Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Another beginner's guide to the Cape Epic

It was a month ago today that the 2012 Absa Cape Epic was a wrap, and there hasn't been a day since that I haven't thought about the experience I had.  It took me about a fortnight to rustle up the courage to write about the event as I saw it, and I've since been overwhelmed with the feedback I've had on that epic mission!  I was delighted my sponsor and fellow Cape Epic veteran, Kashi Leuchs, saw fit to copy it to the yeti.co.nz blog and to the Absa Cape Epic facebook and felt rather proud when none other than the founder of the event, Kevin Vermaak described my account as "a seriously good read...".  

Horn-blowing aside, even before I began blog #1, I'd decided to write a second, laying out a bunch of stuff I wish I'd read in advance of my first attempt at the race.  Lóan Burger had got in touch with Megan and I to share his own excellent recommendations (mostly regarding the bike and training), and I'd also downloaded Adele Tait's packing list from the Cape Epic "Training and Tips" page.  These were great, but I still made a bunch of mistakes I will try to avoid next time (!!!), and since my long-term memory is lousy and I stubbornly refuse to write anything down on actual paper, those "notes" to myself will form the genesis of this post.  

While I hope to be poring over this in a few years' time, I also hope it is a useful reference for others in their preparation for the amazing event that is The Untamed African MTB Race.  

Skills and Training

  1. Hills:  The organisers make no attempt to hide the amount of climbing done in this event, on the contrary, they stress it.  The 2012 Route Description cuts straight to the chase, describing the race as a "demanding eight day mountain bike adventure of 781km with 16300m of climbing".  Make no bones about it, you'll be riding (and walking) up very many hills.

    I'm no coach, and nor have I had one, but I think I'm not far off the mark with "take care of the hills, and the rest will take care of itself".  I'm lucky to live in a hilly city, with steep off-road climbs in excess of 300m reasonably accessible.  To make riding up a bit more fun, I even organised a local hill climb series which was a cool way of ensuring at least a weekly leg and lung-searing effort.  Training rides, such as they were, typically involved repeated 150m climbs (up to 10 at 15 minutes per round trip) and these were a mix of on and off road, including a bunch of pedestrian zig-zags and a few flights of steps just to mix it up.

    I also made the odd special trip to make sure I had this base covered.  There's a neat 700m climb about 45 minutes' drive from my home, and an absolute cracker - New Zealand's only hors categorie sealed climb - 4 hours away that I tend to do once or twice a year.

    I'm a big lad, but targeting my climbing has made the rest seem easy.

    (I should note that riding mid-pack, very many of the challenging climbs we walked - there was simply no room to ride.  It's probably a good idea to get used to a bit of bike pushing too...)For more detail about the specific sort of preparation I did, browse this blog.  I contains reference to most of the riding I do outside of a regular commute (15 minutes each way, or thereabouts). 
  2. Bunch riding:  At the start of every stage, and often during stages, you'd be crazy not to take advantage of the amazing shelter and free progress you make by riding in close proximity to your fellow competitors.  Watch a bit of the Tour de France, and you'll get the idea. 

    Speeding along an unsealed road with wheels inches away from your own, and riders left and right, takes some getting used to.  For your own safety, and that of the others around you, practice before you go.  In my home town, there are road bunches heading out on most days, and I tend to get out with one group or other every week or two.  There's the added advantage that roadies tend to be as tough as nails, and if you can find a bunch which goes balls to the wall, it'll either kill you or make you stronger. 
  3. Mounting and dismounting:  Being stronger than my team-mate meant I was able to enjoy spectating from within the race.  As I mentioned above, there was a lot of walking.  And mid-pack, most of what we were walking would have been entirely ridable if we'd had space.  

    In any case, for every dismount, there would be an equal and opposite remount, and these would typically involve someone standing astride their bike, clipping one foot in, and struggling against gravity and sometimes elusive traction to get the bike moving.  It looked like exhausting work, and it was something I avoided.

    My approach was to run a little, scoot a little with my left foot clipped in, then swing my right leg over and clip in on the fly before too much momentum was lost.  And, I practiced this before the event.  A perfect place to do so is a cyclocross event since being forced to practice is much easier than forcing yourself to on some random bit of trail you could otherwise be riding straight up. 

  4. KEEP YOUR POWDER DRY (shouted, for special emphasis):  This isn't a skill as such, but it might be something worth training.  The race is long!  There will be awesome places to make progress, and other places where your pace will be totally dictated to by the many people around you.  Go gangbusters when you can, but when you can't, enjoy the calm before the next inevitable storm.  I watched people fighting their machines up steep loose terrain shouting "RIDER, RIDER" at the dozens of pedestrians around them, before veering off into the rough and crashing, pooped.  For what?!  It was good entertainment for onlookers I suppose, but it sure as hell wasn't good use of the riders' energy. 

    Most of us probably ride on trails that are 100% rideable with some skill and effort, and riding up or down something challenging without a dab is no doubt a source of pride for us all.  I often found myself justifying what my friend Dave calls a "tactical walk".  But, they were totally justified when I could expend less energy walking up a hill than riding it at the same speed.  It did often sting a little - no one around me knew that I was just conserving energy - but it was important to realise even if they did care what I was doing, my pride was irrelevant.  You can't control the conditions around you, whether dictated by the course, competition or even your own team-mate, but you can control how you react to them.  

    If you're working hard, make sure it counts.  In my opinion, the best times to go deep were on the long rideable climbs where width was not an issue, and efforts both bridging onto bunches or preventing you going out the arse of same.

    Enjoy the lulls while they last.  Eat, drink, and be merry.

Gear and Equipment

  1. Bike:   There's no doubt about it, the Cape Epic's perfect 29er territory.  That said, I'm 6'3" and was riding a 26" trail bike.  My team mate (also riding a 26" trail bike) and I would be passed on the climbs, sometimes on rough descents, but we would pass dozens of teams riding 29ers on the parts of the course that the marketing hype would have you believe the 29ers would reign supreme on.  We were riding those trail bikes like we stole them yo! 

    The secret:  it's not about the bike.  Turns out I'm strong on district roads, and I pity anyone who got distracted by the size of my wheels. 

    The flip side:  my bike was a Yeti ASR-5 Carbon.  It was six months or so old, and had done about half the riding we'd cover in the Cape Epic in advance of the race.  But, I'd had it long enough to position the bars just so, brake levers and shifters just so, and seat position and height just so.  I would get on the bike, and I'd immediately feel at home, and ready to ride 781km in 49 hours over eight stages. 

    Besides fitting me like a glove, it was a FAST bike.  Light and responsive, and easy to move around beneath me.  5 inches of travel front and rear helped to smooth out the bumps.  I ran the propedal engaged the entire race, and only locked out the front fork when a clip pinged out of place 15km from the finish.

    I'd ride that ASR5C at a Cape Epic again in a flash. 

    Don't sweat bike choice, but do turn up on something modern, in great condition, and which you feel very comfortable on.  There's no magic bullet in this race, and the best bike in a shitty state will be trumped by all manner of "inferior designs" which have been well maintained. 
  2. Pedals, saddle and grips:  Contact points seem the most likely places for trouble, so I reckon these are worth getting right. 

    I rode on XTR race pedals with their massive contact patches, and didn't suffer from sore feet at all.  (I lost feeling in them on the cold day, but I suspect that was more to do with the 6-degree temperature than the gear.)

    I replaced the stock Yeti lock-on grips with ESI Silicon grips.  I used the Chunky variety, in orange to match my sponsor's colourway.  I ended up with calluses in the palm of each hand, but this was the extent of my hand "problems". 

    I really like the Ritchey WCS Marathon V2 saddle.  I now own five of them.  They fit my arse, but probably won't fit yours.  Find a saddle you like, i.e., one you can happily ride on for 8-10 hours or more.  You shouldn't get sore, or numb, or be unable to sit down by the end of the ride, or be unable to sit on that same saddle the next day.  You're heading for at least 40 hours in that saddle at this event alone!  As an insurance policy, I took a very different saddle in my gear bag, but it wasn't needed. 

  3. Tyres:  Oh how I anguished about tyre choice.  We don't have thorns in New Zealand, so I had no experience with them and had blown the problems they might have caused well out of proportion.  I wanted Schwalbe Racing Ralphs with the Snakeskin sidewall, but they're not imported into New Zealand.  My attempts to get them from the UK weren't totally successful, and while chainreaction claimed the error they made was incredibly rare, they sent 29er versions to both my home in NZ, and also to my host in Capetown's place, instead of the 26er flavour I ordered on each occasion. 

    To rectify the first of these problems, I bought a Double-Defence Racing Ralph (Snakeskin + reinforced tread) from a friend, and this is what I rocked on the rear.  The local Maxxis rep had heard of my plight, and did me a sweet deal on a pair of Ikons with Exo-protection, and I ran one of these on the front.  I put 3 cups of Stan's fluid in each, and didn't have to add air to either during the event.  I detected two leaks as I was riding, but both sealed up quick fast. 

    I was very glad not to have any issues with these tyres.  I'd bought a tyre plug kit in Cape Town - this was something I'd never seen in New Zealand, and can't find on wiggle UK.  Here's a video showing its use.  I hadn't seen this before the race, so only had the instructions in the kit (and Gav's endorsement of these instructions) to go by. 

    Great luck, but also I think I had a pair of excellent tyres.  Would happily rock either next time around. 

  4. Food:  I shipped a whole lot of stuff from the UK to South Africa, carried it from bus to tent to truck to tent (x3) and finally back to Gav and Sara's where I left it before returning to New Zealand.  The aid stations are incredibly well stocked, and unless you're incredibly particular and like riding with a heap of ballast, I reckon you could survive without taking anything yourself.  That said, next time around I'll probably head to the event with 20 small energy bars, and maybe start each stage with a couple in my pocket.

    As I mentioned in my blog of the event, there were small muffins (typically some sort of bran and apple variety), bananas, sliced apples, boiled potatoes, marmite sandwiches and lollies at every aid station (and once, the most delicious egg sandwiches I've ever eaten), in addition to some sort of powerade, and coke, as well as water of course.  We were around 200 teams deep, and there was PLENTY of food.  I can only assume the tail-enders had as much as they wanted as well. 

  5. General gear:  The best souvenir from the race is undoubtedly the awesome gear bag!  It's big, and you get your very own race number on it.  Whatever you can fit in it will be transported for you from camp to camp.  BUT, you will need to carry your bag to and from your tent a few times, and these will either be immediately following a stage, or immediately preceeding a start.  Neither time is it nice to be carrying a huge, heavy bag.

    The weather in 2012 was generally warm, and mostly dry. Here's what I'd pack next time:
    • mid-weight down sleeping bag and silk liner.  Regular pillow and pillow case.
    • headtorch.  This was needed every morning before breakfast, and every evening after dinner.  
    • Skins compression tights.  Damn them and their potentially false science.  But, they were great to wear on the long flights to Africa, and were nice to put on when it got cold.  I might not wear them otherwise, but they're a light-weight longs option.
    • woolen undies (that don't smell), shorts, woolen singlet, a t-shirt or two, woolen hoodie, beanie, cap and jandals (or sandals).  I also had a pair of running shoes and socks that I wore once in the mire that was the flooded Oak Valley campsite.  My feet were mostly glad to not be in shoes.
    • toothbrush and toothpaste, shower loofah, shower gel (I've got no hair, so no need for shampoo!), toenail clippers - or do them just before you leave home.  Towel - despite Adele's advice, I used a regular cotton one, and managed to get it dry most evenings. 
    • netbook and a EURO 2-PIN PLUG.  For some strange reason the recharging facilities had Euro-plugs.  I had a NZ plug and a South African adapter.  Go figure...  
    • I had a nylon musette which was very light and conveniently sized for carrying things around camp.A simple supermarket bag would have been fine too, but way less cool!

    Hang on to the plastic bag your mattress came in - if it rains, a couple of judiciously placed holes later, it'll be an awesome full-body raincoat and avoid you sheltering under your towel like I had to! 

    Some things I took and wouldn't bother with next time:
    • a book.  There's plenty of people to talk to, or sleep to be had.
    • ipod, ditto.  (One less valuable to lose, and one less electronic to charge.)
    • snacks.  There's food abound - we had a sandwich/fruit/chocolate milk combo from Woolworths at the finish line, then the same again from their (free) "top up meal" service.  There were also vendors from which you could buy stuff, but I only did once. 
    • camera.  I had a digital camera in addition to my cell phone camera, but only ever used the cell phone. 
  6. Riding gear:  I may be a bit of a mongrel when it comes to multi-day stuff, with much of my riding being unsupported, I simply refuse to haul around smelly cycling gear (unless I'm wearing it)!  That said, Megan and I were lucky to get a great deal on custom jerseys from Blox, which made it possible to front up to the race with five jerseys each.  In the end, I only used four, by virtue of not sweating much in the Prologue and sifting around in the jersey allowing it to dry out.  8 sets would have been total overkill. 

    We had two laundry days during the event.  We had no flexibility over when these were (they were allocated by team number).  From memory, we had days 3 and 6, and we had a small bag in which to put whatever was to be washed.  My XL kit took up a lot more space than Megan's XXS stuff, and I tried not to overfill the bag when I used it.  The gear's all washed in the bag, so the more stuff in there, the less effectively it is cleaned.

    I think I wore two pairs of socks the whole time.  These are easy to rinse, quick to dry, and go into the same pair of shoes each time, so I see little point in starting each day with a clean pair.  I rode in a brand new pair of LG T-Flex 300 MTB shoes.  They have a carbon sole, and are very stiff.  These were totally fine, and my feet never really caused me any problems, despite a lot of riding, and a fair bit of walking.  Would trade again (though maybe wear them a bit more in advance). 

    I took five pairs of shorts, and these were deliberately four different brands.  I didn't wear the same chamois two days in a row, but whether or not this helped avoid sores, I don't know.  My hunch is it may have.  Four of the bibs were relatively new, and the fifth, while thrashed, was a special pair - I rode in those at the Prologue, which was short and sweet, and the final stage, after which sores would matter little.  I rinsed each chamois after the stage, and hung the shorts to dry.  I had a fairly heavy duty plastic bag to fire these into, and while it got a little ripe inside it, the bag didn't let the foulness escape. 

    I wore the same pair of gloves each day, and had a couple of cotton roadie caps which I rotated.  We got two buffs in our registration packs which would have been a good alternative. 

    Both Megan and I used liberal amounts of Sweet Cheeks Butt Butter.  Neither of us got sores.  Connected?  Maybe!!!!  Whether this was the magic bullet, we'll never know, but I'm very happy to keep using it in the future.

    I was nervous about sun-protection, and carried a pair of SPF50 Louis Garneau Matrix Arm Covers.  I wore these on the very hot stage 2, and in the freezing cold stage 6.  I was never burnt on the other stages, despite sweating a bucket.  I absolutely swear by Sun Sense Sport Gel.  Don't ask me how it does it, but it is long-lasting (i.e. 8 hours or more) and prevents burn in pretty adverse conditions.  I took care to apply it at breakfast each morning so it had time to settle in.  I put it on my arms, neck and face (nose, cheeks, jaw and ears), but I didn't bother with my legs - for some reason these don't seem to burn...  I almost always ride with a cotton cap under my helmet which serves as sun protection for my dome. 

    We had flash-as sunglasses, but I lost a lens out of mine mid-race which was a drag.  I didn't venture out of the event village to seek a replacement, and baulked at the cost of the only available brand, Oakley.  A spare set of sunnies would have been handy, but I suspect popping a lens might be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

    I carried my cell phone in flight mode in a zip-lock bag, simply folded over, rather than zipped up.  It meant the camera function was readily accessible, yet the battery life was not compromised by unnecessary phone-related function. 

    I wore a wind-proof vest (and a camelbak) which saved my bacon during the cold stage.  And, I put on my woolen singlet at the second aid station.  I had nothing else really of any use.  Next time I'd pack a long-sleeved thermal riding top for emergencies (it seems the weather forecasts are very reliable, so would only carry it if cold weather is predicted).  I'd also have a light-weight shell and again carry it if the weather's looking bad.  I felt like a bad Kiwi not having either of these garments - at home we'd be crazy to go into the hills without a decent jacket even if the weather's looking great.  I didn't give Western Cape weather the respect it deserved, and won't make that mistake again.

    Finally, I both Megan and I wore Louis Garneau X-Lite 195g Helmets.  Super-light, and no sore necks!

    Summary:  5 jerseys, 5 pair bib shorts, gloves, 2 pair socks, 2 caps seemed like a good compromise between having too much and too little gear.  Thermal hat, thermal top and long-sleeved shell for emergencies. Some got by with way less, though the whites were looking pretty brown by the end.  Others no doubt had more. 


  1. Add-on packages:   Megan and I had little choice but to purchase the bus transfer from Lourensford to Robertson. By virtue of our early start in the Prologue, we were on the first coach away, and had a very comfortable transfer. 

    We also both purchased a Massage package - the basic was 7 x 30 minutes, and Megan even went so far as to book a double helping.  These were great, and I'm sure we were both in better nick on account of them.  I had 6pm each night, which coincided with the start of the dinner hour.  It meant I missed the local musical groups, but I had no problem getting food when I arrived at the marquee just after six-thirty.  Megan on the other hand was booked at 7:30 and missed all the stage briefings as a result.  I'd happily book for 6pm again.  Earlier should be sweet but it depends so much on when you finish.  I'd avoid 6:30, 7:00 or 7:30, and would rather not be waiting until 8 or later. 

    I didn't totally think through the nutrition package.  Even before I booked mine, I knew I'd be running a bottle on my bike for Megan, and a camelbak for my own fluid intake.  So, I had no possibility of carrying away the two bottles they'd hand me at aid station 2.  Instead, I tended to skull them both. Great that I could get away with drinking close to 1.5L of chilled drink in a minute (I randomly ordered some Powerbar-brand electrolyte mix from chain reaction), but probably something I could have made do without.  There was plenty of drink on offer in addition to the ample food.  The protein drink I prepared each evening to be handed to me at the finish was also kind of redundant on account of all the chocolate milk Woolworths was giving away.  Mixing the drinks and then checking them in was a bit of a chore, and marginalised for me because I was toting Megan's spare bottle.  I would carefully consider my circumstances before subscribing to this again, but did really enjoy the cold drink at half-time!

    We also both subscribed to the Cycle Lab mechanic package.  These guys were great, and complimented the free bike clean well.  I checked in a bag of spares (tyres, Stan's fluid, saddle, brake pads) at the Prologue, and retrieved it at the end.  They dipped into it when necessary.  Even if I had the skills to prep my own bike each evening, finding the time for it would have been a pain in the arse.  This package was pricey, but well worth the investment in my opinion. 

    We didn't have the coin for the major upgrades to accommodation, but I think missing out on the tent village would have detracted from the overall experience somewhat.  I slept really well in my wee tent, and doubt I would have been better rested had I shelled out for a mobile home or the full noise accommodation option. 
  2. Team:  I wrote a lot about the difficult team dynamic Megan and I faced in my event blog.  Suffice it to say, your team mate will have a huge influence on your experience in the event.  Megan and I didn't manage to clock up much riding time together in advance of our Cape Epic, by virtue of living in different towns, and having different approaches to preparation for the event.  I reckon its probably worth teaming up with someone you can ride with often in advance of the event.  I'd probably also go so far as to recommend teaming up with someone you've done a lot of riding with already, and would willingly ride with again and again and again and again.  After all, that's what the Cape Epic is about!

So that's about all I have to offer!  As with all my blogs, I'll read this one from time to time, and I'll update it if anything else come to mind.  If it never gets read by anyone other than Simon and I in preparation for our tilt at the Masters Category in a few years' time (and we find a few gems in here), the time spent "jotting" this down will be well worth it!!!!

The Absa Cape Epic is a remarkable experience, and one every mountain biker should seriously consider being part of at least once in their lifetime.  It's an expensive thing to do, and by crikey, you earn your stories.  But, seeing it from within is quite amazing.  My hat's off to the organisers for putting on such a slick show, and as I've said, I very much look forward to doing it again.  There'll be no "Newbie" on my race-number next time though, and hopefully my preparation will reflect that ever so slightly.

Fun times ahead!