The Cape Epic IS that hard

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Stuart Spies during stage 1 of the 2016 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race held from Saronsberg Wine Estate in Tulbagh, South Africa on the 14th March 2016 – Photo by Ewald Sadie – Cape Epic –

My illustrious friend Mike Blewitt is going to beat me, but I HATE the term ‘bucket list’. To me it’s like the easiest way to set expectations that can never be met and challenges that can never be a achieved through wanton lack of rational logic. A list of shattered dreams and forgotten promises. The Cape Epic makes many mountain biker’s list, and I did wonder if it was worthy.

‘Must learn to fly’ nope, never gonna do that one, FAIL! ‘Must meet the Queen’… not unless you do 5 years military service and somehow get selected to become the oldest Horse Guard in human history and miraculously find yourself being inspected by Her Magesty on her next birthday, nope just another fail in a long line of cracks of the self flagellation whip.

I prefer the term ‘feather in the cap’, according to Wikipedia ‘derived from the general custom in some cultures, of a warrior adding a new feather to their head-gear for every enemy slain’. To me that sums up rather nicely how I feel every time I finish a stage race. I feel like Big Chief Stuball, Warlord of The Great Suffering and Rider of Many Bike Races That Hurt a Bunch.

A fist bump for good luck with Scott. Photo: Gavin Ryan.

Of my many feathers this most recent addition ranks right up there with pulling myself out a Norwegian Fjord after a misguided idea to take on that horrific triathlon The Norseman. But this feather is the prettiest, the longest and was so hard earnt it took actual DNA from me.

Blood was spilled, tears were shed, disillusioned abandonment hung like an ominous cloud over me some days but something else was conjured up every time I pinned on that number, the desperate hunger to keep fighting, the illogical need to ‘finish’.

When I say I loved the Cape Epic I mean it the same way you describe loving a classic car, perfect in every way, except when the brakes fail and you die in a fireball ‘he loved that car’. It’s that. By far and away the most well constructed and detailed race I have ever done, a megolith in the calendar and now finally one I understand from first hand experience.

There are confused titles bandied about for the Epic, ‘The Tour de France of mountain biking’ noooooo, the ‘Toughest race on the planet’ pretty sure it’s not and various others, none of which are really heavily used by any of the official media. But it is hard to give normal folk an idea of what this race really is and to every rider it’s different. For me, Epic was ‘brutal’, ‘cruel’ even, but so exceptionally well put together with so many highlights I find myself a week gone thinking, yeah actually, maybe I would give it another crack. Lunacy!

I’d happily feel like this again!

If I could give you an inkling of the pain I felt 70km into a 108km stage as my thigh went into fits of cramp, or the demoralising frustration of having a near terminal mechanical whilst climbing up the A bunch like they were in neutral or simply the despair as you stare at a profile thinking ‘there is no way in hell I’m getting through this today, there is nothing left’ I would and I’m sure you would still ignore these as the mute points they are, good!

Fighting through the Cape Epic

Worse though, those moments wouldn’t come close to describing the full extent of the effort required to keep the concentration going in those dark moments when you really want it all to end. When you have to unclip in the sand, again. When you hit the corrugated farm track on saddle sores or when you have to bury yourself to bridge to a group after dropping your chain.

Staring at the route profile was not always pleasant.

The three conerstones of success in those situations are:
1) Remembering you chose to do this, it is not a punishment
2) Other teams have suffered worse, it could always be worse, always
3) Everyone is supporting you, from your fellow rider to the kids yelling in a field, everyone is willing you forward ‘Hou bene, hou!’ (‘Hold legs, hold’ a common chant at South African races)

Scott and I had become joined at the hip, we had met at the airport, no I mean we actually met for the first time as we stepped onto a plane. We had picked up our Momsen Vipa Team race bikes 3 days before the Prologue, the first time either of us laid eyes on our bikes. And our first ride together was to a bike shop to go get me some pedals for me after leaving mine firmly attached to my bike 8000 miles away (doh schoolboy error). But to me this was the net result and the final pieces to the puzzle of simply getting to the Cape Epic and it was now complete.

New friends – we made it work!

What followed was something that I hope you all experience, ‘the click’ when you both go about doing exactly what it takes to get through the race together with a view to achieving the same goal, finish and finish well.

Scott was by far the stronger rider, as annoying as this can be to anyone else who has suffered the ‘oh he’s stopping for a pee – I’ll just keep on trucking shall I’ experience its tough, but it helps if you remember for every time you want shove a pump in your partners front wheel he/she is probably supressing the need to ram a rocket up your posterior in a desperate ploy to inject some pace in proceedings. Now to my mind we were far from slow, it was just, well the the standard, bloody hell, the standard of South African racing is high, incredibly high. The leaders of the Masters category, Holland’s Bart Brentjens and Brazil’s Abraao Azevedo had more silverware between them than half the field, Olympic silverware, World Championship stripes and multiple Cape Epic stage and overall wins, hardly the shabby smattering of dubious 3rds I could claim in unknown local races!

The first 5 Masters teams palmares read like a Generals tours of duty, big races, big results. So humbling but so punishing to cling onto! Scott and I met the race head on, there was no holding Scott back but there was no way I was going to crack either, I came very close, dangerously close. But in Scott’s quiet intense way, and with numerous pushes, pulls and words of wisdom, we battled forward together, suffering mechanicals, chasing back, crashes, heat, lack of sleep and the usual plethora of aches, pains and rumbly bellies from litres of gel and racing concoctions that personify stage racing. We left everything out on the course and eventually, when we achieved our goal of top ten in Masters with a 9th on GC I felt like this was the perfect crowning moment to months of winter toil and preparation, exhilarating!

Gritting the teeth in desperation as drool splatters your face from ragged deep breaths that are begging your body to give your more willing your legs to find reserves.

Of the many great moments I recall, where else can you enter a water point with the World Marathon Champion on your tail (riding as an Outcast) and while the announcer welcomes you in over the PA to the gathering of supporters who are raucously yelling and whistling their support, a full Cape Carnival band is belting it out trumpets and spinning umbrellas the lot. This was quickly followed by seeing a family in the middle of a vineyard playing violins and flutes to serenade the riders as they passed. It was French in its eccentricity yet purely South African. The whole hallucinogenic vortex of colour and madness left me smiling in delirium whilst I attempted to mash salted boiled potatoes in my face without crashing into a barbed wire fence as I took in each new sight.

These happy moments were numerous but so were the dark ones, the depleted core ones, the ones where cataclysmic destruction is imminent. Gritting the teeth in desperation as drool splatters your face from ragged deep breaths that are begging your body to give your more willing your legs to find reserves. These were the ugly, awful places where I would look far into the tank and repeat those three little pearls of wisdom. More, give me more you f***ing bastard, yeah, honestly not a nice place. But it all ends, it has to, and you make it, you somehow, inexplicably move forwards and you make it, and ultimately, if you are very lucky, you make it right to the end.

So organisers take note, if ever you want elated riders at a finish line, just batter the hell out of them for 8 days but leave them with no excuses. No way of shifting the fact that fate is simply a cruel mistress, a rider may have done everything right but fate has determined their lot will be decided in the heat of battle day 3, or fate may decide their equipment will fail, their body may fail or their will might crumble. Get the peripheral details right and leave it to the rider to accept their fate, we rarely ever do, but I truly do salute all those that were forced to. And I wholeheartedly appreciate that to finish in one piece in Meerendal was very special, we were so very lucky indeed. The Cape Epic organisers left us with no excuses and I thank them!

Cape Epic 2016 was hard, it was THAT hard!