The Roof of Africa Enduro Event
Even the sensible route down Free Fall Pass will scare you. Myriad switchbacks zigzag across a 40-degree slope of loose mountainside rock and sand, before merging into an even steeper boulder-strewn, floodwater-carved ravine. For the competitors in the Roof Of Africa enduro, Free Fall has always been more of a launch point than path. You practically need a parachute to get down this mountain pass, hence the jokey name. This year, in a wicked twist to mark the 44th running of the legendary Roof, the organisers have chosen to send the riders up Free Fall instead of down.
“That’s where you’ll get the real taste of the Roof,” says event organiser Mike Glover, pointing to the inflatable blue arch positioned about 400m below. “That’s where you’ll find your guts and glory stories.”
Sitting next to his bike, slumped in the shade of the arch and slugging a can of Red Bull is Gary Bennett, a chubby bloke in his 30s. It doesn’t look like it’s going to give him wings, but common sense has long flown the coop.
“It’s very tough," he pants, “but I can’t stop now…”
Back in the saddle, Bennett guns his KTM 300. His brother, who’s been cheerleading from various points all day, yells:
“C’mon, boet! Do it for the amputees!”
With that Gary bumps off up the track, albeit for only 50m or so. It’s a moment to be dumbstruck.
For the amputees?
Bennett, 35, from South Africa, who lost a leg above the knee in a motor accident nine years ago, is about to finish the Roof as a Bronze rider (there are three categories, Gold, Silver and Bronze, based on ability). Over two days, this warrior has ridden 167 gruelling kilometres across the toughest mountain terrain imaginable, following the grinding procession upwards. His stops are as frequent as brother Rob’s words of encouragement.“It’s yours, boet!” he implores using the Afrikaans slang for brother. “It’s yours, boet! C’mon, it’s yours, boet!” And off Bennett roars again.
It’s his second Roof after being time-barred in 2008.
“I came back because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. That disabled people can also ride the Roof. But I don’t think I’ll do it again…” says Bennett, who nearly didn’t make it to the start after he fell so hard in training three weeks ago that he thought he’d broken his ribs.
Eventually, Bennett pops out of the track onto the red carpet to the finish line. Fittingly, he’s riding the KTM 300 XC-W that last year gave New Zealander Chris Birch his third Roof victory in a row. The difference, though, is that while the top riders like Birch dance over the steep passes, Bennett and the bulk of the field claw their way over. It’s like watching the last survivors of a damned superheroes convention fight their way out of Dante’s Inferno.
Tears in his eyes, Rob’s bursting with pride. “I’m so humbled and so proud. It sums up what the Roof is all about. And the kind of person it takes to finish.”
And Rob is the kind of spectator this race attracts. There are around 5,000 this year, many of them astride their own bikes. Some are content to sit on a rock in the baking heat, sipping ice-cold lager, but as many immerse themselves physically and emotionally. Not a moment goes by when spectators aren’t wading in to help a fallen rider or drag a bucking bike back onto the track. Some of the race’s most evocative images are of locals and tourists joining hands in a chain and hauling bike and rider like a Great Trek ox wagon over a section that has him beat.
Spectator interaction makes the Roof special. But it also racks up the tension as riders enter the ‘no-help zone’ in their burst for the finish. Like the closing moments of the final day in this year’s event, when South Africa’s Jade Gutzeit and Birch fight each other out of the energy-sapping Bushmen’s Pass for second spot.
Gutzeit takes a tumble and loses his Yamaha 290 down a rocky ledge. As Birch blasts past on his KTM, several spectators scramble down off the track, knowing this time words and advice rather than muscle will have to do. About 100m away at the finish line across the ravine, Clerk of the Course Clint Rieper waives the no-help rule. Spectators in earshot haphazardly shout the news across to Gutzeit’s helpers. But the overhead TV chopper slaps away their words. Undeterred, more voices join in, quickly finding the unison of a Premier League crowd: “Help him! Help him!” they chant but to no avail. Spontaneously, several spectators take up the call and set off from different mountainside positions, picking their way across the rocks. Encouraged, the gallery redirect their chant, willing them to go faster. By now there are tears all around.
Suddenly, like a cork out of a champagne bottle, Gutzeit pops back onto the track and both sides of the ravine erupt in a collective roar. It’s lump-in-throat stuff drama, echoing last year when South Africa’s Brian Capper succumbed to fatigue about 500m from the finish line with 20 minutes to cut-off.By the time he reached Rieper, who had heard of the drama below, the crowd were hysterical. Unable to help and with around five minutes remaining they were screaming at Capper, slumped over his handlebars, to move the last 100m.
“When he got to me he was out of it,” recalls Rieper. “He was throwing up in his helmet and his eyes were glazed. It wasn’t going to affect the leaderboard so I waived the no-help rule.” With minutes to spare spectators hoisted man and bike and ran the lot over the finish line. Exhausted and dehydrated, Capper left the finish on a stretcher but returned this year the fittest he has ever been to finish fifth on the final day, seventh overall.
“The biggest problem in these mountains is you get dehydrated,” explains organiser Glover, himself a Roof veteran. “It gets very hot and by the time you feel thirsty, it’s too late. Altitude doesn’t help either. From 1,500m riders climb to over 2,200. So there’s just no air. You get light-headed. Just picking up your hand takes a huge effort. And that plays havoc with concentration. You start to see stars and hallucinate. As physical exhaustion sets in, you make mistakes.”
Exhaustion is a Roof rider’s Achilles’ heel, says Glover. “Riders are up at four in the morning and start around six. The top guys are in the saddle for eight hours, the rest for up to 12. You can never relax. There are rocks and rocks and rocks. It’s like a title fight. Your body takes such a pounding that eventually you just can’t hold onto your bike any more. But when you fall and your bike slides down the mountain, you’ve got to go after it and pull it back up. It weighs 120kg, so eventually, after physically manhandling your bike all day, it takes its toll. That’s why a woman has never finished the Roof. Lots have tried, but they just haven’t had the physical strength to finish.”
Run over November 24-26, 2011, the Roof opens with a 50.1km time trial around the Lesotho capital of Maseru. This determines starting times from Molengoane, the following day, when the Roof proper kicks off.
Leading contenders set off at 6am and race 198.4km for around eight hours up and down passes appropriately named things like ‘Pressure Cooker’ (notorious for blowing engines), ‘Mad Cow’, ‘Black Neck’, ‘Spiderman’ (because you need to be), the arduous ‘Classes Classic’ that really sorts the men from the boys, before the notorious ‘Free Fall’ at the finish.
Bronze and Silver riders do the same route, but call it a day sooner at 85km and 135.8km respectively.
Starting according to the previous day’s finishing time, the Bronze category competitors do 81.8km of intense climbs and drops, while the Silver crew continue for another 65.1km, including a character-testing climb up the 6km Mankaluba Pass which summits at 2,286m in the clouds before finishing at the top of notorious Bushmen’s Pass.
Gold forge on for another 41.8km, looping around and up to 2,350m before dropping back into the valley for a morale-breaking second assault up Bushmen’s to the finish.
Out of 234 entrants from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the UK and Portugal, just 53 finished the full race distance of 387.1km. There were 82 Bronze finishers and 65 Silver.When the sun set on the final day there were two riders missing. They were rescued by lunchtime the following day, one of them on horseback.
Probing riders for the deeper meaning behind racing the Roof yields little philosophising, possibly because it’s such a ‘jock’ activity. Most riders do it because they can. Extreme enduro riders are very in-the-moment. Like 17-year-old Carl Donaldson, who is walking away from his Bronze finish between two emotional parents.
“It’s my first extreme enduro and I loved it,” confesses Donaldson, who’s been riding bikes since the age of two. “It’s good fun. I enjoy a challenge. Chris Birch didn’t win three times by watching the Roof on TV. You’ve got to get out there and do it.” But why this? “I love riding my bike more than anything,” he says. “Being out there is where I’m happy.”
The song remains the same even with one man who should be the wiser, enduro legend Alfie Cox, who from 1988 won nine Roofs, three of them on the trot.
“Humans want to be challenged,” says Cox, now the dynamo in the KTM pit for Birch and other overseas riders. “They want to be taken out of their comfort zone and pushed to the limit. And the Roof does that. It’s the ultimate adventure. It’s one of the toughest events in the world.”
Tougher than the 89km road-running Comrades Marathon, reckons last Gold finisher in 2009 Jaun de Heer, aged 29. “You need much more endurance. I was finished in 2009. I was like a zombie for a week. I wanted to quit but my pit crew pulled me through.” So did the consequence of baling. “If you quit in Comrades you can just jump in a bus. Here you can’t unless you want to spend the night under the stars in the middle of nowhere."
Only the third rider in the Roof’s 44-year history to claim a hat-trick of Roof wins, Red Bull’s Birch was denied an historic quartet by the UK’s Graham Jarvis. With his victory in the Roof, Jarvis has now won all but one of the world’s Top Five enduros in 2011 after also collecting the first place trophies at Hell’s Gate (Italy), The Tough One (England) and Red Bull Romaniacs (Romania).
Only the Erzberg rodeo in Austria remains unclaimed. A man of many trophies, yes, but not of many words, unfortunately... even at the supper table. Birch, though, is more forthcoming. Surprisingly, I find him not back at his hotel, but tucked in with the finish line crowd.
“It wouldn’t be right to leave when my mates are still out there,” explains the Kiwi, who fought back on Saturday after crashing early and injuring his foot. It says a lot about the egalitarianism of this race. Birch loves Lesotho. “It’s really a beautiful country to ride motorbikes in. It’s 100 per cent freedom.”
When it comes to combining fun and challenge, there’s no other race like the Roof, which he describes as “a big adventure”, it’s just full of nice people eager to help one another. His range of race emotion is as extreme as the rocky terrain which “smacks you around” all day.
“You go from having loads of fun and the best time ever to being almost in tears because you’re so fatigued you can’t get up this one stupid rock face,” says Birch. “It teaches you a lot about yourself, how to control your body and mind while you’re up against extreme hardship.”
A control that Wayne Everton, 43, has fine tuned. About 45km from his 6.35am Saturday start he crashed his KTM 300 and fractured his wrist. Around seven hours and 140km later he was the 22nd Silver rider across the line. “I wanted Gold today, but I can only manage Silver,” puffed the ashen-faced rider while race doctor Jacques Theron splints his arm and paramedics scan him for other injuries.
In his red racing gear minus his jacket, Everton resembles an injured Spiderman.“I hit a lurker [a big rock in the grass] flat out and went flying over the bars and landed on my wrist,” says Everton.
“I was in a lot of pain the whole way and only got painkillers an hour and a half back. But I had to finish otherwise the missus would’ve killed me. The training and shit takes up too much time.” Doc Theron is full of admiration. “
Sheer balls and ‘vasbyt’ [determination]. He overrode the pain mentally and went for it. It shows you the power of the mind. Most guys would have quit then and there. It’s guts and glory.”
Played out against a spectacular backdrop of ever-changing mountain, valley and sky, these stories of bravery and finding self not only make the Roof unique but also quite meditative.
“When you’re on the bike, you don’t have a worry in the world because you’re so focused,” explains Roof veteran and former South African enduro champ Hilton Hayward, 43, now the Dr Suspension of enduro, who fine-tunes bikes from his mobile workshop. “And that goes on for hours. You’re so in tune with the bike and yourself it’s like surfing the sand. For me, watching a top rider is like watching ballet.”
- The race takes its toll – Wayne Everton receives treatment for a broken wrist, but he still finished 22nd in the Silver category
- A young boy gets in on the action at the start
- Duplicate GPS devices keep the riders on track
- Eventual winner Graham Jarvis skips over the rough terrain
- You can see from Calvin Wright's face just how challenging the course has been
- Only the brave: the Roof of Africa race is tough on man and machine, as South African rider Charan Moore found out
- Joy and relief: Graham Jarvis wins the 44th running of the Roof of Africa enduro in Lesotho
- In 2010 Brian Capper suffered exhaustion at the finish. In 2011 he was seventh
- Balancing act: Briton Dan Hemingway on his way to 18th place