Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Cape Epic 2019 - South Africa

Having placed 4th in an elite female team in 2011, I really thought I'd ticked the Cape Epic 'must do' box. So I was still a bit shell-shocked to be standing at the start line in Cape Town again. A combination of good timing, luck and great friends had me partnered with Mark Martin, a riding mate from Brisbane. In his heyday, Marto was a top triathlete. But at 56 the rigors of running had taken their toll on his knees so he had turned to mountain biking. Back when I was trying to make Australian teams, Mark was one of my supporters who funded my first trip to Italy for the 2010 World XCM Championships in Villabasa. We met up for a ride and while he was super strong uphill, he couldn't descend to save himself. Fast forward a few years and the man who wouldn't ride at Gap Creek if it was slightly moist announced he had signed up for the Swiss Epic, renown for its wet, icy tree roots and steep, muddy descents. After that, and a 2015 Cape Epic in a super masters team, Marto became a better rider. Not good enough to make the start line of our 2016 Swiss Epic when he busted his shoulder and my partner took his place. So when he asked me to be his team mate for this year's Cape Epic, it seemed a fitting partnership toward the end of my cycling career. He'd missed out on a top 10 finish in 2015 after he and his team mate got separated and copped a time penalty. (NB. You must stay within 2 minutes of your team mate at all times) Top 10 seemed like an arbitrary but achievable goal.

Trying to beat the jet-lag in the sun. Table Mountain is pretty spectacular overlooking Cape Town.

There were two rules for the trip: Don't get separated; and no fucking tents. Being on the Avis upgrade package and getting whisked away to a comfortable bed and fluffy towels each day lacked the camaraderie of the race village tents, but made my 2am wee a lot less hassle. It was far from a flawless experience with rolling blackouts (more on this later), variable service standards and a missing pool. But it definitely afforded more comfort and dignity than I was used to . Our assigned coordinator, Farazaanah, and massage therapist, Brandon, made our experience 5-star.

Pool at our second hotel at Arabella Hotel and Spa. Post stage sauna and spa was mint!

I can't remember much of my 2011 race, being flogged for most of it after coming out of an average XCO season. I'd definitely forgotten the beauty of the area. Each day started in an amphitheatre of mountains with jagged peaks to rival Switzerland. Not so much in height but in texture and sun-drenched valleys. It was satisfying to look across and see the trail we'd traveled on an hour ago. I find this gives a better sense of the journey as John and I often look back at the ridge-line we spent the last 8 hours traversing. Less welcome were the mornings riding directly into the sun on trail so dusty the rider a few metres in front of me was obscured. I put the bike approximately where I thought the trail was and hoped for the best. Blind faith was also a prerequisite for the numerous pitch-black underground tunnels and drains were we sent down to avoid road crossings. The rider was left to feel the wheels on the curvature of the pipe to make sense of which way they were going.

Credit: Dwayne Senior / Absa Cape Epic

One thing that had notably improved on course was the volume and quality of the single track. The descents on days 4,5 and 6 were some of the best I've done anywhere. While battling with the Spanish Flax & Kale team on Day 4, we were absolutely flying down the trail in a train, attaining that enviable 'flow' state. The guy turned to me at the end with a huge grin and asked "Did you have an orgasm??". I think I did. Not overly technical, but if hooking down berms and pinging off small table tops and gaps for 10 minutes at a time is your thing, you won't be disappointed. The fire-road to single track ratio is on par with races like the Trans Rockies in Canada so it's not the Jeep track grovel of old. There's still plenty of grovel though with most days over 2500 metres of ascent. Not smooth tarmac or trail either. Tufts of grass, loose rock and slippery shale all featured. I don't think I've ever ridden as much deep sand UP hill.

Bergs for days. These handy stick ons helped tick them off each day.

The weather started pleasantly cool, progressed to freezing summit rain and finished in the high 30s for the last two days. One very welcome addition to the race logistics is a small rider bag we could throw our jackets into on the start line and which was transported to the finish tent each stage. No more shivering on the start line because you don't have a support crew to throw your gear to. The whole operation has become a lot more slick since 2011. We definitely didn't go hungry with the feed zones stocked with all manner of snacks every 20k or so. Riders only needed to bring their sports foods of choice to start each day and then they were well catered for over the rest of the stage. I will miss my mid-stage fruit cake and banana bread. Much of the course runs through private land so can't be ridden outside of the event. But large parts of the single track network are mountain bike parks attached to wineries (because riding a bike at speed and alcohol go really well together...) and it would be a fantastic stop over for a few days riding around the Elgin area. It was the usual 'muppet show' on a lot of the trail descents with an abundance of unnecessary braking behind less skilled riders so hitting these again at speed would be nice.

Up at 5am each day for breakfast, even at the hotels. Sunrise over the mountain at Houw Hoek hotel. The hotel pre-dates settlement in Australia. 

Marto and I were fairly matched on the climbs for the first few days. But with me being faster on the descents I could pace it up the next section while he was constantly working hard to close gaps. That adds up over 8 days. I'm glad he was the one 'in the box' because I don't think I could have hurt myself the way he did for the whole race. I'd settle in to a nice rhythm thinking I'd have an easy day, then another team would come past and BANG! Marto was chasing them down. My legs objected to the surges so I either rode a steady pace in front or put a hand on his back and pushed from behind up the smoother climbs (there weren't that many!). We rode with similar people each day and got to know everyone's capabilities. I was spinning up a climb and felt a hand grab my jersey for a tow. I thought "Good, Marto is on" only to turn around and see one of the South African guys latched on. Nice try. I watched an Argentinian crash into an apple tree and get pelted with falling fruit as he lay on the ground early in the race. This taught me that constantly looking behind for your team mate was potentially painful.

Credit: Absa Cape Epic. Photographer not listed.

While we oscillated between 9th and 11th in the mixed category, we moved steadily up the general classification and start waves as people dropped out due to broken bones or broken souls. I saw numerous people with the telltale collarbone sling, gravel rash and one young guy having a cry beside the trail because the task in front seemed insurmountable. People riding solo after losing a team mate overwhelmingly said it was more difficult and their motivation to continue was almost absent. Your team mate can be your best ally or your worst enemy if they push so hard you crack. Choice of partner is a huge key to success in this race. As is preparation. This is a huge outlay of money and it did astound me the number of people who didn't complete it due to insufficient preparation. Whether that was ensuring their bike was up to the task, or that they'd trained sufficiently or addressed their nutrition before and during the race. This event sells out and organisers have zero latitude for people missing the stage time cut-offs. They want to keep the exclusivity and challenge of getting two people through the event, and part of that challenge needs to be time-bound.

The line was long by Day 4. The staff are experts 'down under'

Marto and I had not so much as a flat tyre through the whole race which is astounding considering what we rode through. One team we were with had 6 punctures on the one stage. Body-wise, I had one trip to the infamous bum clinic (drop your pants and bend over) to get a staph infection treated and some protective dressing applied. Marto washed out on Day 7 and, I was told, hit a tree with his face. This seemed plausible given the lack and dust and gravel rash on him and the gaping wound on the inside of his mouth from his teeth. Some internal stitched and ice for his swollen cheek saw him soldier on for the final day. About 50 percent of the field was riding with some sort of injury by the last day. The thousands of off-camber gravel corners in the race claimed many victims.

Marto getting his mouth stitched up. The event offers a mini hospital, not just first aiders. If you're going to have a cardiac arrest at a mountain bike event, you're better off having it here. 

As a race I really enjoyed the course. It was a good balance of pleasure and pain. The organisation is astounding as you would expect for its reputation and $9000 (per pair) entry fee. There were a couple of days I was really pushed and I don't think I would have dug that deep if I didn't have a team mate urging me on. It's nice to know I can still tap into that place and has made me appreciate that my time left to compete at a reasonable level is short. I need to make the most of it. We held on to 9th place against the fast finishing German team.

There were a couple of things in the background of the race that were concerning though. The number of empty dams we rode past; the 'no swimming' signs beside dust bowls. The 2 hours of load-shedding each day where houses and businesses have no power due to mismanagement and incompetence of the state power provider. We were shielded from it somewhat as most hotels have generators - although sometimes they failed to kick in. Brandon (massage) is doing his honours in exercise science but the university he is at has no generator. So they often fall behind in their lectures with no power for projectors or Wifi (mobile data is very expensive in South Africa). Despite the signs urging considered water consumption, house-keeping still laundered our towels every day and I'm sure no one actually took the recommended 90 second shower. The amount of waste generated by the race in terms of polyester satchels, plastic bags, cups, packaging and cutlery was staggering and embarrassing. The country, already showing the ravages of climate change, left cars and buses idling constantly. That we were serviced in comparative luxury while locals had insecure access to basics like water and electricity just felt a bit...wrong.

I've started to consider where the sport I love sits in terms of its net affect on the environment. And I'm not talking about the oft-cited erosion on trails that mountain bikers are, sometimes unfairly, blamed with. That is a small issue compared to the carbon emissions involved in flying halfway across the world to compete in a event that generates huge amounts of non-recyclable waste. How do we reconcile the personal transformation which these events can bring about with the huge environmental impact that participation imposes? I could justify it previously. But now I think I've learned all the possible lessons that suffering on a bike can teach me, is it ethical to keep participating? In my more extreme moments I question the morality of endurance sport, full stop. Is doing more running/riding/other than is necessary for good health (benefits top out at around one hour per day), akin to leaving the car idling in a garage in terms of increased use of resources? It's not as if we are transporting goods to market these days. Most of us probably ride before work and then jump in the car to commute to the office. I'm not boycotting endurance events altogether. But I will be taking a more considered approach to travel and examining the policies of the event organisers when it comes to waste production and reduction at events. Most mountain bikers I know have a huge respect for the natural environment. I'd just like to see that concern extend past the one we immediately enjoy.

Thanks to my team mate Mark Martin for turning himself inside out every day. And to the following sponsors who support my adventures:

Flight Centre Sports and Events - travel and sports events
Wild Earth - outdoor gear
Ride Mechanic - bike and body maintenance products
NS Dynamics - fork and shock servicing
Absolute Black - oval chain rings
Infinit Australia - sports nutrition products

1 comment:

  1. Great write up Jodie. A very considered and sensible approach to the event & also the outside factors. Still a great team result inside the top 10 mixing it with the youngsters. Holey moley, the entry fee is expensive on top of travel costs etc. Let alone all your own lead up time & expense. I'll stick to running. Rest up, well deserved.