Cape Epic

Epic Battle

Words: Angus Powers
Photography (Above): Sam Clark/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

What does it take to win the Cape Epic, the world’s most competitive mountain bike stage race? To find out, The Red Bulletin went along for the ride    

Ten kilometres before the end of Stage 2 of the 2015 Absa Cape Epic, Tim Boehme’s pedal clipped a wooden fencepost. At 36kph, the German rider hurtled over the handlebars and hit the dirt, landing on his head and shoulder. Diagnosed with concussion and a torn AC joint, Boehme’s race was done, but the consequences of his accident didn’t stop there. Karl Platt and Urs Huber, contenders for the overall win, were now vulnerable without a back-up team, and their rivals knew what that meant. The unrelenting pressure of racing flat out for eight days would eventually search out any weakness. Crack, and it would be a long way back to the leaders.

How do you win the Tour de France of mountain biking? Many have asked but few have answered, at least in the only way that matters, which is to let your legs do the talking, all the way to the top step of the podium. 

Cape Epic

Famous five: Christoph Sauser and Karl Platt had both won the Epic four times. Heading out onto the trails, who would be the first to five victories?

© Damien Schumann/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

“There is a big level of suffering and the longer you can suffer the better”
Kristian Hynek
Christoph Sauser
Christoph Sauser

The Swiss has won the Epic four times - plus an Olympic bronze medal, two World Cup series and four world titles. Sauser about the race: “You don’t win the Epic on paper, or by being a favourite” ​

© by Shaun Roy/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

“You don’t win the Epic on paper, or by being a favourite,” warned Christoph Sauser before this year’s race. Considering the Swiss veteran’s pedigree – four Cape Epic wins (the same as Platt), plus an Olympic bronze medal, two World Cup series and four world titles – and that he’d be partnering Czech powerhouse Jaroslav Kulhavy in the 2015 Epic, it was a sobering assessment. Not that anyone had any doubts about the nature of the beast. The Cape Epic might not be a climb-fest like the TransAlp Challenge, but its 750km and 16,000m of vertical gain breaks down into a prologue and seven stages of approximately 100km and more than 2,000m of climbing daily. That equates to a lot of opportunities to put the opposition in the hurt box, particularly in the punishing African conditions the race is famous for. 

With a hors categorie rating from the UCI (a classification reserved for events like the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España), the richest purse and by far the biggest media coverage in mountain biking, the Epic draws pro riders like cowboys to a rodeo. The general classification reads like a who’s who of off-road racing, and it’s this roll call of talent that explains why victory at the Epic is trumped only by Olympic or world championship glory.

 

Racing mountain bikes is not road racing. At the Epic, you have only one teammate; there is no peloton to shelter behind; and unlike the periods of relative calm on the road that allow for some rest, the racing is full gas all day, every day. In its early years, the Epic covered 900km in nine days, but that soon proved too brutal a proposition. The schedule is merciless enough as it is: up at 4.30am, oats for breakfast at 5am and a quick shower and warm-up before the starter’s gun goes at 7am. Then it’s five hours of racing, on the limit, in the heat and wind, over rocks and sand and through thorny scrub, before attempting to recover in time to do it all again the next day. And the next.
 

“You don’t win the Epic on paper, or by being a favourite”
Christoph Sauser

Most pros spend four months preparing, starting in December. Kulhavy spoke about 25-hour training weeks, riding 160-220km per day with 3,000m of climbing. Sauser’s hardest training days involved a run, a plyometrics session, then 120km on the bike (including five-minute power intervals), up mountain passes, into headwinds and in summer temperatures in excess of 35°C. That ‘train like you race’ philosophy paid off on Stage 3, a 128km haul from Grabouw to Worcester in blistering sun and wind.

Sauser, Kulhavy and defending Epic champion Kristian Hynek exited a rocky dam wall crossing first, with Hynek’s partner, Alban Lakata, being held up by slower riders across the narrow causeway. Kulhavy then put the hammer down into a block headwind, and with Lakata failing to bridge the gap, Hynek had to drop back to help his Austrian teammate. That move alone was worth a precious 25 seconds. In Hynek’s opinion, Kulhavy was the “game-changer”, a reference to his countryman’s extraordinary power on the flats. Sauser agreed: “Jaro often made the difference. On the climbs, we would get just a little gap, then Jaro could open the throttle on the flat and open up the gap. It’s so important: to get a little gap and then you are able to put one more into them on the flat.”

Cape Epic

Wild ride: the Cape Epic covers 750km and 16,000m of vertical gain. Team Topeak Ergon pushed hard for victory

© Ewald Sadie/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Viewed up close, the Epic was eight days of war: of attrition, of course, but also a clash of wits and will. Key battles were fought at strategic sectors on every stage, with minor skirmishes continually adding to, or subtracting from, each team’s ever-diminishing mental and physical resources. As Hynek and Lakata gradually emerged as the most dangerous challengers to Sauser and Kulhavy’s early grip on the race, the two pairs even contested a sprint finish against each other on Stage 4, despite the stage already having been won by another team. 

“I know how it is when you get beaten and lose time,” said the wily Sauser. “It’s so important to show that you are the strongest team. It’s a hard race; when you get beaten again and you lose a little bit of time, it breaks you. No matter how good you are, there are always suffering days, that’s for sure. It’s very important that your head is completely into it and you know it’s going to be harder than anything else. Basically, you have to be willing to go flat out for eight days.” 

Cape Epic

Singular momentum: speed through the singletrack sometimes depended on not suffering untimely mechanicals, as defending champion Hynek and former world marathon champ Lakata soon found out  

© GARY PERKIN/CAPE EPIC/SPORTZPICS

 Kulhavy saw the intimidation factor cutting both ways. “It’s very important that our rivals know about our power,” he said. “It’s important for our minds as well. The race is very long and every positive thought is very good.” For Hynek and Lakata, withstanding the physical onslaught was relatively straightforward. As for the tactical challenge of finding a chink in Sauser and Kulhavy’s seemingly impregnable armour? Not so much. “There is always a big level of suffering,” Hynek admitted. “You just have to realise that everyone is suffering and the longer you are able to suffer, the better. If you are able to suffer longer than the others, it is one of the keys a lot of the time. But if we want to win, we have to try in every possible moment and situation to build a gap. For sure it won’t happen by itself, so we need to make a move.” “The question is, how can we go to the start line and attack from there, with a plan and a strategy and go full gas to get the result we want?” echoed Lakata. There were no easy answers.

Cape Epic

Feeling the heat: Jaroslav Kulhavy and Sauser negotiated the rocky sections with care, well aware that any kind of setback would probably prove fatal to their goals

© Ewald Sadie/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

“You have to go out flat for eight days”
Christoph Sauser

Fakers don’t make it at the Epic. A certain personal resilience was required to stay healthy and bug-free while living in the race village (in a campervan or tent) along with two thousand other riders and crew. State-of-the-art bikes are de rigeur, and for the top contenders so is a battalion of support staff, including a back-up racing team who could donate equipment off their own bikes to effect an emergency repair. But despite everyone’s best efforts, only so much can be controlled.

“I would say maybe 50 per cent of this race is luck: having luck, or not having luck. Crashing, or not crashing. Puncturing, or not puncturing,” mused Hynek before the 121km-long Stage 5. “I think this is also something that makes the Cape Epic so special. There’s no other race that has so many variables that can destroy your hopes. Most of the downhills are pretty unpredictable: bushes, stones, sand… and as you can see every year, so many teams don’t make it to the end.”

Jose Hermida

Facing the challenge: Jose Hermida after a rough day in the saddle. The Spaniard would go on to finish fourth

© Nick Muzik/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

“You need luck in order to win any race,” nodded Lakata ruefully. “But here you need even more.” Lakata’s luck, which had been dubious throughout, finally ran out that day. A twisted chain meant he and Hynek lost six minutes and had to spend the rest of the stage chasing back to the pack. Kulhavy fared no better: he battled stomach problems all day, and then wound up with a branch tangled in his rear derailleur. Fortunately for the panicking Kulhavy, back-up teammate Nico Bell soon arrived and quickly got him going again.“When you have to deal with a mechanical, first you feel that all is lost,” explained Hynek. “Then you have to get back on track, realise it’s not lost at all and that you have to keep on fighting. It took me some time to realise we have to keep fighting.”

“I thought we had lost the whole race,” admitted Kulhavy. “You never know what will happen next. This is the Cape Epic – it’s full of technicals, flat tyres and crashes. During the eight days, everybody has a problem. Of course, you can be the strongest, but just one technical problem or crash and that can be the end for you. We knew that we had won only on the finish line in Meerendal.”

Cape Epic

Trials and triumph: Sauser and Kulhavy’s champagne shower from their Investec-Songo-Specialized teammates to celebrate overall victory was sweeter

© Nick Muzik/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Out-gunned, out-manoeuvred and ultimately out of luck, Lakata and Hynek went on to finish 10 minutes adrift of the race favourites, but almost 25 minutes ahead of Platt and Huber. “One team was stronger and I think we have to accept that,” Lakata conceded. “We had some bad luck, but even if we didn’t, I think it would have been the same result but with a smaller time difference.” To survive the Epic, let alone win it, requires so much mental toughness – “to not break your mind”, as Kulhavy put it – but what really sets a champion apart is calmness under fire: the ability to think clearly in the heat of battle, when your heart rate is through the roof and the clock is ticking. Without a stiff dose of sangfroid, all the firepower in the world won’t keep a team in contention. Sauser again: “I never really stress about physical condition or tactics or mechanicals. It doesn’t help. I worry about the smaller question marks. When you win, and you think about the thousands of corners you’ve been through and the millions of rocks you’ve ridden over, it’s quite amazing.” He’s right. It is amazing. Because this race isn’t called the Epic for nothing.

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