Column: Mud, Sweat and Gears. A Cape Epic Tale

Two weeks before the Absa Cape Epic kicks off people begin to lose their minds. In a panic doctors are consulted and vitamin tablets are consumed like sweets, all to avoid getting sick. Here’s Bicycling Online Editor, Aaron Borrill’s 2016 account…

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What am I doing here? I’m 75km into Stage 1 of the 2016 Absa Cape Epic and feel like an Egyptian slave lugging heavy slabs of limestone up a steep, rickety scaffold ramp. It’s properly hot – 38C to be exact – and keeping Craig’s rear wheel is proving tough work. Craig is my riding partner in grime. He’s strong, both mentally and on a bicycle. You see, he’s been here twice before and, while he hasn’t told me much about what lies ahead, what I do know is this experience is going to be the toughest challenge I’ve ever faced. It’s never pleasant grinding pedals in the unrelenting heat all the while watching your heart rate climb and power drain from your legs but the rewards that lay on the top of every mountain almost always involves mind-blowing descents and exquisite vistas usually reserved for the likes of National Geographic catalogues. Mountain biking is an addiction I suppose – pain becomes pleasure which in turn becomes pain again. So how did we get here? Let’s rewind a day or so and revisit the Prologue…

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The Prologue marks the official start of the Cape Epic. A 26km time trial, snaking through Meerendal’s steep vineyard climbs, rocky single track and rollercoaster-like berms of Hoogekraal farm, all of which form part of the Tygerberg Mountain Bike Club trail network. It’s a fast-paced introduction to the race, but a good result here will see us start stage 1 alongside riders of more or less a similar skillset and fitness. Despite being overcome with emotion, Craig and I did very well, avoiding any unnecessary risks and ignoring the adrenalin teeming through our veins, by targeting the climbs and riding at a steady and measured pace. I’m pleased to say this strategy paid off and we managed to secure a decent slot for the start of the Cape Epic proper in Tulbagh.

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We arrived at Saronsberg Wine Estate in high spirits and as chirpy as a rabble of Aussie cricket players. We’d stay here for three nights and two days as the course danced around the neighbouring farms and escarpments of Tulbagh. For many, Stage 1 was a rude awakening with 106km and 2300m of climbing awaiting each team. Looking back, most of it is a blur, but what I can tell you is that no amount of training can prepare you for the climbing we endured today. No sooner do you descend a hill than another one pops up, each time tougher, steeper and rockier than before. We’ve still got another 6 days of this torment left…

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Photograph By Colin Hadley

When your body is tired and a little out of sorts the last thing you need every morning is to wake to the sounds of Scottish folk music blaring from a man playing the bag pipes as loud as he can. It can get pretty annoying but after a few hours of suffering in the saddle you long for those Celtic melodies. I know I did. Stage 2, the 100th ever stage of the Epic, doled out another brutal 2300m of vertical ascent, this time over 93km. To commemorate the milestone, the route took in a spectacular 12km/1000m climb up the Ou Wa Pad, a trail we’d later ride back down. We also got our first real taste of sand and there was loads of the stuff. Thankfully the beautiful, natural rock formations in and around the Witzenberg Valley more than made up for it. Little did we know sand would feature heavily again in stage 3 – a transition stage which sees riders travel from Tulbagh to Wellington via an unforgiving route that takes in much of the Zuurvlakte, Bainskloof Pass and the Welvanpas trail network. The climbing today would test every team and their fortitude as a galvanised unit. We rode up long inclines littered with pebbles – a horrible surface that requires momentum over power. Overspinning the rear wheel here would spell the start of a long and gruelling hike-a-bike session. We must have traversed at least 24km of sand today. I hate sand. Craig on the other hand seems to have a penchant for the stuff, riding deftly over the delicate surface as if it were concrete. I in contrast dug holes and pretty much buried myself with every pedal stroke, so you can imagine my relief when we eventually touched down on the smooth tarmac of Bainskloof Pass. This steady gradient would take us to the highest point of the day before descending into Wellington via Welvanpas.  It’s here where many riders, especially the Europeans struggled as the ambient temperature soared above 40C. We plodded on choosing to keep going and munch away at the mileage rather than give into the pain that was consuming so many teams. A little effort after the Welvanpas Cool Runnings single track descent would see us claw back a few more places in the general classification.

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It took around four days for my legs to come to the party. We rode Stage 4 as hard as we could. We rode to each other’s strengths and it paid off in a big way. See, Craig and I are both strong climbers. The steeper the gradient the better and it felt as if this stage was perfectly choreographed for riders such as us. The 76km/1900m course took in most of Wellington’s Welvanpas trail network. We attacked immediately and found ourselves in a small bunch that soon broke apart after the first climb of the day –Aap d’Huez and its 29 switchbacks. More ups and downs followed but the further we got, the stronger we felt, allowing us to blast to the finish line in just 4h01m and secure 93rd spot for the day. Things were finally falling into place. Or so we thought.

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Photograph By Zoon Cronje

Later that night my stomach started doing cartwheels. I swallowed nausea tablet after tablet in a feeble attempt to thwart the inevitable. It quickly dawned on me something was seriously wrong with my gut – an 8hour stint in a portaloo confirmed what a dreaded most: I was indeed very ill. After consulting a doctor on the morning of stage 5, I was instructed to withdraw, citing food poisoning/ bacterial infection as the chief culprit. (blood tests later confirmed the latter). Overcome by emotion and heartache, I’m not ashamed to admit I cried like a little boy, especially since the utmost care was taken with regards to staying heathy not to mention all those hours of training and sacrifice I put in. My dreams of finishing the most gruelling mountain bike race in the world lay in chunks in the stinky porta-loo by my tent.

Side note: Aaron is riding the 2017 Cape Epic with his wife Jenna to celebrate their 10-year wedding anniversary. Check the site for daily updates.

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