Don't miss a moment from Paris-Roubaix and Unbound Gravel, to the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, Vuelta a España, and everything in between when you join Outside+.
At Belgian Waffle Ride in San Diego earlier this month, there was an unfamiliar face on the podium of the men’s race.
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 champion in marathon MTB. He’s perhaps best known for having completed six Cape Epics, South Africa’s grueling eight-day stage race. In 2021, he and Jordan Sarrou won the event. This year, Beers partnered with American Christopher Blevins and finished third.
Although he loves the Cape Epic, indirectly it’s one of the reasons Beers is considering a pivot to gravel.
“I still love it and really enjoy it,” he said. “But I think in marathon, it’s in an awkward area where we have the Cape Epic and that’s about it. For me personally, and my sponsors, that’s the only race anyone cares about. It’s a big gamble considering how much can go wrong. I’ve really been trying to broaden myself in the sport. Gravel is a perfect segue for marathon racers. You have the skills and you have the endurance.”
Beers’ current trip to the U.S. — he’ll be here for a month, with two more upcoming races — is to help prove two points. One, he gets to measure himself in the competitive field, and two, he can show sponsors back home that the marathon-to-gravel segue is one worth taking.
‘I am going to America and I am racing gravel, I don’t care what happens.’
Beers has been following gravel racing since 2019. He hoped to visit North America in 2020 to compete but COVID laid waste to those plans. Then, even when travel and races started to open up last summer, Beers didn’t have the support he’d hoped for to make the trek over.
Although he’s worked with Specialized for bikes and equipment, Beers has had to seek title sponsorship from South African companies. Like many pro teams, Beers saw his title sponsor bail during the pandemic. Fortunately, another company came on board and saved the team from June 2020 until the end of 2021. In October, Beers and Sarrou won the Cape Epic — a victory that would ironically give Beers the cred he needed to race gravel.
“After winning Cape Epic, I had some nice pull and credibility to build my own team,” he said. “That consists of, I get help from Specialized global and Specialized South Africa. From Toyota South Africa, it comes out of their marketing budget. And they love riding so we got super lucky with that, with such an international brand that everyone knows. So then I could build my own program off of that happening.
“So I was like, ‘I am going to America and I am racing gravel, I don’t care what happens.’ And now I’m here.”
Beers began his month-long gravel holiday with BWR. A fellow racer loaned him a car to drive out 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 other marathon/gravel racers Russell Finsterwald and Evelyn Dong.
On Thursday, Beers will fly to Texas for Gravel Locos, and the following week he’ll travel to Bentonville, Arkansas for the Rule of Three. If he could, he’d stay for Unbound, but he’s headed home to defend his national marathon title on May 29.
Basically, with little experience in anything but the racing itself, Beers flew across the world and jumped straight into the gravel pro lifestyle. And from the looks of his BWR result, he fits in just fine.
North American gravel as a South African model
From BWR, Beers had one main takeaway — “it was crazy.”
“If you had that type of race in South Africa, I think people would be protesting — how can people ride that type of stuff on road bikes, even on gravel bikes? It was super spicy. But it was very cool. It opened my eyes as to how big you can send on a 32c tire. I would have normally never done that but you don’t have much choice when everyone else is doing it.”
Recently, mountain bikers have come out on or near the top of the podium at BWR San Diego. Last year, Katerina Nash won the women’s race ahead of fellow World Cup mountain biker Hannah Otto, and Finsterwald was third in the men’s field. The singletrack skills clearly come in handy.
As for the rest of the racing, Beers had done his homework.
“I do as much research as I can to know who the strong riders are,” he said. “There were like 15 that I knew of. So I 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 near the front the whole day.”
Even though Beers is used to long mountain bike races, he found that BWR required a different type of endurance.
“Cape Epic, you start and it’s just full gas from the start to the finish, there’s no let up at all,” he said. “But it’s only four, four and a half hours whereas BWR was very on and off, which is quite different. It’s not like a road race but not like a mountain bike race. Kind of an in-between.”
Although his speciality has become marathon MTB, Beers is no stranger to other disciplines of cycling. In 2019, he spent three months as a stagiaire for UAE Team Emirates, and last year he finished second in the South African time trial championships. He’s also been second runner-up in the South African XCO national championships three times.
“All these experiences pay off in the big picture, giving you perspective on how you good you can be on a bike,” Beers said.
Nowadays it’s not uncommon for someone with that kind of history to end up racing gravel.
Beers has two more opportunities to see how good he is on a bike (a Specialized Crux, to be specific) while here in the U.S. On May 14, he’ll race Gravel Locos in Hico, Texas with the likes of Laurens ten Dam, Pete Stetina, Colin Strickland, Adam Roberge, and Ian Boswell. Then, on May 21, it’s more underbiking at Bentonville’s Rule of Three. There, he’ll face BWR champ Alexey Vermeulen, as well as Payson McElveen, another marathon mountain biker.
Although Beers will be back in South Africa to focus on marathon and XCO nationals later this summer, his U.S. gravel campaign was meant to help carry momentum to the nascent discipline back home. Beers said that gravel is growing in South Africa, which is one of the reasons he has so much support right now.
“There’s a whole hipster gravel clan that’s my fanbase back home,” he said. “They follow all of the American races and they’re just losing their minds. They’re trying to replicate the American gravel scene in South Africa. It’s growing but we just don’t have bikes.”
When the supply chain catches up, South African gravel cyclists will be ready. And if all goes according to Beers’ plan, he’ll have notched a few more wins in North America before then.
“Hopefully I can make a big enough splash this time that I can come back next year and make a proper campaign of it,” he said.