There were a lot of tears and emotions when I wrote about Cape Epic a year ago since I had to pull out due to a heart condition. This year I also had a lot of emotions and tears when we finished the Cape Epic but this time it was tears of joy! I could not hold back when Esther Süss and I crossed the finish line as winners of the 2017 Cape Epic, the toughest MTB race in the world and what is called the Tour de France of mountainbiking! I can still hardly believe that it is true! Today, as I am writing this, it is a year since I was at Panorama hospital to undergo the heart operation, that day I decided that I would come back and do everything I could to try to win the Cape Epic!
During the lead up to the event Esther and I were the underdogs, we were not asked to come to the press conference a few days before the event since they had informed us that they did not need to talk to us. This only added on to our motivation to do well since we saw ourselves as at least podium contenders. I felt really good in training the week before the start and Esther said the same when I asked her, so we were ready for this.
Prologue 26 km, 683 meters of climbing
The prologue was on the day of Esthers birthday , it started with the staff fom the restaurant at her South African home Meerendal wine estate ,came out with a chocolate cheese cake and sang for her, maybe that was what gave us a good start! We were both very nervous before start, as one should be. Our start was 10.27 and we had (in my opinion) our biggest competition starting just behind us, it was Team Ascendis with Robyn De Groot (my previous team mate) and Sabine Spitz. I went out hard and Esther struggled to keep up, I had to slow down a bit on the first climb for her to follow but when she fell behind even on the downhill I was getting a bit worried. I paced us on the tar section in the wind but did not mind, I wanted to win this! We carried on like that and I ended up pacing us through the whole prologue feeling really strong and Esther struggling. As we crossed the line she just fell down and said she has never gone so hard. She went straight to doping test and I did not have a ch,ance to talk to her. When I finally saw her later on I apologized for pushing her so hard and this is what I love about Esther, the answer was “I am not here on a holiday, I am here to suffer, so all good!” We finished 2nd, 39 seconds behind Robyn and Sabine.
After prize giving we collected the birthday cake from the fridge and headed to Hermanus where the first stage village was, we stayed at Hermanus Dorpshuys, literary 100 meters from the dining tent, perfect!
Esther's birthday cake
During the prologue
Stage 1 Hermanus to Hermanus 100 km, 2200 meters of climbing
This year the ladies started as batch number 3, the UCI men went off first and then the A batch with the strongest vets and masters and then us. This worked really well since no stronger men passed us so no one would benefit from any slip. If we caught men, we were stronger than them and passed them, so it was a very good and fair race for us ladies. The first stage started with a long tar climb and I thought it would split up there but the bunch stayed together. We had a Hotspot after 16 km and I thought I knew which hill it was on so when we came to the single track which took us up to that climb I made sure to be in front. When I looked back I saw I had a gap of about 100 meters to Ariane and I saw Esther on Ariane’s wheel, I kept going and hoped Esther would bridge up to me when she got a chance. She did and Robyn and Sabine came with her. As the climb got steeper I had to push everything to get up first, I managed with that and turned around to see that Esther was behind me, we won the first Hotspot! I expected the others to rejoin us, but no one came. Esther looked at me and asked if that climb was comfortable for me, I did not understand the question and answered that I gave it all I had. I only understood why she asked when she 5 kilometers later asked me when we would get to the Hotspot!! She had been wondering why I suddenly pushed so hard up the climb! J From there we could ride our own pace for the rest of the stage to take over the leaders jerseys! Ascendis finished almost 9 minutes behind us after Sabine fell around the 60 kilometre mark and needed stitches to her eyebrow.
It was extremely hot and I suffered a bit on the long climb after Tesselardal and when Thomas Frishknecht passed me on the technical descent I realised I was riding down with Jenny on my wheel, a bit intimidating;). Esther was super strong towards the end and helped me a lot but when we came closer to the finish and I realised we would get the leaders jerseys I got some extra energy and could help again.
A win on stage 1
Stage 2 Hermanus to Caledon 63 km (got shortened from 103 km), 1370 meters of climbing
Due to the extreme heat of the day before and the fact that the Mediclinic saw 220 of the riders that day, they decided to shorten the stage for safety reasons. The finish would be at the second water point instead of at Elandskloof outside Greyton. I don’t know if it was a good or a bad thing for us, we just follow what is given to us and make the best of it. At around 13 kilometres in the race we got away with Sabine and Robyn and we were together with them for the rest of the race. They did put pressure on us and I had to dig deep here and there. I got a bit nervous as we approached Shauws pass which was the biggest climb of the day, I thought I would be the weakest one but I felt better when I saw both Robyn and Sabine making mistakes going up and eventually Esther and I were first over the top. I took the lead on the downhill and all the single tracks that followed, to keep my own pace. The last 15 kilometers or so was on gravel roads and we let Ascendis pace. With 2 km to go Esther saw an uphill in front and she attacked, I had no other option but to go with her. We got a gap but the others basically caught us on the line, even though it was only Robyn, Sabine finished 5 seconds down. Another stage win for us and same time difference overall.
We got transported to Elandskloof for the doping test, prize giving and interviews before heading to Greyton to our new accommodation.
Interview after stage 2
Stage 3 Greyton to Greyton 78 km, 1400 meters of climbing
This day started with 15 km of gravel roads and bunch riding. The speed picked up as we got to the first single track. Sabine went in first and went really hard, only Robyn, Esther and I could follow. It was hard and Esther struggled to keep up until we got to the first water point. As we started the second section of single tracks Sabine went really slow instead, I was wondering why… Team OMX, Spur and Dorma Kaba caught up with us and we all rode together until the second water point. We had a Hotspot again 3 km later and the pace picked up again, soon it was only the 2 teams and we battled it out on the climb. I pushed hard and went over the top first, then Sabine and then Esther and Robyn, the officials had to look at the photo's later to see who was first and unfortunately it was Robyn. We went onto the Zig Zag climb and now it was my turn to feel a bit tired, I think it was only Esther who felt really good on that climb since the other 2 stayed with me. We had lots of traffic on the downhill so nothing else to do than just sit, luckily we were all together. We felt stronger on the last UFO climb as well, I could see that Robyn struggled since Sabine came in front of me to slow me down. I managed to pass her and we could get a small gap , and the same on the technical downhill but not enough to get away. It came down to a sprint finish again and Esther had been at the front a bit too long towards the end and with all the corners the last few hundred meters she did not have the last edge and we lost the stage by 0,2 seconds. We were still happy since we did not lose any time overall.
Tired after a hard stage
Stage 4 Greyton to Grabouw 108 km, 2000 meters of climbing
We left the accommodation in Greyton to move on to the next race venue. The temperatures started to get a bit better with some drizzle at the start and we had another easy start with lots of gravel roads, since it was the longest stage of this years Epic and a transition day we were expecting a lot of gravel roads and bunch riding. It split up a bit at the 17 kilometre mark, on the climb where the men had their Hotspot, but it all came back together and we were a big bunch. Esther picked up the pace on a climb around 70 km and the bunch split up a bit and we were 5 teams together until the longest climb of the day, the Botrivier climb. As we started the climb all teams got spread out, I missed a line and went in to a ditch and Robyn and Sabine got a small gap, Esther was busy drinking when I came up to her and said we must catch them, she rode with the bottle in her mouth but came with. Basically as we caught them we heard a bang and saw them stopping, it sounded like a puncture. We carried on the climb to the water point. We stopped to fill bottles since we had the time. As we left the waterpoint we could hear the commentator for a long time and as long as we could hear, no Ascendis! We carried on in a descent pace without pushing too hard and could take the stage win. Ascendis came in 3.40 later and we had extended the lead a bit and had 12.40 on them.
We moved in to Stone Peak Mountain lodge in Grabouw which was going to be our home for the next 3 nights. Andy from CBC came to visit and cooked the most amazing meal for us!
The master chef!
Stage 5 Grabouw to Grabouw 86,5 km, 1900 meters of climbing
It was a cold morning and Sabine was warming up on a roller next to the start shute so we knew she was on a mission today. And it also showed after the start when she sat on the front for the first 14 km. We had a Hotspot after 14,8 km and we could see that Robyn was struggling on the climb and could not follow when Esther and I went to the front, we could easily take the Hotspot without needing to sprint which was a good sign for the rest of the stage. We rode together with Robyn and Sabine through water point one and two and just after the later Ariane and Adel caught us. We got to a single track where Sabine came in first, then Robyn, Adel, Ariane and us, A and A held us up on the single track so Sabine and Robyn got away. We had to dig very deep to catch them but we did eventually. We rode together when we came in to a single track in the forest with about 7 km to go. We had some men in front of us and they very kindly stopped on the side of the single track to let us all pass, only thing was that the first guy probably thought it was only 2 girls coming since he stepped back on to the single track after Robyn and Sabine, right in front of Esther! She had no chance to stop and smashed in to him, over the handle bars and into a bush! There she was all tangled up in her bike. We got her lose and could get going, she was complaining about chest pain and I was not sure how hard I could push her. I could still see the others in the distance and I was determined that we would catch them! I think I got some extra power cause I felt really strong and just rode hard with Esther on my wheel and eventually we caught them with 1,5 kilometre to go! We contested the sprint but we lost by 0,3 seconds which we were still happy about, since we had not lost any time!
Hotspot prize giving
Stage 6 Grabouw to Grabouw 101 km, 2400 meters of climbing “The Queen stage”
We were starting to feel tired but the Queen stage was coming this day, we had to tackle the 9 km long Groenlandsberg climb! The bunch stayed together until the start of the climb which was early on, after only 20 kilometres. Esther went to the front and Robyn was on her wheel and then me, I could see how Robyn started to leave a gap and when I checked her gears I saw that she was already in her easiest gear, and we still had a long way to go. I passed Robyn to take Esthers wheel and we left the others there and then and could climb all the way up at our own pace. For the first time during the race had we actually discussed a plan for the day, we wanted to get a gap on the uphill so that we had time to take it easy on the downhill to minimize the risk of punctures and falls. It was a tough stage with all the climbing and the wind added on to it. The long downhills also makes your legs relax a lot and it is difficult to get going again on the next uphill. I started to struggle around 65 km, I was really tired. Just after the third water point we were told that Sabine had fallen and snapped her handle bar, so they were far behind. I said to Esther to slow down a bit since I was tired, we had no reason to go too hard. Maybe we slowed down a bit too much though since Annie and Mariska caught us with about 10 km to go. We stayed with them for a while but I was digging deep and with 2 km to go I gave up. They had ridden well during the whole week and were well worth a stage win, and they were no threat to us for the overall. We finished in 2nd place 30 seconds behind. We were very happy with the day! Annie and Mariska moved up to 2nd overall and we now had a lead of 35 minutes over them.
It was difficult since a lot of people started to congratulate on the overall win and saying things like, “it is yours now”, “you have this one in the bag” etc etc, we also started to get thoughts of that we might make it. But it was dangerous, since we still had one more stage to go and it was not going to be an easy stage, still closer to 4 hours on the bike!
Start of the Queen stage
Steep corner :-)
Stage 7 Grabouw to Val de Vie 85 km, 1230 meters of climbing
We were both very nervous! This was the worst morning of the whole week! It was cold and my legs did not want to start at all! It was a strange feeling and they only warmed up after around 25 km, luckily all we needed to do was to get to the finish in one piece. We were a big ladies bunch staying together all the way to Franshoek pass, the only climb of the day. I had started to feel good and sat a lot at the front up the climb. We had a technical terrain downhill on the other side and unfortunately a guy came in front of us and we lost Ascendis, OMX and Spur and had to chase on the other side. I was in two minds if we should chase or not but it is still a race! Esther was tired but I felt good so I chased with her on my wheel. We passed Spur and eventually we caught Ascendis and OMX. We basically just followed them to the finish and let them sprint for the stage win. As we entered the Val de Vie estate we just celebrated and enjoyed the moment riding with our arms in the air soaking up the fact that we had won the Cape Epic 2017!!!!
Well done partner, we did it!!!!!!
I could not hold back the tears of joy when we crossed the line! I could hardly believe it, we actually won!! There were a lot of people there to give us hugs, everyone who had worked with us and Craig. But the most special hug was from Dr Jann Killops, she was the doctor who took care of me a year ago when I was lying in the Mediclinic tent with Tachycardia and she was the one who helped me get an appointment with Dr Gopal to have the ablation done, I am forever grateful to her, so to give her that hug was very special! It feels amazing to stand as the Cape Epic winner a year after my heart operation!
Dr Jann Killops
Thank you Esther Süss for saying yes to do this race with me! Esther has been an incredible partner and we have ridden so well together. Everything has worked so well and we have taken turns to be the stronger riders, it feels like we matched perfectly, when I was tired she was strong and when she was tired I was strong! Not one of us tried to show the other one was stronger than the other. We just worked like a unit! It has been real! :-)
There are so so many people to thank for this week! Our support crew MT, Swen, Nicole and Seamus (and Janine for the first 2 days), who all worked hard and made everything so easy for us! The biggest thank you goes out to my sponsor Cape Brewing Company with Henrik and Andy for always helping me with whatever I need and for teaming up with Meerendal to make it possible for me to race with Esther. To all the other staff at CBC for always making me feel so welcome and at home when I visit the brewery. To Craig for always being there for me and train with me, fixing my bike and keeping my muscles in shape! To my family for all the support! To my coach Mike for the training. To all the other product sponsors Scott, GripGrab, Continental, Nike Vision, Squirt and Sahmurai Sword! There are many many more who have a part of this!
The best support crew!!
Some more pictures:
Meerendal / CBC had a very nice set up at the Epic
The good luck kiss:-)
The leaders jerseys in the evenings