In a promo video ahead of the Absa Cape Epic, Kevin Evans said that after the first stage a few years ago he thought: “If it carries on like this I don’t know how long I’m going to last.” After the prologue of the ninth Absa Cape Epic yesterday I was left wondering the same thing. It was JUST 27km…but it JUST had 900 metres of climbing. That’s almost as much climbing as the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour has in 110km. It’s, like, a lot.
The first day of the Cape Epic is a red-hot poker shock to the system, a wet newspaper smack of a wake-up call. I’m not ready for the Epic. No one is ever ready for the Epic…well, except the likes of Burry Stander and Kevin Evans… but nothing can prepare you for the stomach-ache of nerves that hits you in the morning. You cannot eat. Your heartrate is going through the roof.
Day one for Team Absa started at the Clara Anna Fontein tented safari park at 7am. We ate porridge for breakfast, a small bowl. I may have had a small energy bar. It was never going to be enough, but my appetite had disappeared, overtaken by a head that was full of wonder and fear. It’s JUST 27km. I answered around 200 tweets of support. The Cape Epic is a race that has an aura about it. I was asked if I was mad. Yup. A local newspaper said that the race was just over 750km long with 16km of hills. Oh, thank heavens. Here was me thinking it was 781km with over 16 000m of climbing. I had last-minute things to organise: a new rear-wheel skewer for the KTM Phinx 29er, which Helet Conradie of Cyclelab had sorted out for me; a new set of lenses for my Oakley Radars. Mat Quinn of Oakley was good enough to give me a pair of frames in Absa colours so that if I wasn’t going to be fast, at least I would look quick. It’s about the look as much as the performance, sometimes. And sometimes the look helps give confidence to the performance.
Our start time was around 9.54am. All four of the Absa teams started at around the same time. Alain Prost, the former formula one world champion, was on the ramp just before us. He looks little different from when he was racing. A smaller helmet for one, and finally that nose of his can be put to good aerodynamic use on a bicycle instead of hidden away behind a visor.
Then it was our turn on the start ramp – Team Absa JackMac. Jack Stroucken and Kevin McCallum. Hell. People were looking at us. They were cheering. A count-down from five to one and we were off, rushing along at around, ooooh, 15km/h. Elana Meyer and Ernst Viljoen, the former an Olympic medallist and CEO of the JAG Foundation and the latter CEO of Team Absa, came past me up the first climb. I climb like a sinking brick. Jack and I rode with them for a while. After five kilometres a twit showed that he did not understand the meaning of the words “single track” and rode straight into me in an attempt to overtake. Knob. We fell over slowly and, save for a bit of dirt-rash on my upper hip, I was uninjured.
I struggled. My heartrate would simply not come down. It was flying, red-lining, but my body wouldn’t listen to me. I listened to Jack, who is a sage, a wise man. He sat behind me as we went up a stiff climb. He waited for me at the top of the next killer climb when I had to get off and push. The timing mats were at the top. If you cross those mats and are not within two minutes of your partner you will be penalised an hour. That could mean the difference between disqualification and riding on for another day.
On that same mat, Team Absa teammate Clayton Duckworth hit the mat, looked back and saw partner Vanessa Haywood pushing up the hill. He screamed at her to run and she got there just one-and-a-half minutes later.
And on we went. Twenty kilometres in I bonked. The nerves I’d been living on, the same nerves that had stopped me eating, fell away. I inhaled a gel and we rolled down to the last climb at Meerendaal. Jack led the way. The crowd recognised Elana and roared her name, but their encouragement was also pressure, but she rose to it and showed how she can spin a bike up a hill. I was shattered and hopped off again with around 700-metres to go. At 500 metres, Jack was waiting for me. “You go first. We’re there. You’ll get across the line, and we’ve started this thing.” I got on and ground out the last metres, Jack telling me how well I was riding. He knew I was hurting, but he lifted me, pushed me and helped me to finish my first stage of the Absa Cape Epic in two hours and 27 minutes. I remembered what Kev Evans had said. I wasn’t sure I could get through this. Jack told me I could. I believe him. There are seven days left to ride.
*Kevin McCallum is riding the Absa Cape Epic as a part of Team Absa, the sponsor’s celebrity-media team. He is raising money for The Star Seaside Fund.