Riders of the
There’s a pair of riders that you do not want catching you during the Absa Cape Epic. They are the Hyenas.
The Untamed African MTB Race wouldn’t be the same without a nod to the continent’s most voracious hunters. The Absa Cape Epic Hyenas sweep the race from the rear, escorting the Fighters of the Maximum Stage Time into each day’s finish.
Each morning, ten minutes or so after the last group of riders leave the race start, the Hyenas roll onto the route and begin their long day in the saddle. Richard McMartin is a long-standing member of this exclusive pack, but 2021 is veteran journalist Chris Whitfield’s first on Hyena duty.
“What has surprised me the most is how positive the experience has been,” says Chris. “I didn’t anticipate the bond we form with the riders, and how quickly we almost become teammates for the day.”
The Hyenas are allowed to encourage and cajole, but may not offer any physical assistance to the riders they chaperone, on pain of disqualification. “Stage 6 was the first time I experienced the helplessness Richard had warned me about. We came across the Exxaro/Pepto women’s team [Andisiwe Skeyi and Refilwe Mogorosi] struggling with a flat tyre. Flirting with the maximum stage time as they had been each day, panicked fingers had mucked up the application of their first two bombs. They only had one left. Watching them was excruciating.” It all worked out, and they finished with minutes to spare.
I didn’t anticipate the bond we form with the riders, and how quickly we almost become teammates for the day.
This wasn’t Richard’s first Hyena interaction with Andisiwe. “In 2018, we spent a lot of the first three days riding together, until she unfortunately dropped out on Stage 3. She was on a bike that squeaked the whole time, I remember it so well. It’s so nice that she is back, and doing well. We still have that relationship we built three years ago.”
2021 has been a relatively quiet year for the Hyenas. “It was only really Marius Hurter, regular Hyena prey, who broke a couple of ribs early on in the race and just couldn’t finish Stage 5, and Danny [Sabbagh] on Stage 3. We found Danny around 30km into the stage, looking broken beyond repair, helmet off. We got him to a medical post, where they gave him some fluids. He threw up all over their tent, and then hopped on the bike like nothing had happened, charging up the road. He was good for a long time, but with about 14km to go, his day was done. ‘I’ve given up hope’ were the last words we heard as he was swept by the organisers.”
The other aspect of their daily journey that surprised Chris was how popular the Hyenas are - and not just with the riders. “We keep being asked for photos, with medics and marshals. And they are so happy to see us every day along the route, we are like the school bell. If the Hyenas are here, it’s home time for everyone working on the route.”
Seeing the Hyenas isn’t always a positive experience. “The first guys we catch each day - this year it has often been the single-speeders - look like they have spotted the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And if you want to clear out a water point… there can be 10 teams faffing with bottles and bags: we stop for our refreshments and they are gone in 30 seconds.”
The Hyenas are uniquely positioned to impart advice on finishing the Untamed African MTB Race. “Prepare well - not fitness wise, everyone has done that bit fine, but skills-wise for the terrain. Learn to ride the rocky, loose stuff you will find in the Western Cape. And the steep climbs. If it’s a surprise to you, that’s exhausting,” says Chris. “Eat, eat, eat, “ says Richard.
“And just ride what is in front of you, rather than getting caught up in all the hype. I have seen people talking themselves out of finishing a day on the start line. Every stage of the Absa Cape Epic is finishable; your mind is the biggest barrier.”