Cascades Mountain Bike Park will host the inaugural Pietermaritzburg MTB Festival over the Easter weekend, bringing together hundreds of mountain bikers of all abilities, competing in a wide range of events, over the course of three days. Most significantly, valuable rankings points will be on offer in the UCI HC category elite men's and women's cross country races.
The ambitious three-day festival features enduro, cross country, marathon and downhill and enables schools, development riders and families to participate alongside leading national and international stars on the famous courses so often used on the UCI MTB World Cup and Marathon schedule.
"This is an event for the future for mountain biking because we are working on a programme with the UCI where we will have legs of the World Cup, but will probably have cross country only, as opposed to downhill, simply because the cross country course is recognised as one of the best in the world and a lot of cross country riders are out in South Africa at this time of the year, doing things like the Epic or training," event organiser Alec Lenferna said.
While the competition is open to all levels of riders, there is significant prize money on offer for the top athletes. The prize pool for the HC cross country, which is just one level below a World Cup, is R120 000, the 50-kilometre marathon Classic offers up R80 000, the Enduro R45 000, the Cross Country Masters R20 000, and the Downhill R15 000, bringing the total value of the prizes to R280 000.
"It encapsulates everything in mountain biking that we can put together," Mike Bradley, General Manager of Cycling South Africa, said. "It's all run over one weekend, so we are trying to get development people involved and show them that there is a career path and opportunities in the sport.
"For the families who might follow the pros or their kids that ride, there is an opportunity to have a bit of fun on the Sunday."
There is something for everyone, Bradley continued, for spectators and especially for riders. "Yes, they can be a real part of it. We have an enduro on the Friday afternoon, which is open to everybody and anybody can ride it, and it is a lot of fun because you are only timed on your down run, so you can take your time to get up the hill.
"Then you have a big mass participation on the Sunday morning, followed by the national downhill series race, so there is a lot there for everybody. It's a great day out, to come and have fun and to watch some great racing afterwards, and watch the racing on the Saturday."
While the emphasis is on creating opportunities for athletes of all abilities, there is a very important and serious side to the Festival for the elite cross country competitors, especially as the UCI World Cup does not visit South Africa this year, returning again in 2016.
Bradley explained: "It's important from our athletes' point of view to have an HC event. It's the highest category of UCI racing you can get below a World Cup, so it carries quite a high points' load, especially for our local riders.
"We want to get as many UCI points heading towards the Olympics as we can, for nations' qualification and individual qualifications. It's very important that we have these kinds of festivals, that we can continue push them and drive development at the same time, using that as a platform to really show young people where the sport can take them."
Course design maestro Nick Floros, the man behind UCI World Cup cross country courses and UCI Marathon World Championships courses, said he rated the 50 and 20 kilometre marathon courses as moderate to hard.
"It is going to be difficult. It is a test. It's very difficult to put courses in Cascades and make it easy. As much as you try, you can't change a landscape," he said.
The cross country course would be 90 percent the same as the one used for the 2014 UCI World Cup. Due to television, some last minute changes were made to that course, but the one the riders will take on over the Easter weekend is 100 percent true to Floros' vision.
He said: "We've run the course like we would have wanted to for last year's World Cup."
Enduro is a discipline that is gaining momentum in South Africa. In the case of the Festival enduro, Floros explained, he had been somewhat kind towards the athletes.
"European enduros are a lot more technical and tough than what we have here. What we have pitched is something that is challenging, but it is not too technical and you can get away with moderate skills, so it is more of a descending cross-country event, as opposed to a descending downhill event.
"The enduros will definitely favour the guys that have a bit more cross country fitness," said Floros. "Also, it is not necessary to have a five or six-inch travel arm mountain bike, you will get away with a cross-country racing bike."
"The idea is that we want to create a festival because not only does it allow us to accommodate downhill and cross country, we can also accommodate enduro, marathon, development races, and kids' races," said Lenferna.
"It means we are able to get people to spectate and at the same time participate, so it makes it more appealing. I think this is the formula that we would like to employ going forward."
"We've done four World Cups and three World Championships already, so we know what to do. It is now just making sure that we do it properly," he concluded.
More information on the Pietermaritzburg Mountain Bike Festival and the event's full programme can be found at http://www.cyclingsa.com/2015-pmb-mtb-festival