Recently at the Mpumalanga Cycle Tour, I noted something rather strange: at this road cycling tour (one of just a few on the road cycling calendar), there was near complete domination of the podiums by mountain bikers.

Tyler’s Twin appears in every edition of Ride. He lives in anonymous bliss in Joburg’s leafy north… watching. He is not nearly as grumpy in real life as he is behind his keyboard, he tells us, but the jury is still out on that. All we know is, he’s almost always right.

Three of the top four riders came from the NAD Professional MTB Team. They won the overall GC, the KOM jersey and the best young rider category. I guess the road cyclists can count themselves lucky there weren’t more off-road teams on the start line… And Lord help them if the mountain bikers start working on the sprints, as that was the only place the road cyclists seem to have an edge.

We have to ask ourselves how a local mountain-biking team could dominate our road cycling fraternity on their home turf like this. To add insult to injury, it was also the overall winner, Matt Beers’, first-ever road cycling tour. On the face of things, the answer is relatively simple… the mountain bikers are fitter and stronger, and on the fairly challenging parcours thrown at them during this tour, it gave them the edge. Where road cyclists have long been renowned for their fitness and endurance, perhaps the tables are turning. Well, at least locally I guess. Let’s dig into this a little more.

First up, of course, mountain bikers do train hard and they also train on the road. It is for obvious practical reasons, a great way to get rack up mileage in preparation for the season’s many long endurance events that lie in wait. Of course, it’snot the only training mountain bikers have to do though. They’ve got the added challenge of having to fine tune all their technical skills; there is more time spent on bike set-up and refinement; and there are further mechanical challenges that need to be mastered. They also generally carry a bit more upper body weight to handle the physical rigours of the sport. Road cyclists really should have the edge here.

Was it the time of the year that gave them the edge? The Christmas holiday is when most top riders put in the big miles to build their training base for the year ahead. We’ve all been watching and admiring Chris Froome rack up huge distances on Strava while ‘home’ in South Africa, in preparation for his planned assault on the Grand Tours this year. Bottom line: it’s the start of the season and I’d imagine all the riders should be fresh, strong and ready to rumble when lining up on the start line of 2018’s Cycle Tour. The MTB and road calendars both kick off nice and early, building towards key goals in March: the Absa Cape Epic and the Cape Town Cycle Tour. I can’t really think of any excuses here for the lack of conditioning.

Is the race difficulty perhaps making the difference? Here we might be on to something, apart from the fact that this tour should have been approached professionally by professional athletes looking to build their form, and improve their standing in the cycling community. If you start comparing early season one-day races between the two sports you will notice a very different challenge lying in wait for the mountain bikers. It’s difficult to compare the brutal Attakwas with something like the Fast One. Most people would probably do the latter two or three times instead of the tough, unrelenting 121km ride from Oudtshoorn to the coast. Are our short, relatively easy road races making our professional road cyclists lazy? Is sprinting the only skill required to be a prolific race winner in South Africa? Should the peloton be racing these shorter races harder to eliminate the bigger riders, who they know will out-muscle them in the kick for the line?

When it comes to race calendars, Attakwas is just the start, there are endless ultra-marathons and multiday races all year round for our athletes to cut their teeth on. We’re even hosting a World Cup MTB race this year to really add to the immense riches available for local mountain bikers to tackle. That in comparison to a road cycling season has almost certainly receded over the last decade. Sure it’s still anchored by the two massive fun rides in March and November, but none of the many attempted Tours has managed to anchor themselves in the same light as say the Giro del Capo or old Rapport Toer. The race numbers, the hype, the coverage; it’s all somewhat fallen away in my eyes. Road cycling needs to get that back, and quickly, or it might be a long time until we produce our next Robbie Hunter, Ashley Moolman Pasio, Louis Meintjes or Alan van Heerden.

Another point to ponder is that perhaps the massive growth in mountain biking has led to a fair bit of the talent ‒ that possibly in the past have been duelling it out on the road ‒ making its way across to mountain biking. I would imagine the popularity of the sport and its elitist nature lends itself to higher salaries for the athletes and obviously greater exposure for related sponsors.

There are myriad races, endless world-class events with great coverage, right on our doorstep to showcase their talents, and all this could quite easily lead to talent drain from the road cycling scene. Top athletes like Robyn de Groot have made the transition across to the dirt and never looked back.

The more I think about it, the more I realise it’s probably a mix of all these that has led to the local road cycling scene stumbling of late. In a country with a proud tradition on the road, with the Dimension Data for Qhubeka guys flying the flag high on the international stage, we still need to keep the local racing scene at a healthy level; especially for those athletes with aspirations beyond merely cruising along on our local scene. Let’s give them a better chance of making the step up to the big leagues should the opportunity ever arise. The mountain bikers have certainly lifted their game these last few years, but there is no reason why road cycling brethren can’t do the same.

Allowing opportunities like the Mpumalanga Tour to slip by without being on top form is no way to start a year. Just look where last year’s winner, Willie Smit, is now plying his trade.