Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Cape Epic 2014

Two weeks ago Esther and I arrived at the finish line of the Cape Epic in Lourensford - a great relief for any rider after battling body and mind for 8 days across challenging terrain in the Western Cape! Simply reaching the finish was a significant improvement on last year's Cape Epic when we both, on separate teams, were unable to finish the race, but it's no secret that we both really wanted to win this year.

The rules of the Cape Epic stipulate that the riders in each team must wear identical clothing, this can cause problems for riders of professional teams. Esther and I both wanted to race together but because of contractual obligations to our individual sponsors it wasn't possible to race for our respective teams. Consequently we needed to ride as guests on another, neutral, team. We were fortunate to be able to ride as part of Team Meerendal who, in their debut year, provided fantastic logistical support starting the minute we arrived at the Meerendal Wine Estate which also just so happened to be the venue for the Prologue. In fact, the Prologue actually sent riders straight through the Meerendal hotel! 

Dave and I arrived in Cape Town two weeks before the start of the Cape Epic and together with Topeak Ergon Riders Kristian and Robert as well as team mechanic Peter Felber we stayed at the The Ridein in Stellenbosch - quite simply a hidden gem nestled between the fun trails at Jonkershoek and the town of Stellenbosch, but the big attraction with the Ridein is the coffee shop serving great food and the best coffee :) It was cool to spend time with the guys chilling, training and fine tuning our bikes - we all decided to ride our Canyon Lux 29ers with Conti 2.2 protection Race King tyres and Sram XX1 with SRM power meter. I've never ridden a 29er full suspension at the Epic before so I was curious to see how different it would be over the 8 days compared to the 26 hard tail that I rode in 2011 and 2012.

Although the race is hard, the interviews, press conferences and meetings during the days leading up to the race are also pretty tiring - in fact it's almost like the race starts days before we actually pedal off the Prologue ramp! We had to spend lots of time travelling between Stellenbosch and Cape Town and a lot of time walking around. On days like those I always wear leg compression to prevent my legs from becoming heavy and swollen, in fact you'll be hard pushed to find me not wearing Compressport stuff when I'm off the bike.  

Esther and I spent three nights together in a luxurious suite at the Meerendal Boutique Hotel before the Prologue so we had time to ride together on the fun way-marked trails in the grounds of the wine estate, as well as time to try all of the food on the menu in the restaurant - which did a great job of sourcing and making gluten free food for me ;)

For the first three nights of the race we were able to stay at a very nice hotel in Roberston situated 15 minutes drive from the race village. I say 'stay' but we actually had very little time there and no time to test the pool our veranda opened directly on to! The Epic passes in a bit of a blur because the days, starting at 4:45am are literally non-stop until bedtime which is always later than desired! A good routine is key: breakfast (oats, chopped apple and banana, strawberries, blueberries, nuts, seeds and raisins), pack start/finish bag (inclement weather made this a bit tricky so everyday we'd procrastinated over what to wear!), drive to the start, warm up, race for hours, clean up and change for flower ceremony, go to interviews, go to anti-doping (which can take at least an hour), shower, eat, get massage, drive to the hotel, prepare things for next day (bottles, clothes etc.), drive to the race village, eat, go to the evening podium, drive back to the hotel, and then finally sleep BUT only if you don't have to go back to anti-doping for more tests!

Once we left Robertson Esther and I moved in to a Meerendal trailer in the race village at Greyton. Not travelling to a hotel meant that we gained an extra hour or so each day which was bliss. It also meant that we were much closer to Maureen Muller - chef extraordinaire - who was cooking for Topeak Ergon. I could now have two lunches as well as second servings ;) One of the important things during a stage race is eating (it's always important to me but it's even more important when racing intensively over consecutive days) and as the days go on it can become more and more difficult to find palatable foods, however with Maureen around this was never a problem! From grilled Osterich fillets which were sublime to sweet potato salads to gluten free raspberry and chocolate pancakes, I was quite literally in culinary bliss each and every day!

Team Meerendal Camp. Photos from Martin Bissig. 
The trailer was really comfortable and I slept well, in fact as my routine and organisation got better I was able to get to sleep at 8:30pm. The only thing I don't like is fumbling around in the dark and wandering to the loos - something I seem to do a few times per night!

Nutrition on the bike is just as important as it is off the bike. I always use the same nutritional products - experimenting with new things especially during a stage race is not a good idea! - and the same nutritional plan (at least 1g of carbohydrates from energy drink, gels and bars per kg of body weight per hour). TORQ products work well for me and to be honest I wouldn't use anything else, they don't contain artificial sweeteners or preservatives and they're flavoured naturally. One more thing that I'm a big advocate of are Elete electrolytes, even in milder conditions I add Elete to the water I drink throughout the day especially in the morning and again after racing - replacing electrolytes lost while sleeping and racing ensures optimal performance and recovery.      

Esther and I were both looked after by Aletta Coertze who was amazing, despite never having been a team manager before. She had to hit the ground running and learn on the go but she did such a great job and her attention to detail and enthusiasm made things for Esther and me much, much easier. Amazingly, Aletta's husband was also racing for Team Meerendal. Aletta and Herman, owners of Meerendal Wine Estate, both became interested in mountain biking after watching the 2012 Prologue on their estate. Now Herman has completed two Cape Epics! A big achievement for anyone but an amazing achievement for someone who only started mountain biking less than 2 years ago!

With rain and mud on Stage 2 came our first problem: Esther got so much mud in her eyes that she couldn't see properly and we lost a lot of time towards the end of the stage. Later that day she had to go to hospital to treat a cornea abrasion. For a short while I was worried that we were out of the race but fortunately the treatment worked and we could continue. After a good day on Stage 3 we still had the leader jerseys and we were feeling positive about the stages to come, but some more bad luck struck early on Stage 4 when Esther's shock lost all the air making her sitting position similar to that of a recumbent bicycle. We lost a lot of time and our lead.

As the stages went on I was amazed at how different my body felt compared to previous Cape Epics: I was far less physically fatigued and I can only put it down to the comfort of a full suspension 29er. With far fewer aches and pains I was feeling fresher and stronger, and I was able to enjoy the trails in the latter half of the race just as much as those at the beginning. As the race went on I relaxed more and more too, I felt really strong and this meant that I could support Esther as much as possible. For the following stages we remained in 2nd position and after more than 35 hours of racing we crossed the finish in Lourensford taking 2nd in the Sasol Women's category and the 29th team overall. Ariane and Annika were super strong and were deserving winners. Big congrats to Topeak Ergon teammates Kristian and Robert on winning the men's race, I'm so proud of them!

Photos from Martin Bissig
After the Cape Epic we had just three days in England before heading to Germany for our annual Topeak Ergon team photo-shoot. All the travelling and fatigue took its toll and I got a flu type virus, which I have only just recovered from. Now we're back in England for a couple of weeks and it's so nice to finally unpack for more than a few days!  Hoorah!

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