Cape Epic touring class – fun days at the back of the pack by Dominique le Roux
After crashing out of last year’s Cape Epic in spectacular fashion, Dominique le Roux fought illness for eight months before succumbing to madness: she would ride Epic 06 on three months of training and a crate full of Rocket Gels. She reports on the life and times of those closer to the cut-off than the podium.
T-minus-one (and counting)
Last night the restaurants of Knysna looked like a Gay Pride festival had hit town: there were good-looking boys with shaved legs sharing candle-lit dinners for two wherever we looked. Shan Wilson came over to the table I was sharing with my Mixed Pairs partner, Guy Wood. We commiserated with him: he and the other lead guys have a tough week in store. All those long afternoons of boredom. We, on the other hand, plan to get value for our money. We will be out on the route for as many hours as possible. Wilson seemed somewhat confused by this approach, but showed great style in ordering a glass of good merlot.
Today the registration is slick and quick and we feel like heroes. I admit to nobody that I’m still not sure which way to toggle the switch to lockout the suspension on my two-day old Santa Cruz. But she’s a very pretty colour, she’s pushed my overdraft into the trouble zone, and I’m already passionately in love with her.
Stage 1 – Knysna to Saasveld
128.5 km and 2940 m of climbing
What a relief to have made it to the start. The hard part is all behind me. Now my holiday starts, and all I have to do is ride my bike every day. Pity the poor Englishman who crashed on tar within a few kays of the start and ended his Epic right there and then. Take 1 046 mountain bikers from 37 different countries and low peloton skills, add pouring rain and impressed onlookers and it’s an accident begging to happen.
Within a few kays it’s straight up that ridiculous hill to the new Semola golf course. An excited young voice next to me gushes on about how good it is to be here. We all feel the same way but don’t have breathe to express it with quite the same vehemence.
It’s mud, glorious mud, all the way. And the way is mostly up. The biggest part of the field has disc brakes. Or that’s the way they start. Most end with no brakes at all and the knowledge that when expensive bike shoes are applied directly to the tyre, it’s the shoes that wear away first. I’m no longer feeling like the poor kid on the block with good ol’ V-brakes - ten hours of mud later, those brakes are still working.
And for those who’re wondering: not all kilometres are created equal. This is my third Epic, so I know that Saasveld never seems to arrive. But placing the ‘1km to finish’ signboard’ miles and miles from the end is simply not funny at all.
Stage 2: Saasveld to Mosselbay
116 km and 2020 m of climbing
I see my tree! The very one that jumped out of nowhere last year, just when I was telling Elton Holland what a great time I was having, and impaled me. Phew! A psychological waypoint reached – and the view from the bike from there to water point one is far better than in an ambulance. Though later in the day I do take some strain and reminisce about last year’s morphine.
It’s a tough day, as I’ve had a tummy bug and there’s not a whole lot of fuel in the tank. Today’s supposed to be the Aaahfrikken Safari day. We ride through Botlierskop Nature Reserve – big five country, in theory. The press releases will later report that “Men’s leaders Christoph Sauser (SUI) and Silvio Bundi (SUI) had to share part of the path with two elephants and wildebeest, Mixed leaders Anna Baylis-Scheiderbauer and Jörg Scheiderbauer came across a pack of hyenas, and the leaders in the Women’s category, Sabine Grona (GER) and Kerstin Brachtendorf (GER) were welcomed by a herd of impala.” Not sure whether I buy that. But by the time Guy and I trundled through plenty hours later, there were a few cattle still on the horizon.
Stage 3: Mossel Bay to Riversdale
122 km and 1800 m of climbing
Today is a road ride through and through. The scenery is stunning, but those of us with short attention spans might complain about just mile after bumpy mile of corrugated road. My partner’s knees start hurting really badly, so we slow the pace right down. I’m more than happy to use Guy’s knees as the excuse to spin along merrily at the rear and recover my strength. Days like these are for making friends and conversations and simply being glad you’re not at the office.
Speaking of making friends… When we get into camp later in the day, we start hearing the gossip about the leading Mixed team, the Scheiderbauers. Husband-and-wife of a year, this strong German couple have a reputation for huge fights. Apparently he yells at her really badly all the time. They certainly are phenomenal riders, but it’s gotten so bad, even the press are coming straight out and asking what’s with the bad vibes. Anna’s reply: “We never fight at home, we only yell at each other in a race. Jörg is a very aggressive rider and yelling at me makes him even stronger, I guess. But I hate to be yelled at so I shout back. And after we’ve crossed the finish line all is forgotten.”
Stage 3: Mossel Bay to Riversdale
122 km and 1800 m of climbing
Within the first kilometre, Guy has pulled out to save his knees. The terrain is fairly fast and ‘flat’ – though the rolling hills of the day do take their toll. My mission is to find somebody of similar strength to myself to team up with for the rest of the race. So many people have pulled out, I reckon this shouldn’t be a problem. Well, you have no idea how difficult it is to pick up a single man these days. Just when I’ve resigned myself to a threesome, extra energy kicks in from nowhere and I tow ten men to the finish – an ego boost like no other.
In the shower queue that night, two Swiss guys recount their tale of woe: they’d had seven punctures between them and so lost an hour-and-a-half. Tragedy of tragedies, this meant they’d been dropped from the ‘bus’. It is terribly, terribly difficult, they explain, to ride alone without the help of a peloton. You have to work so hard all day!
Welcome to life at the back of the pack, honeys!
Stage 4: Riversdale to Swellendam
132 km and 2175 m of climbing
The whinge of the day is the Bontebok National Park. (If you’ve never ridden there, don’t bother.) The route might be flat, but it also seems pointless (or so say the whiners.) It is cobbled hell. Those who didn’t have chafed arses do now. Those are about the only flat kilometres of the day, after we’ve been through Grootvadersbosch, with its dappled forests, gorgeous views and some divine single-track.
Stage 5: Swellendam to Greyton
114 km and 1535 m of climbing
Memories of Greyton are of no food. They simply ran out. So a bunch of us trundle off the local restaurants, where it takes another two hours at least to eke a meagre, greasy and overcooked meal from their unwilling kitchens. Never have I been more grateful for Fast Fuel Rebuild.
The news of the day is that Shan Wilson and Brandon Stewart made a massively courageous break after ten kilometres and kept that lead all day to win the stage. Awesome! Wilson is no spring chicken – at 39 he’s a good few years older than so many of the other elites whose butts he’s kicking all over the Cape.
Stage 6 – Greyton to Hermanus
116 Kilometres and 2005 m of climbing
Beautiful views and fun singletrack today, but the crux is the climb through the Hemel en Aarde Valley up to a lookout point over the whole of Walker Bay. ‘Wow, what was in that sachet?’ some guy asks after I pass him on the steep climb after a brief refuelling stop. I accelerate and explain it’s not called Rocket Gel for nothing. Filled with pride at this compliment, I immediately take a tumble at the weeniest drop-off around the next bend – guess who forget she’d disconnected her back brakes for the climb as they were rubbing so badly?
Late afternoon I get an SMS with a picture attachment: Guy reading ‘Every Second Counts’ in a hot tub. The text says “Epic rider at Caledon Spa on day 6 showing phenomenal support for his partner, Dominique.” This race partner cracks me up.
Truly phenomenal support comes in the form of four pancakes bought for me by a fellow rider, just as good looking.
Stage 7: Hermanus to Boschendal
144 kilometres and 2920 m of climbing
‘That’s awesome!’ gushes the guy behind me as we trundle out of Hermanus on the fresh, misty morning. I look up. A shroud of fog is wrapped around the mountain in front of us. Beautiful! Only it turns out this farmer from the Eastern Cape is actually referring to the size of the Penny Pinchers warehouse on our left. They’re different, those Barkly East guys.
Today is the one that will be billed “the toughest ever on Cape Epic”, but it’s the flattest, easiest parts that do me in. You know those period war movies like ‘Troy’ or even ‘Lord of the Rings’ when all is very quiet but you know there’s a monster battle coming? That’s the way we felt today as we rode the rolling hills, ticking off 40, 50, 60km. I felt like we were on our horses, trotting along, armour jingling, everybody saying very little but with monster trepidation. The battle was coming and some of us might not make it.
The second the marshal pops out and flags us onto the track that will take us straight up and over the infamous Groenlandberg, I’m happy. The battle is on and all I have to do is fight. My Santa Cruz just wants to go. It’s 12 very long kilometres of climbing, bouldery, granny-gear jeeptrack. Straight up. All around me, people are just walking up, but I don’t have their patience. They, on the other hand, don’t have enough water for a climb of so many hours, and many will become extremely dehydrated. Which of course makes the straight-down descent on the other side so much more interesting.
The climb up Franschhoek Pass later is an absolute breeze. It’s on tar and lined with cheering spectators. Guy pops out with a poster that says “Chuck Norris asked me to ride Epic with him next year.”
Stage 8: Boschendal to Spier
67 kilometres and 1500 m of climbing
Total sense of humour failure. Queues. Queues! Can you imagine riding this far and then having to wait in line to WALK the most scrumptious singletrack? (Did I mention total sense of humour failure?)
But as we’re standing in line (did I mention the queues?) there’s much gossiping about that leading Mixed Pair. About their vociferous squabbling. Today we passed them – just got a glimpse of two very unhappy individuals wrapped in foil survival blankets with paramedics in attendance. The body language said there was not a whole lot of love lost between them right then. But I felt sad that such astonishingly strong athletes should end their race this way. For a mixed team to finish in the top 15 is pretty amazing. And later, when we hear the details of their crash, we’re even more amazed: he was TOWING her through the singletrack when the tow line got caught in his spokes. Eina!
But we, the slowcoaches, plod on and cross the line, heroes for 15 seconds.
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