Two of South African mountain bike racing’s pioneers have teamed up to contest the 2024 Absa Cape Epic. Twenty years after they contested the first edition, Hanlie Booyens and Michelle Lombardi will tackle the iconic race as teammates – partly in honour of their lost friends, partly to celebrate their friendship and partly because they still can.
By Sean Badenhorst
The first Cape Epic was a journey into the unknown. An eight-day 788km race from Knysna to Stellenbosch saw 546 mountain bikers line up to take on something incredibly challenging. Hanlie and Michelle were on that first start line. And by the time the race reached the finish, with 463 finishers, Hanlie, racing with Sharon Laws, won the women’s title and Michelle, racing with Adventure Racing teammate, Philip Swanepoel, finished fourth in the Mixed division.
Twenty years and 19 editions later, the Cape Epic has shaped mountain biking in South Africa, has become the global flagship mountain bike stage race; and it has become an event that’s molded, almost entirely for the better, the lives and lifestyles of many.
After that first Cape Epic it was understood what kind of challenge the event presented and riders started to train and prepare accordingly. Some driven by a sense of adventure, some driven by passion, some driven by intrigue and some driven by something deep and spiritual. Regular really long rides, multi-day training camps and bike and gear adaption helped forge bonds between riders who were training together for the big annual test.
It was in this early Cape Epic period that Hanlie and Philip connected and fell in love. Sadly, Philip was killed in a helicopter crash in 2007. Hanlie and Sharon, who had become good friends, teamed up again for the Cape Epic in 2009 and won that edition too. Tragically, Sharon succumbed to cancer in 2017.
In 2005, for the second edition of the Cape Epic on that classic point-to-point route from Knysna to Stellenbosch, Hanlie and Michelle teamed up. They won three stages and finished second overall.
Hanlie and Michelle’s team for the 2024 Cape Epic is called for the Toyota Memory Keepers in honour of Philip and Sharon. They’re appreciating where they are by going back to where they started on this journey. They’re planning to retrace much of the route of the first two editions of the Cape Epic during their training.
This will be Hanlie’s eighth Cape Epic. After becoming one of the first national mountain biking champions in the early 1990s, Michelle’s racing focus shifted after the first two editions of the Cape Epic to various forms of racing, including Adventure Racing, X-Terra (off-road triathlon) and some marathon mountain bike racing. She did also take some time off to start a family. She has a daughter, Megan, who is in the USA on a tennis scholarship and her son, Matt Lombardi, is the current South African Enduro MTB champion.
A total of 64 women started that first Cape Epic (in the Women and Mixed divisions). That was 11% of the field. While the race has undergone major evolutionary changes over the past two decades, the percentage of women tackling the race hasn’t really changed much. Of the 1448 riders that started the 2023 Cape Epic, 146 were women – 10.08%. As women that were among those Cape Epic pioneers and who have experienced the changes to mountain biking over the past 20 years, Hanlie and Michelle are well placed to give an opinion on this topic.
We asked them a few questions:
How many Cape Epics have you started? Seven and I completed all of them with my partners.
You are the only South African woman to have won more than one Cape Epic. This is obviously a great honour, but surely you feel it’s time for this stat to change? Yes, it is hard to believe that stat, but it is perhaps an indication of the work, consistency and luck that is required to win an Epic. Every year I root for the South Africans in the event to hit the mark. I think of Robyn de Groot, Candice Lill and Mariska Strauss as riders who have been very close but just had bad luck and misfortune at some points. It will happen that I am sure of.
Why do you feel South African women have been unable to win the Cape Epic more frequently? It is a good question. We must remember this event attracts some of the very top racers from across the world, so to win it now is a massive challenge. Matt Beers has been extraordinary in the men’s race, so it can be done.
How do you think this can be changed? Hard work, complete commitment, a very strong partnership, good sponsors, great advisors and a lot of self-belief. I think sometimes the SA ladies are a little cautious and conservative, allowing the international teams to set the rules of engagement. I really liked the way Speed Company raced in the Men’s race over the last two years. We need our ladies to believe and then really go for it.
Do you feel that as the race has changed to have shorter, more technical routes and bikes have become faster and more stable, that it’s got easier or more difficult to complete an Absa Cape Epic? I think it was and still is one huge achievement to complete the Epic. Especially when it comes to racing. You always race as hard as you possibly can against athletes with similar equipment. Yes, these days the time spent out there is shorter, but the risk of crashes and mechanicals is higher. So, you must always be switched on. The ruggedness of the route is super demanding on the entire body and managing your resources is just as important as it was 20 years ago.
Tell us about your sponsors for this edition of the Absa Cape Epic? We are very fortunate to have Toyota onboard as our main sponsor. They are very accommodating and embraced our story and mission. They understand that we will not be racing but riding and remembering. We are also fortunate that Enduren (supplements), Squirt (lubricants) and Salomon (off-bike footwear) have invested in the next chapter of our journey.
Will you be returning to the 2004 race route for some training – and nostalgia? We want to revisit the 2004 route as part of our base training in mid-January. Riding from Knysna to Spier. We plan to sleep in the same towns as we did 20 years ago and follow the basic line of the inaugural Epic. It is an opportunity to train while recalling some of the classic stories of this life-changing event. We want to invite others to follow us and share some of their 2004 Epic tales and pictures on our social media posts. Perhaps we should invite Dr. Evil himself to join us for stage 1!
What are you most looking forward to with this project? It is quite a personal journey for me. I made friends for life through the joys and hardships of competing in this event. I’ve lost some of those friends… This is an opportunity to honor them and keep their memories alive. I see it as a privilege to still be able to participate in the Epic after 20 years and I look forward to embracing that gift and make the absolute most of it.
How many Cape Epics have you completed? Started two and finished them both – the first two 2004 and 2005. If we finish this one, I will probably be one of the longest Amabubesi candidates.
You still feature in the top few places overall at some mountain bike races. Have you continued to train with as much commitment as when you raced full time? I retired from racing in 2011 due to ongoing lower back problems. I have never run since then, but I could ease my way back into cycling. Commitment to training has thus since then been highly dependent on how my back was doing. I’ve learnt to manage it over the years and train as much as I can within those parameters. The mindset is more about enjoyment than racing, which is how we are going to tackle the 2024 Cape Epic. We have many years of experience between us, and we hope to carry that through to a successful Epic, celebrating 20 years of memories.
Despite various efforts in the past decade to make a difference for women, there are still relatively small numbers of women that tackle the Cape Epic. Why do you think this is? It is an incredibly tough physical race where the ladies must endure everything the men do. Naturally, as with most physically tough sports, there will always be more men taking part. It is also very expensive. I think the men gain corporate sponsors through business contacts far easier than women do, which I think accounts for many of the entries. That is why we are extremely grateful to Toyota that is willing to sponsor two veteran ladies who hopefully have a good story to tell.
Should we be trying to change anything or just accept that it’s one of those events that will always be heavily male dominated? I think Absa are doing a lot to try and get more ladies involved, especially development ladies and the reduced-price UCI team entries will make sure that the more competitive ladies can afford to enter. I don’t think there will ever be equal representation. There are just way more men than ladies in mountain biking in general.
Wines2Whales has made great strides with its women-specific race. We were part of that again this year and it was amazing to see the number of ladies teams on the start line. All age categories were made to feel special, and it encourages older woman to take part in ladies’ teams throughout the various age categories. That should eventually spill over into the Epic too.
Has the decision to contest the 2024 Cape Epic given you fresh motivation? Deciding to do the Epic is a big decision! Yes, it adds motivation. I think most of us operate better with a goal to work towards. I’ve never lacked motivation but Epic forces you to up your game. Being forced to spend more hours riding your bike? Who could ask for more? Without the pressure of racing and performing, we are determined to enjoy the process and celebrate 20 years of the Cape Epic.
Do you still get recognised as Michelle Lombardi, the athlete, or is it more ‘Matt Lombardi’s Mom’? Ha ha! That depends on the age of the person doing the recognising. Probably a bit of both, but I’m just as happy to be either. Matt and I did Wines2Whales together last year and it was one of my favorite experiences ever! He really looked after me and I was super impressed with what a good partner he was to his mom.
What bikes will you and Hanlie be riding at the 2024 Cape Epic? I am riding my Scott Spark with 120mm travel front and back! I love the extra travel for the downhills, and it locks out solid, so no problem with the climbing. Hanlie has a Trek Supercaliber. She prefers a lighter, more solid climbing bike. I still need to work on her dropper post! She’s not convinced. I’m trying so hopefully within the next few months she will see the light.
What are you most looking forward to with this project? Riding the Cape Epic with my favourite partner for the first time since 2005! So much of the Epic is about partnership and we have that part. Training and preparing for a big challenge are always satisfying, so I look forward to that. But the whole thing is about remembering and appreciating that we were there at the very first Epic and realising how incredibly privileged we are to still be doing it in the 20th year. I think that is very special. We hope to make our sponsors proud, especially Toyota who have made this dream possible for us.
It’s been called the Untamed African MTB Race since the first edition in 2004. Yes, completing it can be considered taming it. However, there’s an attraction that keeps on rising, no matter how many editions of it you have conquered. It’s not necessarily the race itself that’s untamed, it’s the spirit of those who are drawn to the Cape Epic that remains untamed. Committed, goal-driven humans are never fully satisfied and always seek more.
Michelle was a multiple South African XCO and Downhill champion in the early 1990s, when the sport was still young. She’s as much of a racing pioneer and a champion as one can ever be. Hanlie is only South African to have won more than one Cape Epic women’s title and is still the South African stage-win record holder (18 stage wins).
For Hanlie and Michelle, two athletes in their 50s with illustrious racing palmares, there’s good reason to sit back and reflect proudly on impressive racing careers. But that would be out of character. As you read this, they’re either riding or recovering from a ride as they prepare their bodies, minds and souls for another shot at a race that’s played a significant role in a sport that’s dominated their lives.