For most able-bodied bike riders the Absa Cape Epic is an extremely testing eight days, but for Reuben van Niekerk completing an Epic is a bit more difficult. Reuben lost his lower right leg in an accident in 2008. This life-changing incident has not prevented Reuben from getting out and enjoying riding his bicycle. Since then he has completed four Absa Cape Epics and is a proficient rider in other forms of cycling.
We chatted to Reuben at the Absa Cape Epic to understand the unique challenges he faces when jumping on a mountain bike and riding for eight days.
Reuben's eyewear sponsor Oakley hooked us with the interview.
The 2017 event marks your fifth Cape Epic. What keeps bringing you back?
This race is just so special in the way that it continually forces you to push your limits. Whether it is the weather, the day's route or the positions you are pushing for, the race is always tough, yet rewards those that prepare well. The fact that the route changes every year is also a big drawcard as it allows you to see parts of the Western Cape that you would not ordinarily get to see.
How did you lose your leg and what is the extent of your disability?
I lost my leg in 2008 in a motorcycle accident, when a truck lost control on the opposite side of the highway and hit me head on. My right leg was amputated just below the knee, I had a severely fractured femur, broken ribs, a punctured lung and dislocated shoulder.
What are the unique challenges that you now face when riding a bike?
The biggest challenge is that I can't stand and pedal, so I lose a bit on very steep climbs that require ultimate power or when there are sudden accelerations needed. It is also tricky for me to unclip my right foot so I need to always be cognisant of this when quick stopping or uncleating is needed. We also lose a lot of time when I need to walk up the super steep sections, the prosthetic is adapted for cycling so it is not ideal for walking.
How do you cope with these challenges on a brutal race like the Cape Epic?
I have learned to use my momentum when riding, as this helps on the run in to steep stuff. Alternatively my partner Kevin will tow me up the climbs or into the steep sections so that I can save my legs for a big push towards the summit. On the walking sections, Kevin will go ahead with my bike while I walk up. The other competitors in the event have also been great, offering to help where they can.
Have you had to make a special prosthesis for the Epic and do you use custom gear developed for riding?
In terms of gear everything is off the shelf from Specialized, but my prosthetic has been specially developed. It differs from my daily prosthetic in the way that it attaches and it allows for more movement around the knee when pedaling. I have worked closely with my prosthetist, Johan Snyders, over the last five years to get a good balance between a prosthetic that is great for cycling but also offers me the ability to walk when I need to.
What was the process like getting back onto the bike after losing your lower leg? Does the old saying “it’s like riding a bike” apply at all?
Pretty much. It did take me about a year to get back on the bike due to the extent of my injuries and the rehabilitation needed. Once I got going I just started off slowly and built it back up from there. I set myself goals of events to train for, but a big thing was to be strong enough to ride with the mates that I had been riding with before the accident, as this helped return a sense of normality to my life.
Kevin has a formidable reputation, with his huge mileage and multiple Everest rides. What has been Team Driepoot's approach to Cape Epic over the past two years?
The great thing about riding with Kevin is that he knows his limits and knows how long he can go how hard for, which is always long enough. So if we hit a climb and he says hold on, I give it everything I have and he brings the rest to the party. Our approach has been to ride within our limits and get stronger as the days go by.
I lie, actually, we are going as hard as we can and have just gotten really good at the recovery game.
Last year you rode with Kevin on his first Cape Epic. Is there any advantage in being the more experienced rider in the team?
I might be more experienced at the Cape Epic but Kevin also brings with him a wealth of endurance cycling experience. I must say we have both learnt a lot from each other.
Is there anything different in the team dynamic with one disabled teammate?
It really helps if the abled body partner is strong AF. Naturally I need to rely on Kevin to fulfil my shortcomings: like towing up the climbs or carrying my bike up the steep climbs. You really need to work well as a team in all areas. There is no point in trying to hurt each other, because then that is all you will be doing.
You entered in 2013 but failed to finish. You’ve clearly overcome that challenge but how did you learn from that experience?
I think I just came back stronger and only by riding this race do you know what is required to succeed. I have followed a training programme from John Wakefield since then and we have pretty much got the recipe spot on now. Trust me, it is not a nice race to do if you are hurting all day and under pressure to make the time cuts. So I make sure that I get my training spot on.
How does the 2017 Absa Cape Epic compare to your previous experiences? Have you faced any unique challenges this year? What are you thoughts about the shortening of Stage 2?
The race is as hard as ever, but that is the Cape Epic. If the route does not test you then mother nature will. I do feel that it was the right decision, we really suffered in the heat and I don’t think ourselves and many other teams would have managed another 3 hours in those conditions.