From The Mag: There’s No ‘I’ in Team

One of the most talked about features in recent Spoke history would have to be the tale of Megan Dimozantos and John Randal’s intense and sometimes fractured experience at the Cape Epic stage race in South Africa, back in Issue 48, September 2012. It’s a brutally honest and raw account from both riders, and made for some great, if at times uncomfortable reading. Enjoy.

The eight days are etched deep into our memories and our bodies. Experiences immortalised and embedded like tyre tracks ridden into concrete that hasn’t quite set yet. “I still wake up in the middle of the night thinking about what we did right, what we did wrong, wishing I’d dealt with some things differently, then wishing I didn’t feel this way about it,” says Megan, “but letting go of it is one of those lessons that you have to learn. Sometimes it’s the opposite; I will run into a challenge in my everyday life and realise that I only knew what to do because of the lessons I learnt at Cape Epic. Lessons about teamwork, suffering, preparation and doggedness. And about sharing the load, physically, emotionally, and mentally.”

Allow us to introduce ourselves: Team Mitre 10 MEGA Yeti NZ. An unlikely pairing of one of the biggest dudes in the race, Wellingtonian John Randal, and one of the smallest gals shredding dirt in New Zealand, Aussie expat Megan Dimozantos. We took on the Cape Epic, an eight day, 781km mountain bike stage race through the Western Cape of South Africa. We finished thirteenth in the mixed category on general classification, and managed top ten results in a couple of stages. We lived in tents and showered in trucks. We were woken by bagpipes every morning at 5am and all our possessions were squashed so tightly into one bag that we had to sit on it to get the zip closed. It was an unforgettable experience, whichever way you look at it. It would be a lie to say we got along well for the whole race. The team dynamic made a difficult race even harder.

A co-written article can be a hard thing to do, especially when both parties are still processing the event and the circumstances that surrounded it, so we came up with a list of questions for each other. Hard questions. And harder answers.

A race of this magnitude was incomparable to anything we had done before, so how did it differ?

John “It’s not often you do eight cross-country races in a row! Each stage was a race in its own right, and for the most part longer than cross-country races in New Zealand. But the terrain was a lot mellower, which helped.”

Megan “I had never ridden 800km in a week before, so I was unsure how my body would react to this kind of brutality. Racing in a team was also a very different experience for me and it was my first time in a mixed team for this race format. Sleeping, eating and living in a tent for eight days while racing presented its own challenges too.”

How did we feel about our pre-race preparation as a team?

John “Our climbing wasn’t up to scratch, which was a shame as we’d been alerted to that at an event we did together in November, four months before the Cape Epic. Worse, we really needed to have our drafting nailed. I was constantly dropping Megan, so was obviously going too hard. Megan was constantly getting dropped, but wasn’t telling me to slow down. I needed a rear view mirror, and we needed a better sense of what was a sustainable pace. We knew this was going to be a problem, but couldn’t coordinate a get-together before setting sail for Africa. This was flagged for us months in advance, but was disregarded in hindsight.”

Megan “We definitely didn’t spend enough time together before the race, which I suppose, geographically, was very difficult. We didn’t have our communication or our drafting sorted out, which I think we had been naive enough to think we could sort out on the fly while we were racing. I trained really hard for the race, and had I been racing by myself, the training may have been okay, but it became apparent very early on that the hill climbing I had been doing in the Manawatu hadn’t been the right kind of hills. I really needed to have been working on steeper terrain. There were also discussions we should have had pre-race with regard to team dynamics and how we would balance our strengths and weaknesses, and also with regard to our expectations of the race.”

Out of many, what was the most memorable moment?

John “I’ve got some amazing memories. Some one-off and very specific, and some repetitive and blurred. I loved being woken by the bagpipes each morning, despite the hour. Having helicopters buzzing overhead at the start line was a thrill. The local communities supporting us along the course were very cool. Having the catering staff chanting and marching towards me just before the final start sticks in my mind more than anything though.”

Megan “There were plenty of them, but there were a couple that stood out. I could never quell the sense of pride I felt whenever I heard the announcer call out, “Megan and John from Team Mitre 10 Yeti, here all the way from New Zealand!” I also still harbour vivid memories of the two spectacular crashes I managed to survive on day three and day eight, which claimed bits of my skin and have permanently scarred my elbows and knees. Crashing into your much bigger teammate at 35km/h is not advisable, nor is sticking your front wheel into a foot-wide ditch whilst descending a jeep track at speed.”

What were the most frustrating moments?

John “That Megan and I didn’t sort our communication problems out. I’m a big, wide guy, and I was riding strongly. Someone the other day said riding behind me was ‘like drafting an apartment block’. It was frustrating we couldn’t capitalise on that.”

Megan “Constantly feeling like I was letting John down. It didn’t seem to matter what I did, I just couldn’t do the right thing, and that was really hard for me. I’m a very proud person, and feeling like I wasn’t good enough was something I really struggled with.”

 

The most disappointing or saddest moment for each of us during the week?

John “The saddest thing for me was watching (and hearing, and reading about) Megan struggle with her form. I knew how hard she’d trained—way, way, way harder than I had—and she was devastated that she’d not invested that energy into some key ingredients for the race. Witnessing that was saddening. Also, realising that I was part of the problem was tough. I knew that if I’d not been as strong as I was, she’d probably have had a much better time of it.”

Megan “It made me feel sad that regardless of the fact that we didn’t always see eye to eye, I still finished feeling a sense of achievement that I had been pushed and I had developed as a person. I got the impression that John finished the event not achieving what he had wanted and that I was responsible for holding him back from that. It was hard feeling like I had let down a friend, but also made me a little bit sad that he couldn’t just take the experience for what it was and make something of it. I desperately wanted to hear that he had gotten something out of it. I hated to think he had come all that way to be disappointed.”

What have you learnt from doing the event?

John “It was amazing to go to an event like that, and to be totally rock-solid physically. I’ll be 39 this year, but I still feel like I’m improving as a rider. That’s a pretty amazing feeling. I was surprised to have so much trouble with the team dynamic, and it made me realise I’ve totally taken for granted riding in a team with Simon [Kennett] (usually at mountain bike orienteering events). He and I have functioned incredibly well as a team, but I hadn’t grasped how special that partnership was.”

Megan “The dynamics of racing in a mixed team were so far removed from anything else I had ever done. It made me realise that in any team, the best result will be achieved by using the collective strengths of the team to counteract the collective weaknesses. All team members should finish the event feeling like their full potential was utilised. It’s something that applies to any team environment, not just racing bikes. I don’t think John and I quite got this right for the Cape Epic, but it was a pretty important lesson to learn.”

Talk a bit about the tension in the team during the week.

John “There was a massive gap in riding ability which caused problems in a few ways. It made coordinating the pace difficult, but I think that was the least of our worries. I think the biggest problem it caused was that it made our experiences of the event totally different. Megan was completely rooted all the time, and I wasn’t. I think it made us both want to be apart in the afternoons and evenings; I didn’t want to rub her face in it, and I suspect she also didn’t want to see me looking so fresh. Our personalities also played a part. Megan strikes me as a very proud person, and her pride had certainly taken a dent. I love my friends, and they never let me down, yet I felt like I’d been let down by Megan. Mostly, I was pissed at myself for not interfering more in her training schedule, and didn’t blame her, but I’m sure it seemed as though I did.”

Megan “I felt really embarrassed that I wasn’t able to contribute to the physical strength of the team the way I would have liked. To be honest, I spent the entire week feeling like John was angry at me. I felt like I was trying to make a positive contribution to the team as best I could and that John wasn’t interested in that unless I was able to ride faster. We both faced different types of challenges in the event; I was challenged by the physical nature of trying to keep up with John, while I felt that John was maybe a bit too preoccupied with what preparation we hadn’t done rather than enjoying the event for the experience that it was. I think we also had very different survival methods. For me, having fun at a race goes hand in hand with getting a good result, but I think that John felt like I was having fun at the expense of working hard, which wasn’t the case, but I can understand how he may have seen it that way. Having said all that though, there were still plenty of good memories I have of John from the week. I really appreciated all the towing he did and I wish I had been able to express my gratitude by being a stronger teammate physically.”

The question everyone asks: do you still like your teammate? Do you look at your teammate differently now to before the race?

John “Had the weather not totally crapped out on day eight, my answer to this would be very different. We’d had hot weather up to this point, including 44ºC one afternoon. And then we found ourselves riding in a wet, cold storm, with the temperature down to 6ºC. We were both under-dressed, wet through, and really very miserable. I desperately wanted Megan to stop, so I could race off and hopefully warm up. But she didn’t. And in doing so, she restored a huge amount of my respect. I was cold and wet. She was cold and wet and exhausted, and throwing that last bit in the mix made her decision to continue so much tougher than mine.”

Megan “John and I had our differences over the week, but I have always been a strong advocate of the ‘what goes on tour stays on tour’ school of thought. People behave differently when they race. That inner competitive demon makes us do and say things that aren’t always really the person we are. I like John. He’s a good dude, and I have a lot of respect for him as a rider. We went through a lot together during the Cape Epic, and that’s the sort of thing friendships should be forged on, not destroyed by.”

The interesting thing, when you ponder the above thoughts, was how our responses to these questions seemed so similar. The whole week, we fought our own internal battles, but also seemed to share some of the fonder memories too. And the whole time we kept this to ourselves. We suffered separately and alone instead of sharing our burdens. And we experienced some amazing things without letting the other know that we were glad they had been a part of it. John sums it up perfectly: “It was a very intense time, and one which was very emotionally charged. The experience was much like a difficult relationship, just extremely condensed! We’ve broken up, and I’m not sure we’re ready to hang out just yet.”

Megan Dimozantos and John Randal