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Gruelling Cape Epic pushes contestants to the limit

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When riders readied themselves at the starting line ahead of the first stage of the eight-day Absa Cape Epic on 20 March, they knew they would be embarking on what’s commonly acknowledged as the most brutal mountain bike stage race in the world.

On top of that, the course designed for this year’s race was the toughest since the event started in 2004, the five South African participants told the SA Jewish Report.

Though this year’s event ended with a death and the highest attrition rate to date, these five riders all managed to complete the race.

They traversed 681km and climbed 16 900m in the Western Cape in spite of the scorching heat, extreme wind, rough terrain, and various other challenges.

Craig Uria suffered some mechanical issues and Jodi Zulberg cracked her rib. Her fellow Cape Epic debutant, 65-year-old Isaac Borochowitz, hasn’t endured anything harder than this race. His teammate, Julian Zetler, a four-time Cape Epic medallist, and ten-time Cape Epic medallist Leon Tobias say it was one of their toughest races.

Cheered on by fantastic support, the five 2022 Cape Epic medallists each formed part of one of the 359 two-person teams that finished the race out of 680 registered teams.

Zulberg and her cycling buddy, Richard Goodlace, concluded the race in 29th place in the mixed category.

A Johannesburg-based life coach and cognitive behavioural therapist, Zulberg hit a rock while descending a steep mountain on stage four of the Cape Epic. “It burst my back tyre, kicking me off the bike over the handlebars and I went flying down the mountain,” she says.

Although she cracked her rib, she was full of adrenaline, so she felt no pain, gritted her teeth, and carried on riding until the end.

“The highlight of the race was the end,” says Borochowitz, a Cape Town-based property developer who took up cycling two decades ago. “It’s the relief, the satisfaction, and the enjoyment that you get from taking on a challenge like that at my age.”

Borochowitz would never have turned down Zetler’s request to follow up their Epic Israel participation with an attempt at the Cape Epic. “I’m hard-headed and stubborn, so don’t tell me I can’t do anything because you’re going to lose,” says Borochowitz.

Even so, he says there’s “no way in hell” that he would have completed the Cape Epic if it wasn’t for Zetler. “He was absolutely magnificent. He has Cape Epic experience. The last two days, and especially the last day, I battled a little bit up the hills. He even pushed my bike up one hill, and I walked. I had no more in the tank. The Cape Epic is designed to drain you mentally and physically.”

For Zetler, a 53-year-old farmer in Stellenbosch, the highlight of the race was just finishing every day, not coming out of it injured or having fallen.

At the Cape Epic, they came 30th out of 56 teams in the Grand Masters category (50 years or older). “We’re not on the level of Leon Tobias,” says Zetler.

Tobias has competed in multiple Ironman events and the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. He won his age group at the Durban Half Ironman in 2015, and represented South Africa as an Olympic distance age group triathlete for many years.

As he does every year for the Cape Epic, he undertook a seven-month training programme and participated in numerous mountain bike races.

His advice? “All you’ve got to do is ride, and you’ve got to ride a mountain bike and ride on rough terrain.”

He and his Cape Epic teammate, Ian Bryan, finished in 11th position in the Grand Masters category.

Having won the Masters category (40 years or older) last year, Uria and his teammate, Andrew Duvenage, came third this year, 53 seconds behind the winner.

“The field in that category this year was pretty tough,” says Uria, a Johannesburg-based chiropractor and seven-time Cape Epic medallist. “We ended up beating ex-Olympic champs and full-time professional athletes. The guys who won this year are probably two of the greatest ever on a mountain bike. They have won the most in the history of the race. They were rivals, and they came together to form a team. So, there was tough competition, especially for us just being working-class family guys who have day jobs.”

Uria, who competed in wakeboarding after his school days, and Zulberg, were both very sporty when they were younger.

The latter had her own gym in her 20s before becoming a competitive runner, marathoner, and Comrades medallist. “Then I fractured my hip. My doctor said to me, ‘Jodes, if you don’t stop cross-training, you’re going to end up in a wheelchair.’ That was when I started cycling and swimming. I participated in Ironman [events] all over the world. I won Ironman Israel and then stopped enjoying the swim.”

She turned her focus to cycling, winning a gold and silver medal at the 2017 Maccabi Games and even completing Munga, a non-stop race for 1 000km from Bloemfontein to Cape Town. “In the Munga, you ride day and night through the desert on your own, whereas in the Cape Epic, you’ve got a lot of support,” she says.

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