Massimo Debertolis is no stranger to the Absa Cape Epic. He finished top-ten in the 2008 and 2010 editions, won a stage in the first of those attempts, and returned to claim his Amabubesi membership in 2018, and win the Dimension Data Masters category with Ondrej Fojtik. This year, he has returned with a different team mate; Costa Rican Dax Jaikel. The 7C Wilier pairing could be forgiven for aiming just to finish one of the world’s toughest stage races; Dax is riding with just one human leg. The other; a prosthesis made necessary by a cycling accident involving a truck in 2013.
The 42-year-old’s take on riding bikes, and life, is wonderfully positive; alongside Debertolis, Jaikel has won the BIKE Transalp Masters category in the last two editions of the race, and the pair finished third in Sunday’s short and technical Prologue, a mere 27 seconds off the pace of recent Tour de France pros Erik Dekker and Maarten Tjallingii, and only three minutes off Absa Cape Epic and Grand Tour legends Jose Hermida and Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez.
Is the Masters win a goal for the pair? “No, not at all”, says Dax on the finish line of Stage 1, 111km seemingly punishing him little in spite of finishing third again in the Dimension Data Masters category, and crossing the line with the leading women, Annika Langvad and Anna van der Breggen. “We are here just to finish. This is such a technical course, not like Transalp, so we must do what it takes to get to the end. It is a bit difficult, I don’t have the balance or the power to master the really technical singletrack, and it is a two-headed monster – up and down are equally difficult. But on the open terrain, I am very good.” Debertolis pops his broad smile into the interview; “but you must look, this is the Absa Cape Epic and anything can happen. We are not so far back.” Game on, then.
Team KT18 ramps the Conquer as One vibe up a notch; the first team in Epic history to feature two amputees. Englishman Stuart Croxford damaged his right leg severely when the vehicle he was in hit a land mine in Afghanistan in 2012, before a below-the-knee amputation in 2014 finally opened up a world of prostheses and extreme challenges. He is riding with Jaco van Gass, a former South African but also a fellow serviceman in the British Armed Forces. On his second tour in Afghanistan, he got on the wrong end of a rocket-propelled grenade, resulting (in a catalogue of other injuries) in the loss of his left arm at the elbow. He channelled rebuilding his body, and his life, into athletic extremes most of us would never dream of attempting; the North Pole (unsupported), Mount Denali, attempting Everest, Bronze at the Paralympics and the Race Across America in a team of fellow veterans.
They finished the Prologue handsomely, faster than more than 200 teams in a field of nearly 700. Stage 1 proved to be a tad tougher, as 2 700m of ascent was always going to, but done-and-dusted in a shade over seven and a half hours, losing just five places. “It was tough, but at least we get a hard one out of the way when our legs are still fresh,” said Croxford. “We had to stop a few times to attend to our stumps – drain the connections to the prostheses of sweat – but apart from that, we had as much fun as you can on these events.”
Looking after their contact points is as critical as it is for able-bodied riders making sure they don’t get saddle sores. “When we get back to our accommodation, we need to air them and make sure they dry out, the same with the prostheses. The smallest rubbing sore could end it for us, so we do take care.” Croxford’s leg is an aluminium/carbon fibre amalgam, with an emphasis on simplicity. “We don’t need any extra things to go wrong, so there are no hinges or motors, just carefully-laid carbon.” He runs an SPD-type cleat and pedal system, so Croxford’s bike is quite normal.
Van Gass has a different set of challenges, as the cluttered handlebar shows. On the left is a simple rotating attachment his prosthesis clips in to, with a quick-release mechanism. On the right, it is a little more chaotic, with a single shifter and two brake levers. “We thought of using a single lever to operate both brakes, but then you lose finesse on the steep, technical descents, where you don’t want to use the front brake too much.” So, the rear brake is operated by his middle finger, and the front by his index finger. “Actually, I need to look after my hand, too. There is so much pressure on the descents, operating the two brakes like that.”
Three Absa Cape Epic heroes in the making, making the most of every pedal stroke.