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CHAIN REACTION

Epic encounters for Overberg village as mountain bike race puts Stanford on the map

Epic encounters for Overberg village as mountain bike race puts Stanford on the map
A view of scenic Stanford on the eve of the Cape Epic. (Photo: Richard Bath)

It was flags, whistles and a helluva lot of noisy cheering when the village took centre stage during the recent 2023 Absa Cape Epic.

Stanford, a tiny, centuries-old heritage village tucked away in the foothills of the Overberg in the Western Cape, might never be quite the same again after more than 1,000 Cape Epic cyclists dashed through its normally quiet leafy byways, alive with early autumn fynbos.

The locals are usually an understated lot, not seeking anything more than peace and quiet in their quaint rural hideaway. But on this occasion, they came out at sunup in their numbers — shouting out welcomes, noisier than a dam full of raucous toads, and frantically waving flags made for the occasion.

Festive wasn’t the word. Nothing quite like this had happened before on the banks of the Klein River, said to be the shortest from source to mouth on the planet.

Newly arrived owners of La Cantina, a Mexican restaurant, were persuaded to open their venue a month early to cater for the crowds of visitors who streamed along Queen Victoria Street to witness Stage 2 of the Epic on Human Rights Day.

They ran out of margaritas. But if they were looking for a bit of publicity to get their restaurant on the map, this was the stuff of dreams.

A French cyclist at a watering stop on the Village Green was asked how he liked Stanford.

“Magnifique,” he said with a grin, raising his hand in a salute.

The Italian cycling team, on learning the village had an Italian restaurant voted among the top 10 internationally, said they would be coming back.

“This place is a big secret. We never knew it even existed.”

Now they do. The Cape Epic is the most televised mountain bike race in the world and, with a huge “Stanford” painted on the heritage Village Green, who could miss it?

Alexander Henning, Stanford

A study in concentration, Alexander Henning leaves
 Zesty Lemon during the 2023 Cape Epic, riding for the Workforce team and raising awareness for Kids Kicking Cancer. (Photo: Supplied)

Sarah James, a 70-something doyenne of Stanford who has lived in the village for nearly 20 years, says she has never seen anything quite like it.

“It’s normally quite a sleepy village. We don’t like much fuss and we’ve certainly never been on a world stage.”

The evening before, James cycled across the narrow floating bridge especially erected across the Klein River for the Epic.

“I couldn’t resist it. I wanted to be the first to try out the bridge, praying I wouldn’t land up in the river. I thought I had ridden across with nobody looking, but no such luck. I’ve been teased ever since.”

Early the next morning, the intrepid James, who once drove the length of Africa on her own, was in her two-person pedalo, paddling up the river to the bridge where a flotilla of bigger boats greeted the cyclists as they traversed the same bridge at speed, with only one bike and rider falling into the water.

“For us country folk it was like being at the Olympic Games,” she said.

On the 200-year-old Village Green — one of the last authentic village greens in the country — it was also a day to remember for the hundreds of children who had gathered to show off their own athletic skills and meet the cyclists up close and personal.

“You cannot believe the amount of goodwill that comes from an event like this,” said Anchelle Damon, a community youth worker. “Everyone is excited. They will be talking about this forever. And then, when we saw a replay on TV with Stanford so prominent, it was — well, wow!”

Stanford, for those who are not familiar with the Overberg, is a village steeped in history, a short hop on a brilliant new road from the better-known town of Hermanus and two hours from Cape Town.

Founded in 1857, it was named after Sir Robert Stanford, a British soldier in the Cape who, on his retirement from military service in 1838, bought the Kleine Valley estate. Stanford is known for its beautifully preserved and renovated Cape Victorian- and Edwardian-style houses and buildings.

Village elders such as Bea Whittaker are hoping the party atmosphere that greeted the cyclists will bring even more energy to the village.

“It is a village like no other, believe me.”  

From Stanford, the cyclists continued their gruelling marathon across country, some of it as rugged as a moonscape, before finishing in Cape Town.

On leaving the Zesty Lemon — an estate as old as the village itself — cyclists waved goodbye.

“We’ll be back,” were their words as they disappeared at speed over a rugged limestone outcrop, alight in the scorching afternoon sun. 

Some interesting facts

The first Cape Epic was in 2004.

Riders must race in pairs, always within two minutes of each other on the course. That’s not so easy with many single tracks.

The race covers about 700km with 17,250m of climbing, and is split into an opening prologue stage followed by seven full stages. The stages feature dry, dusty, gravel sections, technical descents and punishing climbs. To make racing even more gruelling, temperatures are high and there is little protection from the African sun.

This year’s overall winners in the men’s and women’s categories were Matt Beers and Christopher Blevins (Toyota-Specialized-Ninety­One), and Vera Looser and Kim le Court (Efficient Infiniti Insure). DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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