ABSA Cape Epic: the untamed African MTB race

by Matt de Neef

The 2013 ABSA Cape Epic MTB race finished over the weekend after eight days, 800km+ of riding, 15,000 meters of climbing, and all in the un-spoilt South African wilderness. It’s arguably the most extreme mountain bike stage race in the world. In this post, Raoul de Jongh shares some of his favourite images from the eight-day race and explains how the race unfolded for him, behind the lens.

In 2010 I learned the hard way just how tough the Cape Epic can be, finishing with tendonitis in both hands and 12 stiches in my left palm, crying as I crossed the line. I was relieved to have survived the last day but unable to hold on to the handle bars with my right hand. But now, three years on, I spent the week as part of the media contingent.

The media gig is split into two sections: official photographers, on motorbikes & in helicopters, and the second lot, which are carted around in minivans to water points and spectator points. I was a part of the latter crew, where our Sebastian Vettel-wannabe driver made sure we never missed the leading riders at important points.

On days when we had to transfer between towns, I had to drive my own car to points I thought may be interesting to shoot from. I am pretty new to photography and still consider myself an enthusiast rather than a scholar. But what I lack in skill I can make up for in athletic ability.

Attempting to beat the system, I figured I could get ahead of the motorbikes and run back towards the race, essentially getting a view-by-view play of what it would look like when the riders approached. This meant, at times, running up a 5km-long 12% loose rocky climb that riders would descend, or taking short cuts through the thick forest to get to what looked to be a good spot on the map.

So I would fill my pack with some water, nuts and throw the 550D with two lenses on my back and run/hike to where I had spotted four or so key spots to shoot from. My plan was to shoot riders on the way back, and wait for the front guys to come through with the lead motorbikes and helicopter.

Once the front pack was through I would head back (2-6km) towards the car, which was ready to zoom off to the next spot, taking pictures as I ran along. If we were pressed for time, I had to run fast, around 4 minutes per kilometre, which was a challenge on its own, let alone in the heat, carrying my gear, sharing the single track and generally trying to avoid being a nuisance to the riders coming through.

Seeing good friends suffer out there on the bike was an experience I am very grateful for, as I would catch them off guard around a corner when they were at their worst, holding nothing back. I love those raw moments.

Once back at the race village it was a mad scramble to get images edited, seeded into the social networks and make sure key clients got the right images. I work for Craft and we are a key sponsor for the event, providing leaders jerseys, official race gear and custom race clothing to many, many teams.

Then it was back into a normal workday where I had to squeeze eight hours of work into two or three hours, before heading out to spend time with my teams over dinner. They were exhausting days, but inspiring and I would imagine that the professional photographers who cover big events like the Tour de France must go through a much bigger version of the fatigue that crept into the media room after a few days.

As you can see, riders were spoilt with scenery that is best described as “Epic”. It takes the edge off for some riders who are out there for close to 10 hours per day, for 8 days in a row. These are the real heroes. The professionals are in between 3 and 5 hours on any given day, focusing on recovery and having had lunch and a nap by the time the last guys cross the line. Seeing a team come in two minutes after the daily cut-off brings a heavy heart, as you know they had prepared for months for this event.

Riders had a total of around 50km of beautiful single track this year, more than any other previous year, but they also had 7km of walking in shin-deep river sand that nearly destroyed many hopes and dreams as early as Stage 1.

The two-man team format is important to the race because without your partner, you could get in serious trouble as crashes and falls are the norm here, not the exception. The partnership element is a big focus at Epic and selecting a partner who is similar in strength, determination & whom you can trust with your life is no small task, often taking months to finalise.

This morning I woke up with a severe case of Post-Epic Depression as I realised I had spent a week immersed in some of the finest sporting talent in the world, learned more than I could remember from the worlds top sports photographers and witnessed more hope, determination and guts in the mid-to-back-of-the-pack riders than I knew existed.

The endorphin low has kicked in and it was only these images that saved my mood today as I recounted some of the amazing places we were all in, throwing ourselves against the elements in the hope of getting to the finish line in Somerset West yesterday.

What a week it was. Thank you for checking out these images and hopefully we will see a few more internationals at the race next year. In 2013, 26 countries were represented at ABSA Cape Epic, the Untamed African MTB Race. Perhaps, in 2014, we will see your name on the start list?

Click here for the full results from the 2013 ABSA Cape Epic. To see more photos from Cape Epic, visit the Privateer website.

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