At this year's eighth annual Absa Cape Epic mountain bike stage race in South Africa, the women's division is set to be as exciting as the men's with riders such as Hanlie Booyens, Hannele Steyn and Esther Süss.
Booyens, 37, who lives and trains in Stellenbosch, will be participating with teammate Thea-Mari van der Sandt as Team Absa aBreast. Booyens finished first in the Ladies division in 2009 and 2004, in second place in 2005 and fourth in 2008. She was third in the TransAlp in 2004 and was South Africa's cross country champion in both 2003 and 2004.
"Every year I promise myself, my friends, family and business partner never to do it again," said Booyens of the Cape Epic. "Then someone holds out the carrot, and I simply can't help myself. Such a sucker! Truth is the years that I've skipped it I just felt left out. You miss the vibe, the build up, the familiar faces. But, I never miss the blue loos though."
Booyens will ride to raise awareness for the JAG Foundation this year. "Our goal is to raise awareness and funds. Thea-Mari and I come from very different backgrounds in terms of the event. I've raced it four times, winning twice, coming a close second and a tough fourth. She's a complete novice.
"To bring these two worlds together within one team is going to be a huge challenge for both of us. Fortunately we've both done many crazy things that have taught us how to suffer - that will help a lot when the going gets really tough. But I believe having a bigger goal than just personal gains will be our strongest asset."
Booyens' advice to her partner and other participants in the Absa Cape Epic is simple. "Before the race, ride, ride, ride and ride some more until mid-March. It's all about getting use to being on the bike. And during the race you need to break it up into little bite sized chunks and wolf it down with as much zest as you can muster. It's going to hurt, you're going to suffer, you'll probably hate your bike, your sponsor and even your partner but in the end it'll be worth it!"
Booyens and Van der Sandt do not train together often. "Thea-Mari lives in George, and I'm from Stellenbosch. We had seven days in December when we did an awareness campaign and rode our own seven Mini Summits. We had great fun and got to know each other a lot better. We've also done an Absa training camp earlier this month which helped a lot."
"For me personally the year starts with a lot of racing (Totalsport Challenge, Attekwas, Trail Run series, 24hours, Xcountry Champs, Xterra etc.) so I try to survive during the week just doing maintenance stuff and then race hard over weekends. Because I'm not racing the Absa Cape Epic to win, I'm doing things a little differently than I would if I was trying to go for a podium finish. I try to follow a nice varied and healthy diet and then wash it all down with way too much Coke. Just make sure you get good carbs, lean protein and lots of fruit and vegs."
She also reckons it is important to be very familiar with one's equipment, kit and nutrition before race day. "Look after your body and respect it - you're asking a lot from it! Eat well and get out of your riding kit ASAP after each stage. Remember it's a huge privilege to be fit and healthy and able to ride this race, so appreciate every moment out there even when it hurts like hell. And be kind to your partner! The most important ingredient to finish this race is a positive mindset."
An architect by profession, Booyens enjoys sport in her free time. "Being outside - either riding, running, hiking or simply watching waves breaking or flames playing in a fire is what keeps me really happy. This year I have a couple of other races in the pipeline that would be nice to do well in. I'd like to be a good architect as well and keep building our practice. In the end, I just want to look back and feel I've made the best of each opportunity and every moment."
The JAG Foundation aims to give young people opportunities and pride in themselves, through sport and education at grass roots level. "Their programmes like Mighty Metres go beyond physical exercise as it encourages healthy daily habits and goal setting. There are already almost 20,000 kids on the program. I believe that through an organisation like JAG we have the ability to unlock the door to a better future for all in this country. I feel honoured to be able to ride the Absa Cape Epic for such a worthy cause."
The Cape Epic will take place from March 27 to April 3 over 707km with 14,550m of climbing. Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for full coverage.