Wednesday, April 7, 2010


The Fat Tracks Mountain Bike club is the oldest Mtb club in South Africa - established in 1989. Since the early 1990's I have been involved with that club and its been a major contributor to establishing Mtb riding in South Africa. From the days when Niel Dorwood first started importing real Mtb's (ala Bridgestone), to the building of trails, social weekends and national level racing. This club has seen it all. Its undoubtedly the best grassroots club in South Africa and is experiencing a major revival with lots of effort being put in by lots of people all bound by a common thread - the love of Mtb's.

Mike and I used a potpourri of cycling shirts during the 2010 Cape Epic, and the circa 2007 Fat Tracks club kit was proudly worn on a number of stages. It's still my favorite shirt and will remain so for years to come.

The Cape Epic is undoubtedly South Africa's and if not the worlds premier mountain bike event. The road to the Epic was not easy. I have never stopped cycling, but fitness has dipped badly at times. It was the Epic which provided the motivating force to get back to a higher level of fitness. With Mtb's the fitter you are the better the riding experience. A pattern of events set off my 2010 Cape Epic participation. I had never done the Epic before, for a number of reasons. The event was not, in my head, a real mountain bike event. Since 2004, it had been largely a road race on dirt roads to Cape Town. In 2009 that changed, with a new format of stages clustered around 3 or 4 venues and lots of single track and real mountain biking. The news that I had secured an entry came on top of Table Mountain during a family visit to this icon of the Western Cape.

At the time I was fat and generally feeling miserable and wondering what it would have been like to do the prologue on Table Mountain. Coming off the mountain, an excellent Cape Town based Naturopath recommended that I drop sugar and low quality dairy from my diet. Having already had and discarded such advice from my wife and others, the Epic provided the motivation to actually listen. Result - from May to December 2009 I dropped over 13kg in weight through diet and exercise. It was not diet in the traditional sense (like don't eat), but, diet as in responsible eating.

The exercise bit was easy. Instead of torturous long rides, I became more diligent about commuting to work - at least 3 to 4 rides to work per week. Its a 44km round trip and you can see a description of the route here. Over weekends, I ramped up to 4 to 6 hour rides in Longmore - undoubtedly the best Mtb training ground in the area. For the Epic you simply have to learn how to climb and nowhere else in the Port Elizabeth area can you climb 400 to 500 meters per hour while still having fun. Incidentally, Longmore is one the the riding areas opened for Mtb's through the efforts of Fat Tracks, in 1994.

Getting the right partner was also crucial and Mike Charlewood was absolutely perfect, having already done the event in 2009. He was recovering from a broken elbow sustained in the Baviaans 24 hour event and he is one of the few road riders who have successfully made the transition from road to mountain bikes.

The first 3 stages were hard. We messed up stage one by starting to fast, fading midway and struggling on the railway line for the last 7 kms. Day 2 was the singletrack stage with awesome vistas and granny gear climbs (Dead Man Walking). From day 4 onwards, we started going better by riding more consistently. I had mechanicals on Day 4 (shredded tyre) and Day 5 (twisted chain), where we lost time. On days 6 to 8 we started getting finishes in the top 100 (60 - 72) and top ten in the Masters (8th and 9th). Eventually we landed up 104 in GC and 17th in Masters.

I can only sing the praises of the Cape Epic as it has transformed mountain biking in the country. From a Cinderella fringe sport, it has gone mainstream bringing mountain biking to television and adding huge amounts of popular appeal. I was struck by the amount of people following the race, through attendance at the event (the crowds have to be seen to be appreciated), on television and live tracking on the Internet. It's an event grabbing the public attention and showcasing the Western Cape like we have never seen before. Foreigners are in love with the event and turn it into their annual holiday. My prediction - in two to three years time we will see live television coverage of the event - ala Tour de France style!

Critics of Cape Epic founder and race director Kevin Vermaak slate the high entry fees and the fact that this is being run as a business. My response is that there is real value being provided. Logistically, this is a very difficult event to put on and costs are high. Levels of organization are superb and the only criticism I do have is the toilet to person ratio - which seems to be excessively high.

There are no airs and graces in this event. While B&B's and Camper vans are a luxury option, there is an amazing vibe in the tented village. You meet top riders like Mannie Heymans in the queue for the toilets. Talking to Thomas Frischknecht was a highlight. His an absolute legend and is closely associated with Tom Ritchey. Unfortunately his partner (Tom Ritchey was supposed to have ridden, but got married instead) sustained a knee injury on the first day so Frischi finished as an individual. He is now 40 and would surely have won the Masters (even though he claims to be only riding for fun).

At the end of it, doing the Epic is actually about self growth - you find out things about yourself and life - that one would never know otherwise. Would I do this event again - absolutely - if I could and if I have the same partner. Unfortunately, this event is not cheap, in terms of time and financial impact, but its worth it, even if you only do it once! So who knows what 2011 will bring? My partner has already secured an early bird entry - whether I will join him or not is dependent on a range of factors still to be worked through. All I know is if I'm not at the 2011 Epic, there will have to be very good reasons why!

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