The chairman of the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority (MTPA) apologised as he offered me his left hand to shake instead of his right on Monday afternoon. His right was bound up in a sling.
“Bicycle accident,” shrugged Robert Desvaux. “I crashed last week, broke my collarbone. I had to have micro-surgery on it. It was done by a South African doctor, actually.”
Desvaux has ridden the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour and knows something of SA cycling. His nation had just hosted the African Mountainbike Championships at the Casela Park at the weekend, the reason the MTPA had flown me over, on short notice, from Joburg to Mauritius.
Tourism is a big industry in Mauritius and they crave the publicity. He asked me how the championships had gone.
SA had carved up the main races with the swiftness that Desvaux’s surgeon had done his collarbone, but I put it in a much more gentle way.
“It was a good day for South Africa,” I told him. It had been. SA had won all five of the cross-country titles. Mauritius had won the downhill event the next day, but that was because the only entrants in the event were from Mauritius.
Just four nations in total entered the championships: SA, who, with 15 riders, had the biggest team, Namibia, Mauritius and Rwanda with a single participant in Adrien Niyonshuti.
Philip Buys won the men’s elite race from Marc Bassingthwaighte with Niyonshuti in third. Most of the Mauritian men’s elite and under-23 riders were taken off the course with two laps remaining.
Candice Neethling was the only under-12 woman at the event, while there were just two elite women competing.
As Declan, the Irish commissaire here on behalf of the International Cycling Union and whose last name escapes me, told me: “It’s a massive pity the turn-out wasn’t better. They’ve done a magnificent job in putting this on.
“The UCI have set rules and standards that have to be in place before we let the race take place, whether that race be the world championships or a World Cup, and they have met them,” said Declan.
“They were given the race at the last minute to put on and they’ve done brilliantly.”
Last year, said Declan, there were also only four nations represented at the African Champs held in Jonkershoek near Stellenbosch.
Burry Stander, SA’s great hope for a medal in the cross-country in London, won that race. Bassingthwaighte was second, Buys third and Niyonshuti fourth.
The reason for the South Africans coming to Mauritius was simple – they wanted the precious UCI points that would help them improve their seeding at the world championships later in the year. The better their seeding, the nearer to the front of the starting pen they will stand.
“I get 200 UCI points for winning here, and they are easier to get than in Europe,” said Neethling as frankly as you could wish for.
Buys said the same thing. When he was removed from the course with one lap remaining, SA under-23 rider Shaun Silver was heard nervously asking the UCI official if he would still get the UCI points. He smiled when she said yes.
When he saw the field for the downhill race Buys, who had won the elite cross-country race the day before, joked that he should have entered that as well. He should have. In the seeding run, some of the riders taking place in the open race were faster than the Mauritian national team.
One Mauritian rode the tough downhill on a hard-tail 26-inch bike; another rode on the Specialised Epic 29er he had used the day before in the cross-country race.
At one stage he was the fastest in the event, but was eventually overtaken. He had a 2012 Absa Cape Epic sticker on his top tube.
It was a pity, I told Desvaux, that there had not been more people taking part in the championships. He agreed.
“I am trying to push cycling as a tourist attraction, but it is hard. Maybe one day we’ll succeed.”