White River local, Julia Westoby lost her dad to colon cancer eight years ago. She describes this as a turning point and, now in her mid-forties, she is steadily conquering thousands of kilometers at a time, most recently finishing sixth alongside her partner, “Starbuks” in the Absa Cape Epic Ladies Amateur category. Jules, as we call her, chats to us about everything, from 4am training sessions to building communities, resilience to criticism, and adjusting to life after conquering 16,000 meters of two-wheel climbing in the Cape’s majestic (and brutal) mountain ranges.

For those who aren’t familiar, what is the Absa Cape Epic and how did you end up participating in your first one this year?

It’s a multi-day mountain bike (MTB) team stage race that takes place in the Western Cape in the most incredible environment. Over eights days you cover 600kms and about 16,000 meters of climbing. I believe it’s the biggest professional mountain bike race in the world. As a professional your team sponsors you, but as amateurs you enter a kind of lottery to participate.

How did I get my spot? A few years ago I was riding in a Barberton event and struck up a friendly competition throughout that race with another cyclist, Remofilwe. Remofilwe was part of an Absa program called #SheUntamed, designed to improve women’s access to the sport of MTB. Two years after that race in Barberton Remofilwe phoned me up and asked if I would like to ride the Cape Epic. Although I said “yes” it was only three weeks before the race that my entry was confirmed. As a mature rider with a few competitions, and years, under my belt I was being paired up with a young rider in her twenties from Botswana. Her name is Matshediso Ebudilwe and her nickname is “Buks” although I called her “Starbuks” (smiles).

How many kilometers did you cycle as part of the training for the Cape Epic and where did you place?

I racked up about 6000kms worth of training and me and Starbuks finished 6th in the Ladies amateur category. 13 teams started in this category and only nine finished.

Was the race as tough as you thought it would be?

Physically I prepared as hard as I could. If it rained, I trained. If it was unusually hot, I trained. I sought out technical and steep hills and, as mentioned, I put in about 6000kms on top of my usual out-of-race-season training schedule. I was up on weekdays at 4am and on weekends I was often putting in nine hours or more in the saddle. But it’s hard to prepare for the race environment. When you finish a stage at the end of a day, you need to recover, eat at least two to three times, shower, clean your clothes, prepare your bike, attend the next day’s race briefing, formulate your strategy for the next stage and then get as much sleep as possible. All of that before you’ve even had a chance to process what you’ve been through that day. Eating is hard: When you’ve gone passed starving you almost have to force yourself to go through the motions. When I did eventually lie down in my tent and close my eyes, I should’ve been sleeping, but spent a lot of time integrating the new experiences of that day.   

During tough moments, what got you through?

The first thing I think of is the voices of my kids. There’s no doubt in their minds that I would finish the race and so I kept going for them. If they believe you can, then you can. Then there’s the support crew at the finish line of every stage, and the support and banter from all the amazing people on the Whatsapp group that we had set up. My mom, my mom-in-law and my close friend, Caroline, were the on-course support crew… at the end of each day with my recovery drink and a bag for my dusty clothes. Caroline would say: “Cement Jules. You could be working but look at where you are.” So in the tough moments there was also that immense gratitude that this is what I was doing in this amazing place.

What Caroline means when she says: “Cement Jules.”

Many people who work and have young children will be asking HOW does she fit it all in.

I’m very lucky to have my husband, Nolan, on my support team (smiles). In the months of training, I would usually be out on the trails at 4am. Noles would get the kids ready for school which meant all I had to do was get through my two hours of early morning training. He also manned the fort while I was away on the actual ride. I had incredible support from my family and friends who made it fun for me. My ex-Olympian friend who did strength training with me and another one of my cycling partners who is also a chiropractor who helped me stretch and work on injuries. There were so many laughs along the way it didn’t feel like “fitting it in”. Most of the time, it just felt like fun.

Can you describe what this level of training and sports does for you? What are you experiencing on a long ride?

I love endurance, pushing myself to the max. More than the race itself, I love the process of getting to the race. I remember the day I rode my first solo 100km in the pouring rain… experiences like that fill my soul. When you finish nine hours on a bike, you’re not on a high, but when you’re out in the mountains and forests, there’s such peace. There are so many mornings when you’re behind at work and life and you think: “I don’t have time for this, what am I doing?” But then you finish your training session and realise all your problems have gone. Also, there’s something about getting to watch the sunrise every morning!

Me and Starbuks with our medals

What questions did you ask yourself about life – if any – on the race?

90% of the time I was thoroughly enjoying myself! The battle and life questions come up after the fact. There is so much prep that goes in before the event, but no-one preps you for afterwards. I struggled a little to fit back into a normal routine. For six months I had been so focused on achieving this goal and everything is so structured in order to get me there. Then it finishes and you’re mentally done. Plus your body is tired. So all you want to do is continue riding, but then when you’re riding your body and mind are saying “no”. It’s a push and pull. There’s a real challenge in coming down from that level of adrenaline and finding your balance again.

A screenshot from our Whatsapp group

Did you cry at all? What were those tears about?

My biggest tears were in the training stages. In between Christmas and New Year I had a big crash on a solo ride. I was emotionally exhausted and I just sat in my tears and asked myself: “What are you doing? Everyone is about to celebrate a new year and you’re here sitting in a puddle of mud, in pain, crying.” I also cried in the final stage. We were about 10kms from the race village and the finish line, and I could hear the celebrations. I took a minute to think about what I’d done with a partner who I hadn’t met until two days before the race began. It’s like from the movies: Throw two characters together and they overcome everything and make it to the end together. So I cried my tears before the finish-line and they washed some of the mud and sweat off my face, so they were constructive tears (laughs).

With my husband, Nolan, and my children, Craigy & Aidy

How do you think the epic will change your life?

My goals have changed. Now I want to finish three Cape Epics, to become part of an elite group of athletes who have done the same. It is called the “Amabubesi Finishers Club” and to join you need to finish the eight days of the Absa Cape Epic three times. I also want to do at least two overseas events. I loved riding with a young development rider – it was such a special journey for me and Starbuks and so I hope in future I get to partner with more young riders in whatever way.


When and why did you begin cycling?

I was dared at Uni to enter the 94.7 cycle race. And so I borrowed a bike and did it.

And what other sports do you enjoy?

Anything with some competition (laughs). I still play hockey (go White River!) and I’m also a tennis coach.

How do you support your health and what supplements do you take?

My big thing is getting enough sleep. I’m in bed early and I’m up early. I have a balanced diet and when I’m training, I use the Rx range of supplements: There’s a protein, recovery and energy drink that I use. I want to state that I checked this range with Dr. Rav and got the “all clear” (laughs). I also take L-glutamine, vitamin C, vitamin D and turmeric, the last two for pain management.

How do you eat for this kind of training?

I don’t change much in my diet. I find that what I do every day works well for me. The only difference is that during race time… there is a lot more eating that takes place. My body loves greens: Salad, spinach, asparagus. Some coaches advise against too much fibre during a race, but my body needs it. And while a lot of people eat bowls and bowls of rice, this doesn’t work for me. I do tend to feel hungry all the time, to the point that I need a protein shake before bed so that I don’t wake up hungry (laughs). Some other foods that I love that won’t surprise you: Biltong, steak, nuts, and bananas.

What’s the biggest lesson that you could share with others about preparing your body for this kind of event?

Listen to your own body and trust it. Just because something works for someone else doesn’t mean that it will work for you. You need to test though… so if you have a hunch that something works well for you, don’t wait until race day to test it. You really need to fuel well. There are days that I’m on the road as part of my job and I don’t fuel well enough and I suffer for it for the next couple of sessions. Lastly – hydration!

Complete the sentence:

If I was the mayor of White River for a day, I would…

…be in the community getting everyone on bike.

If I could meet any person, it would be…

…Junko Tabei, the first female mountaineer to summit Mount Everest.

If I was an animal, I would be…

…a giraffe because I love the meaning of the Zulu translation, indlulamithi: “Taller than trees.”

My healthiest habit is…

…I don’t drink much alcohol.

Our lives often have an important turning point. So far, what would you say yours has been?

When my dad passed away eight years ago. That year I was offered an entry to the joberg2c bike race, which was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I believed I couldn’t afford it, but then I thought: “If I’ve only got 20 years left, there’s no waiting for the perfect time to do things.” His death really changed my approach to this one life we have.

“There’s no waiting for the perfect time to do things.”

What colour would you say you are, and why?

Blue. To me blue is freedom, positivity, and inspiration.

When you’re feeling out of alignment, what do you do to support your mindset and your spirit?

I ride my bike! And I love being out on the water paddling.

Is there something about yourself that you are willing to share that most people don’t know?

I love donuts! Also, I’m very superstitious about my race day prep. For example (much to Dr. Rav’s dismay ;-)) I have to have a Steers burger the night before a race. And I have a very strict formula for getting dressed before a race.

What has surprised you the most about life after 40? Is there a lesson that stands out?

I’m less concerned about the impact that people have on me and more concerned about the impact that I can have on others.  My community is smaller, I’m less likely to want to impress and I’m less concerned about what other people think. For example, there’s always criticism that comes at a busy woman: “How can she spend time away from her kids and family.” I have my community and I’m less worried about what people might be saying.

What I have done has made my children more confident. They see me doing things outside of my comfort zone and they’re my biggest fans and I love that. My eight-year-old son asked me: “How old do you need to be to do the Epic”. That question makes me happy.

Community. Bikes. Forest. Friends.

What’s one health thing that you’re working on and why?

I didn’t grow up in a “foodie” family. Our love language was expressed in other ways: Camping and being out on the water. I struggle to get into the food thing, to plan meals, to be more mindful of planning nutrition. I’m working on it (winks).

Is there anything else that you would like to share about this phase of your life?

It’s a really meaningful phase and I love creating meaning with others.