Tuesday, 29 December 2015

The Cape Epic - The Untamed African MTB race

With 2016’s Cape Epic gathering impetus, competitors will be starting to feel a pinch of pressure and anxiety. A New Year heralds complete commitment to the ‘Epic’ both mental and physical.

Last year I found myself excited, driven and scared of what this mammoth off-road Mountain bike stage race entailed. The Cape Epic is the equivalent to the Tour de France on mountain bikes. It consists of 8 stages, 800km with 16000m of accumulated climbing, starting with a short Prologue to establish each teams starting position on the grid. Each stage ranges from 70km to 130km of rough African Bushveld. An average speed is about 15kmh off road.

My journey started with my transition from Road and TT bikes back onto a XC mountain bike. My weekends became all about riding dirt with Declan Doyle, my team mate for the race. Dec and I spent our weekends riding with Juan Christen, a rider from my Tuesday night road chain gang. He helped us improve our skills and technique and was patient on the trails when we lagged behind. Riding in the Surrey hills, albeit different to the Cape Epic terrain taught us control and above all gave us strength. Mountain biking is a hugely skilful combination of dexterity, power and endurance. We both had our fair share of crashes and tumbles. Kneepads, a bigger MTB helmet and a portable first aid kit were a prerequisite.
I ride a Canyon road bike and TT bike and had been training on a Canyon Hard tail with a dropper seat post for really gnarly drop offs, but for the race I was taking delivery of a super specialist Canyon Lux. This is the Lamborghini of Marathon XC racing used by the Top Pro contenders to take the overall win. The Cape Epic delivers the Pro experience for every rider. On completion of each stage your bike is taken from you and professionally washed and placed in a paddock. A privately employed mechanic will then come and pick up your bike and take it to be serviced. They will replace any thing broken or damaged and ensure it’s in prime condition for the next stage, before returning it to the paddock that evening.
The Prologue - 20km TT
A steady stream of athletes left the Rugby Field at Cape Town University, Dec and I waited in anticipation. We had ridden the course and were pumped. I was high with anticipation as we positioned ourselves on the launch ramp of the TT start. 

We hammered off the start climbing foothills of Table Mountain, just 8 mins’ in and on a slight technical section I caught my bars on a pine tree and was dumped into the dirt simultaneously. I mounted and regained composure, shaken but Ok we hustled and began to catch the team a minute ahead. We passed them on the next decent, but their backmarker who was clearly a nervous descender steered directly into my path. We clashed bars and we both went down. I managed to step clear, they didn’t, and they took a nasty tumble.  Choice words were exchanged and we narrowly avoided an altercation... It was nuts, we were not even 20 mins in and I’d crashed twice, and almost had a fight! This wasn’t what I’d come here for... or had expected. I was sore from my crashes, my lungs were screaming for air as we climbed to the Peak of Table Mountain to ‘Dead Mans Tree’, Dec sensed this and gave me a push up the hill – that’s team work.

The last part of the course was a down hill with just one rutted steep technical downhill section. I’d ridden this in practice and had nailed it perfectly each time. With confidence I hit it full gas without fear, but was confronted with a bottle-necked, congested section with athletes walking the prime trail line. I braked hard off the ideal trail line and hit a rock, I steadied my position but was not further enough behind the saddle, so when I hit the next one I was thrown over the bars and I landed with my bike on top of me.  

I landed hard and I felt my shoulder crunch and drop, I thought I’d broken my collar bone, but as it turned out I’d only separated it at the AC joint.  It was crazy painful. After fixing the bike, I rode one handed for the remainder of the course. This was not what we were expecting… and at that point I was worried I might be out of the race.

Declan Towing me over the Finish line

That night we packed up and moved to Elgin, having visited the medic they strapped my shoulder and gave me ibuprofen to help me get through the race. Upon my return to the UK, I had an MRI and the surgeon gave me a ultrasound guided cortisone injection to help the shoulder seat correctly.

The Race
Ahead of Declan and I were seven further stages and we were determined to make it to the end. My crashes and injuries had set us back, but we were not out. We always knew that we weren’t out and out speedsters, and that our strength rested in our ability to go the course and keep strong and consistent until the final stage.

Over the next seven days we both suffered. Each time my shoulder was shaken on rough trail, it felt like I was being stabbed. At times I struggled with the pain, and although my background in Ironman racing had given me a huge capacity of tolerance for pain this was different. This was acute pain that came from injury, not the pain that comes from the slow attrition of endurance racing. Time and time again, it felt like the trail was punishing us.

If I was going to make it through to the end, I knew that I was going to have to give up fighting every corner, downhill and uphill and accept how tough this race is and enjoy being a part of it. This simple change in my mind-set allowed me to accept the pain. It also gave me the strength to start challenging the competitors around us.
Declan leading the charge and setting the pace

Day after day Dec and I battled the wilderness and raced in some of the most formidable, yet beautiful countryside in Africa. This ranged from scary rocky descents, pine forested single track and long off camber rock ridden accents. The course is designed and the terrain chosen specifically to test each athlete’s strengths and weaknesses. 

You’ll find plenty off smooth flowing single track where you can let loose and keep your fingers off the brakes, but then there’s also loads of technical climbing where more efficient riders can test their limits of skill and power riding on their limit.

The emotions that I have encountered within this race are like nothing I’ve ever felt before. The long days in the saddle serve to erode your spirit and you’ll see this in the eyes of any of the rider’s as they finish each stage.

The Epic course planners are meticulous in their planning and this ensures a tough challenging course, but you can be sure that... .If you’re 20km from home and you can see a mountain – that’s where you’re going’  

The race is just beyond hard. Just when you think you’re finished, or near home the remainder of the race will be uphill and over treacherous rocks.

The Finish
We had made it through to the last day, despite crashes, injuries, insect bites and saddle sores. Declan and I had conquered this race and for the first time I got the chance to see my wife, Mette and Declan, his girlfriend Sam. We rode with smiles and were determined to get through the last stage safely. We crossed the finish together shell shocked by what we had accomplished. It was only in the hours after I was able to process what we had achieved together.

1 comment:

  1. My journey started with my transition from Road and TT bikes back onto a XC mountain bike. My weekends became all about riding dirt with Declan Doyle, my team mate for the race. Dec and I spent our weekends riding with Juan Christen.

    health and safety courses