Well, I finally went and did the Cape Epic in South Africa last week. I’d been intending to see what this eight-day Magical Untamed African MTB Race was all about for quite some time now, but it’s just never worked out with the schedule. Or I’ve never made it… Rabobank/Giant Teammate Emil Lingren has finished The Epic twice in the last few years and expressed interest in doing it this year. Which made a bunch of sense considering it was one week after the World Cup opener in Pietermaritzburg and finished two weeks before the next round up in Belgium. Our team manager, Leo supported the idea when we proposed it at Team Presentation in December, provided I promised to get in shape to avoid sucking and wasting everyone’s time… I was able to agree to this, nobody likes sucking, after all, especially when it’s pointed out like that.
After the World Cup we made the short flight down to Cape Town and set about resting up properly for the week in an apartment overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. My body was pretty pooped after the travel across the World and difficult racing on Saturday, so the plan was pretty much to take it as easy as possible without becoming completely comatose before Sunday’s Prologue TT. To avoid said coma, Emil and I took Christoph Sauser (who owns an apartment in Stellenbosch) up on attending his midweek fundraiser race at the Kayamandi Township. Songo.info is an organization that sponsors Christoph and Burry Stander for their South African racing pursuits as a way to draw attention to helping the children of these impoverished settlements gain access to sport and a more diverse life. Racing through a Township of tin roofed shantys has a way of making you less concerned about the burning in your legs and somehow it’s easy to push hard when presented with how easy your reality is. So we did. Emil and I came 5th and 6th in a World Cup caliber field and left feeling rough and ready for the Epic. After a few more days of nothingness…
Those days passed quickly and soon enough it was 11:26am on Sunday. We kicked out of the start gate just as Jackie Baker and Josh Fonner (liv/Giant program manager and NY Giant Rep) finished up their Prologue. They said it was a cakewalk… Liars. Emil is effing strong, especially on the steep climbs that dotted the vineyard meandering course. He kept me on the rivet and we passed a bunch of people. Including a team of women with #546 on their back. We had #13. At 30 second intervals, that means they started 4:25:00 in front of us to complete a 27k TT loop. Dang, there’s some tough souls that sign up for The Epic… We made it to the hilltop finish (who’s idea was that?) in an hour fifteen, good enough for sixth place and reassurance that we were indeed ready to contend at the front of the race. Perfect.
A couple hour drive inland, through a tunnel in the Hawequas Mountains where the scenerty changed from verdant vineyards to rugged desert land, delivered us to the arid valley of Robertson. This, and our trusty Kombi Camper, would be our home for the next three nights. Thus my insistence on parking under a shade tree. Survival skills would come in handy this week… It was only when we arrived in the race village that the undertaking that is the Cape Epic’s organization really became obvious to me. 1200 riders need to eat, sleep and live for a week in this roving city. A massive meal tent (where I’d be providing entertainment and anecdotes from the front of the race to the dinner crowd), hundreds upon hundreds of red Absa tents, a whole slew of RV’s, shower trucks, food vendors (the greatest of which was the Woolworth’s truck with it’s free recovery snacks and afternoon top-up meals). The infrastructure is quite impressive, and shade is at a premium! Temperatures were set to be well into the 30’s to start the week (37C is 100F), necessitating smart locations and impressive amounts of water.
Stage one proper is always a grunt, according to Epic regulars. It’s intended to set the tone for the week and weed out the unprepared. Regardless of riding quite strong, almost got weeded out for being unprepared. Emil had a classic JRA flat riding down a smooth gravel road, which we changed in just over a minute and caught back up to the group on the next climb. Then, with about 40k to go, and the three ridiculously steep (two of them unridably so) climbs out of the way, Emil and I were working with the second place group to keep Sauser and Stander’s gap in check. I thought we were doing so quite well, Emil’s initial work on the steep climbs (where I was again surviving) had softened the group up a bit so I took over on the rolling bits and we were both thinking a stage podium was in sight. Then I flatted. Which we fixed quickly as well, while Photographer buddy Sven Martin snapped away) Then I flatted again. And again. Once your tubeless tire with latex sealant has a lowly innertube inside, you’re completely defenseless against the millions of thorns that line the rocky tracks and vineyards. Oh well. We found increasingly comfortable spots to change the litany of punctures and rode at an increasingly conservative pace, opting to lose a touch more time today and save energy for tomorrow. We lost 27min total, and finished 17th on the day. Shoot. But hey, at least we were riding strong before the junk-show started. And we didn’t melt in the heat, which reached 44C at one point. Whoa.
That would be the last we (or I at least) saw of the front of the race. We started stage two, supposedly an easier 120km with less climbing, on heavier tires and hopeful to get some time back. Which would prove difficult with the road-race like pace and terrain. Much of the day was spent on fast District Roads, the rest on jeep tracks rolling through the barren hills. I had a sinking empty feeling in my legs from the two previous days’ efforts that became quite apparent on a 5min road climb around KM60. I got dropped. Never to see the front group again. Emil eventually realized what happened and waited up, as we’re never to be more than two minutes apart, and helped me keep a steady tempo to Water Point Two. Just before which I had the opportunity to walk, aided by fatigue, frustration and dust/sweat soaked glasses, into a metal fence right at nose level. Nothing like getting dropped AND a black eye/bloody nose. We held on for the rest of the day working with the chase group to end up 14th, but I could feel my body’s emptiness. It was a concerning feeling.
Eating is pretty much your life at the Cape Epic. On the bike, the second you cross the finish line, all afternoon right up to bed (which, with dawn and the start coming at 7am) happens before nine… I knew that this particular afternoon was going to be key for replenishment, so I set about it. By bedtime I’d eaten about a half-pound each of rice and sweet potatoes, a steak, a can of tuna, three bananas, two apples, two bowls of cereal, a salad, a custard dessert, enough Himalayan Salt to last a week and a Woolies Top-Up bag consisting of sweet potato salad and a chocolate shake. Plus a bit of random other stuff like barbecue peanuts and dried fruit.
It was the dried fruit that I had the pleasure of seeing amongst the stomach bile that came up when I rolled into the fetal position, shivering, at Water Point One on stage three. This pleasantry came after I took nearly three hours to cover 57km of mostly flat terrain (aside from one soul-crushing 6km rocky hike-a-bike climb and subsequent paved descent). Brilliant. I was able to get a ride with the concerned looking medics back to the race village eventually. It was an impressively long drive, but that’s to be expected for a stage that covers 143km. Yup, 89 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing over lumpity-bumpbity jeep tracks and district roads for the folks tough enough to complete, which was most of them… Impressive.
Once at the Medical HQ, they took a urine sample and blood sample to gauge my fluid levels and pronounced me dangerously dehydrated. Obviously. My options were to immediately start an IV drip if I wanted to continue on stage four, risking kidney damage due to grossly imbalanced fluid levels. Or to accept my fate and quit. With the Houffalize World Cup and a chance at Olympic Glory 18 days away, I chose to honor the give up option that had already been exercised quite effectively by my body.
For some reason the toughness ethic that pervades this particular event has gotten into my normally analytical brain quite deeply over the first couple days. The party line at the Epic is SURVIVAL. It’s what the eventual winners are doing just as much as the poor blokes that are out there for 10 hours per day, every day, surviving. It’s a serious test of being. One that I’d failed impressively early, and that kind of tears me up inside, regardless of how obvious it was that continuing was not an option. Fortunately, Rabobank’s agreement to go out on a limb and send us to the Epic wasn’t completely disrespected, Emil continued on as an Outcast, riding in a black jersey and unable to factor into the stage outcome, but having the Untamed African Experience nonetheless.
I, as I often do when feeling like a bit of a failure, got the hell out of there. Thursday morning I was on a flight to Johannesburg, then Frankfurt on my way to the Mediterranean Island of Mallorca, off the coast of Spain and world renowned for it’s perfect weather and ideal riding. Rabo teammates Katie Compton and Rosara Joseph posted up here to train for Houffalize and that’s just what I’ll be doing, if I can ever get my health back. The flu bug has turned into a cold and I’m sat here in the sunshine, shivering, just like five days ago on that lonely District Road in South Africa… Wondering if I’ll ever go back to The Epic and finish things up. Trans Provence sounds a touch more fun, but a good test is what makes us strong, right?
Here’s to all the finishers, I’m impressed, no, shocked, at the level of riding that happens throughout the field at the Epic. World Cup pace at the front and 60 hours of survival at the back. Hats off to you, folks.
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Even Sven had puncture problems on the media moto. Thanks for all the fine Photos, Sven. Check out his work at http://www.svenmartinphotography.com/