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RIDER REVIEW : Taming the Untamed – My ABSA Cape Epic Week!

Our resident blogger Nicki Sutherland recently took on her 1st ABSA Cape Epic race. She shares her highs and lows and gives some great tips for all aspiring riders who want to conquer the untamed. Well done Nicki and thank you for sharing your incredible story with us.

It’s funny how the universe conspires to align things for us, often when we are just about to give up.

I heard about the Cape Epic more than 5 years ago while in the US. One of my racing friends caught wind of it and mentioned it to me. Him and I talked about riding it together one day. Of course at that time I had no idea that I’d be moving back to South Africa, but when I did, I joked that one of the reasons was to do the Cape Epic! But life happened, and the reality of how hard it is to get an entry, combined with the expense involved, made me question whether it was worth the “investment”. So I shelved the idea but the allure never quite went away.

Photo : David Damp

Last year I spent most of my year trail running until I won an entry in August to Tankwa Trek 2018. I reached out to my friend Michelle and asked her if she could help me get off the couch and onto my bike. So we started “Operation Accountability”. She put together a training plan and ensured that I was logging some riding time. Who knew that that would turn into our Epic ride together!

In December she mentioned to me that she’d lost her Epic partner, and during the conversation I started to think, “what if, why not!” So we committed to riding together. It resulted in a few sleepless weeks while I mulled it over. I had to pull the money from my retirement fund, and my financial advisor did not consider it a good investment. But we all know that not all things in life make sense on paper or balance sheets, but are still worth more than their monetary value.

There is so much hype, stress, and admin getting to the prologue, that it all was a bit surreal when we finally showed up for registration. But I don’t think anything could top the prologue!

Being at the prologue, all kitted up in matching gear looking like pros, lining up to start, actually being part of THIS event that I had been coming to for years now as a spectator, cheerleader, and dreamer, was an experience that I don’t think I could ever quite put into words!

Photo : David Damp

The prologue was the most amazing, and stressful, 20kms I have ever done in my life! It started with the most fantastic support I got from my friends. A few of them showed up to cheer me at the start, and some were lined up at Dead Man’s tree. When we rolled off the plank, I was so nervous that my heart rate was through the roof, and I wasn’t even pedaling fast. Michelle and I kept talking to each other trying to stay calm. “Just pedal easy. Just keep breathing.”

All the anxiety came to a head when, as we were about to enter the single track, my chain snapped! I could not believe this was happening. Not now! Not here! In an instant, lots of negative stuff came flying through my head, but I gave myself a mental slap in the face and started to focus on the task at hand. “You’ve done this more than a dozen times! Just get to it!” Michelle was amazing in keeping things calm and even enjoyed being the center of the camera man’s attention as he was snapping away at her and I while I worked. Within a few minutes, I packed up my tools, and off we rolled. Suddenly all the stress and anxiety had faded and I started to enjoy the ride while telling myself “We’re going to be Ok”.

Photo: Mark Sampson/Sportzpics

The rest of the ride was great, and coming up the climb by Dead Man’s Tree, with everybody cheering and bells ringing, made us feel like pros!

We rolled into the finish, relieved to have that behind us, the reality of all this firmly in place.

At the start of the first full day, I was still really nervous. Every day after that there was always a bit of stress about the cut-off time, the possibility of something going wrong, not knowing how I would feel that day, etc. But other than our prologue chain break, we were blessed with a week of incident free riding.

Every day we stuck to a pretty tight schedule in order to get through our “to dos”:

Wake up at 5; Breakfast; Load up; Get to start; Start; Water point to water point; Cross the finish line; Drop off bike; Get a lovely cold face cloth neck squeeze from the friendly men at the Woolies tent; Get Woolies lunch bag; Sit in Woolies tent and eat; Grab some Woolies microwave dinners; Head home; Clean up; Legs up for 30 minutes; Head back for massage; Head back home; Bike check; Prep for next day; Update friends; Review next days profile; Pray; Go to sleep;

I could not have asked for a better Epic week! It felt like a week of riding with my friends, covering some challenging, but beautiful, ground. And we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect weather week! Some of my apprehension of doing the Epic had nothing to do with the challenge of the riding terrain or the climbing, but the weather. Tough winds and rain would have turned this into a very different experience. So I felt extremely blessed and thankful!

But what really ended up being the highlight of my Epic was the support of my friends. I had put together a Whatsapp group to keep them posted on our daily progress. I never imagined that they would all get so involved and excited about it. After seeing all the panic after the first day, due to the Epic tracking system not working, I started to keep them posted of our progress daily at every water point. It was so amazing to see everybody’s engagement and words of encouragement when I was finally able to flop into bed at night. The way it brought everybody together, the way that on the ride it brought friends and strangers together, THAT is what made the Epic so amazing to me.

Photo : Chris Opperman

Photo : Cobus Le Roux

Crossing the finish line finally on the last day was a HUGE sign of relief. We made it! I made it! For me, this was my first and last Epic, so every day I prayed that we would get through without incident and that we would finish. I had visualized us crossing the finish line and walking across the stage to get our medals. And here we finally were! Michelle herded me through the admin line. I was a tad overwhelmed by the moment, wanting to take it all in. She’d done it before, so she knew the drill. The Woolies picnic at the end was such a treat and I just wish I’d have planned better so that I could have actually arranged to share it with some of my friends.

When I finally arrived back home, I flopped onto my couch and zoned out looking at all the gear around me while my medal hung around my neck. Just like that, this huge goal that I’d contemplated, planned, and now achieved, was over. What now? It felt like such an anti-climax…

The next week as people started to ask me how it was, all I could say was “It was amazing!” The ride was great. But what stands out more than the ride, are my friends and their love and support. It was as if I didn’t end up doing this Epic just for me, but for them…

And if I could do it again, what would I do differently?

  • I wouldn’t take a massage package.I would have rather had extra time for a nap and being off my legs.

  • I wouldn’t let the race wash my bike.Unless the provided service does a proper wash, all they do is turn the dust to mud.With the water restrictions, I’d gotten to where I just brush my bike of, and then clean and lube the chain.That is more than sufficient.

Photo : Melanie Brenner

What would I do the same?

  • Stay off site in my own accommodation, but it must be as close as possible.I was resistant of this initially due to budget, but it is one of the best decisions my partner could have made for us.Not only was it nice to have extra space to organize your gear, but to have a proper bed and quiet environment to sleep in was worth every extra bit of cost.Of course this is not an option unless you have someone that is your designated support person for the week.My partner’s hubby served that role and he was super!Additionally, it minimized our risk of getting gastro, which is always a major concern at Epic!

  • Ride a gear ratio that I am comfortable with and not that others think I should ride.Call me old school, but I am NOT convinced on 1x setups.I rode a manual 2x. Most folks rolled their eyes, but it worked out perfectly.Took no effort to change when I needed to and gave me a gear ratio that was comfortable to ride and climb with all Epic long.If you are wondering, I had a 30/24 in front and 11/42 in the back. If I did this again, and I wanted to ride faster, then I would put my shifter back and a 34 as my big ring.

Photo : David Damp

So, if you are considering taking on this little challenge, here are some of my suggestions (or strong opinions), in no particular order:

  • Choose a suitable partner! By this I don’t just mean someone that you like and get along with, but also someone that is on the same page as you as to what your ride/race goals are. If you just want to finish comfortably, and your partner wants to race, it will not be fun for either of you.

  • Be prepared! I mean this on multiple levels. Physically, emotionally, financially. No matter how many hours you have spent riding, if you actually haven’t experience some level of discomfort or pain for a few days in a row, you will be in for a shock. Having worked through that before a big race will mentally prepare you to work through it then. Also, go and find terrain that is similar to what you may be riding. This is not all groomed single-track. And, unless you are a racing snake (and even then!), become comfortable with walking/pushing your bike over rocks and up steep climbs. Emotionally, stay positive and try to be in good mental space coming into the race. It’s going to be hard enough dealing with the periods of suffering on the bike. You don’t still want to have to be giving out energy to stuff that’s off it.

  • My friends are probably all sick and tired of hearing me say this: “It is better to be rested than to be over trained.” But for me this is vital. You want to be chomping at the bits to be spending 8 days riding your bike! Not tired and wanting to just hang over the handlebars! Ensure you get more than enough sleep the week before you start the race.

  • Know yourself! Don’t let other people’s fears or experiences alter what you usually would or wouldn’t do. By all means listen to people’s suggestions and considerations, and weigh them up. But ultimately, YOU know what is best for YOU. I never use a massage package for stage-races. I took one because I started to worry about my neck and shoulder pain ruining my week. But I have my methods of dealing with it. I would have been fine. I would have preferred to have the extra 2 hours to put my feet up and nap and relax. For me, that is WAY more valuable to my recovery than massage.

  • Know your bike! I have been working on my own bike ever since I started riding, so I did not buy a mechanic’s package for the week. I checked my bike daily myself and it was minimal effort. It did help that the race was somewhat local for me, so I had backup support if I needed it. Be sure your bike is in the best shape possible going into the race, and unless something unforeseen happens, you should be fine. Having a mechanic at the race village means absolutely nothing to you out in the field. So make sure you know how to fix or patch your bike to get yourself to the finish line. That said…

  • Don’t be a weight weenie! Make sure you carry everything you would need to get yourself to the finish line. Tools, tubes, pumps, etc. I am probably overly prepared, but I would rather be that than have to walk my bike. The same goes for nutrition. You may be able to ride on 1 bottle of water for 30kms under usual circumstances. But what if it turns out to be a super hot day? Or you loose your bottle on the first rocky decent? Rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

  • Have fun! Regardless of whether you are lucky enough to have been sponsored or not, this event costs BIG MONEY! So enjoy it! And don’t forget how blessed you are not only to be riding, but to be riding some amazing tracks with some amazing like minded people.

  • Take pictures! If you are not racing, taking a quick pick here or there will not keep you from making the cut off. Everything becomes a blur when you ride day after day. You want to have something to remember the experience by. The professional pictures look great, but they don’t tell YOUR story.

About the author:

Nicki is an outdoor enthusiast who loves biking, hiking, taking pictures and getting people moving! 2018 was her first ABSA Cape Epic.

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