The Absa Cape Epic begins: Claire and Collyn report from the race

Claire Beaumont and Collyn Ahart are racing in the Absa Cape Epic, an 800km stage race around South Africa.

They’ll be sending back daily reports (internet connection permitting) as they both embark in their biggest mountain bike challenge ever. Here’s their first instalment:

A Calming Storm – Collyn’s words on the opening stage of the Cape Epic

Whether out of sheer amusement or pure scorn, they shake their heads and smirk in our general direction. Ours is a plight to either pity, shame or possibly admiration; though as the race looms within grasp, I’m no longer confident it’s the latter. It’s easy to make plans. It’s much harder to stick to a training programme. It’s even more impossible to gauge if said programme is going to see you through to the finish line.

The heat compounds with every meter of gain; my northern heart just isn’t used to these conditions. On yesterday’s warm-up ride, my heartbeat abandoned its relationship with my body. It skyrocketed to my max, but the oxygen didn’t take. My shallow breathing and numbing muscles spun me a paranoid tale of heart arrhythmia. Dropped by Mike and Will, the only thing I could do was spin slowly to the summit and pray they would wait. Minutes turn to hours in 30C temperatures; and we were still on the coast, blessed with Antarctic breezes wafting through the streets.

On paper, Claire and I are ready to race the 2012 Absa Cape Epic. We’ve registered. We’ve collected our rider bags. We’ve packed. We’ve triple checked our bikes. But sitting in our hotel room in Cape Town, I am flooded with doubt. A wave of energy passes through my body every few minutes, wherever I think about what’s to come. The energy carries both adrenaline and fear in equal measure.

A million questions arch into view. I want to feel ready, but I don’t. I’ve raced hundreds of times in my life and no two races is ever exactly the same. I want to believe this is no different, but the magnitude of challenge refuses to play ball. Will we be fearless? Will we forgive our own failings? Will we stay lucid with every turn and will the spirits look after us when we don’t?

I know how to stare down fear; I know how to crush it with a dozen little acts of bravery. I came here to prove something to myself, but the closer I come to proving it, the more I feel like it will slip from my grasp. Journeymen of Odysseus’ time went deep into the heart of the planet to find their spiritual match. They battled with their demons who taunted them with the fetid, broken lives of others who had gone before. Breathe. Focus.

3, 2, 1… and we’re off. We ride steady for the first ten minutes, resisting the urge to slam up each early rise. Claire holds a skill I do not: she can go from the gun. Years of cyclocross and crit racing have trained her legs to fly from the off. My pithy experience (at this time last year I had only ever raced in two local-level road races), and a history of long endurance sessions have meant I love the slow burn. Mile after mile, meeting the grinding pain with hours of constant recovery. Perhaps less glamourous, the slow burn is an ally in a race like the Epic. I sit in front, holding pace.

Minutes tick by. We hit our first technical singletrack, and we’re struck by how much it reminds us of the Forest of Dean. Dusty, more sand surely, but with rare technical challenges beyond some sharp off-camber turns and rocky descents. I hold Claire’s wheel as we maneuver our Scotts through the deadly beauty of the Meerendaal Estate. And then the climbing begins.

Over 27 kilometers we rise 900 meters. Punished by narrow switch-backs and 25% sandy climbs, we hold together. There is no better feeling than the roar of the crowd as we spun past a dozen other riders hiking up the hill. My legs woke up just in time for the worst of the climbing. And also just in time to run out of water.

At 10kms to go, in the midst of the toughest ascent, my Camelback ran dry. The last of my gels solidified around my lips, the sickly sweet taste of custard mixed with the parching sand. I had forgotten to bring an extra bottle and was beginning to run on empty. I shouted for Claire. Could she spare some water? My legs were holding up, but my mouth was scorched.

One sip, and we mounted the final climb up to the finish line. We passed and were passed by some of the kindest people I’ve ever encountered on a race. Every rider and every spectator became a small hero for a short burst of time, cheering us on, breathing short breaths of encouragement as we exchanged our little patch of earth for a moment and then moved on.

Pushing onward, the finish line rose over the summit. With every meter of gain we inched closer. The arch beckoned us closer. And in the midday heat of the South African Autumn, we finished together, my first ever mountain bike race, the Prologue of the Absa Cape Epic in a time of 2 hours and 12 minutes.

Pasted by our French colleagues – Claire’s account of the prologue

Phew! Hot today; they said the prologue had no shaded areas. We finished at 2pm up this steep climb and it felt like the thing wouldn’t end.

We started out at a steady pace and progressively got faster until the second big climb that saw me crawling. We were pasted by our French colleagues who are sharing the media area with us. It was their second lap – their first was a warm up to check out the course.

I’m glad of the 2-hour prologue. I realised I need to do things differently ahead of the proper stages. Like get more water, don’t put lime energy drink in both bottles, sometimes you just want plain. Look ahead because you may need to pass folks before the start of singletrack and unlike the UK the singletrack goes on for alot longer and you don’t want someone holding you up. I need more sun cream.

The course was dusty and dry, it weaves about the wine estate and crowds lined the climb to the finish even for the early riders like myself. It helps hugely that the race organisers are in-tune withe riders needs.

After picking up my huge rider bag (that I’ve managed to fill) I found it contained pillows for my tent, sanitising hand gel, two vouchers for washing my clothes, cCo2 cartridges and valve adapter (international riders can’t take these on the plane), maps of the race village so I know where to find my bike, insect repellent, sun cream, anti-sun lip balm, zip ties a plenty and towel with soap.

It makes it all so easy that the only thing I have to worry about now is how hard the next seven days will be…

www.cape-epic.com/live

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