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Hyena Tales

2021-11-02

We were riding halfway up a long, muddy and steep gravel road climb outside Wellington, bitterly cold rain being blown into our faces from a grey, leaden sky when the hand radio in my back pocket crackled to life: ‘Urgent. Rider down …’.

We, Rich McMartin and I were the Absa Cape Epic Hyenas – sweeps – and were tracking the backmarkers on Stage 5 of this year’s event, held over eight days from October 17 to 24. 

A minute or so later the marshal was on the radio again, announcing that the crashed rider might have broken his femur and was in danger of getting hypothermia.

Oddly, the moment was reassuring. We knew that the marshal’s call would trigger a response from the extraordinarily efficient Cape Epic operations centre, which would alert the many medics and officials on the course: and by the time we got to the stricken rider, he was on a drip, covered in space blankets and surrounded by a group of medics. An ambulance was at the ready to remove him from the course.

The marshal had, in turn, been alerted to the situation by the fallen rider’s partner having pushed the SOS button on his SPOT tracking device – which every rider carries and which lets the operations centre know where they are out on the course.

The incident was, however, a little unnerving for us Hyenas, with the grim conditions and potential for mishap serving to focus Rich and me on the job we had volunteered to do: basically to help make sure everybody got home okay.

We spent much of that day following former Springbok rugby player Marius Hurter. Marius was a prop in the Springbok’s 1995 World Cup winning squad and now weighs in at 109kg – more than the combined weight of the two winning women, Switzerland’s Sina Frei and Austrian Laura Stigger.

For obvious reasons, the top mountain bikers are small and lithe. Marius is neither but has managed to notch up eight Absa Cape Epic finishes over the years. This time though, his size was not his only burden: on Stage 3 he had crashed on a tricky descent and been flung sideways into a tree.

He was now riding with suspected broken or cracked ribs and battling to breathe. We later found out that he had punctured a lung.

He had managed to get through Stage 4 with his partner Adele Niemand, but it was evident that the tough Stage 5, with a tight finish line cut-off and in horrible conditions, was going to challenge him.

At about the time of the radio exchange, Marius had decided it was best to let a freezing Adele go ahead on her own. She did so reluctantly and then it was just Marius, Rich and me at the back.

After much trudging up muddy slopes – with agonising pauses as the pain threatened to overcome him – it eventually became evident that even Marius’s superhuman willpower was not going to get him to the finish in time. That moment probably dawned when Adele phoned Marius to tell him she had made it to the finish with nine minutes to spare. It was obvious out on the course that he would need a lot more than nine minutes to make it home.

I’ve never met Marius before but at that moment, with rain drenching our clothes and mud covering our shoes, it felt like we were old teammates. He is a phlegmatic chap, but it was obvious he was disappointed. So were we – bitterly so.

And so we shared our backmarker friends’ emotions on just about every day: the day when Daniel from Luxembourg just made it despite an unpleasant tumble, and then the following one, when he crashed again on a descent and missed the final cutoff (there are cutoffs at each of the water point and the finish line); when we heard that a bunch of our backmarker friends – including the ever-friendly Thabo from Johannesburg and Sipho from Cape Town – hadn’t made it to the finish in time ahead of Marius; when ailing 67-year-old Danny from Johannesburg finally gave up on the stage into Tulbagh: ‘When hope is gone …,’ he said resignedly as he finally slumped down next to the trail.

In the last two stages, we followed Rodney from Pietermaritzburg home. He hadn’t made the final cutoff on Stage Five but was nonetheless determined to finish the final two stages of the event inside the cutoff (you can continue with a blue number if you miss one cut off and become an unofficial finisher, but a second means you suffer the indignity of having your number removed from your bike and having to leave the race altogether).

Rodney weighs just short of 100kg and had never been himself since getting Covid in July.

The pandemic had itself led to a halving of the size of the field and the disorienting sensation of no spectators along the route. But the volunteers, crew, other riders and Absa Cape Epic staff all gathered at the finish each day to welcome home the last rider.

And so Marius, Rodney and the others rode home on those days to lump-in-the-throat scenes of cheers and celebration.

Then it was the final day. The Grand Finale. After our normal morning routine of riding with single-speeders Max and Fykes until they hit the hills and whizzed past the slower climbers, we caught up with Rodney.

Towards the end of the 68km stage, we followed Rodney up the agonisingly long Freedom Struggle climb, with its view over the Drakenstein Prison near Paarl, from which Nelson Mandela made his famous march to freedom in 1990.

And then it was down the rugged Bone Rattler descent and on to the trails of Val de Vie Estate.

Astonishingly, though, Rodney wasn’t the last man home and missed out on the special welcome given to the final finisher. About 250m from the line we came across Ben, a Belgium rider who had been walking with his bike on his shoulders for 11km. It had suffered irreparable damage to the rear wheel and his only way of finishing was carrying his bike home.

He did so to chants of ‘Ben, Ben, Ben’ and, no doubt, many tears.

For Rich and I, it was a surprise ending: we had been booking on getting Rodney over the line but for the last 200m we rode at walking pace behind Ben

But, at least, we got some cheers at the end. They were in sharp contrast to the scene on Stage Two when we arrived at the first water point.

We had started about 10 minutes behind the last group and had seen very few riders ahead of us yet.

As we turned the corner we realised that about 10 teams were still at the water point, refilling water bottles, hoovering down snacks and getting their bikes lubed.

Then they noticed us … a sure sign that they were at the back of the field.

Within a minute all 10 were gone, leaving Rich and me to contemplate our strange status – harbingers of doom to some, comforters to others.

* A special thanks to Omnico for the Cannondale Scalpels which they made available to us for our eight days of Hyenaing. They are incredible bikes. And to the Absa Cape Epic itself for all the amazing equipment – Assos shirts, bibs, baggies and socks and the marvellous Abus helmets – and the raincoats that saved us from getting frozen on Stage Five. Olympic Cycles delivered our bikes in mint condition every day and its staff was super helpful at the tech zones. Also the Bulls' Vincent Durand for the Samurai Sword plug kits. And last, but far from least, the water point staff, who were incredible – perpetually cheerful. They liked us too. Of course they did: our arrival signalled the end of their working day.

 

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