epic feature

The Pride

Four riders have finished all 17 Absa Cape Epics to date. Two of them teamed up in 2021, the other two raced with long-term partners.

Louis Smith is riding his 4th Absa Cape Epic, and his third with Last Lion Craig Beech. Is it an extra burden, in the already stressful Untamed African MTB Race, to partner with one of the race’s treasures? “I do feel it, there is definitely the thought at the back of my mind that I can’t be the one to mess it up for him. We are very good mates, and there is no pressure at all from Craig, but it is definitely there.” For Craig, ‘the streak’ has been a real motivation to keep the off-road wheels turning, even through a small dark patch where he fell out of love with mountain biking for a few years. “My mojo is back, now. I love where we ride in this event, with the battlers and the back markers. That keeps me going; sharing our experiences.” What would cause a Beech DNS? “I think if my MTB mojo deserted me again, if I just didn’t feel like it, possibly I would walk away. But I can’t see that happening soon.”

Craig Beech

Hannele Steyn and Mike Nixon are representing Land Rover and are the first Last Lions to pair up. “I don’t know why we didn’t sooner’” says Mike. “Hannele is the perfect partner; she weighs 54kg, and 53 of that is heart.” Is it hard to motivate yet another Absa Cape Epic each year? “Not at all. I love it, it encapsulates everything that real mountain biking should be.” Hannele agrees, on both the lack of pressure to keep going and that in Mike she has found her perfect partner. “We obviously have known each other for years, but riding together has made us closer, and I thrive on his no-nonsense outlook. ‘No whining, no sympathy’. I love that. Just yesterday, he paid me the biggest compliment I have had here: ‘This is the best Epic I have ever had’. From a Last Lion, that is beautiful.”

‘This is the best Epic I have ever had’. From a Last Lion, that is beautiful.

The final Last Lion is arguably the most successful, the only one to have successfully guided a partner to the finish 16 times. John Gale nearly didn’t make this list. “In 2005, I was at a school reunion a fortnight before the event and mentioned to Mike Cheeseman [a 2004 Cape Epic finisher, and paddling legend] that I had missed an entry. He had one but wasn’t riding, so we substituted. And here we are.” Would John have ridden another Absa Cape Epic had he not made a plan for 2005? “I really don’t know! Possibly, is the best I can give you. And now I am stuck in this cycle of having to keep going.”

John Gale

John’s 2021 partner is George Evans, their 5th event together. “I have cycled through all my other friends,” is John’s line on their recurring partnership, while George is slightly more philosophical, Epic style: “I seem to have picked up a bad habit…” Either way, neither claims any stress about the streak. “We nearly had a moment in 2012 where I got hit by a tummy bug, and we were threatening the cut offs all day. I kept telling him to ride on, but he wouldn’t. We didn’t get close enough to actually test it, but I know John would stand by his partner, no matter the cost. Isn’t that what this event is about?”

Why has John managed all the varied calamities that could end any Absa Cape Epic rider’s journey? “We are accountants. We don’t do risk,” says George. “Riding with John, it’s a bit like finding the old guy at the Buffalo Rally, with the long white beard. Do what he does, he knows how to survive.” At this point, our interview is interrupted. George has to dash to collect a delivery of a bar of soap - he had dropped Team Fat Bob’s communal bar in the shower (alone), never to be found again.