Part 1 of Cape Epic rider Ross Lovell’s (twitter @rosslovell) 2013 race report & experiences. In this first installment, setting the scene and riding the prologue..
Some time ago, when I was living in Sydney, my friend Chris asked if I fancied riding the Cape Epic. The race has a fierce reputation for its toughness and the faintly sadistic manner in which course planner “Dr Evil” scours South Africa’s back-country in search of the most extreme riding, but, “Sure”, I said, “let’s do it”. The race would be hot, but that didn’t matter since I was living in a hot place (at the time) and, blinkered by the excitement of a big challenge, managed to completely disregard that the race takes place in March – the end of South African summer. I returned to the UK during autumn, ready to crack on with an intense training block, but staring straight down the barrel of what developed into a particularly long and bitter winter. Climatically I probably wasn’t in the best position to prepare or acclimatise for the rigors of an 8-day stage race, during which temperatures can sore over 40 degrees, so I tried to focus on getting mileage in the legs.
Squelching around my local trails in the dark, sliding across slick tree routes, with waterbottles freezing and getting caked in mud felt somewhat counterintuitive, and far removed from the parched and brittle landscape I was expecting to race through, but dragging myself out in all conditions was certainly helping to make me feel more resilient to the weather, and that had to count for something. Right?
Conversely, on the other side of the world in Johannesburg, where Chris lives (at altitude I might add, without trying to sound too whingey) his training seemed a lot more relevant, but at least I could feed off his experience to help prepare. The main dilemma, which we discussed at length, having read many many reviews and articles, giving us a distinctly faux aficionado level of knowledge, seemed to be which bike to take – 26 or 29er? Full suspension or hardtail? After lots of late night, trans-continental phone calls, during which all aspects of weight, handling, sizing, geometry (…you name it), were raised at levels undoubtedly well above our genuine technical know-how, we settled on 29er hardtails. Lighter, more nimble, more efficient on the climbs, better rolling momentum, less to go wrong, was just some of the jargon we used in justifying our choice. Comfort was perhaps a nagging concern.
Flying direct to Cape Town from London would be a stark introduction to the difference in temperature – roughly 30 degrees between airports. Add to that being wedged in on the plane between two people, one being heavily pregnant and the other just plain heavy, and it was hardly surprising that I arrived feeling unrested, sweaty and with visibly puffy legs.
Chris flew in from Johannesburg, we found our hotel and nervously built the bikes. Fortunately everything seemed to have survived the flights, except for a valve on one of Chris’s tubeless wheels, which spat tyre sealant across the hotel room – an easy fix (for a bike shop with a compressor).
We decided, over two particularly large milkshakes (each), that with just a day and a half until the start of the prologue, we should probably at least test ride the bikes before rolling off the start ramps live on TV. So in the midday heat we rolled out of Cape Town, and snaked our way along the stunning coastal road through Camps Bay. Even though we were riding on the road, the backdrop of Lion’s Head and Table Mountain was enough to help shake out the cobwebs, and hopefully some of the blood pooling in my legs from the long flight. It felt like a long way from the snow and bitterness I had been duelling just a few days earlier.
Registration emphasised how serious this race was, as we joined the back of the line to collect our race stash. A wafer thin line of wiry, lean, lightweight and very shaven riders. It’s not that we weren’t taking the race seriously, but I don’t think either of us would say we were ‘mountain bikers’. This was a line of mountain bikers. It didn’t feel like there were many people here just to ‘have a go’. So it was somewhat reassuring when former Welsh Rugby captain Colin Charvis and his former-pole vaulting teammate, Okkert Brits, joined after us. Suddenly we weren’t the heaviest.
The Prologue would take place at the Meerandal Wine Estate, a short drive out of Cape Town. It would be a lung-busting 23km sprint with 700m of climbing, the result of which would dictate our start group for the real first stage. Beginning at 6.45am, riders would roll off the start ramp at 25 second intervals with a maximum time allowance of 3 hours. Certainly it was a generous cut-off, but it meant that if you suffered a mechanical issue there was still a chance to run it home. Running in new mountain bike shoes was something neither of us fancied.
Fortunately our start time was early enough to avoid the heat, and also gave us enough time to drive up from Cape Town without being too tired. It had been an unplanned late night after Anaconda 3 had been just too good to switch off on hotel TV.
It was an exciting start – a big PA announcement of who we were, the start ramp rolling away from us (looking particularly greasy), the crowds gathered either side of the start/finish barriers, the countdown, the anticipation… and we were off!
A short section of grass guided us to the back of the Meerandal Mansion House, through the main corridor, out of the grand front entrance and down the increasingly intimidating main steps. Much had been made of the steps, such that they’d gone, in our minds, from gentle, shallow drops, to precipitous, limb-breaking, certain-fall-in-front-of-tv-crew, death stairs. Certainly the size of the crowd here suggested that some bloodshed or excitement was expected. It made for a nervy start, but soon we were away from the race hub and up into the first long climb.
Like any mountain bike race our bodies had gone from nought to frantic in a few seconds and months of building anticipation only heightened our burst of effort over that first few minutes of racing. I could feel my heart thrashing around inside my chest trying desperately to get blood to my thighs which were screaming for attention. The long first climb up tight singletrack switchbacks, although steep in places, was an invaluable opportunity to calm down, find a rhythm and focus. The race village fell away below us as the morning mist swirled and evaporated off the hill. Steadily we ticked off the immediate teams who had gone off just before, and topped out with heart rates mellowed (slightly) into race pace.
There is a definite to theme to how Chris and I race. Generally we are strong on any trail which goes up or on which power comes before finesse in importance, so this first hill suited us well. We are definitely not ‘risk takers’ when it comes to descending (I quite like my face), but that’s not to say we are wimpish by any means. It’s just that in a field of mountain bikers, by comparison, our ability to descend at pace leaves us somewhat disadvantaged. Hence maximising uphills, and the longer the hill the better. Certainly more high-torque diesel engines than fine-tuned petrol.
Rolling off the summit of the first climb, briefly noting a hazy Table Mountain on the horizon, we negotiated our first descent. Not technical, but loose and dusty with occasional rain-eroded trenches and off-camber corners. Falling during the prologue would be a disastrous start so we were both a bit tense and over-cautious. Clouds of dust filled the narrow trail between brittle shrubs and the rotor blades of hovering TV helicopters drowned out any other noise.
We bottomed out in an open quarry, flicked it to the big ring, swigged some water – for both refreshment and to clear the dust from our mouths – and tucked into a flatter section. Here we passed our first victim, bike and rider strewn across the trail. A broken collarbone. It was so easy to lose a front wheel, unknowingly hit a deeper patch of sand or flick a large stone and hit the deck. This was 5-miles into 500-miles of racing and worse was definitely to come. In fact the quarry was like a canal towpath compared to what we’d be riding later in the week.
Snaking through vineyards, again it was the climbs where we gathered in other teams and made up time, so it was a surprise to hit a beautiful flowing piece of specifically made singletrack descent with firm moulded berms and clean lines and feel like we were being held up. Although mildly frustrating – we were racing after all – I took some encouragement from learning that we weren’t the most pedestrian on the descents.
The course was parched and arid. However, whenever it had rained last, some Clever Dick had ridden his horse along sections of the trail whilst the mud was soft. The resultant ruts and holes had since dried harder than concrete. To some extent our 29” wheels would help to ‘flatten’ and absorb the lumps, but on particularly rough section it felt like we were expending many watts of power for very little forward momentum.
The second half of the course had more punchy climbs and less of our preferred sustained drags, but overall the riding was excellent fun and the pockets of enthusiastic supporters dotted around the hillside, usually on some of the hernia-inducing steep bits, were hugely appreciated.
The downside to making the course more ‘fun’ means that often it’s tight to pass, and with mixed abilities going off together, you get the odd etiquette issue. I like to think we’re pretty relaxed and well-mannered on the trail – always trying to yield to those moving faster – but Chris got himself into a bit of a pickle attempting an overtake on part of the singletrack. Perhaps it was the helicopters or maybe Chris just wasn’t assertive enough, but either way the soon-to-be-passed rider didn’t seemed to acknowledge Chris’s call of “On ya right” (the standard message of a rider coming through from behind). Initially the chap seemed to sway/list to the left and Chris went for the move, but then he came back right and the path narrowed, essentially putting them shoulder-to-shoulder where there wasn’t space to do so. The resultant comedy shoulder barge was both hilarious and embarrassing to watch from behind. Chris moved through leaving me to pick the poor guy out of a bush, which at least made my pass much easier, since he was now well off the trail. Later we waited at the finish so that Chris could offer a full apology. No harm was done, but it was the second time that day it had happened to him.
We crested the final hill and put our heads down for a sprint to the finish line, pushing all the way to the timing mats. We were pretty chuffed. It felt like we’d ridden about as hard as we could, perhaps not burying ourselves totally, there were still 7-days ahead afterall. Only one team had passed us, yet we seemed to have been passing teams regularly over the 23km. Squeezing into one of the top start groups for the first stage proper might be a possibility.
Back at the car we checked over the bikes and noticed tyres riddled with thorns. It was a miracle not to have punctured fully on the course. This was a major concern since, unlike Chris, I was riding with tubes, although supposedly special tubes which seal around the penetrating item. As soon as the thorns were removed the tyres went flat and even though you can basically fix the tubes with just a cigarette lighter, I really didn’t fancy dealing with tube issues in the middle of nowhere, so that evening in the event village I handed the bike over to the race mechanics for a tubeless conversion of the wheels.
Stage 1 was due to be hot, sandy and hilly, but the extent of its toughness would be a shock to everyone.