By Quintin van Jaarsveld
Hayley Smith and Darryn Purtell produced one of the most unlikely comeback stories of this year’s Old Mutual joBerg2c mountain bike race.
It’s the longest fully serviced mountain bike stage race in South Africa.
A demanding nine-day, 880km journey from the outskirts of Johannesburg to Scottburgh main beach.
It ranks among the most taxing tests of endurance in mountain biking, a race that reveals not only the skill of the competitors but their character as well.
Some riders spend months preparing for the unique challenges that the joBerg2c present to ensure they have the legs to go the considerable distance.
South Coast cousins Smith and Purtell, who signed up to compete in the mixed section as Team Bell Equipment, did not fall under the aforementioned group of riders.
While they are both extremely dedicated and accomplished riders, the duo were undercooked going into the race.
Uvongo rider Smith’s race had begun well before the start of Day One in Heidelberg.
The current, two-time KwaZulu-Natal women’s Under-23 cross-country champion had been locked in a race against time to be fit to compete in the joBerg2c.
The 19-year-old had sustained hand and back injuries following a crash during a practice run at the recent UCI MTB World Cup at Cascades MTB Park, which ruled her out of the women’s Under-23 cross-country race and sidelined her for weeks.
Purtell, in turn, had focused on multi-stage competition, winning his third South African Xterra Under-24 title and clinching a silver medal at the South African National Triathlon Championship in East London.
The 23-year-old’s fitness could not be faulted, however, he wasn’t necessarily in top mountain biking condition, as riding formed just a third of his triathlon training.
The obvious script would have seen the cousins persevere through the first few days only to inevitably give him to the extreme demands of the race and fall by the wayside, as so many riders do each year.
Smith and Purtell, however, didn’t get the memo.
Instead, the duo bafflingly defied logic and ultimately finished just off the overall mixed podium in fourth place – and 41st overall – on Saturday after a total of 40 hours, 47 minutes and 17 seconds in the saddle.
Rather than perish, they excelled as the race progressed.
Due in large part to their natural chemistry, they went from strength to strength and gradually improved from seventh, to sixth, to fifth, to fourth to finishing on a high with third place finishes on the last three days.
Their rise up the ranks and strong finish seemingly even caught the cousins by surprise.
“I’m really impressed and a little surprised with our result,” Purtell told eHowz!t.
“We were both underprepared going into the race and in a long distance stage race like this, one being underprepared could have huge consequences.
“Guys are often forced to pull out, but we got lucky and got stronger and stronger as the race progressed.
“As always it was a really tough race, not just in terms of the distances that you have to ride but also the time spent away on the road … having to camp in tents does not help either.
“Teaming up with Hayley was really cool and a great experience for both of us. We met lots of new and interesting people who helped us along the way.”
While Purtell had prior joBerg2c experience to draw from, it was a first for Smith, who described the race as a gruelling yet gratifying learning curve.
“I am extremely happy with our results and I am happy with my performance,” she said.
“I have never done such a long race before so I was not sure how things were going to turn out.
“It was pretty tough I must admit as nine days on the bike is a long time, but it was such a fantastic experience for me and I learned so much.
“The first few days were tough due to the long, open roads and long distances.
“Darryn and I prefer the technical terrain and single track, and this is where we were able to make up some time on the other mixed team.”
Smith’s back injury flared up after the first couple of days, but the thought of quitting never crossed her mind.
“My hand was fine during the race, I was just battling with my back, which was still sore from my [World Cup] fall.
“But I managed to get a massage each day and strapping, which really helped to get me through the nine days.”
She credited Purtell and their sibling synergy for getting her through the darkest times.
“Darryn has done this event a few times so he was a great help to me and we make a good team as we have done some other stage races together in the past.
“I guess your body also somehow realises that it has a job to do and gets into race mode each day.”
Touching on the highlights of her joBerg2c debut, Smith said: “The three podium positions were such a highlight for me. We raced really hard for those positions.
“Riding among some of the professionals was a highlight and also having a chance to interact with them.
“Having the opportunity of riding a bicycle from Johannesburg to Scottburgh was very special for me.
“This event was just such a lot of fun and I can’t wait to do it again next year.”
For Purtell, the camaraderie between the 750-strong field of riders was the highlight.
“During the race we had many ups and downs and highs and lows but throughout the whole trip I think that the real highlights were all the new people that we met and old friends that we only get to see a few times a year.
“It is really special to be able to spend so much time with all the different people who share their experiences, offer advice and help us out whenever they can.
“It is just such an amazing atmosphere throughout the whole race from start to finish.”