What is it about the Absa Cape Epic that attracts rugby players? The challenge of the world’s premier mountain bike stage race has lured many former professional sportsmen and women, but the bulk of these have been ex-rugby players. And this in spite of the fact that they are, er, bulky.
Former Springbok captain John Smit, for example, weighed a hefty 127kg when he retired from the oval ball game. Top South African mountain biking professional Darren Lill weighs less than half of that. This year Rugby World Cup winner Smit finished his second Absa Cape Epic. Both times he has ridden with Shane Chorley and both times they have come 401st overall: “But 2015 took us two hours longer as it was a far different epic to 2014,” says Smit in a reference to this year’s race being one of the toughest yet.
He described the last stage this year as a “nightmare” after “we didn’t do enough homework” and miscalculated the amount of fluids they needed: “There’s nothing worse than the feeling of sitting down 800m from the finish feeling like you want to pass out,” said Smit, who is now the CEO of Sharks rugby.
Other former Boks in the field included another two World Cup winners, flyhalves Joel Stransky and Butch James. Stransky, famous for the dropkick that secured the 1995 title, took part with former road professional Anriette Schoemann and the pair finished a commendable seventh in the Mixed category and 115th overall.
It was Stransky’s sixth Absa Cape Epic finish and he says there are two things that keep him coming back: “Firstly the fact that the route changes every year, making it a new and tougher challenge each time,” he says. “And the fact that it is the toughest mountain bike race in the world means I have to challenge myself every year to be fitter, stronger and better prepared both physically and mentally.”
James helped engineer the Boks triumph in Paris in 2007 and has also now finished two editions of the Absa Cape Epic: “2015 was really tough, although I was better prepared and more in sync with my bike,” said James, who rode with former Sharks lock John Slade this year. “I just wanted to finish in one piece and I managed to do that.”
So what is it that makes mountain biking so appealing to these three former Springboks?
Stransky says: “I enjoy riding any bike, but the fact that you ride out in areas and on routes that you would not otherwise be privileged to see and enjoy makes mountain biking an incredible sport.
“The technical stuff is challenging and daunting at times but not a huge driving factor. Mountain biking is much more of a journey enjoyed with like-minded friends and often with a teammate. Maybe this camaraderie is also part of the attraction.”
Smit laughs: “Well, to be frank, I’ve never seen a runner with a smile on their face so mountain biking it was. When I started I was a unit coming in at 127kg, so I had to get very good at going downhill fast … uphill not so much.
“I love the sport for the adrenaline, the physical demand on the body, for the bike and finding the rights components, for being out in the bush, for the focus it gives me to train hard and manage my time to work at the same time.
“And of course it allows me to chow the odd burger alongside a few cold beers!”
James says: “My knees don’t allow me to do much other exercise, so I like to mountain bike to keep fit. But I do love the technical aspect of riding, especially downhills and singletrack.”
And will they be back for another Absa Cape Epic? “I would like to be back next year and if possible to ride with Anriette again,” says Stransky. “Hopefully we can convince (sponsor) Liquifruit to do it all again.”
Smit is keen to do a third and to secure his Amabubesi status. “Most definitely, but I’m not sure when. It’s a tricky business having any hobbies while you are a rugby CEO: last year I was hailed for my bravery and commitment in finishing my first Epic while the Sharks were top of the SA conference, (but) this year my finishing the Epic was perceived as one of the many reasons for the Sharks not performing.
“So I need to manage perception versus reality, which in sport are very hard to distinguish,” he adds.
James will be back too: “I have now done two Epics so I would like to become an Amabubesi member.”
The ex-Boks were lavish in their praise for the organisers of the Absa Cape Epic: “As an administrator of sport and sporting events, I have learnt a huge amount through experiencing the logistical machine that is the Absa Cape Epic,” says Smit. “It is unbelievable to see how the team gets it all right.”
“It's by far the most organised sporting event in the country,” says James.
The Absa Cape Epic lottery entry system is closing on 30th May and the draw will take place in the beginning of June.