A little late.....Standing on that start line, it felt almost sad that this adventure was coming to an end, that stage race bubble we had been living in for the past 7 days, race, eat, sleep, making new friends and catching up with old ones. All those hours training, on and off the bike, for the past few months, the mental prep and the planning, about to put to the test for the last time. Everyone was hoping for an incident free stage 7 and to give it as much beans as the legs would allow for the final time.
[caption id="attachment_14262" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Photo by Nick Muzik/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS[/caption]
We'd all had a bit of a lie in, with the start being an hour later, but it was wasn't any easy chowing down on the same breakfast foods, not that is was bad, there was plenty of choice and it was good food, but just the same old stuff. Everyone's face said it all, there was little chat going on, tired bodies and minds, having pushed themselves over a demanding, but great course in the searing heat. All lovers of the sport, but everyone was just looking forward to some RnR from the bike in a few hours time.
We checked the bikes over one more time, checked we had spares, checked the tyres, checked cleat bolts (mine were loose!), only bad luck or pilot error would stop us now. Just as with the prologue, there was an overly eager anticipation to get going, to finish the stage and the Epic without any serious mishap. Even though the stage had only 1200m of climbing, there was still 86km of ground to cover.
A tired peleton can be a hellish place to be, riders surging, fighting for last minute places, weaving in and around the group to gain any advantage, all at high speed from the off. The route was rolling with some descending in the first 8km. There was no splitting the group as we funnelled into the first longer climb along narrow sections of double track where there was little choice but to line up. Stu wasn't having any of it though, surging past when the legs and opportunity allowed.
[caption id="attachment_14260" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Photo by Nick Muzik/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS[/caption]
The route passed through more scorched landscapes, the smell of the recent forest fires still lingering in the air, along fun singletrack sections, tightly hugged the hillsides, following the contours, flowing up and down. As with most of the singletrack trails, knowing them gives a huge advantage (many of the pros spending the winter training out here) as there is little margin for error overcooking it around some turns, too fast and it is over the edge!
[caption id="attachment_14266" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Photo by Gary Perkin/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS[/caption]
It was all still close riding to the first feed, helping Stu on the climbs where I could, some of them short n sharp, everyone having less spring in those, tired, yet tanned, legs. A brief section of ascending switchback singletrack slowed riders to a one by one parade upwards.
Feed 1 came quickly at 18km. With no need to stop and staying with a good group as we dropped out of the hills and onto open and rolling district (dirt, unsurfaced) roads. Large groups quickly formed, ours with a good number of strong riders, mostly from the masters category. The group was hauling fast, riders working well together, Stu pushing hard.
Coming off a brief tarmac section back onto rutted district roads, Stu's chain jumped off the chainring. Darn it for mentioning earlier that morning that I was impressed with the retention capabilities of the XTR chainring, BUT the clutch wasn't engaged (that, we hadn't checked!), so that'd be why! We had to pull over, watching the group speed onwards in frustration.
[caption id="attachment_14270" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Photo by Sam Clark/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS[/caption]
Not to be undone, Stu got on my back wheel and pushed on. We soon got caught by a group of 12 or so riders, better than being out on these roads as a solo team. Moving fast on the flats, we could see the other group a good stone's throw infront. The group slowing up on the inclines so I took point. It seemed to do the trick as within a few kms we were one large group.
[caption id="attachment_14273" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Photo by Ewald Sadie/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS[/caption]
Wanting to pick up a bottle at feed 2, Stu hauled me through without stopping, eager to stay with a small group who also hadn't stopped. I'd have to make one 500ml last until the final feed!
There was no relenting in the speed, past vineyards and around local farms, the climbing legs wondering where the climbs were. Sections of sand splintered riders in every direction. Lose a wheel here and it was a hard pull to get back on. Stu was moving well within the group, I was hanging on. Gasping by feed 3, I threw coke and water mix into a bottle as quick as possible. We just had to stay incident free for a few more kms.
[caption id="attachment_14264" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Riders during the final stage Photo by Gary Perkin/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS[/caption]
The way forward was fast and rolling, our now smaller group was hanging on together along more district roads and around rolling farm land. The final climb kicked hard upwards on an open hillside, slowing riders down, but not Stu. he dug in, passing rider upon rider. The open track turned to singletrack near the top, taking us up and around the hill we had raced up in the prologue. Once up top it was switchback singletrack back down with the route lined with spectators cheering everyone down, but we weren't done quite yet.
[caption id="attachment_14271" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Photo by Ewald Sadie/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS[/caption]
We knew the route now from the prologue, one more brief steep climb through vineyards and a shorter switchback climb up and out the other side. Spectators were everywhere, cheering every rider, distracting from the final push.
[caption id="attachment_14272" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Photo by Ewald Sadie/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS[/caption]
I think that the hardest part was that 600m on grass around the finish area. We could see the finish and riders were chasing behind.
After over 35 hours in the saddle we were done. We were handed a huge picnic bag with food from Woolworths, picked up our finishers medal, had the finish photo done, and signed the 2016 finishers' board.
The winners are always celebrated, but I am always in awe of the back markers, out there every day for longer than anyone else, with less time to relax and recover each day. Some of these riders rode over 55 hours. Bravo.
Big thanks to: Momsen bikes for the amazing Vipa bikes, Topeak for the tools, Vee Tyres for the grippy and tough Rail and Rail Tracker tyres, Rotor for the INpower cranks and Q rings, Ergon for the excellent SMR3 saddle, GS1 grips and gloves, Torq for the high performance nutrition,