A quest to tame the absa cape epic
The Untamed African MTB Race
It’s Saturday morning in early October. The drones of alarm clocks all across South Africa ring out at the most ungodly hour. The sun hasn’t even considered peaking over the Western Cape’s horizon, and won’t for another hour or so.
Hundreds of brave men and women spring out of bed and scurry to collect bottles of fluids, energy bars and gels, strategically laid out the night before. While millions around the world serenely remain cozied under the covers, enjoying a peaceful dream and much needed rest, a courageous army of lycra-clad athletes head out the door for their daily dose of pain and suffering; all in preparation for their big day, over a half-year in the future.
To the outsider, it may appear these riders have a screw or two loose (no pun intended). To the rider trading in his or her wife, husband, children and friends for a tumultuous relationship with a mountain bike, it's a mission towards accomplishing a goal, it's fueling an obsession, it's embarking on a journey; a journey to tame the untamable – the Absa Cape Epic.
Dubbed the most difficult mountain bike race on the planet, the Absa Cape Epic guides a handful of devoted mountain bike riders through 718km (446 miles) of some of the most grueling landscape South Africa has to offer over an eight-consecutive-day period. Ranging from professional mountain bikers, to athletes from other disciplines, to CEO's and corporate professionals, the 1200 rider field of the Absa Cape Epic is diverse and filled with valiant warriors ready to battle against the distance, the elevation, the elements and their own personal will. They will climb through treacherous mountain passes, race through the hills of South Africa's finest wineries and endure long, hot flatland stretches on their quest to master the legacy of the Absa Cape Epic.
Competitors ride in teams of two, but they ride for much more than just their partner. They ride for charity. They ride for their families who have sacrificed during months of endless training. They ride for their company, for their team, for their country. But most importantly, they ride for themselves. Whether they are trying to win the race along with the prize money and elite UCI status that comes with it, or simply make it to the finish line, it's the journey that takes them there that is most extraordinary. This is the story of three very different journeys beginning with that sleepy morning alarm to the Absa Cape Epic finish line at the Lourensford Wine Estate in Somerset West.
This feature will take you inside the experience of the three very distinct Cape Epic journeys of three very distinct men: “The Pro" - three-time UCI Cross Country Mountain Bike World Champion, Nino Schurter, “The Athlete," former South African National Rugby Union Team Captain and current Sharks CEO, John Smit and “The Photog," professional photographer, Craig Kolesky.
They all towed the line together in Durbanville, but their journeys diverge from there in a larger-than-life tale of taming “The Untamed Mountain Bike Race" – The Absa Cape Epic.
“Look, it’s not called the ‘Intermediate,’” John Smit said when asked about the rain and mud early in the race. “It’s called the ‘Epic’ so we’re probably going to get everything thrown at us. I said to my partner, ‘the less I know the better. Let’s just face what’s in front of us.’”
The riders of the 2014 Absa Cape Epic heard tales of the sandy, dusty sections making up the 101km Stage Two around the Robertson area and were prepared to do their daily battle, but when they woke up on Tuesday morning to the sound of raindrops hitting their tents, a collective sigh fell over the camp. It was time to go to battle in deed, but this morning it was not only against each other, but also against the dreaded mud that would consume the early portion of this year's race.
“It was an absolute mud bath out there and people were suffering," said Photographer, Craig Kolesky.
As if 718km of treacherous climbing and long strenuous days in the saddle were not enough to make any sane mountain biker mad, throw in an unending quantity of heavy, sticky mud to the situation and see what happens. Speedy riders were slowed down, while the more technical riders leaned heavily on their expert bike handling skills as they began to slip and slide around the course. An already brutal race had just become even more punishing.
“Riding in this type of weather, the mud and rain, it effects the bikes pretty badly," said Kolesky. “And if you don't ride smart, you can end your race in the first five kilometers."
Luckily for our three Journeymen, they rode as smart as they could, losing only a few brake pads while fighting through fleeting moments of self pity. While our Athlete and Photographer were able to push through to the finish relatively unscathed, it was our Pro who felt the pain caused by Tuesday's conditions the most. Forced to change their brake pads just thirty kilometers into the stage, Nino Schurter and his Scott-Odlo partner Philip Buys took a heavy hit in the general classification standings as a result of the fast, slippery downhills disintegrating their brake pads.
AN ALREADY BRUTAL RACE HAD JUST BECOME EVEN MORE PUNISHING.
Despite it all, everyone survived to fight another day. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the rain and mud would soon be over, only to be replaced by another demon.
The heckling rain retreated just as fast as it came, much to the riders' delight. What they hadn't taken into account was Cape Town's notoriety for it's fussy, ever changing weather conditions. While it proved a rainy, wet storm could roll in at a moment's notice, so could the Western Cape's unrelenting heat and scathing wind – both equally as off-putting to the competitors. Such was the case as the race went on and the clouds parted, the sun shown through and the temperature's rose.
“To be honest, I'd rather ride in the mud than the headwinds we had today," said Kolesky after a gusty Stage Three. “It's two totally different things. Yesterday was a bit more pleasant than today. Although we were totally dirty, the headwind was absolutely terrible."
Stage Three was a stage in most of the rider's minds from the onset of the race. It meant 135km of pain, the longest stage in the race. They had finally pushed the muddy debauchery of the previous day out of their minds when they were greeted with mind numbing headwinds all the way to the finish.
Throw in temperatures spiking uncomfortably past 30°C in the last three days and the Absa Cape Epic had delivered a perfect storm of varying weather conditions that tested both the mental and physical toughness of all the riders, regardless of their previous professional occupations. It just goes to show that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to racing the Epic. You can prepare all you'd like, but if your own lack of intestinal fortitude and will to persevere don't get the better of you, there's a strong chance Mother Nature will.
It’s bound to happen. Your body survives the race in a large part due to a steady flow of adrenaline. Riders wake up every morning excited about the day’s journey, anxious for what lies ahead. But there comes a time in most riders’ Absa Cape Epic experience where they hit the wall, whether it is mentally, physically, or both. And at that very moment, when the adrenaline isn’t enough to outweigh the distain, you have entered The Hurtbox.
For our photographer, Craig Kolesky, entering the dreaded hurtbox was something he experienced early in last year's race. After a long, blistering, demoralizing Stage One, he could barely fight back the tears through the agonizing pain he was in. He was left wondering how he'd make it to the finish at the Lourensford Wine Estate. Call it experience, call it pride, call it stubbornness or even a streak of masochism; when Kolesky found himself in the hurtbox this year, he was able to master his own anguish with a little more poise. Don't be fooled though, his time in the hurtbox did come and it was merciless.
“Yeah, today; absolutely broken," Kolesky commented after Stage Four, an 88km stage with large accents and technical riding. “I've been feeling good up until today. The shorter distance with lots of climbing and the faster pace; I think you're just trying to keep up with everyone. It was hectic."
Clearly in pain, Kolesky put it all in perspective though, finding solace in the fact that he pushed his way though. It's what every rider strives for and what sets apart those suited to finish the massive undertaking of the Cape Epic from those bound to be swallowed up by their own version of the hurtbox.
“Although I was hurting, when I crossed the finish line it was all worth it," he concluded.
There is something about going through all that pain and making it to the end and conquering the internal demons that makes the victory all that much sweeter. To hit rock bottom and emerge the winner of the battle between your mind and your body is something special; something that can only come once you've made your escape from the hurtbox.
For our Athlete, John Smit, Stage Five, dubbed “The Queen Stage," was where he hit his self-described “dark place." Friday's stage, including 2,900 meters of climbing over 115 kilometers was the pre-race focus of most of the 1200 person field. A tall mountain, figuratively and literally stood in front of the riders and plans were put in place early to conquer this beast of a day.
“Stage five was probably designed to get rid of people like myself," the former Springbok captain explained. “It wasn't a track designed for big guys."
TO HIT ROCK BOTTOM AND EMERGE THE WINNER OF THE BATTLE BETWEEN YOUR MIND AND YOUR BODY IS SOMETHING SPECIAL; SOMETHING THAT CAN ONLY COME ONCE YOU'VE MADE YOUR ESCAPE FROM THE HURTBOX.
Combine his 114-kilogram stature with five previous days of hard riding, sweltering heat and the loss of a water bottle early in the stage and a recipe for disaster consumed Smit's day in the South African mountains. With the help of his partner, Shane Chorley and the discovery of a life-saving, discarded bottle of water along the route, Smit was able to push through the walls of his very own hurtbox and make it through to race another day.
While the amateurs went to war with their own hurtbox experiences, our Pro, Nino Schurter once again demonstrated the degree of his dominance, remaining unrivaled in terms of fitness. Schurter seemed unaffected by any condition, climb, distance or obstacle thrown in front of him. It wasn't an uncommon scene for the TV helicopters to pan to Schurter, only to find him parked still at the crest of a monstrous climb, looking back for his partner and the rest of the field as they gritted their teeth and slowly cranked to join him. When others winced, Schurter smiled. He is the World Champion for a reason and his fitness proved far and above the rest of the field, never really stepping foot into the hurtbox. Schurter's only mental battle seemed to be combatting the frustration of not being able to ride faster and go ahead without his partner. This eventually proved fatal in the general classification standings, but overtime, Schurter and his partner gained momentum and went on to win two stages in addition to two second place finishes.
The ability to push through what the average Athlete or Photographer saw as hurtbox quality pain is what sets the pros apart from the field in the Epic. And although the professional field was far and above when it came to their threshold for pain and suffering on the mountain, our Pro, Nino Schurter showed an uncanny ability to survive and push through what even the top pros were unable to conquer. Call it natural born talent, the inability to feel pain, mindful dedication; call it what you will, but Schurter was clearly a long way from his own hurtbox during the 2014 Absa Cape Epic.
BAND OF BROTHERS
Brotherhood. It’s a hard concept to describe for those who have never experienced it. It’s a bond. It’s a commitment. It’s family. It’s an unspoken oath to defend your brother by any means necessary, whether in daily life, sport or any other arena.
This very brotherhood is what John Smit preached to his teammates as the captain of the 2007 Rugby World Cup winning Springbok team. Among the members of that team was Andrew “Butch" James. Known for his ferocious tackles, among other things, James was as fierce as they came on the pitch. He and Smit went through hell and back together, battling for the 2007 World Cup trophy, as well as many other titles as members of the South African based Super Rugby Union team - The Natal Sharks. Now retired from competition and both working for their former team, the Springbok boys decided to take on the Absa Cape Epic as their next sporting challenge. Both were in for a very different kind of battle than they were used to as comrades in the rugby arena. Smit would ride with lifelong friend, Shane Chorley as part of Team Barney's Army, while James partnered with South African MX Enduro king, Jade Gutzeit as a part of the Laureus Team. These four riders would spend an absorbent amount of time together over the Epic's eight days.
As the early stages went on, Smit and James' teams were separated with different start times each morning. But in true brotherly fashion, the Springboks found each other out on the course and rode together; never deviating more than a minute or two from each other's pace. As local heroes, they were cheered into water points and called out at the finish line of each stage, clearly enjoying their time together, yet again.
“I think it was special the way it worked out," Smit said. “The four of us rode six out of the eight days together. [James and Gutzeit] were an incredible help to us. We swapped bikes, we ran, we pulled, we pushed. They helped push us up the hills, pulled along the flats. It was a much more memorable experience doing it with four, than it would have been with two."
But it was when times got tough that the former teammates truly relied on each other, just like their rugby days.
Like the classic superstition goes, no mountain biker wants to “jinx" their ride, especially in the later stages. Going against this adage, someone in the rugby foursome noted how well Smit's bike had held up throughout the eight-day excursion carrying such a physical specimen of a man. No sooner than the comment was made did Smit start to experience a clicking noise riding up a hill just past waterpoint two in the final stage. Soon enough, Smit and his bike were in serious trouble. A mountain biker's worst nightmare was about to be realized.
AS LOCAL HEROES, THEY WERE CHEERED INTO WATER POINTS AND CALLED OUT AT THE FINISH LINE OF EACH STAGE, CLEARLY ENJOYING THEIR TIME TOGETHER, YET AGAIN.
Smit and his crew decided the only solution was to snap the chain right off with almost 20km to go. At this point there's no turning back. There was only one choice and that was to make do and carry on. The boys had to do what it took to get Smit to the finish, no matter what the scenario. Luckily for him, his band of brothers were there to help.
Smit, James and their partners, aided briefly by a passing Kolesky and partner, Adrian Saffy, spent the last 20km in an unheralded display of sportsmanship and honor. Everyone took their turn, two kilometers at a time, running along side the group while the others pushed the defective bike. Finally, Smit's partner, Chorley was put on Smit's broken bike, as the lightest out of the four. The rugby crew, along with the generous help of our Photographer and many others along the way, pushed him up hills and protected him down the single tracks, all the way to the finish.
Just as they had for decades prior in their sporting careers, Smit and James, along with their humble partners crossed the finish line arm in arm. Although they were bruised and exhausted with only three working bikes, they had successfully counted on one another to persevere. It was a display of humility and trust of heroic proportions, without which, Smit might have never become an Absa Cape Epic finisher.
A FINAL GESTURE
The 88km Stage Four was one of the shortest stages the riders would face. Photographer Craig Kolesky and partner Adrian Saffy finished in six hours, thirty-eight minutes and some change; roughly two hours and fifty minutes behind the stage winners that day.
Those stage winners included our Pro, Nino Schurter. Our Athlete, John Smit finished in six hours, fifty-one minutes and change. To be clear, this is no knock on Kolesky or Smit. Both finished with respectable times at just under 7 hours. What is remarkable, however, is the stark difference between their respective experiences in the mountains compared to that of the World Champion.
Stage Four was Schurter's first Absa Cape Epic stage victory and it wouldn't be his last. He proved why he is the best in the business at the cross-country distance, along with his partner, Philip Buys. The Scott-Odlo duo also went on to secure their second stage win on the even shorter 85km Stage Six. Topping this off with a second place finish during the 115km Stage Five, Schurter had already compiled a successful 2014 Absa Cape Epic heading into the grand finale.
The final stage of the 2014 Absa Cape Epic was the shortest of them all. At 67km, riders enjoyed one last treat, taking them from Oak Valley Winery in Elgin, to the historic Lourensford Wine Estate in Somerset West, where the race has finished for the past 7 years. While Smit, Kolesky and the rest of the amateur field were out to soak it all in and reflect on what an epic journey it had been, there was a battle being fought for the final prize in the men's elite division. While Schurter and his partner had dug themselves a hole too deep to get out of in the GC standings, there was still a lot to fight for on closing Sunday.
Schurter and Buys had their sights set on winning this stage from the onset of the race. They went out of the gates from Oak Valley at a blistering pace, leaving the rest of the crowd in their dust. The only two able to keep pace with The Pro and the African champion, Buys, were their Scott teammates, Gert Heyns and Matthys Beukes. The pair, hot on Schurter's rear wheel all the way to Lourensford, was a special team in the eyes of the home fans. Heyns and Beukes are both South African and they were rocketing to the finish with a share of the stage lead.
WHILE SCHURTER AND HIS PARTNER HAD DUG THEMSELVES A HOLE TOO DEEP TO GET OUT OF IN THE GC STANDINGS, THERE WAS STILL A LOT TO FIGHT FOR ON CLOSING SUNDAY.
Schurter has had his place in history, many times over. He's won World Championships, World Cups, Olympic medals and more. Together he and Buys got off to a slow start, but they even recorded some historic Absa Cape Epic stage victories of their own. Throughout the week, Schurter had discussed how special it would be to win the final stage of the race, regardless of whether he was in contention for the GC or not. He had set up himself, and Buys, to do just that as they made the final left hand turn of the race, with the finish line in sight.
With no other competitors around, Schurter, Buys and their Scott teammates pedaled to the finish, hands in the air, clearly overjoyed with the effort they had put in on closing Sunday. But what happened next was equally as historic as Schurter's previously mentioned resume.
In the spotlight all week, from race favorites, to heavy contenders, to stage winners, Schurter and Buys had achieved their goals. In one of the most compassionate acts of humility and sportsmanship the Epic has seen, the pair backed off during the final pedals and allowed Heyns and Beukes to claim the stage victory and a little piece of history of their own.
To the delight of the home crowd, they had become the first ever all South African team to win the final stage of the Absa Cape Epic; a monumental moment for the Epic and South African mountain biking as a whole.
“It's the first full South African [Stage 7] win," Schurter said. “It's cool that I was able to help them go for the victory. They are both still young. One [Heyns] is just 20-years-old and it's a huge success for him. It was a beautiful result and quite emotional."
“Unbelievable!" said Beukes of the final unfolding. “To do this with my two best friends (Heyns and Buys) and the world champion - who's also become our friend - was very special."
To get through the cruel days climbing in the mountains, the heavy rain and the unforgiving heat, riders must rely on a bit of compassion, not just from the elements, but from each other. And what greater display of that very compassion than Schurter and Buys' final gesture to cap the 2014 race.
“I’m pretty emotional,” said, Craig Kolesky after finishing the Epic. “I can’t actually explain what it feels like to finish this race. You put six to eight months out of a year into training to finish this race. There’s just so many emotions going through you when you finish. Just to see friends and family, it’s very cool."
Completing the Absa Cape Epic means different things for different people. For those like Kolesky and Smit, it's about proving to yourself that you can do it. It's conquering the mental and physical demons that tell you that you can't. It's about sharing a special experience with a partner over eight days; creating memories that no one else can understand. It's about crossing that line at Lourensford, battle tested and resolute, happy to see your girlfriend or wife, your son, your supporters. That is the payoff for all of the long, hard hours put into training for the Absa Cape Epic.
“The sacrifices are worth it," said The Athlete, John Smit. “Not too many people can say they've finished the Absa Cape Epic."
It's true. 1200 people are lucky enough to start the race each year and many of them aren't as fortunate as Kolesky and Smit to cross the finish line on day eight.
For The Pro, Nino Schurter, it was about collecting a highly sought after Absa Cape Epic victory; one of the few accolades not already touted on his resume. And while he didn't exactly achieve this goal this year, he left the race with two stage victories and two second-place finishes, along with a massive amount of respect from his competitors and the mountain bike community for his show of endurance, sportsmanship and class. He officially walks away from Cape Town with a fifth place finish in the overall standings and 110 points towards his UCI Mountain Bike ranking. He spent 30 hours, 48 minutes, and 47 seconds total, completing the race.
While many of the Epic competitors will walk gingerly over the next few weeks, recovering slowly, there is no time to slack for the World Champion. He took the fitness gained from this race and head to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa for the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup race.
“That was quite a hard week," Schurter said. “Now the focus is to recover as quick as possible."
No rest for the weary. For those fortunate enough not to have to jump right back in the saddle, relishing in the achievement is high on the priority list after completing the eight-day journey. Sifting through pictures, reliving the hard times and the bliss of crossing the finish line – there is nothing that can take these moments away from riders like Kolesky and Smit.
“For year's I've photographed the race and whenever I'd shoot the finishing images, watching the boards being clipped and seeing people crying from the punishment they have had to go through; I told myself that one day I have to do this,“ Kolesky said.
After 51 hours, 6 minutes and 31 seconds of riding, he got to experience those moments of elation as he crossed the line where he was greeted by his young son, Koby – all the payoff he needed.
“To see Koby at the finish was something special. I hadn't seen him in ten days. It's a proper driving force to get to the finish to hold him."
For Smit, it was about proving to himself and those around him he could do it. Known for his prowess on the rugby pitch, he proved his athleticism still reigns supreme and that he could conquer any obstacle thrown in front of him. Juggling a full time job as the CEO of the Natal Sharks rugby squad along with the birth of his newborn baby, much more was at stake for Smit than just getting his muscular frame across the line at Lourensford.
“It's been an incredible journey," Smit said. “It's one of those things when you do a race like this over eight days. It's actually a seven-month journey. It started seven months ago, committing to doing this Epic. What meant the most to me was that when I came across the finish line, I was able to say I enjoyed Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, all the way through to the end. Even with a bit of drama in the end. It just added to the story that will be told one day."
It's been quite a cool transition to stop playing rugby and then get into something else," he added. “And then something as significant as this in a new sport and enjoying it, means I can carry on and have something outside of smashing into people for a living."
Officially, Smit spent 52 hours, 14 minutes and 48 seconds on the bike.
Life lessons were learned out on the South African hillsides about facing your fears and never giving up. They climbed mountains, they crossed rivers, they sweat, they bled, they laughed and they cried, but in the end, the payoff came knowing that they had survived and that they were better people for it.
The 2014 Absa Cape Epic is now complete, but the stories and memories for these three Journeymen will live on forever.