MARK ETHERIDGE: No mountain high enough for extreme rider Simone Sharpe
Adventurer and cancer survivor shows ‘faith can move mountains’ as she trains for Cape Epic
If ever there were someone who could take a phrase like “faith can move mountains” and truly own it, it is self-described adventurer Simone Sharpe.
The 34-year-old’s name popped up on social media this week, having completed the gruelling Attakwas Extreme one-day mountain bike challenge on her trusty old, unserviced hard-tail (no rear suspension).
“It was really tough,” understates Sharpe about the Southern Cape race between Oudtshoorn and Klein Brak River on the coast. “The temperature was around 40°C and apparently reached 52°C at some stages.
“My back brakes went, halfway into the race and from 40km out I had to get out and pump my back wheel every few kilometres due to a slow puncture.”
But you know what? She wouldn’t swap her hard-going experience for the world (perhaps for a newer mountain bike).
This gritty woman from George, who had an amazing childhood as one of five children to Keith and Pam Sharpe, has learnt over time that movement and being outdoors are life-changing tools for her, both physically and mentally — and probably many others as well.
Go back to 2008 and we find Sharpe, blunted by dire illness at Constantiaberg Clinic where she’d just had a full blood plasma exchange before a splenectomy procedure (spleen removal).
“I remember looking up at the Constantiaberg peak and just wishing I could be out of my bed and wishing it closer. I was fighting for my life but that mountain was ‘speaking’ to me and I promised myself that one day I would climb it.”
She stuck to her promise and in 2022, despite admitting to having very little sporting talent, completed the gruelling 13 Peaks Challenge trail running race, which involves summiting the 13 peaks in the Table Mountain range.
“One of those peaks was Constantiaberg and whenever I think about it the tears flow,” she sniffles.
She’s also done the Six Peaks trail event in her home area of George and the gruelling Puffer across the Cape Peninsula. The next challenge is the big daddy of mountain biking, the Absa Cape Epic, where she will team up with Ingrid Avidon as part of the Absa She Untamed cycling group.
But we have to turn the clock even further back than 2008 to see what makes Sharpe tick. She hit her first serious hiccup at 15 while at York High in George when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes.
“My dad [who owns a construction company in the town] and I were together when we heard the results, and I’ll never forget him telling me: ‘Whatever it is, we’ll get through it. It’ll be hard for a while then you’ll be OK’.
“It’s kind of how I’ve dealt with my challenges ever since.”
And challenges she has had. “I had to have chemo and then radiation treatment. They tattoo the exact marks where the radiation is directed — one either side of my chest and the other in the middle.”
That was where her self-described “tattoo journey” began. She now boasts 30, almost one for every year of her life!
After the self-described “wild child” finished school in 2007 she was accepted to do a learnership in tourism. But during the six months to the scheduled July start, things went downhill quickly.
“I started noticing hectic bruises all over my body. Admittedly, I was partying quite a lot after finishing school and thought the bruising might be just from bumping about.”
But it turned out to be more than a bump in the night. Back at the oncologist more tests revealed that she had a unique form of a condition called idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, and her blood platelets had fallen to unacceptably dangerous levels.
That’s what got her into Constantiaberg, yearning for the mountains, on a high dose of steroids that did not help, and then the splenectomy after a full plasma exchange followed by more chemotherapy, after which she stabilised.
Her self-image wasn’t being helped by her ballooning weight due to the steroids, and at one stage her weight shot up to 87kg. “Now I’m averaging 65kg. I got down to 62kg in 2020, but couldn’t sustain it as I just like food too much, but I’d probably like to lose 2kg-3kg more before Epic to just be lighter on the bike.”
Her yearning for the mountain was at an all-time high as she was in remission, but she was by no means out of the woods.
“I got dreadful pains in my shoulder and more tests revealed I had bad avascular necrosis in the shoulder due to the a combination of the steroids and chemo. I had keyhole surgery to both shoulders but the left one was so bad that I had to have a shoulder replacement and now my left shoulder is all titanium.
“Going through all these challenges was honestly just so sh*t and you think what good can come out of all of this, but I’ve finally realised that the good is it made me who I am today, grateful to be alive and so aware of being able to move my body and, more importantly, move it in nature.”
The Cape Epic looms large in mid-March and remember, Sharpe only started mountain biking in October 2023.
But in the shape of Erica Groenewald (née Green), a two-time Olympian (once on a road bike, the next on a mountain bike (and owner of Daisyway Coaching Systems for the last 25 years), she has the perfect coach.
“I’ve only met Simone recently, but wow, what a girl! I just love her take on life... she’s been around the block a couple of times and come out good on the other end,” says Groenewald.
“She’s been a pleasure to work with so far and she’s definitely got the grit and durability to get through something like the Epic.”
Back to Sharpe: “The Epic will be the most difficult thing that I do intentionally but I choose to do it. I’m not worrying about places or times but about giving my best and not giving up.
“I didn’t start off in the best place but I’m getting stronger and it’s feeling amazing. I really want to inspire others to just move, get outside and not take their ability to move lightly.”
Watch out mountains and challenges of the Cape Epic, Simone Sharpe is on the move, changing gears, and, more importantly, hoping to change lives.
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