Unfinished business at Cape Epic

After Howes’ broken finger, Morton to race with Kenyan Kenneth Karaya

Lachlan Morton and Alex Howes were all set to race the Absa Cape Epic when Covid-19 hit last year. The two EF Education-NIPPO pros were in South Africa, nervous and excited to take on the best mountain bikers in the world. 

 

For eight days, they would swoop and clamber over sandstone mountains, tear through fynbos, and duck and dive in and out of the well-kept vineyards that deck the Western Cape’s rugged coast. Then, just a few days before the start, the event’s organizers had to announce that the world’s only hors categorie mountain bike stage race was postponed due to public health concerns. 

 

Disappointment quickly gave way to understanding. A pandemic is bigger than sport. Lachlan, Alex, and the 1,000+ other riders with whom they were set to compete—from world champions to weekend riding buddies—would have the chance to return to South Africa to race once it was safe to do so. Alex and Lachlan decided then and there that they would line up at the next edition of the Cape Epic, whenever it was.

Then Alex broke his pinky finger during the lead up to this year’s race. With an injury like that, high-speed drops and bone-jarring descents would be impossible to manage, and there was not enough time before the start for Alex to heal. It was a blow to both Alex and Lachlan.

 

“Alex and I were devastated when we heard he’d be unable to race,” Lachlan says. “We’ve been on this journey so long.” Lachlan still wanted to race. But first, he had to find another partner.

 

Cape Epic is raced by teams of two. This is for the riders’ own safety. It ensures that a racer who is injured or breaks his bike will never be left to fend for himself in the remote South African bush. Instead, riders have to help their teammates, fix each other’s equipment, and provide medical aid, if necessary, to arrive safely at each day’s finish, although assistance from riders on other teams is permitted. On the course, teammates must stay within two minutes of each other. The sum of their finishing times counts for the classification.

 

Who could Lachlan ask to join him? He hit on the idea of inviting Kenneth Karaya. Kenneth, 25, is one of Kenya’s best mountain bikers. He races with the AMANI Project, an initiative that works to provide African cyclists with opportunities to race and to build stronger communities on the continent by encouraging people to cycle.

 

“I’m familiar with their program and know that they’ve got some great riders looking for racing opportunities,” Lachlan says. “I figured it was a perfect match and reached out, hoping it would work out.” 

Kenneth immediately accepted Lachlan’s offer. He often wins his local mountain bike and road races, which are becoming ever more competitive, as hundreds of young riders take to their starts, but he has had few chances to race outside of Kenya. Cape Epic will be the biggest event that he has done to date.

 

“I am very excited,” he says. “I am thinking all the time about mountain biking . How can I do the climbs better? Go down the hills faster? My morale is high, I have to say.”

 

Lachlan is excited, too. “I’m really looking forward to racing with Kenneth, and it gives me a renewed appreciation for the opportunity we have to race here,” he says. The two haven’t yet met in person. 

 

On Oct. 17, Kenneth and Lachlan will race Cape Epic’s prologue up and over Table Mountain. For the next seven days, they will test their fitness, resilience, and skills together. They will cross 619 kilometers of rugged terrain, scorch down stony singletrack into valleys, and ascend back over steep alpine passes under the full heat of the African sun. In total, they will climb 15,250 vertical meters. They will share meals and a camper van. 

“I have never been to such a race,” Kenneth says. “I don’t know what can happen. I don’t know the level of competitors who are going to be there. In Kenya, I dominate the off-road races quite easily, but, you know, Cape Epic is a big, big race. I think it is the Tour de France of mountain biking, so I expect anything, whatever comes.”

 

Out on the trails, Kenneth and Lachlan will learn from each other. Kenneth will learn about life as a professional racer, what it takes to compete at the very top of the sport. He wants to learn how he can better share his story with people around the world and back home.

 

“Since I am a guy from the village, I still have the urge to bring back what I get from outside there,” Kenneth says. “With the guys from the village, I want to tell them the stories, tell them they can make it. I want in some way to change our village. I want to change these young riders who want to be cyclists, change their mentality, for a better future.”

Kenneth thinks he can teach Lachlan a thing or two about fixing bikes, too; he has had to build his own ever since he was a kid. If they run into a mechanical issue on the trails, Lachlan will be in safe hands.

 

Together, the two of them will be competing against some of the best mountain-bikers in the world. They are going to take it day by day, and get to know one another along the trails. 

 

“I’m looking forward to the experience and racing with all we have as a pair,” Lachlan says. As for Kenneth? “I want to do my best.”