Friday, 29 March 2013

Epic Tales (part 1!) : Setting the scene

"Dave? You all-right?"
"Yeah, you?"

Substitute the name for that of your team partner, and it wouldn't be far from the truth to say that this can be the extent of conversation amongst many teams for long periods during the tough stages of the Cape Epic. It's amazing how many versions of the answer there can be though. There's the "Yeah!" as in "I'm great thanks! I love this event! I love this place! I love riding my bike!", then there's the "Yeah" that says "I'm Ok but I'm working pretty hard so don't you dare try and push the pace any harder", or the "yeah" as in "I'm just about hanging on but please tell me this suffering will be over soon". Probably easiest to detect is the "yeah..." that you know doesn't mean yes at all. The one that sounds full of exhaustion, dejection, defeat and extreme discomfort at sitting on a saddle grinding up hills in the heat of the African sun all day, that is really saying "NO, I'm not bloody all-right, I'm tired, hot, fed-up and I hate this stupid event and my stupid bike". Fortunately I'm pleased to say I don't think either Dave or I reached that point during the race, although plenty of other teams did.

As I sit here writing this, relaxing with a coffee, the sun warm on my back, and a view of Table mountain to one side, and the ocean to the other, it feels like weeks since we were immersed in Cape Epic life...and yet the race only finished a few days ago. The last 3 days have been spent readjusting, re-entering reality, and coping with the post-race depression of realising that this world you have been a part of for 8 days is finished, all the adrenalin has gone, and you are back to being just another person walking around Cape Town...that's quite hard to adjust to. There's no more daily comeraderie between fellow riders, waking to the sound of bagpipes, sharing stories of the day's route over dinner in the marquee, queuing to fill water bottles for the following day's's not easy to explain to anyone who's not done an event like this, that takes over your life for a week or more...but the come-down after it's finished hits you hard.

I spent quite a lot of Monday and Tuesday crying...the adrenaline I'd been running on all week had gone, a week of long days and early starts had caught up with me, and I felt desperately sad that I wasn't sharing all my stories of the event with Gareth, and that we hadn't been there experiencing it together. The profound weight of sadness at his absence, and the void of emptiness in everyday life where he should be, that often creep up on me unexpectedly, slowly encompassed me again, and poor Laura, a friend from Uni who I haven't seen for a while, instead of being greeted with the jubilant Cape Epic survivor she expected, got a sobbing wreck needing a shoulder to cry on! Great company, a couple of relaxed evenings, and delicious food courtesy of Laura's partner Charlie worked it's magic, and I'm now smiling again, and enjoying the last rays of sunshine in Cape Town before I fly back to Siberia, sorry, Britain...

There is so much to write about the last couple of weeks, it truly has been an incredible event and experience...I guess I should start at the beginning...

After a very rushed couple of days between arriving back from my winter of work in Tenerife and packing everything needed to head out to South Africa, I somehow managed to make it to the airport on time, and arrived in Heathrow to meet an equally rushed looking Dave who had been busy with work up until the last minute. We arrived in Cape Town to rain, but the friendly taxi driver, who skillfully managed to get 2 bikes and two big bags and us into a car that definitely wasn't big enough for us, told us it wouldn't last, and he soon proved correct. Dave had found us an apartment that was plenty big enough for us to build up the bikes, and allow a major kit-explosion as we sorted what to take in our rider bags, and what could be left to pick up at the end.

A minor error on both our parts (due to failing to read beyond page 10 of the incredibly detailed event rules) had meant we'd overlooked rule 12 billion and one, part c, which stated "Both riders in a team must wear identical cycling jerseys at all times" Designed so that marshalls could easily tell whether riders were observing rule 14 million and three "Both riders in a team must be separated by no more than 2 minutes at any point during a stage" and also rule 10 zillion and two "Both riders must look professional at all times when riding, as we are streaming the event to thousands of viewers around the world, and do not want people to think we allow a load of complete amateurs to enter our highly prestigious event..." 
Actually, I made that one up, but we got the impression the rule about the jerseys was there to make sure all photo, video and TV footage of the event made it seem as prestigious as possible. So a shopping trip followed. Dave unfortunately vetoed my pink jersey, I said 'no way' to his choice of black (rubbish on photos!)

V & A Waterfront Cape Town, Table Mountain behind the cloud
Rider identity going back now!

Waiting for the Race Briefing

Scenic setting for the Race Briefing

Saturday brought the sunny weather we'd expected, and registration at the scenic, tourist hotspot of the V and A Waterfront, where the atmosphere was electric, with the buzz of racers milling around excitedly collecting bags, sponsors freebies, and picking up last minute race supplies. The lovely Kate, a friendly Australian volunteer who's partner Brendan was racing, was the one to register us and hand over all the race documents, and I think she could tell how excited I was by the huge grin on my face and the fact I was taking pictures of everything! Hers was to become a familiar and welcome face at Waterpoint 3 each day, as she and hundreds of other volunteers worked as hard as the riders to ensure everything ran like clockwork behind the scenes.
The race briefing followed, then it was a busy afternoon of repacking, checking bikes, carbo-loading on pizza, and turning in early for a dawn start the next morning, not that I actually slept much.....too much nervous energy coursing through my veins!

A taxi early the next morning took us to the prologue venue, at the majestic Meerendal wine Estate. The prologue was in the form of a 22km ride with 700m climbing, designed to be fast and fun, and to seed riders into starting groups for the following day.
By the time we arrived there were already teams out riding, but our start time of 10;15 meant we weren't going to be afforded the luxury of a cool shady morning ride, and the sun was already feeling hot. I was so nervous I felt sick, there were TV cameras, journalists, film crews, supporters, other riders, trade stands, mechanics etc everywhere, and it felt like forever before it was our turn to ride.
Dave at the start/finish gantry

Getting ready to go

Prologue village panorama

Once we did get going, it was from a raised stage, with cameras pointed at you, your name announced to the crowds over the start system, and those dreaded start beeps that make you spine tingle with nervousness and was a relief to finally push off and just start pedalling. immediately the noise of everything around you just melts away and it's just you, your bike, your partner, and the trail in front of you...
A few minutes into the race we were sent through the hall of the estate manor house, and down the front steps onto the lawn! I'd promised to ride behind Dave to film him on the GoPro, but when we got there he hesitated at the top, and I nipped round the side of him in case he decided he wasn't going to ride them....he did though, sorry Dave! The fun continued with lots of fast, dusty singletrack climbing and descending, berms, bombholes and jumps, and a fast-rolling surface. The incredible 360 degree views of famous landmarks like Table Mountain, Robben Island and Cape Point made the climbs pass quickly. Supporters lined the course as it wound through picturesque vineyards, and because each rider had their name on their back, it was motivating and uplifting to hear people cheering you on personally as you passed.

Taking the trickier but more direct lines at optional sections was met with cheers of approval from the crowd, especially as a girl (!), and my droppy seatpost meant I could race through the hand-crafted swoopy downhill sections having the maximum amount of fun possible, limited only be the teams ahead that I'd caught up. I was having so much fun I had to keep reminding myself to check and make sure I hadn't lost Dave.....having not spent a winter abroad riding fast loose corners, doing races to practice cheeky overtaking lines, and a nasty injury whilst descending on his bike last year, he was understandably being slightly more cautious (and probably sensible) than me and taking his time to get used to the different surface. I think we both enjoyed ourselves a lot though, and finished roughly where we'd expected to, in the middle of the mixed category, and most importantly, we felt strong and the bikes were working well, ready for the start of the main race.

The end of the prologue brought our introduction to a few of the fantastic race services that separate the Cape Epic from other stage races, and that we were to become accustomed to... On crossing the line, our bikes were taken from us to be washed, we were handed cold, wet towels to drape around our necks and cool us down, given bags of food, milkshakes and cold drinks and shepherded to a covered shady area to cool down, recover and chat to fellow racers from around the world...nice!
A coach drive to Citrusdahl, a small farming town at the foot of the grand Cedarberg Mountain Range, brought us to our first race village. Once again, I was a little overwhelmed by the scale of this event.

Rider tents

Race Village signpost!

Thousands of red rider tents, an equal number of volunteer tents, dozens of portaloos with an army of staff to keep them clean, showers and changing cubicles with an organized electronic queuing system, a laundry van, a rider lounge marquee with white leather sofas, TVs and a bar full of cold water and Energade, an ice bath area, dozens of trade stands and mechanic workshop areas, a massage marquee, a mediclinic marquee, a HUGE dining marquee with a stage, tables and seating for 1200 riders, a bar area, free wifi network and charging station, secure bike park area, media crew area ...I could go was massive!
Other than the overwhelming scale of the race village, my first impressions of Citrusdahl were that it was hot, very hot....a little worrying knowing that we had a long day of riding ahead and we'd be out in that heat all day.
Enjoying a tasty buffet dinner in the marquee that evening, we were serenaded by a local teenage girl group who had selected a repertoire of songs filled with the words "Climb", "mountain", "Don't give up" etc etc.... a cheesy but fun way to end the day.

Christoph Sauser and Olympic Champion Jaraslov Kulhavy take the Yellow Jerseys

The stage category winners were announced and leaders' jerseys presented, and then a tribute video to Burry Stander, previous winner of the race, and South Africa's biggest XC star, who died earlier in the year after being hit by a taxi whilst out on a training ride. It was moving and very hard to watch, reminding me so much of Gareth....two young men, both obsessed with riding bikes, although at different levels, both passionate about their sports and with a huge love of life, fun and adventure, taken away from those of us who loved them far too soon. More than a few quiet tears were shed,  both then and whilst lying in my tent that evening. It was a reminder though, that like I'm sure Burry's spirit was there and felt by every person out riding the event, especially his wife, brother and father, I knew Gareth was going to feel close when I needed him to, and he'd be there too when I was smiling and having fun, in the way I know he'd have wanted me too.

It's not every day you get to share a dining hall with the world's elite, reigning and past Olympic and World champions, pro riders and celebrities. Everyone sharing tables, meeting others from around the world and talking about biking. It was a very special atmosphere and one I felt privileged to be experiencing.
I went to bed that night feeling confident and ready to take on anything the Cape Epic could throw at us....or so I thought....

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