It is the most iconic image of all: the rider village at the Absa Cape Epic. 700 identical red tents, laid out to OCD perfection. For the bulk of the riders, this is home for seven nights, their me-space away from the hustle-bustle of the Untamed African Mountain Bike Race.
The clover-leaf nature of the modern Epic, which sees two- to three-day stopovers in the same town, makes staying in a motorhome or even off-site in brick-and-mortar accommodation easier than the original Knysna to Stellenbosch route.
Those who take a comfier option lose out on much of the atmosphere of the Absa Cape Epic, even though the rider village is not for the faint of heart. Your neighbours are too close to hide either your or their nocturnal habits. You learn to recognise who is where by the timbre of the snore, the rasp of the morning cough. Working out you can lie diagonally, and get neither your head nor your feet dewy, takes a few days, as does creating the perfect system to make living out of one big race bag more adult than toddler. Which side of the tent to hang your wet stuff, to get the most sun. Sussing out the cleaning routine for the portaloos, so your morning meditation is regenerating and refreshing. Which ruddy dome will be furthest from the ruddy bagpiper, who wakes the riders (and the birds) at 05h15 each morning. It is like school camp, on steroids, and it is wonderful.
There is one team, each Race Village location, for whom the red carpet is rolled out (relatively speaking). Big Box Containers, one of the Absa Cape Epic's service providers, trucked in a converted container, with twin beds (real beds, not ground-bound mattresses), room to swing a hydration pack and even air conditioning. It remains on site, looking down on the sea of red tents, so the lucky winners of this comfort zone remain part of the vibe.
The first winners were the biggest fund-raisers on the Absa Cape Epic's GivenGain portal; Cansa Heroes Jacques Lotriet and Schalk van der Merwe, who raised more than R100 000 for Cansa. They spent two nights in luxury in Hermanus, before the Big Box moved to Oak Valley for three, where team KT18 took over for some well-earned coziness as the cool weather that has blessed the 2019 Epic turned noticeably chilly. We met this indomitable pair earlier this week - https://www.cape-epic.com/news/1190/heroes-in-the-making/ - and there wasn't even a short-list to decide who deserved the brief holiday from holiday camp. "It was such a bonus, those three nights," said Jaco, clearly not relishing the move back to the normal tents. "It made such a difference for us to be able to stand up and move around, especially with the extra administration we have with our prostheses. And the air conditioning was a treat."
Stellenbosch hosts the final two nights of the 2019 Absa Cape Epic, and the qualifying criterion to earn the air-conditioning as the heat ramped up for the first time saw Team Salty Balls cracking the nod for their ongoing and often hilarious social media presence around the event. Rumours that the rest of the village voted for them, are untested: riding their seventh Epic together, Stephen Salt and Andy Hodgson are exhausting to be around, with their non-stop repartee and infectious enthusiasm.
Breaking the news of their win at the finish of the brutal, hot Queen Stage was one of the highlights of the 2019 Epic: "This is our 46th stage at the Cape Epic. Every single night, we have slept in these tents." Stephen pauses, uncharacteristically speechless for a few minutes. Okay, seconds.
"Does it have air conditioning?"
"Can we go there now?"
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