Mountain biking is such a diverse sport now, with down hill, free ride, all mountain, dirt jump, street, XCO, XCM, Stage Racing, Short Track… what happened to just riding? The huge diversification of the sport has lead to amazing product development, and very deep ranges from a broad spectrum of manufacturers.
This week, the level of high end bikes and parts at the ABSA Cape Epic has been nothing short of phenomenal. There is no doubting that this is one of the most expensive bike races in the world. The entry, airfares, support packages, time off to train – it all adds up. But your bike and spares are also a huge expense. Yes, you could do this race on an Aluminium hard tail, with V brakes. And people are! But a quick look around the bike park shoes some clear preferences.
The biggest thing here is size. 29″ are very popular, with 78% of bikes having the larger wheel size. Low maintenance is ideal for an 8 day stage race, and most wheels are traditionally spoked 28 or 32 hole rims – save for at least one pair of 4 spoke Xentis wheels that has been spotted. But the choice of rims is varied. The NoTubes ZTR Crest is highly popular, as are the Specialized Roval wheel sets (including their carbon wheels). The stock wheel sets from Giant are fairly abundant, although typically equipped with a tubeless rimstrip.
The amount of carbon wheels is amazing. Reynolds, Specialized, Xentis, ENVE are the brands most typically seen. The Cape Epic is rough. A bad puncture will typically occur at speed in a long rock garden. there have been stories this week of punctures followed by rim damage as the rider cannot come to a stop soon enough before damaging the rim – and then not being able to seat a tyre again. That can be race ending.
The ABSA Cape Epic demands something strong and fast rolling. The route started with rocks and thorns, and is finishing with sand, mud and rocks. Something with a reasonable sidewall, and good volume while maintaining mud clearance is great. The frame clearance is a bonus if you end up knocking your rim out of alignment too. Will Hayter and I chose the Maxxis Ikon EXO 3C’s in 29×2.2″. With sealant, We have pulled countless thorns out, heard others puncture around us, and managed to keep on racing. Other popular choices are Schwalbe Racing Ralph (Snake Skin), Continental Race Kings, Maxxis CrossMarks – and even Maxxis Aspens! Just about all of these are being used in either a full UST (tubeless) casing, or a reinforced version of the tyre. With the amount of thorns in the area, running tubes, or anything without sealant seems overly risky.
Again, a 29er is a clear favourite. And while 2011 was the year where most people were on a 29er Hard tail or 26″ dual suspension bike, this year it has moved more towards a 29er Hardtail or 29er dual suspension. The Specialized Epic 29er is becoming eponymous with the ABSA Cape Epic. Perhaps from being the winning bike in 2011, or maybe just because it works? Multiple versions of the Scott Spark 29er are in attendance too, along with Trek Superfly’s and Giant Anthem X 29ers. The hard tail is not dead! Multivan-Merida, Topeak-Ergon, Team Bulls, BMC, Centurion-Vaude and your own Subaru-MarathonMTB.com Team are running high end carbon 29er hard tails. The Exxaro Development Academy have equipped their riders with 29″ Alloy hard tails. These are a strong choice for this type of race – and the programme they are running. The costs are kept down, and the efficiency is maintained. Some alloy 29er frames even have greater tyre clearance than their carbon cousins – this is a big bonus, allowing higher volume tyres for more grip and cushioning.
The high end XC market has gone to 2×10, and many riders at the ABSA Cape Epic have too. The choices are split though, with the range of chainring sizes and cassette spacing. Most 29er riders are running the 26/38 or 26/39 options available from Shimano and SRAM – although Specialized owners swear by the 24t that comes on many of their bikes. The triple chain set isn’t dead! It’s a smart part choice for those who want to ride strongly at the end of the race. The loose, steep climbs in the Western Cape require a smooth cadence. If your physiology hasn’t gifted you with the ability to maintain high cadence on 20% slopes while pedalling a 28×36 gear, then maybe a triple will help? And a low stem – keep that from end down!
There are two single speeders in the race. Interestingly, the Dane with the huge beard isn’t one of them.
There are not many narrow options being used. Although some riders still run something narrow and straight, the move towards wide bars with 5-12 degrees of sweep is common. A lot of riders add short bar ends to this, or an ergonomic grip of some kind. The use of riser bars is still prevalent as you move down the rankings. But in general, the riders at the front of the race are on 29ers, which need a slammed negative angle stem to achieve their desired position.
Disc, almost all the way. V-brakes, either mechanical, or old Magura rim brakes, are the exception – even a novelty to see. Mechanical disc brakes are also an oddity. 6 inch rotors are the norm, but 7 inch front rotors creep onto the front of bikes as you move down the rankings. The weather of Stage 5 has shown why running sintered pads still helps – and taking your own spares to a bike race is a must. The shops here are out of stock of most replacement pads after yesterdays mud and grit fest.
This is obviously very personal, but the range that people are using is amazing. From elite women running unpadded SMP saddles, to all mountain type saddles being used by riders in the top 20. You can’t mess around with this choice. And you can’t leave your preparation to chance. Time on the bike, and time on your saddle in the months prior to a Stage Race is essential for your longterm comfort.
Some riders carry so much they need a backpack. Others strap what is required to their bikes. The Pro riders have tech zones for major mishaps, but carry enough spares to get there. Will Hayter and myself have been carrying 1 or 2 tubes each (shhh.. don’t tell Will I only ever took one), a CO2 head and two ‘bombs’ each, one pump, one decent patch kit, spare pads, a spare hanger each, tyre boot, and a tyre lever.
No data, no training! A lot of riders run a GPS unit or Heart Rate Monitor of some kind. The amount of power meters amongst the top riders is impressive – especially ones colour matched to their team bikes! It’s very useful to have some kind of time and distance measurement for tracking the course, and feed zones. Knowledge is power!