Gunn-Rita blog: Adventures at Cape Epic

Unfair starts for elite women in stage race

Absa Cape Epic 2015. An unforgettable experience in every way. A challenge that takes you way outside of your own comfort zone. The strain, the pain and the massive effort are impossible to describe. It simply has to be experienced. Extreme doses of adrenaline and constantly fluctuating emotions makes the whole thing into a powerful experience.

This past week I've been taking part in one of the world's most demanding stage races off-road, and I want more! This year's Absa Cape Epic was the 12th time it's been held, and has most likely had more media coverage than ever before. A total of 1200 cyclists in 600 teams lined up at the start, and one has a choice of riding as a women-only or men-only team, or mixed.

This was my very first time at Absa Cape Epic (with "Newbie" written on the race number on one's back). This is definitely something of the very hardest I've ever taken part in as a cyclist. And I've never felt so unfairly treated as a woman either, through my 20 years as a professional cyclist, regarding a fair start for elite women. Since this race has now achieved a high UCI status, from which one can gain valuable points, I cannot understand how the UCI can allow the women to have such different starting lines!

The way things are today, the first wave starts at 07:00 every morning. At that point in time, the teams which are leading their classes get to start at the front of group 0. The elite women's and men's teams, men Masters and mixed classes. In group A you have the top 10 from the elite male teams and the top 3 from the women's teams. My partner, Kathrin Stirnemann, and I had a few challenges on the prologue on day 1, so we ended up on 6th place. Therefore we were placed in group B for the first stage.

Kathrin and I didn't push hard to be number 1 in group B as it was quite cold on Monday morning when the first stage was to start. We were positioned quite far back in group B, even though we came there 25 minutes before the start. In other words, we had about 200 riders in front of us, compared to the two girls right at the very front.

When we rolled over the starting line, the first cyclists were already 300 metres down the road, and this continued to be the case every morning. The women at the front together with the best male cyclists had a big advantage over the rest of us, and it was practically impossible to make this up again. In theory, we would have had to cycle twice as fast as the ones at the front if we were to have any possibility to catch up with them. I have to add that I didn't take part in Cape Epic in order to get a top result, so it didn't mean all that much to me, but even so I couldn't help feeling a bit cheated.

There wasn't actually any class for women, there was no standard or fair starting line for the elite women's teams, and there were no genuine or exciting competition situations between the women's teams. I know that many of the women taking part have this stage race as one of the highlights of their cycling season, and they've used lots of time, money and energy throughout the winter to prepare for this tough week in South Africa. I feel they deserve a fairer competitive situation than that which is offered under present conditions.

Outcaster – Not Completed

Right now, I'm at the airport in London on my way home to my dear little boy, Bjørnar, whose birthday it is today. I didn't do the final stage yesterday, as I was without a partner after stage 4. Kathrin was struggling with great pains in her chest on Thursday's stage and had to quit after half the stage as she could hardly breathe.

I did Friday's and Saturday's stages alone as a so-called "outcaster" – a special jersey for everyone who loses their partner for some or other reason, but who would like to complete the race anyway. I was suffering from a sore throat and stuffed nose during the last days, so it was a smart idea to quit before the final stage. Therefore, I am without a completed Cape Epic on my list, and that in itself is a good enough reason to send me back again, some beautiful day.

Adventure On Two Wheels

This adventure has been so wonderful to take part in, on many different levels. Whoever manages to complete this race is seriously tough in my mind – no matter what results they achieve. It's simply extremely difficult, both physically and mentally. One has to be in top physical condition, and one has to be a good technical rider too, as the tracks are very demanding both upwards and downwards. One also has to be able to deal with extreme pains, which one hardly knew were possible to experience in such large doses, on each of the stages.

Lactic acid in one's legs for one hour is bearable and understandable for most people. When the acid is pumping in both arms and legs, one's back is aching after all the bumps and beatings, hour after hour, one has blisters in the palms of one's hands, one's bottom is agony and one has cramps in all one's muscles – that's when one's mind has to be strong in order to stand it.

A total of 739 kilometres, a good 16.000 vertical metres, most of it on gravel roads and single-track, in addition to the extreme heat practically every day, for 8 consecutive days, is not for wusses. Just the amount of dust we're exposed to during this week, is a tough experience for the body. One thing is one's lungs, but then there's the added stress of not actually being able to see the rider directly ahead of you, or the ground on some of the descents.

True Joy And Passion

One of the most inspiring things I experienced in the camp this week, was meeting the cyclists who used close to 10 hours on each stage, and maybe more, right after crossing the finish line. Many of them looked seriously worn out, but still wore big smiles. By then the rest of us had showered, eaten lunch, rested up, had massages, and started to look forward to dinner. These warriors were really tough. I felt that I met many like-minded people, who really love mountain biking, during these days out in the bush outside of Cape Town. A huge inspiration and motivation for a "grown woman" like me.

The organization and everybody behind Absa Cape Epic, all volunteers who do a fantastic job to make this adventure happen, all deserve a huge thanks and great honour. I thank everybody for a powerful experience and hope I can return some day to finish the race. I would also like to direct a personal thanks to Sasol, one of the main sponsors for the race, who has made an unparalleled effort for increased press coverage, also for the women.

I hope and believe that already next year, there will be a separate starting group for the elite women and a separate class for Master women… as it should be, like the men have. It will lead to more excitement and direct competition on each stage of the race with a fair and identical start, women's team against women's team. It will also make it more exciting for the spectators. It might even inspire more women to take part!

Congratulations to everyone who has completed Absa Cape Epic 2015 – an achievement which really deserves a place of honour.

Cyclist's greetings from Gunn-Rita
Multivan Merida Biking Team
www.gunnrita.com
Translation: Crispen T.P. de Lange

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