I arrived in Cape Town a week before the race started which gave me some time to get to know my German partner, Nico Pfitzenmaier. This was important given that we would be pretty much living in each others pockets for the next 8 days. Nico lives in Cape Town and he was therefore able to show me around some of the local trails - this was also important because the terrain couldn't have been more different to what I had been riding in the UK for the last 5 months. Sand, sharp rocks, and super fast gravel roads with dongos – raised mounds similar to large speed bumps - were in abundance. One of the hardest things for me to contend with however was the heat.
Nico and I were riding for a charity team called Adidas Big Tree. The Big Tree Foundation is a South African charity which aims to make education accessible to underprivileged children. One of the missions of the charity is to ensure that children can actually get to school - a barrier that is often simply overlooked. At the opening ceremony we had the pleasure to meet some of the children who benefit from the work of the Big Tree Foundation and present them with some of the many bikes bought with the charity's donations. As a child psychologist I couldn't have been more proud and honoured to be representing such a truly invaluable charity.
I’ve never raced a stage race as a pair before so not only did I need to learn the dynamics of racing in a team, but I also had to learn how a mixed team needed to operate in order to be in contention for a podium spot. I had heard that towing (i.e. holding on to a rope) was no longer permitted as it had been in previous years. This was good to know because it goes against my whole philosophy. To my horror however once we arrived in S. Africa I discovered that pushing and pulling without the aid of a rope IS allowed. If we wanted to compete with the other mixed teams then I would have to concede and allow my team mate to push and pull me. WHAT!!!!???? I wanted to pedal the 722km under my own steam and without the help of anyone!
Stage 1: Diemersfontein to Ceres (117km/2190 m climbing).
I always get nervous before a race but as we lined up at 9am on the start line of Stage 1 my nerves were overwhelming. A helicopter flew low over the riders at the start line which stretched back as far as the eye could see. The start was super fast and as I gasped for breath my lungs sucked in all of the dust that obscured our vision. I made a mental note that perhaps I should have done more than 4 speed sessions during my race preparation ;0) We rode with two of the other mixed teams - Esther Suss and Barti Bucher, and Yolande Speedy and Paul Cordes - through the first stretch of fun singletrack and up the first big climb, but when we reached the top they managed to slipstream a bunch of riders and we could see them pulling away. A couple of hours in and the heat started to really affect me, and to my horror I started to cramp. This really worried me because I’ve never cramped before. Luckily Nico had some salt tablets with him and after a few minutes they did the trick and I was able to ride again *phew*. I always use Elete Water in my drinks and this has prevented cramps in hot condition. However, during the Epic we were only able to collect our own bottles from Water Point 2 each day. This meant that I was drinking plain water at Water Points 1 and 3, hence the reason I started to cramp. Throughout the rest of the race I knew that I would have to add salt tablets to the water.
The first stage finished with a long stretch on a railway track where overtaking was pretty much impossible. I managed to enter the track just behind Yolande and Paul who were in second place at this point. Riding along a railway line has to be one of the most uncomfortable terrains I have ever ridden but add to this 40 degree heat, no wind, and no water and you have a recipe for suffering. It went on and on, and on….. We had a head to head battle for second place but over running a corner meant that we finished 4 seconds behind Yolande and Paul. At the finish line I was truly empty and I doubted if I could cope with 7 more days like the first.
Stage 2: Ceres to Ceres (90km/1625m climbing).
Stage 2 was called ‘singletrack day’ because virtually the whole 90km comprised of awesome singletrack. A good start was critical in order to avoid being held up once the singletrack began. The low sun combined with clouds of dust meant that I really struggled to see where I was going. Nico punctured and he shouted to me to carry on slowly while he used a gas bomb. I followed the wheels of the riders in front but at the bottom of a rocky descent I realised that we were no longer surrounded by hundreds of other riders. OMG!!!! I looked up a hill and saw a long line of riders disappearing, including Nico who was now chasing me down. When I finally made it back on course I rode as hard as I could in a vain attempted to catch Nico who now thought that I was ahead of him! I got caught up behind slower riders in the first section of ascending singletrack. Eventually I found Nico waiting at the side of the trail wondered where on earth I was! We had lost a lot of time but the amazing singletrack took my mind off the race and we just had fun :0) They say bad things come in threes and sure enough during the last 20km Nico punctured again. Oh well, it was a really fun course and we still managed to cling on to 3rd position. Hurrah!
Stage 3: Ceres to Ceres (115km/2280m climbing).
We had a great start and we rode in a bunch with Esther and Barti until after Water Point 1. It was fun to be riding alongside Esther, someone who I greatly admire. I was looking forward to this stage because of the climbing and I wasn’t disappointed, there were some challenging technical climbs. About half way between the first and the second water point my back brake failed. Fortunately, it wasn’t too much of a problem because there wasn’t a lot of descending until the water point where there was neutral technical assistance. In fact the loss of my back brake meant that I carried more speed through the corners ;0) Despite losing about 10 minutes in the tech zone we caught up with Esther and Barti about 10km from the finish, they also had a mechanical. We rode the last part of the course which comprised of energy sapping deep sand as fast as we could in order to secure 2nd place :0) Wahoo!
Stage 4: Ceres to Worcester (86km/1640m climbing).
Another fantastic start meant that we rode in the front of the pack with Yolande and Paul and Esther and Barti for the first 35km. However not too long into the main climb at the halfway point I started to suffer. A stomach upset for the last few days meant that I had spent a lot of time becoming acquainted with the porter loos the previous day and night! This was without a doubt the hardest stage for me. Yolande flatted after the third water point at the bottom of a long climb. This gave Nico and I the opportunity to push on hard and fight for 2nd place. However we didn’t get much of a lead because Yolande and Paul had the support from a couple of domestiques from their MTN-Energade team. We reached the top of the climb first but not far down the technical descent Yolande’s descending advantage meant she was able to edge in front of me again. We finished the stage in 3rd place and about 2 minutes behind 2nd place. The following days stage didn’t start until 11.20am which meant that I could turn off my 5am alarm call :0) Yipeee!
Stage 5: Worcester to Worcester (Team time trial, 27km/860m climbing).
This was to be my shortest race. Ever. I wasn’t sure how I would do but I was excited to have a go. Each team set off down a starting ramp at 60 second intervals in reverse order according to their ranking on the GC. We were currently ranked 3rd and so we set off ahead of the 1st and 2nd place mixed teams. The course was absolutely awesome and included some great steep technical climbs and some fast technical descents. We rode hard but I lost time on some of the technical descents. I didn’t want to take too many risks, we’d come a long way the last 5 days. I was really pleased with our time and 3rd place finish, which was only about 2 minutes behind Esther and Yolande who have both raced World Cup XC.
Stage 6: Worcester to Oak Valley (123km/2240m climbing).
The first 50km of this stage were relatively flat and we rode amongst the front bunch for most of it. The spectators lined the course and it was inspiring to hear their chants and encouragement. One spectator got particularly excited and pulled my arm off the bars which almost caused me to crash! We had a radio mast at the top of one of the mountains to aim for and a series of short steep climbs reaching 26% gradually took us to the top. As we descended a narrow overgrown rocky descent a rider shouted “watch out for the snake!” I panicked and shouted “where?!?!” - it was only afterwards that I realised that there was no snake, but just a guy fooling around as he relieved himself of his carb drinks ;0) Doh! Through the sweat in my eyes I could see that the views were stunning and I took some time to appreciate them. At the bottom of one of the last climbs Nico told me that the strapping on his knee had come loose and that his knee was causing him a lot of pain. He was unable to support me and we took the climb easy which gave me some respite from the heat. We enjoyed the last 10km of fun forest singletrack to the finish, once again taking 3rd place.
Stage 7: Oak Valley to Oak Valley (99km/2160m climbing).
The heat of the previous 6 days gave way to rain and wind. We hid in the shelter of our camper for as long as possible. Eventually Nico pulled on his arm and knee warmers, gillet and waterproof jacket, and said “Ok, it’s now or never!”
At the start line we were warned of potentially freezing conditions at the top of the mountain. Some of the ascents were super steep and sandy which had even the top guys running :0) After a short but deep sandy climb named the “The Beeatch” we had a steep loose rocky climb to contend with all the way up to the top. I concentrated hard to stay on the bike and I was relieved when Nico jumped off his bike and gave me a push to ensure that I made it up to the top without dabbing! At the top the rain started and Nico shivered – he’s clearly acclimatised well to the S. African climate. He told me to do up my gillet or I’d get cold quickly, but for the first time I actually felt quite at home, this was tropical compared to the elements I’d been training in for the last few months. I was actually disappointed when the rain stopped :0) Once again we were rewarded with an array of different types of singletrack - some rocky, some flowy - all the way to the finish. We flowed along an awesome trail riding high into the berms, when suddenly Nico crashed in a cloud of dust. He punctured his front tyre whilst railing a berm and hit the ground hard. It took a long time to fix because gravel in the tyre stopped it from sealing with the gas bombs. He had to put a tube in and wait for someone who had a pump. Fortunately we still finished 3rd :0)
Stage 8: Oak Valley to Lourensford (65km/1640m climbing).
Today we had the luxury of a 6.30am alarm call, which meant that we had an extra 1.5 hours in bed. Wahoooo!!!! Our plan today was to get a super fast start and race hard until the first and only water point at the top of the main climb at 33km. After this there was a compulsory portage section (hike-a-bike) along a protected area and further ahead a long section where overtaking was forbidden. Everything went perfectly to plan. We took the lead early and reached the top of the long loose, rocky climb first. A technical descent took us to the water point where we remained in first place. It was a great feeling and it motivated us to carry on pushing hard. Not far from the portage section Nico had a problem with his chain and his rear mech broke *yikes* Fortunately, it didn’t completely snap. Once in the narrow portage section it was impossible to overtake and we urged the riders in front to pick up the pace. They didn’t and Yolande and Paul caught us. Damn. I tried hard to stick with them but Yolande descends very well and she managed to pull out a lead. I felt awful; I’d let Nico down. He was frustrated and urged me to go faster but I just couldn’t close the gap. As we entered the finish straight the crowds were roaring. I carried on digging deep to reach the finish line. Nico shouted “It’s over, enjoy the finish!” I reduced the power and we high-fived the crowd all the way to the finish securing 2nd place for the final stage and 3rd overall.
I am thrilled to have finished in 3rd place. Yolande and Esther are both strong and experienced riders and it was a pleasure to be in the mix with them both. Once over the finish line mixed emotions immediately hit me. I could finally let go and reflect on the last 8 days. Phew, what a journey.
There are so many people to thank! First I would like to say a HUGE thanks to Dave – our team manager, driver, mechanic, cook, cleaner, clothes washer, toilet emptier (yuck), personal shopper, the list goes on. I’d also like to thank Axel Burkhardt, and Mike and Sonya Hamel from Adidas for their amazing support, including proving us with our lovely massage therapists, Patsy and Viv. Victor Sables from The Big Tree Foundation also played a huge role and made the dream become reality. I would also like to thank my riding partner, Nico, for making this opportunity possible and also for teaching me so much. Nico is an awesome rider and a lovely person, and although it was a huge challenge to attempt to keep up with him on the descents he remained patient - well almost always ;0) Nico provides training camps in S. Africa, including a special camp a week prior to the Epic every year. Visit his website for more information. Finally, but by no means least I would like to thank my amazing Team – Topeak-Ergon Racing Team and all of our sponsors. All of my equipment ran perfectly and apart from the problem with my brake I had no mechanicals or punctures. I decided to run tubeless Continental Race Kings for the duration of the race and they were perfect for the job. I was fuelled throughout the race by Torq energy drinks, gels, and recovery drinks.
My thoughts are already turning to next year :0) The Cape Epic is a must do event for any MTBer. If you would like to guarantee an entry to next years event and in doing so support The Big Tree Foundation then please email Victor Sables at firstname.lastname@example.org who has 20 charity tickets up for sale. The only other way to enter the event is via the lottery system, which obviously doesn’t guarantee a place. Purchasing an entry now will mean that you have a whole year to train and prepare for a totally amazing adventure and challenge :0) If you would like to contact me to discuss anything about the race, training and preparation then feel free to email me at SallyBigham@hotmail.co.uk.