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Cape Epic :: The Untamed African MTB Stage Race

Capturing the essence of an event in a short story, blog, or article proves harder than the event itself. It is my opinion anyway. I've attempted to use video. I've shared photos. Interview format intra-event offers a fun way to share with IG stories. Yet as I try to fulfill the second part of my life's purpose, the sharing part, I'm often stumped as to the best format. To correctly share the energy of the event, this post will be long. To be more widely shared, it should be short. I like riding. I take great joy in writing about riding. But when an event is much more than a ride, when an event breathes its own life, well, it cannot be captured. Not fully. Sitting at a desk in the Washington Dulles Airport having just peeled myself out of an economy seat I risked become permanently one with after 16 hrs in a tin, COVID-can, I'm reminded why I went to Cape Epic. Also, why I've been living in Costa Rica for 4 months. Why I traipsed over the globe last year. Why I schlepped an EVOC bike bag around the US chasing NUE titles in 2020 through 2022. The things we do cannot be captured and translated purely from one person to another. We try and sometimes we get damn close but the intangibles, the moments between labored breathes, the tingling skin as the briefest feeling captures your soul, the light on that rock on that trail in that spot for that one second, belong only to the first person. The owner of the hands that grip the handlebar. To me. Thus if I only can own my journey, in its fullest, I must always journey. I have to go. There can be no limitations to the ends I train, travel, and learn. This post promises to be more concise than the last but I promise this story never ends.

Even my biggest fans couldn't get through a blow-by-blow recap of 8 days of MTB racing in South Africa. NOTE: I refer to fans simply because it's shorter than writing "Mom" and "Grandma". So I'll do this differently. Below are 6 photos taken during the event. Each photo captures one of those tiny moments that lose their place in the narrative when a story aims too high, too broad. Some are positive. Some are not. Some just are. This more accurately represents epic adventuring. Spectrum-stretching feelings. All of the smiley faces, Doc. I'm feeling them all. Enjoy the little moments that brought depth to my Cape Epic experience. The untamed mountain bike stage race in South Africa.

PHOTO: start line on Day 1, the prologue.

Nearly 10 years ago I signed up for an event at the GoPro Games, then named the Teva Mtn Games. The SUP Cross race pitted two paddleboarders against one another as we navigated buoys in the Gore River. I failed miserably and my competitor went on to the next round. His name, Kai Lenny. His pedigree, the youngest ever to be inducted into the Surfer's Hall of Fame in 2019, at just age 26. I didn't belong next to him. I was on an inflatable board and wore a commuter bike helmet. Imposter syndrome doesn't begin to explain the feeling. I flat out didn't belong in that arena.

With my front wheel toeing the start line for the Prologue stage at the 2024 Cape Epic, my name being spoken over the speakers, flashing on the giant screen next to Amir's, I had no sense of doubt. No imposter syndrome. Confidence comes with repetition and I had the reps. My very first MTB race more than a decade in arrears and my steady journey from one event to the next brought me to this ramp. In under 10 seconds I'd be pedaling the short 16 mile racecourse at full gas, providing the seeding for the upcoming stages.

The unexpected reality? I wasn't nervous. That anxious energy that consumes me at every start line failed to suit up. The smile. The goofy, pure, genuine smile across my face matched the warmth in my heart. Scroll back to the photo and come back to me...........

Yep, I thought the same thing. I was racing into a postcard. Once on course the smile morphed into a narrowed focus. We picked off racers who'd been let out 30, 60, and 90 seconds ahead. We chased wheels, made passes, and drove our pedals with fury. We bike raced. We were in matching spandex after all. We finished faster than we anticipated and the race had begun. I don't remember our exact time, I remember the smile. It warms me still.

PHOTO: riding as teammates on trail.

Amir and I met on the second day of the Costa Rican race La Ruta in 2018. Both of us, and our wives, happened to be booked at the same eco-lodge in Turrialba, the Turrialtico Lodge. I can't recall who said what first but we ended up sharing a meal. That meal turned into another and then into 5 years of shared experiences including the 2019 La Ruta, then 2022. Along the way there were all of the NUE races in the US, stage races in Colombia, Chile, the Alps, and Sun Valley, ID. Our wives are friends. Our families know each other. Bike weekends in Colorado. DtD Training Camps across the US. Our friendship began from mere happenstance and grew because of our likemindedness for adventure, progression, and experience. To nail that point home here's a fun fact: neither of us have visited the other's home.

Back to the partner piece, being alone doesn't necessarily mean lonely. I relish my alone time, maybe a bit more than the average person. I can go to movies theaters, restaurants, sporting events, and... can bike hundreds of miles in solitude. But the Cape Epic, all of the Epic Race Series, require riders to race in pairs. The loner asks, "why?". To which I can now answer, it's so much better with a teammate. Those mini-moments I spoke of being both fleeting and evasive stick with a teammate. The post-race lunches, covered in dust, sweat, and exhaustion taste better with a teammate. The daily massage, pre-race bottle prep, visits to laundry, middle-of-night-leave-the-RV pee breaks, sleepy walks to the breakfast buffet, and countless other mandatory maneuvers of an 8-day stage race are smoother with a teammate. The teammate matters.

We had a better event than I could have had alone. On the final climb of the second day, Stage 1, Amir's hamstrings locked up in what was his first-ever intra-race cramp. We were able to stretch him out and get him rolling. On Stage 5, while grinding between wine estates and physically tapped, Amir placed his hand on my back and provided a little boost. I shrugged it off, frustrated, and he calmed my ego. He said, "let me help." So I did. Our roles were fluid. Sometimes the leader, sometimes the follower. Sometimes the gas pedal and sometimes the canopy hatch lever, but always the teammate. The right teammate cannot rely solely on data points. More than matching FTPs, more than closely aged athletes, the right teammate balance must have a commonality not found on Training Peaks breakdowns. I was lucky to find a random dude in the cloud forest who's built of that same material: passion. A high temperature need to find out what's on the other side of the hill. A limitless, endless search to answer the question: "What else?".

PHOTO: racing off the front of the C Corral, Stage 1.

Several elements of the Cape Epic contributed it to being the hardest MTB event I've ever done. Off the top, it's 8 days, marking the longest race event I've done. Second it's in Africa. I've never before been to Africa. I've never before sat in an economy seat for 15 hours. We are in some real terra incognita here. Third, and the focal point of this picture memory, every day starts like a single day race. Racer's jump off the start line in a furious cloud of dust, surging and swerving, flexing and extending with all their might. The sore legs from the day before, the creeping energy system fatigue, and the awareness of the days to come vanish at the pop of the starter pistol. Full gas!

The herd stampedes forward. Any hesitation, any doubt, and you're dropped. One thing a racer cannot handle is being dropped so we slid in. Sometimes we pulled the pack and other times we found a smooth groove behind a few wheels but every time we committed to 45 minutes of throttle-twisting racing. Near the end of the first hour the pace settles and ride groups form. From there the race comes to teams at its own cadence. Racing off the front, challenging our systems to come online, and ignoring any negative body-feels feedback contributed to the uniqueness of the Cape Epic. Not only was the event highly professional, racers of all caliber matched the demands of the race with professionalism. We are racers, nothing else matters.

PHOTO: the final few turns of the 130-switchback climb near the end of Stage 4.

Then it happened. I cracked. I couldn't point to the exact moment or specific challenge. I couldn't logic my way out of the feeling. The overwhelming, blanketing, all-consuming feeling: despair.

3,050' climb in under 6 miles of singletrack. The final challenging climb of the most challenging day. 130-ish (who can count at that intensity) switchbacks leave the valley floor, twist through dense forest, and top out on a barren pointed rock. The climb tops out only after a short reprieve as the trail traverses a hillside. Amir and I set a steady pace, catching and passing several teams. Entering the forest I spotted Lachlan Morton's pink EducationFirst jersey exiting across the forest and giving me an estimation of how much time we had ahead of us. Almost an hour my race math skills told me. So with our steady pedaling we forged ahead. Small trail signs served as countdown markers. Corner #19, #18, #17, and on. The numbers ended and the climb continued on. A new trail name. A new set of corners. Amir's legs spun faster than mine and I abandoned the lead position. Communication between race partners can be tricky. If one is feeling better than the other, he risks adding to the weaker partner's mindset by asking for the pass. Amir didn't need to worry. I knew I was weak. I just didn't understand why.

I reached the traversing trail. The reprieve. I had made it. This stage, Stage 4, the Queen's Stage, had already been reduced by the race officials. Temperatures threatened racer's abilities to stay safe and issues with heat were very real. On that stretch of trail I fully understood. My heart rate hovered around 155 bpm, my standard race-pace effort, but my output didn't match my race potential. The pedals simply wouldn't spin. I was tapped. I was hot. And as the mountain saddle approached I learned I was not done. 20 more switchbacks laughed down at me from above. Taunting me. Testing my resolve. I nearly broke. Had my hydration levels been anywhere near normal, or even safe, I'd have had tears rolling off my cheeks. The crux moment arrived.

The better descriptions of events exist in the micro-moments that define the whole. This moment, this desperate moment, contributed greatly to my reverence for the Cape Epic. This is hard. I am broken. How will I respond? Will I flag one of the media helicopters down? Will I get off the bike and hold a silent pity party? Will I quit?

No, I pedaled. I never stopped pedaling actually. I set myself to the single thing I could control, pedaling. Granted I didn't set a new 5 minute max power but I didn't let despair destroy my determination. The 20 switchbacks faded to 5 and then to none. I topped out. Finally. The reward? An indescribable series of banked switchbacks that may be the most intense initial descent I've ever ridden. Give "Cliffhanger Descent" a look. Whoa. Just wow. Nothing like having a full body tingling descent demanding pure focus and trust in one's self. So often the Cape Epic proved if you could stick it out, if you could overcome that brutal challenge ahead then your reward will be equally impressive. We dropped over 2,400' of heavenly singletrack in under 5 miles. Despair disappeared and at the finish line, with 2 iced towels hanging on my head I could only utter a single response, "Africa hot is something else."

PHOTO: singletrack descent on Stage 6.

I enjoy collecting tokens. Even as a child I treated collections less about their market value, such as trading cards, coins, or stamps, and more like travelogues. Collections acted as tangible memory banks. For years I collected hats, ringing 1, 2, and eventually 3 rows atop my bedroom walls. For a few years I even turned my entire family into a dirty smuggling operation creating inventive ways to sneak restaurant menus past the hostess stand and into the family car. Watching a youth delicately roll up a three foot menu from Wilt Chamberlain's restaurant is paying witness to a master thief at work. Tokens serve as gateways to fond memories, lessons learned, or confidence gained. Decades later I use race number plates in the same fashion. I have saved every MTB race number and have them mounted in my office. (It's an entire wall now.). When preparing for a big event or when in the throes of a tough training cycle I'll start at the far bottom right and work my way to the opposite corner remembering the growth and filling my soul with the infinite possibility ahead.

After the challenges of Stages 3 & 4, in the brutal heat of Wellington (pronounced Hellington in the summer, according to locals) I took a remote visit to that wall of number plates and rebuilt the character I know myself to be: a badass mountain biker. Additionally I went back to proven systems. While the bottle drop service works flawlessly, getting racers another 2 prepared bottles mid-course, nothing matches hydration on-hand. 9 scoops of CarboRocket in my Orange Mud pack and another bottle of electrolytes on the bike delivers 2.5L of dehydration-elimination-preparation. Bring it on Hellington. Another added system: navigation, or at least course awareness. Because the Cape Epic winds through private property the organization keeps .gpx files hidden but provides a booklet of course profile stickers complete with aid/hydration station stops, distances, and elevation charts. I am accustomed to racing with loaded course maps on my Wahoo so having this information stuck to my handlebars helped me answer the nagging question, "How much further?"

Back to basics. The way you train, the way you prepare, the way you race, are all practiced and conditioned ways to set up your best performance. Having crawled out a pit of despair just hours earlier I needed the comfort these systems provided. I needed the confidence of knowing I not only am able but I am supremely capable. Let's go race. Let's go do what we were made to do.

PHOTO: various speedy, singletrack descents during Stage 5 and Stage 6.

Ahh, my favorite moment of a stage race: the final 25% of the total event.

I've finished stage races in 1st place (Breck Epic 2023). I've finished DFL (La Ruta 2023 w/Rick). I've finished with my wife (Breck Epic 2022). I've finished with a stage win but technically disqualified (Across Hidalgo 2023). I've come across the line carrying my bike for 3rd (Guerrero Guane 2022). Also, finishing as the biggest lunatic in the field, on a singlespeed (La Ruta 2022). So I offer this opinion with decent understanding of all parts of the race field. Once the race settles down, sub groups established within the rankings, and racers get a feel for how the competition will finish out, barring catastrophe of course, we get to simply ride bikes really, really fast. Let the fun in.

Stages 5, 6, and 7 provided ample opportunities for fun. Purpose built singletrack, directional descents, and primely positioned picture poppers kept me cheesing all day. Some time ago I read that a famous musician admitted in an interview that while he did get to travel the world, doing what he loved, that hotels and event venues look the same whether in Hong Kong or Sacramento. International stage races risk the same fate for committed racers. Matter of factly the middle and rear of the race pack, the group hoping to simply finish get more time soaking in the uniqueness of the landscape. With less pressure to race every single second they can look around. Now that we'd settled into a field position, I took advantage of the last couple of days. I reminded myself that each mile of trail may be the only time I'm ever here. A truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. With body mishaps, mechanical mishaps, and tons of learning under our belts Amir and I acknowledged that it's time to soak up the event, ride hard, and have fun. LFG!

Guess what happens when a racer reminds himself why he loves riding? When he asks am I here to grind or here to have fun? When he turns to his teammate and says with a smile, "Did you see that?!" He rides pretty damn fast. Amir and I had our best field position finishes in the final 2 days of the Cape Epic. Huh, imagine that racer boy.

PHOTO: the final finish line. The end of Stage 7 in Stellenbosch.

I've written blogs and given talks about the aftermath of an accomplished goal. I've used plain speak to simplify the brain chemical dopamine's abrupt stop after wrapping your hands around the coveted token. What I haven't had as much personal experience with is how a shared experience changes the whole game. Of the four types of brain chemicals, oxytocin may be the most evolutionarily relevant as it helped us humans become social creatures. Our social bonding helped us beat out the neanderthals and while I didn't have to club a caveman in S. Africa I did get to feel a warmth unique to most of my finish line experiences. Amir and I set off to conquer the hardest MTB stage race in the world and in a furious finish line outburst of watts we careened into the Stellenbosch finish area with arms around one another. Our broad smiles wiped away any soreness or fatigue. Our laughs genuine. Our celebration pure. We had tamed the #untamed. Well, we survived it anyway and that wasn't an easy task. Many teams failed in the heat, met catastrophic mechanical failure, or simply ran out of juice. 33rd out of the 243 teams that started in the Master's division. A friendship that began on the other side of the globe at a hot finish line in Limon, Costa Rica, a bond baptized in the waters of the Caribbean Sea, took another leap forward. Amir challenged me as a race partner, he supported me at a friend, and he showed up consistently whether having a post-race meal or before-bed chat. We didn't talk during our daily massages, that's simply a bridge too far. Maybe next time? Maybe next year as it took less than 36 hours for us to commit to the best mtb race experience of our lives getting a second act. Cape Epic 2025. Registered, paid, and scheduled. See you in 11.5 months South Africa.

PHOTO: penguins at Boulder's Beach in Simon's Town.

Penguins, are you kidding me?! I've surely neared the end of you, the reader's, patience with my storytelling so let me be straight. I'm going to die. Unbelievable right? You know what? You are too. So with each breath I must wring out a maximum experience. Sure, we'd just finished 8 days of demanding racing but I wasn't looking for a day of relaxation back in Cape Town. We had 36 hours to be tourists. Fancy coffeeshops offset the eight mornings of Nescafe instant coffee. We walked out our used legs for necessary, recovery inducing blood flow. We saw things. Down at the Cape of Good Hope I got to tick off another continent's furthest point (the other was in Tierra del Fuego with Abbe in 2016 and the birthplace of our need to see penguins in the wild and the photo above was taken on a video call so she could be a part of this 8 year itch). Baboons cross the street like raccoons back home. Ostrich look huge in the wild but surprisingly small in the pouch of biltong I purchased at a local market. This first visit to South Africa proved to be another step forward. We'll be back next year. Abbe and Deb are coming along. I'm bringing the best mechanic in the world, my man Harley, as insurance against failure. The story never ends. If you want a role in an epic shoot me a message. Let's go ride really freaking fast.


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1 Comment

Another awesome write up! Thanks for sharing your experience!

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