These Hyenas won’t bite

Photo by Mark Sampson/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Photo by Mark Sampson/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Every day at the Absa Cape Epic, the same two riders finish last. They ride slowly and deliberately, neither rushing to water points nor fretting over cut-off times. For the Absa Cape Epic Hyenas, the race is not a race at all, but rather a procession at the back of the pack to make sure the slowest participants have it in them to reach the various cut-offs along the route – and if not, to make sure they are safely guided to the nearest race exit.

The 2017 Absa Cape Epic has been tough on many of the riders, but also on the Hyenas. Both of them are new to their role as sweeps this year. The blazing heat of Stages 1 and 2 took a toll on them too, while the long days on the bike have also tested their innate desire to race.

“This has been hard,” said Hyena Robert Vogel at the end of Stage 4. “I really think it’s easier to race – as I have experienced as a participant of the event. When you are racing you spend less time on the bike and have more time to recover. We finished at 5pm last night; so there isn’t much time. It definitely gives you a different perspective of the race.”

At the back of the field the wind howls, the sun beats down or the cold catches up with you. Every element that hits the riders is magnified by the isolation of cycling slowly and passing practically deserted water points. There are cheers, according to the Hyenas, but mainly from the volunteers manning the water points who know that sighting a Hyena means the end of their long shift for the day.

Riders battle on at the back, dealing with illness or mechanical issues or lack of preparation. Some riders can even end up taking wrong turns. On Stage 5 Hyena Richard McMartin got word of one such team and had to turn back to point them in the right direction. To McMartin’s surprise, the team was quite strong and shot off to rejoin the race, meaning for once a Hyena was chasing a pack instead of doddling behind it.

In that case, the Hyenas can help, but in any other instances, they are not allowed to interfere with a participant’s ride – no fixing of broken bikes, no lending of tools or spares and certainly no pushing. Vocal encouragement is okay, but even that can prove tricky.

“There is obviously a desire to help,” says McMartin. “But that is not our role. We can’t get involved in any way. Offering encouragement is fine, but I stopped doing that after a day because I didn’t want to give a rider false hope.

“It’s very cool to be out there at the back, and I am definitely enjoying it. But the first few days were a struggle; it was a real emotional roller-coaster at the start. I wanted these people to make the cut-off, but then you realise there will be drop outs and you just get on with the job.”

McMartin adds, “It’s a lonely road at the back. Only broken bodies and bikes, yet tons of determination to keep going.”

The best example of pure Epic grit has come from two people this year, a Finnish female rider whose partner pulled out after the Prologue forcing her to ride solo the entire race, and a Danish rider called Claus.

On Stage 4 the great Dane, also without a partner, was battling the effects of severe diarrhoea. He was wobbling uphill and cursing downhill. McMartin stayed just behind him, silently willing him home. Eventually, he slumped over the finish line with an hour to spare, muttering “Hurting so much. It was so painful” before bursting into tears and thanking the Hyenas.

For McMartin it was a happy ending after a few days of sad finishes. “The first few days were tough because we came home after cut-off with people who hadn’t made it. Claus finishing inside the cut-off was the first uplifting story for the Hyenas. That made it a better experience.”

*The 2017 Absa Cape Epic mountain bike stage race is taking place until Sunday 26 March. Watch the action live on our website