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16 Mar, 2016

Reuben's Quest to Amabubesi

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Set to become the first disabled cyclist to join the coveted Amabubesi Club for completing three ABSA Cape Epics later this year, we look back at the epic journey that got Reuben van Niekerk here.

When Reuben lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in 2008, the keen cyclist had to learn to pedal a little differently, but with determination he got there, and five years later was lining up for the ABSA Cape Epic, one of the most gruelling MTB events on the calendar.

As he explains, “It’s the race everyone wants to do, and we had always spoken about Epic before the accident. It had always been on my bucket list.” So in 2013 he set out with fellow para-cyclist Dane Wilson to ride his first Epic, but after a tough first day with a lot of sand and a lot more walking than planned, they missed the cut-off.

The duo made it to Day Four, but after missing the cut-off again, their boards were cut off and their Epic dream ended. “I really felt like I let Dane down, because he made a lot of sacrifices for us to be there,” says Reuben, but not one to back down from a challenge, he was back to try again in 2014 – a little wiser, stronger and more determined – and that second race was like a fairytale.

Riding with Dagmar Muhlbauer, Reuben got his official Epic finish, but he wasn’t done… As he was celebrating the sweet taste of victory, Epic Organiser Kevin Vermaak told him, “You are riding again!”

 

WHEELS COME OFF

That saw Reuben coming back in 2015, sponsored by Energade and riding with Dagmar again, but his third Epic brought a whole new set of challenges. On Day 3 when the pair hit a lot of sand, Reuben says “It didn’t look like we would make it, it was very tight with time, so I said to her she must go – at least then she could finish.”

However, not being one to quit, he kept going, and buoyed by the news at the last water point that the time had been extended by half an hour, he pushed hard the last 20km, making it with six minutes to spare. The victory was short-lived, however, as the pair had finished 20 minutes apart, earning them a one-hour penalty.

The following day saw the pair separate again, Reuben spending the day in close company with the race sweeps, the Hyenas, only to finish the day with the news of earning another one-hour penalty. “The commissaries said to us you aren’t allowed to separate again, else you will be completely disqualified,” he says. So the pair stuck together following that, but it was not an easy partnership, and though they finished, there was little joy when finishing the world’s toughest mountain biking race.

Reuben’s advice for Epic partnerships is thus simple: “Go with someone you have ridden with a lot, because everything is put in a bit of a pressure cooker when you are there.”

 

ONE, TWO, THREE

Now the 2016 Epic lies ahead for Reuben, and hopefully induction into the coveted Amabubesi club. “It’s a tough challenge ahead, because the cut-offs are tighter, with two days at six hours 45, where we usually had eight hours,” he says, but adds that riding partner Kevin Benkenstein is his strongest pairing yet. “He rode 22,000km last year, and will be able to provide the support I need to get through a tough eight days, so I am quietly confident we will make it.”

The 12th edition of the race will see riders doing 647km, including 110km of singletrack, with 14,950m of climbing. With the guidance of coach John Wakefield from Science to Sport, Reuben has trained right through to ensure that he is ready for this year, also supported by his fiancé, Lauren. She is a keen runner, and he says he appreciates that she understands the importance of a fit lifestyle. “It’s cool to have somebody who likes and needs to exercise as well.”

He adds that Epic can be challenging for any relationship, so having this understanding makes it easier to do what he does, but he is relieved she prefers running… “I don’t think the budget could handle two cyclists!”