As the sun was rising later and the burden of the last seven months of four am mornings started to take its toll on Dominic Malan, the thought of leaving his wife and their warm bed was nearly unbearable, but he knew that every ride would assist him and his riding partner John Bayly in getting through the tough stages for JAGMagic 30.
The family were starting to ask when the training would finish and when I would be able to give my normal morning cuddles to my kids but all I could think about was the beast that lay ahead and the fear of not finishing. This was the goal and my priorities at the end would not shift albeit at the expense of my family.
As the event came closer we started to canvas possible sponsors. I focused specifically on clothing and crafted a proposal to First Ascent to see if they would support our efforts. The fit seemed to be a natural one with First Ascent positioning themselves as a brand for the committed weekend warrior and launching a range for the performance end of the outdoor athlete looking for comfort, performance and affordability. First Ascent agreed to get behind us and offered us a substantial kit sponsorship that covered head to toe, warm weather to the icy stages and all the bits and bobs required. In the meantime John had landed a big title sponsor in JHB, Penny Black, and this certainly eased the financial burden that was fast beginning to weigh on us.
With three weeks to go, John and I went full-steam ahead raising funds for the Jag Foundation. All of our efforts were targeted at supporting the Bullyproof campaign that equips kids to “cut bullies off at the knees” by disarming their power over previously helpless victims.
One of the fundraising highlights was a small intimate gathering of about 20 Cape Town Captains of Industry where they were exposed to the wonders and mysteries that lie behind the production of Scotch whisky, held at the famous Bascule Whisky Bar in the Waterfront and hosted by Rynard van der Westhuizen. We were all treated to the romantic side of Scotch whisky production and a colourful tasting that allowed all who attended to ask deep and complex questions about the whisky industry and the world’s most loved Scotch whisky. We managed to raise R18K that evening which will go a long way towards supporting the Bullyproof campaign.
Three days to go and Jag took some of the riders out ahead of the Epic into the communities to showcase the environments where the Bullyproof program was prospering. We listened to the teachers and the kids talking about the profound impact this initiative has made in their lives. John arrived in Cape Town a day ahead of the registration, sporting a whole new wardrobe. John weighed in at 98kg, down from a 118kg in July 2013 and only his infectious smile resembling his former self. He was ready and anxious, quietly confident and as usual full of pearls of wisdom, one of which was the word “GAMENESS” which translated means “the ability to follow through and complete the challenge or task at hand regardless of circumstance”. This word would help us through some dark days to come.
The kids were brimming with excitement and could not wait to come and see what this Epic was all about. My wife, managing her nail appointment ahead of registration, saw John and I leave home with both kids and set off to the beginning of a number of milestones. On arrival we noticed a man standing in the queue. At 1,62m and weighing it at 86kg, this man looked like he should be running out as tight head for the Stormers and not be entering the world’s most gruelling MTB race. Seven days later we found out that this man, Tyrone, had lost 55kg and would come in minutes behind us, completing a lifetime dream and become an official finisher of the 2014 ABSA Cape Epic.
Having not had much sleep John and I awoke at 4:30 am on the morning of the prologue. Making as little noise as possible we had breakfast, packed (including a healthy sense of humour) and set out for Meerendal. I recall saying to John during the ride: “Johnno we are actually doing this – we are riding the Cape Epic!”
Well what a day it was – brilliant weather, amazing single-track riding and phenomenal support from family, friends and the general public made for a day we will never forget. To see the excitement on my kids’ faces when we crossed the finish-line was priceless with a comment from my seven year old son Daniel: “Dad when I am 21 I want to ride the Cape Epic with you.” What a challenge and something to look forward to.
From Meerendal it was off home to pack our final things for the week before uniting with the JAG Foundation team, our family for the next seven days.
We’d gone for the premium upgrade package to ensure maximum comfort during the days of agony which were sure to follow. So dawn on stage one saw us waking up in luxury before driving to the start at Arabella. Both John and I were extremely nervous and little was said during the transit to the start.
We set off in batch H, the batch we would ride in for most of the week and the start was fast and furious, the aim was to cover the first 35km to water-point one at an average speed of 24km/h so that we could bank time ahead of the 2000m of climbing to come over the middle 45km. Climb one saw both of us push our bikes up something that resembled the North Col of Mt Everest. I am not joking, with the line of riders disappearing into the cloud covered peak of the first climb. One hour later we summit and knew what Sherpa Tensing Norgay felt like during his first summit of Everest. This climb certainly set the scene for the week ahead and we knew that patience and pride would come into play when looking to conquer these ridiculous Cape mountain “paths”. After the second big climb of the day John narrowly escaped a hectic head over heels, as the rider in front of him disappeared into the Fynbos and down a 5m ledge, finally coming to rest in a Camel thorn tree, looking a little confused.
On the morning of stage two we awoke to heavy rain and spared a thought for the riders living in the tent town, having to negotiate the rain, weather and all things wet ahead of the start of the day. Thoughts of looking forward to a theoretically easy day were dispelled within the first five minutes after the start. Thick mud would signal the conditions for the next 50km. The slog continued, with washed away tracks that had promised so much fun during the race briefing the night before taking their toll on team after team left alongside the tracks with broken chains and punctures in their attempts to beat the conditions. For us it was a long yet calculated day, getting ahead of tricky muddy sections. John started to feel the impact of the day before and due to the wet conditions started to develop a small saddle sore that would turn out to be his biggest distraction during the week.
The plan for stage three was clear – get off to a fast start and hook into a peloton to take advantage of the possible drafting on offer. John’s first order of the day was to visit the bum doctor and get his saddle sore looked at, after assuming a fairly compromising position he was sort of good to go and he put on a brave face as he neared the starting line. Today would be a real test of our endurance and the hours of training up and down “Breed’s Neck” in JHB. The second half of the route was a nightmare, 50km/h headwinds, sand, corrugated road and an evil river crossing that saw us wading chest deep across the Sonderend River was enough to break the toughest of spirits. John and I were both hurting. I had a back spasm that I carried into the race that was excruciatingly painful and the river crossing further aggravated John’s saddle sore making any amount of time in the saddle worse than ten lashes with the “cat of nine tails”.
We made it to Riviersonderend and with both of us feeling the distance, we had two-and-a-half hours to finish the next 35km. John sucked up the pain and pushed through the mental barrier leading us home in 9 hours and 22 minutes. This day would prove to be our biggest victory yet as John’s ability to block out pain and get the job done came to the fore, constantly reminding ourselves of the word “gameness” and the inspiration of a friend of ours who is a recovering addict who offered the advice of “when it gets tough – one second, one minute, one hour at a time as long as you never stop”. It was more than enough inspiration for us to cross the line. Neil, thanks for the inspiration, your words added the majority of the encouragement during those dark times.
On paper stage four was arguably the easiest stage of the 2014 Absa Cape Epic. Leaving the hotel feeling a little lax about the meander through Greyton, I forgot one of my protein shakes, the one supplement during the day that stabilized my blood sugar. It turned out to be a big mistake on a brutally undulating, rocky and technical stage. With no second protein water bottle I was forced to eat gels, spiking my sugar levels before dropping again, leaving me flat and broken. What should have been a tough but fun day turned out to be my toughest day of the 2014 Epic.
The queen stage saw John visiting his new best friend, the bum doctor for the third day in a row. She treated him with a local anaesthetic to help him take his mind off his saddle sore, allowing him to focus on the mammoth task at hand. On the descent after the first climb we were faced with a fellow rider who had just been stung by a bee and she was hyper-allergic. Convulsing on the ground she was attempting to find her adrenaline shot in her backpack. I stopped and fed her two anti-histamine pills which calmed her down somewhat while a co-rider from Hong-Kong managed to stab her leg with the adrenalin filled syringe. That worked instantly, allowing us all to get back on our bikes and tackle the remaining 80km ahead of us.
The famed Rusty Gate Climb, 5km with a 900m ascent and an average gradient of 10 degrees, over-delivered on its promise of challenging! Both John and I walked 80% of this monster and one and half hours later we saw the summit of the beast, but we’d been brutalized by the sun glaring off the white surfaced road. John’s wife, Inga, had positioned herself on the Theewaterskloof Bridge and offered much needed words of encouragement. The sight of Inga brought goose bumps to both of us; a familiar face offering emotional support during the intense battle with stage five was much needed.
The arrival at the finish at Oak Valley was possibly one of the most emotional moments in both of our lives. Few words were spoken but there was the realisation that something special had been achieved on the 28th day of March 2014. It was the day that we had broken the back of the Epic and could look forward to the last two days of riding that promised to be superb.
The morning of stage six started with the anticipation of seeing our families at water point one, early on in the stage. By that time of the week we were both struggling with injuries. John had his saddle sore and a knee that was fast becoming a real issue after the brutal day before. But as usual he downplayed the agony he was experiencing and we set off. At the Houw Hoek water point we were greeted by a banner that read “go Dom and John” held proudly by Luisa, Dan and Kerry, with Inga offering moral support just a few yards away.
Sheer determination and a sense of humour carried us through the deceptively tough mid-section of the stage, but by the end we were loving the manicured single-track of Oak Valley, carving up the switchbacks and berms with style.
Stage seven featured another wet start, providing a chance to test the First Ascent Raingear, long gloves and base layer. We both really looked forward to getting to the Hottentots Holland Saddle, which would signal the high-point of the last day and the literal downhill to the end. I went ahead as adrenaline flowed through my limbs. This burst of speed was greeted with a look from my partner that I had not seen all week. All of a sudden John found a burst of strength and like an old racehorse turning for home he decided to really up the pace. John had finally become a true mountain biker, as he flew through the meandering singletrack negotiating the turns, inclines and drop-offs like a seasoned pro. Certainly not like the novice who had accompanied me to Jonkershoek four months earlier. At the final water point we were greeted by Matthew Pearce, the SuperSport commentator, who had to look twice before recognizing the more chiselled version of John. An hour later we were greeted by our respective families at the iconic ABSA Cape Epic finish-line. The fields of Lourensford were lined with friends and family, all wanting to share in the epic achievement, the moment in time that’ll never be forgotten by the 2014 finishers. The rest is history, and as John and I reflect on the race there is still a sense of “did we really do it?”
We may be back for more punishment in 2015, but first we’ll have to check with the family!
Dominic Malan is the Regional Marketing Manager Africa for Diageo (the people who bring you the wonders of Johnny Walker). Dom rode the 2014 ABSA Cape Epic with his mate of 30 years and owner of Green Advertising, John Bayly. They rode the Epic to raise funds and awareness for JAG’s Bullyproof project.