Brazil – and The Giants of Rio

Boykies from Brazil

Copacabana Beach. It’s hot, it’s humid and, you’re damn right, it’s happening. Now add 300-plus endorphin-crazed athletes, a few thousand litres of Red Bull and four extreme disciplines, and you have an adrenaline fest waiting to go off.

Beach Patrol: Jacques Marais

Sultry. If you need one word to describe the vibe in Rio, this is it. You feel it in the breeze whispering in across the South Atlantic Ocean. You sense it in the air every time you pass a Carioca girl on Avenida Atlântica. And it damn well detonates like a megaton blast inside your brain when you set foot on the legendary marine parade stretching from Ipanema to the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain.

The Brazil capital is a city oozing sex appeal. Every nook and every cranny exudes seduction, from the pulsating nightclubs lining the leafy Copacabana avenues to the caiperhinha bars spilling onto the golden sand of Leblon and Praia Vermelha. The percussive beat of samba music is everywhere, and when you look at the size of the bikinis, it is blatantly obvious why close shaves worldwide are popularly referred to as ‘Brazilians’.

But I’m not here to monitor bikini lines, however pleasurable that task may sound. Nope, I find myself in Rio as part of the media contingent covering Red Bull’s ‘Giants of Rio’ race, a multi-sport spectacle combining surf swimming, beach running, mountainbiking and speed hang gliding. As we speak, 80 teams from more than 30 countries are streaming into the city, ready to rock Rio.

With four specialist participants per team, you’re looking at 320 extreme athletes, all of them at the top of their respective games. The Aussie team swaggers in with a couple of Triathlon World Champs (the bastards …), the French signs on Olympic MTB gold medallist Julian Absalom, and the Brazilians enter 30 teams, just to make sure. With bags of local knowledge and a selection of superb competitors, the host nation are sure to turn up the heat.

Fortunately, the South African team also features a big gun or two, most notably Ryk Neethling, part of the victorious foursome who claimed gold at the Athens Olympics in the 4x100m relay. Although Ryk is better know for his pool prowess, he holds a few long-distance records and is quietly confident about his chances in the rough chop off Copacabana Beach. With his recent successes at the Swimming World Cup, he generates a media frenzy of note, and I soon notice a bevy of (mostly female) journalists doggedly hanging around the SA team.

Joining Ryk on the squad is Anton Brown, one of SA’s top fly-boys and a bit of a mad bugger (which I suppose goes with the territory if you jump off mountains with a glider strapped to your back). I spend the Friday before the event with him at the Pedra Bonita (or Beautiful Mountain) launch site, trying to make sense of flying conditions. On the cards is a dodgy tail-wind take-off, followed by a bitch of a flight bisecting two peaks before blasting down onto Ipanema Beach. That is, if you make it. Once you’ve opted out of the only chicken run to Pepino Beach, you better make it to Ipanema or crash-land in a favela, where you will have no choice but to deal with whatever slum justice is meted out by the gun-toting residents.

SA’s pedal power component comes courtesy of Johann Potgieter, 17-year old winner of the annual Urban Assault downhill race, who is as amped as a young Boerboel on a diet of Duracells. Problem is, since his drafting to the ‘Giants of Rio’ team, the mountain biking section of the course has been dramatically altered. First off, the organisers scrapped 90% of the downhill component and, by the time we touched down in Brazil, the route had been downgraded from jungle singletrack to tarmac riding only. And with both Corcovado and Pedra Bonita looming high, this promised to pose an arduous uphill battle.

And finally, there is Lindikhaya “Leeds” Mthangayi, a 61kg, gospel-humming, constantly beaming, running machine with a 1hr 5min personal best for the half-marathon. (That converts to an average of 2min 54 sec per km over 21kays!) Hailing from Umcxanduli in the Transkei, the first thing he did after unpacking his gear (including his washing stone) at his hotel room, was to set off on a jog along the Copacabana beachfront. He came back full of smiles, proclaiming to anyone who would listen “Hau, Rio! I like it very much!” Overall consensus therefore was that we were in there with a chance, and a bloody good one at that.

A few days of acclimatisation follows. The athletes use this time to check out the course, try out their gear in local conditions and get used to the high level of humidity in Rio at this time of year. I, in the mean time, arrange media accreditation (which took about five minutes flat) and crash-train my liver to handle vast amounts of Jack Daniels spiked with Red Bull (this took a while longer). Somehow you get sucked into the Carioca vibe though, and after three days of dedicated practice, I seem to thrive on two hours of sleep per night.

Remember the movie Point Break? Well, after our first night on the town, Anton and I started playing that ‘Worst Case Scenario’ game. Imagine this … you’re a happily married man, covering a story in the sexiest city on earth. You and your buddies walk into a night club where the beer is good and cheap. The samba beat blasts away, and girls outnumber guys by twelve to one. Unbeknownst to you, someone slips a little blue tablet into your drink.

You can’t help noticing an especially enticing brunette, a spitting image of Penelope Cruz, only with a lot less clothes on. You make the fatal mistake … there’s eye contact for more than the authorized 8 nano-seconds and she’s onto you. Smiling knowingly, she stalks over, a concrete jungle cat pursuing her prey. She leans in close, wafting Issi Miyake and coco butter, whispering ‘Como Vai?’ in your ear. And then she slides her hand up your thigh and pats your package. What do you do? What do you do …

Man, oh man. You reach for your wallet and look at the photos of your wife and kids, cross yourself repeatedly and head home to (a) take a cold shower; (b) tune into the late-night adult movie or (c) do it like they do on the Discovery Channel. I opt for (a) – that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it – and treat myself to a punishing 14 km run the next morning to burn off at least some of the excess testosterone.

Good thing, as D-Day looms on the horizon and everyone is beginning to kick into thousand yard stare mode. Sunday morning dawns like a sauna dialled to the max, with not a breath of wind in the air. The starting area on Copacabana Beach is abuzz with adrenaline, with Ryk getting ready for the four kay swim which kicks off the race. Marshals attempt to hold back a boisterous crowd, including me and a couple hundred other photographers desperate to grab a pic of the start.

My only chance of getting a straight-on perspective is to brave the waves, so I ignore the marshals and head out chest-deep into the ocean. The event is kicked off by a 1000m B.A.S.E. jump by Felix Baumgartner, who eventually pulls his chute 50m before touchdown. And then all hell breaks loose as the swimmers sprint down the beach to crash through the waves, my motor drive ratcheting to capture the action.

Ryk hits the water neck and neck with the big dogs, but I lose him in the flurry of arms stroking into the foamy beach-break. Instead of hanging around for a shuttle, I hot-foot it a kay down Copacabana Beach to the platform jump. Here the swimmers have to dash along a cliff path and then launch into a three-storey jump before braving the surf for a further 3km to Praia Vermelha.

Things are looking good for the South Africans so far, with Ryk hanging on to a Top Ten spot, so I haul ass to catch the first shuttle leaving for the bike transition. So far, so good – I make it to Praia Vermelha, the stunning little beach at the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain, ahead of the swimmers, but only just. A flotilla of boats rounds the heads, a sure sign that the frontrunners are about to hit the beach.

Aussie Ironman Ky Hurst (at least we beat the buggers in the Tri-Nations) are out the water first, with Ryk just on a minute and a half off the pace in 7th place. But here things go as pear-shaped as a Pommie tourist’s backside (most visitors to Rio don’t quite understand the ‘body beautiful’ concept, so imagine a lump of sun-damaged dough oozing around a string bikini). I manage to grab a quick pic as Johann blasts off from the transition, but that’s the last time I manage to lay eyes on him.

By now the traffic snarl-up resembles the chaos of downtown Hillbrow on any given New Year’s night, and I bail out of the shuttle to leave it blaring like a wounded goat caught in gridlock bedlam. There is no ways I’ll make it to the Christo Redentor statue on Corcovado in time for the riders, so maybe it’s a good idea to opt for Plan B. Drastic times call for drastic measures and, assuming that the combined MTB and hang gliding segments take around two hours, I’ll need to bust my backside to make it to Ipanema in time for the first glider’s touchdown as it is.

Not far away, I spot a car with POLICIA emblazoned along the sides, so I run up waving a fistful of Real notes, muttering incoherently about it being and emergência and needing to get to Ipanema, like right now. The policeman was probably headed that way anyway, so five minutes later, I’m riding shotgun in the back of a cop car, thinking: “Holy shit, I hope he’s not taking me to a Rio jail for attempting to bribe one of Brazil’s finest”.

No worries though, as I get dropped off right in front of the landing zone at least half an hour before the first hang gliders are expected in. This gives me time to check in on Leeds, who’s hanging with the cream of the world’s running fraternity inside the athlete’s enclosure. He’s raring to go, but unfavourable wind conditions are keeping the gliders from launching, thus leaving everyone on tenterhooks.

The news I get from Tristan, the athletes’ manager, is not good though. A combination of hellish heat, gruelling pace and relentless gradient has taken its toll on Johann. It is an impossible situation really, with the roadie route stripping the young gun of any advantage he might have had over the more experienced riders. He reaches the launch site way off the pace, having dropped a good 35 places down the field.

At the launch site itself, chaos reigns supreme. After the first 34 athletes, wind conditions deteriorated even further, resulting in an extended bottleneck and forcing the organisers to remove the hang gliding component from the equation. Despite this, Anton eventually decides to set off regardless and, judging from his personally recorded flight times, negotiates the course in a time on par with the leaders.

This takes us back to Ipanema Beach, where Leeds is straining at the leash like the proverbial greyhound scenting a rabbit. Due to the hang gliding hold-up, the remaining runners sprint off at 10 second intervals along the 21.2km route. Despite nearly two thirds of the race following a route along the energy-sapping sand of Rio’s crowded beaches, the diminutive South African sets off at a blistering pace, hauling in one competitor after the other.

When Leeds finally strides across the finishing line on Copacabana Beach, his time is only 6.6 seconds slower than that of the Aussie winner, but it is a case of too little, too late. So despite some brilliant individual performances from our SA boykies, the Australians grab a well-deserved victory, with Brazil, Austria and the USA hot on their heels. Good on yer, mates!

Later that night, after bumping into the original Girl from Ipanema’s daughter at the after-party, we’re staring out across the twinkly lights of Rio from atop Sugar Loaf Mountain. We’re working on our taurine fix, when somebody wistfully says: “Now how cool would it be if they decided to have the Giants of Cape Town in 2005?”

The Event:

Right, let’s get to the nuts and bolts concerning the Red Bull Giants of Rio event.
As mentioned, the Aussies creamed the route, clocking up awesome times for the various legs. Ky Hurst finished the swim in 45min 12.2sec; Sid Taberlay biked to Pedra Bonita in 1hr 31min 4sec; Jon Durand navigated the flight to Ipanema in 37min 36sec; and Courtney Atkinson bolted the punishing beach run in 1hr 32min 48 sec.

The South Africans compared favourably in three of the disciplines, and were placed 45th overall despite Anton Brown having had to fly unranked. Ryk Neethling clocking 47min 01sec in the swim and Leeds Mthangayi completed the beach run in 1hr 32min 54sec, while Johann Potgieter battled cramps and dehydration to finish the ride in 2hrs 6min 55sec.

Giants of Rio was the first event of its kind to be presented anywhere in the world, and Red Bull International is currently deciding where to stage Giants Two next year.