The last eight days I was witness to the strength of the human spirit. It was not simply a bike race, although it was one of the most difficult mountain bike stage races in the world. This race has been billed as the Tour de France of mountain biking. Professionals from all over the world wear their National Championship and World Championship jerseys alongside up and coming racers, weekend warriors, housewives, couples, friends and men and women old enough to be their grandparents. This race is the great equalizer of effort and pain. No one escapes it, the brutal pounding, the heat, and the crashes.
I came to support the Team Rwanda two-man team of Nathan and Hassan. I left in awe of many other stories of personal triumph.
The Cape Epic traverses the mountains and wine lands of the Western Cape of South Africa. The area is rugged and breathtakingly beautiful. The race consists of two man teams who must stay within two minutes of each other at all times throughout the race or face time penalties. They must finish together in the Prologue and all seven stages or face elimination. Should only one come across the finish line the remaining rider can ride the rest of the race in the “Outkast” jersey but they are no longer allowed to compete and they will not receive a finisher’s medal. Every day is a time cut off which all teams must make to secure their slot for the next morning’s start. Miss the time cut off and you can ride the remaining stages but again, no finisher’s medal. Miss the time cut off twice and you’re going home.
The choice in teammates could mean victory, survival or disappointment and heartache.
Team is Team.
The Prologue started on Sunday March 17th and Stage 7 ended this past Sunday the 24th. During that week the cyclists traveled 800kms and spent anywhere from two hours to eleven hours on the bike. Everyone had their own personal reason for riding, the stories one after another inspired and humbled.
Stage 1 was one of the most difficult stages in Cape Epic history, 103kms with 2,500meters of climbing. The cut off, 10 hours. Some riders coming in talked about walking their bikes for hours through unnavigable sand. We were also crewing for two other teams; one Rafiki was riding with a Scot expat from Kigali (twice his size with an eighth of Kiki’s talent), the other, a 40 something Dutch gentlemen from the UK and a 68 year old man from the US. At the time we didn’t realize he was the second oldest rider at the Epic (someone beat him by 2 months) and if he finished he would be the oldest finisher in Epic history. The Masters team made the cutoff at Stage 1 with only an hour to spare. Another team rolled in long after I left, just minutes after the official cut off. Their number boards were removed and replaced with a blue number board. They could ride the stage tomorrow but they would never show up in the finisher’s list. I wouldn’t know their story until Stage 2.
Stage 2 was 145kms with 2,350meters of climbing, cut off window, 11 hours. Nathan and Hassan came in within the top 50. Kiki and Alastair struggled across the line hours later. We waited at the finish line for our last team and with a little over an hour to go until the cut off, around the corner they came. Jock, Miriam and I shrieked with joy. I had goose bumps. I knew if he could make it through Stage 2 he definitely had a fighting chance. As we were taking care of things for our final team at the finish line, we decided to hang around until the cut off. As the clocked ticked down over 50 teams remained out on the course. One by one, they straggled in dirty, dusty, bloody and completely spent….and then the clock clicked zero, there were still teams out on the course. One by one they came across. And then I saw the team with the blue board, the team who had received the blue board for missing the cutoff the prior day. The man detached his prosthetic arm with a special made connection for the bike from the handlebar with a pronounced click. His partner detached his prosthetic foot from his right pedal. The race organizer walked over to the bikes holding back his emotion and clipped the boards off the bikes, they were finished. They would not ride Stage 3. The crowd went eerily quiet and then began clapping. People shook their hands and congratulated them as they walked out of the race area and over to the bike wash. I hadn’t realized, Kiki was standing beside me. He looked at me and said, “Those guys….how can I quit if I hurt? I have my leg. I have my arm.”
I walked away with tears in my eyes.
Every day there were moments, which quickly slapped you with a strong dose of perspective. There was Cherise Stander, riding with her brother in law, Duane after her husband, Burry Stander, a legend in South African mountain biking was killed by a car in early January of this year. Adrien rode with Burry. Burry took 5th at the Olympics in London. Burry was only 25 years old when he was struck from behind by a car on a training ride along the coast. How do you do that? How do you ride a race your husband won twice, his spirit and energy permeating every portion of this ride? Charles Stander, his father, finished the race in honor of Burry, riding through the cut offs with only minutes to spare and eventually finishing on his own without a partner.
And every day our 68 year old teammate came through the finish line within the time limit, more weary than the prior day but one day closer to reaching his goal. Day in and day out he took away excuses. His positive attitude and his gratitude, kindness and generosity brought us to a higher level.
The winning women’s team of Yolande Speedy and Cath Williamson were not even in the pre race “women to watch”. On Stage 3 they took the lead after the current leaders had a significant mechanical and lost the yellow. The second to the last day Yolande crashed and broke her collarbone and two ribs. The last day, the last stage of 54kms she rode, she finished and she won. A collarbone break is one of the most painful injuries I have ever experienced. She wasn’t going to let the pain or the injury stop her. She defied the race doctors and rode and WON. Cheers to you Yolande!
As I sit in the airport in Kigali waiting for the rest of the team to come in from South Africa I think back over the past three weeks I am so grateful to have walked into Sysco almost four years ago to quit my job. I have seen more, experienced more, lived more and witnessed events of truly epic proportions on the most personal level. I have had a front row at the greatest movie ever produced….my life.