Attakwas – the view from the tail end

Simone on the finish line
One of our team members, Simone Sharpe, has a "never give up" attitude. Recently she took on The Hell of the South - as her first mtb event! Here's her story.

Attakwas was my first ever MTB event. I only truly started riding a mountain bike in October last year. It’s safe to say I’ve gone all in.

Mountains and trails have been my happy place for many years now. Before I share more about the race itself, which as the reader will likely know, they don’t call it the Hell of The South for nothing – I would first like to share a little bit about how I came to be so… well, stubborn.

I have overcome two life-threatening illnesses and remember looking out at the mountains from my hospital bed in Constantiaberg Mediclinic and being overcome by a desire to be out there, in nature.

It seemed wishful thinking at the time – I was fighting for my life with the most unique form of Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura that the country had ever experienced back in 2008.

I was also heavily overweight from the heavy dose of steroids they were administering in the hopes that it would raise my platelet cells.

It didn’t.

Eventually, after they removed my spleen (to no avail) and administered three rounds of chemotherapy, my platelets started to rise.

I was 18. The first time I had chemotherapy I was 15, for a separate illness: cancer.

At 23, I had to have a partial shoulder replacement because of the damage to my bones as a result of the various drugs and treatments my body went through as a teenager.

That’s the short version. The result: I don’t quit. I fight to stay in it.

I don’t give a shit about a finishing medal – I finish for me.

It took me a few years, but in time – I took to the mountains. Slowly at first.

I also took to drinking. Not slowly – and not a little.

I was messed up. I’ve never enjoyed talking about my feelings.

I don’t want to see a psychologist and I don’t want to complain to my friends about how hard it was.

The healing is in moving my body in nature. Thankfully I no longer seek it out at the bottom of a bottle.

When I’m surrounded by mountains I’m happier than anywhere else.

I feel proud – that I never gave up, that I pushed and continue to push through the difficulties, proud that my body continually gets stronger.

I think about little me and I know she would be proud of where I am now.

It’s my great advantage. I know what real pain is – the kind of pain you don’t choose.

Now, I choose my hard and every now and then I like to make sure it’s extra spicy.

I figured Attakwas would be.

It was suggested to me by my Coach, Erica Green. Somehow I landed myself the great honour of being one of Absa’s #SheUntamed riders taking on the Absa Cape Epic this year and was therefore gifted Erica as a Coach.

Considering I’m a total MTB newbie and she is Erica friggin Green, I pretty much consider everything she says as golden.

I follow her programme and I listen to her advice and suggestions.

Her words were: “Attakwas is the most difficult single day race in the country and riding it will be incredibly valuable training for the Cape Epic.”

Me, thinking: “the most difficult you say…” as I registered.

I messaged my buddy Seamus and excitedly told him I would be riding Attakwas. He responded asking if I knew how to ride a bike.

The turd. I’ll show him, I thought. (In his defence, he knows my favourite people are the ones who give me shit. I think I already mentioned that I’m a bit odd. If I haven’t, please be warned now…)

Shucks, but I need a new bike!

Throughout December, I was riding my dear friend and Epic partner, Ingrid Avidon’s bike because my old hardtail from nineteen voetsek was simply not up to the task for the training we were doing.

I secured an exciting new ambassadorship with CORE and it was confirmed that I would be getting the same bike as the Last Lioness, Hannele Steyn.

Everything was set-up and confirmed and I was eagerly awaiting delivery of my new bike – sure that it would arrive in early January.

I had gone back to George (my home town) and no longer had access to Ingi’s bike – and I  was doing my training on my gravel bike.

Attakwas was getting closer but I was still sure the new bike would arrive in time – considering it had already mostly been built, just for me!

We were just waiting on the groupset from Shimano.

They sent the wrong one.

Shucks, ok – now Attakwas is only a few days away.

“Is it possible to arrive in time, guys?”.

“Sorry Simone, there’s no way the bike is going to make it to you in time for Attakwas.”

Ok, fuzz – maybe I can hire one for the day?

That didn’t work out, so I dusted my old orange bike off and took it to the bike shop for a service. They were full. I took it to another one – they were full too.

Attakwas was two days away and they said it’s unlikely that anyone would have time to service my bike now.

I should have tried harder but figured, ah – hoping for the best has got me this far.

I took it for a ride and everything seemed to be ok enough to get through a long ride.

I don’t know much about much when it comes to bike mechanics but I can tell if brakes are working or not and I can confirm they were working… But not for long.

I gave myself a pep talk as I drove myself to the start on Saturday morning, planning to leave my car there and cycle back to fetch it the next day.

As part of my training programme, I was meant to do a long ride the following day and decided that would be it. I would ask my Dad to fetch me at the finish in Grootbrak, take me home to George and then I would ride from my house in George back to Oudtshoorn to fetch my car.

It was perfect!

But first, I had to get through the race. I reminded myself that it normally takes my legs a while to wake up and that that’s ok.

I told myself not to let it negatively affect me if I was last and that the game plan is to keep on riding and not stop until I was done – simple.

I knew it was going to be crazy hot and I told myself that I’m practically a reptile – I love the sun and that it was an advantage.

I reminded myself to prioritize drinking enough and to make sure I ate consistently.

That was it. I said it again to myself, summarizing the plan:

Eat and drink constantly and don’t stop moving until you’re done.

I had no time goal since I had no idea what to realistically expect of myself – I had never done anything like this before.

I started in the E batch, the last batch.

Within a few kilometres, I was last  – alone at the back.

As a slow trail runner, this is not unusual for me but still, I found myself feeling disappointed, knowing that my Dad planned to be at the spectator points.

My Dad was a shithot rugby player in his day and the rest of my family did well in sports too – I’m the only one who has kinda always sucked athletically.

I didn’t allow it to bother me for too long and just kept on pedalling.

By the time I got to the second Waterpoint, where I found him, I had overtaken many people. Riders were taking shots from the sun. It was still early on in the race but people were struggling and temperatures were rising.

That second waterpoint was at 47 km and I felt like my legs had finally warmed up and I was actually feeling good. I was enjoying it. It was hot and I felt so proud of my body.

I’ve struggled with my weight most of my life and I still do. I don’t look like your average cyclist but I console myself with the thought that there’s nothing average about me.

I do still need to regularly remind myself that it does not matter what I look like and that this body of mine that has been through so much has done some pretty incredible things – and continues to do so.

I smiled, ate some potatoes, filled up my water bottles and reassured my Dad that I was feeling good as I rode off, knowing that the gnarliest climb was about to hit.

My bike was still behaving at that point and I managed the climb decently and entered the Attakwaskloof.

I remembered Erica and Sarah Hill both telling me how beautiful it was and to take it in and take a moment to appreciate the view.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have listened to that advice because when I looked up for a moment to take in the splendour, I hit a rock and came off my bike – hard.

I was sore but fine and there was a downhill coming. I like those…

I was, however, devastated to discover that I couldn’t go full gas – my rear brakes weren’t working properly.

I stayed on the bike thinking it was alright enough to manage but soon realised that I actually couldn’t stop myself. They worked enough to slow down but once it got steeper, I simply could not stop the bike using my brakes.

Shit. I put my foot down, successfully slowing myself down and I got off the bike and walked that very rocky downhill before the third waterpoint.

Somehow it didn’t occur to me to find a bike mechanic or ask for help. All I wanted was coke and a potato and to get out of there as quickly as possible.

I carried on, doing ok. It was hot and I was in some pain but that’s what I expected. My right hand was especially starting to ache, as a result of my failing rear brakes and my attempt at still using them.

I allowed myself to feel proud of the fact that I was now passing many riders.

Strong men, it looked like to me. They were sitting in groups in the shaded areas, some were lying in bushes trying to escape the sun.

Others were sitting on the side of the road, making phone calls.

The Dryland vehicle drove past a couple of times, with bikes on the bike trailer – I knew they were the bikes of rescued riders.

I had entered into a different zone, it’s hard to explain but all that mattered was finishing – it didn’t matter what it was going to take.

It was becoming more challenging though because my bike issues had grown and I now had a slow puncture – except it wasn’t slow and I found myself having to pump my rear tyre initially every 5 km but after a while, it didn’t even last that long.

Sometimes I found myself laughing out loud for no reason.

I made it to the fourth Waterpoint at 87 km – ate, drank, pumped my tyre with a gloriously large pump which was a step up from my hand pump.

I left feeling ok. I had rolled into that waterpoint feeling rather shit, but I am always surprised at the body’s ability to recover. Some food and hydration goes a long way and after a couple of minutes, I was ready to tackle the 36 remaining kilometres.

As I rode off, it was beautiful – there was a gorgeous view down below and a nice technical downhill to get me there. I would normally enjoy this – however, my failing rear brakes made sure that I did not.

I had previously made the decision to test if I had enough braking abilities for certain downhills and if I felt it was too sketchy, I would apply full brakes (which still did not stop my bike), along with a good old foot brake on the floor.

As I was going down that hill, it got very steep and I knew I needed to get off my bike asap or I was going to see my arse. I put my stopping plan into action but it was too steep. I tried to direct myself into the bushes and made peace with the fact that my shoe and possibly my foot too was about to get messed up, because I desperately needed to slow down.

I managed to partially land in the bushes and on the side of the trail, and was thankful that there was no one behind me or I would surely have made them crash too.

I hit my left shoulder, the one with the titanium humeral head – luckily the impact on my shoulder wasn’t too bad because my head took most of it. 😀

As my Dad likes to tell me, “good thing you’ve got a hard head.”

I was again pleasantly surprised by my body’s ability to get up, dust myself off and carry on.

I didn’t feel concussed and apart from some scratches and what later turned out to be heavy bruising, I was fine.

I, however, realised that I could not continue on with this stopping method and I had a serious chat with myself.

I had become blinded by finishing and I was putting myself in danger using the stopping method that I was. I knew I could not go on like that and I wasn’t willing to risk injury – not with the Cape Epic around the corner.

I was not willing to stop altogether but made the choice to rather get off the bike on the downhills if I could not see far ahead enough to know that I could slow down naturally and feel in control.

From that point on, I had to get off the bike many times. I wonder how much of that damn race I walked and ran!

My rear tyre was also getting worse and needed pumping more regularly.

It freaking sucked but strangely, it was my favourite part of the race.

Before I do something hard, I always imagine things that could possibly go wrong – going wrong. I see myself working through it, overcoming it, conquering it.

In the moment, as my tyre was busted and my brakes were next to non-existent, I was acutely aware that I was being given that opportunity, to overcome and conquer.

I was being handed reason after reason to pull out, from the temperature being extraordinarily hot to my mechanical issues.

It is in those moments where we have the opportunity to give ourselves the greatest gift – will we give up or will we fight to stay in it?

I knew I was not going to make the cut-off time and that didn’t bother me – my concern was that I would possibly be told to stop.

I was so fearful of this, that as I rode into that last Waterpoint, I did it with caution and considered going straight through in the hopes that no one would be able to tell me to stop.

My Dad was there as I came in, cheering for me and recording a video of me with full race coverage, detailing my mileage up to that point and other facts. I later saw that these videos were being sent to both my extended family groups.

He was lovingly live broadcasting my adventure, and he was proud of me.

I felt his love and I was grateful that he didn’t listen to me when I told him he shouldn’t bother coming because I would just be riding through the spectator points and probably be roasted from the heat and not even register whether he was there or not.

I did register it – every time I saw him, and it meant a lot.

After passing my Dad, there was a chap standing in the middle of the road, welcoming me in. Shit, I thought, is he about to stop me because of the time?

I approached him, he half-smiled. I said, “do you have a big pump?”

He said yes and that he will do it for me. I celebrated internally, telling him my back tyre had seen the end of its days but I needed it to get me to the finish and I told him my rear brakes were gone.

He looked at me with a puzzled look, probably wondering how I had even got there.

I wasn’t sure either. He took my water bottles out and told me to go fill them and have some watermelon. I wanted to hug him.

I followed his orders, filling my water bottles but desperately hoping I wouldn’t need that much water – it was only about 13 km to the finish. Still, I knew how long the previous 13 had taken me with my bike issues.

After I had had something to eat, I went over to him (I’d love to find out his name), my Dad was there too. They both told me that tyre was ready for the bin and my Dad added that this angel of a man had fixed my brakes. I said “what, did you have brake pads, how, OMG, no way, thank you.”

The thought of now having brakes was an emotional thought – I can’t quite describe what I had been through without them for so long.

He said he hadn’t changed the brake pads but had fiddled and that they were still not good, but would be better. I didn’t understand and I didn’t care – I was delighted at the thought of even a tiny improvement.

He pumped my tyre fully and said it wasn’t going to last long. I said, “I know, we’ve been doing this song and dance for a while now.”

My Dad cheered me on as I left.

There was a downhill shortly after that and I didn’t have to get off my bike!

I blazed down it, feeling so happy that I had forgotten about how tired my body was after struggling through 110 aching km.

It didn’t last and I had to pump my tyre 4 times before the finish and the brake issues came back to haunt me, forcing me to get off the bike for the last descent before riding to the finish where I found old Seamus there with a phone in my face, which he used to tell the online Atta followers that the final unofficial finisher had finally rolled in, with a 12 hour finishing time.

I picked up traces of respect that he will no doubt deny when he described the kind of bike I finished on.

As I said in the post-race “interview” – what a jol!!

Sometimes (ok, actually often), I wonder why we do these things to ourselves.

My conclusion is that when we put ourselves into something that we know will be exceptionally difficult for us and we choose to persevere – it gives us the knowledge that we can indeed endure hardships.

We are tough. We are resilient. We can do hard things.

We can do anything – so long as we make the decision to never give up.

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