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Jason Sager at the Cape Epic

Jason Sager and Justin Lindine of World Bicycle Relief during stage 1

Finishing off the toughest race

Jason Sager
April 03, 2012, 15:43 BST,
April 03, 2012, 16:52 BST

First the exhilaration, then the exhaustion

Unaware of my sleeping, I awoke to my own snoring. We had only driven about 15km after leaving the finishing Cape Epic venue at the Lourensford wine estate, but it had been enough time for both Justin and I to pass out, nap, and wake up again while our physio Kurt drove our RV back to Durbanville.

On Saturday, after stage 6, my partner Justin and I had raced a touch over four hours and climbed 7000 feet. We sat in the chairs, completely fresh, figuring we'd maybe been on the bike for only a fraction of that.

Today, after stage 7, a relatively short stage with barely 4000 feet of climbing and less than three hours on the bike, and we were destroyed. Today, our bodies knew the journey of the Cape Epic was complete,and our bodies collapsed. Today's stage hadn't been any more intense, physically than the rest, yet we were exhausted.

Finally a stage had gone well for us, no mechanical problems, not bad luck curses of sticks in spokes, and we didn't need to stop for soup and coffee at any a cafes.

It had simply been a straightforward day of racing, if not deafening today because of the three TV choppers filming the race for live television. Justin and I hung out of the group of big hitters all the way over the day's first big climb, and with that writing on the wall, we bid them adieu and settled in for a long ride in the wind and hills of never ending vineyard rollers by ourselves.

The last stage of the Cape Epic is always the most cherished stage to win. It's the culmination of a long week's worth of persevering, suffering, surviving, and simply getting the job of pedaling done. The crowds are the biggest, the finishing venue the most vibrant and energetic, the feeling of crossing the finish line the most final and satiating of any during the week.

You've made it. Be it first, ninth, or 900th, I believe that everyone in this race carried the same load of work and challenges on their shoulders to get there to Lourensford.

It's a hectic day of packing bikes, gear, returning the RV, dropping off gear and staff, and making an early flight back to Utah... hopefully under the weight limit!

With the attached video, you can enjoy what we enjoyed, the last hundred meters of the toughest race I've ever done.

Jason Sager and Justin Lindine of World Bicycle Relief during stage 1

Force feeding to get through the Cape Epic

Jason Sager
March 31, 2012, 21:27 BST,
March 31, 2012, 22:29 BST

Like an army, a stage race marches on its stomach

Slowly and with the enthusiasm of a lumbersome conveyor belt, we masticated our meal. Flip flop shodden feet, covered in mud, we sought refuge underneath the black table cloth as we stared into the distance of the white RV walls. Coffee steamed, untouched.

Two toasts, saturated with a full pat of butter each and a double helping of jam. A ladle of porridge. Maybe a yogurt if things were really crazy. Ground Hog Day has nothing on the mornings of a stage race.

An army marches on its stomach, and a stage race is no different. You must fuel to function, and especially when it comes to breakfast, its important to keep it simple, proven, and on schedule. My strategy is to eat enough to offset the morning stomach emptiness that follows a night of sleep, but really to focus on eating while on the bike. Early in the week we're all in "race-food" mode - gels, blocks, proven fuels from the cross country scene.

Eating becomes a chore, a task like folding laundry or bringing the garbage cans up from the curb on pick-up day. As the race goes on, pallets, and the pace, evolve. Sandwiches, cookies, banana bread..things that normally you'd find too heavy, chewy, or prone to collecting dust become fair game. I even mistook a Marmite sandwich for PB&J. I'm not sure what "savory" really tastes like, but Wikipedia said Marmite is savory. I found it salty and pretty nasty, even after five hours on the bike. Banana bread and Coke, however, really hit the spot out there.

After yesterday's religious experience, where for the last three stages, it seemed nothing could out-do the epic nature of each set of circumstances, I really feared for what stage 6 could bring. How high could we raise the ceiling of suffering, or how low could the bar of failure be set?

Stage 6 was a mass start and around the 3km mark I found myself having to pull over and fiddle with an immediate mechanical situation. It was resolved in just a minute or two, but that was enough time to see over ONE THOUSAND riders pass me at 50+kph. If you've never seen over a thousand riders on their bikes, at one time, in one place, let me tell you, it's a lot of people. It's a roiling sea of people and abilities, veering left and right, and sometimes falling over themselves. One thousand backsides and helmets.

Today's route spent a few kms on the tarmac, then turned onto a dirt road that soon began what would be about 14km of climbing. Moving from that last marker position, back to the front-ish end of the race, gave a unique perspective on the event... and hopefully I didn't leave an impression on it of being a jerk to the 900-some odd folks I had to pass. Seeing that group, strung out wheel to wheel to wheel to wheel to wheel to wheel around a lake, up a dozen switchbacks, the leaders disappearing into the clouds as I began the climb.

If it's not this, it'll be something else. That has been the developing theme here at the Epic. As I rode through the field, taking the entire climb on the "B" line, all I could think about is how much food they'll need through out the day. How would the feed stations handle them? How many bars, gels, blocks, baggies, foil wrapped items must be in their pockets? I've read the stats on how many tons of Swedish Fish the race goes through, but those numbers don't mean a thing until you see the race from the back, lined out across an entire mountain.

My partner Justin Lindine waited for me at the top of the climb, unsure where I was or what had happened... we later I blew through feed station 1 today, the first feed station we skipped all week.

I was really looking forward to that banana bread.


Experience and regret

Cycling News
March 30, 2012, 23:13 BST,
March 31, 2012, 22:25 BST

Persevering on a rainy day in the Cape Epic

Sipping my second cappuccino of the sitting, I stood next to the fireplace casually as I entertained questions from the gaggle of attractive women gathered around me. I spoke of experience and regret. Motivation and the lament of not seeing more while traveling. About relationships and maturing. Sometimes I laughed, other times coyly avoiding eye contact, we all were simply strangers in this setting, yet, I felt exposed and vulnerable.

The fire was warm, its heat radiating out from its hearth, as you would expect possibly in a cozy cafe high in the Alps of Switzerland. Next to me on the mantle was an empty bowl of split pea soup, and a still warm cup of hot chocolate. Occasionally I'd use the large spoon to scrape the sides of the bowl, hoping for more.

The women, dressed finely if not sporty, were out for a Friday of sport recreating and watching. Smartly dressed men, likely their husbands or suitors, gathered just behind the ladies, their attention, too, alerted to my presence. I felt under dressed, unsure of my "look" in this setting. Was there something on my face? How was my hair? Maybe the soup left something, unknowingly, between my teeth, for all to see and attempt to pretend not to notice.

Beneath me...a large puddle of muddy water, leaking from my cycling shoes. Clumps of mud gathered in the pooling brown water as feeling returned to my hands and moderate brain function returned.

I was in a cafe, conveniently, directly adjacent to check point 3 of the Absa Cape Epic's stage 5. We'd been soaked to the bone with 50 degree rain since 7am, covered in mud, sand, clay, and organic material. Every moment of drying had been undone by repeated and intense rain showers. Not the kind of rain that mists from directly above, but the sort of rain that blows in from a cold grey sea...sort of like those that had just rolled in from the Southern Atlantic sea, which is within eyesight of today's route.

Thirty minutes prior, I'd advised, against his will, my partner Justin Lindine to go. Just go. I'm dead, leave me behind. Save yourself.

This wasn't a Simpson and Yates situation, I was completely hypothermic and had been for well over an hour. I knew the inevitable had arrived, I could not continue in this state. My vision was getting worse, the limbs, non-functional. Heart rate was in the basement and motor skills were so bad that no medical professional would have given me a pass to continue. Justin had be patient with me on the previous climb, even as he grew cold in the intense downpour, he nurtured my feeble climbing pace, encouraging us to keep moving in an attempt to regain placings after we flatted, once again, from the head of the race.

That was early on, and as we changed the flat in the pouring rain, my core temp began to drop. Some days you can handle cold rain. The body keeps its fire stoked, the engine stays warm. Maybe you're cold, maybe the hands need a little slapping around, but that's about as bad as it gets. Today was a downward spiral, with a perpetuating cycle of being too cold to eat, then becoming worse off for lack of calories, and then getting colder. Wetter.

Standing there in the cafe, having to talk to strangers who were buying me food and drinks, I struggled to come to terms with this choice. Was I really quitting? Physically I couldn't continue when I stopped. But here, with a little warmth, some food and beverage, fielding questions about my partner, why we were here, and how the race had been going..I knew I had to put that muddy vest back on, fasten the buckle on that cold and wet helmet, squeeze the water out of the mtb gloves and walk back outside into the rain.

I couldn't destroy Justin's hard earned finishing opportunity at the Epic from him. To make him ride as an "Outcast" and have an asterisk next to every answer he has to give about his experience here in South Africa.

Why, just because it was raining, was I going to quit? It wasn't like they'd taken me off to the hospital.

We fashioned a hat out of a plastic bag for inside the helmet, stuffed another grocery bag beneath my jersey, and I walked out into the storm, clipped in, and rode the last hour of muddy and actually quite fun single track to the finish line.

Thanks, Justin, for getting me back out there, and you, too, Niki, for the soup and coffee.

Jason Sager and Justin Lindine of World Bicycle Relief during stage 1

Dirt, a crash and a whole lot of flats

Jason Sager
March 29, 2012, 21:14 BST,
March 29, 2012, 22:20 BST

Stage 4 becomes a test of willpower

My left ear was filling with sand and debris.

Much earlier in the week we'd given up on being clean to any degree while on the bike. Faces rarely were wiped, lips simply stayed dry and caked with dust. Forget limbs...justification was easy - it was a losing battle and really when you get pragmatic about it, dust is nature's sunscreen.

But in my ears? Come on, man...

Dry grass. Actual pieces of dirt. Sand. Bits of whatever is launching out of these barren and obliterated fields were being picked up by the gale force winds, from our left, and filling my ear. It was the kind of side wind that sucks the drool out of one side of your mouth due to the vacuum that's being created on the leeward side of your body.

This wind was also attempting to suck the soul out our bodies, but that had already been sold on the used market yesterday in stage 3, and then repo'ed today, a few times over.

I was on a rear tire with 20psi, wobbly from being unevenly seated, a two-inch gash was patched with three gel wrappers and still bulging with the pressure of the tube, when suddenly it went flat again. Four flats in, this was number five.

On that damn road. In the wind. Sand filling anything it could infiltrate.

My shoulder hurt. Not from the pumping action of our loaner micro-mini pocket pump, but from four (or was it five now?) hours earlier....feeling good and climbing at the front of the pack, I crashed.

Crashes when climbing would typically be called "falling over". This was a crash. Riding next to Thomas Dietch of the Bulls 2 team, a stick was kicked up and went straight into my front wheel. I was already out of the saddle and cresting a sandy knoll, leaning over the bars. We were going fast. Immediately tires were skidding towards my face and bikes scattering. I was upside down, still clipped in, trying figure out how I got here.

And why.

I used to call certain "epic" endurance or stage races IQ Tests. The more you do a certain race, the lower your IQ score. "Friends don't let Friends do XYZ race, twice," we'd say.

Scarily, I think I'm figuring those people out, now. Over the top events such as La Ruta or the Absa Cape Epic are really and truly about finding the emotional and mental breaking point of a human, in sport anyway. Its not so much about what happens after that point, but more about figuring out where it is. Only quitters quit, which is true enough, so we're removing those folks from the equation. But, where is that point where you say "OK, this is the point where I'm really maxed?"

Maybe that's the whole point. The destination is THE journey for those folks. The quitters have quit, remember, so now we just need to take the finishers, push them to this metaphysical and literal point, just so they can experience and savor their time there.

We hit that today. The failure to maintain performance due to flats. The tortuous nature of the route. Indefatigable sand and wind. A scope and scale of endless barren Earth climbing unimaginable to most North Americans. If you thought you needed to bail out at checkpoint 1 in yesterday's stage, good thing you didn't ride today's route. There was no bail out. It was up to each man and woman to go internal, wrestle with their psyche, and figure out how to keep pedaling. Because you were going to have to.

Two men enter, one man leaves.

Internally at least.

The two videos below are courtesy of Jason Sager.  The first is helmet cam footage from the stage 4 while the second is a mid-race interview with Jason and Justin as they recount how just how many flat tires have marred their day's experience.

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Jason Sager and Justin Lindine of World Bicycle Relief during stage 1

From the Field of Despair to the Valley of Misery

Jason Sager
March 28, 2012, 21:19 BST,
March 28, 2012, 22:32 BST

Stage 3 takes a toll

Field of Despair
Scorched Forest
Valley of Misery

"Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind."

Adversity introduces a man to himself, they say... and I wouldn't equate any task on a bicycle as a great calamity, there's a bond found through suffering that can't be found in many other ways.

The names listed above, while all named in private, were instantly recognized when shared after today's 147km stage from Roberston to Caledon. Its a mind game, this bike racing. We all know that physically we can complete a task once it's been done before. This is especially true in mountain bike stage racing...each day you'll find yourself battling, or rather, surviving, with the same guys.

Today's stage had me intimidated, both by the unknown terrain we'd cross, as well as by the metrics we'd been provided. 147km and 2900 meters of climbing is a stout day for anyone, but doing it on our fourth day of racing was to be another challenge. This is the Cape Epic, and there are no gifts... each stage is fast, and even if the group is together, fighting for wheels and position is an endless situation, adding to the mental load of the stage and race in general.

Today we battled for hours, the group ebbing and flowing, until eventually our group spit us out with less than a hour to go. The Valley of Misery dispatched us from our five-team group, the battle lost, but remaining was the true war. Picking up stragglers from the early break, we joined Milka-Superior and Fedgroup for the Field of Despair. Dick Cheney only wishes he had access to this piece of scorched earth and its littering of shale shards. Few men would hold their secrets if forced to ride this climb for a millenia. Tail wind, 40 degrees Celsius, no path, no line, and no sense of movement, just six lonely soldiers doing their best Louis Zamperini... trying to survive, together, until the test was over.

Looking down, as we dare not look up at the never moving horizon, we joked. We cried. Cursing in French, Afrikans, American, and Aussie trickled out to no one in particular.

Eventually the Field ended, but still remaining was the Scorched Forest, but that's another story.

Three days to go.

The two videos below are provided by Jason Sager.  One is a conversation with him and Justin Lindine just after finishing stage 3, and the other his helmet cam footage highlights from stage 3.

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Just like Waffle House, shattered, scattered, and battered....riders begin the recovery process for tomorrow.

Some quality time with the front group

Jason Sager
March 27, 2012, 20:32 BST,
March 27, 2012, 22:05 BST

Sager and Lindine race to help World Bicycle Relief

There's nothing wrong with her that a hundred dollars won't fix. I climb through the window and down to the street... I'm shining like a new dime. The downtown trains are full... full of all those Brooklyn girls. They try so hard to break out of their little world... You wave your hand and they scatter like crows...

Its only stage 2, but day 3, of the Cape Epic. Fatigue is setting in just enough that waking up takes a moment to process, but doesn't require a snooze button yet.

Tom Waits was on my mind this morning as we walked back from the chore of eating breakfast under a southern hemisphere's sky with its constellations in view. It's the lingering hour between when breakfast ends and the real rush to get dressed and head over to the start line that your mind really plays games with why we're doing this. Well, that, and those Brooklyn girls that scatter like crows (ie: guys chopping wheels in the first 20km of a five-hour stage, only to blow sky high before the first feed station).

World Bicycle Relief (WBR) has helped us connect the dots of why we're here, what we can do to make a difference, and bring what we know, and who we know, to South Africa. WBR purchases bikes, in the the case of South Africa, from Qhubeka, giving jobs, and bikes, to the RZA. Through Qhubeka, funds raised through both our and Bart Brentjen's fundraising efforts turn into bikes.

Qhubeka, to quote, brings "comprehensive bicycle programs that improve quality of life, community and environment" to communities in South Africa. They're heavily involved in racing with the MTN-Qhubeka team, including Adrien Niyonshuti, who's soon to be an Olympian for Rwanda at the 2012 London Olympic Games in mountain biking.

Niyonshuti's story was one of the original inspirations for me to return to the Cape Epic and do more than take pictures and burn a lot of jet fuel getting there. To Niyonshuti's credit again, this year he's going faster than ever and in today's stage, I was as excited to give him the "A" line on downhills as I was for simply making and sticking the front group, finally.

So, the front group? Finally, Sager, finally.

Yesterday we were a mess, and today, both my partner Justin Lindine and I were firing on at least four cylinders, comfortable enough to not burn matches, confident enough to sag the climbs we need to sag, and patient enough to let the stage unfold.

The route was fast, and not too rough, by Cape Epic standards. The caveat of this is the group was large early on, the dust thick. I'd guess 20 teams or so made up the group for the first hour or so, which surely makes for a great visual spectacle.

The helicopters were thick and low all day, at one point blasting us with rotor wash so fiercely kicking up dirt chucks, hay, and other farm debris it was like racing inside a tornado, but only on your left side. Group racing like this is nice as the kilometers tick by quickly, but it's stressful as you can't see the ground from the dust cloud, and everyone is fighting for wheels thinking they're going to win, right now.

Every time someone chops me on a dirt road with three hours to go on a stage, I think, "What are you going to do, ride up and talk to (race leader Christoph) Sauser?"

But, I digress... back to the heartache. Slowly as the group whittled down, we came into feed 2 with only nine teams, us included. Well... us would be a loose term - unbeknownst to me, Justin had flatted just one turn and 100m from the tech zone. Unaware of the pit just ahead, Justin changed his flat, then found the tech zone where he grabbed a new wheel. But, on group days like this, when you come out of the group, you not only lose the time you spent doing the repair, but now the day will consist of going slower, at a higher effort.

The Epic is a merciless event, and when things go sideways after several hours of hard work, you just get back to the job at hand and... pedal. It was good to see the Bulls' team of Karl Platt and Stefan Sahm win an exciting sprint finish for our last day in Robertson.

Tomorrow's stage will be the biggest mountain bike ride I've ever done - in terms of distance and elevation gain, it's going to set a new standard for, as Udo Bölts once said, "This isn't cycling, this is suffering."

147km, over 9000 feet of climbing. With a little bit of luck, I'm gonna make like a bakery delivery truck and haul buns.

Two videos are below courtesy of Jason Sager.  The first is helmet cam footage highlights of stage 2 of the Cape Epic.  The second is a chat with Sager his teammate Justin Lindine immediately after the stage.

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Jason Sager at the Cape Epic

Jason Sager (Team Jamis) is in South Africa, racing the 2012 Cape Epic mountain bike stage race. The 37-year-old father and husband manages the Jamis team and also still competes professionally.

Sager is a long-time racer who often does in mountain bike stage races and other endurance events although you will still see him in some cross country races.

In 2011, he won five stages of the Trans Andes and finished second overall at the Trans-Sylvania Epic with three stage wins along the way. He was 17th at the Cape Epic with a few top 10 finishes.

The past two years, Sager has finished as runner-up in the BC Bike Race, in which he has eight total career stage wins.

Sager, a former banker, is based in Ogden, Utah.