, we were on this old, giant Iguana’s with bull bars and horns and stuff on them, I don’t know what was on them. No suspension hardly, but the challenge was to see if we could get up this rocky climb. From that day I was hooked!
Riding to just enjoy it
GDK: You were hooked with a sense of that type of thing, a challenge, you didn’t get hooked on races and events, you got hooked in a different way to perhaps a lot of other people.
CW: I think that’s been the feature of all the guys I’ve ridden with is that we’ve always tried to ride trails, just because of the sheer enjoyment. I suppose my equation of saying, like a surfer doesn’t paddle all day out to waves, he wants to ride waves. You’ve got to have an element of finding the single track and getting up to the top of the mountain, but then that’s the reward.
I think, without that, it doesn’t work for me really. I don’t have a mountain bike to ride district roads, I have it because I want to go and find trail. However, there’s that balance, but we were introduced to mountain biking to go ride trails and see where the world’s trails are and that’s how we’ve done it.
GDK: But, as you’ve mentioned, you’ve always loved sport and mountain biking wasn’t your first sport that you took seriously. You still are a very fine squash player, that was your early passion?
CW: Look, it was my passion and it was my livelihood, that’s what I did for a living. It was a privilege to be able to play sport and earn money out of it. People always said to me, gee, why don’t you play tennis, I played squash because I loved squash.
I was also able to earn money from it around the world, which was a real privilege for 10 years and it taught me an amazing amount about sport. It’s actually quite funny now, at the age of 46, I’m sort of leaning away from professional sport a little bit. I’m back to the reason I started playing squash in the first place, which is my mountain biking and that is just pure enjoyment.
GDK: You’re still playing a bit of squash and you’re still riding your bike, how fit are you at the moment?
CW: Listen, when you ride with Glenn Haw, Gary Green my partners, we’ve just done the dry run, so I’d say in general, fairly fit for riding. But there’s nothing, every sport is different. I used to be quite sort of arrogant and say squash players are the fittest because it was brutal, but it’s a different type of brutal.
So, squash fit, I’ve got the World Masters later in the year, I’ve got 6kg to lose, but it’s a very different type of fitness. If you don’t get yourself prepared for that sport, you get grumpy and sore. Whereas if you said to me can I go and ride the Epic tomorrow, I’d be able to go and ride the Epic – not fast – but it’s all different, so different.
What works when it come to Mountain biking
GDK: That brings me to the difference in all the events that we have in South Africa and I think we could speak for days on the differences. What makes South African mountain biking tick and why it is ticking at such a high rate at the moment? Why events sell out, why some events don’t sell out. What is making mountain biking tick fast or slowly?
CW: I think the one beautiful thing is that it’s booming in so many different directions. The riding, the stage racing in South Africa is exceptional. There’s no question that we have some of the best rides in the world. I think it’s mainly because a lot of it is private land. We need to be able to traverse private land, so organisers put us on incredible trails. We’ve noticed that the trail parks and trail centres are doing a fantastic job.
I’ve been riding some places now where it’s fantastic and I think as organisers, we’ve got to really say; listen, guys, we’ve got to make our riding special. Because there’s a lot of trail centres that are doing it special and to be fair, if we all boost each other, it’s going to go fantastic places. But the common denominator is how special was your ride or is your ride, not how far did you ride, what did you do. It’s how special.
GDK: Therein lies the tricky bit because some people see 2 500m in 70km is special because it’s hard, it’s tough and that’s what I like. Others the drop down the Mkomazi valley for 16km is the most special ride of their lives. It’s getting that balance and finding the balance.
Getting the balance right
CW: That’s the thing, I think that’s why it’s so great to have so many different rides. We can’t please all the people all the time. That is one of the things you learn quickly. A lot of organisers spend a lot of energy on 5% that you will never please of your riders. We’ve got to spend time, and then a lot of organisers spend too much time on 5% that over-praise them.
We’ve got an amazing amount of riders who have got good criticism and fair criticism and we’ve got to look after those guys and that is the people we listen to. I think the beauty of this place in South Africa at the moment is that if you came over from overseas and decided to stay here for a year. You could do all our stage races and they would be amazing. They’ve all got something different, they’ve all got some uniqueness and that’s what’s so incredible about this country. We’re not repeating ourselves, we are different and I think that’s what we must embrace.
GDK: Are they too expensive?
CW: Without a doubt. If I look at joBerg2c, we don’t have many 20-30 year olds. When I say ‘too expensive’, I don’t think we could do it for less. So it’s about, what I think is a problem is that we don’t have enough student style mountain biking festival weekends. Whereas they’re very much aimed at the guy who has got a bit of money, which is why a lot of our sponsors are involved.
Which is a good thing for us, but as a rider, I feel we need a bit of youthful energy. I think the Spurs mountain bike league is doing a great job until 18 year olds. Then what do these guys go to? They haven’t quite got the money to get into these events. They can do the one rides, but we miss out on having the 20 year olds youthful energy.
How to make mountain bike races accessible
GDK: Is there a vacuum, are we looking at maybe in a few years’ time, as we, I suppose in a way this generation who have been riding stage races for 10 years or so, are starting to move on. This vacuum of those 20-35 year olds who are unable to meet what are increasing entry fees. Do you think there might be a drop-off in numbers in these stage races?
CW: You know, it’s a very good question. I think one of the best ways to answer that is to look at the bike sales of new entrants, of people buying new bikes that haven’t ridden before. I think if you look at sani2c for example and joBerg2c and the Epic, you realise that there’s euphoria around mountain biking that people want to do these events.
They want to get in and they want to ride them, no matter what the cost is. We’ve got to be very careful from an integrity perspective that we keep our costs related to what we believe is a fair equation, that’s how we work it. I think we’re going to see quite a big boom, but I think we’re going to see a tapering off of people who have done the same events for a lot of years.
Whether there’s enough new entrants, we’ll see, time will tell. But you must always remember that going to ride bikes with your mates for a weekend around the world is a lot cheaper than one or two big stage races!
GDK: That’s absolutely right. What for you is a great trail?
What constitutes a great trail?
CW: I think a great trail, and I’m going to steal a line from what Farmer Glen says; is one that everybody can ride. The good guys ride faster, they have more fun – in their own way – and a beginner feels on top of the world. It would be like a five-foot wave, where you can actually all surf it. It’s not too dangerous, but a good surfer will just do more stuff on the wave and that’s a good piece of single track.
It’s not overly technical, but you put your wife on it who hasn’t ridden a hell of a lot and she cannot believe how exciting it is. You put Greg Minnaar on it and he goes absolutely nuts and does tail whips and goes bananas. I think that’s the ultimate trail for all people.
GDK: You’ve got a lot of that on your joBerg2c and part of your brief over the last 6/7 years is to get that trail, to get the route to a stage where you and everyone feels it’s that type of trail. Is it in its evolution years still?
CW: Absolutely. We’ve got to keep finding sections that we can build on, but we’ve got to find that balance between what we call K-munching sections. If you don’t have K-munching sections, the guys are out there all day. We have a lot of rural farm roads where you’ve just got to be strong enough to get through the K’s until you get to the next section of single track say.
We are going to keep looking for the right type of single track because there’s no point in breaking the guys. We can put a lot more single track in, but then people look at you at the end of the day and go: I’m shattered. We want the guys to come and, after having trained hard and say, sherbet, that was an amazing section.
I was fit enough and strong enough to enjoy it, otherwise what are you doing? It’s just sort of meaningless. That’s the balance on a 900km journey. We can probably put loads more in. But people will hate us and then if we take out, people hate us, so we’ve got to find the balance.
Farmers embrace the sport
GDK: The farm lands you go through, how many farms you go through on the –
CW: Approximately 100, just over a hundred farms.
GDK: And on the first year there were one or two farmers riding, now they’re all clambering.
CW: Well, you know what, we go up and then we go down. We’ve got loads of farmers who can’t ride this year because they’ve got bull sales or they’ve got this thing on. John Davenport, he wants to come back next year, so we want our land owners to ride. The more they ride, the more they get the philosophy. The nine days does prove a bit of a problem for them.
So for this year, for example, a lot of the farmers are just choosing to do our middle three days and they’re even bringing some of their farm workers with. Just to get the feeling of what joBerg2c is about and that really works for us. Because then they get to sort of understand, sherbet, this is cool and then they might go on next year and do the full thing.
GDK: This is not a bad life for you. You’re living a bit of a dream, in a way. You play full-time sport as a career, now you’re working in a sport that you’re passionate about.
CW: Absolutely. Listen, it’s hard to believe this is our seventh one. I think what you’ve got to keep reminding yourself is that it’s a love for what you do but it is a business. Sometimes it’s not always easy to remind yourself.
But right now, we’ve got an amazing opportunity to build this event into something that will probably leave a legacy or is leaving a legacy from what we’re doing for the schools. What the event does for the schools and stuff. I think as long as you’ve got these sort of points to satisfy my urge to make a difference, I’ll be motivated. It’s not about just an event, it’s about what else you’re doing, otherwise it’s a little bit limited.
GDK: Making a difference.
CW: Making a difference.
GDK: Craig Wapnick, ‘Whopper’, thanks very much for chatting.
CW: Thanks Gerald.
GDK: That’s Craig Wapnick from Old Mutual joBerg2c and look out for him at the World Masters Squash Championships at the Parkview squash courts in May or June or July –
GDK: September, he’s got lots of time to lose those kilograms! Thanks for downloading another edition of Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking. We’ll be back with plenty more characters, personalities and people around this great sport.