They say it’s a man’s world. And when looking around a mountain bike race village it’s difficult to argue. In the biggest races the average man to woman ratio is 10 to 1. Equal prize money has evened the playing field, but arguably only for the very top riders. For the amateur women – who hold down full-time jobs, fit training and racing in, alongside family, working and social commitments – the sport still has a long way to go. These are the stories of five such riders.
“I do really feel that women are just so under-represented in cycling, just look at the elite ladies start list compared to the men’s!” Nicola Freitas explained, as to how the story came about. To her point there are 58 UCI men’s teams slated to start the 2023 Absa Cape Epic on Sunday, 19 March. Meanwhile 13 UCI women’s teams will start the race. Not all of the men in the field are full-time professional athletes either mind you. Many work part-time or virtually full-time to support themselves and their racing aspirations.
“I felt like such an imposter looking at that start list!” Freitas emphasised. “It makes me feel like I got there by some kind of fluke and am NOT fit/good/strong enough to be there. It would be great to just normalise ‘normal woman racing at a higher level. And they are so good! Like, Robyn [Williams] and Ila [Stow] and Linda [Hitchings] are just incredible – they were right there with some of the professional riders at the Imbuko Big5 Challenge. Tarryn [Povey] and Kylie [Hanekom] too.
“Nicola really summarised the feeling so well!” Williams reinforced. “I feel like an imposter on the start line too, but really want to be there, especially to show other women they can do it too.” It helps that this current group of working heroines are an inclusive and accepting bunch. Off the bike at least…
Though they’re all too polite to confess to wanting to beat each other while racing. “They’re so friendly and approachable,” Freitas, who recently moved down from Gqeberha and entrenched herself in the Stellenbosch cycling community, stated. “They make racing till you almost cry look fun. And it is fun with them…”
A strange kind of type two fun. A fun every cyclist or endurance sport enthusiast, regardless of their gender, can identify with. There’s a sanity in the suffering. A clarity that comes from long hours of discomfort which spills into all other aspects of your life.
“Cycling is the rock in my life, it has been a constant in various forms since the bug first bit in 2013,” Hanekom, who works in the heart of the cycling industry for Bike Hub, pointed out. “It’s what I turn to; to calm down when I am sad, anxious or stressed. It is what gets me out of bed most mornings. It’s what I look forward to every weekend, and through a convoluted series of events it is also the industry in which I now work.”
“Cycling has seen me through some incredibly stressful times, and even at the lowest points in my memory, but it has also brought me immeasurable joy. The sense of freedom I get from riding through remote and beautiful countryside, and the calm that comes from pushing myself until I am close to tears, and am so tired I can’t think straight anymore, are what keep me coming back again and again.”
“I have met the most amazing people, and found ‘my tribe’, in the women I race with,” Hanekom smiled. “I have so much respect for each and every one of them. They are smart, strong, and resilient, and are role models to me in terms of work/life/family balance. I’ve laughed, cried, and bled with them. We’ve all had to sacrifice time, and frustrate partners, friends, and relatives with our training. We’ve hustled, hacked, begged, and spent far more than we can afford, to get to the start line, and yet are incredibly privileged to even be in a position to do so. I realise not everyone is so fortunate. We’ve had good days, and bad days, and sat in total silence at breakfast before a race starts. We share war stories and race reports, and back each other no matter what, because we ‘get’ it.”
Rethe Mostert is a new addition to the group that have been racing against one another since the Momentum Medical Scheme Cape Pioneer Trek, presented by Biogen, in September 2022. Mostert lined up alongside Freitas at the M&G Investments PE Plett in February and will partner her fellow doctor at the Absa Cape Epic too. “I started cycling in November 2018, in Port Shepstone,” Mostert reflected. My Husband, Marius, and I were proper newbies. But the bug bit hard and we even got a coach, Andrew Hill in 2019. My first race was in 2020 Wartburg 60 kilometre, then covid hit…”
“I fell pregnant during covid, but still kept on training until about 36 weeks. Even though some women frown upon you being so active while pregnant, it really kept me sane during those times when we were so restricted!”
“In October 2021 we moved to George, where I’m a full-time doctor at George Hospital’s Ophthalmology Department,” Mostert continued. “Our next big race was FNB Wines2Whales that year. We raced the Pinotage event and finished first in the Mixed category. Needless to say, we loved it!”
Mostert also has to balance racing with motherhood. “I'm also a mother of a very busy 2-year-old,” she pointed out. “And still deciding if I want to be a mother of two kids… which is a decision I need to make in the next year or so, as it’ll certainly affect my ability to train and race in the near future.”
“Being a full-time doctor, while also trying to be a good mom and wife when I'm home, I find it hard to train more than 8 to 10hours per week,” Mostert noted. “Though I would love to train more, but realistically this is what I can maintain long-term. I enjoy the opportunities to ride competitively, even in smaller local races. It is sometimes hard to find a balance between being a cyclist and your normal life. To not feel guilty when you spend time on yourself, going out for a long ride, or doing a full week of racing, for example the Absa Cape Epic. But cycling has been good for my mental and physical health.”
“In April 2022 I contracted Pulmonary Tuberculosis, so I’ve seen how not being able to train affects my mental health. Fortunately, I recovered fully with no permanent damage to my lungs.”
Another rider in the group who stressed her lungs, is Juanita Mackenzie. Though for her cycling offered a path to health, rather than back to it. “The truth is I gave up smoking and took up cycling six years ago,” Mackenzie confessed. “I needed a healthy addiction. Some might disagree on how healthy bikes are… It’s an expensive habit after all.”
“I am a midwife by trade and I work hard at all hours. There have been times when I have been at the start line and had to leave to deliver a baby. I am currently taking a break though and really enjoying the freedom doing so has afforded me. I still work as I own my own business, but it’s more balanced. At the end of the day riding a bike is an absolute privilege and every time I line-up I feel grateful that I get to ride and enjoy everything riding bikes entails.”
“It’s more than just riding the bike too,” she grinned. “It’s the people you meet, connections made, banter on and off the bike, the comradery, the challenge and overcoming fear and always pushing the limits of what your body can do. I’m very partial to a good sufferfest.”
“I’m competitive by nature. But I’m also a realist. If I have put it all out there on the day regardless of outcome, then that’s a great day in my books. Winning looks different for everyone. For some people just showing up is a win. I like to think I ride my bike with similar principles I live my life by and this quote I found when I first started riding sums it up so well: ‘Speed matters, but not as much as joy. Joy matters but not as much as honour. So, take your pulls. Share your sustenance. Be kind and empathetic to the fading rider - and to the finest riders too. And be honest but courageous when you fall apart.’”
Being courageous also means asking for sponsorships. Which is a foreign concept to most amateur riders. But it’s necessary for those who want to race more competitively. Race entry fees, replacing worn components, travel, accommodation and sports massages all add up. “It’s been a struggle!” Williams, who is racing the Absa Cape Epic alongside Linda Hitchings, sighed. “We found it really difficult to find financial support for the Absa Cape Epic. It’s harder because we have so little to offer in terms of potential media exposure. If you’re not racing for the podium places, you don’t get coverage. Which is fine, but it presents a challenge for growing the sport.”
“Normally before a big race I’ll scramble to find some financial sponsorship to cover the multitude of costs that come with racing a multi-day stage race,” Williams elaborated. “But I just didn’t have the capacity this time around as my husband is starting his own business and so I’ve been having to learn how to build websites and booking systems, as well as help devise marketing strategies. This is on top of my full-time job as an analyst. So, we were super grateful to a few financial sponsors who came on board last minute and to Ciovita for sponsoring our kit. It’s been testing to say the least, but it’s probably something most people racing the Epic face. It’s just not spoken about that openly.”
The media thus has a key role to play in telling these stories. “Sharing the sport that has given me so much is something I feel very strongly about,” Hanekom resumed. “Likewise, I feel very strongly about increasing the representation of women in cycling, but more specifically at the competitive end of the field. Until women can see other women, just like them, who have jobs, and are not professional athletes, racing, enjoying themselves and competing at a respectable level, the field will remain tiny in comparison with the men, and the coverage proportionally so.”
“Jumping in the deep end and getting my head kicked in, in the UCI category, is my way of giving back to the sport,” she joked. “Hopefully it encourages more ‘working heroines’ to join and grow the pool of women competing, raising the level in the process.”
“Event organisers like Dryland Event Management and the Epic Series have done an incredible job of making racing more accessible to UCI athletes,” Hanekom praised. “This has allowed a cohort of us to compete, where we would never have been able to before. Tarryn [Povey] and I have been incredibly lucky to find sponsors in Pentest SA and Echo, who are willing to support a team with no hopes of a podium at an event like the Absa Cape Epic, but who share the vision of celebrating the sport, and making it welcoming and accessible to newcomers.”
“I think my story is a common one for girls and women,” Freitas added. “I grew up in KZN, where I did some local mountain biking, often racing on the weekends, but like so many girls do, I stopped in the later years of high school. I felt the pressure to shift my focus to studying, partly because of the high cost of riding and racing. I only got back into cycling by signing up for IRONMAN in 2021 and after deciding cycling was the most fun of the three sports.”
“Women are under-represented in the sport and I don't want girls to drop out like I did,” she continued. “The options aren't ‘Go Pro’ or ‘Drop Out’. Having an active hobby is so important for a positive self-image, for developing life-skills like problem solving, dealing with adversity, and for just giving girls confidence.”
Hopefully this group of women can inspire others to join them on the start line of mountain bike races. It doesn’t have to be the Absa Cape Epic, it can start with something fun like the Glacier Storms River Traverse and build through FNB Wines2Whales to the M&G Investments PE Plett and Momentum Medical Scheme Tankwa Trek, presented by Biogen. There are a host of one-day events on offer too, including the King Price Trailseeker series and road events, like Virgin Active Ride Joburg and the Cape Town Cycle Tour have women’s only elite races too. The women’s participation in cycling is growing, sometimes it just needs more recognition and a celebration of the women driving that growth.
As Juanita Mackenzie says: “When a group of like-minded women get together it’s a powerful thing!”
How to Follow the Working Heroines of the 2023 Absa Cape Epic
GardenRoute Cycling Tours
The 2023 Absa Cape Epic will be broadcast live, on the race website, daily from 19 to 26 March. Visit www.epic-series.com/capeepic to watch it unfold.