Monday, April 9, 2012

2012 ABSA Cape Epic – MTBing In The African Wild

As the catchphrase points out, the ABSA Cape Epic is the Untamed African MTB Race. It certainly sounds exotic and exciting doesn’t it? Mountain bike racing in Africa!

AFRICA!!! Well…South Africa…but that’s still exciting and dangerous, right? Johannesburg is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, right?

Well, perhaps, but the race is held out of Cape Town, not Johannesburg. But Surely Cape Town is still dangerous and exciting, right?

Well, perhaps, but the event basically tours around the world’s longest winery route in the hills near Cape Town so there really isn’t that much to be worried about - once you get used to the stench of rotting grape flesh and fertilizer.

Well how do you explain this then?

Three items found on the counter of a Cape Town bike shop…one of them happens to be Pepper Spray!

If you can look past the bad photography what you’ll see (if you squint hard and focus about a metre behind your computer monitor, touchscreen or recycled printout) is that the item in the middle, sandwiched between the chain lube and CO₂ canister, is a can of pepper spray. Enquiring as to why this was being sold in a bike shop, the helpful sales clerk mumbled something about “needing it in South Africa”, then giggled awkwardly and added “for the baboons.” Not quite sure what to make of this, I opted to pass on the pepper spray and get back to worrying about more important things like tyre pressure and energy gels.

The experience left me thoroughly confused…and eager to find out what this race had in store.

Flying in to Cape Town, everything looked very first world and middle class. It seemed like every house had a swimming pool and manicured garden…as well as a big security fence. And then, just before touching down, the view changes dramatically to an expanse of the Cape Flats with its dense array of tin shacks and narrow unpaved streets. Seeing these townships again from the bus in to the city, they almost seem out of place because the area is so clearly separated from the rest of Cape Town with a huge fence and where this border ends it almost immediately gives way to the well-developed gated communities that were seen earlier from the plane (with the swimming pools and manicured gardens).

Anyway, all that sort of flashed by and before we knew it, my race partner Duncan and I had settled in to our luxury hotel in Cape Town’s harbour precinct, complete with Ferris wheel and giant Coca-Cola sculpture.

Cape Town’s homage to the Black Doctor

This guy is constructed almost entirely from old Coca-Cola crates…held together by a staggering quantity of cable ties. The manufacturer lucky enough to win this tender most likely got rich enough to make one last souvenir (see below), close the factory and retire early.

Don’t use these cable ties on your bike if you are interested in saving grams...or money!

The next few days consisted of registration and race briefing on the harbour front, but not until we were treated to a failed world record attempt by MTB Trials legend Kenny Belaey. Kenny was trying to break the world record for the longest jump between two stacks of pallets. The actual distance wasn’t explicitly mentioned by the announcer but Kenny failed somewhere around the 3m mark. In his defence however, he did appear to be jumping in to a headwind and his bike didn’t have a saddle.

Anyway, with the disappointment of Kenny’s failed jump behind us, Duncan and I could start focusing on the race, knowing that we had done everything possible to prepare for whatever was to come. This consisted mostly of practicing our South African accents at social events and watching District 9 on DVD – which, in fairness to Cape Town, was actually set in Johannesburg, meaning that we were probably overstocked on cat food.

The Cape Epic is a massive event. Everything happens on a huge scale. There are 600 teams of 2 riders, a mass of media coverage complete with two helicopters and the associated marketing opportunities that come with that. There are about 30 UCI pro men’s and women’s teams competing for the prizemoney on offer and then the mass of remaining riders ranging from those with top-20 aspirations to those trying to beat their mates to those just trying to finish before the time cut-offs. On the prologue time-trial start ramp, the organisers had been kind enough to start our team (The Fitzroy Revolution) directly behind our shop adversaries (Carl and Matthias from The Fitzroy Revolution Dream Team). You can imagine how this might have provided us with some quality bait to chase however, with only 25 seconds separating our two teams, all it really allowed for was a good photo opportunity.

Duncan and I were aiming for a top-50 finish in the Prologue to ensure we were well seeded in the 'A' group on Stage 1 the following day. Unfortunately we just failed to achieve this due to some fairly severe traffic jams on the singletrack and a bout of mild heat stroke and dehydration. 

On the bus to the race village that afternoon we discussed some basic tactical plans to try and make up the lost time. This mostly hinged on Christoph Sauser & Burry Stander getting multiple flats on Stage 1 and us cruising by without offering to help. The less popular 'Plan B' basically involved riding fast for the whole stage.

Early on in Stage 1 we got a taste of what the Cape Epic is all about. Struggling to even walk up a rough, muddy track, 2001 Herald Sun Tour Stage Runner Up René Haselbacher asked jokingly “Is this what you imagined doing in the Cape Epic?”
“This is great,” I answered, “hopefully we’ll see some baboons.”
A quick-witted South African gentleman walking beside me then put things harshly in to context – “We are the baboons!” Touché.

Later that day we were introduced to one of the unofficial race categories of the Cape Epic – the Chicking Classification. This classification applies to all the male teams and is a measure of how often, and my by how much, you get beaten by ladies during the race. There was no official jersey for this category, but if there had been, I imagine it would have looked something like this:

The tastefully designed Chicking Jersey proves there's no shame in getting beaten by girls.

Sometimes there are very good reasons for getting chicked, for example you’ve had mechanical issues, flat tyres or you’ve been feeling the need to empty your guts out on the trail (which Duncan became quite familiar with). But sometimes the reason is that the chicks doing the chicking, the chickers if you will, are just extremely strong riders while the men getting chicked, the chickees, are spending more time trying to think up excuses for getting chicked rather than just riding faster. Getting chicked by the top ladies became a common occurrence for us during the Cape Epic, however, on a couple of occasions when things didn’t go too horribly pear-shaped we did manage to come in ahead of them. This filled us with an enormous sense of satisfaction, on par, I imagine with that felt by Christoph Sauser and Burry Stander as they came across the line in 1st place on most days. 

Sauser & Stander celebrate coming in last place on the Chicking Classification.

Although we consistently moved up on the Chicking Classification during the early stages of the race, there were a lot of other teams getting chicked far more convincingly than us each day, so it quickly became clear we weren’t in contention to wear the fictitious leader’s jersey for this classification. Unfortunately, we were also way too far off the pace to wear the actual yellow Leader’s Jersey, too young to wear the Master’s Jersey, the wrong sex to wear the Ladies or Mixed Team Jersey and the wrong nationality to wear the African Leader’s Jersey – although I’m sure, if given a chance, we could have convinced the race organisers with our very authentic-sounding South African accents. All this left us to aim for, after a disastrous first stage, was the Most Improved Team - another unofficial and fictitious classification that we invented to help motivate better performances.

Most of the stages would start with a reasonably long section of bitumen, which we were advised was neutralised (no passing) and required all riders to stay to the left of the centre line on the road (which was open to traffic). As we frantically tried to move up from the 'B' start group each day, the elite teams, always vigilant to the race rules, kept the pace to the gentlemanly speed of around 50km/h (mostly out of respect to the local speed limits) whilst fanning out all the way to the far right-hand side gutter. 

Northern Combine race officials would certainly not have tolerated this kind of infraction – “Keep left riders!”

If the organisers had decided to put their foot down and disqualify the 1st 100 teams who crossed the centre line, we may well have ended up in the hunt for the race leader’s jersey…I guess there’s always next year – I shall arrive armed with a sternly-worded letter about rider safety!

The 5am wake-up call at the Cape Epic was performed each morning by an enthusiastic bag piper and the highlight for the Aussie contingent came on the morning of Stage 4 with a moving rendition of Waltzing Matilda. The lowlight was reserved for Stage 6 when the gallant piper obviously missed the memo that the race start had been pushed back by 30 minutes and that we could all stay in bed for a little longer.

It’s really quite incredible how well organised this event is. Half way through Stage 5, Duncan had already gone right through one set of brake pads. It was seriously wet for the entire stage, there was mud, slosh, goop, slop and in many places the singletrack had transformed in to brake-pad-destroying rivulets. Anyway, at the first feed/tech zone, Duncan managed to get a replacement set of brake pads (for a non-current series of brakes, mind you) installed in less than 5 minutes and pay for the parts by credit card! This occurred during the actual race! Out on the course! Incredible stuff! This kind of service would be akin to popping in to a mobile shoe store mid-marathon and buying a replacement pair of sneakers…in your correct size!

It wasn’t until Stage 6 that we managed to move up in to the 'A' start group. This meant that we could start closer to the front of the pack, in the 1st 50 or so teams, and that we had at least 100 fewer wheels to try and pick our way through in order to get near the head of the peloton. It certainly made a huge difference and by the end of the day, we were finally able to smile, content with a much higher-placed finish and certainly moving in to a much better position on the fictitious Most Improved Classification

The day also included a couple of sections of fantastic groomed singletrack, which made for some seriously fun riding, and some much needed respite from the previous 5 days of rocky double track and fire road. Despite this stage providing a rare chance for some fun riding, it was rumoured that many of the pro teams elected to take the faster and more direct route down the hillside. 

There was a different vibe on the start line of the 7th and final stage. You could tell that riders were excited to have reached the finale. To really add to the atmosphere, AC/DC was blasting from the PA and we were treated to an aerobatics show from South African Red Bull stunt pilot Glen Dell that included a lot of spinning, smoke trails, loopedy-loops and whoopedy-doos. I realise that this probably isn’t the correct nomenclature however my knowledge of stunt flying is about as deep as my knowledge of action photography - as evidenced below:

The race finish, which resembled a mini-festival, was held at yet another winery and after attending the make-believe awards ceremony to receive our fictitious Most Improved Classification jerseys from the imaginary (yet still very attractive) podium girls, it was time to sit down and devour the Race Finisher’s Hamper. I say 'devour' but what I really mean is 'make minor inroads in to consuming'. 

Even two days after the event and we still couldn’t finish it. In fact, there was probably enough food for one of those 'x number of Olympic-sized swimming pools' analogies. But seeing as how I really have no idea what the 'x' is likely to be, this is my best estimate:

A truly epic quantity of food awaits you on the finish line at the ABSA Cape Epic. So maybe allow for an extra couple of days in Cape Town to finish it off before heading home to quarantine-obsessed destinations like Australia…after all, you have been to Africa - who knows what kind of dangerous bio-hazards and parasites you’ve been exposed to!

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