An Epic Journey

Words: Hannele Steyn | Photos: Various Contributors

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Well, it all started in 2003, at the Argus Cycle Tour’s expo. I was working for my sponsor, PVM, at their stand and was approached by a guy called Kevin Vermaak. As I was the South African Champion in Cross-country and Marathon and still racing seriously, Kevin was keen to find out what I thought about the idea of an eight-day mountain bike stage race. His vision was to start the race in the picturesque town of Knysna and finish eight days later in Cape Town. As the eternal opportunist, I raved about the idea and offered to be as involved as he wanted me to be.

Plans were set in motion, but the biggest hurdle to cross was funding as the cost to get a race of this magnitude off the ground is enormous. So we approached my sponsors; Adidas, PVM, Polar, Falke and Beyerskloof Wine Estate. Some of them were interested and came on board immediately and have remained involved to this day. As a thank you for the introduction, Kevin gave me an entry to participate in the inaugural event, the Adidas Cape Epic in 2004. I was so excited and started to train like a mad woman.

I teamed up with Johan Greeff and what an eye opener this event proved to be because we knew nothing about endurance events of this scale. We were only used to racing marathon events that were one-day races of 70-100 km. With all our training and preparation done (or so we thought), we left for Knysna two days before the start.

2004 Inaugural Event

The air was filled with nervous energy as we lined up in the rain for the start of the first-ever Cape Epic mountain bike race. We got off to a great start and were the leading mixed team for most of the day. However, the rain and mud caused my bicycle to get bad chain suck. This cost us dearly and presented a window of opportunity to a German team, who happily grabbed it. Despite our best efforts, we couldn't make up lost time and ended the first stage in second place. Back then, there wasn't much information about endurance racing and nutrition, which go hand in hand, so on most days we blew up badly near the end of the stage due to eating the wrong foods or carrying too little with us. Often, our bodies started at a deficit the next morning because we didn’t eat enough proteins to replenish. But Johan and I won the last stage, to finish second overall.

To give you an idea of just how much this event has progressed, let me share what it was like in 2004:

• Registration was a smallish affair at the Knysna Waterfront. We received a goodie bag containing a t-shirt, race number and zip ties.

• The field was small, there was no cordoned off check-in blocks and no prologue to seed you.

• The water points had coke and a few bananas, and the timekeepers stood under umbrellas next to the road to check whether you were within two minutes of your partner. At the finish line, there was NO Woolies meal, NO coffee stands, NO bike wash and only one or two stands selling slapchips, boerewors rolls or some kind of food.

• It was a mission to find your bag in the truck that was parked miles away, and a tent that was on level ground and not too close to the portaloos and generators, which started at 3 a.m. every day. You had to queue for a shower that was nothing like the luxury Afripex set-up of today.

• Then it was time to eat, if you could find something decent. Thereafter, you cleaned your bike and took it to the lock up. If there was something wrong with it, you had to sort it out or try and find a bike mechanic, somewhere.

• If you didn’t have enough clothes, you washed your kit under a tap.

• There was NO massage services and NO chill tent. Afternoons were spent lying under trees until dinner time.

• Water came from many different sources, and dinner was provided by the locals of each hosting town. It was pasta every day, with the occasional, very tired salad leaf.

• Imagine NO big sponsor trucks and NOwhere to buy snacks or essentials. If you wanted a snack or needed something, you had to go into town, usually a fair distance from the campsite.

• Our stage and overall podium prizes varied from drawings done by the pupils of the local schools, to books about the stage town and a medal at the finish, in Spier, Stellenbosch!

Still, I loved it, and can only look back with fond memories and happiness for what we get at today’s Absa Cape Epic.

There are so many memories from each Cape Epic that I would have to write a book to tell it all. So here's a quick summary of my second to ninth Epic:

I raced in a ladies team with Zoe Frost and we won.

I raced in a mixed team, but my partner had to pull out and I finished solo. Unfortunately, you don’t get any prize for that J.

I raced in a mixed team with Greg Minnaar (World Downhill Champion), and what a privilege it was to race with such an icon. We finished seventh in the category.

I raced in a ladies team with Leanne Brown Waterson, but she had to stop due to illness and I finished solo again.

I raced in a mixed team with Fourie Kotze. He stopped on day one due to illness, but started again on day two. We ended in third place, an unofficial finish of course.

I raced in a ladies team with a very strong German lady, Yvonne Kraft, who has won a few times in the mixed category. We finished as the second ladies team.

I raced in a ladies team with Leana de Jager. Unfortunately Leana had a big fall two weeks before the start, so we couldn’t race flat out and finished fifth. We did win a few stages though.

I raced in a ladies team with Australian Naomi Hansen, and this time it was me who cost us a good placing due to illness. We managed a fifth in the UCI ranks.

At the start of the ninth Epic, Bonnie Swanepoel and I were the only two women in the world who had completed the previous eight events. Sadly for Bonnie, illness struck and she had to withdraw from the ninth, with only three days to go, leaving me as the only woman to have completed nine Epics (alongside eight men).

The modern-day Epic - as most participants and supporters know - has become a huge event and so different to that of the inaugural event. For example:

• Registration at the Waterfront in Cape Town is a buzz and your Epic-branded goodie bag is worth a few Rands, with quality clothing and things to use during the race. Amabubezi members, who completed three or more Epics, get special treatment and a separate registration table, which means shorter queues.
• When you finish a stage, there's a Woollies meal, yoghurt, snacks and cold drinks waiting for each rider.
• There are massage facilities, hot showers, stands to buy food, beautiful tents, mechanic services, internet, washing facilities, camper vans, fantastic breakfasts and dinners and a very comfortable chill tent.
• There are big money prizes and finishers receive a t-shirt, medal, picnic basket and get to enjoy a party at Lourensford Wine Estate, the finishing venue.

I am incredibly excited to be competing again this year, in my tenth Epic, and with my good friend, Kenny Scheepers, in the mixed category. As we are both in our twenties, aagh, I mean late forties, we are going to race with passion and determination, but with enjoyment first on the agenda.

Yes, I could have bought a small house with the entry fee monies, but the memories made are priceless and worth far more! My thanks to Kenny for being a dream partner and joining me on this journey; my sponsors: PVM, Sludge, Polar, Adidas, Rocket, CWC Cycles, Biozest, Second Skins, Corhold and Afripex, for making this journey possible; my family and friends, who supported me and had to cope with all the nerves and anxiety; the organisers; and Kevin for contacting me that day in 2003.

I am honoured and grateful to have the privilege to do my tenth Epic, and thank God for giving me life!