Here I am having just entered my 4th Cape Epic and it got me
wondering how did I get here. Outsiders and those not in the
know must look at this lot and think you are either
superhuman, super fit or genetically gifted to be able to
complete such a gruelling multi-day event. For the vast
majority of average riders out there this is not the case.
Sure there are factors and history there that make it all
possible, but by enlarge it is just a sequence of normal
events and progression that gets you there.
Looking back at my own experience it must have all started
with kids bikes that we had from an early age. Learning to
ride a bike is one of the great liberating experiences in
life. We were lucky to be able to grow up cycling in the
streets with neighbourhood kids. From the age of 8 we cycled
to school about a 5km distance, and continued to do that for
almost my entire school career. All those years must have
provided a solid foundation and muscle build up for my future
When BMXs came along they were the transportation of
choice. For many years as a teenager I spent finding and
riding dirt parks, jumps, water drainage systems and anything
else that looked like you could get air off. I am so thankful
for those days because the skills that I gained from spending
all those hours doing crazy things has saved me a few times
from rather spectacular wipe-outs.
After school cycling was suddenly uncool, motorbikes and
cars were the cool thing to have and drive. It took one of the
Mecca’s of mountain biking, Lake Tahoe California, to kick
start the mountain biking lifestyle. On a working holiday in
the early 90’s I had my first real taste of mountain bikes,
riding on trails around Lake Tahoe. Coming from BMX I was a
bit weary of this big wheeled off road bike, it seemed so
cumbersome and strange looking. Meanwhile back home my mate
Dion and his brother Albert were getting into MTB as the
movement was starting to gather momentum.
Back in SA I bought my first mountain bike a Diamond Back
Topanga in 1993. As a student at UCT I found myself back on a
bike commuting up to varsity from Rondebosch, I was thankful
for those extra gears. The hill climb everyday together with
weekend rides in Tokai and Table mountain and out to Houtbay
made up my regular cycling.
Gauteng as my home base for many years so most of my early
riding was done up north, for years we were real recreational
riders. A group of us would get together on a Saturday or
Sunday afternoon and ride trails in Rooihuiskraal or at the
Lafarge (Rockhoppers Club) in Honeydew. Tekkies, open pedals
and helmet-less heads were the way to go as we took over two
hours to complete our 10-20km routes. There was no rush as
lengthy water stops and frequent rest stops were part of the
ride. Racing didn’t even cross our minds until one day someone
said; “Hey why don’t we do one of those club races?” And so an
era ended and another started.
I clearly remember my first MTB race, it was the fun class
at one of the regular Rockhoppers club cross country races.
These races usually consisted of several loops of a 6-7 km
route. The 20 odd kilometres seemed easy enough, but the speed
and exertion required to stay at race pace was a real
surprise. That was the start of the search for “How to train
and race” information. I remember I came across a list of tips
for your first MTB race, two tips stood out for me that are
still valid today. Firstly check out your fellow riders see
who is wearing and riding similar level kit to you, that will
give you an idea of who you can benchmark yourself against.
Secondly don’t start off trying to ride in front, pace
yourself and ride according to your ability. Eventually I got
the hang of the fun class races and then moved up into my
normal age group and the inevitably longer distance. I still
don’t remember any real training during this time, it was a
case of pitch up and ride.
The next progression was a marathon event. Dion, Albert and
I agreed that this would be a good idea to up the level a
notch. We had planned to do some race in the south of Joburg.
For some reason, nerves and fear not excluded, I could not
make race day so Dion and Albert went. Well they came back
with war stories of note, kilometres of “gras bolle”, un-rideable
portage sections and an all round gruelling experience. They
said it was pain full but that they would be back again.
The first real distance race that I did with training was
the Cape Argus in 2000. The Argus cycle interest group on the
internet proved to be the source of a training program based
mainly on a distance build up to the event. This program was
setup by a school friend of mine Greg who had done a few Argus
cycle tours and had some experience. Strangely enough he was
on the finish line in 2006 for Epic 2, fascinated at how we
had managed to just complete over 900km in 8 days.
The mountain biking bug had bitten, and 2001 and 2002 saw
us travel to many mountain bike events around the country like
Sun City, Sabie classic and Karoo to Coast. During this time I
had been introduced to the Polar heart rate monitor. Initially
I was sceptical about the “gimmick” of heart rate measurement
and resisted. Eventually I gave in and purchased the base
model at the time with own code, the M52? I always used it and
found it interesting but never really knew what I was doing.
In early 2003 we reached the next defining moment.
The Subaru Sabie Classic is a tough race, but in 2003 it
was somehow tougher than ever at a distance of 85km. I am sure
it was one of the toughest race routes ever. After completing
the 2002 event in just under 5 hours, it took me 6:24 to
finish the 2003 event. Albert was missing, he had missed the
cut-off and not even the sweep vehicle had him on. He
eventually rode in after his worst 7 something hour ordeal
ever. We had all trained for this event and after 2 years of
competing, we had expected slightly better results. Our only
conclusion, was that it was not possible for average guys like
us to complete these long marathon events. It seemed like we
would have to concentrate on half marathon races as they would
be more manageable. That’s where we left it.
Then somehow as if guided by the training gods I stumbled
across the Polar heart rate workshops. It must have been after
one of my many interesting discussions with Peter from Polar
SA. I promptly booked myself on the next 2 day course. What I
learned there laid the foundation for an effective program
that has seen us improve our race results significantly year
after year and been the basis of our Cape Epic success. The
critical point being to learn how and why we train a certain
way. Once I had that understanding everything became quite
clear and I started applying the principles and seeing the
results. Albert was the first one to switch to these training
programs and suddenly his results improved dramatically.
So I guess when I look back there were many things that led
up to us getting into and staying in the Epic. But a lot of it
must be common to many people out there riding bikes everyday.
At the end of the day we are all just keen to get on our bikes
and ride as much as we can. We are just average guys and
whatever we have achieved is possible by anyone riding a bike.
The Magic of the Cape Epic