A woman’s perspective on the Epic

There are few occasions in life when telling your story is a privilege you have earned. With 7 Epics and 6 finishes under the saddle Ann Harrison has more than earned the privilege, so here are her thoughts on the 2015 ABSA Cape Epic from a woman’s perspective.

Internationally recognised and widely accepted as the Tour de France of mountain biking, the ABSA Cape Epic is the mother of all events – 600 teams (1 200 riders), 748km and 16 000m of climbing. According to the 2015 stats, only 22 of those teams (44 riders) are women, with a further 63 mixed teams; a total of 107 female riders means that less than 9% of the total field are ladies.

There’s no such thing as Masters or Grand Masters categories for the women – that’s a luxury for the masses! With so few ladies’ teams, there is one single category for women, regardless of age – Elite, and as a 48 year old woman I “race” young whippersnappers of 20 to the more mature 55+, pros and amateurs alike.

So why exactly are there so few women riding mountain bikes, and why do even fewer of them enter the Epic?

It’s simple – mountain biking is not for the shrinking violet. It is both physically and mentally demanding, requiring a strong body and an even stronger mind. In fact it’s often said that an endurance event is 90% strength of mind, and the ABSA Cape Epic is well-known to be the toughest, most gruelling mountain bike event in the world; not one to be taken lightly!

The Dawn Wing ladies showing the trailing men how it's done
The Dawn Wing ladies showing the trailing men how it’s done

If we take the pro riders out of the equation, what is actually holding women back from entering an event like the Epic? I put it down to the following points:

  • Women lack confidence in themselves which can be the biggest limiting factor.
  • The training is time consuming.
  • The technical aspect of the event is very daunting.
  • It is physically and mentally demanding.
  • Racing for 8 consecutive days with over 100km a day seems impossible.
  • Finding the right partner is very hard.
  • Balancing work and family can be a tough call.
  • Too often, life gets in the way for women.

So why have I done so many Epics? 

Quite simply I don’t ride to win; I ride because I love mountain biking, it’s my passion; it’s fundamentally a part of who I am. Every time I take my bike out I know it will be an experience and an adventure, even my training rides.

Having started mountain biking later in life, the personal growth for me has been a continuous upward slope, and I don’t mean in the literal sense! Every day I am learning skills, patience, and endurance. With mountain biking you are always doubting yourself and your ability, but what I have learnt is that you have to: trust yourself, trust your bike, and trust your coach.

The 2015 Epic wasn’t the toughest one I’ve ever done, but rather the one with the toughest terrain. And my body was hammered for eight days even with all my preparation training!

My attitude and approach this year was somewhat different to my previous Epics – call it maturity. Although the 2015 Epic had the most ascent per kilometre, I had a more “go with the flow” attitude leading into and during the race. A more positive mind-set, and with all the experience I have gained over the years it turned out well for myself and my Epic partner Marleen Lourens.

What makes an Epic a success is a great partnership, minimal mechanicals, staying upright on your bike, good training and a positive attitude! That’s it.

I’ve been lucky – albeit with hard work and tenacity, but still – I’ve been lucky. I have three amazing partnerships: my riding partner Marleen, our sponsors Dawn Wing and our bike sponsors Momsen Bikes who have supported me for many years and to whom I am eternally grateful.

Formation riding, without having to say a word, the essence of a good team
Formation riding, without having to say a word, the essence of a good team

My partnership with Marleen, now in its third year, has been incredibly special. Over the years we have trained together with the same coach, and have ridden many build-up events together. We know each other so well that we hardly speak when we ride. We laugh a lot and talk when encouragement is needed, but most of the time there is just a comfortable silence and energy that flows between us.

As the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, Roger Staubach once said: “In any team sport, the best teams have consistency and chemistry.”

Marleen and I had lady luck on our side this year. Our bodies held out well (thanks to our training), and we finished without a scratch on us, and our bikes were machines, surviving without major mechanical issues, from Prologue to Finish. As ever, there were some close calls but we managed to keep upright and rubber side down.

The hardest part of the 2015 Epic was the physical aspect. Mother Nature didn’t help either. Stage 1 – rain, stage 2 – howling wind, stage 3 – hot and head winds, stage 4 – we ran out of water, stage 5 – so rocky I thought my bike and I would rattle to pieces, stage 6 – so much climbing (oh my knees!) and the finale stage 7 – hot, dry, windy and boring with a few unnecessary hills thrown in… Every stage left me with one thought – keep your head up high and your heart strong, then no matter how tired your legs are you will get to the finish.

An encouraging thought that kept me upbeat for the eight days came from a friend of mine. She told me to “make the most of every opportunity and be the very best person you can ever be”. It forced me to remind myself daily not to set limits but rather to be the best I could be. Going with the flow helped as over the years I seem to have learnt to take each day as it comes. Believe me, in 2015 I went to some deep dark places and tough lows, but these only made the highs that much better. Yes the Dawn Wing/Momsen Team made it to the finish line, but it was a challenge every day, a journey I will never forget and yet another adventure to add to my memories, along with my saying for 2015 – Consistency is Queen.

The camaraderie between teams, male and female, is amazing. As always, the men were there to support the women and to the many who pulled us along the flats in the wind and rain, their patience on the single tracks and encouragement when we needed it, I salute you all.

The Absa Cape Epic is without doubt stage racing at its best.

Sasol supports the women

Recognition comes in many forms and there is no doubt that women’s cycling is beginning to gain traction in South Africa, as acknowledged by Sasol by matching the men’s prize money when they once again sponsored the women’s category in 2015.

I have shared my love and passion for cycling for several years now with women specific training groups in the Cape. It’s my hope that one day soon 25% of the field will be female and I will be doing all I can to make that a reality. To all the women out there, believe me when I tell you that you too can do an Epic. It’s never too late – I started as a complete novice nine years ago and I have loved every minute and every day of my journey to get where I am today. To all the ladies I come across in my training groups, it’s all about passion, enjoyment and freeing your heart.

You have to love your bike and love riding. The Epic is there to break you mentally and physically, but keep the two in check and you will finish.

Trust me, life is good on a bike.


Ann Harrison is a passionate mountain biker who rides from the heart.  She shares her love and passion for cycling with women specific training groups and skills clinics in the Cape. Her experience and knowledge are what the girls love most about Ann. Plus the confidence! Contact her on 083 461 9462 or email on annharrison@telkomsa.net.

RR Ann

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