Mountain-bike racing is very much like life – you have good days and bad days. To be happy, you have to know how to deal with the bad ones. In bike racing, it’s easy to handle a good day, because it’s all smiles, high fives and hugs, the true test however is how you manage the bad days.
Now that the dust has settled on one of the most exciting women’s races in Absa Cape Epic history, Team Spur-Specialized’s Ariane Kleinhans reflects on what was a far tougher race for her than most know. In fact, it very nearly ended after Stage 1 in Tulbagh.
“Crossing the finish line after Stage 1 I just didn’t know how I was going to manage another six days like that,” Kleinhans says, explaining how on the longest stage of the 2016 race – a 108km loop around the Tulbagh Valley from Saronsberg Wine Estate – she and partner Annika Langvad got away early and were working hard to claim back the women’s orange jersey Team Ascendis Health had won on the Prologue. “Then a little crash happened, I kind of felt that my brakes weren’t working as well as before but I didn’t think about it too much and just tried to get on with it and get to the finish,” she says.
Langvad tried to keep the pace up to cross the finish with a good time buffer, but Kleinhans simply couldn’t hold her wheel, something that was hugely frustrating for both. “Annika was just riding away from me and I could feel she was also frustrated because she couldn’t understand how I could be so slow, even on the flat sections,” she says.
“It was absolutely horrible, I tried my hardest and then when Jennie [stenerhag] and Robyn [de Groot] caught us with 2km to go it was like a hammer in my head. We were leading the whole way. The entire stage… How could I be so useless?”
Prelude to a Breakdown
Kleinhans took the defeat as confirmation that her build-up had not been what it should’ve been, that she had not done enough. “It was like: you’re not going to win this race,” she says of the demons in her head.
If the physical part was tough for her to deal with, the mental aspect was nearly impossible. It was a symptom of a trying, emotional time for Ariane during the crucial training months leading up to the Epic. Ariane was wrestling with a painful divorce from her pro mountain biker husband Erik Kleinhans.
“In December and January I really struggled with motivation,” she says. “Something which is really hard to admit, because it’s a privilege to do what I do. You know, you feel like you should be happy and enjoy it, but I just struggled with myself. I was depressed for a long time there and just a normal day was quite difficult to manage sometimes. Despite the ups and downs, I knew I just had to do the training, so I got it done and never missed an important training session,” Kleinhans says.
“I just wanted to train alone and be by myself because I always compare myself to others and feel bad if I can’t keep up and that puts me down,” she says, admitting that she’d often be crying on the bike.
In later February – a crucial stage in her build-up to the Epic – there were two big hiccups. “I couldn't do Tankwa because of a fever,” Kleinhans says. “That was quite a knock mentally because part of Tankwa went through the [Cape Epic] route… and all that sand and stuff… it would’ve been good just getting into stage race mode again. So missing out on that was quite difficult,” she says.
A week later Kleinhans finished second behind Robyn de Groot at the Ashburton Investments National MTB Series event at Sabie, a race she’d won for the previous three years and had always used as a gauge of her fitness. By her exceptionally high standards, she took the loss as further confirmation that her form was poor. “It was a really hard day for me,” Kleinhans wrote on her Facebook page after the race. “I was suffering horribly trying to chase her down and was only left with disappointment after crossing the line. Coming second is just not good enough for me at this race. It hurt.”
There was another factor at play that Ariane didn’t properly examine at the time, as she was locked in her own self-doubt. Both Robyn de Groot and her Acendis Health teammate Jennie Stenerhag had done the hard work to reach Ariane’s level, and even surpass it. In 2016 the South African women’s marathon race scene was transformed into a genuine world-class showdown.
“Something really helped me to not spiral into the dark hole of depression that time,” she says. That something, was adoring fan little Emma Charlotteaux. “With Team Spur we planned a question and answer session for the kids at the race venue on Sunday, the day after the race. As ambassadors for the Spur School Mountain Bike League, our team is trying to inspire kids and young adults to follow their own passion and motivate them to live an active healthy lifestyle,” she says.
Emma came up to Ariane at the Q&A and asked how she could be like her. “It’s very humbling that people would find me inspiring. Kids like Emma make you want to be a better person, it took me back to when I was a swimming coach [in Switzerland]. They really copy you if you are a role model for them, they look at what you are doing and then do the same,” she says.
“It was challenging for me because I was suffering in my heart a lot. Obviously then you get frustrated and you appear grumpy and it is difficult to be nice and be a good person. But when you think of those kids who look up to you, you get some perspective.”
If the serendipitous meeting with Emma had been the mental catalyst she needed to kick into Epic race mode, then the arrival of Ariane’s Team Spur Specialized partner Annika served as the physical bullet. The pair teamed up at the five-day Tour of Good Hope road race in early March.
“To really go into the hurt zone and to know that I can still do it, I would have never trained that hard on my own – [former British road champion] Sharon Laws pushed us really hard and that was good,” she says, reflecting on her third place overall. “It was very good racing it with Annika because she is kind of the benchmark. Although I couldn’t keep up with her, I knew I was feeling strong and ready to race the Epic and that did a lot for my confidence.”
That self-confidence all but evaporated at the Stage 1 finish line in Saronsberg, until Team Spur mechanic JP Jacobs examined her Specialized S-Works Era.
“After the stage, we first had interviews and press to do, I didn't know about the brakes until much later.” Ariane’s support team rallied around her when she crawled across the line. Team Spur soigneur Brent Botha and Specialized team manager Kandice Venter wiped away the tears and dirt etched into her face and readied her for the podium presentation. Ariane was broken and it was a tense 15 minutes just getting her ready to receive the bouquet for their second-place finish.
JP had picked up the problem in the wash bay, hosing Ariane’s bike down: a high-pressure washer applied directly to the rear wheel wouldn’t turn it. When Ariane had crashed roughly 15km from the end of Stage 1 she had bent her rear disc brake rotor, effectively jamming her brakes for the remainder of the stage.
“When JP showed me how bad it was, I thought, okay, it’s not your training and preparation, you still have something in the legs,” she says. The feeling of dread was starting to lift.
The following day Kleinhans and Langvad won the women’s category of the 100th stage of the Absa Cape Epic. And they did it in fine style. Playing a classic tactical game, the pair bided their time in third place behind Team Sport for Good’s Sabine Spitz and Yana Belomoina and Sally Bigham and Adel Morath of Team Topeak Ergon for much of the stage as it explored the rugged Witzenberg Valley. They were closely marking erstwhile race leaders, Team Ascendis Health. Then, on the final steep and technical singletrack descent back into the Tulbagh Valley, they let rip. Ariane led a wild charge down the mountainside and caught both Sport for Good and, towards the bottom, Topeak Ergon. They dispatched Bigham and Morath on the flat run into the finish line and turned their 58-second deficit to Ascendis Health into a three-minute, 17-second lead.
The Stage 2 win saw them slip into the women’s orange jersey. “I had a lot of doubt in the build-up,” Ariane admits. “It came in waves – sometimes they were huge and I felt like I couldn’t even do a two-hour training ride. But Tour of Good Hope helped with confidence and I got more positive then. So in the week leading up to the Epic and round about the press conference I started getting that feeling again, you know, we had done it the past two years so maybe we could do it again,” she says.
“After the Prologue and Stage 1 that feeling was gone… so to win Stage 2 was really special, it was the turning point.” The win ultimately set up an emotional third straight overall victory when the world’s most prestigious stage race finished at Meerendal Wine Estate some five days later.
Yet the racing was far from over and Team Spur-Specialized had to cross swords with the powerful and highly-motivated Ascendis Health as well as Topeak Ergon and the late-charging Sport for Good. The new separate start batch for women had transformed the battle for supremacy and the honour of wearing the orange jersey. The stages were fought at close quarters and the margins were tight. It was undoubtedly the most exciting women’s racing ever at the Cape Epic.
Stage 3 saw a monumental battle with the top three women’s teams hitting the final singletrack together and arriving at the finish line in Wellington within just over a minute of each other. Sadly it also saw the sudden withdrawal of form team Ascendis Health’s Jennie Stenerhag, with heart complications on the finish line.
“Stage 3 was another long one. We were hanging with Topeak all the way and that’s when I knew it was possible to take the overall, but that it would be a fierce fight toward the end,” she says.
“I was very sad to hear of Jennie’s withdrawal. Robyn and Jennie are up there. South African racing is tough. I hope people appreciate that you have to be world-class to race with Yana and Sabine. It would have been very interesting to take on Ascendis all week.”
Pushed to the Line
Ariane and Annika claimed Stage 3 and 4, before veteran German multiple World Champion Sabine Spitz and Ukrainian U23 World Champ Yana Belomoina took the race by the scruff of the neck and won the final three stages.
“I didn’t quite expect Sabine and Yana to come so strong towards the end. I thought our battle would be with Ascendis and then Topeak, but there were a few surprises and we were racing all the way to Meerendal!”
According to Kleinhans, her and Langvad kept having to change their mindset and were forced to adjust their race strategy every stage. “That made the racing really interesting,” she says. “By the last two days I thought I could pull through in a relatively okay time. Maybe I wasn’t strong enough for a stage victory anymore but I knew we could hang in there and not lose too much time,” she says.
Kleinhans believes it was her and Langvad’s race experience and teamwork which were the deciding factors in the overall win. That, and Langvad’s sheer strength. “Annika was an absolute champ! She was by far the strongest woman in the field,” says Kleinhans. “Through all eight days she was always thinking how she could improve and help me – where she could push me and pull me or just let me slipstream. She kept encouraging me. The entire time she was just trying to figure out how she can make me a little bit faster.”
But it wasn’t all down to physical prowess. Ariane received a mental boost on the penultimate stage of the race. A gift from young Emma – a picture of her in a bike helmet wishing her good luck with the Epic. The circle was complete – perspective gained, challenges faced head-on, adversity overcome with the end result a third-straight Absa Cape Epic victory.