The art to sweeping an MTB race
06 July 2016
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Gerald de Kock: Hello and welcome to another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking, I’m Gerald de Kock. For the next ten minutes or so we’re talking mountain biking, as you’re no doubt aware now, if you’re a regular downloader, thanks for doing it. We talk to all sorts of personalities, characters, the racers, the middle of the field, the back of the field. The people who run the events and plot the courses and make it just such a joy to be part of this wonderful sport.
Over the years, or over the last year or so, we’ve spoken to a lot of the racers, we’ve spoken to the middle of the field, but we’ve never really spoken to the very back of the field. When I refer to the very back of the field in mountain bike stage races, I’m talking about the very back of the field. Those ensure that the last riders in the race get to the finish before a certain cut-off time. They’re known as the ‘sweeps’ in some circles. They might be known as the ‘hyenas’ as they hunt down the riders at the back of the field and cajole them on towards the finish.
I’m joined by two of them now at a country race in Greyton, the Penny Pinchers Greyton Classic. Derek van der Berg and Errol Derrick with me here, I’ll get the names right. Derek and Errol, I’m going to start with Errol, the Sweeps job, how did you land up being the man who is entrusted with that role?
How to become a sweep
Errol Derrick: That was with the first Wines2Whales where we were actually guides, as such, per se, which never really worked. Because we were running around finding everybody and we just got into doing all the repairs, helping people along the route. Just from there it went on, that’s how it got itself going, with Johan Kriegler.
GDK: Do you ride all your rides in races, as a sweep?
ED: Not all, there are just a few races that have the facility of a sweep, that ask for that facility.
GDK: When you ride a race, it’s always as a sweep?
ED: As a sweep and even if I do, like the Lesotho Sky, we ended up being sweeps, so it’s an automatic thing. Everybody asks the question: Are you the sweeps, you don’t really get to do a quick ride.
GDK: Derek, I’m coming across to you, how did you end up here?
Offering mechanical assistance
Derek van der Berg: I’m about the same as Errol, also Wines2Whales and we enable a lot of people to finish rides that wouldn’t finish rides. Because a lot of the guys don’t have the mechanical skills to fix their bikes. So that’s basically what we do, fix a lot of bikes.
GDK: Are you mechanically inclined or just over the years you’ve garnered a lot of knowledge about it?
DVDB: Over the years, with practice fixing people’s bikes, we’ve sort of got the idea now.
GDK: How much of those riders at the back is it about, obviously the mechanical issues who do have a problem, that plays a role. But the mental or physical condition of the riders?
DVDB: Some of them really battle. With Errol, Errol’s normal time because he’s a back sweep in Wines2Whales, I’m normally C or D group. But with Errol, he does three days of riding and the guys that finish the race on the first day, their time is better than Errol’s. So you know, over three days. So he does a good 9-hour first day of Wines2Whales.
GDK: What is it that you guys have or need that perhaps others in the race don’t have? Have you shed all interest in terms of riding a race for any particular time?
DVDB: We still ride quite a few races and we’ve just done Tankwa Trek, so we do quite a few races.
GDK: You’ve got to be fit.
ED: We ride a lot, at least 5-6 days a week.
The secret to being able to do it
GDK: Is there a frustration at sometimes getting behind riders and you think, they’re just not going to make it? You can be honest here…
DVDB: You get a little bit, when the guy stops and starts taking photographs for half an hour, you can get a little bit peeved. But if the guy is trying his best, if you’re going to be a sweep, you’re going to be a sweep. Then that’s how it’s going to be. A lot of them apologise, oh, sorry we’re taking so long. But it doesn’t matter, we’ve got the whole day.
GDK: You’ve got the whole day Errol, what is the secret?
ED: Patience. Go out there and enjoy your day and enjoy the ride. Talk to the people, make sure they enjoy the ride. But sometimes it gets to a point where you need to get them out of that situation. Short cut them, re-route them, otherwise they won’t be back the next day. You try and work it all out and balance the whole thing out. I think it’s just a lot of patience.
GDK: It’s got to be quite tricky as well because these people have often paid a lot of money to be there and they want to finish the ride and so on.
ED: That becomes the difficult part. I mean you try and organise with the guys on the motorbikes to re-route. I shouldn’t maybe say this, but a lot of them do end up riding, not knowing that they’re riding a shorter distance because of that. Because there’s a lot of logistics involved, a lot of people are hanging out there just for one or two guys.
It does get a little bit ridiculous. The sad part of it, you pull them through for the day and the next day you don’t see them, or the third day you don’t see them. That’s a little bit disheartening, but at the end of the day, it’s just great that you can actually get them through and hope they enjoyed their day, a tough day of cycling.
GDK: What is your longest day, what has been?
ED: Ten hours, just off ten hours.
GDK: Quite regularly perhaps?
ED: No, no, no, remember the Team Tortoise –
GDK: We are familiar with the Team Tortoise, yes.
ED: We’ll not go any further with that.
GDK: That word patience you were talking about a little bit earlier.
ED: Yes, you had to do a lot of talking there and convincing. But we got there at the end of the day.
When emotions set in
GDK: Does it get emotional for some who are guided off the course or just told you can’t carry on?
ED: You do get the cases where you have a team that have entered and then the one pulls out. Then they end up riding with somebody who is not quite there. I mean to give you an idea, the A2Z, Grabouw, the poor lady, she cried all the way.
So you’re trying to talk to them and keep them going because the partners drop them in the end. You just, it’s all about just motivate, motivate, motivate. Give them the option of pulling out, but they have to get to that point before they can pull out. Unfortunately, because there’s not always a bakkie available to pick them up.
But yes, there’s a lot of emotion, a lot of them go through quite a turmoil. It’s a tough day for them, psychologically, you can see it. The question you ask, inside, what are you actually doing here and then you do start asking questions. How much cycling have you done, your preparation…no, I do a lot of spinning, and what kind of distance? No, I did 10km on the road, and then you know you’re in for a day and you work it out from there.
GDK: Do you establish Derrick, a relationship with these riders? As Errol was saying there, quite early on, you assess who is going to be your clients, so to speak.
DVDB: Normally you get a good idea, you’re doing a two-day stage race and the person arrives with a tracksuit on. Then you know it’s going to be a while, and lipstick, you have the lipstick stoppers as well. But generally, you always hope that they’re going to be there on day three as well, cause some of them only make the first day and give up.
GDK: Clearly you enjoy mountain biking though.
GDK: How and why did you get involved?
The making of a sweep
DVDB: I used to run and my knee gave in, a friend and I, we started mountain biking. Then we did that, where you get an early bird entry for the Epic. Then we decided we’d better do a couple of stage races to sort of, so our first one was a whole tour. But we progressed from there, but it’s really enjoyable.
GDK: Errol, you’re renown for riding some quite interesting gear. You’ve got a beautiful old saddle on your bike there as well.
ED: The Brooks B17, yes, most comfortable. After all the long distance I have ridden, the journeys I’ve done, the tours I’ve done, that is the saddle that’s; it a bit heavier than the normal saddle, but it gets you through. You don’t really feel it after a day’s riding, which is quite amazing.
GDK: With all this riding and the long hours you’re spending out there, surely there’s a challenge that you want to set yourself and do something quite extraordinary?
ED: I do, I have done quite a few extraordinary things. I’ve done a Freedom Challenge, I’ve done it four times. I went and did a tour up in the Northern Cape, including the Richtersveld and the Namibia, long distance riding. Just getting out there and enjoying it. I think that’s where the endurance comes from, where I can cope with everybody, which is quite nice.
GDK: I say you enjoy this, you clearly do?
ED: I do, I love being out there on a bicycle, that’s what it’s about, on your bicycle and getting out there and riding. Whatever comes along, you just deal with it and the best for me was a guy, Hans de Ridder, you might know of him. Where we had him the very first time, a rugby player, overweight, etc. The nicest thing with Hans was, he told us straight off; guys, I’m not fit, I haven’t done this before, but I’m going to finish this .
We just took him through and he did it. He was off his bike more than he was on his bike, falling over the handlebars etc. I mean he’s done a couple of Epics since, he’s done all these endurance and multi-stage races and that to me means one heck of a lot. At least we got him through and he could see it is possible and look what he’s doing today, he’s just never given up, that’s stunning.
GDK: Errol, thanks to you guys people don’t give up because you keep encouraging them. So Derek and Errol, keep riding, slowly, very slowly, but steadily enough to keep all the riders in there. It’s fantastic to have guys like you with the attitude and the approach to mountain biking. That is to try and get everyone to enjoy it and to get to the finish line and that’s what it’s all about.
Errol Derrick and Derek van der Berg, two of our sweeps who you will meet if you ride at the back end of the field perhaps at one of the stage races down in the Cape. But when you do see them, don’t fear them, embrace them, enjoy them, they’ll get you to the finish. Thanks for joining us Derek and Errol and thank you for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast. Until next time, cheers.