fulfils a dream to race at the Absa Cape Epic
PATERBERG, KOPPENBERG, TAAIENBERG, and now GROENLANDBERG
Ask any seasoned road professional which race victory they’d like listed on their palmares. Based on pride alone, they’d pick the Tour of Flanders. The road classic takes place in the heart of Belgium where Flemish partisanship reaches fever pitch every spring and the decisive climbs are lined with twenty-deep screaming crowds. All previous winners will agree that success hinges on knife-edge timing – balancing canny poker feigning and raw power and aggression. Held over 270km of uniquely pitiless Flandrian terrain against equally ruthless rivals, it is the purist’s choice – ‘the pro’s race’.
Ask a seasoned road cycling fan if there’s one race in the year they’d never miss. Paris Roubaix is the universal answer. The history, the brutality, the beauty, the madness, the elements, the twists and turns of fate… On the world cycling stage, Shakespeare would struggle to write a drama that enchanting.
Niki Terpstra has won both.
The three-time Dutch road champion and 2012 team time trial world champion was one the best classics riders of his generation – a generation that included the likes of Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen, and Peter Sagan. In a professional career spanning 17 years – a decade of which at the very highest level – he’s ridden for three of the top teams in the world, including Milram, Total Direct Energy and the legendary Wolfpack (Quick Step in its various sponsor liveries over the years).
He will be lining up at the 2023 Absa Cape Epic, swapping the infamous cobbles and climbs of the famed classics for the rugged, undulating trails of the Western Cape. The Arenberg for Dorstberg; the Paterberg for Groenlandberg.
Terpstra retired in 2022, seeing out his contract till the end of the year. “I still love to race bikes and I wanted to do some other things. When I was still on the World Tour it was difficult to combine different disciplines (especially with the Absa Cape Epic clashing with the classics season). This the most iconic mountain bike race and it’s always been on my mind to do it, from long ago.”
Now with a little more space in his diary he jumped at the chance. “I have been on a gravel racing program and that’s my focus, but it’s nice to make time for mountain biking also. I followed the Absa Cape Epic on social media and saw all the landscapes…” The 38-year-old clearly is enamoured by the lore of mountain biking, “… the idea that you can go places where you can’t get to by car or on foot!” Thanks to the many generous landowners, the route passes through areas that are not usually open to the public at all, so he’s in for a treat.
Terpstra took up mountain biking by accident. Literally. While still at the peak of his powers, in June 2020, he was out on a training session motor pacing and was forced to swerve to avoid a flock of geese. He hit a rock and ended up in ICU with life-threatening injuries.
“I recovered but was not like I was before. I wanted to compete again on the very highest level at the classics and WorldTour. In the beginning it was a little frustrating, in fact it was very frustrating. I wasn’t the captain of the team anymore... But there was a point at which I decided not to be frustrated about it anymore. I realised I just love cycling and I should enjoy it. I could take the races as they came, and in another role and help others win.”
It was during this recovery that he looked to other types of cycling to get into condition again and to rekindle the joy. He got in touch with Gosse van der Meer, a pro mountain biker and cyclocross rider, who was keen to race Transalp. “But this was two weeks before the race and I didn’t have a mountain bike! I called the sponsors to see if they could help and two days before the race I had a bike, and we did it.”
Terpstra sells his abilities short, “I am not the best mountain biker, but I really enjoy it,” When it comes to switching disciplines as a pro, he’s seamlessly moved from the road to the track (taking 7 national titles and 5 six-day wins), which requires a significant level of two-wheel knowhow. Also let’s not forget that winning any classic, let alone one of the famed ‘Monuments’ of road cycling, especially a cobbled one, requires the highest level of bike handling skills. Still, Terpstra will take the role of learner driver in the team, “We have people around us who know a lot about mountain biking, like Gosse: especially the technical side. Our plan is usually that I follow him on the singletrack, and he will sit my wheel on the flats.”
He's coy about his ambitions at the race. In fact, he jokes about capturing the ultimate photographic souvenir. “In the Prologue I look forward to seeing the Tafelberg and maybe get a selfie with it.” But considering that only a few months ago he was rubbing shoulders in the pro peloton in his last race with Arnaud Démare, Jasper Philipsen, Fernando Gaviria, Pascal Ackerman, and Michał Kwiatkowski, it’s fair to say there’s still some world-class horsepower under the hood.
He admits that the ‘selfie’ comment was a joke, “I am going to compete to the maximum of my ability. I am not a mountain biker and the best in the world go to ride the Absa Cape Epic, and they are so much better than me on the technical stuff. I will go all out, and I just want to do the best I can.” We are in no doubt that the Dutchmen will put on an impressive display doing his new team proud – named after his own clothing brand Speed On Wheels.. Whether road classics aptitude translates to the untamed (and unseen) trails will only become evident during race week. In the words of every mountain biker who’s ridden the Absa Cape Epic ever, ‘the trails will decide’.