ePIC INSIGHTS - The last lions
personifies The Untamed
As one of the three remaining Last Lions, Hannele Steyn has seen it all over her 18 years and few can describe exactly what makes it The Untamed African MTB Race better than her.
It’s been said that the Absa Cape Epic is not an eight-day race, but rather a six-month-and-eight-day race… When you factor in the commitment to training and preparation. Now, multiply that by 18 years and you have something of a sense of how large a part of Hannele Steyn, Mike Nixon, John Gale and, up until this year, Craig Beech's life the Absa Cape Epic is.
Hannele, Mike and John are the three remaining Last Lions, so named because they are the only members of the Amabubesi – which means pride of lions in Zulu – Finisher Club to have completed every edition, thus far, of the race. The Last Lions award was launched to celebrate their achievement and will award the Last Lion trophy to the last rider among them who is still in the event.
“I have the claws, now I just need to grow the balls,” jokes Steyn, the competitive fire still burning many years after her retirement from a pro racing career that saw her win the Triathlon World Championships in 1994 and earn South African National Colours for Biathlon, Duathlon, Triathlon and Mountain Biking. As the last female rider left who has completed all the races, she is known as the Last Lioness and wears the moniker proudly.
In 2022, the trio was very nearly down to two, though. That’s right — the Last Lioness and 2005 Champion, almost didn’t make it to the finish line of the 2022 Absa Cape Epic. With just 25kms to go on the Grand Finale into Val de Vie, the pivot bolts on her bike sheered clean off. “It was as though someone had ripped my guts out,” she says, explaining how she’d had issues with the bolts for the entire race, but after each stage, her mechanics had managed to nurse the issue. Now, after some 660 kilometres of Untamed African terrain and with precious little of the 16 900 metres of climbing left, they were finished.
In a true testament to her drive and commitment to the race and what it takes to be a Last Lion, she was determined that this would not be her swan song. “We got to the last water point and (with the pivot bolts off) my bike was basically broken in half.”
“Over the years I’ve learned to really focus my energy when I get really stressed,” she says. “I guess it’s one of the things the Absa Cape Epic teaches you. Rather than panicking, I start to think very hard,” she says. Fortunately, neither did her highly experienced partner in the 2022 race, Alisha Myers nor did the tech zone mechanics at the last water point. “Alisha –– who was an amazing partner throughout –– said to me, ‘we’re going to do this…’,” Steyn says.
Myers, along with Rozalia Kubwana, formed the first black women’s team to finish the Absa Cape Epic in 2013. From her base in Cape Town, she is the Global Director of Strategic Information and Innovation for World Bicycle Relief.
In true Untamed style a fix was fashioned !
As part of Team Absa and through the company’s groundbreaking She Untamed initiative, Steyn plans to line up with an African female partner in 2023 to race in the Absa African Women’s jersey competition which features a trophy named after her. “Not that I will place anywhere,” she jokes, “but I’m just so thankful and proud to have that named after me, I mean, normally trophies only get named after you once you’re dead!”
“This race –– and mountain biking in general –– have given and taught me so much over the years that I’ve always wanted to give back in some way and She Untamed is just such a great platform through which to do that. Through coaching sessions, I get to share my knowledge of training, nutrition and racing with female riders who may not have had access to the sport of mountain biking before. I can’t wait for 2023!”
In true Untamed style, the mechanics fashioned something of a fix with the thickest zip ties they had on hand while Hanelle found some wire. “I knew zip ties were not going to hold my weight so we added the wire and then some duct tape over the whole thing to make sure the edges didn’t scratch me.”
As she’s had two spinal fusions, from a previous injury, running the final kilometres (as so many have done on so many stages before) was simply not an option. “So, I stood for the last 25 kays," she says. With Myers’ emotional support the two pushed on. “I knew that if I sat down everything would break, but I had to get to that finish line.”
And she did. She crossed the finish line alongside Myers, perhaps the most emotional she had ever been in all her years of Absa Cape Epic finishes. “For me, it was the most stressful Epic ever,” Steyn says, explaining how she will never lose respect for The Race That Measures All. “If you do that, if you underestimate the toughness, or lose respect for the route and what it can throw at you, then you’re done.”
“It truly is the pinnacle of multi-stage mountain biking and has taught me so much over the years and every time I cross that finish line I just feel so much pride. Every rider that crosses that line has gone through so much — I don’t think people on the outside always understand –– I’ve had falls, illness, partners who have pulled out, mechanicals!”
“Everyone who has finished even just one Epic can tell you similar stories…”