MOUNTAINS OF RESOLVE
Wakefield and Lill’s Epic battle encapsulated the beautiful brutality of the race
The Absa Cape Epic has become the premier team mountain bike race in the world due to the testing course, spectacular scenery and the sheer competitive spirit of the athletes both professional and amateur.
Warning: This article contains graphic images.
Every rider, and every team in the Absa Cape Epic, from the best mountain bikers in the world and former road cycling greats, to dedicated amateurs have a multitude of “war stories” from the race.
No one comes through it unscathed, and no one is immune to mishaps and tribulations – it’s what makes the race the best of its kind in the world. The terrain, the heat, the wet and the pace ensure a small lack of concentration, or a dollop of bad luck, can result in agony.
But it’s hard to think of a duo that suffered, yet also prospered as much as women’s overall silver medallists Candice Lill and Amy Wakefield.
It was during the first stage of the 2023 Epic, where Wakefield, partner to Lill, and one of the pre-race favourites, suffered a shock injury.
Coming around on a corner on a trail in an orchard, a stray branch caught Wakefield in the bicep and ripped her arm open. It was a sickening sight, with blood and muscle exposed. It seemed their race was over before it had properly begun.
We made a plan with some duct tape, taping the huge gash closed for the rest of the stage.
“At about 35km into the stage, Amy caught a branch which completely opened up her whole arm,” Lill recalled.
“When I saw it, I thought we were going to stop the race… that there was no way she’d be able to continue. But, being stubborn Amy, she said ‘no way are we stopping, we are carrying on’.
“We made a plan with some duct tape, taping the huge gash closed for the rest of the stage. We then slowly but surely made our way back and overtook both teams in front of us. We rode away from Team NinetyOne-Songo-Specialized [the Argentinian/Czech duo of Sofia Gomez Villafane Katerina Nash] about 60km in, and kept it strong and consistent to the line.”
Wakefield, who said she had endured some health issues leading up to the race, must have thought the cycling gods were against her.
“The orchard has been freshly pruned and the branches were quite thick, and I didn’t see one that was sticking out a bit further than the others,” Wakefield said.
“It was a freak accident. I didn’t even fall off the bike, but came to a grinding halt. I pulled open my sleeve and was in utter shock – my bicep was working, but the cut was very deep.
“Suddenly I thought about all the preparation for this race and how important it was for me, and decided there was no way I was pulling out unless I absolutely had to.
“I asked Candice for duct tape, and felt this wave of nausea and dizziness – I couldn’t even look at the wound. I held the wound closed while Candice ‘gooi-ed’ the duct tape around my arm.
“We carried on riding and caught [eventual winners] Kim [Le Court] and Vera [Looser] sooner than expected. I realised, if they were only a minute behind when we [the leading women’s teams] were all together, that we had a chance of taking the stage.”
For Wakefield though, the end of the stage was just the start of the next period of suffering.
The field dressing had served its purpose for a few hours, but she needed a full medical check-up. She also had to consult a plastic surgeon to consider her next steps and had surgery that night to repair some of the damage.
That led to the night in hospital as she was patched up, resulting in only a few hours’ fitful sleep before tackling the brute of stage two over 116km with 1850m of climbing.
Naturally the pair rode with less aggression on stage two, rather consolidating their position than suffering huge time losses.
“It was a really long day with a lot of long district roads. We used it as a ‘recovery day’; we did not want to make any moves or do anything except defend the orange jersey and look after my health,” Wakefield said.
The conditions were even more insane. It really was tough at points – there were times when we couldn’t even ride our bikes because they were so clogged with mud, and we would have to just walk and push.
“I had less than four hours of sleep as I was in theatre for at least an hour last night having surgery, so I needed to look after my body. We did not need to do anything except defend the jerseys. We raced very conservatively and finished third on the stage.”
Despite the situation they maintained the leaders’ orange jersey for another day. Another small win.
Wheels come off
A few days later, when Wakefield and Lill signed in for stage 6, they held a 13:53 lead over Le Court and Looser in spite of their earlier problems.
There are no “routine” days in the Epic, but they were confident of holding the lead over the 78km sixth stage, despite its 2,500m of vertical climbing.
But in the Epic, there is always potential disaster around the corner, over a mound or waiting through a donga. And as luck would have it, heavy rain on stage 6 made it even more treacherous.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Mountain bike racer Candice Lill fell in love with cycling as a toddler, when she took her dad on a marathon ride
About 35km into the stage the leaders were going well and in control when a flying rock caught Wakefield’s wheel, slashing the rear tyre and bending the rim. She was forced to ride her crippled machine on a bare rim for 8km before the next technical zone, where a replacement could be found.
The physical effort to ride that distance was bad enough, but it resulted in a 25-minute stop at the technical zone to make the repairs. While the pair frantically repaired Wakefield’s stricken bike, their overall lead evaporated and they were helpless to stop it.
“The conditions were even more insane. It really was tough at points – there were times when we couldn’t even ride our bikes because they were so clogged with mud, and we would have to just walk and push our bikes… it felt like they weighed 40kg,” Lill said.
“Losing orange is sad and a disappointment. We were with Kim [Le Court] and Vera [Looser] until about 35km.
“A rock was flicked up and slammed into Amy’s back wheel, blowing the tyre and damaging the rim. The rim was damaged beyond repair and I actually did not know what to do, because I’ve never had this kind of mechanical before.
“In the end, we tried to put a tube in and tried to fix it, but it just didn’t hold. Amy had to ride on the rim to the next tech zone and we lost a huge chunk of time.
“We got a brand-new wheel though, and I said to Ams, like with so many other moments in this race, we’ve just got to put this behind us and carry on and do our best to the line. You can’t get hung up on anything that happens during this race.”
The pair lost 39:06 to Le Court and Looser on the day, even though they managed to come fourth on the stage. But the chance of overall victory was gone.
The following day, after crossing the line at Val de Vie at the end of stage 7 to finish second overall, 32:24 behind Le Court and Looser, Wakefield was able to reflect on their epic Epic.
“I am still trying to process what an exceptional week it has been,” Wakefield said.
“We defied all odds to even start, with our partnership being solidified a mere week before the Prologue. We ended up creating a story that has inspired thousands of people and the support we have felt has been immense.
“And we got to wear the orange jersey for most of the race. We are super proud of everything we overcame and achieved, and are eternally grateful for everyone who backed and supported us along the way.”
Sometimes, coming second is a victory. DM
1st: Efficient Infiniti Insure – Kim Le Court (Mus) & Vera Looser (Nam) – 33:11:37
2nd: e-FORT.net | SeattleCoffeeCo – Amy Wakefield (RSA) and Candice Lill (RSA) – +32:24
3rd: NinetyOne-Songo-Specialized – Sofia Gomez Villafane (Arg) & Katerina Nash (Cze) – +43:17