Endurance mountain-biker Jon Kirkman’s record time in the X-Berg Challenge, which finished in the Drakensberg last month, came as a complete surprise to him.
The 25-year-old, who covered 297km in 24 hours and 43 minutes, set a new record for solo riders in the event which brought paragliders, runners and cyclists together to compete against each other.
The aim is to finish in the shortest time possible, whether running, riding or paragliding. According to the rules, in the case of cyclists and paragliders “either you are carrying it or it is carrying you”.
“I’m pretty surprised to be honest,” said Kirkman, who was also the overall winner.
“I knew I was fit and that the race spoke to my strengths as a rider, but I had no baseline to measure against due to my lack of racing experience.
“I was confident I could race on the sharp end, but I had no thoughts whatsoever of a record. I’m extremely stoked to find that I somehow managed to set one.”
Kirkman said he entered his first X-Berg due to the appealing race format.
“There’s nothing else like it out there. I’d say that I’m more of an adventurer than a racing snake and X-Berg is far from the run-of-the-mill stage race.”
He said he did not have the best start to his race on March 21, but fortunately it put him in the right headspace.
“I punctured 50m from the start, cutting my tread and sidewall, and this had the potential to be an immense frustration.
“However it put me in the right frame of mind for the race going forward, which was that this was a long game and more a war of attrition than a flat-out sprint.”
Due to the puncture and some creative route selections, the first 20km took him three hours.
The race had an undefined route with the only proviso being that athletes needed to pass within a certain radius of various waypoints.
“Somehow I managed to emerge ahead of the other more experienced riders who took a more optimal route.
“I found this encouraging and the rest of the day went pretty smoothly and I was able to clock up 180km by 11pm, which was the start of the compulsory rest period.”
Kirkman said the most challenging part was fighting a morass of mud deep in a dark corner of the rural berg.
“I drew near to Cathedral Peak at about 10.45pm, with one of the waypoints being at the top of Mike’s Pass. It had just stopped raining heavily and I was soaked to the skin.
“I was only carrying half my tent for weight-saving purposes and a down sleeping bag, which was totally useless in any wet environment. The rain made it impossible to camp and my bag would soak through on the wet grass.”
He said he ended up sleeping on the floor of the toilet block at the bottom of the pass.
“It was a bit dusty, but infinitely better than sleeping on soaking grass in a wet sleeping bag.”
By comparison, Kirkman said the second day was “pretty uneventful” and slow due to continued hike-a-bikes.
He estimated that he must have walked or run about 30km over the toughest terrain during the course of the race.
“The scenery was pretty spectacular though and somehow I never felt like I was in pain. The kilometers rolled by pretty easily.”
He could not really say if he felt a competitive edge as a cyclist racing against paragliders and runners. He was confident though that he could beat any runner, but the paragliders were an unknown quantity to him.
“I dreaded seeing some yahoo in a paraglider flying over my head, but I did feel like the different disciplines added an interesting dimension, compounded by the fact that everyone was on their own course.
“It was difficult to keep track of who was where. That said, I didn’t even look at the tracker on my phone. I decided before the event to completely run my own race.”
The Pietermaritzburg local said challenges for him included staying positive in the dark while getting soaked and sloshing through mud.
“I ride faster when I’m happy and I’m happy when I can appreciate humour, irony and beauty in every situation. So I try to not take the terrain personally and just puzzle along as best I can.
“The hike-a-bikes were challenging, but I feel like I’m good at them, so they didn’t stress me out.”
Something that stood out for him was when he was riding up an endless hill in the dark with no lights and watching a lightning storm in the distance and then seeing the dawn light up the misty valley above Didima Camp as he rode up Mike’s Pass.
“It’s difficult to pinpoint highlights. I love pushing limits in remote areas and these areas are more beautiful than most.”
Kirkman, who finished second in the solo elite race at last year’s Trans Drak, said he enjoyed the family atmosphere.
“The event attracts adventurers and the camaraderie between the crazies was incredible.”
He became involved with endurance riding by an unconventional route.
“For many years I was interested in trying cycle touring but could never get friends to join me. So two days after I finished university in 2015 I started a meandering 2 200km ride from Pietermaritzburg to Knysna via Lesotho.
“This was the first of many bike-packing adventures for me. I’ve ridden all over Lesotho and rode the first full repeat of the Trans-Ecuador single-track route.
“I love riding far and seeing new places. At the same time I love ripping single-track in remote areas.”
Kirkman said he had developed into an ultra-light bike-packing fanatic who always chose the most difficult way between two points.
As a result, he had carried his bike up and over plenty of mountains, including some 4 500m ridges in the Andes and Thabana Ntlenyana in Lesotho.
Looking ahead, he said The Munga held a certain appeal and that next year’s Rhino Run also looked interesting.
“I also have a long bucket list of bike-packing trips that I’d like to do, starting with Nepal, Morocco and Peru.”