By Sean Badenhorst
Think of a tough running race and the Comrades Marathon usually comes to mind. Sure, there are longer, harder running races, but the Comrades Marathon has mass appeal and, more importantly, it has soul. For decades it’s been an event of camaraderie and fellowship that has captured the hearts and minds of many. It’s also been a benchmark by which roadrunners are measured.
The Absa Cape Epic has become that same race for mountain bikers. The race that everyone aspires to complete; the race by which mountain bikers measure themselves—and each other. It’s both fearsome and fascinating and it has a certain magnetism that other mountain bike races don’t have. It has soul.
Know this: It’s a lot easier on the body to go for a one-hour mountain bike ride than a one-hour run. Mountain bikes have shock absorbers, hydraulic disc brakes, robust, tubeless tyres, and 24 to 30 gears. This makes riding them not only quite comfortable, but also really fun. Of course, riding your mountain bike in the Cape Epic, which in this edition covers 707km in eight days, isn’t really considered fun. Just the same as running the Comrades Marathon isn’t something you do for fun.
Ride a mountain bike for more than an hour, especially over rough terrain, and you soon begin to appreciate the need for suspension, precision braking and gears. An average Cape Epic stage is about 100km in distance with about 1 800 metres of vertical ascent (climbing). For every mountain biker, even the pros, this is a formidable challenge. String a week’s worth of those formidable challenges together in daily succession, and you have one of the toughest sports events in the world. It’s not easy to finish a Cape Epic. Those who do are heroes, and they treasure that achievement more than you can imagine.
Actually, it’s not even easy to start a Cape Epic. Such is the appeal of the race that it’s fully subscribed well in advance, filling its 1 200-rider capacity faster than you can Google the Cape Epic website. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not far off. Online entries used to close within minutes of opening as enthusiastic mountain bikers scrambled in cyber space for the right to ride this remarkable race.
This forced the organisers to change the entry process, with the bulk of the participants each year now being selected via a lottery system. Those who register for the entry via the lottery and aren’t successful go onto a waiting list. Yes, a waiting list. Who’d have thought there’d be people queuing up for a weeklong sufferfest?
And yes, it is a sufferfest. The three contact points between body and bike—hands, feet and backside—take a beating. While the pros at the front finish stages within 3–5 hours, the bulk of the field slog it out for anything from 6–11 hours. But while it’s a physical test, the Cape Epic is really conquered with the mind and the heart. Because this most physical of challenges requires desire, perseverance, camaraderie and sheer guts to complete.
Just another bike race? No way, the Cape Epic is special.
For more, visit www.cape-epic.com.
This is what you have to prepare for
The Cape Epic uses the popular two-rider team format. In fact, the race pretty much popularised the format, which sees riders team up in pairs to complete the race. What this does is to breed a sense of camaraderie, and it ensures greater safety—important when you’re riding some treacherous terrain in the bush, far from any hospital. But perhaps the most significant aspect of this format is that you have a partner to share and witness your achievement, and suffering. Choosing a fellow rider isn’t straightforward, of course. You need to find someone you can take in big doses, who is similar in physical and mental strength, and with whom you don’t mind sharing a two-person tent.
Every year the route changes. It’s always tough and challenging, but part of its unique appeal is that it’s never the same. It’s never predictable, and there are always a few surprises. One thing that’s consistent, though, is the spectacular scenery, not always appreciated by the riders, who become blinkered by burning muscles and bursting lungs, but certainly very evident on the daily TV footage shown around the world.
Initially, the race started in Knysna and finished in the winelands near Cape Town. This year, the race starts in Cape Town, and finishes at Lourensford Wine Estate near Somerset West after visiting Tulbagh, Worcester and Elgin Valley.
Did You Know?
1. The Cape Epic is the largest full-service bicycle race in the world—which means that the event provides participants with accommodation and meals for the duration of the race.
2. It is the only mountain bike stage race that offers International Cycling Union rankings points—this attracts the sport’s biggest names. There will be seven current world champions competing in the 2011 edition.
3. There are four race categories: Men, Women, Mixed (one male, one female) and Masters (both riders over 40).
4. There are 14 550 metres of vertical ascent (climbing) over the 707km route this year—that’s a little more than one and a half times up Mt Everest!
5. Total prize money this year: R500 000.
6. With over 800 hours of international TV coverage, the Cape Epic is one of the world’s most televised sporting events.
7. Around 400 of the 1 200 riders are from overseas.
8. The average value of a mountain bike used in the Cape Epic is R22 000, with some valued at over R100 000.
9. Germany’s Karl Platt is the most prolific winner, having won the race four times—three times with fellow German, Stefan Sahm, and once with Namibian, Mannie Heymans. In 2010, 445 out of 600 teams finished, and Platt and Sahm’s cumulative winning time was 29 hours, 47 minutes, 46 seconds. The pair who came last (455th) finished in a time of 62 hours, 51 minutes, 21 seconds.
10. A South African is yet to win the title.