Cape Epic 2023

Cape Epic 2023

March 18th – Day 1

Today started earlyish, I decided to set my alarm to 6:30am to start setting my body clock for the pre-dawn starts ahead of us this week.  Not sure it was necessary, at breakfast we couldn’t eat anything as we were still full from the night before, which was frustrating as the buffet was world class.  We were then picked up by Nick Lamond, our man on the ground here in South Africa.  We’d never met Nick before but were put in touch with him under high recommendation, turns out he’s a legend, I knew this when I saw he has the same bike as me, a Yeti SB115.  

This brings me to equipment: I’m riding my Yeti SB100, it’s been converted to 115 rear travel with a handlebar lockout (thank you Cyclosphera, my local shop in Banyoles).  This is perhaps not the first choice for Cape Epic as it’s more trail orientated than cross-country; I don’t care, I love it.  When I got into mountain biking in the early 1990’s (this is what led me to road racing) my dream bike was a Yeti and my hero was John Tomac.  Yeti were the real deal, rare beasts, and way beyond what I could afford.  In 2019, I bought myself a mountain bike, 27yrs after selling my last mountain bike to purchase my first road bike, it had to be a Yeti, the dream finally fulfilled.  Frances is riding a Factor Lando XC, a beautiful machine, about the best you can get, and perfect for Cape Epic.  

As for kit, we’re fully CHPT3’d up: Cargo Shorts and Aero Jersey being the outfit of choice, with Henley’s as an option.  We have kit for every day, packed into individual bags in order to keep things hyper organised, I thought this was slightly mad, but it was an inspired idea that was shared with us and which made total sense when packing the Camping Car (or is it called a Mobile Home, I never know?).  POC helmets, glasses, gloves, back packs, and Fizik shoes, nothing new there as I always wear POC and fizik, but this was an opportunity to upgrade to new stuff so we were box fresh, race-ready and matching.  We’re MILLARTIME after all, we have to look the part, I’m enforcing my strict aesthetic standards on my sister.

We collected our camping car first thing in the morning and bumped into the Digger and the Doughboy team aka Mitch Docker and Ian Boswell.  We ended up queuing for an age, so got to chat about life the universe and everything and our shared trepidation about what we were getting ourselves into, I recorded some serendipitous pod action for NSF.  Then we were off to the Cape Epic village to register and collect numbers, the size of the operation is impressive, it’s a logistical master-piece and gave Frances the fear, she’s been riding an emotional roller-coaster for weeks, and asks me at least twice a day if she’s going to be able to do it.  She can definitely do it.

We rode the first climb of tomorrow’s opening stage, it’s grippy, we chose discretion over valour and didn’t go beyond it, instead getting a picture with Table Top mountain slightly visible in the distance, contrary to our failed tourist attempt yesterday where it was just a grey cloud.  Box ticked. 

For nutrition France tapped up her old contact from her CEO days at Team INEOS, their former Head of Nutrition, James Morton.  He is now the Director of Performance Solutions at Science in Sport.  There’s no doubt we need a solution, and so France has nutrition packs labelled for each day with precise fuel loadings we anticipate needing.  I have to say, I feel like France is CEOing this trip to win the Tour de France, as the level of organisation and planning is beyond anything I ever knew when racing professionally.  We’re oozing winning behaviour, or as France put it after finishing unpacking and sorting her OCD like system into our mobile home for the week, “See, reducing cognitive load.”

We got back to the hotel in the afternoon and sat on my bed and watched Milan Sanremo from 154km out, which is heroic in itself, although it was made enjoyable by the fact Ned was commentating on the race here in South Africa.  Which was kind of surreal as I felt like I should join in.  France almost fainted with excitement when Pogačar, Ganna, Wout and MvDP went off the front on the Poggio, especially as she’d asked me on the Cipressa if any of them had ever won it before and found out they hadn’t, I think she manifested it.  Then we both nearly lost it when MvDP attacked, France was constantly taking time checks on the descent, “One thousand two thousand three thousand four thousand five thousand six thousand, he has SIX SECONDS!” I was worried about MvDP holding my favourite pro status as Remco was bike length behind and coming up fast in my estimation, yet that’s over, Remco has lost ground, MvDP has taken a huge lead in my personal favouritism.  I feel warm and fuzzy about it, although I’m worried it was maybe too much emotion for France ahead of tomorrow, I’m not sure it was the best thing for her…

March 19th – Cape Epic Prologue

I write this sitting outside our camper in the Cape Epic compound, we got here relatively early on as this was perhaps the “easiest” day because of the shorter distance, although to say it was easy riding would not be accurate.  We drove south east for an hour and a half to Hermanus (famous for whale spotting) and our base camp for the next three nights.  We parked up in a prime spot and reserved a place next door for Digger and the Doughboy aka Mitch Docker and Ian Boswell, former road pro’s roadies who are here for the adventure.  They finished the day first place in their category and will be adorning the leader’s jersey for the amateur competition, they feel a bit guilty about this, but a win’s a win and to top it off they have the leaders jersey for the amateur competition.  This is a big deal because neither of them have worn a leader’s jersey before.  They were so unprepared for this that they don’t have logo’s to supply the organiser to print on the jerseys, well they did, as they’ve made loads of stickers (they’ve covered their camper in them…) and have merch, but their logo is white and apparently that won’t work.  What can I say?  Amateurs…

France and I got on very well, averaged 14.2km/h, when we had very conservatively put 11km/h as our predicted speed to be safe in our start ranking.  We were far from last of the mixed team competitors, which is banging.  France got lots of cheers, there aren’t that many females here relative to the male contingent and those that are held in great respect and admiration.  The support helped massively.  In fact the whole vibe here is so different to what I’m accustomed to in the road scene, we were sitting around outside our campers discussing this.  It feels like everybody here is relaxed and having fun, even in face of the epic nature of the event.  It’s a vibe that lifts the spirit and makes you feel part of the race no matter what speed you’re doing.  The road scene is often more intimidating and hierarchal, I’m not against that, as I loved it and what I know best, yet I can’t help but feel every roadie would benefit from spending time in the MTB world.  

This conversation led us on to another subject: gravel.  Everybody is going nuts about it, yet is it that different to road?  Mitch and I were discussing this over dinner, and we both agreed that in essence gravel is very similar to road, it’s as if the whole road scene has taken a step sideways and gravel exists in parallel without much difference in culture and community.  This is a controversial point of view, as the gravel scene paints a picture of it being a rebellion splinter group, but is it?  After all, road cycling’s origin is gravel, all the most famous road races that exist now, the grand tours and monuments, were once gravel races.  Mountain biking on the other hand genuinely was a splinter group, rebelling against the confines of everything road cycling represented.  Anyway, I love it all, and it’s interesting mixing in the different scenes, meeting different people and riding different styles, it just shows what an amazing sport cycling is, there are options for everybody. 

We’re sorting our camper out now and getting ready for bed, bagpipes will be waking us up at dawn, then it’s 98km and 2500m of climbing on the menu.  It’s going to be a tough day, France has not been reassured by her performance, no matter how often I answer her forever Cape Epic question, “I’m going to be fine, right?”  She’s going to be fine.

March 20th / 21st – Cape Epic Stage 1 & 2 

Everybody has been warning us about the risk of sickness at Cape Epic, this isn’t surprising, after all there are 1500 mountain bikers coming from all parts of the world, it’s carries super-spreader potential.  Saying that the organisation is very disciplined on hygiene.  This did not prevent me falling sick on STAGE BLOODY ONE.  I didn’t feel pitch perfect in the morning, yet didn’t dwell on it, but about an hour and half into the stage I felt properly squiffy, and it went downhill from there.  By about the halfway point I lacked the strength to pull the skin off custard, it was horrific, and I had a lot of time to think about things and I came to the conclusion I was enduring a day that ranked in my top ten worst ever days on  bike.  

Frances was nursing me home, with the occasional words of encouragement, “Come on, buddy.”  I couldn’t even answer, I couldn’t find the energy to talk, and I even lost the ability to descend, missing corners and taking the wrong lines, I was barely present.  After crossing the finish-line I lay on the floor in a near foetal position not caring what people thought.  I picked myself up and dragged my sorry state to the showers, then climbed into my bed in the camper van and didn’t leave it till the start of today’s stage.  I hadn’t been able to eat anything, I forced carbo drinks down me in the hope of extracting some fuel for my body.  I was broken.  

I could tell Frances was worried, especially when I went into a fever later in the evening, partly because I’m her brother and she doesn’t like seeing my sick, but mostly because we’ve put a lot into this and it would be a crying shame if it was over barely after starting.  We rolled to the start line not knowing what to expect, as it turned out I felt much better, and over the course of the day I got better and better, and as I type this I’m feeling almost normal, although my perception of normal is somewhat skewed thanks to my existential crisis yesterday.  This has reminded me of why sometimes going deep can be of value, it allows us to appreciate normality all the more, because normal is an exceptionally good place, and that can often be forgotten or over-looked.  Granted, resetting that baseline can be very uncomfortable, I guess that’s why we do it.

I managed to make it out the camper for dinner, Digger and the Doughboy joined us, my head was mostly resting on the table while waiting for the pasta to arrive. I was going to write more, but now I feel terrible and my brain has stopped working again.  Tomorrow’s stage starts in eleven hours and 40 minutes.  I’m going to sleep in the hope I’ll feel better when I wake up, and actually sleep this time contrary to last night where I felt I was in some sort of dreamland between the land of the living and the not so living.

March 22nd – Cape Epic Stage 3

It’s Thursday morning, I’m sitting outside our camper getting some fresh air.  I literally just heard Mitch Docker say, from inside his camper, “I actually don’t want to ride my bike today.  I can’t believe it’s only Stage 4.”  They’re still leading the amateur competition, even though they set off in yesterday’s stage with the intention of letting the lead go, only to have their main competition ride themselves into the ground before the first climb and making it impossible for them not to drop them.  From inside our camper there is a similarly unhappy bunny in my sister, a few phrases I’ve heard her say in the past 24hrs:

“We’re not going to make the delay.” At least four times in yesterday’s stage, to which I would reply each time, “This is an irrational fear, you need to stop it.”

“Why does anybody do this more than once?”

“I don’t even know why we’re doing this.”

“I feel awful.”

“I don’t know how I’m going to do this, can I do this?”

“Sorry!” About a thousand times.

“My back hurts.”

“My neck hurts.”

“My hand doesn’t work anymore, it will work again, right?” Her finger is locked in a weird position.

“My lip has swollen.” Her lower lip is huge.

First thing she said this morning from bed, “I know this is wholly inappropriate and a horrible thing to say, but this must be what war is like.”

A little recap on what we’ve done so far:

  • Prologue: 27km TT 800m – 1hr 54mins
  • Stage 1:: 95km 2600m – 7hrs 4mins
  • Stage 2: 116km 1900m – 7hrs 54mins
  • Stage 3: 99km 2100m – 7hrs 30mins

Most of this has been done on single track.  For anybody who has ridden a mountain bike they will know how hard and slow that is, France is doing amazingly, some of this stuff is hardcore.  I’ve seen her climb things that experienced looking men, because it’s mostly men here, are getting off and walking.  The overall technicality is tricky, nothing horrendous but relentless all the same, momentary loss of concentration and you’re down, especially in the sand, which there’s been a lot of the past few days.  She’s come down about five times, banging her shoulder once, falling down a bank into bushes another, she’s got up immediately every time and said in an almost tourettes like fashion, “I’m fine!”  When clearly she’s shaken.  She is one tough cookie.

As for me I’m in my own wars with my never-ending stomach issues, I felt a little better on Tuesday evening and managed to get the last diary out, but then after yesterday’s stage I was in bed again cramping and unable to eat.  On Mitch’s recommendation I went to the medic tent, it’s like MASH in there, it’s essentially a mini-hospital in the compound, all very swanky and hyper professional.  Laying on the stretcher after being checked in I felt very happy, my old familiarity of being completely at peace in a hospital knowing I’m going to get looked after and the journey to feeling better is beginning.  They have given me a prescription for gut anti-biotics which we’re getting today as they believe I have some bacterial infection.  On the bright side I am ripping up big time, I’m going to look like a pro when I leave here, although I did get a shock when I looked in the mirror and saw my gaunt face and grey stubble.  I looked old, which I’m cool with, but it’s quite different to how I looked before coming here.  Hey-ho, par for the course and all that. 

Mitch just walked out and said, “CBF!” The old Aussie pro saying, Can’t Be F*cked!”  They’re off in 20mins to begin today’s TT.  I’m going to go and record a bit for their own podcasts, Mitch’s is LIFE IN THE PELOTON, and Ian’s is BREAKFAST WITH BOZ.  They’re chronicling their whole experience as well, I’m tyring to get soundbites here and there for NEVER STRAYS FAR, but the sickness has knocked me for six and my creativity and will to live beyond the basic necessities of life.  Hopefully when the anti-biotics kick in that will change.

France and I have been sporting the CHPT3 Aero Jersey and Cargo Shorts for each day, alternating between Fire Red/Green and Outer Space Blue.  I’m so proud of the kit, it’s working exceptionally under extreme conditions, and I have to say we deserve the “Prix d’Élégance” if there was one because we look damn good and the performance is next level.  I know I’m not well though, because I’m not cleaning France’s white shoes and allowing her to ride in them dirty, this is a clear sign of my unwellness… Right, onwards, upwards.

March 23rd – Cape Epic Stage 4

I finished yesterday’s entry sitting outside the camper waxing lyrical about the travelling wilburys that are my sister and Mitch Docker.  Both of them were whinging like there was no today, let alone tomorrow, as it turns out they were both fine (ish in my sister’s case).  Digger and the Doughboy joined Nic, France and I in the camper for dinner as we dare not risk leaving our mini-enclosure, and it was all rainbows and unicorns, albeit the reason we were all cramped in the camper was because it was raining cats and dogs outside.  The weather closed in shortly after we finished the stage and has only got worse, we’re not even sure if the camper will make it out the field in the morning.  To be honest that’s the least of our concerns right now.

As for Stage 4, it was a 47km mostly single-track time trial.  France’s spirits were not high (understatement of the year) at the start, it was like having Eeyore as my riding partner.  I’m not bothered about in the slightest.  Having been a pro cyclist I am very accustomed to this type of character metamorphosis, it happens to the best of us, particularly in stage races.  Grand Tours are the perfect environment to initiate this phenomenon, and the Cape Epic is essentially a Grand Tour.  The cherry on top of this misery cake was the fact that the organisation had decided to dedicate a media crew to follow us for the duration of the time trial.  We had to do a pre-race interview and it was a a joy to watch France have to try and pull it together when I knew exactly what she was thinking.  Knowing the state she was in I held back from saying, “Now you know what it was like when you had to nurture pro cyclists in front of journalists…”. I figured that would not have gone down well, and also I haven’t got a foot to stand on as my day of shame on Stage 1 is still vividly fresh in my mind.

The first few kilometres were on single track weaving in and out and up and down through woods, France was not a happy bunny, “Why is there so much f*cking SINGLE TRACK!”  I could hear shreaking from about 30m behind me.  Then we came out onto a fire road and there was a motorbike with a cameraman waiting, she was stoked about that too, and kept blaming me for it, “Motorbike is here for you David.”  To which I would repeatedly gently point out, “It’s here for us.”  This was her idea and the title ended up being CEO and Ex-Pro, so there.

About 5km further down the road I was scooting down a nice little snaking berm track with the motorbike filming when I instinctively cut the final corner to squeeze through a gate.  I don’t know why I did this (probably the camera), I forgot the old truck and trailer mentality, France being the trailer and relying on my trucking to lead her, she followed me and hit an off-camber gravel section and slapped down, quite hard.  I felt terrible, dumped my bike and went running back terrified she’d hurt herself badly.  Thankfully she hadn’t, but still, not ideal.  From then things got worse.  Obviously her confidence got knocked out of Africa, and it took a while for her to get her mojo back.  I won’t sugar coat it, it got emotional out there, and that’s where it will stay, but she stomped on and I’m getting strong enough to push her in some sections which is considered completely par for the course here at the Epic, most mixed teams do it and it makes total sense as it balances out the effort, and it’s fun. Today is the first day I could do it as I’ve been so weak until now, although even taking that into account there’s not been much opportunity as it’s mostly single-track, and most of the fire roads end up being single-track anyway as they’re battered, so we take what we can get.  

Once again France was showing her stellar climbing ability, she’s a proper puncheur on the little spikey technical climbs, it’s impressive.  We finished in a thousand times better spirits than when we started, I say we, Frances mostly.  I had a great day.

Turns out Digger and the Doughboy had their first domestic out on the trail today, Digger (Mitch) ran amok all over the Doughboy (Ian).  To put it in Digger’s words, “Fat classics rider outclimbing the Boz!” Doughboy then regaled us with how he’d been hung out in the headwind section on his own while Digger was sitting on the back of the group ahead casually looking behind waiting for him to make it back on.  This was not in the spirit of solidarity and it was all handbags at dawn by the time Doughboy made it back.  Once again they managed to win their category, so Stage 5 is their big chance to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  I’ll believe it when I see it. 

March 24th – Cape Epic Stage 5

Well today was the most emotional of the Epic to date, in the words of Frances, “The worst day of my life.”  I believe her, I witnessed it first-hand, up close, in real-time.  It was brutal out there, I don’t think I’ve ever ridden a bike over such wild terrain.  I was pretty chill before the start as the route info indicated more fire roads than single track for a change, yet the fire roads were not exactly roads, and there was no chance of fire as they were essentially rivers.  The torrential rain from the previous afternoon/evening had stopped, it’s aftermath was biblical.  Check this out:

It wasn’t pretty from the get-go, and I mean from when we got up.  France once again had slipped into a melancholic state and Nic and I realised we needed to get the camper moving asap as there was a strong chance it wouldn’t make it as the ground was so sodden.  We set to it, packing quickly and leaving our gazebo to be fetched once we were out the field of doom.  We thought we’d beaten the panic, but within a minute we encountered three campers stuck in the mud, escape failure, we took a detour, me walking ahead like an aircraft marshaller.  We found unbroken grass between two rows of tents and threaded the needle, we ended up being the last camper out, all others needing to be towed.  On securing our exit Nic and I were euphoric with our success, I opened the camper door to share the moment with Frances, she was sat at the breakfast table eating toast and simply looked at me blankly, totally indifferent to the scale and skill of our accomplishment, and simply said, “Glad I got my toast before you unplugged the camper.” She was not euphoric.

There’s a lot I could write about today, too much for my tired body and mind to recount, so I’ll focus on the highlights.  The first three hours saw us cover a miserable 21km, mostly uphill, at the bottom it was just “normal” wet and muddy, there were puddle-ponds galore, which at the time seemed bad, yet little did we know what awaited us.  The higher we got the more nostalgic I got for where we had been.  The “fire roads” were more like riverbeds, rocks strewn and water rushing down.  Slow going doesn’t come close to describing it.  Yet it wasn’t as slow as it got, the final 2km were so steep that EVERYBODY around us walked, I couldn’t face this, so I just rode up on my own through it all figuring I’d wait for France at the top.  This was not a good idea. 

When France finally made it up she was a mental milkshake, “Don’t leave me again, I found that really hard on my own.”  Copy that.  There was short-lived joy when she discovered we had actually reached the summit, but that probably lasted three to five seconds, because the descent was even worse than the climb.  I’d have been sketched out doing my own thing, but with France it was amplified to earth shaking gravitas.  She fell off once, I learnt this from a random and rather uncaring gentleman who came by me and said, “Your partner is having a dirt nap.”  F*CK!  I slammed on my brakes and shouted back to her, she crept down to me and was not in a good way, this was the way she remained for the rest of the NEVER ENDING hellscape of a descent.  

There was a moment where she lost her shit big time about forgetting her sweets, I don’t think I’ve seen that in forty years.  There was also a moment where she needed nature’s call and considered just doing it on the bike, her will to live was gone, yet she managed to find an inkling of self-respect and held off to the feed zone portaloo.  We then hit single track, that led us to a ravine which we all had to walk down, it’s a historical monument, where the Dutch fled the British in the 1600’s and had ox drawn carts climb the ravine, in another state of mind I’d go into a tangent here, but I don’t have the mental capacity currently. We walked for 15mins down rocks and rushing water.  We still had 30km to go. 

We were now a little concerned about the nine hour thirty minute cut-off, thankfully the fire roads became exactly that, and there was room for me to do some turbo boosting.  I felt great.  Long story short, we made it with 45mins. Nic was at the finish line and France fell into his arms and cried.  She then cried in the camper, and then shed a tear at the corporate event the organisers asked us to attend, to massive applause and adulation.  Now we’re in our camper, and have found out it’s going to rain tomorrow, and it’s one of the hardest stages.  Two days to go.

March 25th – Cape Epic Stage 6

As dawn broke Nic opened the camper door and said, “The mountains look like Mordor.”  Awesome.  France and I didn’t even bother confirming this, we believed him, feels like we’ve been on a Hobbit’s journey this past week, here be dragons etc.  We had an inkling it was going to be a rough day, our wildest nightmares wouldn’t have delivered what we lived.

It was lightly raining from the start, but it wasn’t cold, so we didn’t take rain jackets.  Why, oh why, did we not take rain jackets?  It was a terrible mistake and I spent the whole stage battling with regret and self-hate for not being over-prepared when we had our CHPT3 Rain Repellers safely zipped up in our rain bag in the camper.  Even now as I write this I’m angry at myself.  The first climb lulled us into a false sense of security, the fire roads were actually fire roads rather than the Arenberg on amphetamines we experienced yesterday.  That first hour was as good as it got, the following seven hours were purgatory, Dantesque in scale.

The wind was howling, and the clouds were black and closing in all around us, the rain started to fall heavier, it felt like we were approaching Mount Doom.  Then it happened, quite suddenly, trails and fire roads alike began to disappear and become more water than ground.  Worse than this, the ground was melting into mud; thick, runny, sticky mud.  Single tracks were becoming unrideable, as were the fire roads.  At 17km we hit a stretch of uphill fire road that was basically treacle, almost everybody was walking up it, Frances amazingly was one of the few persevering riding.  It must have taken us 15mins to get up it, with the smallest gear turning slowly and wheel slipping and sliding we were only just faster than the pedestrian traffic, but we didn’t give up.  At the top there were dozens of riders stopped with mechanical problems.  Frances had her own problem, having attracted so much mud that her whole drivetrain was blocked up, her back tyre was also clogged up, I told her to lift it up so she could see the weight of the wheel she’d been turning.  She didn’t care.  I emptied my water bottle to clean the chain and rear mech and then we were back on our way, with a miserable acceptance that yesterday will not go down as the hardest day of this year’s Cape Epic.

We stopped at the first water stop, I have a blurry memory of it feeling like it was shrouded in cloud, with pouring rain and strong wind.  We refilled and carried on climbing.  Then the descent began, a single-track stream, France upped her game after I told her she wasn’t allowed to let other riders by, she even caught the riders ahead.  Back in the game.  This was brief lived, before long things got worse.  Everything was deteriorating and we were soaked through, covered in mud and cold.  We eventually made it to the next feed, again it was raining, windy and now felt like we were in a scene from Hound of the Baskervilles.  We learnt the delay had been extended to 8hrs because of the conditions, the man on the PA told us that there was a chance the stage might be shortened as well, this planted a horrible, and as it turned out, a useless seed of hope.  We were freezing, as was everybody, so they were handing out black bin bags.  I only saw this as I was leaving the zone and grabbed two for France and I as I’d told her to start while I got my chain oiled, I’d already done hers.  I caught her up and we stopped and fashioned our rain jackets.  France put hers on over her head before I’d even cut holes, “Just so you know where my head is.”  Which even then seemed a stupid thing to say, as I didn’t need to be a Saville Row tailor to work out how to fit it for her.  

Aesthetics no longer mattered, we didn’t care what we looked like, we were in survival mode.  As it turned out the bin bags were things of wonder.  It might have been over-compensation in appreciation of not being cold, but I have to say, they worked insanely well and stayed on for the next five hours producing world class performance.  Although I will never do it again, ever.  As for those next five hours, they produced some of the most epic “cycling” I’ve ever experienced.  We ended up pushing our bikes for what must have been kilometres as trails became unrideable, in fact they were barely walkable.  I will have imprinted in my memory forever the scene of people snaking up the side of a mountain like tired, trudging soldiers uncomfortably pushing their bikes.  We were in the trenches.  Our feet would disappear into the mud and every so often somebody would lose their footing and fall over, they didn’t ask for help, we each dealt with our destiny in our own way.  France weathered the storm better today, she is no longer questioning anything or over-thinking, she has become one with The Suck.

We finally made it to the final climb, thankfully it was rideable and I was able to apply the Cape Epic pushing move, we made time, which we needed to as we had no buffer.  We also knew the whole descent was single track and would be a slip-slop-slide travesty, so we’d be going slow.  As we entered the first switchback I heard France scream, “I HAVE NO BRAKES!”  Oh shit.  I jumped off my bike and told her to take mine, we’re running dropper posts so it would be rideable for her.  I jumped on hers, and sure enough she had no back brake and the front was out of pads but worked enough.  Ironically it now felt I was on a Hobbit bike, welcome to Mordor, it certainly made the descent more interesting.  I rode it all the way to the finish and I don’t think anybody even noticed everybody was so cross-eyed.  We rolled straight through the finish line, France finally released herself from The Suck mindset and realised what she’d just done and returned to emotional milkshake state and didn’t want to stop as she might cry or more likely, punch somebody.  She definitely might have punched somebody, I saw a lovely lady from the organisation come running to congratulate her, fortunately Frances didn’t even slow down, otherwise I’d have had to dive in front of her like a presidential bodyguard to prevent her from coming to harm.

We got back to the camper and were received with the greatest of pride and admiration from Mitch Docker, who confirmed with conviction how savage the day had been, shortly afterwards Ian Boswell arrived with pizza for us.  We collapsed on the grass, still in our bin bag and backpack, and ate the best pizza in the world.  Digger and the Doughboy rule.  

We’re both exhausted now, but that’s okay, especially as the word in the compound is that today might have been the hardest Cape Epic stage ever, and the race as a whole is already being considered as the hardest ever.  There’s still tomorrow though, god only knows what awaits us.

March 26th – Cape Epic Final Stage

We did it, yet not without our usual travails.  Sitting in the camper before the start, while eating her toast, France shed a tear or two. They were tears of acceptance that she was going to be getting back on her mountain bike to spend another day battling herself, but also of fear that the mechanical or serious crash we’d avoided could still happen so close to the finish.  I assured her we’d be fine and ordered her not to get confident in her descending skills, on this, the final day.  We were to assume a zero-risk strategy, all we needed to do was nurse ourselves home within the delay.  

Within 500m of leaving the start line she had a rear flat.  Fortunately, it was an easy fix and we got going, not without a bit of emotion, I got my pushing on and we caught back up to the riders we’d started with.  We didn’t panic, and even if we had it would have been wasted as we had to stand at the top of the first climb for nearly 10mins as there was a huge bottle neck on to the single track.  All the climbing was in the first 50km, then it was downhill and flat to the finish, there was a lot of climbing, contrary to the previous day it was nearly all rideable.  It was still a hard day, although in comparison to the previous two days it was a walk in the park, especially as the sun had come out and the wind had dropped.  It was the weather we had foolishly anticipated having for the whole week, and it made things so much simpler.

We crossed the line and met Nic, he got a picture of us hugging and then guided us through to get our medals and food boxes, then we collapsed on the grass amongst the hundreds of other finishers.  I asked France how she felt, “Underwhelmed, I feel really underwhelmed.  I don’t even know why we did that?” She was genuinely shocked and I think a little disappointed by this.  It’s explicable though: she’d been through so much the previous eight days, not to mention the weeks and months before, that it being over was a huge release.  The mission was complete, the job was done.  She’d grown so accustomed to existing in anxiety and fear that having it all evaporate at once on crossing the finish line must have left her feeling normal again, which is a weird feeling when you’ve been living at the bleeding edge of your existence for a prolonged period of time.  I’m very accustomed to this feeling and forgot that Frances wasn’t.  We chase the goal then the moment it’s accomplished we have a gaping hole that it once filled.  It can be a jarring sensation, a mixture of emptiness and relief contrary to the elation and pride we expect; it does come, just not often in the moment.

We didn’t bother showering, we waited to get our bikes cleaned though, then Nic drove us to our hotel where we emptied the camper and packed our bikes in the forecourt.  We were staying at probably the best hotel in Cape Town, our camper was parked out the front next to a Ferrari.  I’m pretty sure it’s the first time they’ve had an arrival like ours, we genuinely couldn’t have cared less, and it showed.  All we wanted to do was get out the camper and into our rooms, to shower properly, and lay in a real bed with clean white sheets.  

We met Digger and Doughboy down in the bar once we’d got ourselves sorted, we felt like ourselves again, it’s amazing how good it felt being properly clean and back in civilisation, away from the compound.  That was one of the things that makes Cape Epic so special, it’s eight days of total immersion, there is no engagement with the outside world, you’re surrounded by people who are going through the same extreme physical and emotional stress.  We had slidden back into the “real” world, as if nothing had happened.

Yet a lot had happened, and over dinner we got talking about it.  Nic and his wife, Amanda, and 7yr old son, Sam, joined us.  Mitch asked us to share our highs and lows of the week, Ian refined this and got us to play rose/bud/thorn.  I’d never heard of this, yet it’s lovely, and something I’ll be doing with the kids when home.  The rose is the beautiful part, the bud is what you’re looking forward to, the thorn is self-explanatory.  I won’t recount all, but what’s interesting is we all found something identical in our rose, and it was about doing it together.  

Nic, France and I had bumped into Mitch and Ian when collecting our camper the day before Cape Epic began, we didn’t even know they were doing it, and I hadn’t seen Mitch since he’d returned home to Australia from Girona. From that moment on we were always together, perhaps not always in body but always in spirit, we were at different ends of the race after all.  Yet the boys said that even when they were out on the course they’d be thinking about us and what we were going to have to deal with, then when they finished they’d be following us willing us and waiting for us to return.  Similarly France and I would always be imagining how Digger and the Doughboy were getting on at the front of their race, and would look forward to getting back and hearing their war stories. Our campers were always together. Then we’d spend the brief time we had before going to bed in each other’s company.  

That’s not all, we all questioned whether we could have done it, or would have done it, on our own.  We all agreed no.  The magic was in doing it as a team of two, it brought more meaning and commitment to the experience.  My sister added to this and shared something she hadn’t mentioned before, yet deep down I knew.  When she’d decided to do Cape Epic back in October she had done it more for me than for herself.  She was worried about me, she could see I’d stopped caring about myself, that I was burning out, that I had lost my way.  She had tried everything to help me, but nothing was sinking in, I was fading away and she was really scared about the direction I was going in.  She decided that maybe getting me back on the bike would help me, by choosing to do Cape Epic she knew I’d have no choice to join her as I’d want to make sure she got through it.  She wanted to help me, by pushing me to do something I’d have never done on my own.  

It’s strange how we never spoke about this, yet both knew it, by pushing her I was pulling myself back.  I was reminded of why I got into cycling in the first place, it had all started with mountain biking back in 1991, when the bike was my escape and my freedom.  I had no sponsors, no reputation, no attention, no scarring.  It was all fun and friends, and I got to push myself on my own terms and discover so much about what I was capable of.  I had no idea how far the bike would take me and what it would do for and to me.  They were good times, I had loved it so much, and I’d forgotten that.  My pro cycling life has given and taken so much, and I’d forgotten what had been there before all of that.  I was just a kid on a bike having fun.  My sister knew he was still in there, and she put herself through Cape Epic to help me rediscover him again.  Thank you, France, for putting yourself through hell to find me.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot