I always sleep really well before big races, and last night I slept even better than normal. After waking up, I jumped on the rollers for half an hour, then had breakfast and did the final packing. For Epic, you always over-pack: you end up using so little, like only three pairs of socks instead of the seven pairs you packed.
We didn't have a parking sticker for access to Meerendal Wine Estate, the venue for the prologue, but made our way through to our campervan easily enough.
It's always a nervous moment when you leave the venue again for the warm-up…you could see it was hot, my Garmin read 39°C at 11.30am. When it's so hot and you're pumped anyway, you only want to do a quick 15-minute warm-up. That's it.
Sometimes when you're nervous, you feel like you have no energy and the energy only returns once the race has started. But today I felt sharp and very good from the beginning.
In the start chute, there are lots of live TV interviews which is always a bit tricky because after you've answered in English, you have to do it again in Swiss German, and then again in high German. Then I have to ask what the question was again because I have to re-set the translation in my mind!
I never know if my partner Jaroslav Kulhavy will be stronger than me or if we'll be equal, so when we left the start gate today, I was sitting behind him, wondering, "Is it going to get harder? Is it going to get harder?"
Two years ago he was way stronger, so that was a question mark in my mind. Halfway up Stairway To Heaven, the main climb of the day, I still felt very good. The hardest part was definitely at the top of Stairway To Heaven, but by then we had already made up a minute on Topeak-Ergon's Alban Lakata and Kristian Hynek who had started ahead of us.
We took the downhills super-conservative. I mean, super-conservative. You don't win the Epic in the downhills. You only lose the race there. Sure, you can win stages in the downhills, but not the race. Taking risks over eight days doesn't usually end so well. One day you will break your neck.
That's been the recipe for success for pretty much all my Cape Epic wins: if you're a bit stronger than the others, you go into the downhill first and control it from there. I've seen it happen so many times. Two years ago on the Groenlandberg descent, guys who had got dropped risked so much to come back…. they ended up with flat tyres, a broken arm, all that stuff.
I was still drafting behind Jaro when I realised that I'm strong enough to share the lead coming back to Meerendal. I'm used to the TV helicopter, but sometimes it's actually really weird: suddenly the helicopter is gone, there no spectators and it's so quiet.
It was super-hot, especially with an aero helmet. Specialized has one of the best aero helmets, but you still feel the difference. I also had only a small water bottle that was just two-thirds full, so I was on the limit there too.
The biggest positive today was that I felt one-to-one with the bike. The bike felt like part of my body. Sometimes the saddle feels too low, too high, or the suspension is all wrong, but that can just be you. Like when you're really tired in training and you think, "Ah, my suspension is crap," but actually it hasn't changed since the day before when it was perfect!
I felt fully in control and I could ride almost everything comfortably in the saddle. That's also one of the keys of the Epic – because the surface is often so loose, if you have to get out of the saddle, you lose efficiency. The rear wheel slips and your heart rate is higher. You have to be able to ride most of the hills at the Epic in the saddle.
So it was comfortable suffering, controlled suffering. Sometimes when you're on the limit, you can't find the right gear. You're not comfortable in or out of the saddle and you're just trying to find something that helps you go faster. But today whatever I did felt good.
The other marathon teams – the Bulls, Topeak-Ergon and the two Centurion Vaude teams – lost quite a bit of time, so that's a positive for us. On the other hand, maybe after tomorrow, the GC will look very different again. But that's the prologue – it's a chance to make a first point.
The Bulls, for example, know how cool it was winning the prologue last year and being in the leaders' jersey. It's such an adrenalin boost, but now they've lost time. I know how it is. Two years ago, that was me. It's not a nice feeling.
But today was about the heat. That heat was special.
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