At a glance, you’d probably size up Dawie Theron and Nelis Coetzee as farmers, with a decent stint in the front row behind them. You could see them auditioning for a sumo wrestling reality show, and you’d imagine they could do a fair amount of damage to a buffet. What you’d probably struggle to see is the endeavour that now marks them out as two of South Africa’s most unlikely extreme athletes: two-time finishers of the Absa Cape Epic.
When the two mates from Hermanus lined up at the start line a year ago, they weighed in at a combined 260 kilograms – more than twice the weight of the eventual Epic winners. No one had any money on them finishing the first stage, let alone the entire race – but after eight days of measured progress on two very sturdy bicycles, they crossed the line to disbelief and celebration in equal measure. And this year Dawie and Nelis were back, cheerfully telling me that they were 10 kilograms lighter (just 250 kilograms for 2019), slowly grinding through mountain biking’s most demanding challenge, and finishing the race for a second successive year.
It’s just one of the myriad stories that make up the narrative of the Epic – this year a man with a prosthesis carried his bike through a portage section and still made the masters podium, while a woman who pulled out last year after a breast cancer diagnosis, came back to complete her Epic dream. It’s those stories that have kept me coming back to work on the race for 14 years – the stories … And the wine!
Kevin Vermaak founded the race in 2004, and has created a mountain biking bucket list item for any serious rider; inadvertently, he also created one of the world’s great wine journeys. Each year the race meanders through some beautiful wine territory, vineyards providing a backdrop to the daily peloton, and providing me with a few hours every afternoon to visit, taste, and discover. I’ve been embarking on Dan’s Epic Wine Route for several years now, and it’s an annual delight, with the 2019 edition being as good as any.
Riders got the race started this year in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley, and the cycling was by all accounts pleasant, but couldn’t have been close to as enjoyable as tasting the valley. Food and wine pairing with JC and Carolyn at Creation, with the acclaimed Art Of Pinot Noir and Art Of Chardonnay splendid (but not inexpensive). Amateur surfer Bevan Newton Johnson’s Pinot (and a rare South African Albariño), fleeting visits to Sumaridge (a few magnums of the five star 2012 Pinot still available) and La Vierge (more Pinot Noir, and a quick game of boules). And then two very special wine experiences: cellar tours of both Bouchard Finlayson and Hamilton Russell, with respective winemakers Chris and Emul unveiling yet more Pinot from South Africa’s own little corner of Burgundy. And that was one afternoon…
A day later, and Bot River, with more exceptional local fare: from Beaumont’s Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc, to some Wildekrans Pinotage that’s earthy without descending into mud, to a lovely Gabrielskloof Cabernet Franc, it’s a quiet, understated corner of the winemaking world. And then there’s the home of one of South Africa’s Shiraz success stories: Luddite, and strawberry blonde winemaker Niels Verburg. Here’s hoping you get to drink his wine, but never have to see photos of him in a ballet tutu and pink wellington boots, an image that can never be unseen.
The rest of the trip is a cheerful blur: drinking Paul Wallace’s Black Dog Malbec and Belgian mad scientist Floris’s Almenkerk Syrah, sweeping through Bartinney in the Banghoek Valley and up to Thelema, Tokara and Neil Ellis, visiting Glenelly for the first time (enchanting; I’ll be returning soon to try out the restaurant), and a magnificent vertical of The Jem at Waterford, with the 2004 a wine that comes with a soundtrack of angels playing harps…
I finished the race, as always, with a boot full of wine, some terrific memories, and new friends from across the Winelands, as well as a reinforced love of my favourite wine country. And to pre-empt the question I get endlessly, I won’t be riding the Epic next year, or any year thereafter. I’m enormously inspired by people like Dawie and Nelis, who overcome the challenge of the race. But I’ll take a leisurely afternoon sampling Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot or Stellenbosch reds, over 10 hours in the saddle. It’s definitely the best way to “do” the Epic.
What I’m drinking this week: Where to start after last week… I tasted some exceptional wine, in a range of styles, and plenty of the wine qualified as epic. Prices varied enormously with several bottles coming in around the R1000 mark, but there was plenty of value to be had, including Rustenberg’s RM Nicholson. Reg Nicholson lived and worked on the farm for 30 years, and lends his name to a wine that’s not as celebrated as the Peter Barlow or John X Merriman, but offers excellent value for a very solid Stellenbosch red. Buy now, leave a couple of years, and voila – you’ll have a nice little investment for your wine collection.
Want to see what else Dan Nicholl has been drinking? Watch his latest episode of Dan Really Likes Wine!
Images via Dan Nicholl, Unsplash, Netwerk24