Meet Matt Beers, the South African mountain biker who finished second in the BWR

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At the Belgian Waffle Ride in San Diego earlier this month, there was an unfamiliar face on the men’s race podium.

Matt Beers, a marathon mountain bike racer from South Africa, finished second in California, six minutes behind race winner Alexey Vermeulen. BWR was his first international gravel race.

Beers is the current South African national mountain bike marathon champion. He is perhaps best known for completing six Cape Epics, the grueling eight-day stage race in South Africa. In 2021, he and Jordan Sarrou won the event. This year, Beers teamed up with American Christopher Blevins and finished third.

While he likes the Cape Epic, that’s indirectly one of the reasons Beers is considering a gravel pivot.

“I still love her and really appreciate her,” he said. “But I think in the marathon, it’s in a tricky area where we have the Cape Epic and that’s about it. For me personally, and my sponsors, it’s the one race that everyone is going cares. It’s a big gamble considering all that can go wrong. I’ve really tried to widen myself in the sport. Gravel is a perfect transition for marathon runners. You have the skills and you have endurance.

Beers’ current trip to the United States — he’ll be here for a month, with two more races to come — is to help prove two points. First, he can measure himself in the realm of competition, and second, he can show sponsors back home that the transition from marathon to gravel is worth it.

“I go to America and run on gravel, I don’t care what happens.”

Beers has been following gravel racing since 2019. He was hoping to visit North America in 2020 to compete, but COVID ruined those plans. Then, even when travel and racing started to open up last summer, Beers didn’t have the support he was hoping for to make the trip.

Although he worked with Specialized on bikes and gear, Beers had to seek title sponsorship from South African companies. Like many professional teams, Beers has seen its title sponsor bail out during the pandemic. Fortunately, another company came on board and saved the team from June 2020 to the end of 2021. In October, Beers and Sarrou won the Cape Epic – a victory that would ironically give Beers the credit he needed to run on the gravel.

Beers at BWR San Diego, April 30, 2022. (Photo: Courtesy Matt Beers)

“After winning Cape Epic, I had a lot of firepower and credibility to build my own team,” he said. “It consists of, I get help from Specialized global and Specialized South Africa. From Toyota South Africa, this comes from their marketing budget. And they love to ride so we were very lucky with that, with such an international brand that everyone knows. Then I could build my own program from what happens.

“So I was like, ‘I’m going to America and running on gravel, I don’t care what happens. And now here I am.

Beers began his month-long gravel vacation with BWR. Another runner lent him a car to drive to Colorado. Keegan Swenson and Sofia Gomez Villafañe offered him a pit stop in Tucson, where he trained for a few days with them and fellow marathon/gravel runners Russell Finsterwald and Evelyn Dong.

On Thursday, Beers will fly to Texas for Gravel Locos, and the following week he will travel to Bentonville, Arkansas for the rule of three. If he could, he would stay for Unbound, but he returns home to defend his national marathon title on May 29.

Basically, with little experience in anything other than racing itself, Beers flew around the world and jumped right into the professional gravel lifestyle. And from the looks of his BWR result, he fits in really well.

North American gravel as a South African model

From BWR, Beers had a main takeaway – “it was crazy.”

“If you had this type of racing in South Africa I think people would protest – how can people do this stuff on road bikes, even on gravel bikes? It was super spicy. But it was very cool. It opened my eyes to how big you can send on a 32c tire. Normally I would never do that, but you don’t really have a choice when everyone else is doing it.

Recently, mountain bikers came out on or near the top of the podium at BWR San Diego. Last year, Katerina Nash won the women’s race ahead of her World Cup mountain bike teammate Hannah Otto, and Finsterwald finished third in the men’s race. Singletrack skills are clearly useful.

matt beers
Beers leads the lead group on a section of road at BWR. (Photo: Courtesy Matt Beers)

As for the rest of the race, Beers had done his homework.

“I do as much research as I can to find out who the strong runners are,” he said. “There were about 15 that I knew of. So when I saw a guy I didn’t know, it was like ‘oh shit, I need to get around him.’ I knew I had to be close to the front all day.

Even though Beers is used to long mountain bike races, he found that BWR required a different kind of endurance.

“Cap Epic, you start and it’s just full of gas from start to finish, there’s no respite at all,” he said. “But it’s only four hours, four and a half hours when BWR was very intermittent, which is quite different. It’s not like a road race but not like a mountain bike race. Kind of between -of them.

Although his specialty has become marathon mountain biking, Beers is no stranger to other cycling disciplines. In 2019, he spent three months as intern for UAE Team Emirates, and last year he finished second in the South African Time Trial Championships. He was also second runner-up in the South African National XCO Championships three times.

“All of these experiences pay off overall, giving you perspective on how good you can be on a bike,” Beers said.

These days, it’s not uncommon for someone with that kind of history to end up running on gravel.

Beers has two more opportunities to see how good he is on a bike (a Specialized Crux, to be precise) while here in the States. On May 14 he will race Gravel Locos in Hico, TX with Laurens ten Dam, Pete Stetina, Colin Strickland, Adam Roberge and Ian Boswell. Then, on May 21, it’s more sub-cycling to Bentonville’s Rule of Threes. There he will face the BWR champion Alexey Vermeulen, as well as Payson McElveen, another marathon mountain biker.

Although Beers is back in South Africa to focus on the national marathon and XCO championships later this summer, her gravel campaign in the United States was aimed at giving the fledgling discipline a boost at home. Beers said the gravel grows in South Africa, which is one of the reasons it has such strong support at the moment.

“There’s a whole gravel hipster clan that is my fan base back home,” he said. “They follow all the American races and they lose their minds. They are trying to replicate the American gravel scene in South Africa. He’s growing up but we just don’t have bikes.

When the supply chain catches up, South African gravel riders will be ready. And if all goes according to Beers’ plan, he will have picked up a few more wins in North America by then.

“Hopefully I can make enough noise this time to be able to come back next year and make it a real campaign,” he said.

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