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.
Dusty desert riding
Stage four in Worcester (a city in the Western Cape) was long and hot with tons of dust, as is common late summer on the desert side of the mountains. We started hard. Matthys Beukes and his teammate Phillip Buys from Scott factory Racing nailed the first climb hard and got a gap on the rest of us.
It’s always really nervous in the pack. I guess it’s because you can’t see the ground at all sometimes. The dust is so think you can only see shadows riders five feet in front of you. This is particularly dangerous when the group is doing 35 mph down a rutted, rocky downhill. It’s so dry that sand patches can be a foot deep and you don’t know they’re not solid until you’re sideways!
Eventually, the leaders decided the Scott team was not a threat to the top 10 in General Classification and the pain was not worth the effort of chasing them. It was a nasty 50 minutes though.
After that, our lead group just rode tempo until the late climbs; even taking it easy at times, including a rare pee break that was initiated by Cape Epic veteran Karl Platt of the Bulls team.
Along the desert route we passed through a few vineyards. Each had 60 or more employees out en masse and cheering loudly for us. During this stage, several schools also turned out to cheer for us. There were kids jumping up and down and we all broke our game faces into nice smiles.
Finally, on the course’s last three climbs, the racing got hot. Our Topeak Ergon “A” team of Alban Lakata and Kristian Hynek went on the offense, but wasn’t able to gain any significant time over the others. They won the race against the heavy hitting teams in our bunch, which felt like a win while the Scott team managed to stay off the front for a taste of victory with the stage win.
My “B” team partner Robert Mennen had a punctured tire, but it seemed to seal on its own, so we rode in trading pulls with the Merida Team. We came around one corner after our flat to see Centurion Vaude teammates Jochen Kaess and Daniel Geismayr laying on the ground on a steep, rutted dirt road drop-in. They’d crossed wheels in the dust and as one of them corrected, the other went over the bars! We stopped to check on them. Kaess had a bloody nose and both their helmets were cocked from impact. Physically, they seemed ok. Since they were both coherent so the rest of us continued on.
At the finish, we looked like gladiators covered in fine black powder.
The King Stage
I knew Stage 5 would be hard, but it turned out different than we planned. Early on, Alban flatted and I gave him my wheel. By the time we’d repaired Alban’s flat, Robert and I had lost considerable time. We rode a steady, hard pace but there was no point in killing it since we couldn’t even see the lead helicopter on the naked horizon. We pushed hard to catch a large group that was about three minutes ahead and included the Masters Category leader Bart Brentjens. I knew this group would move fast on the great expanse of flat, bumpy Jeep roads and pavement of the Pass.
A short time later we got word that Alban had twisted his chain while Robert and I fixed the flat. Bummer! They’d clawed their way back up to fifth for the day but descend into second in GC. The looks on their faces showed the great disappointment; it’s the biggest race of the year for them and they probably won’t be able to win it.
There were some highlights of the day’s stage for me. One would have to be seeing a puff adder—a fat nasty looking one! The other was witnessing the closest race in Master’s Category GC history of the Cape Epic: those guys were attacking the last climb like hornets! They’d block the second rider of a team before the singletrack in a bid to hold up the front attacker: clever moves!
In the end, it was another five-plus-hour stage. We are all tired now. Painful hand blisters, weary eyes, sunburn and saddle fatigue all add up. Legs are working very good, but at times I can feel every sore fiber of muscle within them.
We have two days left, and thankfully they’re not the “Leadville 100’s” of the past days!
Come on finish line!
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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.
By Jeremiah Bishop
This winter, I have been training like a blacksmith making armor for an epic battle looming on the horizon. So I was eager when it was finally time to travel to the first race in mid-February. I was headed for the Andalucía Bike Race in southern Spain.
With so many weeks spent training in winter’s cold, I decided I’d earned a couple of good sightseeing and time-zone-acclimating days in Europe in advance of the race. I made my way to Spain via Nicé, France, where I enjoyed a few days training with World Tour climbing ace and good friend Joe Dombrowski.
Right off my overnight trans-Atlantic flight, Joe took me out for a dream road ride. We nailed a five-hour route with 10,000 feet of elevation gain in 60 miles. It was like a pinball game made for road bikes. Every legendary climb in Cote d’Azur is marked with cycling signage; kilometer-to-go markers and numbered switchbacks line each ascent. When we descended, we were like darts. There were high-speed potentially deadly cliffs with 180-degree turns, spirals and tunnels. Wow! It was like riding down a gravity-fed, paved roller coaster of serpentine switchbacks with the azure Mediterranean as an incredible backdrop. At one point, the sheer vertical drops made me nauseous; or maybe that was the mere three hours of sleep I was living on.
After a couple days of getting on the time zone, I also had a chance to adjust to the food. Better than amazing, I feasted on mushroom tortellini, nice wine and octopus ink pasta one night, and loup de mer (sea wolf) the next.
I had to wave farewell to Nicé; the real adventure was next. I joined my Topeak-Ergon team in Spain’s olive country between Cordoba and Jaen for our team orientation and the first race of the year.
There was a lot to learn – and quick!
I had a new Canyon Lux with custom RockShox RS1 fork and prototype tires. Yes! I was like, “Oh, yeah! I got a license to drop some trail!” The bike is sharp, smooth and looks mean!
And then there was the fact that I was racing as part of a two-man team. Within the race, Topeak-Ergon divided our squad into two pairs: a lead team and the support team.
I have known our team captain and former World Marathon Champion Alban Lakata for years. He would join Kristian Hynek for our “A” team. In our support roles, my race partner Robert Mennen and I were sizing each other up. Last year, Robert won Cape Epic. Meanwhile, I was competing in the US cross country and endurance race scenes and had a couple US titles under my belt. It was like pairing a Formula 1 and NASCAR driver – in the best ways.
Coming into the Andalucía Bike Race, Robert was recovering from a recent chest cold; and I was about to see where my fitness was. I’d been working hard in the off-season, but in the absence of racing it’s tough to know for sure. As we took on the ABR, we found that our pairing worked well. Robert liked to rip it on the downhills and flats, and I was stronger on the climbs.
The racecourse was harder than I thought it would be. The climbs were massive and there was slick mud over soupy limestone covered trails. During a couple stages I thought, “Am I out of shape or are we really climbing 10,000 feet on mountain bikes in just three and a half hours?” (Leadville does this amount of elevation more than six and a half hours.)
A large part of the first-race-of-the-year-shock was mostly the wake-up call that comes from facing a globally competitive field so early in the season. My form is there, and now the motor is warmed up. In fact, the race did get easier as it went on. In our support roll, we knew it was more about smooth consistent riding and getting in a solid ride.
In the first days of the stage race, I figured out the hard way that six hundred riders fighting for the first trail made it much more like a short format cross-country race initially. I was focused on trying to find Robert in the sea of others. This approach had me back in the 50s and stuck in an epic traffic jam. There were a couple of crazy crashes on the fast road roll-outs; bodies flying, people dismounting to run over ditches and shouting back in the melee as riders took shortcuts. We could be shuffled from 17th to 47th in an instant on the double track.
After Stage 2, things became a lot smoother. Our reflexes sharpened, plus our endurance kicked in. Our team-based riding strategy fell into place. We got into the top-4, and then found life was easier.
The “Ah, ha!” moment happened during Stage 3. Instead of looking for my teammate during the hectic first minutes of the race, I decided I’d better just get my ass in position for the fight! Later in the stage, we chased down Team Bulls and out-kicked them to the line. Now it was evident we were riding as a team and having a great time. On the back-to-back monster climbs, our combined form was not as high as Kristian and Alban; but with a couple weeks of rest after ABR, I think I will be able to work some good tactics at the upcoming Cape Epic. Most importantly for a back up team, we will be there if trouble hits our leaders; lending a wheel or attending to chase-duty on the road sections.
The other thing special about a stage race is the amount of equipment and logistics involved. The next day’s preparations start the second you finish today’s stage. Proper recovery, fuel and rest are critical. Lucky for us, our soigneurs Torsten and Giovanni, mechanic Peter, and team manager Dirk were on point and on time – so well prepared, they seemed to have telepathy for our needs.
The whole goal for Andalucia Bike Race was learning the ropes of how to ride as a team and get settled in the groove with new gear and such. Now we have bonded over great racing and lots of good, multi-cultural jokes spoken in three languages. This team rhythm will pay dividends in the most important mountain bike race stage race on earth: The Absa Cape Epic.
One thing is for sure: we have a big adventure coming and I am excited to be in attack mode to help Topeak-Ergon defend the win at the Cape Epic.
Africa, here I come!