How Ann Harrison Turned Her Passion into a Life of Inspiring Adventures

Ann Harrison has turned a lifetime of cycling experience into a life of inspiring adventures. Here's how she does it.


BY TIM BRINK |

The sweeps on the bigger mountain-bike races do an amazing job of cajoling – and sometimes, rescuing – fellow riders in their temporary moments of distress. 

The Absa Cape Epic pioneered this service with the Hyenas; a pair of fit and technically able riders, who follow behind the very last competitor on the course. Their role is fully hands-off – the moment a rider receives outside assistance, be it a push, a sip of water or an emergency repair, they are disqualified. 

For the Epic’s sibling event, the FNB Wines2Whales, the guides are more involved. With everything being a whole lot less serious, they get stuck in with actual rescues, both mechanical and medical. 

At W2W in 2023, two of our Bicycling staffers snuck in under the radar and rode the week-opening Chardonnay event. Neither had met Ann Harrison before except in passing; but seeing her in action – gently moving a huddled group of MAMILs out of the way to refit a broken chain, and nursing a broken rider to the nearest rescue point – made quite the impression. 

Ann Harrison cycling

Giving back

Few of the entrants at the FNB Wines2Whales, battling their own personal goals and crises, will have realised the calibre of the guide in their midst. Harrison’s not just an accomplished racer, but is now also a pioneer of self-supported touring – sometimes even on her own, as she seeks the ultimate riding experience. But the W2W Guide gig was a first for her.

“It started with a message from Eldorette [Carinus] about two weeks before, asking if I was doing W2W. Would I be interested in being one of the guides, who check people in at the starts each day, and then start after C batch and help where we could if there were problems? 

“I thought it was a great idea – you get to see lots of people you know, and lots of new ones, you deal with different personalities. People are just so nice. Sometimes not! But mostly so nice. 

“It’s not quite like the Hyenas, which can be soul destroying; because we could ride where we wanted, go fast, go slow, catch up and let people pass us. Whereas they must stay behind the very last rider, no matter what, and just observe. 

“I had one medical emergency. I came round a corner, on singletrack, and there was a guy lying there holding his shoulder. There were two other guides there, but I think I just took over because I knew exactly what this guy was going through.” A little over a year ago, Harrison had her own medical emergency – a huge crash, with multiple broken bones, that put her off the bike for six months. 

“He was just sitting there, and I thought, ‘Shame man, I’m going to help you.’ His partner eventually came back up the mountain, from the bottom of the descent; but in the meantime I’d called the medics, who were amazing. 

“We decided it was best to move him back up to the top, to the nearest point a rescue vehicle could get to. His partner took the bike, and we started bundu bashing, because we couldn’t go on the track – there were loads of riders coming down still, and he couldn’t just jump out of the way in a hurry if someone suddenly appeared. I felt so sorry for him. When he told me he couldn’t breathe, I thought, O help, maybe he’s got broken ribs,’ and I just hoped he hadn’t punctured a lung or something.      

“So we went through the bushes. I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m on snake patrol!’ and just tried to encourage him. In the beginning, he hung onto my backpack, but as we got along, he got a bit more mobile; but I could see how much pain he was in, and how brave he was being. Stepping over things and finding a firm footing going uphill with a broken scapula and broken ribs is not easy – sudden movements are terrible. 

“We got to the top and he was as white as a sheet – I think with the pain and the shock – just as the medics arrived in the Fortuner. They gave him a Dormicum, and we carried on with the next thing. I caught up with his partner later that night… I wouldn’t say it was a nice situation, but it was nice to be able to help.

“The rest was hilarious. The second day, everybody fended for themselves. It was so muddy! I found a guy with a jammed chain, and we got stuck in – three of us working together, in horrendous conditions, and we had to split it to free it – and by the time we stood back proudly to look at our handiwork, we realised we’d put it back together on the outside of the frame! So we had to do it all again. We were in hysterics. 

“And then on the last day, I came round a corner and there were two girls, bike upside down. The chain kept on falling off. I stopped and had a look; and I could see one of the derailleur cages – the one on the inside – had broken, so the chain would keep popping out. I said there was nothing I could do, but I told them they should walk to the next water point and maybe there would be some tech help there – it was probably an hour of walking. 

“Of course, two youngsters… they really didn’t want to listen to me. I stayed about 10, 15 minutes. One of them phoned their dad… I eventually had to tell them I needed to get going, to help other people. 

“The rest was so pleasant to ride, and to just ride the route. And to not have a partner! My backpack was quite heavy – I had Stans, I had tubes, I had enough to fix most things. But it was such fun.”

The lone ranger

As you might have gathered, this wasn’t Harrison’s first rodeo. She’s an accomplished mountain-bike racer, and more recently, endurance guru – just as happy to take on the rigours of the Freedom Challenge, or an impromptu five-day tour with mates, as she is to pack her bags overnight and head off into the hills on her own.

“It’s been a good year. I’ve done five or six tours; Epic and Wines2Whales were a surprise; and then friends of mine asked me to do the last leg of Freedom in July (with two days’ notice!). That was amazing. 

“And the 1000 Miler with Andrew Walker was probably my highlight. We slept rough five or six nights out of the 10. Sometimes in campsites, but also in abandoned buildings: in a little town called Verkeerdevlei, we were lying on a piece of grass having a rest, and a farmer stopped to chat. He told us to speak to ‘Sean the Indian’, in town. 

“Sean turned out to be Sean the Pakistani, with the most beautiful spaza shop. He showed us the bar he owned, and we bought some beers from his bottle store – he was the man of the town! 

“Then we told him we were looking for somewhere to sleep. Big smile, and as with everything else, ‘No problem!’ He showed us this abandoned house. It had a shower, but no toilet. A cold shower… yoh, but we felt like a million dollars. And we slept there, and it was one of the highlights of the trip.”

“And when we rode into Edenburg, the lady in the bottle store took one look at us and asked us where we were staying. I told her, and she went really quiet. Next minute the bottle store is looking after our bikes and bags, and she’s driving us around the town – and where we were booked in was dire. We ended up staying in her late mother’s flat. People are wonderful.”

Harrison’s move into the realms of touring and exploring began with the Freedom Challenge. “I sort of got to this point, towards 2014/2015, where we’d done a lot of Epics; and I’d heard about Freedom and I thought, ‘What a stupid thing to do!’ Then a friend of mine, Theo van Dyk, encouraged me to do it. I still wasn’t that interested, but I started doing some of his training with him, and a small recce ride, and… I just enjoyed the pace. 

“In 2015 I did the Ride to Rhodes. And I was flipping fit! We had an amazing ride – it was in the middle of the drought, so the conditions were wonderful. And once you’ve done a little bit of it, then the bug bites. 

“And then I started thinking how easy it was to create your own tours. South Africa is wonderful. We’ve got so many district roads, and they aren’t going to be tarring any of them soon; they can’t even fix the ones we have! 

“And the people you meet, the people you ride with… The riding is just riding, but it’s what you experience on your rides that makes it amazing. Where you think your bike can take you.” 

The famed solo tour through the backroads (and bushes) of the Western Cape is what has set Harrison apart somewhat in the endurance riding world. But she wouldn’t change a thing (and might just do it again, even though two is her perfect tour group size). “The best thing about riding alone is everything is at your speed. You get everything done so quickly, it’s lovely. I tried to get a few people to join me, but nobody could, and the gap in the weather was perfect; so I just went.” 

How did Harrison rationalise the solo tour to her family? “Well… the family didn’t really even get considered! But my middle son dropped me off at Hoogekraal, because I started there to avoid having to ride out of the city. He was very worried about me. ‘Mom, is it safe?’ 

“I told him, I’ve ridden all these routes and roads. I knew exactly where I was staying each night. I had a little WhatsApp group sending pictures and updates. ‘Ja, but you’re on your own.’ Well, you won’t actually believe what the people are like out there.

“The riding is just riding; but it’s what you experience on your rides that makes it amazing.”

“I’m very aware of people on the road – I always have a plan, long before they even know I’m there, whether it’s crossing the road or being ready to go a bit faster. But the reality is, as soon as you’re out of the city, people are just amazed to see you out there. Yes, people know you have everything on you, so you have to be quite vigilant. 

“But more important, to me, is keeping me and my bike safe. You don’t want to topple over and twist something or break something – on you or the bike – because then you really are in trouble. So I’m super-careful with what I ride and don’t ride. I think that’s the most dangerous thing, not other people, to be honest.

“What’s really nice about bikepacking is you can ride at a pace where you don’t really feel your legs, and I don’t think you’re doing yourself any damage, like you do when you race. And we’re getting to an age now where we must start looking after our bodies!

“Once you’ve done something, and you look back at the whole, blanket experience… even if some of it has been tough, there are few times on a bike that are regrettable.”

What’s next? 

“I’m doing Trans Portugal next year, and tagging some touring on to that. And maybe the Rhino Run – I was watching that, it looks amazing. In fact, I’m meeting Andrew Walker – who I did the 1000 Miler with? And I know he’s quite keen. I don’t think I would want to do it on my own, and we ride well together. 

“I don’t want to race it; I want to sleep a bit. I know the front guys do sleep a little, but… I don’t think it’s good for you. And the moral support helps immensely on those terribly long rides.

“And then, next week, I’m heading off to the Cederberg for a few weeks with St Cyprians, to run their Grade 9 mountain-biking programme.” 

How have times changed in the decades since we were at school, that one of the top girls’ schools in the country is embracing mountain biking? And how fortunate are those girls, to have a role model like Ann Harrison to show them the way. 

The many ways, truthfully; because she really has shown all of us what’s possible on two wheels.

DIY: The Harrison Way

Start small – two or three days, B&B to B&B, and I guarantee the bug will bite. And don’t bite off more than you can chew. 50-60km a day, maybe 80, as you learn how a loaded bike works and affects your skills and endurance. You can build up to the 100-plus-kilometre days later – there are lots of places in the Karoo where they’re actually fun – but learn on easier stuff first. Rather get in early to mid-afternoon, have a beer and a lie-down, and check out the local people and places.

Spend good money on good equipment – the middle of nowhere is not the place to discover why that budget frame bag costs less. It’s a huge investment; but if you only buy once, it isn’t. A proper jacket, decent bags, name-brand layers.

Plan everything – and eventually you won’t have to plan anything. I’m basically ready to roll on minimal notice now, with other people or by myself, if I just feel like it. Pouring over maps is half the fun, though!

Carry your stuff – it’s so liberating knowing you’re self-sufficient, rather than having to work out where your back-up vehicle is loitering when you need it.

Swim – I always stop and swim wherever I can, it’s my thing. I love it. It’s cooling, in the heat; but it also gives you a break, I guess. You never regret a swim! 

Choose your partners carefully – you have to have like-minded people, who won’t get stressed by the slower pace and relaxed atmosphere of touring. Two people is the perfect number (okay, three. Or four!), and there must never be pressure to speed up or slow down. Just enjoy.

Always look back to where you’ve ridden from – you’ll be quite proud of what you’ve done, and what you can do.

The Harrison Kit List

I use my backpack to carry my sleeping bag and food. I’ve bought most of my equipment from cycletouring.co.za, which stocks great brands. And they’re very knowledgeable.

Saddle bag

I use the Revelate Terrapin system 14-litre seat bag, as it has a separate waterproof bag that slips into the housing that’s attached to your bike. The inner bag is easily removed, allowing easy access to your equipment and clothing when you stop. 

I bought one of those stretchy cargo nets used for motorbike touring, from Takealot; it goes on top of my Terrapin, so I can store extra water if necessary. Or, it’s a great place to put clothing that you need on and off all day

Handlebar bag

My advice on bike-packing equipment is to buy a good brand, such as Revelate, Ortlieb, etc. They’re very expensive, but can handle the rough stuff. Bike packing is an investment; and the better your equipment, the longer it lasts.

A friend made my handlebar bag. My tent fits in it perfectly. If I’m not carrying a tent, then I use this bag for extra storage. Great for jackets, food, medical kit, etc. If I want to go even lighter, then I use a small Mango Time handlebar bag.

Lights

I use Extreme Lights for my bike, and I bought helmet lights from The Torch Guy in Somerset West. The head torch has two batteries, so one is always fully charged. I use a red light on the back of my bike at all times.

Sleep system

I bought a tent that weighs 1.7kg from Naturehike. But if I don’t take a tent, I have a very light ground sheet; and a First Ascent blow-up mattress and pillow, sleeping bag, silk inner (if riding in winter), and a Radbag bivvy. 

Shoes

For bike packing I recommend a non-carbon-soled shoe, as they are easier to walk in. My current shoes are Scott, with a Boa system. But they can break; and even though Boa will replace them free of charge, you should always carry some spares. A lot of people use Shimano shoes – and even boots, if riding in winter – but they’re difficult to get here in SA.

Gloves

Most of the time I ride in short gloves. In cold weather I have long gloves, and in really cold weather I have Sealskinz gloves.

Riding Kit

As an Enjoy ambassador, I ride in their kit. I’ve ridden long days in the Proxision shorts, and they work really well. 

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