Make Lesotho your next mountain biking destination
13 May 2016
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Gerald de Kock: Thanks for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking podcast. Talking all manners and matters mountain biking both locally and internationally where we can and catching up with the events, riders, personalities, trail builders and the like. Today we’re talking international mountain biking.
Lesotho is where we’re going to because it’s become a bit of a hub for mountain biking on the African continent, certainly in the Southern tip of Africa. With the recent African Continental Championships taking place there, the mountain biking downhill cross country and everything else. The Lesotho Sky has become a must do event for stage race riders in September. Christian Smit and Darol Howes join me from Lesotho Sky. Christian, let’s start with you firstly. Go back to why and how the Lesotho Sky first started and what got you interested in it.
Christian Smit: Wow, how far back shall I go?
GDK: Not to Germany just yet but…
CS: Well my folks moved out from Germany to Lesotho when I was six years old and I went to primary school there. My first bicycle was basically in Lesotho in a small village and I cruised around there, the dongas and over and across mountains. So that brought me back after a finance degree and not really wanting to work in the corporate world to Lesotho and since then we’ve been, well Darol and I started a business there. It started as the Lesotho Sky race.
What the race or why it started for us was mainly the amazing trails and mountain biking in Lesotho that we discovered and still are discovering. Now after five years and probably will never end discovering. So it really is. We’ve dubbed it ‘The Mountain Bike Kingdom’ for exactly that reason. It’s an unlimited, endless amount of trails that we have now connected over the years to what we believe some of the best mountain biking in this part of the world certainly.
GDK: Darol let’s turn to you, the trails. I mean we in South Africa are quite used to people cutting trails and building but I suggest that it’s a little bit different in Lesotho. There are many trials that just are there.
What makes riding in Lesotho so special
Darol Howes: Yes, look that’s for sure. Often this results in carrying your bike especially if you don’t know your way but the trails are essentially a network of footpaths between villages. Because of the sheer rural nature of Lesotho there’s lots of little villages all over the country. People walk from place to place, cattle walk from place to place. Because of the herd boys as well, they take the cattle out at night or take the cattle out during the day to graze, they come back to the village at night.
So there’s this vast array of sort of natural single track and then we all know the best single track makers are people walking from place to place. They follow the flow, the lines, the contours that we try recreate as trail builders. But it’s that natural eye that every person has, I guess. This is what’s created this amazing flow in the trails in Lesotho.
GDK: It’s great for us as mountain bike stage racers from South Africa and elsewhere to come and ride there. But is there an interest, is there a growing interest in the sport amongst the locals in Lesotho?
CS: Definitely. This year we celebrate the launch of our first BMX track in Lesotho. In fact, it got revived to be honest because we had a BMX track in Maseru and then it died. We’ve just had a visitor from Pietermaritzburg in January, Tyron Johns who is running the Giba Gorge Development Programme. He has inspired us a lot, helped us to set up our own youth development league which is now running in Maseru at the biggest shopping mall, Maseru Mall, so it’s massive. We see hundreds of kids there every weekend.
We’ve also got some very strong riders from Lesotho that have been around for a number of years now. I think the best example is last weekend at the mountain bike festival in Pietermaritzburg where our currently strongest rider came out tenth in the cross country.
There is a huge interest and then we see a lot of support from Lesotho sponsors to support local talent. One of the big projects for us this year is that Darol and myself will be taking the top two Basotho riders to the Trans Alp Race in Europe.
Why you should come ride in Lesotho
GDK: It’s an amazing opportunity for youngsters to get out there and experience that but getting back to Lesotho Sky, Darol. The event has attracted riders from South Africa, some international riders as well but if you were to sell it to me, how would you sell it as a mountain bike event and destination?
DH: Firstly, the first thing I would highlight is the place. It’s very different to South Africa. It’s a very different travel sensation. It’s a very friendly, culturally different place to visit. On top of that the riding is absolutely amazing. The only thing I can liken it to is my recent trip to the Scottish Highlands.
It’s very wild, very untouched, and so much fun from a mountain bike perspective. Then in terms of the event, the event itself almost creates a family aspect. I, as the race organiser can probably name close to every single Lesotho Sky rider ever just because of the way we move as an event.
The pros are having to bear at the end with the person who comes last across the line and it’s a very rare thing to happen at races. I mean I’ve been to Epic, I’ve ridden two of them, I’ve been to other big races around the country, and that’s what makes it very different, is this experience.
GDK: Okay, let’s get down to the actual riding. Lesotho is not known to being particularly flat, Christian, so no doubt quite a lot of climbing.
CS: Definitely. Darol mentioned that earlier and I think we have to put it into perspective with other events. That’s the only way to compare it. Our days in Lesotho are quite short, so the average Lesotho Sky days is about 65/75 kilometres of riding with just short of 2000 metres of climbing.
GDK: A day?
CS: A day, correct. So over the six days we’ve got a route that’s just short of 400 kilometres and about 9000 metres of climbing. Now if you compare this to Trans Alp, which is what we have currently happened to train for, it’s actually very little because Trans Alp climbs 16 000 metres over seven days.
I think well, we’ll be riding those mountains and make sure that we’re really fit for Trans Alp but it’s not a tough race per se. It’s perhaps technically tough compared to a Sani or like a Wines2Whales but we have a finishes rate of about 90% and most of our riders are non-professional riders. They come for the vibe, they come for the experience and yes it’s tough, yes it’s different but it’s not a race that you’re not going to finish.
Great ups and downs
GDK: You talk about technical riding. I mean obviously when it goes uphill there must be downhills, must be some seriously exciting downhills and technically challenging?
DH: That’s for sure. Look I like to describe it to people, like if you’re in your garage, there’s your road bike and your mountain bike. If you walk out there and you would rather ride the road bike well then probably don’t come to Lesotho Sky. But if you’re a mountain biker and you really love mountain biking come along.
Chris rides a Giant Trance, I ride a, well it’s a steel-framed contraband with a 120 mm fork. We’ve both got 2.4 tyres on the front and it’s a technical place to ride. Sometimes it involves a little bit of walking but in general it’s… yeah that’s why we love riding there. I don’t like climbing my bike, it’s not that exciting.
GDK: I must just enlighten our listeners to the fact that both Darol and Chris have crossed over to the dark side a little bit in that they have got road bikes of late but I put that down to an aberration somewhere. It must be the thin air up there or something, Christian.
CS: Well yes, the true story is, I got a present. So my friend in Botswana didn’t know what to do with a road bike with big gears on it and it’s got three chain rings in the front and 32 cassette at the back. So well, I started road cycling, because well nice way to keep fit and there’s no traffic in Lesotho so why not and well, what we found was sheer amazingness. I being born in Germany and having cycled a lot in Europe and in the Alps as well I can only compare that to some of the Alpine riding that we find in the Alps just with no traffic.
So Lesotho has an expanding network and growing network of tarred roads that are being constructed to get access to the water that gets supplied to South Africa. So those roads are… yeah the highway is built into the mountains and perfectly suitable for road cycling with very little traffic. That’s what we’ve actually used now to create the tour of Lesotho or revive the Tour of Lesotho.
GDK: All right, well we’ve covered out quota of talking about road cycling for the year now, so let’s get back to mountain biking! Darol, this year’s event in September, I think it starts on the 19th of September, the highlights of this year and have you made significant or changes to the route at all?
What to expect from the route
DH: The route every year has since the 2012 edition of the event followed a similar route every year. Certain things changed just to try and make either the riding better or the logistics easier. This year the riding has definitely got better. We have explored a new venue, Semonkong in particular, which a lot of people might know from the Maletsunyane Falls. Which is one of Lesotho’s highlights in terms of a venue.
We started there last year and this year we decided we wanted a spectacular finish at this place. So we went up and we’ve been there a couple of times now looking for a full stage there. We’ve pieced together about 50 kilometres of some of the best riding I’ve done in my life.
CS: We have to mention a name here. There’s actually a particular piece of trail that… this is a longer story to it but like so that section of trail’s called the Wild Goose.
GDK: Why? Now I’m going to get the long story.
DH: How many details do you want?
GDK: Okay, well the short long story if you know what I mean?
DH: It involved tequilas.
GDK: Oh dear, Tequilas, this could be long.
CS: It involved tequilas. It involved a long night at Semonkong Lodge and their outstanding hospitality. We planned to leave, I think 06:00 in the morning and we left at 11:00. But point is though that the Wild Goose was one of the characters involved in the previous night and the tequilas.
So he came up and to Fly Fish in the Maletsunyane River and then it ended with us leaving the bar, I don’t recall the time but then all of a sudden he goes, “Well guys, I’ve got a wife” and we’re all right. Cool that’s fine, “Good night well I don’t know where, which room she stays in”. So he actually crashed in our backpacker dorm that night and he helped us coin that term the Wild Goose, yes.
GDK: Well it sounds sensational, you’re a hundred riders, and you’re pretty much sold out every year so I’m assuming there’s no great difficulty in getting riders to come and ride it.
DH: The trouble we have is that people don’t understand, in particular in South Africa in general, is Lesotho seems like a just a tenth province of South Africa. People aren’t driven to travel to it because of the nature of Lesotho and tourism in the past. It is a strikingly different place and this is the message we almost have to convey to get South Africans across.
A large percentage of our field actually come from Europe and we’ve had more people from Brazil than we’ve had from Bloemfontein which is only 120 kilometres away. So yes, people want to travel there, that’s for sure but the biggest hurdle I have is getting South Africans to Lesotho as a travel destination.
GDK: Well, it sounds sensational. One day it will be a race that we will all do, I’m sure, but Christian Schmidt and Darol Howes, thank you very much for chatting about mountain biking in Lesotho. In particular the Lesotho Sky for 2016 and indeed for the years to come and may it grow from strength to strength.
CS: Thanks Gerald, pleasure talking to you.
DH: Thanks Gerald.
GDK: If you want to go and check out The Wild Goose and various other great trails in Lesotho then check out the Lesotho Sky. It is one of those must do events. Six days of mountain biking in the ‘Mountain Bike Kingdom’, I think they refer to it nowadays. Thanks for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking. Till next time, cheers.