HOSPITAL TO EPIC
WORDS & IMAGES: ANN HARRISON
Quick catch up from last issue: 6 months earlier, Ann had a serious accident on the slopes of Table Mountain, after a dramatic rescue and determined recovery from a broken pelvis and ribs, snapped clavicle, surgery and months of rehab she lined up with her partner for the toughest MTB race on the planet – the ABSA Cape Epic.
We pick up her race from Stage 1:
For some reason as in all my other epics, the organisers always try and break the riders with stage 1. The route was actually quite spectacular. I have ridden most of the trails except beyond Creation Wine Estate. Fantastic to do new trails. However, today not only were we treated with a brutal stage in distance and ascent, but we had a howling North Wester which is not your friend. It’s a gusty, swirling unfriendly wind and always seemed to be head on. It was intense. I hate riding in the wind and it slowly chipped away at our resolve but not completely, between the 2 of us we managed to share the load (Anneke more than me) as I was nursing my legs making sure I rode at a pace just under that cramping zone. I didn’t cramp and that was a miracle. I am the cramping queen – ask any of my riding friends who know me well.
Anneke and I worked well as a team and just kept moving clocking those kms away. The trails were insane and all rideable (except for a few really gnarly sections). We had everything thrown at us that day but it will always be known as ‘the day the race village got blown away’. We arrived at the finish line with no one in sight. No commentators – nothing. We had no idea what damage the wind had caused. The main dining tent had been damaged and the steel structure was all buckled and bent. The poor team on the ground. What a nightmare for them and I commend them for making alternative plans for dinner that night.
Weather prediction for the next few days: More wind and then some serious rain. I didn’t quite sign up for howlers and rain but then one can’t control the weather. No such thing as bad weather, just bad gear…….and a strong head.
Stage 2 was not quite as bad as the day before and I thoroughly enjoyed the route. I know the trails here well and they were fantastic. A strong head wind on our return to Hermanus but all in all we finished and were in one piece. The best part of the day, was seeing my friends all over the place at various waterpoints. They really lift your spirits up.
It seemed Stage 3 was all single track and some trails I have never ridden which is always a bonus and Anneke and I rode our ride. Unfortunately for Anneke, her neck was starting to give her a lot of hassle (known as drop neck or Sherman’s neck where you can’t hold your head up) and was extremely sore so it was now my turn to look after her. I just went my pace and felt surprisingly strong. The last 30km was up down up down all those mountains and then some more just to mess with your head. I know those route directors – “Let’s make it as hard as possible and take them up every hill possible!” Besides Anneke coping with her neck, my body was taking a pounding and all I can say is thank goodness for my daily massage. As much as the body was sore, I was managing well with all my previous injuries and amazed that my head was so strong. My legs were starting to get used to the pace and strain I was putting it under and it seemed to be get stronger and stronger and I was really enjoying myself. Arriving at Oak Valley was a huge relief after a long day.
Stage 4 was play day. Only 47km and 875m of climbing. Wahoo!! All single track and yes, I had a smile on my face all day. We helped an injured rider who had a terrible crash in front of me and didn’t know where and who he was. Poor chap. A feeling I knew so well. After making sure his partner and the medics were on the way, we finished on a high. Thank goodness for a shorter day.
The rain and mud……
Image Credit: Absa Cape Epic
When we thought it couldn’t get worse, boy it did. It poured all night and we arrived at the start feeling really intimidated about the route and how we would get to Lourensford after all that rain. It was a mud bath at the start and we climbed for 2 hours with rivers running down the jeep track making riding very difficult. We crested our first mountain into a very remote area on the back of Groenlandberg. I have ridden Groenlandberg many times but going up anticlockwise was a first for me. Our first descent was crazy. Crazy fun! There was so much water and mud, I thought I was river rafting on my bike. Anneke was now taking major strain with her neck. She was so brave and, on the descents, it was so hard for her to keep her head up. She just couldn’t. Unfortunately, everybody has their own speed on the downhills so I would “raft” my way down a section and pull into an “eddy” and wait for her. The views towards Theewaterskloof Dam were spectacular and I had time to take this all in.
Then the real climb started. Ride/hike-a-bike/ride for ages but I knew what was on the other side. One of the most spectacular descents in the area. Maybe 5-6km long and what a blast. We eventually traversed through the Grabouw Forest area towards the famous Gamtoos Pass for the compulsory hike-a-bike down into the Lourensford Valley. By the time we got to the last water point Anneke was in terrible pain. She went into the medical tent to get checked out and lay down for 15mins or so. They strapped her neck as best as they could and then we had the rush to make cut off. I did my best to push her where I could for the last 20km. We made it cut off by 25mins and there were lots of tears and hugs of relief across the finish line.
Little did we know what we would be dealing with the next day!!!
Rain all night again and the predictions were not good. Stage 6 will be etched in my mind forever. Having almost got hypothermia in a stage in 2012 when I rode with Jane Seggie, I thought never again and I dressed appropriately. Some people didn’t and they suffered.
It rained from the start. By the time we got to the second water point, Anneke was almost hypothermic and was struggling so much with her neck. She just couldn’t hold her head up any more. She decided at that point to withdraw from the race. Such a hard decision to make and after a goodbye hug, off I went into the unknown. What an unknown that was. In the whole 73kms, I think we had 1 stretch of single track of about 2km that was dry. The rest was unrideable and some parts impossible. Paparazzi Sue and Tara braved the weather and saw me at the last water point. I just couldn’t believe it when I saw them but then Tara is from England and Sue has holidayed in South Georgia. They know cold!
By now I was calculating cut off times in my frozen brain. They took us everywhere. Up and up and then down some hectic single track in the mud, rocks everywhere and I seriously pulled out some skills I never knew I had and surprised myself. The mud got thicker and thicker and riding was impossible so we walked and walked. The last 5km was the hardest. I went flat out to make the cut off by 4 mins (however they did extend it again later). Never in my life have I ridden in such terrible conditions. It was survival to the end and any thoughts about my accident were nonexistent. I arrived full of adrenaline and with relief. My body was pushed to its limits but what got me through was my head. It had never been stronger. The social media coverage of this day tells it all.
The sun finally came out on this beautiful final day.
The last day was one of my best days on a bike. Anneke was allowed to start the final day under the rules and we had agreed to ride together up the first climb and as soon as the downhills started, we would ride our own pace. At the top of Lourensford, I said goodbye to Anneke and I was greeted by the most wonderful trails through Stellenbosch. Stellenbosch turned on its charm and it was the most beautiful day. A contrast to the day before. The single track never stopped and everybody had smiles on their faces. Who wouldn’t after yesterday.
Crossing that line was a very happy and emotional moment for me but I have never finished an epic without my partner. I knew Anneke would do her utmost to finish the final day and she did and I am so proud of her. It couldn’t have been easy for her.
Seeing my youngest son as I crossed the line finished me off completely. I hugged him with huge tears rolling down my cheeks saying “I can’t believe 6 months ago I was all broken in hospital and today I have finished another epic “. He will hate me for saying this but he had big tears too for his Mom! Who would have thought the epic would be on my agenda so soon after my accident. The mind is a wonderful and powerful thing, I rode at a pace I could manage and seemed to get stronger and stronger. All my experience kicked in and it paid off.
So, what did I get out of the ABSA Cape Epic 2023? Fun facts. Expect the unexpected, always. Ride the race at a pace you are trained at. I proved that and something that has taken 15 years to sink in. Never try something new in a race, like stop drinking. I consistently had a beer after each stage and a glass of wine at night.
Mountain biking racing is very much like living in the now. You ride from one stage and then another for 8 days and there are a series of challenges you know of when you start. Number of stages, distances, ascent, number of water points etc. Then it is all about how you face the unpredictable. You could be lucky and have a smooth ride, but most of the time, you will need to battle difficulties that are thrown at you. You will have to battle them with what you have with you on the day. What is key is never giving up and always moving forward finding that strength to overcome everything.
Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would complete another epic this year. When I said yes to Anneke, I had a mind shift. I stopped looking back and had to look forward. My accident was in the past so it was time to move on. I had recovered, done the rehab and yes, I wasn’t necessarily conditioned to do an epic but I just rode it and enjoyed every minute of each day. I have 3 favourite epics that stand out and 2023 is one of them. Thanks to Anneke for asking me to be her partner and thanks to ABSA#SheUntamed initiative for their entry and wonderful work they do for women’s cycling.
It doesn’t matter how hard it gets, always try and see the bright side and when you make it, you will always look back and smile. Always smile! Remember why we ride – to have fun and we always remember the good parts.
What next? April I rode from Joberg2Blouberg…..why not! That was planned before epic.