Local mom wins spot at Cape Epic mountain bike race

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By her own account, Melissa Wonders is an average Santa Rosa mom who enjoys riding a bicycle for exercise whenever she can find the time, which is usually at dawn before she heads off to work as a dental hygienist.

Soon enough, however, this average mom will board a plane for South Africa and one of the world’s most grueling athletic endurance events – the 8-day, 338-mile ABSA Cape Epic mountain bike race in which 20 percent of riders, many of them professionals, burn or crash out.

The hardest bike ride Wonders, 41, has done to date was an 8-hour race in the relatively flat environs of Mendocino County. The Cape Epic, by contrast, features 54,626 feet of climbing, equivalent to scaling Bennett Peak, the highest point in Trione- Annadel State Park, an astonishing 28 times.

With only two months to train for the March race, Wonders has had to consider whether she’s lost her mind. She usually finishes dead last in local bike races. Not long ago, the mother of three dislocated her shoulder after she crashed into the back of a biking companion while riding in Oakmont.

But there’s no turning back now.

“I think I might have the grit to do the training,” she said. “Every average person needs a chance at an awesome story.”

This fanciful tale began when Wonders entered a contest for entry into the Cape Epic after she read about the race on Instagram. Contestants were asked to submit a 1,000-word statement on why they were deserving, and in hers, Wonders wrote “everyone needs that one epic story of their lifetime.”

“I think by choosing me for this gift of a lifetime I would be a great representation of the other 99 percent of people who ride bikes,” she went on. “Everyone always loves to see your average Jane get a shot.”

For good measure, Wonders ended her entry with a happy face emoji.

To her shock, she won the only grand prize out of hundreds of entries: an all-expenses paid trip of a lifetime for her and a friend, with airfare to South Africa included, plus race entry fees, clothing and training provided by the elite Carmichael Training Systems. Total package value: $31,500.

South Africa is a long way from Rincon Valley, where Wonders lives with her husband, Tracy Williams. Simply getting there will test her endurance.

But in other ways the journey represents a bit of a homecoming for Wonders. One of the first people she shared the news with was Guy Bondi, whom she befriended decades ago when the pair attended classes at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Wonders recalled being an overweight smoker as a college student. One day in class, Bondi told her about how his mother would get out of bed before dawn to work out. She told her son if he wanted something bad enough, he just had to do it.

Wonders said the story struck a chord. She began running, kickboxing and doing Pilates and yoga. Eventually she added cycling to the mix. She kicked the smoking habit and the weight came off.

Bondi, a personal trainer who owns Insight Fitness Studio on College Avenue, is now helping Wonders train for the Cape Epic.

Wonders selected one of her cycling buddies, Megan Skidmore, to accompany her on the adventure to South Africa. Skidmore, 34, is an employee at NorCal Bike Sport in Santa Rosa. Her background includes nearly turning pro as a triathlete.

The pair’s training regimen for the South Africa race is grueling by most standards, spanning every day of the week with hard workouts on the bike, spin classes and weight training. In February, they will prepare for South Africa’s warm temperatures by sitting in the sauna after bike rides.

On Fridays, the pair meet up for long rides on trails favored by local mountain bikers.

“I’ve connected with her on this journey,” Skidmore said. “It’s been – I can’t even think of the word – amazing.”

Wonders is being sponsored by The Trail House, NorCal Bike Sport and The Bike Peddler, and she will participate in the South Africa race on a donated Santa Cruz Bicycles mountain bike.

According to race rules, Wonders and Skidmore cannot be separated by more than two minutes while on the course. Otherwise, they could be disqualified.

Organizers describe the course as a combination of rugged mountain trails, bone-jarring dual tracks, windswept gravel roads and sand. Each day riders roll out of town into hinterlands where “heaven and hades are the opposite sides of the same coin,” as the race website puts it.

Riders sleep in single- person tents over the course of the 8-day race. They will greet each day with a buffet breakfast and at each stage finish, their bikes will be cleaned. Both members of a two-person team must complete the race to be declared official finishers.

Wonders’ only goal is to finish.

“I may not have been the most qualified or capable person to have been chosen for this race, but I will go to bed every night knowing I am doing the best I can to be successful at it,” she wrote in an email. “I will not take for granted this amazing opportunity and I’m giving it my all.”

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