Updated: Apr 11, 2019
There’s no clean, easy way to start writing about the Cape Epic. You’d think by now I’d have figured out how to do the event and the experience at least a little bit of justice, but inevitably, when someone says “How did it go?” or “Tell me what it was like,” I struggle to find any sort of ability to convey what it’s like.
That won’t stop me from trying though, so here goes the 2019 Cape Epic ‘race’ report. Race is in quotation marks because the only race we were in was the race to finish.
This is a long one. No 5 minute read can do the Cape Epic justice, so you'll have to excuse the ramblings. That being said, I've tried to make it as skimmable as possible - scroll past the intro if you just care about the stages, skim the text, or even just look at the pictures with Stage Wrap-up Stats.
Read on below.
Trying to Secure an Entry into the 2019 Cape Epic
It was March of 2018 when I entered to the lottery to race in the 2019 Cape Epic. I don’t even remember if I had talked to Coleman about it or not, or if I had purely entered in a desperate measure to want to go back and redeem myself for my 2017 attempt that was derailed by heat stroke and gastro.
It didn’t matter, as the lottery draw date came and went. I hadn’t secured a spot to race in 2019. I so badly wanted to go back just to make sure my last memory from South Africa was crossing that finish line after 8 epic days, but it may have been a blessing in disguise. The Cape Epic is an incredibly expensive race, both in registration and travel costs.
And the time commitment is an entire other thing. Training for the Cape Epic as a Canadian involves chaining yourself to your trainer in your basement, pedaling endless virtual miles in a training program like Zwift. When you do get the chance to ride outside, the process of putting on enough gear to keep the cold at bay adds an extra 30 minutes to the time you need to set aside for training, but it’s 30 minutes that doesn’t aid or help in your fitness.
I was disappointed, yet relieved all at once. There was a nagging desire, almost bordering on need, to go back to prove to myself I could finish. But I also doubted my ability to find the money that a 2019 attempt on the Epic would cost me.
Life Goes On
So Spring and Summer came and went as I settled into a new job, a new house, and of course, spent some time on a mountain bike. As fall rolled around, I dove into what has become my favorite kind of bike racing - Cyclocross!
Then, on October 3rd, I opened up my email inbox, and there it was: an email with the subject line “2019 ABSA Cape Epic - Late Entry”
To say I had to do a double-take would be an understatement. I reread that email at least 10 times. It had fallen so far off my radar I didn’t even think racing the Cape Epic was a possibility.
And at the bottom of the email - a small note. The entry had to be claimed, and paid in full, within 1 week, or it would be forfeited to someone else.
The chaos began - I texted Coleman immediately. We’d already raced 2 Epic’s together (okay, 1.5 if you’re a stickler for details), and without getting too sappy, I don’t think there are many other people I could handle the challenge of the Cape Epic with and still be on speaking terms after the finish line.
His answer to my text/invitation/begging request:
A few days later, Coleman confirmed he was in, and the planning began.
Putting together a training plan was equal parts excitement and nerves as I started to lay out a plan that I was hoping could see me through to the finish line. I started by laying out what I had done to prepare for the 2015 and 2017 Cape Epics.
Looking at the hours, it seemed like I should have had no chance of finishing in 2015. I wondered if pure ignorance over the event had helped propel me to the finish line then. For the 2017 Cape Epic, I had put in more hours than ever before. In fact, it didn’t look like I’d be able to find the time to match those hours in training for 2019.
“If it wasn’t enough in 2017, how would less training get me through 2019?” I thought.
I knew my training weeks would be anywhere between 8-12 hours, with only a couple outliers in the 14+ range. Time would be my biggest limiting factor, so I set about figuring out how to make the most of the time I could commit to training.
First in my plan was more intensity. For both the 2015 and 2017 Epic’s, I had spent a lot of time spinning junk miles - moderate effort rides that probably weren’t doing as much as I thought. I vowed to do far more interval work. A smart electronic trainer, and Zwift, would both make that a lot easier to stick to, and I was excited to put them to the test over a long winter of riding.
Second, after feeling the oven that is a 47 degree day during the 2017 Cape Epic, I wanted to be ready for heat! I spent some heavy time researching heat acclimation and adaptation training, and settled on a plan where I would focus heavily on heat adaptation within the final 4-week lead-up to the Epic.
Nothing Left to do But Spin the Pedals
With a plan in place, it was time to ride. And ride. And ride and ride and ride.
3 Months to Cape Epic
It was a hectic end-of-fall/beginning-of-winter for me, as I learned my workplace was at risk of shutting down for good. There was no timeline and little clarity, and I had no idea whether I would be out of a job come Christmas, or if I’d have a job well into the new year. Many a stressed, sleepless night was spent searching job boards and trying to plan for how I could handle losing a job while being committed to a very time-consuming and expensive bike race.
Thankfully, my training miles didn’t seem to be too negatively affected by the extra stress. It had been an incredibly mild winter up until that point, and getting outside for rides was probably the only thing keeping me marginally glued together.
The only downside to the mild weather - plenty of ice. Ice everywhere! But studded tires on the fat bike meant I was spending almost every longer ride outdoors, an infinitely more entertaining way to ride 3+ hours when compared to an indoor trainer. Things were going good, and every time I did an FTP test, I was pleasantly surprised at the gains I was making in power outputs. Confidence was high.
I lucked out and landed on my feet, finding a new job with some stability, and hit the new year ready to keep the gains coming.
2 Months to Cape Epic
I had started mixing in more intensity in my training, with the idea that going faster at the Cape Epic would mean more recovery time in the evenings. Bumping up dangerously close to the time cut is not a fun place to be during a Cape Epic stage, and I was hoping to avoid that this time around.
Many an evening was spent chasing virtual cycling avatars in Zwift, an online cycling training program. I’m embarrassed to admit that seeing a virtual character pull away from you in a virtual cycling world is actually incredibly motivating to dig a little deeper. The intensity was good.
And of course, I was still getting outside when the opportunity struck.
The deep-freeze in Alberta began at the end of January, and the outdoor miles quickly ceased to exist. It wasn’t too out of the ordinary - I was prepared for 1 or 2 weeks of crazy cold.
We’d be back outside in comfortable temps in no time I thought.
Regardless, myself and Coleman braved the cold for one fatbike ride in Bragg Creek. It took a lot of layers, but we managed 3 hours outside in -25, gaining some good elevation on the amazing Bragg trail network.
1 Month to Cape Epic
Remember when I said we'd be back outside in comfortable temps in no time? I was wrong.
What I thought would be a short-lived cold-snap turned into Edmonton’s coldest February in 40 years. Half the days had extreme cold warnings. I escaped the frostbite in minutes cold on a weekend trip to Valemount, where it was only frostbite in hours cold, and got some more outdoor miles in, but aside from that, spent most of my time on the trainer.
With crunch-time fast approaching, I ended up with an illness, that mixed with possibly a case of doing-too-much without letting the body rest enough, ended up forcing me off the bike for almost 3 weeks.
Right when I had been planning to hit one more block of intensity and mix in heat-training, I was spending time on the couch, shivering with a fever.
My anxiety went through the roof, as I feared being unprepared. Ever since December, my confidence had been quickly dropping, as the gains in power outputs and my overall feeling after training had stopped improving. Forced time off the bike added to my unease, as I nervously waited to get healthy again.
When I finally had beat whatever man-flu I had been battling, I eased back into riding, and started an abbreviated heat training program.
Heat training is exactly what it sounds like, and it is not fun. I wanted to prepare for the heat that South Africa could throw at us, so every ride in the last few weeks took place indoors and involved a space heater, no fan, leg warmers, a winter baselayer, a winter cycling jersey, a winter cycling jacket, a vest, and a toque. Gross!
If you want to dork out on the benefits of heat acclimation training, you can by clicking here, but essentially, getting the body used to heat creates some physiological adaptations, including:
Increased sweat rate to help cool the body more
Reduced electrolyte loss in sweat
Total body water increase
Increased skin blood flow
I wasn’t able to do a full 4-weeks of heat training like I had planned, but I’d take any benefit I could get, just in case temperatures sky-rocketed during the race.
And it begins
It was like the past 150 or so days went by in a blink. After over a day of travel, with 21 hours spent in the air, I found myself in Cape Town, bike bag and luggage in tow,
I’ve raved about Cape Town in the past - it truly is one of my favorite cities on the planet - and every time I’ve been there, with race nerves in full-effect, I’ve told myself I have to come back purely as a tourist one day. But this wasn’t the time for that - we built up bikes, took a couple spins up through the neighborhoods on the slopes of Table Mountain, and then hit crunch time - the Prologue day.
A Brief Note on Why
It’s the most common question I get asked when people find out I’ve raced or am racing an 8 day mountain bike race in South Africa. I still don’t have an answer.
There are a lot of reasons that likely contribute - pushing my limits, finding what I’m capable of, pushing through discomfort, experiencing beautiful landscapes through my own power, and more, but I can never string together enough of a string of thoughts that seem to answer 'why' with any substance.
Simply saying ‘it’s fun’ seems far too selfish, and there is more to it than that, but I just haven’t found a way to explain what that more to it is.
This time though, I know one of the reasons I was racing (okay, riding) the Cape Epic came from a less-healthy place. I’ve written about my struggles with anxiety before, and I will embarrassingly admit that this time around, I was entering the Epic to prove to myself it wasn’t a fluke in 2015 when I finished, and to prove to myself I was capable of setting a goal and sticking to it. Nothing wrong with those reasons, but with the amount of self-worth I had riding on the answers, it may not have been the smartest choice, but then again it's hard to call the decision to ride the Cape Epic smart, no matter the rationale behind it.
Now, what you likely came here to read: Stage reports!
As soon as the the countdown to the prologue had hit 14 days, I had been nervously refreshing the long-term weather forecasts. They had been calling for mild and cool temperatures, but I hadn’t let myself get excited about it, out of fear that the weather would change and turn into another year of stupid hot temperatures.
But when the morning of the Prologue rolled around, I could finally let out a sigh of relief.
Looking out the window of our hotel towards Table Mountain, I was greeted with rain drops and heavy fog. Temperatures were in the teens!
The Prologue started at the picturesque University of Cape Town campus, with the route snaking up along the slopes of Table Mountain. It was perfect conditions for a bike race!
We lined up in the queue for our start time - teams went off individually for the Prologue - and all the pressure, anxiousness, worry and nerves seemed to bubble up to the surface. Usually starting the race makes that go away, but this was just a little tease of what was to come - a walk in the park even - at a short-for-the-Epic 20 km.
And just like that, we were off. The first kilometre of the route was on pavement, snaking up through the campus, and it felt like we had barely begun when, ahead of me, I watched Coleman’s chain fall off his front chain ring.
Weird I thought to myself. He wasn’t shifting, we didn’t go over anything rough, we’re on pavement after all. All the usual circumstances that could cause a dropped chain were non-existent.
He pulled over and quickly popped the chain back on, hopped on his bike, and started riding.
Something looked odd as he rode on ahead of me. His chain flopped loosely, almost dragging along the ground.
Something’s wrong with your chain I called out. We pulled over to try to figure out what was going on.
8 days of racing almost cut short 1 km into the Prologue
We came to the Cape Epic with a dialed-in system of what to pack. A lot can go wrong over 600+ km of racing through the rugged landscapes of the Western Cape. We were prepared to fix a lot of things, but not a broken derailleur.
Coleman unthreaded the derailleur from the bike, trying to figure out what was wrong. It wasn’t tensioning the chain, almost as if a spring inside had broken. We checked the jockey pulley’s and discovered the upper-pulley was so loose it was about to fall off, but tightening it did not fix the problem at hand.
I had gone straight into doom-and-gloom mode, thinking this was it. We trained all those hours, spent thousands of dollars on entry and travel, took time off work, traveled all that way, and were going to DNF within the 1st km.
Thankfully, Coleman had a cooler head. “I’ll put the derailleur back on and just deal with some dropped chains.”
A spectator had stopped over to see how we were doing, and although he meant well, his constant tips and recommendations on what we could try to fix the bike were wearing thin on our race nerves. It didn’t help that Coleman was having a hell of a time trying to rethread the derailleur onto the bike.
Blame the race nerves, or maybe the fact that he may actually be close to legally blind (he was slated for eye surgery shortly after our return to Canada), but he could not get the threads to catch. It was my turn to be cool and collected, and I took over, put his derailleur on, and we set about continuing the stage.
With a broken bike that couldn’t shift properly, Coleman found out that he had 2 gears that were semi-usable. It was far from ideal, but we’d have to make it work. We set out, continuing on the Prologue, which was front-loaded with climbing.
The way Coleman handled the stage is the reason why he is a fantastic teammate for the Cape Epic. It can be so easy to lose your cool, especially in the middle of the longer stages, and even especially more if it’s hot out. Things go wrong, and you have to be able to handle it and move on. A shitty attitude won’t help things out, and Coleman definitely doesn’t have one of those.
For about the first 6 or 7 km, I had a fear we would miss the time cut, but once we crested the climb to Dead Man’s Tree, it was all downhill or flat to the finish, and we had enough time that it wouldn’t be a concern.
We rolled across the line, having successfully handled what could have been a crisis. We may have been close to dead last, but the goal was to finish, so we set about finding a new derailleur to put on Coleman’s bike, because Stage 1 was definitely not the kind of stage you wanted any shifting mishaps.
We were back to the hotel to pack our things, and then off to transfer to Hermanus, host to our first night in the race village.
As we got settled into camp in Hermanus the night before the proper kick-off to the Cape Epic with Stage 1, I laughed to myself. The weather was lovely - around 20 degrees, shorts and t-shirt weather, yet the last time I was setting up camp in this field, in 2017, it was double that. The weather, my big fear, was looking fortunate for at least the first few days of the race. It was a major bonus for a couple Canadian riders that just trained through a cold winter!
A Proper Welcome-to-the-Cape-Epic
As the bagpipes played at 5:15 am, we quickly settled into our routine, dialed in over two previous Cape Epic’s. The first up walked over to the Woolworth’s Coffee Truck, and ordered 4 Obama’s, which is what they had affectionately called our Americano orders in 2015.
I was too embarrassed to ask for Obama’s - although they were all the same crew that I recognized from my frequent coffee trips in the race village from 2015 and 2017 - I thought there was no way they’d remember me, and that an order of ‘Obamas’ would be met with blank stares. They serve a lot of coffees to a lot of tired riders, I’d just be one more in the long line of faces they see every morning.
But when I got up to the front of the queue and asked for 4 Americanos, the friendly cashier smiled and said “Don’t you mean Obamas?” and then proceeded to turn to the crew of baristas working there and yelled “4 Obama’s for our Canadian friends!”
The morning coffee order would be the best part of my morning for the rest of the race. The infectious and friendly energy that came with a brief 30 second chat from the Woolies crew set me straight on more than one occasion over the course of the 8 days when I was feeling tired, sore, and sorry for myself.
Anyways, on to actual bike riding!
Stage 1 started with a welcome climb of pavement and then gravel past some whale watching benches that looked down towards the Hermanus coastline. It was absolutely breathtaking scenery, and my legs were feeling good enough that I could actually enjoy and take it in.
Coleman was battling a cold, and was all over the map on this stage. He would go from strong and solid, to totally imploded and far off the pace, then back again. I was happy to be the wheel to ride into the wind, allowing him to ride in my draft when it made sense, and the pace didn’t bother me, but I was worried about his well-being and ability to finish the race. I didn’t think he was drinking enough, but in the odd dynamics of stage racing with a teammate, I couldn’t just come out and say ‘drink more.’
When we weren’t riding in silence (which there is a lot of when it’s an 8 hour stage), I would casually drop hints about hydration, and from time-to-time even bluntly ask if he was drinking enough.
It was a warm day, but when you go into it thinking it could always be above 40, the 35 degree temperatures didn't seem so bad. It was a proper welcome to the Cape Epic, and we rolled back into Hermanus after a touch over 8 hours out on our bikes, with the longest stage in distance now behind us.
I had felt good, almost suspiciously so, and was worried about what the race week still had to come. But we had made it through Stage 1. Only six more to go!
The Sandy Stage
Race organizers affectionately dubbed Stage 2 “Enter Sandman,” which had alarm bells ringing in my head. I was picturing a Stage in 2015 which had seemingly endless, ankle-high and entirely unrideable beach sand for stretches that felt like they went on for kilometres.
So although I was excited about a stage that was comparatively short in the scheme of the 2019 route, I had a feeling there would still be some challenges that lay ahead on the stage.
Some of the big climbs came early in the day, and it was nice to knock them off while the temperatures were still mild. We also had the sandy sections of the route in our rearview mirror early on, if the route description was to be believed, and it had been a manageable, and entirely rideable, stretch of sand. Much better than expected.
About halfway through the stage, temperatures were getting hot again. My Garmin showed 35 degrees, and it seemed to be effecting Coleman more than me. He was still battling a nasty cold, and it was amazing he was holding the pace we were going.
But, about halfway through the stage, I watched the wheels start to fall off and his pace drop off dramatically. I thought back to his hydration - I couldn’t recall him drinking as much as the weather was dictating.
I had mixed myself a Skratch Labs Wellness Mix in a bottle at the last waterpoint, a very sodium-heavy drink meant to be used as a ‘rescue mix’ when dehydrated. At the Cape Epic, however, I have learned to use it pre-emptively, and that was the plan.
But Coleman was in need of it more than me, so after checking in and trying to read the situation, I grabbed the bottle off my bike and passed it to him.
We were 50 km into the stage and I was feeling good, but it didn’t take long for that missed hydration mix to come back and bite me. With about 30 km to go, I could feel the very early effects of messing up on my hydration. I thought I would be fine with the regular electrolyte mix I had in my Camelbak, but it wasn’t cutting it.
For what was supposed to be an ‘easier’ day (in quotations because there is no such thing as an easy day), the last 30 km were a struggle. Even with all the heat adaptation training I had done, I don’t do well in 35 degree weather, and even less so when dehydrated.
We rolled across the finish line in Oak Valley 6 hours and 31 minutes after starting in Hermanus that day. A new race village awaited us.
I felt rough after crossing the line, but some fluids and food seemed to right the ship by the time the evening rolled around. And even if it hadn’t, no need to panic - I’ve learned that even when you feel like absolute trash, the legs usually come around. It’s as much a mental game as it is physical.
A Note on Transfer Days
Having a background in event operations, I can only imagine the logistical nightmare of the Cape Epic behind the scenes. There are more moving pieces and parts than any other event I’ve seen, but from a participant’s perspective, it is as smooth of an operation as you could ask for.
The race village in itself is a marvel, but it’s the transfer days that blow me away the most. The days where you leave one race village in the morning, ride for 6-8 hours, and end up in a brand new race village a hundred kilometres away. And although the layout may be slightly different, all the usual services are in place.
On a transfer day, there is a bit of an added job for the riders in the morning - packing their bags.
I’d try to stay on top of being organized, but inevitably, I’d be in a rush, trying to stuff everything into my rider bag with only 15 or 20 minutes to our start time.
With the race bag packed, marked with my race number, I’d hurry over to the bag drop off area, leave it in the capable hands of Cape Epic staff, and head off to race the stage.
And on the other end, my bag would magically be waiting for me. No delay, no waiting. From there, I’d go find a tent in the new race village - ideally close enough to the bathrooms that a midnight pee break doesn’t involve a long trek - and then set about the usual post-race routine.
There are a lot of logistics behind the scenes that keep the Cape Epic running smoothly, and I thought it was worth a quick mention. It’s an event like no other!
The 'Princess' Stage
The 2019 Cape Epic route launch boasted that Stage 3 was the Princess stage, since it was very close to the hardest, but not quite as difficult as the Queen’s stage, which was still to come. Along the spikes and peaks on the terrain map of stage 3 lay the highest point of the entire race, a climb that would see us summit the Groenlandberg.
When I woke up in my tent that morning, I realized the weather gods were smiling on us. It was the coldest morning yet, and with a sweater on, my puffy coat zipped up tight, and my breath visible in the crisp morning air, I started with the usual morning routine, trying not to think too much about the heavy climbing ahead of us. My legs were tired, and I was nervous about how they would respond to the day’s challenge.
As our start time hit, we rolled out of Oak Valley, and immediately started climbing on terrain that was familiar to me - Stage 1 of the 2015 Cape Epic was a very similar route. The consistent, yet moderate slopes on double track were a welcome way to tick off some vertical metres, and it wasn’t until around kilometre 25 that the real climbing began.
It was time for a sustained assault towards the Groenlandberg summit. After warming up during the first rolling 25 km, my legs were feeling great. As the trail pointed skyward, I checked to make sure Coleman was on my wheel, and upped the pace.
The proper pace for an endurance stage race is like walking a tightrope. The faster you finish, the longer you can recover before the next day. But go too fast, and you risk doing enough damage that it will take days to recover. I was feeling good about finding the balance on this stage, and I trusted Coleman to fall off the pace if it was too much for him. We wouldn’t talk about it much, as if saying it out loud gave it more power, but I knew he was struggling with illness still.
We started making passes - quite a few - as we continued climbing. Every time I looked back, there was Coleman, head down, matching the pace. It was impressive - I couldn’t imagine pushing a pace like this if I had any sort of sickness!
As we neared the summit, we climbed up into the clouds, and it started to rain. It was a chilly 10 degrees, which was actually pleasant for the climb.
Through rain-soaked glasses, I watched the metres of climbing tick away on my Garmin. We were nearing the top, and as I looked back to see what was happening, I noticed I had gapped out Coleman. He was putting in a valiant effort, and I backed off the pace slightly, as we continued to climb up into thicker and thicker clouds and rain.
Usually the effort to summit the Groenlandberg would be rewarded with amazing vistas, but this time, we strained to see more than a metre ahead of our tire. The thick fog and drilling rain made the descent down the other side treacherous, but we made it down in one piece.
In typical relentless Cape Epic fashion, 3 more major climbs awaited us, and it was into the 2nd of those that our pace started to fall off more dramatically. It became a race to the finish line, not for positions, but rather for the chance to get off the bike, get some real food, and stretch out.
It was a long day, and with the final climb, on relatively gentle switchbacks, we saw a pack of baboons in the trees above us, willing us forward, if for no other reason than baboons can be mean, and I didn’t want to get attacked by one!
Another day down. Coleman was still struggling with his cold, but spirits were higher than before, mostly on account of the next Stage, which was a ‘short’ team time-trial. We also had a later start time, which meant a chance to sleep in and have a more relaxed morning. Wins all around.
Finding the Perfect Pace
Finding the right pace for 8 days of racing is a daunting task. In 2015, we may have erred on the side of going too easy, scared of how the body would react after 5 or 6 or 7 days.
In 2017, I fell out of the race after Stage 3 with heat stroke, and Coleman was left in the unfortunate position of having to continue on alone. In his words, he went hard in 2017’s Stage 4, not caring if he blew up. Surprisingly to him, he found himself moving up from the back-of-the-pack places we usually raced at the Epic, and also found himself recovering fine for each consecutive stage. The extra time to rest at the end of the stage was worth the extra effort.
So this year, we went in with the goal of going a bit deeper on effort than previously attempted.
There was a problem for me though - I usually race while obsessively checking my heart-rate on my Garmin, making sure it was within a range I thought I could sustain. It was my fail-safe to make sure I didn’t go too deep.
But I was having a bit of a break-up with tech this time. In training, I had gone the last month without any heart-rate or power data. I was kicking it old school, because those metrics had been fueling my anxiety over not feeling ready or prepared.
Going into Stage 1, I was still terrified that I wasn’t fit enough to handle the next 7 days, and I knew if I looked down at my heart-rate and saw a number that was higher than I felt it should be, it would only fuel the fire of nerves and worry.
So I changed my Garmin settings to prevent me from playing head games with myself. I set up the Garmin screens up so that the only data I would be able to see while riding would be time elapsed, distance, vertical ascent, speed & temperature.
In Stage 1, I went deeper in effort than I ever would have thought would be smart, but I tried not to overthink it. We walked that fine line to balance effort and recovery, and it seemed to work. We never started a day completely cooked, and we never bumped up close to the cut-off time.
And my decision to not have heart-rate available? It was a good thing. After the race I dove into the data, and there were many, many times my heart-rate was high enough that I would have wanted to back off the pace had I known, thinking it wasn’t sustainable. But obviously it was.
A Race Against the Clock
My under-estimation of Stage 4, a seemingly short and easy 43 km day, was quickly checked when I received a text from my Dad shortly after rolling across the finish line of Stage 3.
“There are no easy days at the Epic” the text read.
He was right, I needed to stop expecting Stage 4 to be a walk in the park.
As a team-time-trial, we were staged according to our results in the General Classifications. Although we had been moving up positions, and even start groups every stage, our mishap on the Prologue had us far back, which meant more time in the mornings to relax before our later start times. It wasn’t the worst situation to be in, and for Stage 4, it meant a late-morning start.
Not having to rush through a morning routine was like magic for morale, and we even got a chance to laze around in the Rider Lounge, watching the pro’s take on the day through the live TV coverage.
So with Nino and the other podium contenders having already scoped out the course for us, we headed over to the start line. Myself and Coleman were on the same page - with a loaded Camelbak, bottles on the bike, and snacks in accessible pockets, the goal would be to set a decent pace, and not stop to refuel.
And with our start time and rolling down the ramp, it was on. Coleman went to the front, and set a pace that put me deep into the red. Looks like he found his jam again. We were motoring, and passing teams like crazy.
It wasn’t until about 15 km into the singletrack-heavy stage that my legs came around, and I was able to contribute to the pacing. It felt hot out, but in reality the mercury never spiked above 30 degrees. It may have just been the sun-soaked, exposed climbs mixed with the high pace that made it feel warmer than it actually was.
We rolled through waterpoints, passing throngs of riders, and finished the stage with a huge leap in results compared to our usual placings. And there was still plenty of time to recover - short stages were awesome!
But my optimism wasn’t there. As we sat in the recovery tent, I felt terrible. Worse than I had felt after the previous stage, which was far more challenging. I tried to push away thoughts that we had gone too hard - that I had burnt too many matches and pushed too hard to recover enough for the Queen stage the next day.
Some pep-talk messages from family back home helped set my mind on the right track, and I hit the tent that night, thought to myself bike racing is hard, and instantly passed out.
Life in the Tents and the Daily Routine
The meticulously placed rows and rows of tents are a quintessential part of the Cape Epic. They are a riders home away from home for 7 nights, and a welcome respite from the days of arduous riding.
Life in the race village is simple for riders, but only because of the amazing organization that goes on behind the scenes.
The rider village contains: enough tents for 1200 racers, not to mention countless more for event staff, a massive dining hall for breakfasts and dinners, a secure bike storage area, a staffed bike wash station, a rider lounge with TVs and lounge chairs, a massage tent to work out post-stage sore muscles, a full service medical tent that is as close to a hospital as you can get, food trucks, charging stations, wifi, bike shops, showers, a laundry service, and more. Yes, and more, I’m sure I’m forgetting something.
Basically, it’s everything you could need, and we quickly settle into a routine to take advantage of all the race village had to offer.
The mornings in the rider village involve grabbing real coffee before heading to breakfast (life of a coffee snob), dropping off our portable battery chargers at the Amped charging truck, grabbing our bikes from the secured bike parking, decalling our bikes with the route profile for the day, getting our gear together for the day, and finally heading over to the start line for our start time.
On the opposite end, we roll across the finish line, dusty, dirty, tired, and sore, and hand our bikes off to event staff, who will wash the bike and park it in the bike lock up.
Then we walk into the Woolworth’s recovery tent, where a cold, wet towel is given (or on the rare occasion it’s cold outside, a warm towel), and a friendly Woolie’s volunteer gives a quick neck massage, and says some kind words about the effort being put out.
After that, we grab food from Woolworth’s as a recovery meal. Usually it’s some sort of chocolate milk, juice, a sandwich or pasta dish, vegetables, and salty snacks. After scarfing down the calories, we head over to the Amped Charger trailer and pick-up our portable battery that will charge our Garmin’s overnight.
We’ll make a quick stop at our tents to grab a change of clothes, and then head off to the showers to clean up and change out of our disgustingly dirty riding kit. After a shower, which feels like a million bucks, it’s off to the laundry collection area, where we will exchange our dirty kit for the freshly laundered kit that we had dropped off the day before.
Depending on how much time we have, we'd often hit up one of the food trucks and grab a snack, before relaxing in the rider lounge, watching whatever sport is on the TVs, usually cycling, cricket or rugby.
Dinner is served at 6 pm, so after some lounging, it’s off to force down more calories. This year, we had booked the massage package, so at 7 pm we’d head over to our friends at the massage tent, and get legs and back muscles flushed out.
That brings us to 8 pm, which is about time to pass out. Usually we’d have the energy to do a bit of prep for the next day, like filling hydration bladders and packing race nutrition into our riding packs, but some days that would be foregone and would be a rushed addition to the morning routine.
I could write far more on the race village, but I’ll leave it at this. It’s full-service with everything you could need, and well-staffed with friendly faces who seem to go wildly out of their way to make sure the riders experience is as good as it gets. I couldn’t imagine tackling the Cape Epic without the luxuries and friendly faces of the race village waiting for us at the end of each stage.
The Queen Stage
It was the morning of the Queen stage, and my legs were fried! It was to be a climbing-heavy day, with constant ups and downs throughout the 100 km stage. 2850 metres of vertical ascent to be exact. And the longest climb of the stage, named King’s Climb, came over 65 km in, when fatigue from the day would be setting in heavily.
But there was nothing to do aside from start turning over the pedals, which we did, as the climbs kicked off within the opening kilometres.
At 35 km in, we were forced to spend some time off the saddle, a welcome relief from the endless miles spent sitting on a bike seat.
After climbing up to the top of Gantouw Pass, it was a mandatory portage for a little over 1 km of the downhill. Gantouw Pass is a historical monument, with ruts carved into the rock from wagon wheel scars. Life has gotten a lot easier since those early pioneers hauled ox wagons up over the mountain passes!
Back on the bike, a few bumps along the way led us to the biggest climb of the day, right as temperatures hit their high. The sun bore down on us relentlessly as we tackled the exposed route that was King’s Climb, in 34 degree heat.
A scintillating piece of singletrack, complete with swooping berms and rollers, rewarded us after the climb, and we descended back down to the valley floor and the final full waterpoint of the day.
It was after this waterpoint, in the final 25 kilometres, that the compounded fatigue, heat, and efforts from the past 4 days started to take its toll. The climbs remaining in the route profile looked like small bumps compared to the massive mountains we had already tackled, but they were wearing on us. It was hot, and the rest of the climbs were on sun-soaked vineyard dirt paths, offering little respite from the sun, with steep gradients that felt like they were specifically included to destroy morale.
It was a slow slug to the finish line. The day ended with a singletrack descent that any other day would have brought a smile to my face, but on this day, all I could think of was getting out of the sun and off my bike.
The Cape Epic is a race where you will bump right up to your absolute limits. It’s a challenging event that has broken many a racer, including myself in 2017, and with such a physical and mental test, tempers can run high. In a race where you must be within 2 minutes of your teammate at all times, a new challenge can be added to the race: conflict.
And it’s why it’s so important to enter with someone who you know will be calm, cool, and collected. Someone who won’t fuel your insecurity or doom-and-gloom attitude on the days where you go to dark places. And someone who isn’t so dramatic that you’ll get caught up in their own suffering.
Every time I’ve raced the Cape Epic, it’s been with Coleman, and it works for a few reasons. First of all, don’t tell him I said this, but our fitness levels are relatively equal. Sure, there have certainly been times where one of us has had to wait for the other, but never excessively so.
More important than that is the team dynamic during those long, hard days. It’s hard to explain what makes it work, but when talking about it, Coleman put it best. “We both know when to shut the f*** up!”
It’s true. Sometimes we would ride for a few hours, side by side, or wheel to wheel, and say nothing. Kilometres would tick by, and first minutes, then hours would pass. When you’re both suffering on the bike, there isn’t always something to be said, and silence can be golden.
But we also both know when to chime in. For the first 4 stages of the race in 2019, I was constantly asking “You drinking?” to make sure Coleman didn’t find himself in another hole of dehydration. And many a time, after a long bout of silence, where we were both tired of riding and just wanting to be finished, one of us would crack up with a terribly lame joke. But it would take the focus off suffering, if even briefly, and boost morale just that little bit.
Finally, it’s important to be cool under pressure. Over 8 days of racing, things are bound to go wrong. Mechanicals, bonking, injuries, and more are likely to befall racers at the Cape Epic. And you can either grin and bear it, or meltdown. I couldn’t imagine racing with a teammate who melts down.
Anyways, enough of the sappy stuff, back to the racing… er I mean riding.
Up, Down, Up, Down, Up, Down and a Stage that was Sneakily one of the most Challenging
In distance, it looked like a ‘shorter’ day, only 89 km lay ahead of us. But what Stage 6 lacked in distance, it made up for in climbing. There was more climbing per kilometre in Stage 6 than any of the others, and the route profile showed a course that was either up or down, with very few of the longer flat sections that seemed to be our wheelhouse, where we would make up the most positions.
We had continued moving up a start group each day, and we hit the start line ready for the final test. Final as in, barring any catastrophe, getting through this stage was what mattered. We both knew we could limp through almost anything on the Grand Finale day.
There was a different feeling to the start of this day than the others - the temperature. Although still very comfortable at 8 am, I could tell it was warmer than it had been. It was going to be a hot day.
We started with the biggest climb of the day right off the bat, and set a blistering pace up Botmaskop. We moved through our entire start wave before the peak, and our reward was an unobstructed run at the flowing singletrack down the otherside.
Onto the next climb, we caught the backend of the start wave that had gone off earlier than us. The day was going great, and the trails were fast, fun and flowy. With one more climb out of the way, we found ourselves right in the middle of the next start wave.
And with that came bottlenecks in the singletrack. Although not the end of the world, it didn’t feel good to be waiting in queues for a few minutes at a time on singletrack trails. For one, they are more enjoyable when ridden fast, but more importantly, it was wasting what I had come to view as ‘free kilometres,’ those sections that you could coast through, and be pleasantly surprised at how much distance you covered next time you looked down at your Garmin.
Instead, we found ourselves riding the brakes, caught in traffic with no place to pass. In the grand scheme of things, getting caught up in bottlenecks would only add maybe 30 minutes at most to our final finishing time, but every minute in the hot sun was one less minute in a shaded tent at the finish!
At the 2nd waterpoint, the heat had started to get to both of us, even more than the previous days. After refilling our Camelbak’s and water bottles, I scrolled through my Garmin screen, curious if it was as hot as it felt.
I looked back in shock at the number starting back at me.
Ouch, no wonder it was hurting so much
Onward we pedaled. Thankfully, there was a slight breeze, which made the heat at least a bit more manageable. Both myself and Coleman were staying on top of our hydration game, and more than a few packs of Skratch Labs Wellness Mix were used.
The stage ended with some frustrating zigzags through vineyards. We’d bomb down a steep vineyard doubletrack, only to hit the bottom, do a 180 around a row of grapevines, and then head right back up. We just wanted to ride in the shade, and whenever there was even a sliver of it, we would weave wildly wherever we were riding to try to maximize our time spent out of the sun. Even if it was only for 10 seconds, it was a welcome respite of the heat. But in the vineyards, shaded areas became rarer and rarer.
The last climb of the day was soul sucking, but after tackling what would be the hottest day of the race, we rolled back into Stellenbosch. At the finish line, Coleman said he thinks the stage may have been harder than Stage 5. I had to think about it for awhile, but I was close to agreeing.
Uber Eats and the Grand Finale
Tired of the race buffet dinners, we ordered pizza through Uber Eats both nights we spent in Stellenbosch. It was a welcome change. Neither myself, nor Coleman, can describe what is wrong with the buffet dinner provided by race organizers. The spread is quite good by all appearances, and actually tastes pretty good for the first night or two. But by the middle of the race, eating at dinner becomes a force-feeding affair, an added mental challenge to the race.
But the ordered pizza was hitting the spot. In fact an entire pizza went down each night with surprising ease, and I almost wished I’d ordered two. What I’m trying to say is morale was high - I’d just had dinner 2 nights in a row that didn’t involve forcing down calories, and I’d made it to the last day, a stage that was contextually a walk in the park. Of course, in any other moment, 70 km and 1800 metres of climbing would be a pretty big day for me. The kind of day I’d taper for, get a good night’s rest before, and probably even feel quite nervous about.
But today, it was just a light day to bring it home to Val de Vie and claim a finishers medal.
It started with rolling pavement, and then gravel for the first 20 km. Sustained, consistent efforts were our wheelhouse in this race, and Coleman was starting to come around, so we put our heads down, and put an effort in. As had become habit over the last few stages, we moved up and caught a whole other start group. Except this time, we figured we moved up and ended up riding with the start group that was 2 waves ahead of us!
Steady tempo on the pavement and swapping pulls paid off! It felt like we had hit the highest point of the stage in the blink of an eye. The singletrack trails were full of bottlenecks and traffic, but still brought a smile to my face. The day was going well!
Then the wheels came off my train. Around kilometre 45, I spent the next 15 fallen off the pace. I think a part of it was just not eating enough - we had been trying to breeze through the waterpoints, but it could also have been the exuberant effort that we kicked off the stage with.
Regardless, I found my legs eventually, fueled a bit by grumpiness and the fact I wanted to get out of the sun (although not 44, it was still hot!). With 10 km to go, I took over on the front, and set a pace that was aimed at getting us to the finish line as fast as possible.
I’d check back to make sure Coleman was there as we rolled through groups of riders on the doubletrack to Val de Vie. In the last kilometre, a piece of new ‘singletrack’ awaited, before the finishing chute. It wasn’t so much singletrack, as it was a narrow ribbon of pebbles and rocks dumped along what was mostly a moderately treed field. It was rough, and threw off the momentum we had from hauling 40 kph across the doubletrack, but at that point, it didn’t matter.
We rolled into the finishing stretch that I had only seen from the spectator side after a disastrous 2017 race. The obligatory wave of emotions that come after such a long, testing race hit me. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a few tears behind those mirrored riding glasses.
We went through the well-oiled machine that is the Cape Epic Grand Finale, queuing for our finishing picture, collecting our finisher medals, and getting the cooler full of food from Woolworth’s.
Coleman got to go through the Amabubesi queue, reserved for those who have finished 3 or more Cape Epic’s - a well-deserved token for him. I am still in awe of his ability to finish the race in 2017.
After 8 days, 625 km, 16,650 metres of climbing, temperatures as hot as 44 and cold as 9, rain, sun, dust, dirt and a time of 46:33.10 spent out on the bike, there was nothing left to do. So we sat, in the shade, eating our random assortment of Woolworth’s food. Another Epic in the dust.
I woke up Monday morning, sprawled out in a heavenly hotel bed. My mouth and throat were raw from drinking gallons of electrolyte drinks the past 8 days, my body ached, my head pounded, but I wasn’t waking up to bagpipes, so it wasn’t all bad.
The first few mornings after 8 days of stage racing are always the strangest. The routines of the past 8 days can go out the window, but, I still found myself waking up early. And, ironically, after having to force down breakfast every morning, I woke up hungry!
Training and preparing for the Cape Epic takes up a big chunk of mental space, and with it over, it leaves a bit of a void to be filled. So what’s next? Who knows! I figure I’ll have to go back to the Cape Epic eventually - joining the 3 time finisher club would be pretty sweet. But if you asked me when, I could tell you it likely won’t be in 2 years, like the gap between every other Cape Epic attempt I’ve made.
All I know is right now is it felt damn good to roll across that line in Val de Vie!
It was an emotional finish, and I owe thanks to many people that helped get me there. Support from home helped weather many a dark moment on the bike, getting me through those moments where it felt like there was no choice but to throw in the towel.
It takes a village, so if I miss thanking anyone, it’s purely because the list is so long that it was an innocent oversight.
First, Coleman, the guy who was within 2 minutes of me the entire time. A solid teammate who is surprisingly fit for an old guy.
Next, friends and family - everyone who followed along, sent words of encouragement, live-tracked us at any point on the Cape Epic website, or any other way of following along in the adventure during training and racing. I’d also like to single out my girlfriend, who was understanding through the entire process, including being fine with me saying no to any evening plans extending past 9 pm so that I could get up at the crack of dawn to ride my trainer. And of course, my parents, who have been supportive of all the crazy adventure ideas I get in my head ever since the beginning. When I texted them after getting that email in October saying how I was worried about how I would pull it off, their response was “We’ll figure it out,” and they meant it. I bounced many a crazy fundraising idea past them when I was trying to come up with the race registration money.
Next up, a quick thanks to Campers Village. I had just started as their Marketing Coordinator in December, and they were happy to let me take off for 3 weeks to take this event on. Pretty cool support for their employees, it’s a good culture!
Then I’ve got to thank ATHX. The gym work there and caring support from chiropractors and massage therapists kept me injury free in training, and helped me race at my best.
There’s also the crew at Pedalhead Bicycle Works - the Cannondale Scalpel and all my riding gear from there performed flawlessly. And I know many of them were following along closely from home as we tackled the race.
And finally, a shout-out to our South African friends. Marilize from the Westin has always made sure everything is sorted, whether it be accomodation, transfers, or even just fielding our questions of where to buy peanut butter, she has made Cape Town feel like a second home with her warm hospitality and friendship. And then Marius, an ex-rugby pro who has finished 8 (or is it 9 now?) Cape Epic’s and seems to be a legend at the event. He is always a friendly face in the race village, and his texts from inside his tent, late at night, showing the flat of chocolate milk he snuck out of the dining tent as a midnight snack, were always worth a morale boosting laugh.
So thank you to everyone, and again, if I missed you, I promise it’s not personal!