Quintin van Jaarsveld
The over a decade-long wait for National Enduro Championship racing to return to the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast proved well worth it as Umzumbe played host to a thrilling double header on Friday and Saturday.
South Africa’s enduro elite revelled on the dream riding terrain the region has to offer, showcasing sublime skill, endurance and intestinal fortitude over two tough days of racing.
New race hub The Park, situated on the Van Tichelen farm, was a hive of activity as the starting and finishing point of the races.
The Natal WFO Enduro Association, the event organisers, delivered on their promise to deliver a terrific track. The 28-kilometre route set by Greg and Dennis Henderson was tight and technical and tested both man and machine.
Local stars dominated on home soil, with Kyle Flanagan (Bidvest bLU cRU Yamaha Racing) claiming his maiden overall national enduro win on Friday and fellow Paddock ace Wade Young (Sherco Factory Racing) winning Saturday’s showdown.
Over 40mm of rain on the eve of the event provided an additional challenge for the star-studded field, who now had to take the slippery conditions into account.
The rain was still coming down as Round Four of the national championship got underway on Friday morning. The organisers sent out two groups of riders to check that the swollen riverbeds were still rideable and the green light was given for a shortened race, reduced from five to three laps.
With rain drizzling down, riders blasted off the line and through the first three quarters of the opening lap with slick racing on the wet track.
By the time they reached the river, it had risen even further and as a result, a number of riders were caught out by deep waterholes and drowned their bikes.
Chief among the casualties whose race came to a premature end were local superstar Young and the returning Scott Bouverie (Brother Leader Tread KTM).
It was a long and tough day out and this was reflected in the results, with fewer finishers than usual due to the soul-swallowing river.
Flanagan seized the day and rode a smooth and smart race to secure a first-ever overall national championship win after five hours and 10 minutes in the saddle.
E1 championship leader William Oosthuizen was a distant second, with his Pepson Plastics Husqvarna Racing teammate Matthew Green rounding off the overall podium.
“I’m extremely happy to get my first overall win, and it can’t be more special than doing it at my home race with all the locals here supporting me,” a fired-up Flanagan told eHowzit.
Young, who started in row seven, commented, “The rivers were pretty full after the rain and I was riding with Blake [Gutzeit] in third up until the point I drowned my back. So things didn’t go according to plan, but it’s one of those things.”
Will Slater secured the E2 Class win on his Husqvarna, Heinrich Aust (Scott Trax KTM) won the High School Class, Brian Capper (BCR Arrow Yamaha) clinched the Senior Class, Kevin Peters prevailed in the Masters Class and Dwain Barnard bagged the Silver Class spoils.
It was also a special day for local rider Piwe Zulu (Herbalife Nutrition bLU cRU Yamaha), who dug deep and managed to finish third in the Silver Class – his first nation enduro podium.
“This was a tough race today but I’m happy with the third position. Thanks to my sponsors and my coach,” said Zulu.
With the river dropping to its usual level overnight, riders were in for a full five-lap race on Saturday and, after route director Altus de Wet re-routed the track around a few risky sections, riders were able to enjoy the full splendour of the South Coast terrain in pristine conditions.
As the fifth round of the national championship and the final round of the regional championship, business picked up and riders laid it all on the line on the reverse route.
Young put the disappointment of the previous day behind him as he left the chasing pack in his dust on the last two laps to take the win in six hours and 14 minutes despite being hampered by a hyper-extended wrist.
Fellow South Coast superstar Blake Gutzeit (Bidvest bLU cRU Yamaha Racing), South Africa’s first-ever superenduro world champion, finished second and Bouverie capped a successful comeback from shoulder surgery by riding onto the final step of the podium.
“I just rode a steady race today,” said Young. “I couldn’t push too hard because of the injury I picked up off-roading recently. Blake was riding good and started catching up before he had issues drowning his bike and I just continued to ride steady to take the win.”
Coming off a historic Red Bull Romaniacs triumph, Young said it was special to race on South Coast soil.
“It’s nice to wake up in your own bed and get a national enduro win at home. It’s always great racing in your backyard and it was an all-around solid and ‘lekker’ track.”
Young said he hopes to see the South Coast become an annual stop on the national championship calendar. “I think it would be silly not to because we definitely have some of best riding terrain in South Africa.”
The 22-year-old said the thrill of his good friend Flanagan earning a career-first win on Friday erased much of the disappointment he felt on the day.
“It’s awesome for Kyle! He had a good race and kept it all together. He’s come a long way and he’s improved a lot over the years. He’s kept motivated and training hard and it’s great to see it paying off and him getting the top-step results that he deserves.”
As for the injury, Young said it was painful but nothing too serious.
“I have a lot of fluid in my wrist and it’s pretty stiff, so it was hard to accelerate and attack and hit the big bumps hard. It’s pretty tender, but I have a couple of days to heal up and it should be fine for TKO in America this coming weekend.”
Runner-up Gutzeit remarked, “The battle is lost but the war is still on. I feel like I had good speed all weekend but I honestly couldn’t stay out of the deep waterholes, which cost me way too much time. No excuses but good lessons learnt. Thank you so much to everyone who backs me.”
Flanagan continued his fine form with a second E1 Class win in as many days.
“The track was a lot more rideable today with the river levels dropping a lot and making for an amazing track. The race was well put together and I’m happy to get the class win and claw my way closer to the front of the championship,” said Flanagan.
After drowning his bike the previous day, Shelly Beach rider Kayde Mante (RBS bLU cRU Yamaha) returned with a vengeance to claim victory in the High School Class, while Capper, Peters and Barnard continued their winning ways in their respective national and regional classes.
Mante said, “It wasn’t the best day on the bike for me yesterday. We worked late into the night to prepare my practice bike for today. From the start, I felt good on the bike and got into a good rhythm on lap one. Sections of the track were still very wet, which made the track challenging.
“I’m still not at 100% race fit after breaking my wrist in May. My handlebars got pulled out of my hand on a sharp corner, which resulted in a hard crash. Fortunately, there was no serious injuries or damage to my Yamaha YZ125X and I was able to continue on and take the win.”
The remaining regional class winners were Luke Williams (Senior), Barry Burger (Clubmans) and Germaine Goldstone (Weekend Warriors).
The event ended on a high at Saturday evening’s prize-giving at The Park, which was highlighted by Cayden Purchase winning the Shoei VFX-WR and Stoney Steenkamp winning the R50 000 WFO membership draw – the biggest cash prize in the history of South African enduro.
Adrian Bac from AMP, who sponsored the Shoei helmet, said it was a phenomenal two days.
“It was a very good and well-organised event. The rain was obviously a big factor on Friday and caught some riders unaware but those that played their cards right got the results. Saturday was just an awesome event and the track was brilliant. It was tough, in-your-face and a proper national enduro challenge.”
Bac, the ex-team manager of Bidvest bLU cRU Yamaha Racing, congratulated Flanagan on his maiden overall win, saying, “Kyle’s really stepped up his riding to another level. He got second overall and a class win at IMPI and now he has an overall win to his credit and took the two class wins. It’s good to see and I expect big things from him in the future.”
Greg Orsmond, chairman of the Natal WFO Enduro Association, said, “The event as a whole went off very well. The rain on Friday did provide a challenge, but the experienced and skilled riders pulled through, and there was good racing on Saturday. The cream always rises to the top and it was evident to see that the riders who were well prepared and skilled got the desired results.
“Thanks to Jean van Tichelen, Pete Beckett, Nick Frey and the Hendersons for selflessly opening their land for the riders. Thanks to Jean for the magnificent venue that had the riders raving, Mike Lang, who helped get the venue off the ground, the Hendersons – Greg, Dennis, Josh, Matt and Guy – Kevin and Dylan Cox and the rest of the team who worked on delivering a fantastic route.
“Thank you to Ugu South Coast Tourism, RBS Yamaha, Alfie Cox Racing and Perry Bikes for the prizes and a big thanks to Louis Boshoff and his South Coast Silver Bullets team for handling the marshalling. They did a superb job and made the event the success that it was with their hard work and sterling dedication in testing conditions.”
Photos by Whitelens Photography