It's tough, but you can prepare for it!

The first question that people asked me after my Cape Epic completion was simply: was it difficult? And in trying to answer this question I have come to the realistation that the term ‘difficult’ is relevant.

Lying next to the N1 highway with your leg in a mangled mess after being hit by an oncoming truck is difficult. Coming to the realization in hospital an hour or so later that your leg is gone is difficult. It is difficult because you had no time to prepare for it, you had no time to even think about it for a single second before it happened. One moment you are cruising along, the next moment your life is turned upside down on its head and sent in a different direction. You are in this thing and you have to adapt immediately in order to rise above it.

Yes the Absa Cape Epic is difficult, it is the world’s toughest mountain bike race, it must be difficult. The UCI can’t classify it, it’s that difficult.

But it is something you can prepare for, you know how far it is, you know you are going to climb and you have time to prepare. In the end crossing the line at Lourensford was the culmination of two and a half years of focused training on the back of a twenty years of cycling.

Yes the Epic is the world’s toughest mountain bike race, but it is an achievable goal for most people, granted they are willing to put the hard work in by preparing correctly over the right amount of time. For me as an amputee, I just had to train harder, in order to finish within the daily time limits.

The funny thing is that although cycling had always been part of my life, after my accident it became kind of a gateway to normality. I figured out that to cope with my disability I needed to carry on doing the things that I loved. For me, I did not want the change in ability to mean a lifestyle change.

I could only really attempt cycling about a year after my accident. I started slowly with rides of 2 or 3 kilometres and slowly built it up. Soon after getting back on two wheels I entered the 94.7 again in the beginning of 2009 and made that my goal, I finished it comfortably. In 2010 I went to the SA disabled cycling championships for the first time and earned myself two gold medals. I loved being back on the bike and I loved competing.

I started doing more and more races and really enjoyed it, I partnered up with Johan Snyders at Icexpress and he made me a more efficient, cycling specific prosthesis. I started training with a group of vets from Bruce Reyneke Cycles. At first I was getting dropped all the time. But these guys took me under their wing, pushing me along when I fell behind and after a few months I was able to hang with the group for the 60 km morning loop.

Then by chance I was asked to do the Panorama tour and then the Isuzu 3 towers. The stage-racing bug hit me hard. In 2012 I worked as a volunteer at the Epic, for the sole purpose of getting a spot in this race for 2013.

I had no real plan further than just getting in first. Luckily the Toyota PR department heard what I was up to and they helped me out in a big way. The Epic is not a cheap exercise and sponsorship from Toyota made it financially possible for me to chase this dream.

In 2013, I attempted the Cape Epic for the first time and failed to get any further than Stage 3, I pushed as hard as I could but physically and mentally I had reached the limit of what my body was prepared to do.

So with that experience as a foundation I set about preparing myself better for the 2014 edition of the race. 

Yes there are areas of the Epic route where being an amputee is a disadvantage. Portaging is a big problem for me. My mountain bike prosthetic has been tailored to be most effective when cycling, but this unfortunately means that it is not the best for walking. However, I knew if I could just keep moving forward we would be ok, yes we were slow through these sections, but we were able to make up time in other places.

For a team like ours that was at the Epic simply to finish, the dreaded maximum stage time cut offs are always in the back of your mind, but I am happy to say that except for the queen stage where we came in with 20 minutes to spare, on most days we were home with an hour or more to spare.

I say happy now, but that stage 5, 115 km with almost 3000m of climbing was really tough. The days climbing was basically split over three biggish climbs. After leaving the last waterpoint my legs were tired, this was our sixth day of riding and we were already 8 hours in and had been climbing a lot that day. We kept going up for another 7 km, the whole time I am thinking, OK, just push, it is downhill to the finish after this koppie. But then there is another small hill to climb and the path is not the most flowing. Your mind starts doing the math to the cutoff and you feel you are behind and you start thinking the worst. Mentally that was a very, very difficult day for me. When we started going down I forgot our cautious approach and it was elbows out, sliding both tyres in the corners and into the Oak Valley single-track. How we finished that day with 20 minutes to spare, I still don’t know.

Granted these challenges, I had been to the Cape Epic and if I knew what it would be like and I prepared accordingly. Yes the days were long and the weather sometimes terrible, but we were prepared for everything and went in with the correct frame of mind. I was ready to spend long hours in the seat, that is the nature of this beast. Riding for an average of around 8 hours a day for 7 days is tough no matter who you are.