Extreme Drama reaches new heights at the Roof
30 November – 3 December 2016
by Gary Franks, www.enduroworld.co.za Pics by Gary and Lynne Franks
The Roof of Africa had its humble beginnings in 1967 when Bob Phillips, a Roads Engineer working in Lesotho, approached the Sports Car Club in Johannesburg and asked them if they would like to run a race over the worst road in the world that he had just finished building. The Roof of Africa was born!
Until 1982 the event included cars, quad-bikes and motorcycles and ran right across Lesotho with overnight stops in either Matatiele or Sani Pass. Since then the route has been contained within the borders of Lesotho, covering ever shortening distances but increasing in technical difficulty as equipment and rider ability has improved. In the year 2000 cars were excluded and a few years later quads followed suite with the terrain being too rough for them.
As the Roof has become more and more extreme, it has earned the reputation of being “The Mother of Hard Enduro”, ranking amongst the toughest extreme enduro motorcycle events in the world and drawing many of the world’s best riders every year. The event is atop most riders bucket lists so the excitement in the air becomes almost tangible as 450 local and 23 international riders as well as media, fans, sponsors, crew and families descend on the Mountain Kingdom.
The 48th edition of the Roof of Africa drew one of the best line-ups of top riders from Europe including three-time Roof winner, Graham Jarvis (Brit), recent Red Bull Sea-to-Sky winner, Lars Enockle (Austria), Alfredo Gomez (Spain), Andreas Lettenbichler (Germany), Billy Bolt (Brit) and Marc Bourgeois (France). Missing from the mix would be South Africa’s wunderkind and two-time Roof Champion, Wade Young, who was sidelined with an injury. However the international factory sponsored stars would have their work cut out for them to beat the top local talent of Brett Swanepoel, Scott Bouverie, Travis Teasdale, Altus de Wet and Blake Gutzeit amongst others.
Kicking off the action on Thursday morning, thousands of fans and spectators lined the streets and sports fields of downtown Maseru to be treated to aerobatic displays – first by a Motul/ Yamaha sponsored stunt plane, and then by SA’s top Freestyle Motocross Riders. Riders then race in eight groups “Round the Houses”. This opening stage of the Roof has always been purely for the local spectators, however this year it would count towards overall time which made the racing a bit more intense. Still, you can’t help but get the feeling that this traditional opening stage is long past its expiry date – the riders don’t want it and it really needs to be dropped or changed for something more relevant and preferably in the same area as the Time Trial.
In the premier Gold class, Frenchman Marc Bourgeois showed his World Enduro Championship skills to draw first blood on his Yamaha 250FX.
At the Roof of Africa, much depends on the weather and this year it was blistering heat that would add to the intensity as riders headed to the start of the Time Trial, an hour’s drive from the city. The start/ finish for this and the next two days of racing would be at the top of the infamous “Bushmen’s Pass”, 2263 metres above sea level in the rugged and unforgiving yet beautiful Maluti Mountains. The 53 km Time Trial route proved to be the toughest one to date with many riders taking as long as four hours and forty minutes to finish. The extremity played right into defending champ, Graham Jarvis’ hands and he took only one hour forty seven minutes to put his Husqvarna TE300 on pole position, just nine seconds ahead of the hard charging Yamaha 250F of Brett Swanepoel, who was clearly after a better view from the podium than last year.
Riders put everything into preparing themselves mentally and physically for this gruelling event which takes an extremely high degree of athleticism, skill, courage and perseverance. In this event most riders come face to face with themselves and have to overcome all kinds of adversities, chief amongst them being the overwhelming urge to quit. But quitting is most often not an option – there’s nowhere to go in these mountains but along the seemingly impossible trail in front of you. The Roof of Africa is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
The early Friday morning start line saw many wide-eyes and a little less enthusiasm as riders had sampled just a taste of what was in store. Little did they know that today would present the toughest route ever in the event’s history. Pass after pass of in-your-face rocks, steep climbs and even steeper descents would test riders beyond their abilities.
Riders were set off according to their positions from Thursday’s sections. This is normally a good recipe to avoid bottlenecks forming at extreme sections. Unfortunately several oversights in the planning saw all three classes (Bronze, Silver and Gold) given a pass called “Snake Bite” which proved to be unrideable, even for Jarvis and Gomez who were way out front of the Gold class. However the Bronze riders had the shortest route so got to Snake Bite before most Silver and Gold riders.
The only way up for anyone was with help from other riders and lots of local mountain kids pulling on ropes and straps. The ensuing bottleneck saw some riders spending four hours on the pass and there was no way everyone would get over in daylight. The marshals decided to turn riders around to make their way back to the finish via gravel
roads. However some were up on the mountain and would have to spend the night there. The organisational mistakes caused a lot of tension as competitors, who had given so much in personal cost and preparation would be deprived of a finish through no fault of their own, and organisers now had a nightmare on their hands.
Real tragedy struck on Snake Bite Pass when a competitor, Willie-John Le Hanie, fell and broke his neck. Apparently he was carried down the mountain by locals, which is usually not something you would do with a serious injury, where he was airlifted to hospital in Bloemfontein. Unfortunately Willie-John later succumbed to his injuries. This is certainly a dangerous sport, but we understand this is the first death at The Roof of Africa and it cast a dark shadow over this event as enduro riders are a close-knit brotherhood. Willie-John will be sorely missed by all of us and we pray for his wife and two children’s comfort.
At the sharp end of the sword the bottleneck saga had not had much
effect and KTM factory rider Alfredo Gomez had made up eight minutes on Jarvis during Friday’s racing section. The pair would set off on Saturday morning with a comfortable 20 minute gap back to the chasing pack of Teasdale, Gutzeit, Swanepoel, Lettenbichler, Bolt, de Wet and Bouverie. The positions stayed more or less the same throughout the day but the chasers did manage to pull back eight minutes on the leaders. The final day’s route was said to be tough but a lot better than Friday’s route, bringing back some of the lost smiles and enthusiasm.
In the end the biggest smile was that worn by Husqvarna’s Graham Jarvis as he claimed his 4th Roof victory, only the second rider ever to reach that number. Alfredo Gomez was pleased with his runner up position on his first Roof attempt and Scott Bouverie was thrilled with another podium, his third at a major international extreme event. Fourth was Bouverie’s KTM team mate Travis Teasdale who was awarded the “Spirit of the Roof” award for parking his bike at the top of Snake Bite and walking back down to assist a rider who had assisted him. SA’s Golden-girl of enduro, Kirsten Landman, riding her KTM Freeride broke yet another record when she became the first woman to ever enter and complete the Gold class at the Roof.
Seventeen year old, Calvin Hume showed not only his but the new KTM 150’s potential by comfortably winning the Silver class ahead of Chris Barnes and Brett Peckham. And in the Bronze class it was the talented Heinrich Zellhuber on another KTM 150 who got the win ahead of veteran rider Garth Prost and first time Roof rider, Paul van der Nest.
The Roof is an epic event to organise and in so many ways it was very well organised – what a pity that for many riders the event was ruined by mistakes that should have been avoided by having the entire route ridden properly and very recently by capable riders, and by calculating the flow of traffic based on pre-ride data. Sadly many of the results and finishers medals are now questionable as some riders managed to finish Friday but were too exhausted or dehydrated to ride on Saturday, while others who did not complete Friday’s route still received medals and positions.
The Roof of Africa has a long proud heritage and is very special to the people of Lesotho and all Southern African enduro riders. The event’s status has grown significantly in recent years – now it is vital that the organisation catches up to that world class level … FAST.
Watch the exciting Red Bull footage
Round the Houses test-run: http://win.gs/2gVOWAZ
Time Trial: http://win.gs/2gNpVLL
Race Day 1: http://win.gs/2g45Uzm
Race Day 2 (final day): http://win.gs/2fZkYhP