Cape Town - When a former Springbok captain describes a cycle race as tougher
than a Test match, you know the Cape Epic deserves its title as the
'Tour de France of mountain biking'.
"It's a lot more gruelling," John Smit, who led South Africa to the 2007
Rugby World Cup, said shortly after finishing the first stage of the race
"A Test match is 80 minutes of hard, physical pain. This is pain
stretched out over eight days so it's similar – but longer," he said.
Smit – along with more than a thousand other riders – had just completed
a 113km ride through the rugged mountains of South Africa's
Monday's ride was Stage 1 of the seven stage race, which covers a total
of 739km of torturous trails and 16 000 metres of climbing.
If it is so tough, why do it at the age of 36 after having proved yourself on the rugby field?
"It's a challenge," said Smit, a former front-row forward, looking as
grimy and exhausted as he would have been after having taken on the
likes of the All Blacks.
"You've got to do something. I stopped for about two months after I retired (in 2011) and it was the worst thing ever.
"So I found a bicycle, got fit and now I look for these tough things to do."
It's a sentiment shared by many of the 1 200 men and women in two-rider
teams tackling the 12th annual Cape Epic, widely regarded as the best
mountain bike race in the world.
Among them are leading international riders, including world champions and Olympic medallists.
Tipped to win among a star-studded field this year are Swiss Christoph
Sauser and Czech Jaroslav Kulhavy of Team Investec-Songo-Specialized.
But while they and other top professional riders fight it out for the
lead, streaming through the mountains behind them is a colourful crew of
tough and skilled amateurs in pursuit of their own triumphs of guts and
glory in what is also known as the Untamed African MTB Race.
Advertising agency executive Russell Lund, 42, and his tennis coach
partner Piet Calitz, 40, described the torments of the steep and rocky
course as they loaded up on pasta after finishing the first stage.
Lund fell – he shows a bloodied shin – and Calitz had a time-consuming
puncture, but they were in good spirits as they tried to work out why
they were doing it.
"That's a very good question," said Lund. "I guess you really feel once
you are here that it's a week out of your regular life – you almost feel
like a pro for a week."
Like Smit, they brushed aside their age, pointing out that the entry fee
of R60 000 was prohibitive for young amateur riders without
So why not spend the money on a good holiday?
"I know, it's absolute lunacy," said Lund. "Someone should pay you to do it...
"But it's an enormous challenge and it was on my bucket list.
"Also, there's something about a mountain bike race – if it's a nice
track and it's pretty, even after 120 kilometres you'll find two guys
smiling and singing.
"You won't see that in a marathon runner."
The fees go towards a sophisticated logistics operation which sees a
travelling race village follow the riders, pitching more than 2 000
tents at each stage and serving thousands of meals a day.
The total prize money, at R1.6 million is the highest in world mountain
biking, but that is not on the minds of most of the riders.
The first stage began and ended at the Oak Valley wine estate in the
Elgin Valley, some 70km from Cape Town in the scenic Overberg
The local wines were available in refreshment tents, but not
surprisingly the bartenders were among the least busy support staff as
the top athletes tended their bodies and their bikes after a hard day on
Lund, however, dismissed the idea that a celebratory drink was out of the question for amateur riders.
"I'll have a beer tonight and Piet will have several. I encourage him – the more he drinks the faster he goes," said Lund.