Foreword: For the record Naomi Hansen and I finished fourth after sitting in third until the last day. It was sub-optimal going into this race with zero form but this is the drawback to having to commit to a race 6 months before. Trying to stay in a positive frame of mind while working with what little fitness I had required a lot of soul searching.
The South African Adventure
Tough. That’s the best word to describe the Absa Cape Epic. There are many blogs and websites recounting the race itself, but I want to share the rest of the experience.
Used to ‘inventive packing’ to beat the airline baggage Nazis, it took some careful maneuvering (and my team-mates Q club membership) to get bike and gear on board for the long flight to South Africa. Brisbane to Cape Town via Perth and Johannesburg and finally we were in Cape Epic central. Unpacking at the Dolphin Inn, our beachfront B&B, there was a small hiccup when my bike got lost between there and Perth. Luckily we were within walking distance of the V&A waterfront. The redevelopment of this landmark is stunning, with quality restaurants and unbelievable food for a fraction of Aussie prices. At sunset we strolled down to the wharves to watch the seals lounging on the docks.
Adidas sure know how to throw a party and registration at the V&A was quite a spectacle. From a slack-liner (think tightrope walking with the lycra) to the world champion trails rider, it was a change of pace from the usual course run-down. Unlike other race venues where residents are generally unaware of the event, everyone we met kept asking “Are you doing the Epic? That’s crazy!”.
Issued with a hospital-like wristband I would, for the next 8 days, be known as rider 199-2. A feedpass on a lanyard (essential for entry to the meal tent) and a number plate with transponder attached were placed in a large black duffel bag into which you had to fit all your worldly possessions. I packed it once, but couldn’t zip it up. On the second attempt closure was achieved but unfortunately I couldn’t lift it. Another round of luggage rationalization and we were locked and loaded for the prologue.
Once ‘in camp’ things became logistically easier. If you’ve ever dreamed of having nothing to do except eat, sleep and ride then you will enjoy the everything-included nature of the Cape Epic. The baggies are a team of fun-loving incredibly fit, bare-footed (and bare-chested, ladies!) young men who look after the hefty bags, packing them on the trucks for transport to the next stage. If you smile nicely they may even carry yours to your tent after you’ve had a long day in the saddle.
The camp is a sight to behold with row after row of red dome tents to be occupied by the riders. My team-mate is a CE veteran so we picked a couple farthest from the ‘chill zone’ (read: bar) and closest to the bag drop for the next move. Accommodation is very basic with a BYO sleeping bag policy, but there is a plastic covered mattress to offer a degree of comfort. An inflatable pillow is highly recommended. The first night is the most difficult to sleep but can be made easier by eyeshades, earplugs, ipod – anything that blocks out the floodlights, the movement of trucks at midnight and the inevitable snoring and farting of your camp neighbours. After a couple of stages though, you sleep through anything, even a leaking tent as I learned from experience.
Revelry is at 5am. About this you have no choice as the CE soundtrack is switched on over the loudspeakers. A catchy version of “Over the rainbow” will now be forever associated with hideously early mornings and an aching body. Rugging up against the brisk morning we grab torches and trudge to the large enclosed marquee where meals are served. The usual fare is available – porridge, cereal, eggs, bacon and toast. Instant coffee is included but the Woolworths coffee cart fires up early for those looking for something more refined. As the week progresses this is where you observe the toll of the race. Initially there is a buzz with people socializing and speculating about the coming stage. In the latter stages it is a place of vacant stares, hunched shoulders and minds only capable of concepts such as “food goes in”.
Starts are staggered at 7, 7.15 and 7.30am, depending on your GC placing. With 1200 riders this helps a bit with congestion, as does the practice of sending the field up a massive berg at the first opportunity. Cape Epic is a pairs race and team-mates are required to stay within two minutes of each other at all times. Timing mats are placed on course to catch out those who stray too far from their partner. The 707 kilometres are far longer than they sound due to the 14,000 metres of vertical ascent across some of the wildest terrain in South Africa. Course marking is excellent which is fortunate when the brain is not functioning at the end of the day. Each long stage has at least three feed stations with lollies, fruit and home-made muffins. Hydration options include water, electrolyte and coca-cola, which proved to be a soul saver for many.
Fast forward 6 or 7 hours of loose fireroad, dizzying climbs, achingly beautiful views and some unexpectedly flowy singletrack, riders cross the stage finish to the applause of spectators. CE volunteers relieve us of our bikes and take them away for washing and securing in the bike park. A Woolworths lunch bag is thrust in my hands as I wander dazed and confused through the finish tent. Although I assumed I would have many hours to while away, there is precious little time to yourself. After I ate, showered, washed my clothes, had a massage and prepared my gear for the next day, it was time for dinner and presentations.
Collapsing in bed at around 7.30pm it made me wonder about our natural body rhythms. With no lights, my mouth became an extra limb, holding the torch to accomplish simple tasks like tidying and dressing, made more difficult in a small dark tent. This gets old after a while and being mindful of conserving the battery life, it was easier to go ‘lights out’ and drift off. I had a feeling of being broken down to my most basic being – and I mean that in a mostly positive way. Living in a techno-rich, brand-concious, million miles an hour society, here I was…in a tent, under the stars, no make up, no hair dryer, no electricity. A happy day was having dry socks!
The simple things. There was also a very tribal feel with the sojourn to the water truck with all the bottles I could carry and to the communal laundry tubs where I went armed with a bar of sunlight soap and an iron will to get my socks white again, or at least less-brown. Both occasions required co-operation, consideration and the performance of menial tasks which invited conversation with strangers. I’ve lived beside my neighbours for two years with little contact other than a cordial “hello” as we pass on the driveway. But here as the sun set over the western cape, I was engaged in jovial repartee with my fellow campers. Perhaps as a society we lost something when we were no longer required to go down to the river and beat our clothes against a rock?
If all this sounds a bit primitive there are certainly options for comparative luxury. Mobile homes are available as part of the race pack options, with locals ready to drive between stages. This is a better option for those wanting to be competitive in the race. Its also possible to stay at accommodation in nearby towns but a car would be required to reach them in most cases. The food onsite is basic and plentiful but those with particular dietary requirements or allergies would need to make their own arrangements. Every race organizer should experience the machine that is the CE logistics team. Everything just works and is realistically catered for the number of competitors. Waits at peak times for toilets and showers are not unreasonable. Race management seems responsive to rider feedback, installing anti-bacterial gel in toilets, race packs and meal tent after a string of stomach bugs in 2010.
Unfortunately work commitments required us to fly home the day after the race-end to the local’s cry of “but you haven’t seen the best bits!”. With 3 stages finishing in verdant wineries and ample time sampling the local reds, I assured them I would be back. It’s lucky the memory of my pain-wracked body was a short one, although perhaps the wine had something to do with that.