What a ride! Team Spur has been nothing short of an amazing rollercoaster since late 2015. When Spur's marketing man, Sacha du Plessis and I first sat together in the Spur offices and developed the basic idea of supporting the wildly successful Spur Schools Mountain Bike League with a professional cycling team, we had no idea of the profound journey we would be embarking on. But from that moment on, as a team, we proudly went into battle knowing the Spur family had our back.
Spur's decision to trust its brand to our care on mountain bike courses at home and across the globe was a risky one, driven by Sacha's passion for the sport, but also his commitment to community upliftment and the family values Spur has built its reputation on. It was a decision that I believe paid off in so many ways, not only in the impressive list of race podiums and victories we soon notched up, but in the profound impact we had on thousands of school children in South Africa through the Spur Schools League.
While I am saddened by the closing of the unforgettable Team Spur chapter, I take great pride in the spirit and success of the team, both on the racing circuit and off it.
We have built strong and lasting relationships with all our sponsors over the past three years, and we will continue to cherish these connections. I have no doubt that all members of our close-knit team will go on to achieve even greater things in the industry and in their professional careers.
In the beginning all I had was the commitment from Spur, and the ambition of three talented and passionate people: athletes James Reid and Ariane Lüthi, and mechanical wizard JP Jacobs. We were soon joined by soigneur Brent Botha and we set to work building a supportive team of professionals focused on the team's motto: "world class in all we do".
2018 is arguably Team Spur's most successful year, yet the confidence to go out there and compete at the top level of the sport was built from the very beginning and Ariane Lüthi's 2016 Absa Cape Epic victory alongside Annika Langvad for Team Spur-Specialized, paved the way for subsequent triumphs. James Reid's and JP Jacob's selection to represent Team South Africa at the Rio Olympic Games in August 2016 was another key building block on the pathway to success.
It is never plain sailing, and team manager and soigneur Brent Botha left for a great opportunity at the Israel Cycling Academy in late 2016. The talented James Reid left us shortly afterwards to pursue his studies... and we were suddenly reeling. But these things happen for a reason and we were lucky to find the unflappable Tim Bassingthwaighte and employ him as our new team manager. We then acquired the services of Reid's fellow Olympic teammate, a young talent called Alan Hatherly, who joined us from January 2017.
2017 was another significant learning curve as Ariane struggled to realise her potential on the international marathon circuit, grappling with depression as she bravely faced the world's finest female mountain bikers week in and week out. Meanwhile, Alan, JP and Tim claimed African and South African XCO titles while quietly building their race craft on the UCI U23 Word Cup circuit.
A second place at the exhilarating Andorran round of the World Cup for Alan gave us all a glimpse of the prize we were fighting for, while another second, but this time at the UCI U23 World Championship in Australia was the real sign we were on track!
Hatherly teamed up with his training buddy Matt Beers for South Africa's seven-day Cape Pioneer Trek stage race and took a hard-fought victory during the grueling race. But the most satisfying result of 2017 was Ariane's victory at the same race, where she partnered Amy Beth McDougall. It marked a return to form for our Swiss powerhouse and the start of a mental comeback process that would bear fruit in 2018.
2018 was a long and hard season of racing. And Team Spur dealt with myriad setbacks and challenges, only to rise against adversity every time.
The calendar kicked off in January with Ariane's victory at the grueling Attakwas Extreme. Alan was up next and continued his trajectory with a strong showing at the SA XCO Cup, finishing fifth behind a strong international field that included multiple World Champion and Olympic gold medalist Nino Schurter.
The three-day Tankwa Trek was a reality check of the brutal nature of high-performance sport. Ariane's 2018 Absa Cape Epic partner suffered a blood infection and had to withdraw mid-race, while Alan was rushed to hospital during the final stage with two broken wrists.
The pressure was now on. Firstly, to find a high-calibre replacement partner for Ariane for the Absa Cape Epic. And secondly, to get Alan race-ready to fly the South African flag at the Commonwealth Games in April.
Despite a strong start to the Cape Epic for Team Spur, consistently taking the race to the eventual Women's Category winners, Ariane's partner was forced to withdraw after Stage 4 due to illness, while the pair were in second place overall.
After a well-managed recovery program, Alan returned from potentially season-ending wrist injuries to win the second round of the SA XCO Cup series en-route to the Commonwealth Games in Australia. Alan then ploughed the depths of his mental toughness and exceptional bike skills to record a phenomenal race under the circumstances, earning a bronze medal for his country at the Commonwealth Games in April.
Ariane added to the team's tally of bronze medals at the European Marathon Championships in April, where she claimed her best result at the continental competition.
In May the European race calendar hit us like a ton of bricks: Alan's World Cup season was at full throttle, while Ariane racked up multiple marathon event wins throughout Europe, including the Belgian Mountain Bike Challenge, as well as her hometown marathon, the Raid Evolenard.
In between World Cup races – where he came third in Nove Mesto in the Czech Republic and then won the Canadian round in Mont Sainte Anne – Alan won every local XCO race and retained his South African XCO Championship title in July.
After a solid block of training, Alan went into his major event of the year as the hot favourite. The UCI U23 XCO World Championships jersey had eluded Alan by a mere 10 seconds in 2017, when he finished second to Kiwi Sam Gaze. He wasn't prepared to settle for silver this time around and put on a tactical and technical masterclass, which saw him ride away from the competition on the final lap and earn the coveted U23 rainbow stripes. Alan and Team Spur brought the jersey back to South Africa for the first time in nine years. Spur recently released a stunning TV ad capturing the story of Alan's journey through the ranks of the Spur League and his stunning comeback story to be crowned U23 World Champion. If you haven't seen it yet, we've got the long version for you below.
The Marathon World Championships course in Italy a week after the XCO event was a brutal affair, with over 3,400m of climbing in 89km for the ladies. Ariane finished an impressive sixth, while Alan had to settle for 55th in the even longer men's race, his legs feeling the effects of his sterling XCO effort. Ariane backed up this result a few weeks later at the Swiss Marathon Championships, where she reclaimed her title after a ding-dong battle with multiple World and Swiss Champion Esther Süss.
Team Spur returned home to South Africa for the final few stage races on the 2018 calendar. Alan teamed up with young Danish powerhouse and close friend Simon Andreassen for the Cape Pioneer Trek and Wines2Whales in October and November. The two youngsters claimed solid second places at both events. Ariane took on the Wines2Whales with Hungarian rider Barbara Benkó and after an unfortunate one-hour time penalty on Stage 1, the pair finished in fifth place after the three days of racing.
The Wines2Whales turned out to be a fitting end to the season and to Team Spur's three-year run of form. Both of our riders finished their final stage in Team Spur colours by winning their categories with their respective partners!
I asked the members of Team Spur what their personal highlights over the past three years have been:
Ariane Lüthi: "While I could start and conclude my time riding for Team Spur with two career highlights – winning the Cape Epic in early 2016 and reclaiming the Swiss Champion's jersey this year – watching my teammate Alan, with the aid of Tim and JP, grabbing the rainbow stripes end of this year was unreal. I went through a pretty tough time in between. However it was during those two years struggling with depression, that I appreciated the great support of my team, and especially our manager, Nic, the most."
Alan Hatherly: "My highlights from Team Spur would be racing two full World Cup seasons and achieving my first World Cup win and World Championship title through the world-class support system the team structure offered. Another highlight would be that I was presented with the opportunity to be involved in assisting the grass roots of cycling in South Africa, through the Spur Schools Mountain Bike League. It really has opened my eyes to the up-and-coming talent our country has."
JP Jacobs: "I would say it's been the entire past three years – from winning my first Absa Cape Epic in 2016 to celebrating my biggest career win with a set of rainbow strips at the end of this season. Learning was constantly evolving: understanding the athletes' needs and supplying them with a winning race bike every time. As well as the culture experiences in different nations and realising just how big our world is. Being able to travel the globe and fixing bikes out of a suit case. It's been the best three years so far. Thank you, Nic and Team Spur."
Tim Bassingthwaighte: "The last two years with Team Spur has been a huge learning curve and exceptional experience. Seeing first hand the highs and lows of the riders, and what they go through to be able to perform is incredibly motivating for what we do behind the scenes. To see Ariane and Alan bounce back from their respective setbacks to add the Swiss XCM Champs title and a set of rainbow stripes to a humble South African team has been a privilege. Thanks to Nic, Ariane, Alan and JP!"
So what's next? Well, we'll leave that to the riders and staff and their new factory teams to announce.
Safe to say, you'll get plenty of opportunity to see both Ariane Lüthi and Alan Hatherly racing in their beloved South Africa in 2019. While Team Spur's structure as a fully-fledged professional race team dissolves, the athletes will continue to work with Spur as proud ambassadors to the Spur Schools Mountain Bike League, which will be supported by this amazing organisation for another 10 years!
Team Spur's main mission was always to provide inspiration and motivation to the thousands of scholars participating in the Spur Schools League. We believe the League has had a huge impact on the sport in the country, not only at the high-performance level through Team Spur, but in bringing families and communities together, encouraging camaraderie and good-natured rivalry between schools and provinces, and getting children active and into the outdoors in a supportive and healthy way. That is an incredibly positive legacy to leave behind for the future.
On a personal level, I feel immensely privileged to have been a part of a professional team that truly cared about one another. The passion and integrity of the team's full-time staff, JP Jacobs and Tim Bassingthwaighte can never be overstated. Their dedication to the team is reflected in the way we supported its riders James Reid, Ariane Lüthi and Alan Hatherly through some profoundly challenging times in their professional careers.
Lastly, none of this would have been possible without your support. The engagement on all levels – from our social media pages to the handshakes and backslaps in the pits, to the shouts trackside at race courses around the country and the world. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
It may not feel like much, but every connection, whether it was a keystroke, a selfie or a raised voice in the din, was felt by us and pushed us towards our goals. It has been an honour to pursue Team Spur's lofty dreams over the years with you all.