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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Of lockdown, models and risks

Oscar Foulkes March 31, 2020 Uncategorized No comments
In years – probably decades to come – the Covid-19 pandemic will be the subject of case studies in many different disciplines. This thing is of interest to everybody from epidemiologists to political scientists, psychologists, behavioural scientists and more.

One of the factors that has intrigued me (in real time) is the data. I don’t know if any occasion in world history has been tracked – or forecast – with as many data points. Plus, the guys crunching the numbers are active on Twitter, so we literally have ringside seats, even though we are stuck in lockdown.

Before I go further, I’m not making any statements about this ‘just being the flu’. It’s highly contagious, there is no vaccine, and people die.

Experts have produced a variety of models, which portray a number of scenarios involving varying numbers of dead people. So much of this has been published that the exponential curve has its own memes. Governments have implemented – or not – the recommendations. In fact, so many different strategies are in play that we could almost argue that it could be construed as a randomised trial.

As an aside, this has also been a learning opportunity for maths teachers to use the basic numbers relating to the virus and its spread as the basis for showing that maths isn’t necessarily as difficult or obtuse as it is accused of being.

On 14 March, the Washington Post published this visual representation of the spread of Covid-19. I can’t believe it’s a little over two weeks ago. So much has happened!

There was also the Imperial College report on the modelling they did (click here for more).

And, of course, the application of maths depends upon the degree to which the data representing each population are the equivalent. Infection rates are going appear to be higher in a country that has high testing rates. Deon Gouws has unpacked a bunch of these factors here.

So far, so good. Whichever way we look at it, there is some kind of steep infection curve we’re all going to be on. Whether it ends up being fully exponential is unknown. In fact, evidence from countries that got it first is that preventative measures do result in the curve flattening. The USA also had early cases, but did nothing. What plays out there will be interesting as a comparison to countries that took more proactive measures earlier (with apologies for appearing to be callous to the human suffering and hardship that will accompany the infections.)

Even Italy, with its high death rate, has over the past few days consistently shown a daily decrease in new cases.

One of the implications of going into lockdown is that the authorities have given equal weight to the risk posed by any individual or community. This is clearly not the case. For the first few weeks of the outbreak in South Africa, the greatest risk lay with the people who travelled internationally, and their immediate circles. Furthermore, the people they interacted with did not have same mortality risk, because of different co-morbidity factors.

The pandemic is producing data on a daily basis. One piece of data that I found interesting was a report early today that a Maryland nursing home has 77 infected residents, out of a total of 95. These people, presumably, are high risk, and the virus should have been kept out at all costs. However, under normal circumstances, the residents don’t have the same potential for infecting others on a mass scale because they are generally stuck in the nursing home. This is not the same as the group of people from one party in Westport, Connecticut that led to dozens of immediate infections, which then ‘went viral’ (read more here).

Another bit of data I found interesting was the similarity in dates between India’s first infection, and that of New York. However, what happened thereafter is massively different, and not just because of different rates of testing. New York must have been affected by waves of arrivals of infected people (presumably living in close proximity), whereas India’s growth may have been organic only. So, the two regions did not represent a similar risk profile.

Under lockdown conditions, large numbers of South Africans run the risk of starving to death. Or, even if they don’t die, they will suffer extreme hardship. Funding for lockdown-alleviation programmes had to come from private funders. Our government is as broke as the population it governs.

We don’t know what the cost of lockdowns will be. We’re told that the cost of not doing them would be far greater. Perhaps that is true.

Maybe there’s a case to be made for a smarter approach than shutting down everything for an indefinite time. For example, Germans who have recovered from Covid-19 can resume normal activities.

I should declare my love of numbers. In another life I might have followed a path that led me in the general direction of Nate Silver’s career (I’m bit of a fanboy). My attitudes to risk are partially formed by my involvement in horse racing. For example, if there are 16 horses in a race, they don’t all have the same chance of winning. And, in fact, if a top horse is offered at even money it’s likely that he would win that race more than 50% of the time. This is not the same as the red-black choice in Roulette.

Using the example of a permutation-based bet, like the Pick Six, a savvy punter might include the entire field (i.e. all the runners) in some legs, but have a banker in another leg. Taking the entire field is the equivalent of lockdown – it costs the most, but there are no gaps.

Regular handwashing, with associated care actions, might be regarded as the single-action strategy one would call the ‘banker’. If everyone washes their hands regularly and sanitises the surfaces they touch, and if infected people wear masks, almost everyone will remain disease-free.

The only way to be 100% certain of winning the Pick Six is to include the field all the way through. However, the cost will be prohibitive, and only in very few cases would the payout recover the cost of taking the bet. Blanket lockdown is looking a bit like this, except that the living conditions of the majority of our population probably mitigates some of the benefits of lockdown. So, it’s not really as risk-free as it’s pitched.

All risk events have a cost and a pay-off, and the ratio between them should approximate the frequency with which the event is likely to happen. My digression into horse races is less trite than it seems.

It’s possible that our lockdown is going to be extended. Or, even if it isn’t extended, some form of preventative measures will be necessary.

We went into lockdown largely on the basis of scenarios presented by Imperial College. They had to make assumptions in setting up their models. However, we now have more data at our disposal. The spread of Covid-19 isn’t the epidemiological equivalent of plug ‘n play. We’re starting to see many layers of nuance.

Consequently, I would argue that some kind of weighted approach is necessary, in the interventions that are applied.

I wouldn’t rush to a rock concert just yet, but there must surely be a way of safely restarting parts of the economy on 17 April?

Racing Through Generations

Oscar Foulkes February 5, 2020 Horse Racing No comments
This was my (unsuccessful) entry in the LQP Writers’ Contest.

I attended my first Queen’s Plate in 1984. Wolf Power was the winner, ridden by Jeff Lloyd. His sensational run of form over a magical 18-month period left the kind of impression that is unique to young people seeing their first champion. I can’t think of Wolf Power without imagining The Guv on his back, Lloyd’s extra-short stirrups thrusting his body into a pose matching that of an inverted isosceles triangle. His ‘look’ on the back of a horse was different to that of any other jockey.

Charles Faull’s iconic canter past picture of Wolf Power prior to the 1984 Queen’s Plate is a study in grey, black and white, with further grey provided by the smoke backdrop.

It seems appropriate, then, that a grass fire downwind of Kenilworth had sent thick clouds of smoke across the racetrack as we awaited the start of the 2020 L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate. My racing companion was my daughter, having her first LQP experience. My son had been with me the day before, also making his LQP debut.

There is a great deal of information for racing ‘newbies’ to absorb; far more than can be shared in one afternoon (not that my children are newbies in the same sense as the LQP party goers). I started by explaining the significance of this as the country’s most important 1600m race, because of the weight-for-age (WFA) conditions, as well as its long and proud history.

I then told them that their grandmother had bred the winner three times, twice with Winter Solstice, and then his close relative Mother Russia. My mother’s second cousin, Dan de Wet, bred Pocket Power, which meant that there was an unbroken seven-year sequence of LQP winners from the de Wet family.

You have to go back to 1951 to find another individual woman (i.e. not a de facto inclusion as part of a marital partnership) to have bred a winner, in the form of Peggy Kelly, the registered breeder of Black Cap. While those circumstances are unknown to me, the expectation is that Ms Kelly’s role wasn’t quite as hands-on – or riven with risk – as that of Veronica Foulkes.

My mother didn’t need to look far for female role models. Her own mother, Margaret de Wet was an inspiration.

When her husband, Oscar de Wet, died early in their marriage, my maternal grandmother took over the running of the family farm, Excelsior. Keeping with this essay’s theme of timely connection between past and present, the current issue of Farmer’s Weekly has an archive section in which they’ve reproduced an article about my grandmother that was first published in 1964. Woman farmers were scarcer than hen’s teeth in those days, and magazine articles about them fewer still. The discovery of this article brought my extended family to a reverent standstill.

When I was born (on my mother’s 21st birthday), my mother forever tied me to de Wet heritage by making it my second name. It’s become easier to make my initials “OD” or “ODW”, but the NHRA has stuck with the more correct “O de W”.

The de Wet family settled in Ashton in 1869, when my great great grandfather, Koos, purchased a large tract of land after eloping with his brother’s fiancée. In 1878, he bought the stallion Octavius Caesar from the stud of Queen Victoria (I haven’t been able to establish what impact his progeny had on the race that owes its genesis – and name – to this monarch).

The original farm was split between Koos’ three sons, into entities that still exist – Zandvliet, Prospect (divided once more) and Excelsior. All three were important studs at various periods in the 20th century.

Returning to the LQP Festival, my grandfather, Oscar de Wet, bred the winner of the second and third runnings of the Paddock Stakes, in the form of Country Cousin. At stud she produced the Sceptre Stakes winner, Tabor.

Looking back over the list of breeders with winners in the races that comprise the LQP Festival, primarily the Queen’s Plate, it’s striking how few have retained any kind of continuity. Most of them are no longer in operation. The line from Koos de Wet to Veronica Foulkes is admittedly not a direct one in a patriarchal sense, but it feels significant that it comes at the end of an unbroken 150-year heritage of breeding Thoroughbreds. Unless one of my children or nephews gets involved, I’m the last man standing.

It’s the final third of this history that obviously is most real to me, because these are filled with the broodmares and their descendants that I’ve been around since I was a little boy. Perhaps the most important of these – in a L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate context – was the mare Terpsichore, in that two of her daughters produced Queen’s Plate winners. To date, this is the only family to have produced multiple winners.

Breeding operations generally close down when a stud has had a run of bad stallions. This was especially true of Karoo studs, where it was not practical to send mares to outside stallions. The second reason internal to the stud is the degree of interest from the owner and future generations. Finally, there is the critically important external factor: commercial viability.

Racing faces tough times, partly due to the dire state of the South African economy, but mostly thanks to racing’s inability to hold onto its existing customer base, let alone grow it.

The LQP Festival plays a vital leadership role in the process of reversing decades of complacency if not outright incompetence. For those of us who are invested in the future of this great sport, blue and white are the colours of hope.

Every aspect of the event is managed with minute attention to detail and deep levels of care. It has been grown conservatively, getting just a little bit bigger every year, set against the best racing it is possible to assemble, on the country’s fairest racecourse (in both senses of the word). Of course there is glamour, fashion, celebrity and an after party, because racing is in a unique position to deliver those things. The core product – the horse/racing – delivers an immediate rush from up close, but is admittedly a longer, more complex journey, as it engages both mind and feeling.

At the moment, the direst of predictions might not see racing surviving another ten years, let alone have its future mirror the long history of many of the sport’s professionals.

It is up to my children to choose their fields of study, and ultimately the kind of work they’ll do, presumably in vibrant industries. I’m not going to push them into any direction. However, I owe it to them to share the things that are important to me, especially the ones I feel in the pit of my stomach. Thoroughbred racing and breeding is one of those.

I could wax lyrical about horses’ beauty, the power of them at gallop, the liberation of being on horseback, the wonderful experience of being surrounded by a group of inquisitive yearlings in a paddock, the hopes and dreams that plot the route back from disappointments, or the many hours of planning that precede bloodstock decisions. The fact is that all of the above is simply something I feel. And it’s good.

Over 1600m, the drag effect of weight is two pounds per length. It’s a handy entry point for making handicapping calculations over all other distances, by making a pro rata adjustment. Furthermore, handicapping is incomplete without an understanding of WFA. Could the WFA 1600m L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate also be an entry point for a broader reinvigoration of our sport? I do hope so.

The race’s record also happens to be a hook on which one can hang just about any story about the greatest of our jockeys, trainers, racehorses, stallions, broodmares and breeders, not to mention the owners that paid the bills. Eventually, all those stories intersect with the Queen’s Plate.

Smoke and fire have an obvious connection. I am willing a blue and white feathered phoenix to rise from those ashes.

Broodmare covering records in my great great grandmother’s notebook

My grandmother in 1964, with her trophy-winning yearling, Agricola.

Hardware vs Software

Oscar Foulkes October 21, 2019 Cape Epic No comments
If you’ve ever thought it’s ridiculous to ride a bicycle that costs the same as a small car, read on. If you’re someone who thinks it’s perfectly normal to ride such a bike, read on.

I’ve often marvelled at mountain bikes’ ability to take a beating on rough trails. Yes, some are more robust than others, but in general they get put through a lot.

However, it’s not enough for them to just handle the punishment without ending up in an Ikean state. We also want them to make it easy for us to ride the technical stuff – effectively compensating for the rider’s lack of talent – and we want all this in a lightweight package.

In this continuum of man and machine, there comes a point where – regardless of the technical genius of the machine – the rider has to have the skill (plus matching confidence) to stay on the bike. To borrow from the world of computers, this is the software.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have been able to ride a wide range of bikes over the past three years. Switching from my old, low-spec bike (which i impulsively bought, lured by the social media campaigns led by The Marketing Heaven at the time) to Yeti gave me first-hand experience of the bike making trails easier. The same happened when I rode the Santa Cruz Tallboy, which is a super-forgiving ride.

But another thing happened. As the bikes made it easier for me ride ‘harder’ sections, my confidence and skill adjusted. So, when I went backwards (e.g. from Tallboy to Yeti, which is theoretically less forgiving) I didn’t need as much help from the bike. In a sense, my software got updated by interacting with the hardware.

I’ve written a few times about the Santa Cruz Blur, which is a super-lightweight racing machine intended for marathon events (i.e. theoretically not as technically demanding). However, with the Santa Cruz downhill pedigree behind its design, it was always going to handle that stuff well.

Blur comes with 2.25” tyres as standard, but I think it gives a much better ride with the extra volume of 2.35” tyres, ridden slightly softer. Yes, to non-riders this may seem as arcane as the shape of wine glass changing the wine’s aroma, but they’re both real.

After I became a Blur-liever, Santa Cruz added the TR version, which has bit more of a trail spec. To be more specific (and apologies for the technical references), the two big differences are that the TR comes with a dropper post as well as a more robust fork that has more travel. These changes bring it closer to the performance of a trail bike, like the Tallboy.

For my latest bike-switch, there was no available stock of the TR version, so I had to hack it, by adding those two elements to the standard Blur build kit. For an immersive technical view, read here.

I didn’t realise that it could be possible to love the Blur any more than I already did, but I’ve discovered that it is. What was a great ride is now a sensational ride – or whatever hyperbolic adjectives are appropriate. I also am embarrassed to admit that it’s taken me this long to start riding with a dropper.

It took me a couple of rides to get used to the experience, but I now cannot bear the restriction on movement caused by having the saddle between my legs on descents. Getting further back on the bike makes the steep stuff easier, and getting the saddle out of the way is great for riding bendy trails. On fast descents, dropping the saddle enables me to drop my centre of gravity, which makes the bike more stable.

I must be getting the hang of this new set-up, because yesterday, instead of braking when approaching a corner, I found myself crouching closer to the saddle (and shifting my weight even more). That is a game-changer.

I know that the fork is helping me over bigger obstacles, but the demonstration of this isn’t quite as obvious as the dropper.

I once read a quote, about us discovering particular books at a time when we need that knowledge (apologies for the poor paraphrasing). The same might be said of my new Blur set-up.

You see, I’ve been diagnosed with bilateral frozen shoulder, the cause of which is the subject of speculation. One of the theories is that three Cape Epics in three years, not long after completing radiotherapy, plus a bunch of other multi-day events and a punishing training programme, have caused general depletion. In the past month I’ve had cortisone injections into both shoulders, so I need to wait a few more weeks before we can do a battery of investigative blood tests.

In the interim, I’ve backed off the intensity and length of rides. Over the past few weeks my rides have been in the vicinity of an hour, with the climbs being included only for the purpose of getting me to the top of descents. I’m targeting the more technical trails that I’ve previously found more daunting, and trying to ride them as fast as possible.

What I’m getting at is that – in the absence of an upcoming ‘event goal’ – the new Blur has given my cycling a new kind of purpose. It’s almost like the books that cross our paths when we most need them.

If you followed my blog in the lead-up to this year’s Epic you’d know that a month before the event I was so fatigued that I took a couple of weeks off training. I’d had a sense for some time that my body just wasn’t ‘firing’. Subsequent to Epic, I haven’t experienced the usual post-Epic leap in performance. In fact, I got slower.

The endurance mindset would have me pushing through, and just keeping going, even with the frozen shoulders. But this isn’t supposed to be a case of suffering through the pain and discomfort, just because I can. Mountain biking is supposed to be fun, after all.

I’m enjoying the change of scenery, and I can say with certainty that I’ve never enjoyed riding a bike more than the TR-styled Blur.

This hardware is good for my software!

Similar set-up to my Blur (except that I have a black fork).


This Little Piggy

Oscar Foulkes June 4, 2019 Uncategorized No comments

Masterchef has many opportunities for drinking games. For example, when a contestant describes produce as “beautiful”, or when a dish is “me on a plate”. Then there is the old stand-by, “my food dream”. Every time these phrases are used, it’s time to drink.

I can’t say that I have a “food dream”. I cook because I love eating. Deliciousness rules my life (hence the name of this blog), whether it’s food or drink.

I regularly give loaves of my homebaked sourdough bread to friends, but I have less than no desire to open a bakery (a case of ‘zero dreams given’?).

And yet.

David Gelb’s brilliant series Chef’s Table and Street Food tease out the chefs’ stories. The food looks beautiful, but it’s more about the artist than the pieces of art (although there are times I’ve wished I could instantly teleport myself into their dining rooms).

Especially while watching Street Food, I could feel my insides swelling with a feeling of needing to express something. This also happens to me when I am driven to writing. I write to communicate, but I also write because there are things I need to express. The process of writing gives me pleasure.

I’m not going to open a bakery. For the same reason, I’m not going to open a restaurant.

But, there are other ways around this.

Pork belly, I’ve learnt, is a dish that can successfully be pre-cooked, and warmed up after spending some time in the fridge. Most importantly, I’ve done it WITHOUT LOSING THE CRACKLE.

Of all the animal proteins, pork is possibly the least well-supplied when it comes to being ethically pasture-reared. After much searching, I have finally found a farmer who will supply me with what I need.

As of this week, I therefore bring you This Little Piggy, with the headline offering of Slow-Roasted Pork Belly (complete with crackling, of course). It’s available to order only, with a minimum of two portions (at R160 for two portions).

Online orders are via the widget on this page. You can also drop me an email or whizz me a WhatsApp (083 297 3402). You can also order via Dish Food & Social (here). Collection is in Oranjezicht.

If your “food dream” is to be able to almost effortlessly serve delicious dinner to your family or guests, I’ve got you covered.

(Alongside, thanks to Pinterest, are some pork belly dishes you can easily knock together with pre-cooked pork belly. There are loads more on The Little Piggy Facebook page.

Use This Little Piggy’s slow-roasted pork belly to present a cutting edge plate like this, simply by adding the vegetables.

Use This Little Piggy’s slow-roasted pork belly to serve pork belly ramen.

On Epic & Pain

Oscar Foulkes March 27, 2019 Cape Epic No comments
“If you can’t deal with pain, you shouldn’t be riding Cape Epic.”

There may have been just a little bravado in my retort to the medic who was cleaning up the fairly impressive roastie around my elbow, following my Prologue tumble. As she did the clean-up, she warned me what bits were going to hurt. In truth, it wasn’t that sore, or maybe my ‘Epic mind’ had kicked in to manage the situation, or perhaps there was still enough adrenaline pumping through my system to mask it.

My way of managing pain – certainly in an on-the-bike endurance sense – involves three bits of framing:

  • pain is a transient experience
  • pain is relative
  • Epic and pain go together, so accept its presence and get on with the job

So, it helps to have benchmark memories of difficult climbs that have previously been endured/conquered. From that perspective, I can say to myself: “I’ve already done that one, and this one isn’t as bad.”

Even a long climb, like Groenlandberg, which takes me an hour, eventually comes to an end. And, although it’s an hour-long thing, some parts of it are less steep, so one has opportunities to recover a little.

We get used to things. For example, the excitement of a much-anticipated new car becomes jaded sooner than one might predict. Both pleasure and pain are transient experiences.

I might go quiet when I’m digging deep – even the famously vocal Spanish riders are silent on difficult parts of the route – and I might be hurting, but I know that there’s simple Physics involved. As long as I keep moving forward I’m going to reach the finish.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with these things; this is what works for me.

Versions of the above can also be applied in day-to-day life, but I’ll leave the pop psychology for another day.

Photo by Karin Schermbrucker/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Cape Epic 2019: Stage Seven

Oscar Foulkes March 25, 2019 Cape Epic No comments
The numbers for the final stage of Cape Epic gave a little bit of comfort – just 70km in distance with 1800m of climbing. And it came with the sugar coating that the hard yards had been ridden. That multiple difficulties had been endured.

On the last stage in 2018, I did a passable impersonation of a horse that’s bolted for home, going pretty much flat-out for the final 40km. It doesn’t often happen that Piet is on my back wheel, but that was one such day. Yesterday, Piet pre-empted that, but setting a strong tempo from the gun as we rode up the Jonkershoek valley first on tar, and then on the gravel road. We knocked off the first 9km in 27 minutes, reaching the top of the first big descent with a clear run down, catching stragglers from the start batch ahead of us as we hit the first singletrack.

Once again, we were climbing, but this time it was very slow, because we were doing it on singletrack. The climbing continued on forest road, until we reached the singletrack above the Land Rover Technical Terrain. Traffic made both of these slower than they needed to be.

After the first water point, we started the climb that would take us over Botmaskop, almost all of which was new to me. The route undulated, but every descent created more work, and when we ascended, the gradient was inevitably in the vicinity of 20 degrees. It was hard work.

Finally, we reached the second water point at the top of the Old Helshoogte pass, where we once again started climbing, effectively skirting the top ends of farms on the Banhoek side of Simonsberg. The uphill singletrack approaching Boschendal (or perhaps already on the property) was again made slow by traffic.

We managed to get past the fatigued riders, so that we had clear runs down Sugarbowl and Slingshot singletrack, adding some fun to the day. From this point on it was basically downhill or flat, giving us a speedy end to the day.

Finishing in one piece is not something one can take for granted. Yesterday, one of the last four lions, Mike Nixon, crashed on the finish line. Had it happened on any other day he’d have been out of the race. Timing is everything, about which I had my reminder overnight, with a stomach lurgy that would certainly have had me out of the event it if had struck early in the week – this morning I’m barely capable of typing a sentence.

We’ve now ridden 24 days of Cape Epic (i.e. three years’ worth) without so much as a flat tyre. My tumble during Prologue this year is the most serious crash we’ve had. The only other visit to medics was for Piet to get a drip after the super hot stage in Hermanus. We’ve been very lucky; it takes more than hard work and endurance to get through this thing.

I’d like to end with a huge thank you to everyone that came to cheer by the route, friends that called or messaged, to our support team, our coach, our families, and the crew that works crazy hours to take care of all the logistics for the event. All we had to worry about was riding our bicycles.

Cape Epic 2019: Stage Six

Oscar Foulkes March 23, 2019 Cape Epic No comments
Today’s stage was billed as the “play day”, but I don’t think too many riders got lured into believing that. The numbers were just too ominous – basically 90 km in distance, with 2650m of climbing, making it the ‘steepest’ day of the week. And, to all intents and purposes, the numbers of today’s stage made it very similar to the Queen Stage and the two other big days that preceded it.

Let me add some perspective to the scenario. Attakwas is pitched as the toughest one-day MTB race in the country, covering a 121km route with 2900m of climbing. Critically, no part of the route is on (energy-sapping) singletrack. The four big days this week haven’t diverged dramatically from those numbers, and there’s been loads of singletrack involved in the week. We’ve kind of done Attakwas four times this week.

Having completed today’s stage, 2019 is unquestionably the toughest Epic I’ve done.

I should mention that today’s climbing was generously seasoned with climbs that have a 20-degree gradient. Much of the rest of the climbing was on singletrack.

Oh, and we did about a fifth of the climbing in the first eight or nine kilometres, with a brutal climb up Botmaskop (hence the bottle we’re drinking tonight).

From Botmaskop we went down Skyfall at Bartinney, and then all the way to the top of the Banhoek valley, where it was extremely tempting to dive into the river. Then more singletrack climbing before a fun descent to the first water point.

More vineyard climbs followed, with a big ascent up the Simonsberg side of the valley, where we linked up with the extensive network of Simonsberg trails, and loads more climbing.

Around this time the temperature hit 30-degrees, eventually maxing at around 35.

Before the second water point we had a testing climb up Klapmuts Kop, with more climbing to get us to the desperately needed water point. The gap between first and second water points was probably too big, and I was almost in big trouble by the time we got there. It took me a good 25km to bounce back from being this close to the edge. Piet was magnificently patient with me.

From the second water point on, there was no shortage of water or hydration points, which didn’t make any sense.

The final waterpoint was at the top of the old Helshoogte pass, with not much climbing remaining for the day. I found a second wind as we came out of the culvert, and we finished strong over the final 8 km.

Once again, we had loads of friends cheering us on the route. Thank you, guys!

Cape Epic 2019: Stage Five

Oscar Foulkes March 22, 2019 Cape Epic No comments
Today’s report may end up being brief, and I can’t guarantee that everything will make sense. To say I was shattered at the finish would not be an understatement.

I’m collecting my thoughts while sipping Uva Mira Chardonnay (selected because the vines are grown on the slopes of the Helderberg), while looking at the slopes that caused so much pain this afternoon. They look so benign in the sunset light. It’s almost like the mountain equivalent of ‘butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth’.

When a previous Queen Stage gets relegated to just-a-stage then what replaces it must be tough. Indeed, expectations were built up almost to the point of the old-time mariners’ “here be dragons”.

From Oak Valley to the top of the Gantouw Pass was not a walk in the park, but with an easterly wind blowing we were at least not overheating. Having done the portage, we then had to do the traverse to Lourensford. That piece of riding is a schlepp, and I don’t like it any more when it is done in reverse as part of Wines2Whales day one.

Somewhere along the line the temperature hit 30-odd degrees, and stayed that way to the end.

The climb through Lourensford was nicely broken up, and then we hit the King’s Climb. It would be a testing climb at the best of times, but after nearly a week of Epic, and 60-odd kilometres into the day, it’s worthy of any abuse that gets thrown at it.

Then we hit the Land Rover Technical Terrain, which is a beautiful run down the Helderberg MTB trails. Except.

By the time we got there our bodies were tired (read arms, shoulders and hands), the usually immaculate trail was rutted, and there was traffic. Today was not the day to try to knock out a Strava PR!

I was quite desperate for the water point at the base. From here, it was roughly 20km to the finish, but with a bunch of gratuitous vineyard climbs that made it the worst part of the day for me. I had to dig deep over the last hour, or so.

The motto of Cape Epic is “conquer as one”, and today Piet more than came to the party in talking me through the grind.

We got through the day in one piece, which is the most important. We inched a few more places up the GC, an outcome that may have more to do with attrition amongst other riders than any particular strength or endurance on our part.

Cape Epic 2019: Stage Four

Oscar Foulkes March 21, 2019 Cape Epic No comments
Cape Epic introduced a time trial to the race in 2018. It was initially cheered, but then we all realised that it’s actually no coffee ride. Well, it is the kind of distance one might associate with a banter-filled Sunday morning pedal, but the organisers needed to make sure that the pros take long enough to get around.

So there is climbing, and it’s not easy climbing. Last year’s TT route up the mountainside in Wellington (in extreme heat) is the stuff of infamy. This year, the climbs were either in the vicinity of 20 degrees’ gradient, or switchback climbs. My fuck, did we do switchback climbs today.

I am generally in favour of switchback climbs (i.e. in preference to going straight up) because the lateral paths are at a lesser gradient. However, in order to make it around the corner, you need to build up a little pace, and then you have to keep it going up the steep pitch of the bend. When your legs are tired these things hurt.

What I’m getting at, is even if one decided to take it easy, the climbs will have the final say. The way my body reacts to them is that my legs are capable of producing the minimum level of required Watts, but due to my ‘throat history’ I can’t inhale enough air to keep my cardiovascular system happy. I end up gasping for air.

The only way that time trial day is recovery is that we finish the stage a couple of hours earlier, which leaves more time on the bed to rest in preparation for the following day.

Anyway, we had another day of getting around in one piece, and we had some fun on the superb Oak Valley and Paul Cluver singletrack. Even when traffic held us up it was still fun.

Another cool feature of today’s stage is that a bunch of mates took advantage of the public holiday to come and support us around the course. Thank you so much, guys, it makes a huge difference to our day!

Tomorrow is the Queen Stage. There are whispers doing the rounds of how it’s going to be one of the toughest days of Epic, ever. And, because the route is effectively new, it’s fertile space for gloomy expectations to grow. By this time tomorrow it will no longer be a mystery to the bulk of the field.

Once we’ve got to Stellenbosch I might relax a bit, but we need to get through tomorrow first.

Cape Epic 2019: Stage Three

Oscar Foulkes March 20, 2019 Cape Epic No comments
Today’s stage was very similar to the Queen Stage in 2017. However, this year it’s just another stage. That’s not necessarily empirical evidence of Epic getting harder, but I’m 100% certain that the field has got stronger since then, certainly in the Grand Masters category.

Our best stage finish ever was that Queen Stage, which we ended in 18th position in Grand Masters. We haven’t got close to that since then. We rode faster today than we did in 2017, and yet we couldn’t do better than 44th in our category.

Right, so how does 108km with 2800m of climbing play out?

Starting at Oak Valley, they sent us via the Grabouw Country Club on a big climb up Nuweberg, before dropping us to the bottom of a valley and then chasing us back up a steep, gravelly climb. We reached the water point having done some hard core climbing – in fact, no part of Groenlandberg is either steeper or more technical than what we did as a warm-up. It’s a great way of getting your head into the right space for a LOT more climbing.

Then we settled into the one hour climb up Groenlandberg. At the summit it was 10 degrees and rainy. There’s a long, rocky descent, followed by a jeep track that tracks all the way around the back of Groenlandberg, before starting the long ascent to Die Nek. The Land Rover Technical Terrain was on that final section, but with the rain settling the sand it rode like a sheep dressed in wolf’s clothing.

The descent from Die Nek is a long one, which starts off with an easy line, with the alternative of a more technical Santa Cruz line (especially when done at pace). We were in a passing mood, so we released brakes and let gravity perform its magic. That was a super amount of fun!

The next water point was at Houw Hoek Inn, before we crossed under the N2 and started what seemed like an interminable climb. It was around about this time that I realised that the holiday season base training was kicking in. I wasn’t capable of heroics, but I could execute the plan of steady pedalling. After traversing some distance we started the descent that would eventually lead us to South Hill. The upper few kilometres comprised a gnarly jeep track, with just one obvious line. Once again, we had to take the B-line to pass other teams. More fun was had.

The climb back up to South Hill was very steep. At the top we could see the water point, in fact I could have popped an easy seven iron into Paul Valstar’s lap as he called the riders into the area. But no, we got sent on a circuit of the South Hill cellar and homestead area that involved yet more climbing. That’s classic Cape Epic route planning.

After the water point we got sent through Old Mac Daddy, and up the hillside behind it. It’s a steep, loose climb that had me gasping for breath. We were behind some Spanish riders, who nonchalantly chatted all the way up. I know from previous Epics that this is their default setting – there is so much chatter when they are around.

Eventually we reached the start of the Lebanon singletracks, but we had slower riders ahead of us. After a while we managed to pass them, so that we could let rip in the next section, which we were able to do, before getting caught in traffic again.

We skipped the hydration station at Thandi, getting stuck straight into the switchback climb, and then making the final dash for Oak Valley.

We had a great day today, which does wonders for morale.

Tomorrow is the 41km time trial, which will give us some extra recovery time in the afternoon. This year’s Queen Stage is on Friday – we need to be in good space for that!