It doesn't matter whether it's 15 years ago or now. Whether it's the Olympics or the world championships or the Cape Epic. The pressure doesn't get any easier. What's different at the end of the Epic is that everybody is tired and it all comes down to your headspace: whether you can ride with positive emotions or not.
At the start of Stage 6 on Saturday, it was really cold. It was important to come out of the campervan warm, so we had the heater going full on. On the rollers it's hard to say what I'm thinking. I'm looking at my watts, thinking about my gears, checking the time and thinking about Groenlandberg a lot.
You need to be really warm because in those 10 minutes between the rollers and the start you'll cool down a bit and you know it's going to be another fast start.
Groenlandberg is a beast. It's super-rocky and rough. But the whole of Groenlandberg, I was in the zone. In the tunnel. The legs were just spinning.
We were riding wheel on wheel when I punctured. A pinch flat on the rear wheel, not a cut. Our back-up rider Howard Grotts was right there and Jaroslav Kulhavy was three or four riders ahead of me. At first I was shouting but with the helicopter so low Jaro couldn't hear, so I rode to the front, stopped and the wheel change was fast and efficient.
I was confident that after getting a wheel so quickly from Howie we would close the gap back to Scott-SRAM MTB Racing. I got the split soon after and I couldn't believe we were still more than a minute down. I had been so focused but after fixing the tyre I started to feel the environment – the wind, the spectators, whether we're in a forest or in the open – and after seven days of racing, that's not the best sign.
Scott were very strong and the other guys with them were racing for the win: that's a good headspace. They probably thought, "We just made a minute for free, let's not let them get back again."
At first my only thought was that we're going to lose energy riding back this one minute. But an hour and a half later we realised we're actually losing time.
It was after Water Point 2: we had been chasing and chasing and had brought the gap down to maybe 45 seconds, but then it opened up again. It's such an emotional thing. We were on an open field, very windy, and we could always see the leaders riding in a group. We had been riding on the limit all the time, and they're riding together with an amazing spirit. Suddenly the gap opens again and you lose the positive emotions.
I was definitely weaker than Jaro and in his slipstream, but I could also see his body language. After that we rode without emotions.
The crash on Stage 1 was our mistake, but a broken valve was a misfortune. We had Jaro's big sidewall cut on Stage 4, and then this on Stage 6. Whereas Scott had everything: a strong team, strong back-up and no hiccups.
It's obviously a big disappointment, but I'm used to it. I broke a chain at the 2004 Olympics and lost a medal there, and have had other big bad luck. It's part of the game.
Even though you don't want it to be true, when it comes to the Epic, you know shit can happen. You have to be prepared for it. If you can't change it, just get on with it. In life, if you can change something and it's worth it, invest the energy. But this we can't change.
However, I am 100% sure this was my best ever Epic performance. Both in terms of my numbers and also looking at all the teams who are traditionally good but had no chance this year. Like, no chance.
In this modern way of racing Epic, the first 30 to 60 minutes are so crucial. It's new that you start almost like a cross-country race, super-ready and in the right gear. Any other year, you'd just ride yourself into the day. I was hardly ever nervous for those starts because I knew it wouldn't be a big deal. Sure, two years ago when Topeak-Ergon were super-good and weren't giving up, it was also quite fast but it wasn't as furious.
I guess this year's Epic is also much shorter and with lots and lots of singletrack. But now I think that for the last two or three weeks before Epic it's better not to ride so many miles. Rather recover and work on your top-end speed. That's become very, very important. Because if you're a bit too tired coming in, you can't face that speed.
And you need a good start to the Epic. If you're off the back and out of overall contention, and the GC teams are going so hard in such a good headspace every day, you'll never win a stage. In the beginning, your mental and physical strength work together but by the end, it's really the mental side that steers the physical. One too many setbacks and no firepower… and it's over.
Stage 7 on Sunday is 100% for sure my last competitive race. It would have been special winning the Cape Epic, but coming second (and winning two stages) is still very good, especially in this Epic. I have no regrets about coming back. It was good fun.