What a race. What a week.
I’m sat here in an airport lounge 3 days after concluding the 2017 edition of the ABSA Cape Epic, and I’m feeling superb.
Completely liberated from the anxieties and peculiarities that befall you in the final few weeks before the event, I feel like a free man.
No longer obsessed with whether my hands are clean or whether those around me are sick. No longer required to remember a slew of daily admin tasks before I ride. No longer required to even ride during the day. It truly is a beautiful feeling.
I’ve also just spent 2 delightful days in the amazing town of Scarborough with my wife and 2 of my best mates which has further chilled me out and brought me back to reality after a crazily emotional and busy week of cycling.
I am also filled with a massive sense of pride at having finished the race. The week started off with a crushing sadness that saw my amazing partner Sibusiso Vilane not making the cut off and me just scraping in with 20 minutes to spare, but ended on a high with he and I crossing the finish line together, in front of a crowd of friends and family, at the Val De Vie Equestrian estate 6 days later.
So what of the race?
THE CYCLING – LONG & TOUGH
It’s not billed as one of the toughest endurance events on the SA (and even world) MTB racing calendar for nothing.
We experienced ridiculous temperatures of 37-40 degrees on Stage 1, causing race organisers to shorten Stage 2 from 105 to 63km’s just to ensure rider safety.
The terrain is tough and unforgiving. Thankfully the days are a bit of a mixed bag with some requiring that you’re always-on and needing to concentrate and work to complete every kilometre, with other days (the longer 112km stage and the 103km Queen stage on Saturday) having longish stretches of district road that would allow you to switch off your concentration, get into a big gear and power through some relatively ‘free’ miles.
There was LOTS of climbing. Thankfully, my coach seemed to have a done a great job on my conditioning – more of that later – so I didn’t ever find any of the climbs too crippling or debilitating.
WOW. The views from the top of some of the mountains we climbed were breathtakingly beautiful and you really did get an opportunity to admire how spectacular the South African countryside is.
Aside from some grizzly weather (heat) on Stages 1 & 2 (Monday / Tuesday), we were blessed with pretty good weather that got cooler as the week progressed so that it was only a pleasant mid-20’s celsius on the longer days.
I was very blessed to only experience a measly 3 fairly innocuous falls in total. The last one, coming in fast towards the finish on Stage 5 involved me shoulder tackling a passing tree which ripped my handlebars out of my hands and sprawled me on the ground. I was already dreaming of family, friends, beer and champagne 2 days later and switched off long enough to end up on my arlie. With 2 stages still to go, it was a great little reminder to keep it together.
Once again I was incredibly blessed to not experience even the measliest of mechanicals. Nothing. Not one thing. Miraculous really. My mechanic thankfully noticed a few very bad divots in my back tyre at the end of Stage 4, requiring a replacement tyre as well as a new chain. But aside from that, my Specialized Epic Comp Carbon handled superbly with no issues. I really love that bike.
HIGHS and LOWS
I always like to get the negative out of the way (and thankfully we’re talking in the singular here) and this was the crushing disappointment of losing my partner Sibusiso 6.5 hours odd into Stage 1.
He started experiencing mild cramps at about 50km’s into the 108km stage, but by the time we had reached the summit of the massive ‘Haarkappers’ climb, he had such terrible cramps that despite our best efforts including joobies, electrolyte pills, cramp ease and me trying to massage them away, they were so severe that he couldn’t control the bike on the steep descent.
After some quick average speed versus time-of-stage remaining calculations and realising we weren’t going to make the 9.5 hour cut-off together, we were forced into having a quick and emotional discussion on the side of the mountain.
The result was an agreement for me to leave Sibs and push for cut-off and I spent the remaining 2.45 odd anxiously watching my bike computer and pushing as hard as I could in almost TT position over my bars. I thankfully made it in with 20 minutes to spare but feeling quite physically and emotionally spent.
We learnt later that temperatures had been as high as 37-40 degrees celsius and that there had been numerous drop-outs as a result during the day. We’d personally seen a bit of carnage on the route, with 2 cyclists lying in the bushes on the way up Haarkappers with their partners on the phone waiting anxiously for medical assistance. We learnt later that one of those two individuals had complete renal failure and was in ICU in hospital. We learnt too that many pros and novices had rated that particular day as one of the toughest Cape Epic stages in recent memory.
So that was Stage 1. A quick and nasty intro to the ABSA Cape Epic.
Sibs to Blue board ride
Having missed the cut-off on day one, I wasn’t sure what Sibs was going to want to do and was delighted when he told me that night that he wanted to carry on riding. You are permitted to continue riding as a ‘Blue board’ rider if you miss a single stage cut off, and provided you don’t miss another, can continue riding till the end of the week. You don’t get an official finishers medal, but aside from that, the rider gets the opportunity to continue cycling and put to the test all the hard hours of work they’ve put in beforehand, and to see that but for one missed element, they would have finished the race.
Stage 2 shortened to 60km’s.
While obviously feeling it was incredibly hot, I hadn’t taken as much strain as others talked about and thought that the stage had just been the type of really tough stage the Epic would dole out. That said, I had pushed far harder than I would have liked to at the end of the stage and so was very apprehensive as to how I would fare the next day in what was to be another 100+km stage. Imagine then my delight when hearing the next morning that it had been shortened. It immediately lightened the mood and gave me the confidence I’d finish the day, which I did with ease in a nice quickish 4.20.
The longest at 112km and 2,300 of climbing was a big bogie in my mind but was surprisingly comfortable with long district road sections that seemed to suit my triathlon past of being able to sit in a big gear and just grind out the free miles. Falling into a nice quick train at the start, I boshed out the first 25 odd km’s at an average of about 25km / hour, way in excess of normal average speeds. This set me up nicely for the day and I finished strongly to feel far more confident about the rest of the week.
Stage 6 – the Queen stage.
At 103km’s and a massive 2,650 metres of climbing this was geared as the toughest stage and so caused a fair degree of anxiety which would prove somewhat unfounded as I found the stage easier than expected. Surprisingly, I had found the previous day – billed as the ‘fun stage’ – more taxing as you had to work and concentrate on every mile. The Queen held a nice mixture of longer easier miles together with hard-to-work for miles and I finished feeling pretty strong and ready to ride into the finish the next day.
Having ridden apart all week, I asked Sibs if I could ride in with him on the final day and we had a lekker day out together. Crossing that finish line is just one of the best feelings you can have. A heady mixture of pride, achievement and emotion. My lovely wife Nina had managed to drum up the support of a large number of friends and family who had waited patiently for us to arrive and being greeted and congratulated by all of them at the finish was very special.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU BRUSH YOUR TEETH WITH
In the dim light of a head lamp when tired from a long days cycling, one needs to keep a distinct element of concentration about you, or a small tube of Germolene (a South African brand antibiotic cream) can feel miraculously like a small tube of Colgate toothpaste.
Until you taste it that is. As I started brushing, the taste and texture of the cream immediately alerted me to the fact that something was amiss. Initially I panicked and thought it was Deep Heat (another tube I had in my overnight bag), which I think may have caused me more serious issues by burning the hell out of my gums. My other immediate concern was whether inadvertent ingestion of any Germolene (in even tiny quantities) might cause me any gut issues. So I rinsed my mouth out – about 100 times – spitting violently after each rinse, and then set about trying to get the remnant Germolene out of my toothbrush bristles, a very difficult task without hands (my hands weren’t clean – arggh) due to the thickness of the cream.
Anyways – I eventually rectified the situation and thankfully no subsequent gut issues followed and I had a good chuckle about the comincal nature of an OCD dunce going through that rigmarole.
PERFORMING TO AN AUDIENCE OF WOUNDED BUMS
No – I’m not talking about the type of wounded alcoholics that title may cause to spring to mind. I’m talking about an audience of cyclists with wounded bums silly.
The Mediclinic tent at the ABSA Cape Epic has a ‘Bum Clinic’ department / area dedicated solely to the service of fixing and dressing problematic derrieres. After feeling sensitive after 9 hours in the saddle on day one, I wanted to keep any potential issues at bay and so visiting the clinic for the sensitive parts to be dressed, was a daily necessity.
The clinic is manned by 2 very sweet and incredibly helpfuly individuals in Ainslie and Randell, but Ainslie is the Lead Bum Technician. One day while waiting (probably stage 3), I discovered while listening attentively, that Ainslie would allow some queue jumping ‘bribery’ in the form of coffee. I also discovered that she liked music and after playfully creating some slightly amusing lyrics to the tune of YMCA (which was playing at the time), I told them I’d come back with a more complete and impressive offering later in the week.
So after enduring an anxiety filled wait the day before (with my start time quickly approaching) on a day Ainslie was working alone, the next day I trotted in with my coffee. However, on arrival there were about 10 good souls already in the queue and I just didn’t feel like I could ignore their wait and stroll to the front. I’m a serious believer in queue etiquette. But about 2 minutes later Ainslie popped her head around the corner and boldly asked who had brought her coffee. I put up my hand and walked to the front of the queue where I was greeted like an old friend. Ainslie then explained loudly to the queue, with me standing slightly embarassed beside her, that coffee bearers were brought to the front.
After then telling her queitly that I also had a song for her, and jarring her memory of the previous days performance, she then even more LOUDLY announced this to the queue and insisted I perform it in front of them and be video’d on her phone. Always game for a bit of fun, I agreed and after a brief introduction by Ainslie herself, I performed my newly penned crowd-pleaser “BCCE (Bum Clinic Cape Epic)” to the tune of YMCA, to a line full of people with sore bums.
The result – a rather rapturous ovation.
THE MALE FPH-SPOT
Unfortunately a source of pain rather than pleasure. It’s an acronym for Farkin’ Painful Hamstring spot. Let me explain.
After watching Megan Earl – our expert masseuse and repairer of tired bodies – have ex-RWC winning Springbok captain John Smit lift his head rather violently off the massage table and wince in pain, I was somewhat amused and curious as to what had got him wincing.
As Meg’s colleagues also noticed his cries, it was summarily explained to me that they had all been subjected to Meg’s deathly grip on that particular high part of the hamstring that very morning as part of their training and that it was particularly sore.
After John’s massage was finished I replaced him on the bed and after having the front of my legs massaged for about 15 minutes, I had all but forgotten about any impending pain that the back of my legs may be subjected to. Until it happened. Yowzers – it’s farkin sore. Meg thankfully had the foresight to record my pathetic moaning and protestations and had Caitlyn video me for prosperity.
Check the Instagram clip HERE.
Not such an Ultrabloke after all. More like ultrajoke.
Unfortunately there’s no sound, but you can clearly see from my grimaces that it was painful as …..
There were lots of amusing times spent in the company of Meg and her able minions. They were all incredibly kind, good natured, attentive and fun and visiting the sanctity of their massage camp every day was a great distraction from the hustle bustle of the race village and the monstrous tasks that lay ahead every day.
It was without doubt a distinct highlight of the week. Thanks Meg, Sanelle, Caitlyn and Divan. You made my Epic far more enjoyable.
The ABSA Cape Epic is undoubtedly an absolutely amazing race. The organisers just sent out a final summary Youtube video clip entitled 8 days in 8 minutes. Watching it, one can’t help but feel proud of the enormity of having finished such a challenging event, nor what an amazingly well organised and efficient logistical feat it is.
On the whole, the race villages were pretty solid and I suppose much as I expected they might be. The food was pretty good, the toilets were always clean and in working order.
But I couldn’t help but feel that it lacked a bit of the charm and ‘fun’ of the few other stage races I’ve participated in. I think I kind of knew that coming into the race. It had been explained to me that the Epic was a bit more of a test of stamina and endurance. A proper ‘kak-off’ to test one’s very mettle, rather than a jolly of sitting around post-race drinking.
I suppose it may come down to how competitive one is. While competitive with myself and usually wanting to finish within the top half of the field – as a rough barometer – I otherwise have no real expectations or goals other than to try and finish strong and injury free.
But while I knew that it was going to be more of an afkak, than other races, it does make for a distinctly different experience and it’s worthwhile people know that so that they can manage their expectations going in.
There were also some niggly irritations during the week that a lot of cyclists were speaking about and on the whole, aside from ‘testing’ oneself in one of the toughest endurance events the world of Mountain biking has to offer, a resounding sentiment among many other cyclists I spoke to was that they felt that for the amount of money spent (the Epic is considerably more expensive than other comparable races), they could probably do a bit better.
I want to preface these observations by saying that I don’t want to come across as some sort of a nonce as again I fully appreciate that it’s meant as a super-tough challenge, but they are elements that I definitely think could be looked at improving.
A few of my personal disappointments were the following:
Official race bags need to be at least 20-30% bigger
I don’t know what the organisers / bag manufacturers (new bag partner Scicon are thinking but the ‘official’ bags they give you to pack all your equipment into for 8 days of hardcore mountain biking are decidedly small and not up to the task of fitting 8 days worth of gear into them. I think that size bag wouldn’t fit my kit for a casual holiday that required only civilian clothing so to fit a full cycling kit in over and above the civvies you may wear after each stage is too much of a challenge.
It took me a considerable amount of time on the Saturday before the prologue trying to fit all my gear and other items into the bag. My 12 year old nephew even said “That’s a very small bag for all your gear Uncle Justin”.
I failed at the task and so eventually had to take my trusted Thule laptop bag along with me on the bus from Prologue to race village and then asked Meg (my amazing masseuse who very kindly obliged) if she could take it between subsequent villages. I remember the comparative bag from 2013 (I think it was) when my brother did the race. I think it was an Evoc bag that seemed to be (I suppose I must do a sanity check at some stage) at least 30% bigger and must have been considerably easier to use. That needs to change.
Power points for Power Banks
I was super excited to hear that you could very easily charge your devices in the race village every day at the Amped (official sponsor) stand. Imagine my and others surprise to subsequently learn that you had to buy an official ABSA Cape Epic Amped powerbank in order for them to charge it for you each day while you were out cycling. And the cost for such a device. R1,000.
It’s quite a nice device I’ll grant you, with Cape Epic branding on it and housed in a nice little travel case, BUT it’s only 6,000mAh, which is enough for the requirements of the race, but quite expensive compared to the Romoss powerbank I bought on Takealot, which was about R400 for 15,600mAh.
Now I don’t want to be completely unrealistic in terms of the denying organisers and sponsors the ability to make money off an event, but I think that’s excessive and that organisers should work on having a charging partner able to charge all devices, irrespective of brand. I thankfully again used the hour with Meg each day to charge my ‘non-Amped’ powerbank and other devices, but on one particular day when I couldn’t it was a seriously unnecessary hack trying to charge everything off the tiny number of plug points in the official chill tent.
By comparison, I was told that at the JoBerg2c, you are given the same size Amped device for free as part of your race gear on registration and that they would charge non-amp power banks that riders had brought with them.
This could definitely be done better and I think the race organisers need to sometimes look beyond immediate short-term revenue targets and consider whether the goodwill earned from not forcing someone’s hand wouldn’t be a better decision. I don’t think it would significantly detract from the number of people wanting to buy a Cape Epic branded device and would make those that didn’t far happier.
This one probably isn’t as big a deal for me, as the weather wasn’t ever too bad to make it so, but on the night it rained some water did come into my tent and had it rained harder or for longer, it would have been a real issue as the ingress of water would have ended up in disastrous sleeping conditions.
I don’t think the tents are quite good enough. They’re kind of the bare bones simple one-man tents, designed for good conditions, but not anything more. The first Sunday night was incredibly hot in the tents, and while I didn’t think much of it other than symptomatic of the usual heat of a tent, Sibusiso commented on the fact that he had never slept in a tent with such bad ventilation, even ones of that size.
When I finished, they’d run out of my size. Now normally I don’t care too much for souvi t-shirts, but when you’ve finished a race of the magnitude of the ABSA Cape Epic, you WANT the been-there-done-that t-shirt, and you want it in the right size.
This may seem petty, but having heard over the many years of my build up to my first race how brilliant the organisation is, you just expect to be right.
It’s a great race any which way you skin it.
You are riding amongst some of the best and hardest mountain bikers in the world across challenging terrain, the beauty and spectacle of which you are very unlikely to find elsewhere.
There is a definite aura and excitement around the race each day which is palpable and while it doesn’t have as relaxed and jovial a feeling of other events I’ve done, I don’t think this is what most participants are looking for. There are other races for that.
There are also decided elements of charm and great feats of organisational and logistical excellence that negate some of the niggles described above. From the bagpiper that wakes everyone up in the morning, to the friendly people in the Mediclinic tent to Paul Kaye and other great commentators on the start and finish lines and waterpoints every day to Dan Nicol on stage at night and to all the cheery souls at the water tables along the route.
My memories of the race are definitely fond ones and while I don’t feel compelled to do another in the short term – ONLY because there are simply too many other cool races in the running, trail-running, road-cycling and triathlon areas that are also of great interest to me – I think I’d definitely like to give it another go in a few years’ time.
Congratulations Kevin Vermaak and the ABSA Cape Epic team, you’ve definitely won over a big fan of the race.