Alighting the BA flight into Cape Town airport and the enormity of the Cape Epic took all of a few seconds to hit. A huge Cape Epic advert on a wall greeted all passengers but it would be the select few who’s hairs stood on end. Why? Because we were taking part in the world’s hardest MTB race and shit just got real.
The scale of the event continued to impress upon my partner and I as we soaked up the buzz around the city and formally checked in. The friendly atmosphere was electric everywhere we went and a blend of trepidation and excitement was concocting within us. How hard was this really going to be?
Everywhere we went, people had a story. Previous competitors and mechanics with anecdotes of horror stories were aplenty, along with a raised eyebrow or two when we’d mentioned a piece of kit that we hadn’t considered (tubeless tyres were a last minute minor adjustment to the set up!).
Logistics, preparation, strategy, fuelling, the wheels of Cape Epic were in motion and were not to stop until the finish line. It was clear that not only did we have to apply ourselves to a level our mind and bodies had yet to reach on the bike but also keep all our ducks in a row off the bike to enable us to focus on the pedalling.
We had an early start time for the prologue and the epic setting gave us a hint of the stages that would be laid out for us at each location. The first foray into the mountains enabled us to acclimatise and assess the terrain and standard of trails. Testing climbs and exhilarating downhill sections confirmed that our entire MTB skills would be required for the week ahead. Not to mention our hearts, lungs and minds.
Day one. Day one! WHAT WAS THAT?! We crossed the line with half an hour to spare from the cut off and we were on our eyelashes. I don’t think it will be possible to spend 9 hours on a mountain bike again and experience so many different types of weather conditions, terrain, effort levels, technical issues and strategy challenges. Welcome to Cape Epic 2015.
Sadly, as soon as we were welcomed to the race with aplomb, my partner said farewell. Replicating the trials and tribulations of day one over and over again was just not sustainable for him so he reflected over dinner and made the decision to withdraw. On one hand, this liberated me of the tough dynamic all the other riders faced; pacing with your partner. But it also threw up new challenges I didn’t anticipate or prepare for.
Starting with the last group on day two was a pretty lonely existence and in order to catch up with some friends placed much higher in the race standings, I faced a goal that I no idea if achievable. There was a mismatch in riding ability and fitness levels amongst my peers with whom I started the day(s) and it would be the beginning of a routine I’d become part of everyday as I smashed the pedals hard early on to work my way through the field, reeling in start group after start group in order to catch up with my buddies. Go as hard as you can from the start line then hang on for dear life – not exactly textbook strategy!
Each day I’d pass the same guys who would all wish me well and quip about being a Brit or something which kept me going and help build rapport with those familiar backsides I’d be forever chasing. I was vulnerable without a partner and a tyre tear and chain break made me feel isolated and anxious but with the correct preparation, amazing support at feed stations, (and a slice or two of luck) kept me moving forward.
Settling into a routine at the race village and engaging autopilot for much of the week helped cope with all the challenges. Each process, however mundane, became a comfort blanket. From having a post-race massage to collecting my extra strong cortado from my new friends at the Woolworths coffee bar at the crack of dawn everyday were an example of the little ‘wins’ that would keep you sane. One needed these moments of elation after nights of little sleep or comfort in a tent you’d struggle to swing a kitten in, let alone a cat. You woke up not quite being able to digest what lay ahead.
As the days went by, I had my usual stage race physical second coming. The first three days were the hardest I’d ever done on the bike (physically and mentally) but as the half way point approached, I started to feel stronger.
Mentally, on several occasions, I was in pieces. There were times, on and off the bike, of utter despair. But these were outweighed by the sensational trails that provided moments that only high level mountain biking can give you. Reaching the summit of a monstrous climb where each turn of the pedals in granny gear has to sync with guiding the front wheel through the correct line offers few comparisons in satisfaction. The gradient is so steep that only perfect weight distribution keeps the back wheel from slipping or front end coming up. You’re clipped into the pedals, others are hurriedly unclipping as the terrain becomes too severe. You hang in there, planted in the saddle, HR max, quads, gluts and lumbar spine screaming but you make it. You recover, change down the cassette and ride as fast as you can. Again and again.
Decents provide little or no relief. On a road bike it’s free time. On a mountain bike it’s the business end of the deal as your brain calculates multiple split second decisions that are the difference between staying on or coming off the bike, going too slow or being recklessly quick. As your brain intensly computes the landscape, your body is being worked to the extreme from head to toe. Long climbs mean long descents, hovering out of the saddle in a semi-permanent isometric squat that makes a wall sit in a gym feel like you’re reclining on a park bench. The front suspension is soaking up the constant pounding but your arms are taking a beating, then your shoulders, then your upper back and neck. Whilst you can brake hard with one finger on each lever, cramp in your hands sets in quickly as you literally hold on for dear life.
Connections to the outside world in the race village were an essential release from the groundhog day nature of Cape Epic. The routines you build and rely on start to break you too. The end is nigh and that’s just as well as every part of you is being tested and is beginning to fray. The support from Cape Epic crew is legendary – from marshalling to serving up our evening buffet, from being handed a cold wet face towel on the finish line to someone from Team Oakley cleaning my glasses. Faces become more than just familiar, they’ve become friends who you’re delighted to see again.
As an individual rider, bonding was happening with my fellow riders as I found my ‘level’ later in the week as I progressed up through the start times. Conversations with people from all over the world took place as we plodded up an ascent and we shared many expletives after describing insane stretches of downhill that saw only the bare minimum of back break tethering. I’m still in touch with several guys I met out there in the middle of nowhere and have made many a promise to go ride with them on their native trails.
The end was nigh. Stay on the bike, avoid injury and don’t have a mechanical. Ride within yourself but go as fast as you can. Just a few simple tactics for the final day. Fortunately I executed all said tactics according to plan and crossed the finish in the company of my buddies, Slatts and Stan, to a raucous welcome from the beast that is Cape Epic. Having crossed a few life-changing finish lines in my time, nothing compares to the one that really is one of the toughest lines in the world to get to. In any sport.
Cape Epic – The untamed South African Mountain Bike Race
What a crazy week! This is billed as the toughest mountain bike stage race on earth and it certainly was just that for many reasons.
It was an early start as we headed to University of Cape Town for the Prologue.
A 20km dash up and around Table Mountain set the scene for the prologue which decided our starting times for Stage 1 of the race in Elgin.
Our first introduction to tent village life at Elgin.
739 kilometers of mountain biking over 7 stages with a vertical gain of 20,000 metres demands a lot from your mind and body. Living in tents and out of bag for 8 days whilst trying to perform beyond your physical and mental ability also presents its own challenges and add another dimension to the race.
Day 1 was apparently one of the toughest days in Cape Epic history as the weather turned and caught us ill prepared for cold rain and strong winds.
The field tackle the first major climb of the 2015 Absa Cape Epic.
With the 10 hour cut-off time looming, the pressure was building from the very first day. Once you miss a cut-off, you cannot be an official finisher of the race. Essentially, you’re out.
We were treated to some of the most stunning scenery in the world.
The terrain is unforgiving and very technical and the heat was often in the mid 30’s. A day in the saddle was a minimum of 6 hours (sometimes nearly 10), going as fast as we could up hill, downhill and on gruelling sandy flat sections, often into strong headwinds.
After the first day, I seriously had to question whether I had the ability to continue and sustain such intense racing over 7 full days. With an eventful day 2 in the bag (riding on a flat tyre for 10 bumpy and rocky kilometers) the option of quitting disappeared – but never entirely. It just fades the closer you get to half way.
As usual, the incredible support from loved ones, friends and colleagues gives you a reason to continue and fight through the negative moods that descend on you out of nowhere. You don’t want to let anyone down and remind yourself of the generosity people have shown and unwavering belief in you. The dark times make the good times that much sweeter.
As we settled in to our second stage village, a milestone had been reached and the feeling of Ground Hog Day almost helped just accept what lay ahead each day and helped with the routine of preparation.
Ice baths were the perfect tonic for our tired and stiffening legs.
You could feel the anticipation amongst the other riders ahead of a brutal climb or dangerous descents and coming away unscathed was a miracle in itself. On a mountain bike, especially downhill, you have to make loads of split second decisions in order to stay on the bike. Your brain is constantly calculating the changes in terrain which determines your choice of speed, line, gearing, energy output, position, braking, technique etc. This relentless need for concentration and application is mentally tiresome and punishes anyone who dares to switch off even on seemingly innocuous terrain.
Despite full suspension bikes, the speed in which you move over the unforgiving ground rattles every bone in your body and keeping relaxed and fluid is a constant challenge. Your arms, shoulders and neck become tight and quickly fatigued and the downhills you’ve looked forward to are often more tiring than the climb as you hover out of the saddle, quads and gluts screaming with the isometric work.
Start through the eyes of a rider at the back of the grid. Lots of overtaking to be done!
Catching up with Slatts and Stan wherever possible, gave me some much needed company and motivation. Not to mention a pelaton to tuck into in the strong headwinds and some peace of mind in the case of mechanical breakdowns. The Stanley Fields Express is one helluva train!
As the week goes by, you settle into the bubble that is the Absa Cape Epic. Life becomes focused on pretty much just the race and everything is provided to enable you to retain that focus.
Justin, Shaun and the team provided the delicious calories we piled into our faces morning and night.
The Absa Cape Epic have thought of everything. A daily visit the the massage therapists was a much needed luxury.
Having done many single and multistage bike races, this was the toughest.
They say you either come away with a finishers medal or a lesson in personal development. I, thankfully, came away with both.
The ethos of our children’s charity, Oridnary2extraordinary (O2e) is to get out of your comfort zone through exercise and adventure. I think we ticked that box.
Thank you so much for the donations so far. The page is still open so if you feel compelled to donate, you have my huge appreciation.
Stan makes the final climb of the 2015 Absa Cape Epic with the valley behind and beneath.
On the final climb of the 2015 Absa Epic. There were no easy days!
Meerendal plonk never tasted so good.
A nice chunk of metal as a souvenir.
HUGE thanks to everyone who supported me with their encouragement, time, donations, understanding, love and constant belief in my goals.