Completing a renowned mountain bike stage race is a goal of many amateur cyclists. Winning one may be a goal for many top professionals, even winning or placing on a stage is an amazing achievement for those whose job is racing a mountain bike. Perhaps one of the attractions for us amateurs is that we compete in the same race, on the same course, with the same conditions as the professional riders. The ABSA Cape Epic is arguably the world’s premier mountain bike stage race. The 2011 addition covered 707km with 14,550m of climbing. Starting in Tokai and ending in Lourensford, it offered at times a cruel, but always visually rewarding tour through the Western Cape.
And what an amazing eight days! Well before lining up for the UCI 2.HC ranked ABSA Cape Epic I knew of its infamy. There are familiar faces at larger Mountain Bike Stage Races and Marathons. And not just the professionals, but top amateurs as well. These top amateurs receive support, predominantly from their friends and families rather than full sponsorship, as they travel vast distances to pursue their sporting goals. And whenever you meet these people, they will inevitably ask, “Have you done the Cape Epic?”. It is also a common question from any proud South African mountain biker, or perhaps a statement after the they have asked what races you have completed “Ah, then you must do the Cape Epic.”
Needless to say, I have been convinced that it is a race I must do countless times.
When the opportunity arose late in 2010 to ride the race and report on it for MarathonMTB.com, I was elated. The plan was to team up with my MarathonMTB.com team mate Will Hayter, and try to finish within the top fifty teams. There were some complications with this. I live in Sydney, Will lives in London. Although we have raced against each other in Trans Alp, and trained with each other on the road in Provence last Spring – we had little time riding mountain bikes together. Indeed, a winter ride in Surrey in late 2008 was all we could recall.
Late March rolled around, and personally I felt under-prepared. Will had me enthralled with tales of five hour rides in the snow, and an amazing week spent training in Tenerife about a fortnight before the ABSA Cape Epic would kick off. I’d been eating, riding a bit, getting sick, and even crashed into a wombat. The truth is, Will’s preparation had me worried. Although I did say I wanted to be the weaker rider – secretly I hoped we would be amazingly well matched, or that I’d be a little stronger, so I would not have such a mentally, physically and emotionally brutal eight days.
After a few days in Cape Town, the race kicked off for us about 8:24am on the 3rd April, in Tokai. Our Prologue would be made all the more interesting, with US Master’s team Justin’s/Singletrack.com starting right behind us. Between Mike Hogan and Thomas Dooley, these guys hold various US National titles, and numerous top 10 finishes at big US races like the Leadville 100. To say we had a lot of talent breathing down our throats would be an understatement. Thankfully, they’re mates. But we still didn’t want to be caught.
Our Prologue was a blast, with a brief catch by the Justin’s boys, some baboons, and finally a stomping finish with only some traffic from other riders on course. We came in with 2nd fastest time so far (33rd for the day in the end), with the Justin’s chasing so hard they made the Masters podium for the day. Racing with mates is always special – especially in such a stunning location.
From here, the race was transported to Saronsberg winery, near Tulbagh. This was our race village and stage start for the Stage One, Stage Two and Stage Three. The village was surrounded by the Obiqua, Winterhoek and Witzenberg mountains. The stages starting from here were in the hottest part of the week, and what felt like the dustiest! The stage starts were cold, the air was soon thick with dust, and it was a case of looking into the dust storm to try to determine what was ahead. Will and I had a couple of mixed days here but it was at stage three, leaving for Worcester, that the wheels started to fall off.
Despite the stunning efforts by the race organisation of sleeping, eating and hygiene facilities, I was getting fatigued. My heart rate would not go anywhere, and my legs would not turn with much force. In short, I lacked the appropriate training in the preceeding months probably with a bit of mild heat stroke from stage two to add to the mix.
Gratefully, we made it through what some called the hardest day ever on a mountain bike. And even better, stage four was a time trial. Not normally associated with resting, a time trial allowed for a sleep in, and at about 30km, a lot more recovery afterwards as well. Will was flying, I was creeping. Rain had come in, the trails were tacky, and the temperature was more subdued. Worcester was also closer to a large commercial complex, seeing many riders stocking up on missed items. We didn’t see the need, as the catering and race village was so good.
Stage five loomed large, with 143km and 2350m of climbing ahead, it was the Queen stage. Normally the race has staggered starts for the multiple starting blocks – but with such a long stage, it was a mass start out of town. Once the neutral car swung off, it was a reasonable boost in pace, with some of the Milka – Trek riders going off the front for what would be a 110km effort out front. The rest of us were left suffering as the top teams were keen to thin the bunch out. Over the first climb and our day started to go pear shaped, with Will getting sideways into a thorn bush. Many flats ensued through the day, each time we did what we could to chase back on. Our day was coming good with the climb over the Groenlandberg. I had figured out I should just ride on strength, and we were pulling teams in. On the last descent, we caught the Justin’s duo, and it was a case of mates racing and maybe not thinking of the consequences. Will had a bad crash into a ditch, and was flung in front of Mike Hogan. Both went to hospital that night.
Unsurprisingly, this was a turning point for the race. Will was out with a broken collarbone. Mike seemed to have a collection of broken ribs and a lot of bruising, and grazes. Thomas and I wouldn’t be continuing with our team mates. Worse still, Will and Mike wouldn’t be finishing at all.
At the ABSA Cape Epic, you can carry on if your team mate is injured, sick, or has had enough of you and leaves. But you’re unranked. It’s essentially finishing to show that you can. As an amateur, you must start at the back of the race. I rolled down to the start, to watch the A and B blocks head off. I saw Thomas at the back of the bunch, it was 6:59am. My enthusiasm had been low, expecting to be heading off with H block at 7:30. But an impulsive decision saw me throw the bike over the fence, follow it, and clip in just as the gun went.
Thomas and I had little to lose, so enjoyed riding for the pure joy of mountain biking in a new continent. Look at those mountains! What a view from this climb! How good was the singletrack yesterday?! Although we both had a lot on our minds, we were doing our best to enjoy it. That changed after the first climb and descent. Thomas gapped me, as he’s an animal on downhills. I powered up to him on the flat. From this point on, without talking about it, we decided to race with caution thrown to the wind. Nothing was held back. We raced it like a single day marathon.
Mountain Bike racing is a joyous experience. You are continually challenged, and the satisfaction gained from overcoming the physical and mental obstacles is enormous. Thomas and I set out just to tear each others legs off, and mow down as many people as we could before the 119km stage was over. From the 70km point onwards, it felt like I was on the verge of blowing up. I had headed out light, with a gel and a banana in my pockets. But we were racing for our team mates, ourselves, and the joy of mountain biking. As odd as it sounds, beyond the Prologue Stage Six was probably my favourite day of the race, as we just raced on raw energy and emotion. Plus some Coke.
Nevertheless, it was still hard to see Mike and Will at the finish. Both of them love bike racing, and I could tell it was tough on them. But they were both in one piece, of sorts, and seemed happy to be there. I was hurting, as was Thomas. We had both dug pretty deep. Clearly our team mates were hurting too. There were a lot of tired people around the race village in Oak Valley. The last 20km of Stage Six had great singletrack, but great punchy climbs too. Nothing is earned easily at the ABSA Cape Epic.
Gratefully, Stage Seven has a later start, and is considerably shorter. But no day at the ABSA Cape Epic can be considered easy. With Old Viljoen’s Pass and Nuweberg, there would be no easy passage to Lourensford. Mike Hogan courageously took to the start – and we were all entertained by Red Bull acrobatic flying display before the start. I think plenty of mountain bikers started the day with a sore neck. Like Stage Six, I chose to warm-up and ride into the day. Partway in I settled into a rhythm as best as my head cold would allow. The last stage is far from a parade – the racing is still on (as displayed by the fantastic attack and win by the Fluckiger Brothers). Yet it still amazes me the teams who feel the need to chop up other teams on descents, passing far too closely and in poor locations for what is usually precious little gain. The team dress in red certainly left a lot of angry people behind them on the descent.
Somewhat suitably, I rode the last 25km solo. I couldn’t catch the group of teams ahead, but I didn’t want to be caught from behind either. Riding into Lourensford was a relief of sorts. I was sick. My team mate was injured. Another mate was injured. But it was also a little bit depressing. The race was over – and although a party was starting, another one was now finishing. Some elements of Mountain Bike Stage Racing are easy to love. You get up, get dressed, and go and race your mountain bike in amazing terrain. Then you do it again, and again, and again. What’s not to like?
The crowd at the finish is immense and the atmosphere is stunning. Picnic packs are organised for riders, with a hearty selection of fine foods, including, wine, wine cups and a picnic blanket. We sat in the sun and reflected on the week that was, and ruminated on where our sport may take us next. The ABSA Cape Epic was a mountain bike racing experience that has reset the bar for quality of racing, organisation and experience. So in an effort to avert Post Stage Race Depression, I’m sitting down planning what is next this year.