Reuben van Niekerk is an amputee who didn’t let an accident dampen his passion for mountain biking. In fact, he has finished the Cape Epic multiple times since losing his leg. Leisure Wheels caught up with him to talk mountain bikes and double cabs.
Regular readers of Leisure Wheels will know that a Mazda BT-50 joined our test fleet a few months ago. Soon, the bakkie will undergo a very thorough transformation. It will be fitted with overland must-haves like a bull bar, winch and canopy. Before this happens, though, we wanted to find out how the bakkie performed with another popular South African outdoor activity: mountain biking. Let’s be honest, the most off-road activity your average SUV or double cab sees these days is the small bit of gravel that leads to the mountain-bike trail. That said, it’s obvious why so many weekend warriors opt for these vehicles. Having decent ground clearance can often make getting to a trail easier, and having more loading space is particularly useful. Like just about every other sport or hobby, mountain biking requires a lot of kit.
It also demands that you somehow get your bike to the trail. If you’ve got just one bike to transport, you might be able to shove it into a car, but once you’re travelling with more than one, transportation becomes tricky. This is where the Mazda BT-50 comes in. In our opinion, few vehicles offer as many bicycle transportation options as a bakkie. If you’ve got one or two bikes, you can just lie them down in the load bay. If you’ve got more than two (or you’re worried about damaging your pricey rides), you can opt for other bike-carrying solutions. Companies like Thule create excellent carriers designed specifically for bakkies: products like the Thule Bed Rider, Insta-Gater, GateMate and Low Rider. Now, it must be said that the load bays of many double cabs are a tad short for modern mountain bikes with 29-inch rims. Not so with the BT-50. The load box of the Mazda is 1 549mm long, which allowed us to carry a 29er on a carrier in the bak.
Our test unit also has a tow bar, so for this particular trip, we decided to borrow a carrier from the kind folks at Thule South Africa. We fitted the Mazda with a Thule VeloCompact 927, which is probably the easiest and most secure way to transport a few bikes. We had it fitted to the tow bar in seconds and were on our way. Our destination was Groen-kloof in Pretoria, which is a popular mountain-bike destination. We were meeting up with Reuben van Niekerk, who is not only a motoring journalist, but also an avid mountain biker, so who better to judge the practicality of the BT-50? Although he had been involved in road racing since primary school, Reuben first got into mountain biking about 14 years ago. He has been taking it fairly seriously the last eight years, or so, training specifically for multi-day events.
Competing in multi-stage mountain-bike races is never easy, even for the super-fit, but Reuben is remarkable for taking part in these events with only one leg. In 2008, he was involved in a vehicle accident that resulted in the amputation of his right leg below the knee. As you’d expect, mountain biking with a prosthetic limb provides some unique challenges. “The biggest challenge is that I can’t stand and pedal, so I lose a bit on very steep climbs that require a lot of power, or when sudden acceleration is needed. It is also tricky for me to unclip my right foot, so I always need to be cognisant of this for when I’m forced to stop suddenly. Lastly, I obviously lose a lot of time when I need to walk up the super-steep sections of trails that aren’t rideable. The prosthetic I use when riding is adapted for cycling, so it is not ideal for walking,” says Reuben. In 2013, he decided to attempt the Cape Epic, one of the most iconic mountain-bike races in the world. “The Cape Epic is the world’s toughest mountain-bike race, and because of this, it attracts the world’s best. Olympic and world champions race against Average Joes. It is something that most mountain bikers want to do, so when I was given a chance to compete in 2013, I jumped at it,” says Rueben.
There is a reason why the Cape Epic is called the toughest mountain-bike race in the world. Reuben battled to get to grips with the race and struggled in particular on the sandy plains of Citrusdal. Unfortunately, Reuben and his partner Dane Wilson were unable to finish. Not one to give up, Reuben was back in 2014, this time competing with Dagmar Muhlbauer. Once again, the race was tough, but this time Reuben and his partner succeeded. They finished the race, and Reuben became the first lower-limb amputee to complete the Cape Epic. The bug had bit, so he was back again in 2015 to improve his performance. “I was feeling fantastic,” says Reuben. “Proper training had become part of my routine and I was feeling unstoppable as I approached the 2015 Cape Epic. However, unfavourable weather conditions and some strategy issues resulted in a very tough race. Dagmar and I finished numerous stages with only moments to spare before the dreaded cut-off time. Somehow, though, we made it.”
When 2016 rolled around, he felt he had no choice but to re-enter. Riders who manage to complete the Cape Epic three times become part of the race’s Amabubesi Finisher’s Club. It goes without saying that finishing the toughest multi-stage mountain-bike race three times isn’t easy. In fact, nobody within the disabled ranks had managed to join the Amabubesi, so Reuben had a goal to work towards. Again, the race was difficult, but alongside new partner Kevin Benkenstein, he managed to finish again. “It was really special, as I was the first person with any kind of disability to do it. I have finished four now, having completed the race again earlier this year, and would like to go back at least one more time, as my current partner Kevin Benkenstein needs one more finish in order for him to to join the Amabubesi Finisher’s Club as well,” says Reuben. For any mountain biker who hasn’t attempted it yet, he believes the Cape Epic is an absolute must. “The event is superbly organised. The routes can be unforgiving, sure, but if you are properly prepared, the race is extremely rewarding. It changes your perspectives regarding what you can achieve if you just put your mind to it, both on a mountain bike and in daily life.”
Indeed, Reuben’s grit and determination has seen him become an inspirational and very recognisable figure on the local mountain-biking scene. He is sponsored by Specialized, and acts as a brand ambassador for Centurion Cyclery, a Specialized concept store in Centurion. For the Cape Epic, his team enjoys support from Avis and he is also involved with an organisation called Jumping Kids. “Avis is a long-time supporter of Jumping Kids and of the Cape Epic, so it was a natural fit that the company got behind us to raise awareness for Jumping Kids on a larger stage,” says Reuben. “Jumping Kids is a non-profit organisation that provides children with prosthetics who would not normally have the means to get them. The effect that this equipment has on the lives of these children is enormous. They are able to attend mainstream schools where, before, many of them were stuck in so-called special schools because they were wheelchair- bound. They can run and play and jump and do the things that kids should be able to do. Jumping Kids relies on donations, so it would be great if people could get involved. They can find out more by visiting www.jumpingkids.org.za.”
Seeing what Reuben has accomplished is truly inspirational, and it shows just what can be achieved if you have the determination to keep going. During our photoshoot with the Mazda BT-50, Reuben looks more comfortable and composed in the saddle than most regular riders. Speaking of the Mazda, what does he think of the bakkie? “Bakkies are great for us mountain bikers,” says Reuben. “They offer all the space needed to carry the bikes and gear needed for stage racing. The added ground clearance also allows you to get to the best riding spots, which are often down the worst roads. “As for the Mazda, it’s really come a long way. The previous generation was tough, but also quite unrefined. It was a real workhorse. The new model has loads of power and torque, and the cabin is very comfortable; a necessity after a long day in the saddle!”
MAZDA BT-50 3.2 6AT 4X4
The Mazda BT-50 was given a facelift a few months ago. Most noticeably, its front end has been overhauled. The bakkie now has a chrome blade grille that’s more like other new Mazdas, and those sloping indicator lights are gone. But it doesn’t end there. The large rear indicators have also been removed, and the latest BT-50 rolls around on a particularly nice set of rims. What this has all resulted in is a darker and more sombre appearance. It looks more aggressive and imposing with this new wide front end. The previous catlike appearance is largely gone. The BT-50 is certainly less love-it-or-hate-it than it was before. On the inside, things have largely remained unchanged. The cabin of the BT-50 looks much like it did, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The cabin of the Mazda has always been one of the best, and this is still true. It remains fresh and modern looking, and has every convenience you could ask for. You’ve even got a reverse camera, a new addition.
The engine/gearbox combination remains unchanged. You still enjoy a 3.2-litre oilburner that pushes out 147kW of power and 470Nm of torque, and it’s mated to a six-speed auto shifter. With the latest BT-50, Mazda is aiming squarely at the lifestyle segment. It isn’t bothering with the workhorse market, instead focusing its attention on people who enjoy overlanding and off-roading, as well as adventure activities like mountain biking. What you get is a well-equipped bakkie that is spacious, practical and very SUV-like. You also get plenty of off-road ability. The BT-50 has a 4WD system with low-range gearing, a rear diff lock and plenty of ground clearance.
MAZDA BT-50 3.2 6AT 4X4
Engine 3 198CC, In-Line, Five-Cylinder, Turbodiesel
Power 147KW @ 3 000 R/Min
Torque 470nm @ 1 750 R/Min
Transmission Six-Speed Auto
4wd System Selectable 4wd With Low Range And Rear Diff Lock
Tyres 265/65 R17
Ground Clearance 237MM
Fuel Tank 80 Litres