A year ago, Tlotlo Selala and Halalisani Njabulo were on top of the world, winning the Exxaro Special Jersey at the Absa Cape Epic, and the kudos and educational upliftment it comes with.
In 2012 the first Exxaro MTB Academy riders joined the Absa Cape Epic and became a catalyst for introducing historically disadvantaged South Africans to the sport of mountain biking. The Exxaro Jersey is awarded to the top historically disadvantaged South African team where both riders are under the age of 26. In recent years the number of competitors for this jersey has grown exponentially, particularly with the added rewards of Curro bursaries and Stadio higher education programmes for the winners and runners up.
What the Exxaro programme is also doing - and it extends far beyond just a jersey at a race, with a full academy introducing and developing riders in mountain biking, and in life - is building resilient, realistic young men and women. You couldn’t have scripted how Selala and Njabulo’s 2023 Absa Cape Epic would kick off.
“We were three kays from the beginning on the first stage [the Prologue] and Tlotlo’s bike, the back wheel. It was a disaster - the derailleur was in the spokes and he had a puncture, the rim tape was messed. It was terrible. We had to fix it, and make the bike into a single-speed.” That held out for much of the day, but when the jury-rigged chainring then fell off the crank two kilometres from the finish, the pair's day was more than done. The leaders of the jersey race were still within striking distance - a remarkably small half an hour after all that drama - but… this is The Untamed African Mountain Bike Race, and it’s never quite that simple.
“On the second day, I had a flat wheel, so I told Tlotlo to ride on while I fixed it, I would catch him up. I fixed the front wheel, and then I found the back wheel was also flat.” Njabulo would make the necessary repairs, unflawed and efficient as their ongoing Exxaro academy coaching teaches them to be, but unfortunately could not catch fast enough and the pair triggered a timing mat with more than the permissible two-minute gap. With that, an hour’s penalty was levied, as per the race rules. Even without what was to come, that was a sucker punch to these young, motivated racers. You would think the race would give them a break. Nope. Enter, stage left, Tlotlo’s day three-and-four tummy bug.
By the time we caught up with the pair at the end of the brutal Queen stage of the 2023 race, the smiles were back. Selala was eating like a horse - a good sign after two days of nil-by-mouth. “You know, the Prologue, that was one of the worst days of my life. And then we were going so well on Stage 1, making up time, and I didn’t realise I had opened a seven-minute lead on my partner. I was so disappointed. The guys at Mediclinic gave me some treatment after the Time Trial [Stage 4] - we were riding fast again, but I still could’t really eat or drink anything, which is not good. But we are back now.”
One of the challenges the pair faced was that their penalty pushed them all the way back to the K starting group, meaning they would spend most of stages three to five passing slower riders. By Stage 6, they were back at the front, such was the improved progress. “You know, starting at the back is one of the worst scenarios for someone who is racing. When someone is front of you in the single track, time goes so slowly! At some points we get angry, but we try to control that because it is not their fault we are at the back.”
With an hour and plenty to make up for an unlikely repeat of the Exxaro Jersey overall win, the pair has shifted focus to stage wins within the category (and yet, you can tell they haven’t given up completely, you just can’t take the racer out of the racer).
When asked whether they think it is possible to get one with two stages remaining, Selala has a slightly surprised look on his face. “Two. We have two days. We can make a miracle. ” Stage 6 saw the pair finish 3rd in atrocious weather, but with beaming smiles across the line. One more chance.