I was getting ready for just another day in the gym when my phone buzzed; it was Evan. I wasn't expecting much so when I read "we won a lottery spot for the Epic", my "just another day" became something important. It was October, and I was hard at it, working towards a sub 2 hour at Novembers Iceman 50km mtb race in Michigan. I had no intention of racing another Epic so soon and I didn't try for a lottery spot in March; nor did I even know Evan had.
That text sent in to motion a winter of Zwifting, outdoor rides, and a single trip to the mountains, and before I knew it, I was somewhere over the MASIVE continent of Africa nursing a flu.
We landed late into Cape Town, made our way to the hotel, packed some food into our faces, and tried to miraculously flip the 8 hour time difference in a single evenings sleep: oddly, that didn't happen.
With all of our trips to CT for this race, we have little to sort out upon arrival, it's more just following our plan and getting settled. We were quick to build our bikes and get out for a couple spins before the prologue, hoping that anything that needed attention, could be dealt with prior to the race. This was especially important for me, as I had never ridden my bike, prior to these race pre-rides; yet, sadly, it didn't bring a possible race ending mechanical to light in time.
Prologue: University if Cape Town
20km, 600m climbing.
We'd raced this course back in 2015. The venue is the beautiful University of Cape Town, on the slopes of Table Mountain. The weather was perfect for us frozen Canadians, and the little bit of rain that was falling, knocked the dust down.
We start individually, with teams going off, every 30 seconds. Winding around the starting queue is an exciting time because there is literally nothing I can do to better anything for the sake of the race, and it all falls to fate. We go into the race expecting mechanicals, flats, crashes, etc. but we didn't expect that less than a kilometre into the race, that my derailleur would explode!
Our pre-rides showed no sign of issue in the derailleur department, in fact, it was Evan's bike shifting poorly that made me notice how well mine was going through all 12 gears; alas, enter the mechanical. My top pulley wheel had come undone, causing the tension, which is critical, to fail. The lack of tension caused my chain to fall off the front chainring in any gear, except two (or maybe 3, but I was scared to try), and those available gears were not conducive to the 600m of climbing, nor the fast flat/downhill sections.
Limited by my derailleur mishap, I limped us across the line, 10 places from DFL! Had we been contesting a podium position, this would have been disastrous, but it still stung. It took a lot to get up the hills with the gearing I had and I had to walk on a couple of the steep climbs out of fear of really breaking something. One spectator tried her best to bolster my situation while I was walking, and it took all I had not to snap.
I was able to arrange a repair in the race village that night, almost $500 later, I was the owner of a new SRAM XO derailleur! (that hurt too)
Stats: Elapsed time: 1:24 Moving time: 1:19
Stage 1: Hermanus to Hermanus
111km, 2700m climbing.
The first two stages were to start in the coastal town of Hermanus. We had been here in 2017, but this time around, it'd be a more reasonable temperature, at least the forecast was telling us that. My bike was fixed the evening before the stage. I rode it back through the village, ran through the gears a few times, and parked it in the secure bike lockup.
The sleep before stage one is usually a hard one to start. The prologue isn't that taxing, typically; the tent city is often electric; and the excitement of stage one, keeps me thinking. This year? I fell asleep promptly! I woke to the bagpipes, a slight fever, and just like that, stage one begins.
As is the Cape Epic norm, stage one is a trial by fire and I made such a bad mistake with my hydration, that it could have easily sent me home.
****Each stage has at least three h2o stops and we ride with a 3L bladder, and almost 2L worth in bottles on our bikes. The bladder holds our Skratch Lab electrolyte mix, and our bottles either have plain h2o, protein drink, and/or Skratch "Hyper electrolytes" (they have 70+% your daily sodium (among other goodies)) or a Skratch "Wellness electrolytes (it has 31% daily sodium plus....).
It topped out at 35c, and I made a mistake with my bladder mixtures up until the last aid station, and had only mixed enough Skratch Lab as if I had a 2L reservoir; and in retrospect, I think it was more like a 1 1/2L mixture. I also only rode with h2o in my bottles. All this to say, I was super low on electrolytes! So much so, I was starting to cramp, couldn't make pee, and my kit was white with dried sweat.
The stage sucked! I was more sick than I had been the past few days, dehydrated, and I couldn't hold Evans wheel most of the time. I'd come close to feeling well and wanting to lead, and shortly thereafter, I'd falter. Evan did his best to diagnosing my situation, but it wasn't until my first abductor cramp, that he cued in on my lack of hydration. He managed me well after that, and thank goodness he was the strong man, so he could drag my around Africa ALL DAY.
Stats: Elapsed time: 8:03 Moving time: 7:22
Stage 2: Hermanus to Oak Valley
90km, 2250m climbing
The night before stage 2 was awful. I found eating in waves to be the best, and I packed in as much fluids as I could. I woke after a couple hours of sleep with awful nausea, but on the bright side, a full bladder too. I ate some Gravol, and thankfully, the pukes abated.
Apart from my cold, I woke feeling better than I was the night before. I still had a lot to do as far as hydration, because I could only guess, that I was just back to where I would expect to be immediately after yesterdays stage, and not where I'd want to be, after all those hours I just had off of the bike.
I tried to offset the yuck of my virus with the excitement of familiar stage. I had done a lot of this one last time and I recalled the days big doubletrack climb, the Old Houw Hoek Pass, being well suited to us. I was better with my hydration, but I couldn't get ahead of it - Evan noticed and passed along his Hyper assuring me he'd be fine, keeping us from stopping and mixing my own. It was exactly what I needed.
Even though we overtook a lot of teams on the big climb, I was still lacking any pop, so I couldn't do much more than follow Evan's pace. The bright spot of the day came when I mentioned "the finishing 10km is all singletrack"! It was fast and flowing and provided a great end to another tough day for me.
Stats: Elapsed time: 6:31 Moving time: 6:00
Stage 3: Oak Valley to Oak Valley
107km, 2800m climbing
Apart from the connectors, I've done this stage every time I've raced the Epic. The Groenlandberg is a monster of a climb, and its %grade is our jam - today was made even more accommodating by the cool temperatures.
Blah blah blah, I'm still sick, and it was apparent in my climbing. I was good over the opening climb, the Nuweberg, and for half of the Groenlanberg, but then I had to settle for chasing Evan, again. I was gapped out as we rode in and out of the clouds. I was flat and Evan had to take it down a bit, just to get me back on his wheel as there was nothing I could do to match the pace.
It was spitting rain as we neared the summit, and the temp fell to about 9c. I had to put on a vest and arm warms at the top, knowing we'd have a long decent before the climb I was dreading the most, the Die Nek. Let me say that again I PUT ON A VEST AND ARM WAMERS.... IN AFRICA!!
Die Nek is a washed out doubletrack, covered in baby heads (what we call rocks that size), and over hanging shrubs. What gets me over this climb, is knowing there is a wide open dirt road, free kilometered descent on the other side.
I was on and off my bike a couple times while climbing DN. I could walk as fast as those climbing, and it gave my back a break.
***Side bar: My new book title "My low back is the devil". It'll be about indoor training all winter and how its non-dynamic and does nothing to strengthen those back muscles you use when you are up and out of your saddle when you ride outside.
The descent off the other side of DN didn't disappoint, and I did my best not to break, and keep the speed high. We had a few more blips over the last 40km, and the Epic was kind and gave us some nice switchback ups to get in our slated climbing. Like all stages finishing in Elgin, we got those 10km (actually 12km) of singletrack to get us home.
It was a relief to get this big stage done! During our post stage recovery, our mood was even more lightened with the thought of the next days stage being a shorter Time Trial of mostly Oak Valley singletrack.
Stats: Elapsed time: 8:16 Moving time: 7:34
Stage 4: Oak Valley to Oak Valley
43km, and 1000m climbing
Teams started individually, separated by a bit of time, in order of our place on the general classification. We've moved up positions every day, but we were still towards the back half overall, so it afforded us more sleep, and a slower start to the daily routine.
The malaise from the virus had for the most part, passed, and apart from snot and coughing, I was feeling well - better than I'd felt all week!
The stage started out with me being able to contribute. We settled in to our freight train pace, and started passing teams almost immediately. The stage was singletrack heavy. and the soil/terain was better suited to the amount of wheels that passed before us.
**** Starting in the back, it's common for the softer soils/terrain to be broken up, rutted, and brake-jacked (washboard trail, like a dirt road, usually into a corner. caused by skidding tires) from all the racers before us.In the next couple stages, the soil changes, and we get pummelled by shity, sandy trail!
We carried enough drink and fuel to not have to stop, and constantly passed teams.
As strong as I felt, I still was lacking the top end, that I worked so hard all winter to have, but it didn't matter. We settled in to a pace I wouldn't have wanted to push for the sake of the days to come. I was bagged in recovery and I felt so much better actually contributing,
I was successful in keeping my mind from going to the next stage, the Queen Stage, until I was back in my tent prepping for it. Tomorrow was going to be another tough on.
Stats: Elapsed time: 2:34 Moving time: 2:33
Stage 5: Oak Valley to Stellenbosch
100km, 2850m climbing
Dubbed the Queen Stage, as all the Queen stages in the past have, this one was sure to leave a mark. We were transferring from Oak Valley to Stellenbosch and the race guide mentioned something about vineyard climbs...
I woke feeling the previous days effort in my legs, as would be expected. Apart from the congestion, the yucks of my virus was gone, and it couldn't have come at a better time. The stages profile was like a saw blade - up, down, up, down... The day started uphill from the gun, and we made some quick work at shelling our start group,
Evan proved again to be the strong man, and I had nothing extra to give. I broke the day into 10km chunks, and I was sure to be on the bottle, and into the calories so to not go flat.
When we crested Gantnouw Pass, we had a mandatory portage through a beautiful Historical Site, We walked, descending an un-ridable trail, on huge broken slabs of rock, etched by the wheels of oxen-pulled wagons. It was hard enough to walk it with a bicycle, let a lone imagining what it would have been like to drive a wagon up it.
Once back on our bikes we were stuck in traffic trying to make our way over SOME impassible narrows, but mostly it was due to fearful riders just walking a "technical" section.
******I used quotes there... If every other South Africa we passed didn't mock us for our arm/leg coverings, they'd see/hear we were from Canada, and then say how much they want to do BC Bike Race. This usually happened when we were forced to walk a ridable section, because they didn't have to the skills/courage to try it. Evan and I would just smile and nod, knowing that if they try BCBR, they'd likely DNF or die.
Upon exiting the trail that took us down the pass, the course was rutted and sandy. Knowing I shouldn't brake and/or steer, I let it roll; sadly my front wheel went left, my bike went north, and I went over the bars and piled face first into a burnt out log. Evan was upfield, and heard a marshal say "there goes another one". I quickly got to my feet so not to get run over by the other two guys who crashed in similar fashion, spun my saddle forward, and tried to close the gap to Evan. As crashes go, everything fared well, apart from some sand in my Schlitz.
The days big up, the Kings Climb was steamy and in a wind shadow. It was mostly a dirt road, of somewhat suitable grade, but offered sharp switchbacks that forced me to question "could-v-should".?
Could-v-should is simple: Could I ride it? Yes... Should I ride it? No! We oft walk as fast as those riding the steep ones, and it eases the pain in our backs. PLUS, when we summit these climbs, there is always a collection of those who rode it, in a gasping heap.
We hit the last aid station with about 25km to go. It was at this point we realized what vineyard climbs meant. The profile showed short and steep climbs, and they were exactly that. We "shoulded" a lot of the crazy steep climbs and it was miserable not to be on our bikes.
All of this was made worse by the fact that we din't get an unadulterated down hill. We could go all out down for a 1/5 of what we just climbed, then we were forced in to a 90° or worse a F$#%#N 180° turn, go that way for a couple metres, to then go down another 1/5, followed by another 180°!!!
We wanted the day to end so badly, or at least be abducted by aliens, that we were even cursing the beautiful singletrack we got to bring us home! The single track leading us in to the University of Stellenbosch was rutted and jacked. What normally be some fast free kilometres, was an uncomfortable race to the line.
Buuuuut, it was done! Recovery was in full and I finally looked at the next day, and I wasn't liking what I was seeing.
Stats: Elapsed Time: 8:00 Moving Time: 7:17
Stage 6: Stellenbosch to Stellenbosch
89km, and 2650m climbing
Today was the "play day", and it's seven days into the Epic. Being promised singletrack coupled with a relatively shorter day, didn't bolster my mood considering the amount of climbing we'd have to do.
Evan got the scoop that the start is almost immediately up the Botmaskop, via a doubletrack road. My refound wellness allowed us to climb up and out of our start grid before the 1st climb ended. We had open trail for the Skyfall descent that took us into the next climb, and the earlier start wave. This is exactly when the day got bogged with traffic!
"Today was hard" I remember thinking after we finished, maybe even the hardest of them all. My mechanical on the prologue seemed to be the bane of our frustration when we have to start in the later waves, because we were CONSTANTLY forced to wait for slower riders on the singletrack. Keep in mind I'm blind and relatively inept technically compared to many I ride with at home, so when I say I'm waiting for others, you know it must be awful.
We'd get an opening and we'd easily pass teams, only to be on our brakes in traffic when we hit the beautiful twists and turns. Going off track to pass is a puncture waiting to happen, so we wait. I've also come to the conclusion that people who are slowing you down are usually at their limit and think there is no way they could be passed and they would never give you an opening to go around.
Today was legit hot too: Evans Garmin read 44°c and we didn't want to be outside in the sun anymore than we had to and being slowed by something other than ourselves, really stung.
The day foisted more vineyard climbs and 180°'s at us and my mood and back were having none of it. I couldn't stop thinking about all those free kilometres we could have had if not for those pesky skids!
The name of the day should have been "pay day". Switched and vineyard climbs, followed by rutted, jacked, congested descent. Nothing free came for us today... mind you, we never expected a handout.
Stats: Elapsed Time: 6:54 Moving Time: 6:28
*****Note our elapsed time verses our moving time. Keep in mind we stop at aid stations for about 1/2 that time to refuel but the rest is when we're either completely stopped waiting, or slowed to the point that our Garmin's can't register that we are actually moving.
Stage 7: Stellenbosch to Val de Vie
70km, and 1800m climbing
Simply, just 70km, and 1800m of climbing. and we are toasting our efforts, and slaying some demons! I'd rest up for a day like this if I were back home - this is an easy day at the Epic.
It would have been easy to taste the apple last night, but given the Epic gives no quarter, we were to be on our game. We hit the recovery tent post stage 6, and our prep for stage 7 was in full effect: eat, shower, eat, legs up, eat, massage, snack, sleep... NO BEER!!
The first 20km went pavement to gravel. Apart from a small blip, it was all uphill to the highest point of the day and we were flying! We put in such an effort, that before the "summit", we were riding in the group that started two wave ahead of us.
We hit loads of traffic on the long, bermed descent and it killed almost 5km's of free kilometres. Over the course of the week, I performed so much sustained braking, that I boiled the fluid in my callipers, and now I was limited in my ability to stop. Thank goodness the course provided open sections between the bottlenecks, which allowed us to pass, and go clear.
The last 15km's in to the lush Val de Vie was downhill and it was a true gift from the organizers. With most racers taking in the sites, we found it frustrating to be contained when we had such suiting trail to ride. Sadly, we were forced in to a single line due to soft sand that was just off track, and the amount of wheels in queue, made it impossible to pass.. then we hit 10km to go.
The trail opened up, and Evan's fuse was lit! Like a shot, he took to the front, and went ludicrous speed. I fell in place, and took his wheel, and we shelled every racer who tried to jump on the Evan express. It was relentless, and it hurt. "Yup", I'd say to assure him I was still there, yup and he'd up it another kph or two. Yup, and just like that, yup we were alone, yup and going fast.
At one point, Evan looked back and said "I think we turned some people inside-out....." and almost in unison we both said "including me". The promised last 3km of single track was like whip cream on a turd. It was river rocks dumped on a trail, twisting through trees, and landscaping piles of aggregate. Yup, Evan's pace was ramped again, just to bring the bumpy trail to an end.... (yup)
We finished on the polo fields of VdV. After traversing the western cape and all the dry dusty trails, the plush green grass radiated humidity, and softened the air. I too was radiating some humidity from my eyeballs as we approached the finish line.
After 650km's, 16,650m of climbing, and 46.5 hours of riding, we crossed the finish line... TOGETHER!
Stats: Elapsed Tim: 4:48 Moving Time: 4:36
Proud and pride
Why the Cape Epic, again? I don't think I can answer that succinctly, but I'll try.
If you find a teammate that works, it's the best/worst self induced eight days of suffering you can experience on a bicycle.
I suffered this time around. I came in more fit than ever, and after my 2017 experience, I knew we could go faster..... yet, as is life:
"The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft agley" *Robert Burns, 1785
Illness, dehydration, mechanicals; it all happened much to my best efforts in keeping such things FROM happening. I could do nothing about this, except, keep my head down and plough on. My teammate did the lions share over the entire week, and to him, I am grateful. He couldn't turn my pedals, but he kept me going at times, and we succeeded.
Amabubesi is Zulu, for "pride of lions". If you finish three Cape Epics, you become one of the pride; this was my third finish.
Amabubesi Stats: 24 days. 2,060km's (That's roughly Toronto to Houston TX.). 47,950m of climbing (That's summiting Everest from basecamp, about 9x's). Coldest Temperature: 9c. Warmest Temperature: 47c.
First of all, thank you to my wife Lindsay and my family. It's not just the 24 days of racing, it's the countless days of training, and the days surrounding the race. My wife and kids spent a lot of time sans me, and I couldn't imagine how I could have done this without them.
Evan! Thank you! All the laughs, all the tears, all the ups and downs. When it works, it works. Glad we could slay those '17 demons together. Mf. Jones.
Marilize. Our captain. Our keeper. Our friend. Cape Town is missing a gem now that she's Queen of Dubai. You are an extraordinary person..
Pedalhead. Thank you to Chris Check. He keeps wheels under us, is generous with the time off to race/train, and always good for some encouragement.
Friends and family. Knowing we had you all in our corner made it all worth while. Zed and his updates kept us all informed. My brothers and extended family following us sure made the dark times a lot brighter.
ATHX. Sadly we had to part ways with ATHX shortly before the Epic, but the past several years they kept us healthy and fit, and I'm sure I wouldn't have made the finish line without their help.
Now what? The Epic glow has faded, and my brain is ready for some bike practice. I won't expect a lot from my summer, but will be working towards a hefty cyclocross season, and maybe another go at Iceman? The future is bright.
As always, thank you for taking the time to check this out.
Until next time,