If you have done one mountain bike stage race, chances are you will meet people who have done more than one. I have said it before – off-road stage racing is a lifestyle. You will do one, then probably another. No matter where you sit on the performance spectrum, you will get something out of a Stage Race. It is a huge achievement to finish one, so they are justifiably yearly sporting goals. Given the choice out there, it is quite likely the second stage race you do will be a different one to your first. Somewhere new. Somewhere different. Probably somewhere involving a long flight, compression tights and travel fatigue.
Each year there are more stage races on the calender, and my awareness of those around also increases. We are spoiled for choice, as event promoters aim to lure us towards their event with a winning combination of trails, adventure, quality racing and creature comforts. All tied together with organisational nous.
There are two big events that consistently draw big numbers, and hit most marathon riders’ ‘to do’ list: the ABSA Cape Epic and Craft Bike TransAlp. Both are highly regarded. Both are well run. Both will challenge your bike, your body, your resolve, and your team dynamic.
Having now completed both (albeit as an unofficial finisher for the 2011 ABSA Cape Epic), I have been asked numerous times to compare them. Which one is better? Which one should I do? These aren’t simple questions, as both races are different. Although they are both now eight days of racing, involving teams of two, the similarity stops soon after that. The main aspects I would compare them by are detailed below.
Both the European and South African races provide challenging routes. Even if the terrain in certain parts may be deemed ‘easier’ due to altitude, trail surface or technicality – this doesn’t make an event easier or better than another. Faster terrain makes for faster speeds and potentially harder racing.
TransAlp crosses the Alps, North to South. Traditionally, it takes a more eastern route one year, and a more western route the next. But the Alps are big. There are only so many passes crossing them that you can race a mountain bike over. And these passes aren’t created for the event – they’re typically embedded in European History. Various passes may have played a part in a world war, or been a trade route hundreds of years ago, or even a smuggling route in more recent times. For me, this creates historical interest – and something to look at when you’re grovelling up a steep climb. History leaves infrastructure, and it can be amazing what old milestones, fortifications and other buildings are part of the landscape in these high places. An old military road was only discovered in Italy in 2007 – and is now thankfully being used as a great mountain bike descent near the Mortirolo pass.
The ABSA Cape Epic is a little different – but this may be made more so by my own ignorance of South African history. Certainly, you are racing through some of the oldest land on earth. We were greeted at a press dinner by a simple “Welcome home”. The land is old, it holds history. And the routes are hard. There are no easy days. In 2011, there were two shorter days, but these were time trials. If you have a competitive bone in your body, it is difficult to make these an easy day. Some days will see you take some amazing passes in, over original Voortrekker trails – the routes pioneered by Dutch settlers. Other times you are on private property, on farm trails and singletrack. Course designer ‘Dr Evil’ puts a lot of thought into the routes. You travel to amazing places over testing terrain, and at hard racing speeds. This may seem overly anglo-centric, but I recognize built history more than anthropological. The Cape Epic routes are stunning affairs, testing you to the limit. But they might not be something I would go back to ride if I found myself there again. In part, this is due to the extent of trails on private land. It just wouldn’t be possible. The pattern of having a clover leafed route from the race village for a couple of stages is fantastic for logistics and services – but it reduces the ‘journey’ aspect that I like with a stage race.
That is what it is after all: both races are competitive events. Although not everyone can stand on the podium, you soon find your physiological ranking, and know which teams you are racing with closely on the General Classification. If you sit back and take your time, you may well be left for a long day in the saddle, with little time for recovery at the end of the day. It’s a bike race, so you have to challenge yourself.
TransAlp is in the middle of the year (mid to late July, typically). This ensures the high passes are open, and most Europeans are on holiday. But it does mean it attracts marathon and stage race specialists more than cross-country specialists. It carries a UCI S1 ranking for points. The climbs are long, and high. It’s a big hard block in the middle of the year if you are cross-country focused. So after the top 10 or 15 teams, you tend to be dealing with top amateurs as opposed to professionals these days. That said, you will still be lining up against riders who may have won a grand tour, or a stage of one, or past or present world champions. There will certainly be National Champions in the bunch.
Being earlier in the year, and just a few weeks before the opening round of the XC World Cup, the ABSA Cape Epic draws a different crowd. Although both races are UCI Categorised, the Cape Epic scores ‘Hors Categorie’ status, the same as the Tour de France. Compared to the S1 points on offer at TransAlp, with 500,000 rand (USD75,000) to split up, and its placement before the XC season kicks off – this makes for an attractive event for most of the worlds best XC mountain bikers. The depth of field in the ABSA Cape Epic is astonishing. There are numerous World, National and Regional champions, past and present, across a range of disciplines. And that shows in the racing. It is fast, there is a massive amount of media exposure on offer, along with prize money and sporting achievements. Although this may not directly change your race, there are plenty of people who get caught up in this and take off pretty quickly. But it adds to the character of the race, you know how big it is when there are numerous helicopters following it.
In part, this is influenced by the route taken. There are also influences from who you are racing against, whether you stay in hotels or provided accommodation, and how easy going and open you are. I’ll take this from a ‘Camp’ perspective. Both TransAlp and the Cape Epic provide basic accommodation options (although they are vastly different, see below). But the location of the camp makes a difference.
At the TransAlp, the camp will typically be in a sports hall of some description. Perhaps indoor tennis courts (those little bits of green rubber from the Ischgl courts get in everything!), an out of use ice rink, gymnasium or a school hall. They use pre-existing infrastructure, in a village that has probably been there in some form or another for perhaps even a thousand years – or more. As such, each night is different, as they stage towns decide on a lot of your amenities. Each night it is something new though, and you experience the architecture, people and traditions closely.
The Cape Epic goes through terrain that has seen battles over culture and tradition by differing parts of the population for hundreds of years. The route will show you some of this, when you come through poorer areas, then onto a wealthy farm. By and large, you are detached. The race Village is typically set up on a private estate, with all infrastructure built as required – and with everything provided that you could require. So although you certainly experience hospitality, and the opportunity to talk with fellow racers – it isn’t the same as being in the heart of a new village every night. Each race village has all the amenities you could want, close to hand.
Many of the components that I am comparing are intertwined – and the food available, or event catering, is linked to the route and cultural experience.
The TransAlp camp provides you with breakfast and dinner, and each town will put on finish catering. The variety here alone changes daily. But it must be said, sometimes it is for the better, sometimes for the worse. Breakfast is usually a veritable smorgasbord. However some towns who are new, may not grasp the requirements for cyclists. Cereal may be lacking, or only served in strictly controlled portions. This seems to be most prevalent in Italy, and represents differences in their eating habits. But denying a mountain bike racer a good breakfast is akin to sleeping with their husband/wife.
All up though, the catering is part of the adventure. Having Lindt chocolate on the finish line in Livigno may trump the mountain cheeses and speck in Scuol. But the icy cold watermelon in Garda is hard to beat. Although the food changes a bit daily, it isn’t entirely unpredictable. It just matches the region you are racing into.
The logistics of the Cape Epic will continually blow you away. And this counts for catering too. Both daily meals of breakfast and dinner, plus finishing catering, run flawlessly. As you cross the finish line and have your bike taken to the bike wash, you are handed a bag with a selection of food in it. Typically you will find a sandwich or wrap, perhaps some nuts or biltong, some fresh fruit, and a smoothie or fruit juice. There is a tent for you to relax in, and plenty of fluids available so you can rehydrate.
Dinner and breakfast are manned by an amazing catering crew, with multiple serving areas. Breakfast consists of a variety of cereals, or cooked options, with a coffee cart outside providing strong caffeine options. Dinner is the same setup, with usually a couple of meat and a vegetarian options. Either way, there is plenty to choose from, and it is all served with a smile. Will it be regionally specific? Perhaps, to a small extent. All bases are covered though, even down to people outside the dining tent selling wines and beers.
As I am writing this only from the perspective of staying in the camp, this is obviously pivotal. At TransAlp, the camp can only cater for limited numbers of people. A lot of people stay in hotels or pensions. It is a little different at the Cape Epic, where it seems the majority choose the camp option. The reasons are understandable.
In the Alps, the camp will be placed in any available infrastructure that suits the purpose. Unfortunately, this may be more cramped in some areas than others. Toilets and showers may be countable on the one hand. Ventilation may be inadequate, so sleeping conditions can be testing at best. Ear plugs and eye shields are a must – as are a good sense of humour. Some camp locations are fantastic, others test your powers of recovery. As the location changes, the proximity of the camp to other amenities also changes. This is in no way meant to be an inconvenience, it is just a matter of where the suitable infrastructure within the village exists.
The Cape Epic camp is a luxurious monster. Although you are in tents, they are already set up for you, you have one each, and there is a mattress provided. Showers and toilets are comparatively plentiful, and all amenities are within an easy walking distance. Noise from your neighbours is still a variable. This comes down to mountain bike racers more than camp differences.
Numbers don’t lie, but they could be taken the wrong way. TransAlp is usually about 600km with about 20,000m of climbing. This changes year to year of course, depending on the route. But probably not by more than about 10%. At the Cape Epic, you are looking at around 700km with perhaps 15,000m climbing. Less climbing, more distance – so it’s easier, right?
The actual terrain and trail surface make an outstanding difference here, as does the type of climb.
In the Alps, your long climbs will start in the valley, in a village. Sealed roads that climb onto schotter (gravel) that typically end up in meadows or singletrack over the top. Reverse this for the descent. Bearing in mind you will be on the climb for an hour or more, your fitness requires climbing at a high-load for a long time period. This is great for people who have a constant power output.
In South Africa, you still have some long climbs, however they are usually shorter, more akin to a power climb. But more often than not, the trail surface is rough. Loose rocks, deep sand, eroded descents. This alone creates for a different technique, as you are more aggressive in the handling of your bike, needing to be more dynamic in how you handle it. Your fitness then needs to be aimed towards changes of rhythm, and maintaining a higher power output efficiently to keep traction and stay with (or escape) the group you and your team mate find yourselves in.
All up, the races fit within the same genre: A Mountain Bike Stage Race. They have similarities and differences. Each one will make you a stronger rider. Both will allow you to forge new friendships. Neither event will leave you unchallenged. But remember, there are plenty of other Mountain Bike Stage races out there: BC Bike Race, Trans Rockies, Sudety Challenge, Trans Andes, Mountains to Beach, Terra Australia, Trans Wales, Trans Germany, Cape Pioneer… the list goes on. These are certainly two of the biggest and most popular. Hopefully MarathonMTB.com can attend some more to let you know how the rest compare.