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Epic 2018: Beware of death by a thousand cuts

Oscar Foulkes October 15, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
It’s a rainy Sunday morning. According to YR, the afternoon will be dry, so I can park myself on the couch for the morning with clear conscience, although, to be honest, I’ve seldom allowed conscience to get in the way of slothing on the couch.

The focal point of this week’s riding was yesterday’s 80km Java MTB. The start was at Van Loveren, but the race took place on the McGregor side of the Breede River. It’s mostly on Epic routes, which was the primary attraction.

The trip to Robertson was also an opportunity to spend a night with my mother, and to look at the yearlings she’ll be selling next year. Sometimes the overlap between MTB and horse events works, but I’ll miss Attakwas next year because of a clash with a yearling auction. Similarly, I’ll miss day one of a November three-day training camp because of an auction.

After the relatively easy previous week, I was back on the Wattbike on Tuesday, for a Super Interval session. After a warm-up, there’s four minutes in zone 5 followed by 50 seconds at maximum and another four minutes in zone 5. Then six minutes of recovery spinning before doing it all over again. Four reps in total.

Thursday was supposed to be an easy hour(ish), but chores got in the way. I thought it was something I could get away with not doing (sorry, Erica).

The Daisyway team was out in full force for the Java race, with the intention that we’d all ride as a group. However, my participation in group activities somehow didn’t happen. I felt so comfortable for the first five or ten kilometres that I didn’t notice I had pulled clear of them. Then I got caught up with a group of much younger riders who were going at bit of a pace. I eventually realised that I was probably pushing harder than I should have, but I didn’t dare get caught by ‘Mr Steady Pace’ Spook, so I just kept going.

He would have had choice words for me if he had. I couldn’t have ridden the race at that pace and survived the rest of Epic, well not at current levels of fitness.

The Java MTB route doesn’t have any really big climbs. Instead, there are many mini climbs. Because the route allows for generally good momentum there’s a risk of riding the climbs harder than one would if they were bigger. As one rider put it to me yesterday, it’s like burning matches. By the time I reached the finish yesterday, I felt as if I may as well have ridden over Groenlandberg, and all we’d done was 1500m of climbing.

Seeing as this will largely be Stage Two of Epic 2018, I need to also mention a section called Bosvark, a 9.5km twisting and turning singletrack that works its way up a kloof and then back down the other side. It gives the impression of being recently constructed, so it’s quite loose in places. Yesterday, we reached it after about 60km, and it was an unpleasant grind. On Epic, it’s the Land Rover technical section, about 80km in. I can’t see it being any more fun than it was yesterday.

Queen stages get all the attention, but don’t underestimate riding 110km on this terrain. With a lot of work still to be done on the remaining five stages, overcooking it on Stage Two could amount to death by a thousand cuts.

Update: When I did the three hour road ride late in the afternoon, my legs were toast, so I definitely overdid it slightly during the Java MTB (perhaps I should have said my legs were roasted?). One thing I forgot to mention is that part of the route goes through Stephan Viljoen’s farm, Steenboksvlakte, where he’s built some great singletrack. Stephan is the brother of my Epic partner Piet, so there’s all kinds of familiarity to the route (not that it makes it any easier that parts of it are a home game).

My mother's paddocks at Normandy Stud are on Arabella. From 18 March this will be the race village for three nights.

My mother’s paddocks at Normandy Stud are on Arabella. From 18 March this will be the race village for three nights.

Epic 2018: Riding in a Daisy chain

Oscar Foulkes October 8, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
“Recovery week” is a great phrase to see on a training programme; much like reaching an oasis in the desert, cresting a big climb, or even a 25-24 loss to the All Blacks after a bad season. It means that Tuesday and Thursday’s rides are each in the vicinity of 90 minutes of non-intense spinning. The body gets the opportunity of shaking off aches and general fatigue.

To be honest, I don’t feel apprehensive about ‘big’ mid-week sessions. Having a stoic’s ambivalence to the work that needs to be done, I suppose, goes with the territory of taking part in endurance sport. So, I have a similar attitude to recovery rides as more intense sessions, but I do enjoy the rest.

On Saturday morning I joined the Daisyway team on the Helderberg MTB trails (read more about Erica and Spook here).

Joining us on the ride was another of their clients, as well as their 13-year-old son, Tim, a hugely talented downhill rider in his own right.

As we got into the single track, Erica told me to follow Tim. She could have added: “if you can keep up”. Over the course of the next couple of hours I was learning by watching how Tim handled the trails, with Erica calling instructions to me from behind: “drop your heels”, or “elbows”, or “point your knee more”.

I was in the middle of a Daisy chain, doing my best to keep up with a fearless youngster, aided by small adjustments to technique that were being pointed out to me from behind. The changes weren’t much more than an inch here and there, but they make a big difference to how the bike handles the trails.

Erica’s programme had me down for a 100km road ride today. With Piet away, I was scrambling for cycling buddies. A few weeks ago I rode 113km as ‘Norman Nomates’; not only was it boring, but riding on the road without a peloton is a lot more work. I’m stoic enough to do it, but if there’s an opportunity of riding with a gang, I’ll choose it.

The big decision comes when the other guys decide to turn early. Today this meant that I under-delivered on the 100km required. In fairness, I went at the climbs quite hard, which eases some guilt.

It’s not just the cycling that’s better when you’re in a group; the coffee stop is also a whole lot more interesting. A few weeks ago I was introduced to the concept of intermittent fasting. This morning we had a discussion about Colin’s vegan month (while Rob, at the end of the table, ate his way through five poached eggs).

These posts are aimed at recording what’s involved in getting to – and through – Cape Epic. However, I’d ride my bike anyway (not quite as much, though) for general fitness and wellbeing. Similarly, brushing up on skills and riding technique with the Daisyway team would be a good idea for recreational mountain biking, even if there aren’t races planned. Apart from increasing your enjoyment on the trails, improved skills also reduce the risk of injury.

Mountain biking is poaching market share from golf, a sport that few would approach without some technical guidance. On the other hand, relatively few mountain bikers will get skills training before bombing down a mountain at 40 or 50 km/h.

The Helderberg MTB trails are fantastic (and jumps are optional).

Epic 2018: Heading for a new normal

Oscar Foulkes October 4, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
In the early days of my road to Epic 2017, I recall talking about the need for a ‘new normal’.

Health issues aside, by 2016 it wasn’t hugely intimidating for me to take on a three-day stage race (like Wines2Whales). However, as I pointed out to friends, every day of Cape Epic is roughly 50% more, in both distance and metres climbed. Or, to put it the other way, Wines2Whales is two-thirds of an average Epic day. The difference is that Wines2Whales is finished after three days, and on Epic they may sneak in a day that’s double the climbing and distance.

So, I needed to reach the point where a 90km ride held the same value as 60km used to. Hence the ‘new normal’.

I’ve discovered a few other ‘new normals’ along the way, starting with people riding bikes that cost the same as small cars (and on tyres that certainly exceed the cost of car tyres). It’s normal to do two 60 to 90 minute training rides during the week, followed by another three to four hours on both Saturday and Sunday.

On Sunday, I had glimpses of something else I hope is a new normal, in that I rode a fairly big climb at the same speed as my PR on that segment, except that my heart rate was nine beats per minute slower this time around.

If you’ve been reading these updates from the beginning of my training process, you’ll know how significant this factor is to me (read more about my impaired breathing capacity here).

I think there are two major contributing factors to this (hopefully permanent) change in performance. Firstly, there’s the work that I did leading up to Epic, and during Epic itself. In fact, if I compare how I’m feeling at the moment, with the fog I fought my way through during last year’s recovery process, I don’t know how 12 months ago I thought I could be aiming for Epic 2017.

The second factor is Erica Green’s training programme, which is very specific in terms of the power levels required for the high intensity sessions (i.e. intervals, hills, and super intervals). I’ve been doing them on a Wattbike, because of the very precise measurement of power output on every part of the pedal rotation, for each leg.

The other difference in Erica’s programme is that I’ve been doing a lot more on the road. Two weekends ago I did over 200km on two rides, and last Saturday I knocked out another 100km. Mountain biking is more demanding of the entire body than road riding, and often requires bursts of power. Road riding, on the other hand, is more about long stretches of consistent pedalling, without the micro breaks one gets while mountain biking.

The first four stages of Cape Epic 2018 are long – a total of 455km on potentially loose terrain, which increases the difficulty factor. That’s a kind of new normal that requires a lot of training!

The data from all my training rides/sessions gets uploaded to Erica's special platform, and she checks everything. Any cutting of corners gets picked up (and corrected) immediately.

The data from all my training rides/sessions gets uploaded to Erica’s special platform, and she checks everything. Any cutting of corners gets picked up (and corrected) immediately.

Epic 2018: Work to be done

Oscar Foulkes September 24, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
The 2018 Absa Cape Epic route was revealed this week. The big feature that jumped out at me is that Stages One to Four are all in excess of 110km, with Stage Three weighing in at a lengthy 122km. It’s little consolation that none of the seven stages has more than 2000m of climbing (unlike 2017’s five stages that comfortably exceeded this).

Throughout those four days, I’m sure, my attention will be fixated on Stage Five’s 39km time trial. Riders that are aiming for podium will be racing. Guys like us will maintain a comfortable enough pace to get us through the stage without risking elimination. From this perspective, it’s looking like a ‘rest’ day.

There’s plenty of familiarity to the route. The Prologue is on trails that I have ridden dozens of times (although not necessarily in this configuration). The race village for the first three nights will occupy my mother’s paddocks (Normandy Stud is on land that is part of Arabella). And, the finish is at Val de Vie, where we are responsible for all hospitality (the Polo Club restaurant, as well as events in the ballroom).

So far, so good, but pain will also be a familiar feature of those eight days. We all have different ways of coping with discomfort; what works for me is to see it as transient. As long as I keep moving, the minutes and miles tick by. Before I know it, a point of relief has been reached.

Of course, the best strategy is to be as fit and strong as possible. This year, Erica Green is training us. Apart from the physical benefit of the training, having a documented training regimen takes all negotiation out of whether one wants to go out on a training ride or, indeed, what one does while on the bike.

To be honest, those four 110+km days are a pretty big incentive to do the work. I really don’t want to be out there for nine hours a day. With this in mind, I’m pleased that I’ve got the 230km (in one stage) of TransBaviaans under my belt.

Both of this weekend’s rides involved big distances on the road, with plenty of climbing stipulated. I joined a new group for the Saturday ride, which was supposed to be 120km. However, due to very strong headwinds, the peloton turned early, so I got in just 91km. This counted as the 80km ride, but I still needed to do the 120km, which I ended up doing today. Spending five hours alone on the road – with beautiful views as consolation – was a major test of resolve, especially on tired legs because of riding harder than intended yesterday.

This may fall into the category of TMI. However, seeing as I’m sharing the experience of preparing for – and riding – Cape Epic, I’d be remiss in glossing over this particular bit of discomfort. For the past week, or so, I’ve had an infected area in the part of my behind that bears my weight on the saddle. It seems to be a large-ish boil thing surrounded by a several smaller members of its family. The quickest way to get them to heal is to lance them. The problem is that I’m incapable of clapping eyes on that part of my body, and at the moment I’m home alone. If I already were on Epic I could wander over to the Bum Clinic, where a nurse would cheerfully take care of the treatment without any damage to dignity. It seems too minor an ailment to trouble the emergency room at my local hospital (although it would add nicely to the list of craziness for which members of my family have been treated there after hours).

Despite this relatively minor ailment, compared with the state of my body a year ago, I feel great, for which I’m hugely grateful.

Regardless of all the months of preparation, we have no control over the conditions. Heat, cold, wind or rain can make Epic even more epic. There may be a day that one’s body is just having an off day.

There’s a reason why it’s described as “eight days of courage”.

“Work to be done” is the ‘Epic mantra’ shared with me by Mark Pienaar

No matter the pain in one's legs; cycling over Chapman's Peak is one of the world's great treats.

No matter the pain in one’s legs; cycling over Chapman’s Peak is one of the world’s great treats.

Sharing the Road

Oscar Foulkes August 27, 2017 Uncategorized 1 comment
We need to talk about bikes, specifically when they share the road with motor vehicles. I have to put it on the table, right up front, that not all riders are shining lights of responsible road use. I see far too many cyclists riding two or three abreast. For those same riders to then get aggressive with motorists that point out their transgression is beyond the pale.

It’s a subject that comes up on talk radio from time to time, which generally airs strong views at the extremes of the debate. In my view, it’s part of a much bigger issue, relating to the non-defensive and often negligent way in which many people operate their motor vehicles.

Road ‘accidents’ are rightly referred to as crashes by road management authorities. To call them accidents would be to absolve drivers of any responsibility for the actions that led to the incidents, when we know that error, negligence or outright criminality is the cause of the majority of crashes.

While cycling, I have twice been struck by cars. The first, on 16 March 2002, was a car driven by a young woman who had been out partying all night. She shouldn’t have been driving. I was hit from behind, and was extremely lucky to walk away from the scene. Ironically, I was on my way to ride on the mountain to get away from cars.

I avoided riding on the road since then. However, training for marathon mountain biking races does require time on the road as well, so Cape Epic training has lured me back onto the road.

The route for yesterday’s road ride necessitated getting through the Salt River-Woodstock precinct, for which there is a handy bike lane along Albert Road. As you can see from the picture alongside, the City has attempted to give it maximum visibility. However, it seems that the green paint is simply an invitation for the space to be invaded by cars, car guards and other parts of the Saturday morning ecosystem around The Biscuit Mill.

I dodged all sorts as I led through this section, riding as defensively and proactively as possible. However, I had no way of knowing that a car approaching from behind was about to turn left across the bike lane, wiping me out in the process. Once again, I was very lucky to get away from this with nothing more serious than roasties, bruises, and a scuffed saddle. Yes, there is a certain amount of irony to getting taken out in a bike lane.

The thing is that, over the course of three hours, we experienced several incidences of careless driving that could have caused us harm if we’d been in the wrong place at the right time (or is that the right place at the wrong time?). The final infraction resulted in my riding partner riding to catch up with the vehicle, so that he could express his feelings on the driver’s lack of road awareness (there was, admittedly, some shouting involved).

Bicycles don’t belong on all roads, but is it too much to ask motorists to take extra care when there is a clearly demarcated bike lane adjacent to the road?

My experience along the Atlantic seaboard stretch to Hout Bay is that motorists generally give the multitude of recreational riders a safe berth. On Chapman’s Peak, the tolerance is even greater, perhaps because it’s a sightseeing route, so drivers are more patient.

I’ll continue to cycle responsibly/defensively, and ask other cyclists to do the same.

To drivers, no matter how great your frustration, I ask you to bear in mind that every person on a bicycle is more vulnerable than you. If there is a rock-paper-scissors of road use, surely vulnerability trumps all other considerations?

The bike lane in Salt River (Pic: Abbas Harris)

The bike lane in Salt River (Pic: Abbas Harris)

A Job For Life

Oscar Foulkes July 25, 2017 Horse Racing No comments
Speaking additional languages isn’t just about making oneself understood. One also needs to be aware of the polite word for things – and I don’t mean words that are impolitely used to refer to faecal matter. Take the Afrikaans word bek, for instance, as used in the expression “hou jou bek”, which translates as “hold your mouth”. It’s the “shut your trap” equivalent of “hold your tongue”, because the polite word for mouth is mond.

Admittedly, I never thought about it with any great latitude, but I couldn’t understand how bek could be mond, until I was on a trip to Montreal and saw the French word bec, indicating the spout of a milk carton. Bec, of course, is also the word for beak, so now it all makes sense.

When Afrikaners say, “Hy is nie op sy bek geval nie”, which is directly translated as “he hasn’t fallen on his mouth”, they are referring to someone who isn’t slow to open his mouth to say something. In a dry and slightly obtuse way, it’s more likely to refer to someone who is witty, sharp, opinionated or arrogant than a run-of-the-mill chatterbox.

I’ll get back to bek in a minute.

There is a perennial shortage of commentators in horse racing. These are the guys (yes, because women hardly ever volunteer) who ‘call’ the races. In the days before video coverage, their job was even more important, but it remains necessary for someone to tell fans where each horse is in the race. Good commentators will flesh it out with comment about horses that are squandering their chances by running wide on the bend. Great ones will spot the supposed no-hoper at the back of the field, with tons in reserve, about to mow down the leaders.

In the late 80s, Sandy Bickett had long since retired as Cape Town commentator. So desperate was the need for commentators that they kept him on even though he regularly made mistakes. Current head commentator Jehan Malherbe started under Bickett. He’s had a succession of understudies, and has been trying to switch off his mic for decades, but management won’t let him leave. It’s for good reason, I should add, because Jehan is a great commentator, in the sense of truly being able to ‘read’ a race. That is a skill that comes from watching tens of thousands of races.

The point of this story is that racing’s operators are perpetually on a drive to recruit aspirant commentators. For someone with the ‘gift of the gab’ – partially similar to nie op sy bek geval nie – an employment opportunity awaits. This may be the only lifetime employment currently being offered anywhere, although I’m sure Jehan wishes it wasn’t.

Given my laryngeal issues, these days I tend to speak only when I have something important to say, and even then – especially in noisy surroundings – I’ll often hold back. However, when my youth was at its brashest, my bek was in full swing. There were many times my future self should have put a hand on my shoulder and told me to shut the fuck up. At the time, I was doing some television presenting for horse racing. I was always keen for some extra money, so I thought I’d give it a go.

There is no school or handbook for learning to be a commentator. You may sit in your bedroom with a tape recorder and call a fictitious race. That’s relatively easy. Harder is to sit in the stands mouthing a commentary on a real race.

Nothing beats the chill that engulfs your entire body when you’re sitting in front of a live mic, looking through binoculars, and realising that there are jockey silks that you can’t match to a horse. Or vice versa, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The plan was that I would make general racecourse announcements and call horses to post for a few weeks. When I did my first actual call, Jehan would be standing by my side, ready to prompt me if I stumbled over the horses. The problem was that I got impatient. Instead, when I did my first call, Jehan was standing next to a crackly speaker on Greyville racecourse wanting to listen to the Cape commentary. When he heard my voice, I suspect he felt the same kind of chill I described above. Or perhaps it was just anger. Had there been cell phones he could have taken immediate action, but there weren’t.

It all started fine, but somewhere along the line a horse’s name escaped me, or maybe a few. The speaker at Greyville – and thousands in off-course Totes and bookmakers’ rooms around the country, went silent. The crackle was no indication of technical problems. This was commentator malfunction, or put it another way, this was crackle without the cackle.

Soon after the horses turned for home I was able to pick it up again, and managed to finish the race. There must have been a stand-in commentator, although I can’t recall whether it was Neill Duffy, Mike Wanklin or Shaheen Shaw. It could even have been James Bester, so long was the list of Jehan’s successive understudies, until Rouvaan Smit came along.

This was not my finest moment, to put it politely. I knew that I’d screwed up big time, I felt terrible about it, and I was determined to fix it next time. Things weren’t improved by the article that Annabel Andrews wrote for the Cape Times in the week thereafter, with a headline that clearly didn’t tax the sub-editor: “No Oscar for this commentator”, or something to that effect.

The following race meeting, with Jehan back in Cape Town, we did it the way it was supposed to happen first time around. As I was calling the horses into the stalls, the phone rang. It was Mike Louw, the course manager (although I can’t be sure that I’ve recalled his job title correctly): “Get Oscar out of the commentary box!”

“I can’t”, said Jehan, “I haven’t learnt the colours.” And then he took the phone off the hook.

The call wouldn’t have won any prizes, but it was fine. I got through it. That should – or could – have been the first step to redemption, but racecourse management had other ideas. The following week I received a letter from Mike Louw banning me from the commentary box for life.

Of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, this was possibly the one with the greatest cringe factor, demonstrated by the fact that it’s taken me nearly 30 years to tell the story. Until a clean-out last year, I had both the newspaper clipping and Mike Louw’s letter in a dusty file. Instead of keeping glowing school reports, I kept a vicious newspaper article and a letter of rejection. I couldn’t tell you why I kept them, but now that I’m finally telling the story, I’m sorry I threw them out. It would have been fun to post them here.

Partly because of what’s happened to my voice, I listen with pleasure and admiration to people who employ their voices by singing or speaking in public. Beautiful voices are like birdsong. Perhaps the reference to beak is a good one, after all.

Here are some fun commentaries:

Dress-up Fun

Oscar Foulkes June 20, 2017 Uncategorized No comments
“Do you like dressing up?”

I could have left out the quotation marks, which would have denoted me asking a question of my readers. However, on Saturday night, the question was directed at me, and it caused me to pause while I collected/collated a response.

In fairness, at the time this question was asked of me, I was wearing shiny gold tights, lace-up boots to a couple of inches above my ankles, a red t-shirt with a somewhat crazy print including more shiny stuff, and a cheetah print coat. I may also have been wearing over-sized oval sunglasses with sequins on the sides.

I wasn’t portraying any particular character, simply expressing the party’s theme: “vixen, foxy, quirky, tart or come as you are if you’re an old fart”. It wasn’t exactly the kind of get-up I’d be wearing to a business meeting, or even a casual Friday night visit to the neighbourhood burger joint.

I found it interesting that I found the need to pause before answering the question. Somehow, for a 50-year-old man, who lives (and dresses) a very conventional lifestyle, it felt like a question that was laden with all kinds of implications. Look at it this way – kids dress up all the time (see pic alongside of my brother and me, aged about four), but somehow it’s different for adults.

It’s a ‘thing’ to get into something crazy when you’re a spectator at a cricket test match, or for rugby sevens. One may dress as a recognisable character, whether it’s Elvis or a superhero. There is a ‘cover’ in these; they can be done without putting oneself too much on the line, as it were. Sometimes, dressing up is done with an exaggerated degree of silliness, which may also be part of the cover.

There is also a certain amount of cover if the outfit, from head to toe, has been rented. In the case of my party gear, the coat was given to the women in the house by our ex-neighbour (a fashion designer), I own the t-shirt, and actively went out and bought the shiny gold tights (admittedly for AfrikaBurn). The ‘out’ of renting doesn’t apply in this case.

There is so much of dressing up that can cause a raised eyebrow, a giggle, or outright judgement, from cosplay to cross-dressing. Perhaps it’s all about the degree of seriousness with which it’s approached. It’s ‘ok’ if it’s all a big laugh, but if something personal is being expressed then the terrain becomes a bit more complicated.

But it doesn’t have to be about expressing deep-seated psychology. For some, it’s just being creative – or even a bit crazy – seasoned with a sprinkling of exhibitionism. Technically, this may fall into the realm of having a particularly individual style, because it’s how these peeps go out on any average day, even though it may come across as ‘dress-up’.

Dressing up is more fairly the subject of an entire book, not just a few hundred words of my ramblings, so I’m going to keep this focused around the initial question.

My admittedly safe answer was something along the lines of me feeling comfortable doing it when circumstances require (or is that, when the opportunity arises?), which is not the same as saying “Yes!”

On one of the days of AfrikaBurn this year, I wore pretty much the same get-up, with the exception of the t-shirt, in that I was bare-chested under the cheetah print coat. My body is not buff, and I don’t have the skin type that takes on any tan, so this was a big step for me. It felt liberating to cross a line of vulnerability by exposing my upper body to this extent.

Somehow, it’s different to being shirtless by the pool. So, dressing up can also be about facing one’s vulnerabilities – which can take many forms.

During the party, someone asked if I ‘was’ Mick Jagger or David Bowie. Her mindset is clearly that dress-up is an attempt to represent a known character, which wasn’t a consideration for me. She wasn’t entirely wrong – in a sense I was shedding conventionality by taking on a rocker’s look, of sorts. And I had fun doing it.

Play is good for adults, too. So, yes, I enjoyed dressing up on Saturday.

A little dress-up fun as little boys – my brother on left, me on the right.

A little dress-up fun as little boys – my brother on left, me on the right.

The Most Epic

Oscar Foulkes April 9, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
In no particular order, here’s a summary of a few of the most epic parts of Cape Epic…

The super cheerful Woolies staff were a blessing at the end of every stage. They greeted us with refreshing wet face cloths that they applied to the backs of our necks along with words of praise and encouragement. In this Woolworths feeding zone they then handed out packets containing chocolate milk, a wrap or sandwich, as well as packets of snacky things. For riders wanting something more substantial, we also had the choice of spaghetti bolognaise or cottage pie or burgers, which could be warmed at a bank of microwaves.

Woolworths also provided the food at the waterpoints, as well as the family-sized picnic at the Grand Finale. Their sponsorship of Cape Epic must cost them millions, but the way it was done, and the attitude of their staff, put them at the top of most riders’ hit parade. Woolies delivered a masterclass in how to partner an event.

Staying with food, the steak dinner that Dish Food & Social delivered to us on the Friday night before the queen stage changed our lives.

Our wine list (read more here) was pretty damn good. The wine of the week was probably the Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir.

It’s tempting to not want to spend any more money than the large amounts already expended on entry fee, equipment, training, kit and more. The competing perspective is that one has invested too much in this landmark experience to be uncomfortable (and thereby risk valuable rest). We rented a camper van, which comes with attendant costs (the hiring company bills an Epic surcharge, and then there’s the mobile home fee payable to Cape Epic). It was worth it the entire week, but particularly on 40-degree afternoons when we could rest in air-conditioned comfort).

The additional benefit of this arrangement is that you’re not bound to eating the mass-produced dinner in the dining marquee.

Apart from the fact that the camper van has to be moved several times during the week – for which one needs a driver – it’s extremely useful to have someone assist with daily ‘admin’. We had Eddie du Toit, a biokineticist with several years’ Epic support experience, who also took charge of our daily massages. Eddie made a big difference to our Epic. Yes, it’s extra expenditure, but it’s worth it.

Training programme
Our training programmes were put together by Lezandré Wolmarans, of the Sports Science Institute. The fact that our strongest day on the bikes was the queen stage, on the second last day, says a lot for our conditioning. I should also mention that the majority of non-racing weeks involved no more than 10 hours’ training (excluding gym). Training for Cape Epic is a major commitment, but it needn’t take over your entire life. This aspect is in keeping with the theme of being consistent with respect to the size of the commitment. Unless you really know what you’re doing, get a professional involved in your training programme.

What I can do on a bike changed dramatically after I started riding a Yeti. The same happened to Piet when he switched to Santa Cruz. Say what you like about these bikes making up for a lack of talent on the part of the rider. The fact is that our Epic would have been less fun, not to mention slower, if we hadn’t made the switch.

As far as selection of bikes is concerned, let’s just say that S-Works is not necessarily the best bike for all riders. Get out there and test ride what’s available.

Trickiest descent
The Haarkapperspoort single track on Stage One wins the “white knuckle” prize. It was long, steep, loose and rocky. Having said that, there were several other big descents that were no less tricky, because of the speed at which they were taken.

Most enjoyable descent
The single track from UFO on Stage Two wins because of its length, but there were many fun descents that just happened to be shorter.

Toughest section
There wasn’t any stage that I felt as if I was suffering. It was more a case of having to dig deep at various times. The thing about endurance activities is that the focus cannot extend much further than the next action that needs to be taken. When you frame it this way, it’s less likely that you’ll perceive any part of the whole as being harder than any other.

We were very lucky on the technical front. We had no flats or broken chains, which is a good thing, because we lost plenty of time over the first three days as a result of our bodies battling in the conditions. The closest we got was my chain getting incorrectly threaded through the derailleur. Oh, and a bottle of corked wine.

Hero riders
Max, on his steel-framed single-speed without any suspension, unfailingly brightened my day. Reuben van Niekerk, who could spawn a series of memes along the lines of “What’s your excuse?” is a huge inspiration, along with his partner Kevin Benkenstein. The never-ending banter that surrounded Rudi de Bruyn and Matthew Cook (amongst others) should be released on podcast.

And, of course, there is my own partner, Piet Viljoen. As I’ve said before, he commits to a degree that is more “I do” than “yes”. There was some tough love when he told me to search the pain cave for additional reserves, but there was also another kind of toughness when he pulled me up Franschhoek pass. I look forward to riding Epic with him again. Despite our unequal abilities, it’s a team that works.

The bum clinic
My early morning visits to the bum clinic put me in a good mood for the rest of the day, not to mention physically enabling me to be sufficiently comfortable to sit on a bike for five or six or seven hours.

War story
Vomiting during exercise isn’t something I experienced before Stage Two. Thankfully it was just once, but it took a while before my body bounced back. Fortunately, I was able to finish the shortened stage. While on the subject, we had done most of the day’s climbing by the time we reached Caledon, so it wasn’t the biggest cop-out ever to be let off the final 40km.

However, the biggest war story didn’t reveal itself until the Thursday after finishing Epic. I knew all along that my breathing was impaired. When the surgeon finally went in to snip away the web of scar tissue between my vocal chords, I discovered that I’d substantially underestimated the extent. I was nearly in tears when I saw the before and after pictures. If I’d known before the time I could have claimed some credit, but I got conned into this one. We have powers of endurance way in excess of what we can imagine. Sometimes it’s better to not know too much detail.

Hot showers
Being able to have a hot shower at the end of a day’s riding is the best mood changer. This aspect was extremely well organised – I think the longest I waited in the queue was five minutes.

Dimension Data set up a kick-arse WiFi network, covering the entire race village. The speeds were truly stupendous, but it was a cruel exposure to Nirvana, because no real life WiFi ever seems to match this little glimpse of the perfect world.

At every turn there were people, whether friends, family or complete strangers, cheering or helping in some way. The majority of it is aimed at Epic riders as a group, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t benefit individually. I also had many messages before, during and after the event. It’s a wonderful spoil to be the recipient of this many good wishes!

I’m interested to hear from other riders – what was on your “most epic” list? Add a comment…


The Week After Cape Epic

Oscar Foulkes April 1, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
I made the promise, on the day of finishing Cape Epic, that there would be a ‘decompression post’. I suspect there may be potential for several of these things as time passes.

The big theme of ‘my’ Cape Epic (apart from re-building my strength after radiotherapy) was my impaired breathing hence the “hoarse power” on the backs of our shorts, as well as the reference to Sergeant Hardy in our team name. I wouldn’t say that I had a victim attitude to it, but it must have shaped my views of what my limits were. I realised afterwards that somewhere along the route I stopped thinking in terms of limitations. Yes, on steep climbs my breathing was like a donkey’s braying, but I got on with what was in front of me without couching it in some kind of excuse structure.

Perhaps subliminally I realised that it was a waste of energy to think in those terms, or maybe it was the effect of watching Reuben van Niekerk do it all on one leg. Apart from these factors, Epic is relentless. Eventually, all one can think of is the here and now of keeping the cranks turning. It empties the mind of much irrelevant thinking.

My impaired breathing was the result of a web of scar tissue growing across the pointy end of my vocal chords. My surgeon, Prof Fagan, had suggested a procedure whereby this would be split. In view of recovery time, it had to wait until after Epic.

I was on the phone to his rooms first thing on Monday morning, and surgery was booked for Thursday. As I was being wheeled into the operating theatre I asked them to take pictures, both before and after.

I’m not going to say that I felt no emotion at the finish of Epic, but what I felt when I saw those pictures (see alongside) was different. I was almost in tears when I saw that I’d ridden Epic on something like 50% breathing capacity. It’s not the same as breathing through a straw, but you get the picture.

Even while lying in the hospital bed, my breathing felt easier.

In my head, I had lost 10% to 20% breathing capacity. Sometimes it’s better not to know – if I’d known that the impediment was more like 50%, perhaps I wouldn’t even have started the Epic process. Or, if I had, my attitude (see paragraph two above) would have had an even greater limiting effect.

Last year, in a letter of fatherly guidance, I said to my son: “We have powers of endurance that are far in excess of what we might imagine.” Little did I know the circumstances under which I would experience that for myself.

If only we knew how to access that extra capacity without having to get conned into it!

Before: the web of scar tissue still in place

Before: the web of scar tissue still in place

After: the 'normal' extent of the vocal chords restored after removal of scar tissue

After: the ‘normal’ extent of the aperture restored after removal of scar tissue

Cape Epic: Stage Seven

Oscar Foulkes March 26, 2017 Cape Epic 2 comments
One of the traditions of Cape Epic is that a bagpiper wakes the campsite at 5.00 am. Apart from the lack of snooze button, that sound could wake statues. This morning, miraculously, perhaps because the piper doesn’t work on Sundays, or maybe because Epic has an eye on easing us back into normal life, I could wake of my own accord.

In normal life, early morning consists of words beginning with “sh”. For Piet and myself, it became the three Bs – bike, butt and breakfast. As usual, that section of the clinic was filled with laughs, especially so when I told the nurse that if I’d known I’d have to remove plasters from that place, I’d have had a ‘sack and crack’ at the same time as having my legs waxed.

For today’s stage we were moved up a start group, and then they lumped us together with the two groups ahead of us (read: faster riders). The first 5 km were supposed to be a neutral zone through Grabouw, but no-one paid much attention. The riding was fast and furious. If there’s a wheel ahead of him, Piet has to be on it. In this company, he was like a racehorse that’s bolted.

I did my best to hang on, but eventually had to fall back into a rhythm that I could sustain (especially after the exertions of the day before). Piet was waiting for me at the foot of the first big climb of the day, 10 km after the start. Strava tells me I set a personal record on this climb. It certainly didn’t feel that way while I was doing it. The climbing continued for about 10 km, before we dropped down in the Villiersdorp valley.

We followed farm roads and jeep tracks to the base of the Franschhoek pass. Once again, the pace was on. We got to 40 km in two hours. As long as we were on the flat or downhill I could stick with the bunch. Any incline had me falling off the back. Piet was exhorting me to greater efforts, but my legs just didn’t have the extra bit of gas required. Going up the Franschhoek pass, Piet eventually resorted to pulling me. For once, his heart rate was above mine.

I took a moment while at the top to admire the view (without interrupting my pedalling, mind you) and then took full advantage of the pass being closed to traffic. We briefly stopped at the second water point, and then set off for Val de Vie.

Over the next 25-ish km, it felt as if we rode along every sandy road in Franschhoek (there are many). The route went up and down hills in a similar fashion to a surfer eking more out of a wave, except that every up move for us required a bunch of extra effort. I was perfectly capable of keeping the pedals turning, but Piet’s sense of urgency was working in overdrive. By now, he had discarded earlier methods of dragging an extra big effort out of me, and instead directed me to look around my pain cave. I did, but extra efforts seemed to fizzle to nothing before long. There was nothing left in the tank.

There was, however, just enough left to do a showy, but completely unnecessary, sprint around the final corner to the finish, where we were met by cheering family and friends. They have been the most massive support.

We came into this thing without any expectations. One of the high points I’m going to take away from this is our 18th place finish for yesterday’s Queen stage, in the Grand Master’s category. It’s not something I could have imagined a year ago, when I was getting by on soup and morphine, and it certainly wouldn’t have happened without Piet by my side (OK, in front of me).

There is magic in following a process.

It’s going to take me a few days to get perspective on the entire experience. It’s been huge. My plan is to do a decompression post once I’ve got my head around it all.

Until then, I want to say the most enormous thank you for the many messages of support. Thank you!

Crossing the finish at Val de Vie

Crossing the finish at Val de Vie

Getting onto the first page of Grand Master results (this was Stage 6) was one of my high points.

Getting onto the first page of Grand Master results (this was Stage 6) was one of my high points (click to enlarge).