Cape Epic 2023 - The race that measured all
The South African Cape Epic is a 650kms, 15,000 meters of climbing, 8 day, two person team mountain bike stage race. It has just finished leaving a trail of destruction and many good times in its wake. The race attracts the best professional mountain bikers in the world, and budding amateurs alike. Here's how it unfolded for two middle-aged kiwi lads.
The race that measures all is the Cape Epic's catch phrase, a throw-away comment to the unaware. This race assaults the mind, body and soul with everything, it often felt like a mysterious force not wanting you to finish. However, not such a mystery for the third of the 750 international teams who didn't cross the finish line.
It does showcase South Africas' spectacular Western Cape, a mecca of inter connected farm tracks, single track and stunningly manicured flowy downhill. But you have to earn the privilege by climbing upwards against the infamous capes autumn winds and rocky tracks underneath. The organizers had no problem stringing together around 100kms of off-road riding every day, seeing NZ team Silversky biking around 5 to 6 hours a day on average. Initially mountain biking bliss, however mother nature saw an end to the dry weather with vengeance and while jetlag faded it was quickly replaced by exhaustion.
Coming from NZ it's a massive 26 hours in the air to arrive in Capetown, forgetting the 4 flights and transits. Once in camp gastro sickness and injury on the rocky/sandy/rutted landscape were the biggest event enders for most. The medic tent looked like a war scene as the days wore on, and generally the whole village looked like a zombie apocalypse by day five. Each day took away a little reserve energy, alot of one’s soul, while delivering less racing and more an epic survivor story. The tracks were predominantly rocky, and not small pebbles either, like large grenades with pins out. However, each days course always redeemed itself with periods of stunningly smooth bermed single track to remind riders just how good each stage really was.
This year, strong winds, driving monsoon like rain, and the ensuing mud made for some of the toughest conditions the race has ever seen. Rivers replaced tracks, thick sticky clay replaced uphill single track and warm became bone chillingly cold. You can't just throw your toys in these conditions, often you're in the middle of nowhere, and letting your team mate down is not an option, no matter what demon your fighting that particular day (exhaustion, legs hurt, headaches, battling the ongoing inner monologue "why am I doing this again?"). The tent accommodation was decimated by wind and rain twice, seeing competitors scramble to huge open aired shared tents to get some much needed sleep before the daily 5am wake-up call. Those two wet days, included the notorious 100km Queen stage, that saw all riders needing new front and rear brake pads (that’s around 1000 pairs)...and if that wasn't enough the next day they all needed replacing again!
Choose your team mate well. Team Silversky NZ thankfully old hands at stage racing, making light of testing times and dwelling on the many high points. The team is hellof important, no one will have eight good days on the bike, and choose someone who knows how to suffer, doesn't take themselves too seriously, and knows first aid. One of the leading women put a tree branch through her bicep, only for her team mate to calmly duct tape it together...and then still win the stage (the plastic surgeon afterwards was very impressed). Another kiwi team taken out with gastro, along with 15 stitches and septicaemia seeing a crushing early exit. Given the physical side is only half the equation, stay in touch with loved ones at home, in the dark times the thought of that support will help get you through. Friends and family were watching live tracking. It might be two people out there doing it, but there is a groundswell of support from all corners.
Daily massage is something many dismiss as a luxury, it's a necessity for get aging bodies back on the track day after day...and it's all you look forward too when your climbing that last hill home with 95kms under your belt for the day. Bike maintenance is another as equipment takes a hammering, especially if it spends days covered in water and mud!. Being stranded or walking home are bad options...and it's a race after all. For little cost outlay, it's not hard to find a supporting bike shop to clean, tune, oil, and replace what's needed while you get ready for the next day.
Hand sanitize after touching anything, bottled water and/or use of water purifying tablets at water stops enroute, coupled with ultra-cautious eating will generally help you reduce chances of the dreaded race ending gastro bugs. However, post event it pays to get a full no.2. analysis done quicky, both of Team Silversky suffering from Giardia post-race and even Dysentery!
These events are like icebergs to the casual observer, as the necessary pre event training lurks under the surface taking more time away from families. Post event be prepared for a month of recovery, more so if you've suffered from an event illness, in fact you'd be very lucky to escape it. This race measures all, and it lingers like child birth for a while.
The aim was to finish, have fun, and meet Nino Schurter the current MTB world Champ. All three achieved, with lots of laughs coupled with a stack of memories to boot.
This is what measures all means, and unfortunately nothing can prepare you!
Posted: Wednesday 29 March 2023