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Stephen Roche's Cape Epic Blog

Stephen Roche and Sven Thiele celebrate an emotional finish

We've done it

Stephen Roche
March 25, 2013, 18:19 GMT,
March 25, 2013, 18:21 GMT

Cape Epic finished in 49 hours, 12 minutes and 23 seconds

I'm running, bike above my head, through the crowds at the finish of the 10th Absa Cape Epic. My teammate Sven Thiele and I have just crossed the finish line on the final stage. We're covered in dust; I'm sweating; far from composed. People around us are probably thinking the heat and events of the previous eight stages have turned us mad. Security guards are trying to stop us. I need to get to the main stage to present the winner's jersey of the grand master category live on Supersport TV. I make it, just in time!

Once the presentations are over, I have the time to take in the fact that we've just completed the Cape Epic. The words "gruelling", "untamed", "toughest" are all synonymous with this event and you can't argue with that. It's been an incredible eight days, weaving from vineyards, through forests to mountain crests, over rocks, stones, sand and gravel. You name it, we've ridden on it.

We've pedalled, pushed and climbed 15,650m over 698km and it's taken us 49 hours 12 minutes and 22.5 seconds. We finished 19th in our category and we're pleased. Especially as about 650 teams started and 490 finished!

The final stage was a gift at 56km, but we still had to endure 1,500m of climbing. The scenery - as with every other stage - offered so much. We set out in chilly conditions from Stellenbosch, and rode through Coetzenberg and Eden Forest, then through the Stellenbosch Winelands. Here we climbed to the top of a mountain to views of False Bay and out as far as Cape Point. After this climb we took the route over to Lourensford Wine Estate, with the final 25km being mainly downhill through forests, orchards and vineyards.

From about 1km to go, you could hear the finish, which was adrenalin-inducing. Coming onto the final straight, through the polo field filled with supporters was incredible and a moment I'll never forget.

The Cape Epic was a real feat of endurance and everyone who finished has achieved something very special. Once the riding and the presentations were done, Sven and I headed to the Absa tent to chat with fellow cyclists, share stories, rehydrate and refuel. After eight days of 5:00 am starts, cycling in extreme heat, traversing rocks, negotiating singletrack and taking a bump or two along the way, I'm looking forward to a few days of relaxation before thinking of the next challenge!

Congratulations to our fellow HotChillee riders, Craig Edwards and Dane Walsh on the HotChillee-Infinity team who came 50th overall in a time of 37:20:55. Also from the HotChillee camp was team HotChillee Adrenaline, with Alan Banks and Jan Joubert who came in 411th. Well done all.

Stephen Roche shares a joke with other riders at the start of stage 5

Rest day… What rest day?

Stephen Roche
March 23, 2013, 18:52 GMT,
March 23, 2013, 18:55 GMT

Stephen Roche recaps Stage 5 of Cape Epic

We started Stage 5 around the usual time of 7.20am. It was another chilly start to the day, but as we’ve come to expect, the milder temperatures didn’t last long and with another day of no wind, the temperatures turned into a battle.

We all started the stage with high hopes for an easier day. It has been sold to us as a ‘rest day’. Getting back on the bike day after day and encountering all the various terrains, inclines and whatever else the Absa Cape Epic throws at us, is challenging to say the least. There continues to be a fairly high dropout rate each day and the medical tent has been getting progressively busier as our bodies push on through. The main complaint are rather nasty saddle sores. Sven and I have been lucky so far, but we had some good preparation from the Cape Rouleur; although this was on our road bikes and therefore a much smoother ride.

Anyway, the high hopes for an easier day were quickly tarnished as we hit our first big climb of the day. At 75km, it was a short stage, but the climbing was relentless. That said, it was some of the most amazing riding I’ve done. The single-tracks were great fun today as we weaved our way along the purpose-built network between Wellington Vineyards and the slopes of Bain’s Kloof. The scenery offered was a real treat and our view has now changed from arid terrain to lush vegetation as we cycle through the vineyards.

Sven and I are moving up the rankings in our category and we’re now at number 19. We’ve been cycling for nearly 35 hours in total now and the finishing straight is in our view. Each night we’re feeding back our experiences to the mechanics and my Trek Superfly bike set-up is almost tweaked to perfection.

The great thing about the Absa Cape Epic is that it isn’t all about hard cycling. We’ve made some really great friends and each evening there’s lots of socialising. I presented the Master’s Leaders Jersey on Wednesday, which was a real honour and great to get to chat to riders off the bike too. Tonight we’re having a South African Braai (BBQ), re-fuelling for an incredibly tough stage for tomorrow.

Stephen Roche and his teammate at the start of stage 3 of the Cape Epic

Half way through

Stephen Roche
March 21, 2013, 16:33 GMT,
March 21, 2013, 16:33 GMT

Getting better and better as the race goes on

We're half way through the world's toughest mountain bike race - the Cape Epic..

The last two stages have played out well. There have been no major mechanicals, no serious falls, not as much walking and a lot less sand. We got to the start of stage 3 this morning to surprisingly cold temperatures. There was lots of shivering and a reluctance to dress to the temperatures as we knew the cold snap wasn't lasting. And we couldn't have been more right; by the afternoon we were cycling in 42 degree [Celsius] heat, with no wind. Needless to say, lots of people suffered with the temperatures today.

The great thing about the Cape Epic is that we're starting to get to know our fellow riders more. While there is still apprehension hanging in the air at the start of each stage, there's lots of banter, story sharing and a generally great atmosphere. We're in it together.

After stage 1's mechanical issues, our GC was 345th place. The good news is we're making ground, and over the last two days we've moved up to 278th. We're getting faster and finding the technical elements of mountain biking far easier. I'm learning what can and can't be done and the variety of terrain definitely keeps things interesting.

Some of the technical parts can be a bit disconcerting at times though. Yesterday we had to navigate our way along a 5km, incredibly fast and technical singletrack. A basic error could have sent you over the edge. But there was nothing as heart-stopping today and both my teammate, HotChillee's Sven Thiele, and I are feeling confident.

Stage 3 has been, by far, the most beautiful stage yet. As with most other days, we started with a climb this morning, just to make sure we know we're alive. This was a 15km climb, up 400m. Believe it or not, this was a much kinder start to the day than the previous stages. The route took us through the mountains, traversing vineyards and farmlands and leading us through a forest. It was spectacular.

The day started really well. With shorter climbs and better track underneath us, we felt a sigh of relief. The singletrack sections generally kept moving, so the slightly tedious job of walking single-file has become a distant memory. It was almost too good to be true, and it was. The second part of the day saw us attacking steeper climbs and we finished on a really sharp incline. That said, we managed to keep pedalling and made it through the day relatively unscathed, and only having walked one particularly rocky part of the course. The finish was in the beautiful fields of Saronsberg Wine Estate.

It's been another day of high drop-outs, which just proves the point that this really is the toughest mountain bike race in the world. You can see in people's faces that the event is taking its toll. Having to get back on the bike day after day is hard work - both mentally and physically. Our bikes are also taking a hit, but each evening they get taken away for an overnight service. They require far more attention than after a stage on the road. Another difference between road and mountain biking is how much your upper body screams at the end of a stage. My arms, hands and wrists are all aching, but luckily there's sports massage on-site.

The pro-race is getting very interesting, as Team Bulls and Team Burry Stander - Songo battle it out on the tracks for pole position. The pros are incredibly tough and skillful. It's great watching the racing unfold.

I'm off for some R&R and quite looking forward to seeing what tomorrow holds.

Riders ascend the old Piekeniers Kloof Pass during stage 1 of the Cape Epic

A gruelling day of sand, overheated brakes and wipe-outs

Stephen Roche
March 19, 2013, 16:43 GMT,
March 19, 2013, 16:46 GMT

No dull moments in the Cape Epic

My heart rate is at 80 bpm, quite a bit higher than my usual 55. I'm at the start of stage 1 of the Cape Epic and the fog of apprehension that came with yesterday's prologue has not lifted. My teammate, Sven Thiele of HotChillee, and I are due to start at 7:20 am. We're about to embark on 93km of mixed mountain biking and 2,350m of climbing. Needless to say, everyone at the start is feeling a little uneasy.

We started and finished today in Citrusdal, a picturesque town in the shadows of the Cederberg Mountains. It was a hard stage. We knew it would be, but that doesn't soften the reality. No sooner than we started we were climbing. Climbing in itself isn't a problem; the Alpine stages in the Tour de France are hard and this first climb was okay. So far so good, though the heat in which we were cycling was not helpful.

The next part was to be one of the biggest challenges of the day. Once over the top it was a steep 600-metre descent over seven kilometres of very rocky terrain. This isn't for the faint-hearted and what happened next was a real test. On the way down my back brake overheated - badly! The wheel locked and it would barely move. My only realistic option was to continue; removing the brake pads would be suicide on that descent. In the valley, we stopped to instigate repairs. Team Absa Capital consisting of J & JC van Vuuren helped us - forfeiting time. A massive relief for us as it was a multi-person job! With just the front brake the easier gravel descents were hairy.

When we eventually got to the bottom - with my heart in my mouth - we got to the water stop and had the brakes replaced. This delayed us by 25 minutes - plus the earlier repairs cost us about 40 minutes - but gave us the chance to take on lots of water and fuel. Sven and I also decided to take extra water with us. The day was getting very hot and we didn't want to risk running out.

Next up was an 8km sandy climb. For those of you who haven't experienced the sensation (or rather frustration) of cycling on deep, soft, fine sand, let me tell you, it's no mean feat. Your wheels dig in and it's impossible to get any traction. Due to sand, and the gradients we faced, a good proportion of today's stage was completed pushing the bikes and walking. Even the fiercest of the mountain biker pros had to walk - or run - some of it. It's all part of the event.

After a brief break at water point two it was onwards and upwards with seven kilometres of climbing, a brief rutted descent and then a singletrack that tested even the best mountain biker's skills. The afternoon was hot. There were lots of tired bodies on the course, lots of walking and a lot of traffic (fellow mountain bikers, not motorised) slowing things down further. Having lost ground due to my earlier mechanical, we were riding - and walking - with a slower group. Even when you feel you can go faster, you're restricted by the traffic ahead on the singletrack. It's part of the Cape Epic and the atmosphere was good. Everyone was feeling just as fed up about the sand but the humour reigned supreme.

Once through the third water point, we wound our way across the farmlands in Olifants River Valley. This was undulating and although it was relief from the more extreme sections of the day, it didn't offer much respite. Then we faced the final challenge of the day: A 10km sandy ascent up the mountain. By this point we'd really had enough of the sand; never wanting to see another grain again! Sven and I stayed together to avoid any penalties for not riding with each other. If your teammate is just two minutes away you receive a one hour penalty. Sven stuck to my wheel but due to the sand I ended up sliding sideways and Sven went into the back of me and over the handlebars! No injuries. Not a great situation after so many gruelling kilometres, but once we were at the top we found ourselves on a fast, fun descent back to Citrusdal. And after 8:49:12 we were over the finish line.

Finishing was a fantastic feeling. My first thought was that we must rehydrate, so we headed to the hospitality tent and caught up with other riders who were also hungry and thirsty. It's such a fantastic atmosphere and a great mix of people doing this event. There's even a team on a tandem, who completed inside the cut-off with 45s to spare. I have nothing but respect for them! What a test of endurance. It was gut wrenching to see the riders who did not make the 10 hour cut-off, apparently around 82 riders.

Now it's time for more rehydration, but this time courtesy of Herman Coertze owner of Meerendal Wine Estate, venue for the Pprologue. It's not all hard work out here.

Stephen Roche, Sebastian di Pasqua, Vanessa Haywood and Alain Prost during the pre race events held at the V

Cape Epic is in full swing

Stephen Roche
March 17, 2013, 20:14 GMT,
March 17, 2013, 20:18 GMT

Getting into the flow for the prologue

7:44 am and we're gearing up for the start of the untamed mountain bike race, the 10th Absa Cape Epic. There are 1,200 other riders from 41 different countries doing this event and the atmosphere is slightly apprehensive. Covering 698km with 15,650m of climbing over eight days, this is the world's largest and toughest mountain bike race, and I have somehow agreed to ride with my good friend Sven Thiele, HotChillee's founder.

We've just finished HotChillee's Cape Rouleur, a multi-stage road bike event in the region. Road cycling is the kind of riding I am used to, but here I am, on a Trek Superfly 29er mountain bike - not completely alien, but I've not exactly spent a great deal of time on a mountain bike prior to this.

We're in a mountain biking Mecca, right on Cape Town's doorstep, waiting to embark on the 22km prologue, with 700m of climbing. This will take us out and back from Meerendal, Durbanville. And we're off - under foggy conditions, but it doesn't take long for the blue skies to shine through, presenting yet more of the unbelievable scenery this country has on offer. I've come to love cycling in South Africa. It is second-to-none, whether on a mountain bike or road bike. Coastal roads, mountainous terrain, singletrack, gravel, dirt, fallen trees; you name your favoured cycling and backdrop, South Africa has it.

Almost as soon as we start cycling in the prologue, we're faced with a challenging climb up the aptly named "Stairway to Heaven" to the top of Dorstberg. It's hard work, but when we get to the mountain top we're faced with incredible views. I can see Table Mountain, Robben Island and Cape Point.

But there's no time to stop. A quick moment to take on some water and it's head back down. We've decided to stick to water for our hydration. Perhaps it's a bit old fashioned, but the last thing we want is our stomachs being upset by special drinks. It's an eight-stage race, and we're not prepared to risk anything.

Now we're plunged straight into rugged lined trails that descend into the quarry. Next up is sweeping singletrack riding. I realise quickly how important gearing is. We then head into a roller coaster of "bermed turns". This is all fairly new to me, and at the start it's slightly unnerving. However, once you are doing it, you realise what you can and can't do. That said, at such an early stage you don't take unnecessary risks.

It's then back to the steep vineyards, enough to test even the best mountain biker's legs and a finish on singletrack. We completed it in one hour, 33 minutes and 37.7 seconds.

It was an incredible 22km ride. You see so much more on a mountain bike than from the road, and it's a completely mixed terrain. One minute you're on gravel, then dirt, then small stones, then big stones, then fallen trees. It certainly keeps you on your toes. There's a real buzz at the Rider's Village tonight and all riders are socialising and having a great time. Tomorrow brings a 100km stage.

Stephen Roche's Cape Epic Blog

1987 Triple Crown Winner Stephen Roche is sharing his experience riding the Cape Epic mountain bike stage race in South Africa with the HotChillee Absa Cape Epic MTB Team. Roche is racing with Sven Thiele. This is part of a joint celebration of HotChillee's The London-Paris and the Absa Cape Epic's 10-year anniversaries.

The HotChillee Cape Epic MTB teams' sponsors include The Bicycle Company for Trek MTB Bikes and Bontrager components, add-ons and Service Corp; PowerBar for nutrition; Hertz for vehicles; Continental for Tyres and LeMarq for clothing.