The hardest race?

April 3, 2008

The hardest race?

Just when I thought we had seen it all here at the Cape Epic, the brutal race course found a new way to punish us. The killer of today's stage [six] was a 15km long, flat, wide road near the end of the 130km stage. Sounds like a nice way to get to the finish, right? We thought so, but this was the worst road I have ever ridden on a bike. Deep sand, constant jackhammering braking bumps, and a strong headwind made forward progress very tough, and our close to broken bodies screamed in pain.

For the fifth day in a row, I crossed the finish line and collapsed. We just missed out on our new daily goal of a top ten finish, but there was nothing more that I could give. The Trek/VW ladies team of Sue Haywood and Jenny Smith raced over the same course and conditions for over six hours, and no doubt encountered their own trials and tribulations along the way to finish second on the day in the women's race. As I pounded water, Coke, and recovery drink in finish area, the question on my mind was one that I have contemplated often this week, "Is this the hardest mountain bike race I have ever done?"

It's not easy to answer. I have raced over a dozen 24 hour solos on all kinds of courses, in all kinds of conditions. I have also raced the TransAlp, and the BC Bike Race, which have similar formats to the Cape Epic. I have raced in freezing rain, and searing heat. I have raced when very sick, and I have raced with injuries. At this moment, I feel that the Cape Epic tops them all in terms of toughness. Maybe my viewpoint is skewed because I'm in the middle of the race, and the most recent pain often stings more than the more distant ones, but I really don't think I've ever suffered more intensely than this, and for a longer duration.

24 hour solos include riding through the night, sleep deprivation and often disorientation, but the course is on a loop, and one more lap always seems reasonable. Cape Epic is point to point, nine days in a row, over all kinds of terrain, the nature of which is mostly unknown to us as we head out each day. The level of competition is much higher and deeper than any other endurance race in the world. Cross country and marathon world champions, Olympic gold medalists, marathon and stage race specialists, and super fit, motivated South Africans with intimate knowledge of the course. This makes the pace relentless.

My team-mate Jeremiah Bishop and I are constantly amazed how little rest and recovery time we are finding in the five to six hour stages. It is full throttle almost the whole time.

As I mentioned earlier, the course is brutal, and always changing. One day the toughest part is the long, steep, rocky, climbs, then next day it's sand dunes that are almost unrideable, and another day it's windswept dirt roads that force us to lean diagonally into the wind to stay upright.

The timing of the race is also a factor. Starting in March, this is my first race of the year. Where I live in Maryland, we are just coming out of winter. After travelling for two or three days, we find ourselves racing across South Africa in 100 degree heat, with 1,200 mountain bikers, many of whom are peaking for this prestigous event. I never consider myself an early season peaker and always seem to struggle in my first few races of the year. No chance to warm up into this one. Every day has been a fight. I have been at my maximum and beyond every day, spending by far more time in the red zone than I have at any other race. Then we wake up at 5:00 am the next day to do it all over again.

Maybe I should wait until the race is over. and I've had a reflection period before I decide on an answer to my question. But I don't think it's going to get any easier. With two days to go, I know the answer already. The Cape Epic is the toughest mountain bike race I have ever done............yet.

Chris Eatough
Trek-VW Racing Team

Men's team:
Jeremiah Bishop (USA), 32, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Chris Eatough (USA), 33, Oella, Maryland

Women's team:
Sue Haywood (USA), 36, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Jennifer Smith (NZl), 35, Gunnison, Colorado

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For the first time, American-based team Trek / VW is sending racers to the internationally reknown Cape Epic mountain bike race in South Africa from March 28 to April 5, 2008. Two men and two women, all four accomplished in various off-road racing disciplines, come together to take on some of the toughest stage racers world-wide. Chris Eatough, who dominates the American 100 mile and 24-hour endurance scene, has partnered with World Cup racer and US Olympic Team contender Jeremiah Bishop while Xterra Off-Road regular Jenny Smith teams up with Sue Haywood, the winner of El Reto Guatemala, TransRockies, and La Ruta de los Conquistadores. All four racers and their team manager will take turns contributing diary entries before and during the event.