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With the holiday season upon us, how one cyclist delivered cheer to the South African Outback

Originally, this began as an account of a finance executive and his epic bike race: details of the discipline required to balance the demands of a high powered job with a strenuous training regimen; the amount of dedication it takes to achieve the level of physical and mental strength to compete in such a grueling event. It turned out to be a tale much more about strength of character, the spirit of generosity and human kindness. With the holiday season upon us, this is how one California cyclist spread joy all the way to the desert of South Africa.

Steep mountain climb ahead

Erik Ostebo – who is a Chief Credit Officer at the San Francisco based commercial finance firm, Business Capital – has a bucket list, heavy on the adrenaline.  Each year, he and a buddy check off one item. Last year, La Ruta in Costa Rica, which is reputed to be one of the most difficult mountain bike races in the world. This year, they chose the Cape Pioneer Trek mountain bike race because it was closest in topography and challenge to the Cape Epic race. Both are located on the Western Cape of South Africa.  The deciding factor was that the Pioneer Trek did not interfere with ski season. For reference, in the world of cycling the Cape Epic is the “Big Daddy” of all mountain bike races, attracting elite professionals from around the world and so tough that it has been accredited as “uncategorizable” by the Union Cycliste Internationale, a status shared by the Tour de France. At 7 days and riding nearly 357 miles on a wide variety of backcountry trails and climbing over 33,000 vertical feet, the Pioneer Trek is a mere 1 day and 78 miles shorter.

To be physically, technically and mentally prepared for this challenge, Erik trained for four months. Working around his hours at the office, he regularly squeezed in 2 to 4 long rides per week, eventually building up to 7 consecutive hours in the saddle on the dirt trails and steep climbs of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California. At the last minute, his teammate had to back out due to work obligations but, after putting in months of effort, Erik decided to go for it on his own.

For some perspective, this elite event draws approximately 500 riders: about 90% male; mostly pros, sponsored athletes and hard-core cyclists from all over the world; the majority of which are South African and European. It is finely tuned and very well organized – the safety and sustenance of the athletes is paramount. Medics on ATV’s and helicopters monitor the course; riders battle each day to  keep well hydrated, rested and fed. After a full day of riding (making time to stop for the BBQ ostrich kabobs) they clean off in portable showers (yes, hot water), down large quantities of food, a few beers, and enjoy comradery in the large mess tent, sleep the night in tiny tents, and rise in the morning to face another punishing day riding in the African Outback. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Feathered Friends along the trail
Feathered friends line the race route

Nothing in his training prepared Erik for the extreme conditions of terrain and climate, which ranged from 45-95 degrees – days of scorching heat to a solid day of bitter rain, causing many to drop out of hypothermia or injury. It’s these extreme conditions that make the Cape Pioneer Trek the most unpredictable of mountain bike stage races.  It is a test of character, skill and perseverance. It was that and resourcefulness which saved Erik on the worst day: a cover rigged out of a garbage bag kept him from succumbing to the watery elements; a bottle of sunscreen lubricated his chain which had seized  repeatedly from mud.  In addition to climate, the riders must overcome more of nature’s obstacles: riding in the sand of the semi desert landscape; through trees of thorns, deep ditches and rivers; up towering cliffs and dizzying climbs with white-knuckle descents; avoiding the abundant wildlife roaming about, including baboons, ostriches (three cobra crossings encounters, which Erik was forced to jump his bike over), to name a few.

The intensity of the full race is so great that, after completion, one’s body is stressed to where its blood chemistry actually changes. It took Erik about 8 weeks to recover physically, but the experiences he collected will last a lifetime. Incredibly and especially, he managed to give some exceptional memories to others along this journey.

Erik, the only American participant (known as “the fastest American!”), started out as one of a handful of solo riders, but finished far from alone. His brother, unable to join in his dream ride due to health reasons, accompanied him in spirit. Erik made it his mission to photo document the ride so his brother could “be there.” His dedication to this promise also helped overcome mental obstacles, keeping his mind focused on snapping good pix and his determination to finish.

This compassionate instinct is what lead to another act of kindness along the way. Witnessing the impoverished conditions many families live in along the bike route and wanting to share the joy of cycling with others, Erik purchased and donated new bicycles to several children in Prince Albert. Seeing the joy on the children’s faces and knowing he had forever touched the lives of several local families, gave Erik a win off the trails that felt greater than if he had claimed the overall race title. Erik is in discussions with a South African bike shop to surprise a few more children next year at either the Cape Epic or Cape Pioneer race.

Although Erik began this journey alone, he completed the race alongside a team of new friends, the force of his brother, and many grateful African families. His extraordinary generosity and positive attitude was recognized formally by fellow riders with the presentation of a race leader jersey at the finish line, signed by the mens’ and ladies’ team winners to hand over to his brother

A posting dedicated to Erik on facebook by his fellow riders, sums it up:

“Completing the Bridge Cape Pioneer Trek as solo rider number 53, Erik entered the race of his brother’s dreams. Erik donated bicycles to children along the route and touched so many lives. This man made a lot of children in Prince Albert extremely happy. You should have seen how excited the little ones were when they realized they could ride the bikes right there on the school grounds. Erik is one the most unselfish and generous people I have ever met.”

In the true spirit of the season, it seems it really is better to give and there are some very happy children in Africa that have received a lifetime gift –  the enjoyment of riding a bike.

Finishing strong!