If you ride a mountain bike in the Western Cape, there’s a damn fine chance you’ve heard of the Hanekom brothers. If you’ve tackled either a Cape Epic or the new Tankwa Trek in the last couple of years, you will have experienced some of their trailbuilding skills, toiled through their majestic farms in the Witzenberg Valley and no doubt considered plucking a succulent apple from their orchards. – By Nic Lamond
Unless you’re mixing it up at the pointy end of the field in a race, however, you’re unlikely to have ridden with them. Not only are these kings of the Koue Bokkeveld full-time farmers, supporting large communities on their land and caring for their own growing young families, but on two wheels they are devastatingly fast.
Their fierce pace-setting and smooth technical skills have caught many professional teams by surprise. The younger of the two at 34 years old Sakkie’s personality reflects his riding style. He is quick and explosive. He can accelerate from the starter’s gun with the best of them. And when combined with Hannes’ (37) methodical and powerful diesel engine and their mental toughness, they are unstoppable.
“Sakkie has a unfair amount of talent – cycling comes very naturally to him,” Hannes says. “He also is a very good tactician.”
“His strength is definitely any race over five hours,” Sakkie reveals of his older brother. “He’s a bit like a Duracell bunny after five hours. And also on very long climbs.”
Sakkie (Izak) and Hannes Hanekom are not twins although there’s a good chance you won’t know how to tell them apart. They share the same sandy hair and boyish good looks. And because they ride together so much they are often side-by-side in the peloton or paired up in a stage race. They work together every day, although they live on separate farms a few kilometres apart. According to Hannes they are out also on their bikes together “on average five times a week.”
Having grown up riding mountain bikes since the birth of the sport in South Africa in the early 90s, they know each others’ strengths and weaknesses intimately and can finish each others’ sentences.
“It’s almost telepathic sometimes,” Sakkie admits. “It’s great riding with Hannes as we have more or less the same abilities – we downhill the same, and climb the same. During the winter months, he motivates me a lot when I’m not in the mood for a ride (and vice versa), which happens a lot where we live, because of the cold and wet climate.”
As well as their own individual achievements on the bike their strong brotherly bond has carried Sakkie and Hannes to numerous top-10 results in mountain bike stage races throughout South Africa, and a top-15 Absa Cape Epic in 2013.
So imagine my unfortunate privilege in breaking up one of the most successful amateur pairings in the country for the 2014 Cape Epic!
The plan was partly hatched late last year at the 2013 Wines2Whales – a three-day stage race from Lourensford Wine Estate to Hermanus, outside Cape Town. Sakkie’s wife Andrelize was pregnant with their third boy and due just a few weeks before the 2014 Epic. So Hannes casually mentioned that he was looking for an Epic partner…
After a few months of deliberations we were locked in. Hannes and I would ride his sixth and my eighth Cape Epic as a team. Our busy work schedules and the two hours travel time between us meant we would run into each other only a few times before the Meerendal Prologue on March 23. Mostly at the WP Road League races. This gave me little time to brush up on my abysmal grasp of Afrikaans, and I worried that the Hanekoms’ usual ‘telepathic’ communication would be reduced to basic sign-language between Hannes and I. Although Hannes’ English was streets ahead of my Afrikaans, he is also far more comfortable in his mother tongue. Oh well…
Then, in mid-February I got a last-minute call-up to ride the Tankwa Trek a three-day stage race through the Koue Bokkeveld – the Hanekoms’ backyard. A rare chance to experience the amazing hand-built trails the brothers have criss-crossing their farms. I was excited to tag along and see the boys in action in their natural habitat. Although Hannes was barely well-enough to ride after picking up a stomach bug, I was welcomed into their family home like a long-lost relative. I woke up before each start at 5am to the smell of fresh coffee. Cinnamon oats swimming in butter greeted me as I walked into the kitchen. My riding kit was washed and dried daily. Hell, I even found a nougat on my pillow at night!
The riding was truly spectacular and the race was a wonderful challenge, with a strong cast of pros featuring many of the Cape Epic’s top overseas and local contenders such as Karl Platt, Urs Huber, Frantisek Rabon, Erik Kleinhans and Darren Lill. Sakkie and Hannes were responsible for some of the most scenic trails you can hope to ride on fat tyres and the feedback from the sold-out Tankwa Trek field was a massive thumbs up.
But it was behind-the-scenes that I got the most profound insight to the lives of these two tough riders. Staying on the Hanekom’s farm, far from the tented village I was introduced to the legendary hospitality of their incredibly large and supportive family network.
The true source of the Hanekom brothers’ ceaseless energy is undoubtedly their tight-knit family group and supporting friends. The chief co-ordinator is Hannes’ wife Bea. She effortlessly masterminded the entertainment of about 25 children throughout the weekend – not all of them belonging to her! Yet she also nursed her sick husband and took care of a full house of visitors.
As the beers flowed freely after each stage I got a sense of how well-respected the Hanekoms are – not just for their riding prowess, but for the huge contribution they make to the local farming community. Despite all this attention their generosity and humility remains intact. As Sakkie puts it succinctly, “if one wants to achieve something, you have to make time. Work, family, cycling… repeat!”
Suddenly the pieces fell into place. This is how it is meant to be. This was mountain biking in all its glory. A kinship bound by a mutual love of bikes and appreciation for the outdoors. Of inclusiveness and family. Amen, brother.
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*Originally published in TREAD Issue 28, 2014 – All rights reserved