Crossing the finish line as the second South African women team home at this year’s brutal Cape Epic is an impressive feat in anyone’s language. But for local race favourites, NavWorld Ambassador Theresa Ralph and her riding partner Yolandi du Toit (who battled debilitating sickness the entire route), it was a bittersweet victory – requiring them both to dig deeper in their own respective ways than they’d ever had to do before. Saluting her teammate and friend’s herculean effort, Ralph shares more about the gruelling moments on this difficult ride.
On paper, Theresa Ralph and Yolandi du Toit, aka Team Galileo Risk Garmin, looked set to knock the opposition dead at this year’s Cape Epic. Both wily veterans of this gruelling eight-day challenge (Ralph six times, and du Toit four). They had every intention of bettering their previous fifth place finish, achieved last year when they crossed the line victoriously as the first women team home. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. The night before the 26km Prologue leg of the race, disaster struck – du Toit picked up a bad throat infection, and any realistic hopes of them finishing in a strong position went south from that moment on.
With their race strategy literally blown to pieces overnight, their goal switched from chasing a win to survival. Somehow, both women had to work out how to make it to the finish line together as a team. Says Ralph: “The ladies field was really strong this year, so we expected it to be tough, but not like this! Being a team event, both riders have to finish to get points, and Yolandi can’t stand losing points – needless to say, she insisted we push on through. Our only option was to back off the best we could and ride to her abilities.”
A Tweet from du Toit on day three – “Our team is fighting a few obstacles, but we’re pushing through” – was the first real indication their many supporters got that something was going horribly wrong. By then, dust kicked up by the hot, drought-stricken Western Cape conditions had aggravated the infection, causing it to move to her lungs. “By this time we were getting seriously worried,” recalls Ralph. “She was pushing her body further than it should go and her heart rate was a real concern. Just in case, we had a doctor monitor her closely for the rest of her ride.”
Ralph, forced to take things slow to support her teammate, was facing her own unique challenge – namely, dialling down her natural killer instincts and somehow coming to terms with her easy, no-pressure ride. “I’m an extremely competitive person, so having to hold myself back to support Yolandi was a completely alien experience for me,” she explains. “My only choice was to put any frustrations behind me, mentally pull up the handbrake and literally just enjoy the view, so I made the best of it. For the first time while riding my favourite race, I found myself in a surreal comfort zone where I could actually take in the scenery, joke around a bit, chat to spectators and enjoy the water stations. Sounds fun, but for me it was really difficult – without a doubt, humour pulled us both through!”
Fortunately, even tough experiences come to an end… eventually. By the time the duo had battled their way through to the final and seventh stage, du Toit was finally on the mend. Coming out with guns blazing on the last day, they finally put up the kind of performance their fellow competitors had been dreading and fans hoping for. Say Ralph: “With Yolandi feeling stronger, we managed to gain a few places as we passed some of the faster girls, finally crossing the line in ninth position. What we needed was another Epic – everyone around us was exhausted and there we were, still strong and rearing to go!”
Tears? Yep, there were plenty. More importantly though, they both gritted their teeth, persevered as a team and made it to the finish in respectable time – showing the mountain biking world in no uncertain terms what they are capable of when the chips are down and fate deals them a bum hand. Says Ralph: “There were times that I was convinced Yolandi would have to give up, but she’s a real trooper and just went on and on. Kudos to my partner for pushing through!”
Ralph and du Toit crossed the finish line in a time of 36:36.17,1 – making them the second South African women’s team home. They finished their category in 11th place and came 128th overall. – (c) 2017 NavWorld
If you want to follow Theresa online, you can find her on Twitter: @TheresaRalph