April 3, 2009 (Greyton, South Africa) – Canadian MTB cycling legend and Pedal columnist, Alison Sydor (Rocky Mountain) competed again at the 7-stage Absa Cape Epic, this time for the Big Tree Foundation on a mixed team with Nico Pfitzenmeyer (RSA) – last year’s mixed team Cape Epic winner – and sent daily stage reports for an inside look at this fabulous 685km adventure MTB race with 1,200 teams from 46 countries. Unfortunately Alison was unable to send updates during the latter part of the race – here are the missed stages and her final wrap up report.
In the grand scheme of things here at the Cape Epic stage 4 with 114km and 2,200m of climbing was considered to be one of the “easiest” stages. But I’m never sure about folks that say a 100km-plus day on a mountain bike is going to be an easy one!
Actually the day started pretty smooth for us. We had a solid start getting in the 2nd group out on the rolling road, riding along with the 2nd place mixed team of Esther Suss and Marcel Bartholet. Just before the only big climb of the day we hit a small rough one and after that we were on our own and quickly bridged up to our usual group of riding buddies. At this point in the race you start to know which teams are at similar strength to you. After the chaos of a 1,200-rider mass start, eventually you meet up in a group with your new “friends” that you ride with for at least the first half of the stage….
It was a pretty relaxed day for us hanging out in our group through the mostly farm lands terrain, with long swoopy climbs and downhills. That was until a piece of barbed wire attached itself to my teammate’s rear tire puncturing both the tread and sidewall.
Here in SA they have a different way to fix these types of holes in tubeless tires – they have this little awl with a kind of gooey string they try to stick in the hole to plug it. Nico tried this in his two holes but it didn’t work. So finally we had to stick a tube in the wheel to make the repair. We filled the tube then after with a compressed air/sealant system. A bit more air from a co2 cartridge and off we went.
The tube seemed to have a slow leak and we had to stop for more air and then a piece of vine caught in my cog set causing yet another short pit stop, and thus a group with the 2nd placed mixed team came up from behind.
We rode together and then were off on our own again on the next technical climb. From there to the finish was a bit frustrating for us, as it was continuous stopping for a bit more air to fill the slow leak then chasing, making a gap on the other mixed team only to do the same thing over and over.
The day before I was questioned about why I take the small thorns out of my tires each day. The small thorns don’t flat the wheel as Stan’s sealant fills any tiny thorn punctures. But when you have to fix your tire with a tube then some of those small thorns may just puncture your new tube. That’s why I get the tweezers out and remove those thorns each day!
Anyway we seemed ok when we hit the tough hills at the end of the long day riding off on our own again and making a nice gap. Unfortunately on the descent I followed the wrong rain rut and went directly into the bushes. A “friend” on the trail stopped with me and pulled a small bushy tree out of my back wheel. Thanks for that.
Again we got off on our own with just the final dry creek bed crossing. On the stones section Nico’s wheel went fully flat with just over 1km to go so I had to drop back and grab his jersey and pull him as hard as I could to the line. I wasn’t too worried about sprinting myself to the line, but I knew after all our daily troubles Nico wanted to win this stage so I was happy to help with a final strong tow after all the help he’d given me over the first three days. It was one tight sprint finish with the 2nd place mixed team nearly four seconds behind us that day.
After our second night in the small town of Greyton it was time to move on to our final camp of the week in Oak Valley with a 111km stage that promised to be more demanding than the previous day. Looking at the stage profile it appeared that after a strong start settling into a group after the first climb would be the smartest way to ride out the stage. So that’s what we did.
Until the last long climb we were in a really nice group. The riding was mostly double track and not too hilly. So we were cruising along at a nice pace for the next 40km – a tad too quick for my legs (ouch) but it was fun to go fast as well.
The last 25km of the day was in the single and double tracks of the Cape’s nature conservation area. Very beautiful and as we were on our own quite peaceful too. The temperatures were heating up and after a pretty hard first four hours this day I could feel myself getting pretty beat and I had to insist we slowed our pace.
Nico my partner this year was very strong and as I found out after a few days of racing his style – pretty much full gas all day everyday. I have to say I appreciated having such a focused and strong partner to ride with, but as the race progressed and our lead grew I had to try to keep the reigns on our pace a bit just so I would not totally blow myself. Which is the absolute worst thing you can do to yourself in these epic stage races.
Today I felt like I waited a bit too long to ease up on the pace and during the last 20km I started to creep a bit. It did not matter too much as we kept our lead to the end, The last single track downhill to the finish was super fun, but I was over heated and feeling a lack of coordination. One near miss with a tree and I decided it was best to ride the brakes a bit more and finish safe. Nico got to enjoy his ride in the trails, just stopping to wait up a bit for me from time to time. In these races you want to stay either in sight or voice contact range with your teammate just in case. Also it’s in the rules that you must stay within two minutes of your partner at all times.
I was happy to get to the finish today and also happy to know that was our final stage over 100km.
The stage today was an 86km loop and at the race briefing the night before was promised to be the most fun day of the whole race. After the first long climb we hit a really loose and rocky downhill, pretty treacherous actually. As we passed team after team stopped on the sides of the trail repairing flats and other mechanicals we took it easier and easier and managed to avoid any problems ourselves.
There’s not race like the Cape Epic for eating bikes! The long days, the loose rocky terrain, and not knowing all of the courses contributes to this. Each night in the dining hall they showed video highlights (mostly from the men’s race) and every team was shown stopping multiple times to fix things. To win the top teams must pick the right equipment and also be very adept at fixing things quickly during inevitable breakdowns.
As stage racing for pro teams gets more and more significant, and the Cape Epic continues to gain great amount of media coverage, the tech support issue is becoming a major one with some controversial events during this year’s race amongst the top teams.
Last year we had a neutral pit at the halfway point of each stage serviced by Shimano. This was not the case this year and there was not any technical support along the route. This proved problematic for many riders and I hope they manage to get things worked out for next year, as I think a race this hard needs some en route mechanical support. Otherwise as happened riders may have to improvise “illegally” just to stay in the race – not a good situation for anyone.
The last 25km of the day was really nice, the single track descents were the best of the week. The 2nd placed mixed team caught up with us at about 10km to go. What a crazy battle we had all together down the final climbs and descents. Personally I’d have preferred to cruise in with Esther and Marcel and just finish with the same time, but my teammate wanted to push for the win. Only one tactic can be played out and without any time to further discuss the situation I just went with my teammate’s wishes and in a string of loose drifty corners we made a gap on the others that we kept until the finish line.
Stage 7 Final
Traditionally the final stage of the Cape Epic is the shortest, though at 60km with 1,760m of climbing, it’s still very much a real stage! After the previous day’s stage I made sure to set up my wheels with yet another pair of new tires. It’s not so much for the thorns, but all the loose rocky downhills play havoc with tire sidewalls. For the Cape Epic I ran either Maxxis 2.0 Crossmarks or Larsen TTs. The Crossmark is the most popular tire in South Africa it seems, and that’s what I rode the first half of the race, then I switched back to TTs and I think they were better for railing in all the loose sandy corners. Anyway both were good run at 23.5 psi front and rear and with two full scoops of Stan’s for safety.
I can say for sure my mind was set on just getting to the finish safely today. My energy was pretty good this being day 8 of the race, but after seven days of “full gas” riding I finally convinced Nico we should play it steady and safe today.
It was nice to just ride with the 2nd place mixed team after having some tight finishes the previous three days with them. I was kind of sorry that one of the other teams just took off from the start climb and Esther and Marcel were too tired to go with them. It would have been nice to see them get a stage win after so many near misses the previous days. Anyway I think these two marathon specialists will both be coming out of the Epic with great fitness for the upcoming marathon season in Europe and be very content to take that home to Switzerland with them.
With slightly over 10 easy km to go I had a sidewall cut in my rear tire and just took my time to fix it. It was only a short cruise to the finish line and we were able to enjoy the last few kms to their fullest. It’s always a special feeling when you manage to win one of these epic stage races. It’s a combination of the release of pressure from so many days of focus, and the intense fatigue that conspires to make the feeling a unique sensation that one rarely has, even after a big hard one day win.
Instead of an evening race banquet the organization had a huge picnic at the finish line at the Lourensford Wine Estate. They set up a stage for the final awards and we got our final jerseys and it was nice that all the families and friends of all the riders could be there for the final celebration.
After the awards and final press conference we had the final final stage – camper clean out! We got that all done and then my sister and I made our way with all of our stuff to our friend’s house just outside the town of Stellenbosch.
We met so many nice people during the Epic and it’s something I also experienced last year – the extraordinary hospitality and generosity of the SA people. Seems we had no shortage of invites to post race braii’s (bbqs). We showered at our friend’s house and off we went to another place for a big braii. With new friends, excellent food and many a bottle of superb SA red it was the most perfect way I could imagine to finish off a very busy, intense and ultimately memorable week at one of absolute best events on the global mountain bike calendar.