I'm sitting on a plane heading back to Johannesburg from Cape Town. It has been 5 days since the end of the final stage of the epic and in those 5 short days I have squeezed in copious amounts of food, a fair chunk of alcohol, ice creams, interrupted sleep, had late nights, oh and slipped in to married life after having our wedding on Wednesday out in a quaint little place called Tulbagh.
Tulbagh hosted stages 1-3 in last years Epic of which I the second for my my then girlfriend and now wife Christelle and her brother Ben. The 2011 Epic afforded me the opportunity to sit back and watch the proceedings while having a close involvement with the competitors and the race village and logistics involved in running such a huge event, more on that later though. While in Tulbagh we kept driving past this beautiful little church on the hill at the Montpellier wine estate and with the back drop of the magnificent mountains that surround the region it grabbed me as place I really liked. It had a good feel about it especially after experiencing some of the undertones of Joburg and Capetown city. It seemed safe and peaceful out there and a time I really enjoyed. After Christelle broke her ribs on stage 2 and pulled out of the race we obviously got to spend more time together which was certainly great for us but a bummer as well for Christelle as she worked very hard in preparing for the race and to not be able to finish it is a very tough pill to swallow.
My first time in South Africa and then Zimbabwe where I proposed at Victoria Falls left questions of where to get married and given Christelle lives in Australia far away from her family we decided a South African wedding it was to be and funnily enough we both said "what about that great little Church in Tulbagh?". So it was set, Montpellier was to be our venue for the wedding. Wow, 12 months down the track and a lot has happened in my life. I've now entered the realm of MTB racing, I've got engaged and now married my Princess and completed the Cape Epic. There has been countless hours of training and race prep along with wedding preparations, even though Christelle has handled the major chunk of that and done a cracking job and now here we are about to embark on a small safari in the Kruger National Park before heading home and getting back to the organized chaos that is work life. What an awesome wedding we had and shared it with great people that travelled far. The Aussies were all overwhelmed with how much they liked the area and Cape town itself. So for us, what an amazing result
So, back to the race. My body is still dead, that's the best way I can think to describe it. My muscles are sore and tired and I'm in major need of a service, there is one coming up in the form of some serious deep tissue massage booked in for Saturday in Pretoria....can't wait for that and the rest I'm planning in the Kruger could be just the shot I need given there is a big road race season with the boys from KMD racing coming up, again I can't wait for that either. My feelings of overwhelming emotion as I crossed the finish line in the final stage of the Epic surprised me at the time. Given some reflection I can see why my throat choked up and the tears ran. I had seen our 2 mates Johnny and Mark moved to tears after 2 grueling stages of the race. One being stage 3 the 147km day with 2800m of climbing and mid 30 degrees temps and the other being the brutal 5th stage of 119km and 2350m climbing in horrendous conditions. There was serious wind chill, rain, copious amounts of mud, constant chain suck, no brakes by the end for most, mechanicals everywhere and just the challenge of mentally driving your body to the line after some massive days in the saddle already in the legs and body. These days were tough for everyone including Foz and myself but somewhere in there we both were able to lock all that in and stay focused on racing. In the end we just love racing, we love the challenge of it and seeing where we can take our bodies and mind. I loved the race and how it unfolds, the challenge for 2 roadies like us was pretty big but one we accepted with glee and determination and one I enjoyed doing together. it's not a race I would want to do on my own though and that was a major part of the attraction for me, to be able to share every km, every deep road rutt, every rocky tough ascent and speedy dangerous descent, every stack, food flat, mechanical, and you get my drift........!!
The Epic is a race within a race each day and needs to be attacked as such if you are in fact going to race it, plenty don't as we saw one day after a major mechanical forced us to be well back in the field. Although you need to consider the next day and the days ahead you really need to race the day and leave the tank pretty close to empty each day and work overtime on hydration, fuel and re fuel every day in preparation for the next race. This is one of the big challenges of the Epic. It's amazing to see and feel the body slowly deteriorating as each day goes by but in saying that it's also amazing to see how you can manage to push it to that point each day if you really want to and there in lies the beauty of the team. Let's be honest, when you're in that hole at times you wouldn't keep pushing to the same point if your partner wasn't giving you a nudge and if your a good team mate you rise to that nudge to drive a little bit harder even if you think you can't. Foz and I both experienced that at many points throughout the race and I thank him for both pushing me, dragging me and being pushed and dragged. What an amazing athlete Foz is at 50, brilliant mate and here's cheers to you for a memory that will hopefully be burnt into your brain and body for ever. I remember on the long 147km stage asking Foz as I was groveling behind him mid climb through the pine Forest as my tire was slowly going flat for about the 5th time during the stage. "How are you enjoying your birthday present mate?" I think I got a response somewhere along the lines of "GET STUFFED"
Let me travel back to what seems an eternity ago
We did a course recy two days prior to the race which stood us in good stead to cut a minute or two from our times if we hadn't have done it. It was a tough dry and hilly course with 900m of climbing in just 27km. Our aim was to finish outside the top 50 as we didn't want to be tempted to try and hang onto the pros and Elite riders in the race proper and blow our biscuits early in the race. We rode well throughout the race but I certainly had to pull the reigns on Foz constantly as he is a pure racer wanting to chew each competitor up that lay in front of us and trust me there was always another one to get. We had passed 4 teams by the first turn at about 500m and we were raising the heart rate to red zones that needed to be settled as the climbing started almost immediately. Ease was the call of the day for me and let's think long term here. The final climb was pretty brutal and trust me the race senses had been fully turned on and the dread of what lay ahead had certainly kicked in. With 800m left at about a 20% incline Foz snapped the crank, time to start running. I was glad as I was flagging. I grabbed his handlebars and said just run Foz, which is tough in itself in MTB shoes. I'm glad it didn't happen 5km early. A good result in the end as we ended up 66th and right where we wanted to be, in start shute B for stage 1
We were told is always set up to scare and shock the system. That it did in spades. The first real climb we hit ended up being a 2km walk instead of a ride as it was virtually impossible to ride and as soon as that first punter tips over it dominos back down the group. I think only 1 rider on the day managed to ride it and that one being Burry Stander who weighs in at 64kg. We reached the top with Foz saying he couldn't see through his fogged up glasses and had no contacts in. The trail was a blur to him as he couldn't see detail. A nervous time indeed as it was pretty sketchy and a narly descent before hitting feed station 1. The second climb was as brutal and silly in the fact we couldn't ride it. Bad luck, you just had to blow your calves up walking. It was a long and tough 119km push with us getting ahead of ourselves at the final feed point with 40km to go. It was like we are done so lets just smack it home. 2 hrs later we said lets not do that at the final feed again. I was busted but said the count is now at 1, I'll be very excited when I say the count is at 7
Was right up the roadies alley with 115km of solid dusty country roads, single track and not too tough climbing. The danger for us was hitting it too hard, so we tempered our exuberance and sucked wheels where we could. We were slow out of the first feed though and lost the fast bunch though, which in hindsight may have been a good thing. We rode well that day and it lifted the confidence with us really pushing hard in the final 10km and chewing up a lot of teams in the last 5km's as I tucked into Foz's slipstream as we hit the Tarmac for the charge to the line. That final assault was awesome and one that blew a lot of the groups around us apart. Foz had a massive smile on his face after that and said that's what I love about racing. We knew those road like opportunities would be minimal though in essence through the longevity of the race. Hence why we took the opportunity while it was there.
Brought some serious nerves and pain right smack bang into the face. It was hot and it was really fast early. The first 40km consisted of Tarmac and open dusty roads that had the heart rate high and the reality that fatigue was in the house and sitting comfortably in the rocking chair in the corner of the room. Foz was in the box early as we sat in the bunch right up the front and a continual slow rise to the first major climb. There was a crash once we hit the dirt and that enabled a split which we managed to get into. The pace opened that gap right up and we hit the climb with fresh air behind us. Again it was to be a couple km walk. Foz had blisters from that prologue sprint so his pain was high whenever we walked. I think it was good for his technical climbing as he did everything in his power to ride the climbs and not be walking where possible. I got a massive thorn in the front tire which almost leaked all my stans sealant out. It did seal mostly but a slow leak would be the Bain of our existence for the next 100km. I literally just made it into the second feed station before rolling the tyre off the rim with the last few corners being super dodgy trying to get around them and not losing the bike under me. Both Foz and I were in the hurt locker proper on the long climb of about 15km out in the beating sun that day and were very happy to see the downhill after it. I let loose down that with Foz a little more cautious. This stage was brutal to say the least and my Garmin was off it's game as I had us with 30km to go when someone mentioned we had 10km left. I couldn't afford to believe them until I saw the 5km to go sign and even then the going was tough with Dr Evil finishing us right off with some very tough pinches to finish. We were glad when that was over I must say. We felt we were on the run home.
Saw our worst mechanical with Foz snapping the chain clean through while pedaling, he wasn't even changing gears. We had passed through a feed station about 6km back and after a few fouled attempts by Foz to fix a link and a Spare one supplied by our Manly teammates on their way past. We had to return to the tech station at the feed zone. I again rode with Foz's bike while he ran with screaming blisters. In the confusion I got the bike sorted almost died on a descent coming through a fruit orchard with only one hand on the brakes and the other controlling Foz's bike. Foz had taken a short cut into the feed zone to find me and we had missed each other. I then had to chase him down, we were going in circles and losing valuable time and places, I certainly wasn't happy at that point as we had been passed by about 200 teams at least. Back on track and we started chewing through the km's and teams that were dawdling through the race. I said "so this is what it is like to not race the Epic" mark my words it is a different caper after about 130th. The urgency at every turn is dialed RIGHT back. Foz was in the hurt box after the midway point this day, his legs had turned off after the cool down of the walk/run and it was my turn to sit in the wind and do my bit. Man did the wind blow that day. We were almost at a stand still at some points or leaning at a 45degree angle to compensate for the brutal wind. We had to break free of a final bunch about 10km from home as we were amongst a bunch of broken men and didn't want the remaining life sucked out of us as well. Foz had a big superman stack in the final 3km down a steep hill but managed to stay in one piece. We got home and salvaged what we could out of a tough day but had been pushed out to 122nd spot. The crash stats were Buzz 2, Foz 1
We wanted retribution and a day free from mechanicals. When we woke though it was pouring and had been all night. It was going to be a tough day in the saddle and we had 119km of tough terrain and 2350m of climbing. My glasses got me through the fast wet and muddy first 20km then it was mud in the face time. The chain suck started from there and Foz was complaining of shifting problems again. My hope was that it was just the shitty mud and grit which we were all suffering from. He did mention early a feel of minimal brakes as well which wasn't a good start. We did get a cracking start though and I knew we were well up on GC early. I looked to Foz in the rain and said "mate this is our day in this shit". He said "yep I love it". We trudged through the day with a no fuss attitude just praying for no bad mechanicals. After feed 2 it was bloody cold with rain and high altitude wind chill. I said we have to stop and put our spray jackets on or we'll freeze, Foz wanted to keep going which lasted about another 10mins before I pulled rank. We both agreed it was the right call about 15mins later as the shivering had stopped. That could've been ugly if we hadn't and our poor Manly teammates John and Mark felt the full brunt of it and ended up with hypothermia and in a 4WD heating up. They did finish but were in bad shape and close to break point. Credit to them both to stick it out and get back on their steeds the next day. The last 30km saw Foz with absolutely no brakes and a lot of single track to get through. He was clipping out to use his foot for a brake on every downhill and ended up in the bush after overshooting the odd corner and we lost a good 30 places in the end. We were bitter sweet to be honest. After seeing our poor mates come in 2.5hrs after us and in a bad way we sucked up the brake issue and thanked our lucky stars. While they were suffering we had been handed hot chips and a dirty big beef burger at the finish line by my wonderful fiancé, cleaned ourselves, got warm, sipped on cups of tea and smashed copious amounts of food and CHOCOLATE. We felt if we can get through that we only need to stay upright now and we are home.
Was 89km of solid climbing and one on paper that looked to be one of the toughest. The start was frenetic and these guys certainly don't know how to organize a neutral start for the life of them. We climbed well early on some seriously steep ascents and found ourselves in a great position on GC early. It was time again to help drag my mate Foz home. I bet he never thought nor did I that he would sit on my wheel for about 70km of the day. His mind was playing games with him like mine usually does when behind his wheel or in fact my team mates back home when on the road. Maybe I can drift back a little and it will be ok maybe I can slow down etc, but his tougher than that and the real mind kicked in. He said the tempo is good I must stay here and he did. I was on a flyer and in the beautiful weather and what I felt was the best track we rode in the most scenic area of Oak Valley. Just magnificent up high where we were. We got told we were in 70th overall and made a decision to fly through the last feed only for lube and a coke and bang we were back at it for the last 20. Some amazing single track of which Foz got up close and personal to a tree for a few seconds, crash count Buzz 2, Foz 2. Then there were some cool burms to take at full tilt and some driving flowing dual track. We smacked it home and finished low 60's that day and had a ball. On the finish line is where my Modelling career took to a new high though. First National Geographic wanted my lived in face on camera and the lovely girl asked me to keep my shirt off. Christelle said I was in my element :-) then I got asked if I wanted a Red Bull by the Red Bull models, I replied yes please, to then be asked if I could have my photo taken with the Red Bull, why not. Poor Foz was looking around to get someone to take his photo to no avail, he just had to sit back and watch the pro do his work.. Ha ha :-) life was good for all of us with only stage 7 and 67km to go
The body was just about spent at this stage but there was a final push to be done. The pace as usual was hot at the start and my legs wanted no part of it. It was a gradual up hill for a few km's and my legs were on a go slow warm up. Foz had to do his best to hold himself back and was a good few hundred meters up the road, which was enough to keep me pushing as hard as I could. Eventually on a downhill I was able to reel him in and sit in. From that point on we gradually wound it up, just picking the dead and broken off. You could see no one wanted to race anymore and that the race was done for many. Not for us. We wanted to push it all the way home and when we saw a couple riders who we knew from South Africa through Christelle we stepped it up and grabbed their draft where we could. One of them was struggling on the climbs and when Foz saw the opportunity he hit the gas and said lets go, we broke clear of a bunch we were all in and set a solid tempo. There was lots of single track to navigate some punchy climbs through the vineyards of Lourensford and some fast long downhills. We were picking more and more teams off after my slow start and my legs had kicked back in and we could both smell the finish line. Team KMD were on full throttle in the last 10km and we swallowed up plenty to finish in a time that would've been on the Masters Podium if not a win. We had our best finish for the race in the 50's and topped off an amazing race. The ups and downs can come and go very quickly in this race and it can test the mind and body in all sorts of ways. The build up of all of that was ready to come out when we crossed the line. My throat choked right up coming down that final Shute and the tears weren't something I could hold back. Don't get me wrong I wasn't a blubbering mess on the ground, I was on a massive high and felt a great sense of achievement.
This race delivered all I thought it would and some. It was a privilege to traverse some of the great natural landscape of South Africa with a great mate and push the envelope and race ourselves over 800km. Prior to this race I had completed a grand total of 1 x 50km and 1 x 115km MTB races, my riding preparations had been mostly road based due to our poor summer in Australia. It is certainly different to road riding in many ways, some parts are easier and some are harder than road riding. I love them both and look forward to more MTB races in the future. But for now someone please hand me my new Canyon road bike and get me back on the road......