A race for the brave, a race for the #SheUntamed

A race for the brave, a race for the #SheUntamed

Posted by Nicole Dodds on

The 2023 Absa Cape Epic is a first for many of the women selected to ride under the #SheUntamed project. Absa has played a pivotal role in the growth of the #SheUntamed initiative by empowering women in the field of cycling. In the lead-up to the 2023 event, Absa is shifting gears and committing to not only have 20% of the Team Absa line-up be women riders that will participate in the Absa Cape Epic but is also dedicating a session of the Epic Trippers – a hugely popular, active spectator programme that allows a select group of participants to experience the Absa Cape Epic, enjoying world-class hospitality while riding their bikes and cheering on the world’s best mountain bikers and fellow avid amateurs – to women riders for the second year.

As one of the head coaches working beside Erica Green and Phillimon Sebona, we have provided training programs that include in-depth analysis to ensure the progression of each athlete, as well as mountain bike skills lessons and training camps to help prepare our athletes as best as possible. Hannele Steyn has also come on board as a mentor and nutritional advisor, which has been a great addition to the project.

The opportunity for these women to immerse themselves in a global event and ride the same trail systems that the best in the world compete on is a huge motivation. Beyond that, there have been so many women that have wanted to participate in this event, but they either haven't had the confidence or the means to do so. Absa (who are sponsors of the event) is leading the way by opening that door. I believe this will have a chain reaction and inspire more women to enter the following year.

The #SheUntamed women participating in 2023 are breaking through the stigma and showing the world that actually, they can do something this challenging.

It gives me goosebumps to think about it. When I was brought on board so much of the project had already been in play, and I could see it growing exponentially day after day. This project added this intense purpose to their year, created a community of women, and honestly brought out this contagious fierce bravery. In the early stages, I was very aware of the monumental challenge this was going to be for them, and I think as the training plans, camps, and races began unfolding – many eyes were opened to exactly how tough the Absa Cape Epic is. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t done it.

-   Have you ever ridden in 40+ degree temperatures for multiple days in a row?

-   Have you climbed over 2500m more than once?

-   When was the last time you mountain biked over 100km?

-   Have you ever ridden a climb that is 15km straight up before?

-   Does your normal mountain bike training ride include 60% single track?

These were just some of the questions I was asking my athletes to get an understanding of what they defined as “hard”. Psychologically, the term “hard” is so subjective and unique to the rider. I often have to check in with myself and participate in certain events to redefine “hard” each year. The body loves to get comfortable, and the Absa Cape Epic is anything but that.


The funny thing is each time you step it up in your mountain biking journey, for you to rediscover the ‘pleasure of suffering’ - our goals need to step it up too. For some, climbing 1000m in a ride is a huge milestone (which should be equally celebrated!), and for others, 4000m gives an accurate reminder of what the body can achieve. It is the same for riding long hours day after day. The Absa Cape Epic is intimidating… if you haven’t felt that through this blog post already. But there is a way to combat that intimidation.

Exposure, Exposure, Exposure.

What we THINK and what it ACTUALLY feels like is very different. Exposing ourselves to difficult terrain has been a game-changer. Erica Green and her Daisyway team host an (in my opinion the friendliest) Cape Epic training camp at the end of each year. It’s an introduction to what the riders can expect in the months to come, and helps lay the foundation for the big miles needed to be accumulated between December and the event.

There were a few “conditioning events” in the past few months that included races such as the FNB Wines2Whales, Virgin Active 94.7 Ride Joburg, Momentum Medical Scheme Tankwa Trek presented by Biogen, The Team Absa Training Camp, and Attakwas Extreme. Phew, I know. It’s a lot. But anyone planning on participating in a race like the Absa Cape Epic knows that this is actually the “short list”.


The FNB Wines2Whales was the initial introductory event that helped the riders understand what it meant to ride in a team, as well as shock the system to just how much time is spent on the saddle. The Epic Series is home to some of the most enjoyable stage races in the world, and we are so fortunate to have been able to bring the Absa #SheUntamed programme to life at this race. There were some niggles. Some riders needed to be shuffled to new partnerships, some riders realised just how technical an event to this standard can be, some riders fell in love with the sport all over again (with a serious amount of respect) and some riders had a much clearer understanding of what it took to get up these mountains!

Attakwas Extreme was a recommended event, but not compulsory. With the extreme nature of this race and understanding the personal investment required to get to the start line, we didn’t make this mandatory – we wanted them to come back…

However, I was watching a few of our brave ladies cross that finish line and I can confidently say that their lives were changed. Hard doesn’t begin to describe what we all went through… and that was exactly the point. Now IMAGINE how one would feel finishing the Absa Cape Epic.

The Absa Training Camp was a long weekend away down in the KZN mountains. It was another opportunity for all the riders to get together, bond, ride, and share war stories of their journeys so far. It was also a gentle reminder not to get too comfortable – as the courses laid out for each day included sublime single track and a large amount of elevation gain! KZN is notorious for its ever-changing weather patterns. We experienced 4 seasons in one day, which I remember happening quite often at the 2021 Absa Cape Epic…

Tankwa Trek was the final race-tester before the Absa Cape Epic. This event I openly admit seems to get tougher every year, whether it’s the addition of sand, (more) rocks, or heat. It’s my favourite event of the year for a couple of reasons:

It teaches you how to play on your bicycle. The technicality of this event forces you to be light on your feet, find flow in the rugged terrain, and have a sense of humour when things go pear-shaped. It reminds you just how big the Western Cape mountains can be. It is a great eye-opener to how long one can possibly continue going uphill. It forces you to have a concrete nutrition plan. If you get it wrong in this race, you suffer the consequences pretty badly! It’s important to always top up in fuel, given the terrain and heat. This is a great final tester to see whether you got it right. Tankwa Trek tends to bring you to your knees at one point or another. Your feel-good factor ebbs and flows throughout the stages, and the only way to build resilience is to practice it. This event elevates and forces you to practice pulling yourself out of a dark space into the beauty of the landscape and this place we call home.

Our words of advice to the #SheUntamed women, and to anyone competing in the Absa Cape Epic this year:

Keep. Moving. Forward.

2023 will be my 4th start, and hopefully my 3rd finish of the Absa Cape Epic. I wouldn't say I have an enormous amount of experience, but I definitely know now what can go horribly wrong. I see this race as the ultimate challenge for any mountain bike rider. The combination of technical terrain, massive mountains, heat, and competition makes for a life-changing experience. Maybe that's why I always feel the need to come back - each time I compete, I learn a little more about myself and how brave/strong/powerful/vulnerable I can be. This race leaves me in a more connected place than I was before I started and I have more understanding of what the term "suffering" really is. My life outside of bikes becomes more valuable, and I have a better appreciation for the resilience required to get through tough times in life. i.e. “If I can make it through the Absa Cape Epic, I can make it through this!”

You can imagine the kind of confidence knock I received in 2022. When you sacrifice so much to get to the start, lying in a hospital bed staring at the ceiling for hours alone is the last place anyone would want to end up. The doctors couldn’t put the exact cause on one thing, but rather an accumulation of overhydration, organ swelling, and anemia. Later in the year to follow I discovered I had food intolerances that could have heavily impacted my body's inflammation. I remember lying there and thinking back to my very first Epic with Theresa Ralph. I remember how much she taught me and how she made 2019 the most memorable race of my life. Everything was so new and I was so nervous. I followed her lead and she paced me through every challenge, tear, and triumph. I knew that all this knowledge she had passed down to me deserved to be paid forward. I wanted to race again so that I could show myself how much I’ve grown, (of course to make her proud), and to pass that experience on to my next racing partner.

On a lighter note, I really do enjoy the 8-day event! There is nothing more incredible than doing what you love, over and over again. Some days your legs feel great, others they need a bit of a warm-up, but ultimately it is a dream come true. In the past year, I have made an effort to appreciate the heights at which we climb to every event. I look around, breathe it all in, take a sip of my Enduren – and keep moving forward. Elrika Harmzen-Pretorious and I will be taking on the 2023 Absa Cape Epic, and already we have found an amazing racing rhythm that works for both of us. Teamwork is ultimately what makes this event so memorable, and to share it with someone who has such a huge drive is well worth it. There was a time in 2022 when I thought my career was over. I had made some decisions that were leading me down a path that wasn’t in the field that I loved, and I was scared that I had “missed” so much that I would never be able to return to my roots. It was scary stepping back onto home soil, but I have never felt more at home on my mountain bike.

Mountain Biking is my ultimate form of self-expression.

The 2023 edition of the Absa Cape Epic is full of old and new trails. The distances are long, but what I’m most looking forward to is the time trial stage right in the middle of the event. I think it’s because I share such good memories of it from 2019. There is tons of single track, it is fast, flowy and so much fun. Honestly, the suffering is well-rewarded on this stage. We also get a bit of rest. YES, an extra 2 hours of rest makes an enormous difference to our ability to bounce back the next day. Our massage therapists better get their hands ready for an extra 30min!

Our approach this year is to take each stage as it comes. We know that we don’t want to burn all our matches in the first couple of stages, so pacing is key – however, our competitive natures will keep us ready to jump at any point. I’ve learned from previous Epics that the Queen stage hasn’t always meant the toughest stage. I suppose it’s supposed to be, but there are so many elements to face that any stage could be just as hard. Some days we even take it 1km at a time, it just depends on how we’re feeling.

CIOVITA is the title kit sponsor for the Absa Cape Epic, and I feel really lucky to be a part of such a great family. Their cycling kit caters to all types of riders, from funky colours to kit that truly fits like a glove. For Epic, we will be racing in the official Absa #SheUntamed kit, which is the profit tops and supremo bibs. We will be in the passionate red Absa colours, so when you see us cheer extra loud!

It's been 12 months of organised chaos, but to be here writing this blog in preparation for the “Tour de France of Mountain Biking” next week makes me feel like I am finally ready. Thank you to all those who have stepped in and supported the journey. Elrika and I have only just started our tiny little All-South African Racing Team, but we are planning on making big waves in 2023/4. Keep an eye out for updates and welcome aboard!

- Sarah Hill @sarahhillrsa


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