Everyone wishing me well for the Cape Epic has reminded me to be safe, and wished me luck. It’s no accident that these two things come up time and again in conversations about the great untamed African race. In 2018, my team-mate Briony managed to get food poisoning, have all her money stolen by an ATM scam, and have a devastating crash that ended her race on stage 1. Mike my husband has ridden the Cape Epic three times – and finished it once, as an Outcast (solo finisher). Poor Briony has already fallen ill with a trio of bacterial infections (bronchitis, tonsillitis, and sinusitis) in the lead-up to the event and while she seems to be on the mend, it’s been an early fright. Safety and luck. Come at us.
In the last few years, since I’ve got a full-time job, I’ve found the most excruciating part of racing to be the week beforehand. This is when you enter a twilight zone of intense anxiety about your health and performance that is more often than not completely self-destructive than self-fulfilling. Before XCO World Championships in 2018 I was paralysed with a bunch of symptoms that turned out to be nothing, but in the moment felt life-ending. In 2019 it was insomnia – I barely slept a the entire week before the XCM World Championships in beautiful Graechen. It’s so hard to keep your head together when so much is at stake. All those early mornings. All that suffering. All those sacrifices. All that money I’ve spent. All the sponsors’ support. NOTHING CAN GO WRONG NOW.
This year it’s back to worrying about health. But in the midst of a global pandemic, who can blame us?
I met up with a bunch of international racers yesterday for a pre-event tune-up on the sweet, flowy trails at Tokai. A huge amount of fun, but we’re twitchy. Nobody would even look at the black runs, and when I brought out a tube of hand sanitiser at the coffee shop everyone held their hands out like junkies looking for a hit. Talk is about who’s had a sore throat? Who’s missed a session? What teams are pulling out? What are the different ways you can crash? What else can go wrong?
Being in South Africa is also cause for nerves. There’s the obvious issue of the crime rate and personal safety. We can’t just jump on the bike and go for a ride like we can at home or in Europe, we have to check if the route is okay, buy a permit, find a bunch of people to ride with, take an Uber there, and so on. There are other things. The trails here have an added layer of danger and unpredictability. While no harder, on paper, than the trails at home, the terrain is more mixed, and a bit like riding in the Red Centre, everything is sharp. An innocent little bush could tear your rear mech off. A sharp stone could rip through your sidewall, and there are a lot of both of those.
So all we racers assembling here in Cape Town are afraid. We’re afraid of getting sick with anything, let alone COVID-19, we’re afraid of falling off our bikes, we’re afraid we’re not fast enough, we’re afraid of the weather conditions (okay, I’m not, come at me extreme heat), and we’re afraid, most of all, that the race might somehow be compromised. Italian teams are out, Specialized just announced their riders, including Annika Langvad, are heading home, and Cannondale look to pull out, too.
What I want at the Cape Epic
All we want, you see, and what all this fear is about, is that we need our chance to finish.
So what do we mean by luck? You’ve probably heard that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Being in the right place at the right time. Maybe it is in the racing sense, in the achievement sense, but God, preparation and opportunity don’t stop you getting sick. Don’t stop a pandemic. Don’t stop government policy.
Maybe what we’re after then, isn’t luck – it’s magic. Magic that keeps a virus away from a camp of 5,000 people. Magic that keeps that rock away from my sidewall, magic keeps me well when my team mate is ridding her lungs of whatever nastiness is in them.
So wish us magic, because things are looking pretty shakey.