NO ROAD RACE – RIDING THE UNTAMED AFRICAN MTB RACEStephen Roche rides with the HotChillee Absa Cape Epic MTB Team
Words: Stephen Roche
49 hours 12 minutes and 22.5 seconds, 698km and 15,650m of climbing on a mountain bike.
Those numbers are etched in my memory. I’ve just crossed the finish line of the Absa Cape Epic, a gruelling eight-day mountain bike race that saw me reach new highs and lows on a bike, and forced me to dig to the deepest parts both mentally and physically. It’s also left me with a few bruises and an aversion to sand. But most importantly I have an overwhelming sense that, with my teammate Sven Thiele, we have conquered the world’s toughest mountain bike race.
Nine days ago, at the start-line of the prologue, 1,200 other riders from 41 different countries embarked on the event of a lifetime. Unfortunately, around a third of them didn’t manage to reach the finish. They don’t call this the toughest mountain bike race for nothing. I’m relieved that both Sven and I completed the event relatively unscathed.
With Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and World Champion titles, I’d like to think I’m quite skilful on a bike. From day one, I realised there’s a lot less similarities between road and mountain biking than I first thought. For starters, there’s a lot more that can go wrong mechanically. After one too many mechanicals – from broken cleats to overheated back brakes – I know this only too well now. I didn’t really appreciate what I was going to be putting my bike (and me) through. Luckily at the end of each stage, our bikes were taken away by the on-site Bontrager mechanics to fix and tweak overnight. Now the event is over, the Trek Superfly mountain bike I was riding has been tinkered to perfection.
There’s also the small matter of having to use your upper body a lot more. At the end of most days, it wasn’t my legs that were smashed, it was my arms, my wrists and my hands! Navigating your way down 5km of single-track descent, punctuated by drop-offs is not for the faint hearted. It’s also not for those with poor upper body strength. I certainly haven’t had to use these muscles sets as much in road cycling.
The approach taken to uphill is also completely different on a mountain bike. The only way to get up some of the inclines we encountered was to go as hard as possible. My heart rate would scream at me. It’s definitely not the same on a road bike, unless you’re attacking or chasing, of course.
Technically, mountain biking requires more. With all the different terrains we faced – sand, rocks, pebbles, stones, fallen trees, gravel – we had to be prepared for all situations. There are times you also have to relinquish control and accept that you will walk some parts (or run if you’re a pro). In fact, with congestion on the single-tracks, at times we were crawling along at a snail’s pace. If it wasn’t for the high spirits of everyone else around you, you might just fall into a hole of despair at these points.
With the technical hurdles, it is of course far easier to take a tumble. On a road bike, you come off every so often and get a bit of road rash. On a mountain bike, it’s part of the routine. Depending on what’s under-wheel, the consequences can be far more serious. That said, each stage we rode allowed me to understand what I could (and couldn’t – often a more painful lesson) do.
Of course, both cycling disciplines require endurance, which meant getting on the bike day after day wasn’t too much of a shock to the system. And where I struggled on technical descents, I generally had the legs to get up steep ascents. The biggest difference for me was the lack of peloton riding. It’s almost non-existent; single-tracks get in the way, but once we hit gravel roads, we managed to make up a bit of time. I also collected a bunch and led them against a strong headwind at 38km an hour. They were astonished watching their odometers and therein lies a big difference.
The 10th edition of the Absa Cape Epic started at Meerendal Wine Estate in Durbanville and finished at Lourensford Wine Estate in Somerset West. Between the two wine estates the scenery was as varied as it was breathtaking. From a mountain bike track, you really do experience views seen by very few people. One minute we were on arid tracks, the next weaving our way through luscious vegetation and vineyards.
The prologue seems like a lifetime ago, but we started that day with the aim of finishing and decided to work well below threshold. Going in full-steam-ahead on such an epic endurance event is not sensible. My experience has taught me this. We finished 31st in our category and 453 overall after day one. By Wednesday we were starting to make our way up the rankings and by the end we were 19th in our category and 308 overall. Having a plan of action really helped us get through. That and a good breakfast each morning, 12 to 14 litres of fluid a day, lots of salts, PowerBar recovery drinks, a decent massage each evening and a good night’s sleep.
It was a frenetic, exciting, hot (up to 45 degrees) and draining week. I’ve learned a lot about mountain biking – and South African wine. We met so many interesting and inspiring people. Would I do it again? Ask me in a month’s time.
I rode as part of HotChillee’s Cape Epic MTB Team with Sven Thiele. This is part of a joint celebration of HotChillee’s The London-Paris and the Absa Cape Epic’s ten-year anniversaries. The HotChillee Cape Epic MTB teams’ sponsors include: The Bicycle Company for Trek MTB Bikes and Bontrager components, add-ons and Service Corp; PowerBar for nutrition; Hertz for vehicles; Continental for Tyres and LeMarq for clothing.