The Single Track of Wellington
In the slate dark morning of Stage 6, we woke to the sound of raindrops patting the tents and campers. “Hmm,” I thought. “Today’s shorter, cross-country distance stage could be more decisive than we’d expected.” Sure enough, soon after the starting gun, the field was peppered with crashes. The peloton was snaking through turns and the accordion of riders would scrunch together vying for position. The sound of rider’s bikes smashing behind and sliding on gravel indicated my instincts to get to the front where spot on.
My tired legs didn’t want to snap like they should in a criterium race, but I had to move up. For a while, I rode at the front for the team. Then Robert Mennen and I were separated. The ensuing singletrack was awesome. We were parked on the back of Team Bulls 1 for a fast trail tour! Karl Platt was trying to nurse his teammate and Swiss Champion Urs Huber who was having back pain. The pace was brisk, but since we had no need to help the third place team chase our guys down, we were content with that. The trails were awesome: 18 miles of singletrack, including Roller Coaster, Point Break and Heaven’s Gate weaved and dashed through a pine forest.
The End in Sight
The finale of Stage 7 was a point-to-point race to Laurensford Vineyard. It was anything but an easy stage. This one was especially tough not because of the course, but because it was the last chance for a coveted stage win!
Again, the start was chaotic. I suppose that after eight days in a row, I shouldn’t have expected anything less. One minute you’re cruising at 25 mph down the road looking out for widow maker potholes through a sea of wheels and riders. The next minute you see the helicopter hovering in place and then hear the sliding of brakes on gravel as riders chicane across a narrow bridge. Then it’s back to 25 mph from a sandy standstill. After being yo-yoed once, I pushed through and picked up Alban Lakata from our A team; bringing him to the front and setting a stiff tempo to keep it single file and moving. It was fun to command a peloton and set a hard pace on the front.
Soon we approached the KOM climb. It was 2,000 vertical feet with some nasty hike-a-bike in the middle. Team Merandal Centurion Vaude was going full gas to get the $1,700 prime at the top. Team Multivan Merida was in hot pursuit. I was behind them with Kristian Hynek, but it was important not to pass our boys on the big downhill backside; my job was to make sure my Topeak-Ergon team brought home second place in the overall and the slightest crash could ruin the week.
Sure enough, the two teams up front descended like men with nothing to lose. Once we regrouped in the valley, Robert, Kristian and I took up chase. We did 25 miles of farm tracks, dirt roads and sandy connectors in just over an hour. Without much help from Team Specialized’s Kulhavy and Sauser (the GC leaders) or Martin Guijan and Fabian Geigere we came up short of catching the escape artists just like a road race. We hit the final climb and I nuked it trying to see if I could get our team leaders in position for the podium, but we’d have to be satisfied to secure second-place for the week.
It’s difficult to describe the satisfaction of riding as hard as we did this week. My hands were raw, my right knee was aching, an ankle barely holding out to the last day, it seemed like an army mission. To finish this one feels good, but to do so as a team working together to battle the best in the world; it’s a special accomplishment. It was Christoph Sauser’s last Cape Epic as a pro and he earned the win, the celebrations showed a career’s accomplishment with five Cape Epic Wins.
Here we go
The Table Mountain Prologue was a short, intense and exciting opener to the Cape Epic. In this team time trial, my Topeak Ergon Racing teammate Robert Mennen and I nabbed ninth place. The exhilaration of racing in the world’s biggest mountain bike race, with a TV helicopter shadowing you along the cliff-side, is indescribable. At the finish line, we were interviewed on live TV and then escorted to the “Rider Reception Zone” where we were offered towels and a place to sit; at each chair was a bucket, sponge and mini hose for each rider to clean off with. Lets just say the details are dialed at the Cape Epic. At that point, it became obvious to me this race had doubled in importance and has the richest prizepurse in the world. Since my last time competing at the Cape Epic in 2008, there are more pro teams here; and the big teams all have back up teams, like mine, that will sacrifice a wheel or help pace the leaders back to the front group in the event of drama. Notably, there is some great single track on the course versus the point-to-point gravel roads of days gone by.
Stage 1 was going great, despite the hectic start with a giant dust ball from the peloton as we rode into the rising sun. It was an amazing sight, but terrifying because you can’t see that hole or rock on the jeep trail until your get up from your crash! As we climbed into the clouds Robert and I made the leaders group – that’s no small task against a field of Olympic gold medalists, national champions and world champions.
Then we descended a steep, treeless jeep trail that I could only describe as obliterated with broken building blocks strewn on top of sand. Riders were flying down it at breakneck speed and with a dust blocking our tearing, foggy eyes it was impossible to avoid every rock. Robert and I both flatted at the same time. We patiently fixed our flats, but mine went down again ten minutes later so I plugged it with my Samurai handle bar end tire plug.
We got a wheel at the feed zone and chased back up to Centurion Vaude’s Jochen Kaess and Daniel Geismayr, and along the way we rode with former cross-country World Champion and Olympic gold medalist Bart Brenjins a bit, so that was novel.
But once we got clear of the group of eight, I sensed a soft rear tire. “Again? You’ve got to be kidding,” I thought. We carried a Topeak pump with us, so we fixed it without incident. This time we got back on and decided it was best to just ride steady, since we lost a lot of time and our job for the remainer of the stages will surely involve supporting Topeak Ergon “A” team of Alban Lakata and Kristian Hynek. They rode well today, and with one flat just after our first, they managed to secure fourth in GC.
The race has just begun, but now I remember just how hard the Cape Epic is!
One Day to Forget, Another to Remember
For Stage 2, an other-worldly landscape was the backdrop for some serious suffering on my part. Early in the stage, a piece of netting became caught in my cassette. I was sidelined while I worked to get it free. Then I tried to chase back to my teammate Robert and the rest of the leaders. As I rode on, I had stomach trouble. My legs followed and became powerless. Things settled down by the time I passed the second feed zone. Unfortunately, while I was struggling, Robert rode ahead to carry on his support role for Alban and Kristian in case either of them flatted or needed assistance. At the checkpoints, the time separation between Robert and me was greater than the allowed two minutes, we were penalized an hour in the GC.
While I was riding alone, the route entered a burn area. It was surreal. My bonked state enhanced the strangeness of weaving through pillars of white rocks on a white line of single track. The maroon pine needles, and black trees rising up from grey ground made me imagine it is what a forest on Mars might look like.
Eventually, Robert and I reconnected. I rode with him pacing me, as we crossed to the vineyard side of the mountains. I felt like a dog being dragged on a leash with a sharp collar.
Then I started to feel better and actually enjoyed some of the North Shore-style features made in part with used wine barrels cupped together like a bobsled track. Sweet!
Stage 3 was much better; my legs were back!
Over the tough first climb, Robert and I made the selection of the elite group. Our team worked the front and kept steady pressure on Songo-Specialized. In tow were Multivan-Merida, Scott, Centurion Vaude and the Bulls. I was wondering if I could keep doing every climb at 370-400 watts for a 5-hour stage?
As we approached Aid Station 2, Specialized flatted. Alban decided not to attack but ride tempo. Specialized had a fast wheel change, got back in the group and went hard on the hot, rock-strewn climb! My face was red with the baking heat under the Karoo sun. Robert and I got gaped, but caught back after that climb.
The Bulls flatted and the pace ramped up. It got nasty as we pace-lined down the road. Then we faced three kilometers of beach-like sand. After a mistake in a deep sand trap, Alban was gapped and Jaroslav Kulhavý from Specialized sensed it.
The pace was fierce. We raced across a 500-meter long damn; I paced Alban halfway across, helping him and Kristian move into second place for the stage and moving them into second in the GC.
Robert and I crossed the line in third place and were quickly swept up in the podium reception. It was an awesome feeling, indeed, after a hard 85-mile stage of the Cape Epic.