The mother of hard enduro 

Words: Angus Powers
Photography: Tyrone Bradley 

On December 4, the annual Roof of Africa extreme enduro returns to the rugged mountain kingdom of Lesotho, the highest country in the world

At the end of the second day of the 2013 Roof of Africa, lashed by wind and rain and hopelessly lost in the cloud-wreathed mountains, nine riders didn’t make it home. Seven were taken in by local farmers and given shelter in their rondavels, but two had to rough it and sleep under the stars, huddling together under a single space blanket as the temperature plummeted.

When day broke and the race organisers’ helicopter got airborne again, it didn’t take long to round up the stragglers. Three were suffering from hypothermia (including a Japanese rider who had been “treated like a king” and slept in the main room of a chief’s hut), but all nine walked away from the ordeal, chastened but intact. An hour later, for the rest of the field, the flag dropped on the third and final day of the race. Welcome to the Roof of Africa, the mother of hard enduro.

In extreme enduro, close calls come with the territory, but ultimately no one wants to die in the bundu. At this year’s race, newly introduced satellite tracking technology will provide a safety net, giving the organisers a better chance, weather permitting, of locating and recovering struggling riders before the situation becomes perilous. Not that satellite tracking will make the event any easier. “Last year was probably the toughest it’s ever been,” says race organiser Peter Luck, referring to the perfect storm of diabolical weather and a super-gnarly route. 

“And this year won’t be any better.” A veteran like Alfie Cox might disagree. In his heyday, Cox won nine times, including four on the trot from 1988-1991, making him the undisputed king of the Roof. Back then, stages were 600km long, keeping riders in the saddle from first light at 4am until after sunset. The race was run in September, meaning that the highest passes were often covered in the last of the winter’s snows. And when it rained heavily, competitors had to swim their bikes across swollen rivers, then turn them upside down to drain the carburettors so that the engines could be coaxed back into life.

The Roof has come a long way since then, and even further since it was first conceived in 1967 as a detour through Lesotho for a motor car rally route that started in Johannesburg and ended in Durban. The locals still regard the race as a drought-breaker thanks to its uncanny habit of bringing the rains, but nowadays the emphasis is on technical, physically draining stages that cover 150-200km and test the riders for only eight or nine hours per day. And as the legendary passes become progressively easier to conquer, new obstacles are added yearly: old favourites like Two Tits, Slide Your Arse and Baboon’s Pass giving way to challenges like Donkey Pass, Snakebite and Gates of Hell.

“This is one of the hardest races because of the heat, the length of the race and the nature of the ground. It’s punishing”
Ben Hemingway

At the Roof, the terms of engagement are deceptively simple. Obey the rules of the road. Exercise caution travelling through villages. And riding through ploughed fields will result in instant disqualification. Apart from that, it’s a flat-out race against the clock, kicking off with the Round the Houses circuit through the centre of Maseru, a three-lap supermoto-style course run under the benevolent gaze of King Letsie III. Then the afternoon time trial is the first opportunity to sort the men from the boys, and to establish a starting order for Day 2. In extreme enduro, it’s the riders who can get their machines over the obstacles as efficiently as possible who prosper. Even more so at the Roof: the length of the stages means that those with a solid background in trials riding waste less energy wrestling their 120kg bikes around. 

The unrelenting challenges impress even the world’s top enduro riders. “I think this is one of the hardest races,” says Ben Hemingway, the experienced campaigner from England. “Because of the heat, the length of the race and the nature of the ground, the Roof is unique. It sounds really silly, but the ground is so hard. There’s a carpet of grass, but underneath it feels like iron. It gives your hands and your body a pounding. It’s punishing.”

Roof of Africa

In landscapes as vast as Lesotho’s, navigation skills are critical. Despite a marked track and on-board GPS, even the race leaders can find themselves going astray. To appreciate the terrain the Roof runs through, consider this: Lesotho’s Maloti mountains rise up from the top of South Africa’s highest escarpment. The refuel points are so remote that the race marshals set up camp in the field days beforehand. And the paths the riders must follow snake up into the clouds. Wade Young, the wunderkind who won in 2012, is probably still having nightmares about it: when his engine blew last year, it took him two hours to get his machine down off the mountain.

By a certain point, not too long into the race, all competitors look the same – goggles off, dirt-smeared faces, bikes fouled with mud. Supporters on the route are either motorcycle fans, sunburned and sweat-stained from the effort of manhandling their own bikes to the viewpoints, or Basotho youngsters wrapped in blankets, who have gathered from the isolated homesteads where their families eke out a living, herding sheep or tilling the rich dark soil with wooden, ox-drawn ploughs.

Roof of Africa

So daunting is the Roof that riders sometimes can’t believe where they are required to go.

For riders pushed to their limits, any roadside assistance is invaluable. “The Roof is extreme endurance. Really, really intense,” says New Zealander Chris Birch, a former winner. “On one of the big long passes last year, some locals decided they liked me and stuck with me – pulling and yanking the bike – all the way to the top of the mountain. One had his belt looped around the front of the bike; the other had a rope. They must have run 2-3km with me. The terrain takes a massive toll on you physically. The better rider you are, the less energy you use, which allows you to push faster, like Graham Jarvis does.”

But Jarvis, the current master of extreme enduro, also took a beating on his way to victory last year. “The Roof is similar to Red Bull Romaniacs, but more physical because there are more rocks,” he says. “All the rocks are loose as well, and you don’t often get that. Last year, I had big crashes on the first two days. Just constant rocks, battering your body. If you fall off, it hurts.”

Further down the field, the rate of attrition doesn’t lie. At the front end of the race in 2013, the drop-out rate after Day 1 was zero per cent. After Day 2, it was 30 per cent – and conditions were so dire that after crossing the finish line Birch and Jarvis had to shelter in a spectator’s car because their support teams were still stuck out on the course. By the end of Day 3, 70 per cent of the top riders had failed to finish. 

This year, race organisers are tight-lipped about new additions to the route, but for the 400 riders preparing to take on the 2014 Roof of Africa, some trepidation would not be out of place. And even if the satellite tracking device issued to every rider will reduce the unplanned camp-outs, in races this extreme, there are no guarantees. After all, racers have been stuck out overnight at Romaniacs too. Jarvis’ response when he heard about the prospect of sleeping alone in the Lesotho mountains says it all.“Bloody ’ell.”

Get an idea of what the riders will be going through by checking out the footage from the 2012 event below 

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11 2014 The Red Bulletin

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