Riaan Manser is about as adventurous as you get: his bearded features first became familiar to South Africans as they watched from afar while he rode a bicycle around Africa and then circumnavigated Madagascar by kayak.
Then it was off to Iceland for another testing circumnavigation by kayak.
Next he took to a tiny boat with then fiancé Vasti Geldenhuys and they rowed across the massive Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to New York. And after they got married earlier this year they crossed the treacherous section of the Pacific Ocean from California to Hawaii by rowboat.
Most of us would need a long period of rest after just reading about those expeditions. But the Manser/Geldenhuys axis is not like most of us: they are already training to take on the rugged Absa Cape Epic together for the third time in March next year. Rian will be bidding for his Amabubesi – “pride of lions” – status for finishing all three, but Vasti had to pull out during the event this year after falling and breaking a bone in her hip.
So what is it about the Epic that keeps him coming back? “Firstly it means I can have a super challenging week but still be ‘home’. And, probably most significantly, I am not away for two years trying to do something like circumnavigating the African continent,” Riaan says.
In spite of this year’s setback, Vasti will be on the starting line alongside Riaan: “The Epic draws you back into its clutches every year. When you have tasted how it feels when you cross that finish line … there are not many things that can make you feel such accomplishment,” she says. “When Riaan and I crossed that finish line in 2015 I wanted to go back, and even though I broke my hip in 2016 I still want to go back. You just can’t help it.”
Riaan also points to the sense of camaraderie out on the course: “The mountain bike community is a relaxed, determined and competitive one, which we enjoy socialising with. We have had some incredible days in awesome, wild African countryside with incredible company,” he says, adding a light-hearted request to his fellow riders: “Please don’t ask me to begin telling a story when we start hammering it up Groenlandberg!” – a reference to the event’s most notorious climb, which will be encountered on Stage 6 next year.
Is he looking forward to becoming an Amabubesi rider? “Very much so. Apart from the pride of completing three Epics, the memories we have made over these years have been awesome.”
Their honeymoon by rowboat from California to Hawaii was not exactly, er, smooth sailing. Will the Epic then be a sort of second honeymoon? “So we hope it’s going to be a happier outing than the Pacific Ocean crossing was,” Riaan smiles. “Flip, when we think back, it was scary and stressful with very few ‘happy’ faces to be seen. Epic will hopefully be kinder to us as a newlywed couple.”
Vasti believes though that their experiences at sea have been good preparation for a team race like the Cape Epic: “Obviously spending days, weeks, months together in a small space does prepare you for any team race. We hopefully ironed out all our grievances with each other,” she laughs. “Training together also improves communication come race time. And we do communicate a lot during the race … ask some of the other riders.”
What are their objectives for the race? “I cycle because it keeps me in shape,” responds Vasti. “Riaan and I train each year for the Epic, but do not do many MTB races in the rest of the calendar year (our rowing keeps us busy). For me, I would like to finish the race with Riaan. Even if it is as team 600 I’ll be proud.”
They have, however, started their training earlier for next year’s race and may just do a bit better than that: “We have started training three months earlier than we did on our previous two Cape Epics. With a few extra months preparation we should be a lot better condition come start day. Vasti and I agreed beforehand that our primary goal is to get our medals, but obviously we would like to spend less time out in the field this time round.”
Vasti agrees: “The training is going much better than last year. The one thing I’m training for is just to ease the suffering a bit. If I feel pain now during our training, I hope to get used to that feeling, so when I feel it during the race it is normal.”
* The Absa Cape Epic takes place from March 19 to 26 next year. It consists of a prologue and seven stages and is raced by two-person teams. The 2017 route will take riders through 691 km of Western Cape countryside and up a lot of hills: the accumulated vertical gain over the eight days will be 15 400m.