Burry Stander became the first South African to win the ABSA Cape Epic when he and Swiss teammate, Christoph Sauser, racing for 36One-Songo-Specialized raced to a dominant win in the world’s most prestigious mountain bike stage race one year ago. The 2012 edition of the eight-day race starts in Durbanville, in South Africa’s Western Cape province on Sunday and a confident Stander is immaculately prepared to defend his title.
The 24-year-old Stander, who has set his sights on an Olympic medal in London in August, will have to interrupt his Olympic Cross-country racing preparation for the next eight days to tackle what is considered by many to be the world’s toughest mountain bike stage race. The race covers 781 kilometres and includes 16 300 metres of vertical ascent through unforgiving terrain in predominantly dry, hot conditions.
“Strangely, I don’t feel as much pressure as defending champion as I did when I was challenger to the title,” said Stander on Saturday afternoon as he made his final preparations for Sunday’s opening stage, a short, intense 27km prologue that starts and finishes at Meerendal Wine Estate.
“For three years before the win, Christoph and I had something go wrong when it looked like we could win it. Mountain bike racing is unpredictable as it is, but when it’s over eight days and long distances, that unpredictability factor is multiplied. You have to make sure you have prepared for any kind of problem and that’s I think why we won last year. We opted for robust over lightweight parts. We raced the descents conservatively. We minimised our chances of something going wrong,” explained Stander.
There are designated technical support and feed stations on each stage, but a broken part or torn tyre or running out of energy in between stations could spell disaster for a team that’s in contention for the title.
“With such harsh terrain the most important thing is having the right tyres. Christoph and I used Specialized Renegade tyres last year and only had two small leaks to deal with. We’ll use the same tyres again this year. They’re 1.95 inches wide and they weigh 540 grams each, which is still pretty light for a robust tyre. In Cross-country racing the tyres we use are 100 grams lighter than that,” explained Stander.
Stander says that he adds more pressure to his tyres than normal for the Cape Epic to minimise the risk of sidewall cuts.
“I’ll run 26psi (1.7 bar) in the front and 28psi (1.9 bar) in the rear. I’ll run them a bit softer for the prologue though because it will be really fast and I want more traction at higher speeds,” said Stander, who weighs 66kg and stands 1.73m tall.
Stander says he and Sauser will ride bikes similar to those that took them to victory last year, “with some surprises”. They will ride Specialized S-Works Epic models, but Stander says that while the frame geometry and components are the same, including the carbon fibre Specialized Roval rims, there are “some new developments that will be revealed over the next few days”.
Stander and Sauser rode larger 29-inch wheel bikes to victory last year, essentially helping boost the evolution of the mountain bike, which is only 35 years old. Mountain bikes have largely always had 26-inch wheels, but a mass shift to the larger 29-inch wheels started in ernest in the last three years. They’re generally more stable and roll over obstacles like roots, ruts and rocks better than 26-inch wheel bikes.
Sauser and Stander’s Cape Epic-winning ‘29ers’ were also dual-suspension with carbon-fibre frames. Their victory on the bigger wheels, along with a host of other major race wins in 2011, stimulated a tipping point from a technological perspective as rival bicycle brands raced to achieve a similarly competitive bike. Some of the larger global brands have achieved that now, which could well see a more even playing field in the 2012 Cape Epic.
Stander’s attention to preparation detail is immense. He also adjusts his suspension pressure specifically for the Cape Epic.
“Both Christoph and I set the rebound slower. We don’t know the route so we don’t want any sudden surprises to deal with. A slower rebound helps in that regard. I also like run my shocks at a lower pressure than I do for Cross-country or one-day races. It’s a long race and the terrain is hard on the bike and body. We also sit on the saddle a lot more than normal so I run 10-15psi less pressure in my shocks for the Epic.”
While the bike is key, the body is the mountain biker’s engine and keeping it fuelled is the possibly the most important factor in a race that sees riders burning between 3 000 calories (12 560 kJ) and 6 000 calories (25 120 kJ) per day.
“I’m very particular about my race nutrition and have worked closely with my nutrition supplement sponsor, USN and my coach, Dr Jeroen Swart, to fine-tune exactly what works best for me. Before a stage and in the early part of each stage I drink USN BCAA Vitargo, which is a very pure, fast-acting carb and protein drink. Later in the stage I switch to USN Epic Pro, which has a higher percentage of quality proteins and electrolytes.
“After each stage I take a full serving of USN Recover Max, which has a high volume of fast-absorbing proteins balanced with carbs and electrolytes. It’s essential to take this within 30 minutes of finishing while your body is at its most receptive to it. I take another full serving of Epic Pro in the afternoons as a recovery booster.
“During the race I’ll also eat USN Energy Harvest bars which are mostly simple, easy-to-absorb carbs and some fibre. It’s important to eat something solid. In the early part of a stage I’ll take a USN Vooma Energy Gel or two and then towards the end I’ll have a couple of USN Cytogel energy gels, which contain caffeine for a late-race boost. I also take USN VO2Max as a daily supplement. It contains important, essential phosphates like magnesium, calcium, sodium and potassium.
“This is all in addition to regular whole food I eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You simply can’t do a race like this without the right kind of supplements. They’re convenient, practical and fast acting. You just can get that from whole food. Not in an event like this.”
Recovery is critical in a stage race, especially one as demanding as the Cape Epic. But sleep isn’t always as accessible as one would like. Stander says he sleeps better later in the event.
“For the first half I struggle to sleep. I think it’s the adrenaline. I seem to sleep properly in the second half though. Maybe I’m more fatigued and sleep becomes more needed. I also try and take a nap each afternoon after the stage.”
Stander also revealed on Saturday that he’ll take the start on Sunday with something new from Oakley with regards to his eyewear.
“It’s different, new and really cool is all I can say for now,” he smiled.
But cool looking is one thing, eye protection and optical clarity are essential in mountain biking where stones, sand, mud and branches can all damage the eye; and not being able to see the trail ahead properly can affect your speed and judgment.
“I actually use lenses that Oakley makes for shotists called G60. It’s got the best 3D optical clarity. I find them especially necessary on singletrack where your options in terms of line choice are minimal and seeing what’s coming up well in advance can make a difference of a couple of seconds each time. I use Transitions lenses, which are photochromic and change tint according to the available light. Going into a forest you want light lenses and going into bright sunlight you need them to darken.”
When quizzed about who he sees as the biggest contenders to his and Sauser’s title, Stander hesitates before making an important point:
“First you have to race the course. Then you have to race the other riders. This route is really very tough and you have to worry about conquering that before anything else. You can’t plan to race tactically really. You have to hope your cards land well each day and then take it from there.”
Stander did mention three teams he considers as title contenders:
“The Multivan Merida team of Hannes Genze/Andreas Kugler will be strong. They raced with different partners last year, but are sure to be right up there. Having won it three times, you have to respect the Bulls team of Stefan Sahm and Karl Platt. They know what it takes to win better than anyone else. And then there’s Nedbank 360Life – Kevin Evans and David George. They seem very prepared and they have the hunger. They also have the pressure I felt before I won. And then there will always be a few other teams that pop up and create a strong challenge. It’s going to be an interesting eight days.”
For detailed live daily coverage of the Cape Epic, visit www.cape-epic.com. Live TV coverage in South Africa will be on SuperSport 6 from 9am.