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Epic Training: Week 13

Oscar Foulkes December 5, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
I suspect I have reached The Age of Nostalgia. The few days spent in the Cederberg early this week were the first time I have returned since 1982, when as a 16-year-old boy we did some pretty serious hiking as part of a school trip. The reason for our visit (we were a group of parents) was to collect our sons at the culmination of an expanded version of the same thing. For a variety of reasons, many ‘emotion buttons’ were pressed.

I did two rides with one of the other fathers. The first day was a loop around the Sanddrif MTB trails, where the terrain makes for tough riding. The single track sections aren’t much more than glorified hiking trails, which gives a great sense of old school, pioneering mountain biking (even if it isn’t really).

On the second day we took a spin on district roads, in the direction of Wupperthal, although we didn’t have enough time to go all the way there. Lezandré’s training programme had two hours for the previous Saturday and Sunday, which I caught up (I’d lost Saturday to a skills session, and Sunday had been spent driving to the Cederberg).

During the week I had my second check-up since completing radiotherapy. There are no biopsies or blood tests; this is a visual examination by way of an endoscope shoved down my nose. All was fine on the cancer front, but it gave us the opportunity to chat about my breathing issues. It seems that, following surgery in December 2015 on both sides of my vocal chords, a web has grown across both the pointy end of the ‘V’ formed by the vocal chords.

Webbed feet are a great evolutionary advantage that swimming birds have over their terrestrial cousins, but webbed anything in an airway are bad for all the reasons that make it possible for ducks to paddle serenely across a pond. There is a surgical procedure that can remove the web, but it would involve me being out of action for two to three weeks, so it will have to wait until April 2017.

I rode the first two editions of Pennypinchers Origin of Trails. The first day of the first year was a brutal day of riding, in 40-degree heat, when an advertised 70km route actually turned out to be 80km. That first day formed the guts of two days of the 2016 race, which doesn’t mean that this year’s ride was a whole lot easier, but it does illustrate how hard year one was. Despite the organisers’ suggestions that riders dress up and generally be relaxed about time, I don’t think there’s any suggestion that Origin of Trails should be easy.

My confidence took a big knock after the first day. Whether it was the heat, or dehydration, or extra climbing, or insufficient nutrition – or all those factors working together – but my body basically crashed. Driving back to Cape Town, my legs, feet and hands were all cramping, which made driving an interesting experience. Thankfully, after rehydrating, cooling down and eating, I bounced back quite well. That was a big lesson in ‘body management’ on difficult days.

I approached day two much more conservatively, making sure that I ate and drank from the beginning. I also made an effort to keep my heart rate lower on the climbs. The end result wasn’t in racing snake territory, but I completed the day feeling quite strong.

Origin of Trails is a sensory overload of single track riding (much of it extremely technical), steep climbs, and magnificent scenery. Truly having fun riding the race requires a level of fitness that is well above average. I think I’ve let go of the ‘hate’ part of the relationship. With a bit more training I may yet grow to ‘love’ the race. At this point I’m just pleased that day two was more manageable than day one.

The race also gave Piet and I the opportunity of building our riding partnership. He’s a stronger rider, but thankfully patience is one of his virtues.

botmaskop

climb

singletrackclimb

thefinish

The apparent smile on my face is actually a repurposed grimace. My partner, on the other hand, was strong.

Epic Training: Week 12

Oscar Foulkes November 27, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
This week took a little step up. Whereas the regular Tuesday recovery ride used to be an hour, billed as an easy spin, it has now become 90 minutes, with the slightly ominous instruction not to exceed zone 4 heart rate.

Even though the trails on the front of Table Mountain are steep and often loose, one can go pretty fast without exceeding zone 4. This is not your regular “easy ride”. I suppose it’s an indication of how my fitness has improved since the early days, when I’d sound like Darth Vader after riding a couple of hundred metres up the road.

I’ve ridden these trails too many times to have threatened a Strava PR without riding in the red zone all the way, but I let my Yeti do what it does best on the long descent from the big tree to Deer Park, taking more than half a minute off a segment that used to take more than three minutes.

This bike is a dream – and those extra-wide rims are a huge benefit on trails that have lots of loose stuff to deal with.

Thursday’s interval session involved ten repeats of two minutes in zone 4, which was a step up on the usual five or six repeats. It may be an indication of how much of an exercise nerd I’ve become that I got excited by the symmetry of the graph (see alongside). All good.

The weekend’s two rides of two hours each have slightly fallen by the wayside. Yesterday, I did a one-on-one skills session with Daniel Dobinson. Today I’m driving to the Cederberg, where I’ll do a couple of rides on Monday and Tuesday, and then very little prior to next weekend’s Origin of Trails.

I was connected with Daniel by top mountain biker Oli Munnik, which is a pretty solid commendation of his instruction. Daniel focuses on a few basics related to body position, particularly how and when to shift, both side to side and front to back. Mastering his handful of skills will get one around just about any course.

Key focus areas yesterday were riding downhill switchbacks and drop-offs. Daniel tossed in some great guidance for high-speed cornering, which is also useful for off-camber turns.

Typing this now makes me realise I forgot to address really steep descents. However, having had the basics of “attack position” drilled into me, I can imagine what he would have said to me if I’d asked him.

I’d put a skills session with Daniel onto the to-do list of all mountain bikers, even for those who feel confident in technical sections.

Origin of Trails may comprise just 60-ish kilometres per day, but climbing is in the vicinity of 2000m per day. That’s a decent step up on Wines2Whales. The new normal is getting closer.

My heart rate during an interval session - does my excitement about the symmetry of the graph say anything about what an exercise nerd I've become?

My heart rate during an interval session – does my excitement about the symmetry of the graph say anything about what an exercise nerd I’ve become?

Epic Training: Week 11

Oscar Foulkes November 21, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
The next race on my calendar is the two-day Origin of Trails, in the first weekend of December. Based purely on advertised distance, it’s a toned down version of the first two years, both of which I rode. Day One of the first year was a rather unpleasant surprise, in that they advertised 70km, but we ended up riding close to 80km, with more than 2000m of climbing, in nearly 40-degree heat. It was brutal, and I took extra pain because I had eased off the riding slightly after Wines2Whales.

Nothing like that this time around, because Origin of Trails is just a stepping stone to 2017’s challenges. In fact, week 11 upped the ante, even allowing for week 10 being about recovery.

The first ride of the week was six-minute climbs with low cadence in a big gear. Five of them. This may not seem like a lot, but those repeats start to bite after a while. Oh, and it was windy.

Deadlifts (with decent weight) were top billing for Wednesday’s gym session. One might think that these are working one’s quads, which they do up to a point, but if they’re done properly it’s the hamstrings that do the work.

The wind was pumping on Thursday. Theoretically, I could have joined the Table Mountain Bikers (TMB) night ride. Apart from the fact that I needed to do an easy spin for 90 minutes, I wanted to ride at 5.00pm, rather than 6.30pm. I headed in the direction of Signal Hill, where I managed to find a few relatively protected tracks. Meanwhile, banter was flying thick and fast on the TMB WhatsApp group, where convener Robert Vogel wasn’t finding many takers. Undaunted by the wind, he did a solo ride to the Blockhouse, where he posted a picture of the sunset, declaring the conditions “not too bad”. It wasn’t long before the banter was inviting him to post a group picture.

Part of the reason for heading to Signal Hill on Thursday was to find a trail for Saturday’s interval session. Anything between Oranjezicht and the Blockhouse is really unpleasant, because one is either riding uphill into gale force southeaster, or in danger of getting blown over by gusts from the side. There’s a jeep track running from the quarry adjacent to Tamboerskloof, all the way to Signal Hill road, which is much less windy. And, if one cuts out the very steep bits at the bottom, it’s a high intensity six-minute climb to the boom at the top.

Six of those, in zone four heart rate, off you go!

All of my previous pukka training sessions have been solo. It made a very pleasant change having Piet join me for the intervals.

I had to do three hours on Sunday, but forgot the high cadence part of the instructions and probably rode it harder than intended. I started in the wind, which moderated as I turned the corner into Newlands, and then dropped as I turned for home in the Constantia greenbelt. Without pushing for them, I notched a few new Strava PRs, which is always satisfying.

Based upon my current experience of riding 60 to 75km in a day, a cheery “onwards and upwards” is feeling like a realistic summation of where I am in my training. However, 80 to 100km is going to have to become the new normal, and I suspect that I may feel differently about where I am when that jump first gets made.

Some of the fun to be had in my ‘hood

Epic Training: Week Ten

Oscar Foulkes November 13, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
If you’re a yachtie, or a kite surfer, or take part in other wind-dependent sports, wind is good (unless it’s gale force, of course). On the other hand, if you’re a cyclist, there are few circumstances that make wind desirable.

Yes, this was a ‘wind week’, and it looks likely that strong winds will persist next week as well. Over the next four to five months, weeks without southeasterly winds will be rarer than windy ones. So, wind will have to go into the “do it anyway” category of factors that might cause one to not train.

Most of week ten has been about recovery, with the result that the first ride was on Thursday. Fitting in 150 minutes of spinning (preferably not anywhere too steep) is impossible around the City Bowl. The only choice, really, is to venture out to Chapman’s Peak on the road. Finding that much time on a weekday is also a challenge. I had to be in Paarl anyway, so I planned to leave from Pearl Valley soon after 4.00.

So far, so good. I decided to ride into the wind first (going downwind first generally results in one creating a very long return ride). The ride to Franschhoek was directly into the wind, so I just put my head down, turned the music louder, and pedalled until I got there. The ride back – as you can imagine – was a lot quicker. The round trip took a bit less than two hours, but I gave myself a ‘wind credit’ for the missing time.

Friday night involved a social commitment with some great wines, with the result that Saturday morning’s three hours started off slowly. I followed the off-road and greenbelt routes to Tokai, and then back to Newlands to retrieve my car.

Sunday’s ride (in the wind, like the others this week) is what I call an ‘interval sandwich’ – opening with an hour’s warm-up, followed by said intervals, and closing with 30 minutes of cool-down. I may live in one of the windier parts of Cape Town, but I’m fortunate to have so many climbing opportunities on my doorstep, even if the southeaster generally blows straight down the mountain (yes, that’s a head wind when riding uphill).

Pleasingly, I recorded several new Strava PRs. The majority, admittedly, were downhill ones, but all of them count towards riding faster. I suspect there are two factors at play. The Yeti simply descends faster, but it also builds confidence, which is ultimately the thing that slows most people on sketchy descents.

The one technical element of my new bike I haven’t mentioned is that the South Industries rims are wider, which results in greater surface area of tyre being in contact with the trail, thereby improving control.

Did I mention that I love my bike?

This is why…

Epic Training: Week Nine

Oscar Foulkes November 7, 2016 Cape Epic 2 comments
A few things changed this week, and not all of them were obvious or tangible.

In preparation for receiving my Epic bike, I did a custom fit with Dave George at The Gear Change. This is possibly the most illuminating cycling experience I’ve ever had. I discovered that I was not only sitting too far forward on the saddle, but that my weight was also unevenly distributed. Using this information, he was able to put me on the saddle that best suited my body. He also shortened my cranks. Video evidence showed that I was not as still in the saddle as I thought (more core exercises required). My riding life has been based on seeing bike setup as being nothing more than having the saddle at the correct height. How wrong I was.

If you do anything more than a casual pedal around the village once in a while, a custom fit is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Apart from comfort and performance, it could even prevent injury.

As a former specialist retailer, I can totally connect to the kind of service delivered by people who are passionate about their product, and who will go to extreme lengths to ensure that their customers are nothing less than delighted. This is the experience I’ve had at The Gear Change, thanks to Dave and Justin.

I rode day one of Wines2Whales on a brand new Trek Topfuel 9.8 that had been assembled the afternoon before. The furthest it had ever been ridden was when I pedalled it to the start!

Putting me on a demo Trek when they had been let down by the Yeti supplier was just one of many instances of The Gear Change ‘going the extra mile’. I loved the miles I did on the Topfuel. It’s light, and copes very well with uphill or downhill technical trails. My riding partner had the use of it on day two, and was similarly impressed.

On day two, I once again rode a brand new bike that had been assembled the day before, which might be something of a first for a weekend warrior doing a stage race. This was the much-anticipated new Yeti ASR, with Eagle XO1 groupset. In my opinion, its 1×12 configuration is as much of a game changer as the shift from 26 to 29 inch wheels. I was able to spin up hills when I needed to, and had plenty of gears on the flat or downhill. Changing gears was a barely perceptible click.

I wish I could say the same about my breathing, which was so loud that my partner didn’t need to look around to check if I was on his back wheel (true story). However, compared with riding Imana early in August, the wheezing didn’t kick in as early on each stage.

The Yeti is a fantastic bike. It climbs like a champ, and speeds comfortably down gnarly descents. On uphill single track, it also gave me the impression that I had a few extra moments to plot my route or to change to a different line.

As you can imagine, day two, the ‘play day’ of Wines2Whales, was a heap of fun on the Yeti.

The hard work, or slog, of day three is the middle section, from Bot River to the dam at the top of Hemel en Aarde. The rest is mostly downhill, either in the form of single track or the gnarly descent on Katpas. The Yeti loved it all.

The conditions were pretty close to perfect, and I was on this amazing bike, but I was nevertheless delighted to record my fastest-ever day three for Wines2Whales. Perhaps the training is starting to push back the effects of my treatment.

Allowing for route changes on days one and two, it was my fastest Wines2Whales ever, which was certainly assisted by me trying to hang onto my first two days’ partner, Brevan, and then Epic partner, Piet, who joined me with fresh legs for day three. Both were admirably patient.

‘Process’ (i.e. training programme), along with great equipment, has got me to a place where the results appear to be showing improvement on what I’ve done before. The improvement is also bringing the next level of performance into reach, in a way that makes it feel achievable.

An average Cape Epic day is at least 50% longer than Wines2Whales (with as much additional climbing), and it’s seven days rather than three (ok, technically eight, including the Prologue). There is still a lot of work to be done, but I continue the journey from a happy place.

A custom fit in progress at The Gear Change

A custom fit in progress at The Gear Change

Epic Training: Week Eight

Oscar Foulkes October 31, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
For a change, this week there was something exciting that happened on the bike. Or, should I say, it was the bike that was exciting.

Instead of the “easy spin” for an hour on Tuesday, I took a Yeti ASR for test ride on the usual run to the Rhodes Memorial singletrack and back. What a bike! It climbs pretty much as well as the Santa Cruz Tallboy I rode a few weeks ago, and descends as quickly as any other bike I’ve ridden. In my case, this is admittedly not a huge sample, but on the basis that the bike has to make up for my lack of talent, I reached the conclusion that the Yeti ticked more boxes than the other bikes under consideration. Having said that, I’d have been delighted to have the Tallboy for Epic, because it’s a fantastic bike. This was a tough decision!

For the record, the claimed weight on the Yeti is 11.5kg, which is 500g lighter than the Tallboy. The one I rode has South carbon rims, which are locally manufactured. I’m not a good enough rider to be able to talk about ‘feel’, but the pros rave about these wheels.

During my research I was reliably informed that the lowest maintenance bike around is the Giant Anthem. In my opinion, maintenance is the most underrated factor when it comes to selecting a bike, because some bikes are more complicated – not to mention more costly – to maintain. Add to that the fact that Giant is not an expensive brand to start with, and it just reinforces the value.

Thursday’s ride was one of those fun interval sessions (not), with ten two-minute blasts in heart rate zone four. I rode for two hours on Saturday, but skipped Sunday’s ride because I’d put too much effort into the festivities of the night before.

Next week is Wines2Whales, the first in a series of races building up to Epic.

Yeti ASR

Yeti ASR

Epic Training: Week Seven

Oscar Foulkes October 23, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
Off the bike, I had a great week, with the centrepiece being my 50th birthday on Wednesday. The likelihood is that I’ve passed the halfway mark, and yet I don’t feel that I’m facing a decline. Rather, I have a strong feeling of genesis. My ‘idea spring’ hasn’t stopped producing fresh concepts. And, after 50 years of life, I have a huge store of ‘history’ that can be repurposed in a productive way. A kind of upcycling or recycling, for want of a better expression.

Isn’t it interesting how the word that denotes the origin of mighty rivers (i.e. spring) should be same as the word for the season in which life is reborn? The energy implicit in spring (as in ‘jump’) and spring (coiled metal with elastic properties) is a beautiful part of the metaphor.

I didn’t feel a great amount of energy in my legs at the start of the week. In fact, the “easy 60 minute spin” on the programme for Tuesday was pretty much all I was capable of after the previous week’s riding. I was still behind the eight ball on Thursday, for the five one-minute build-ups I had to do (along with warm-up and cool-down). Monday and Tuesday’s conditioning sessions followed the usual pattern of deadlifts, lunges and squats, along with mobility exercises.

Nevertheless, I approached Saturday’s STBB 60km race around (and up) the Bottelary Hills feeling positive. I stoically pedalled my way through the rain, mentally banishing the cold, and then skidding through the resulting mud. I actually felt pretty strong in the last half, consoling myself with the thought that even if I was slower, at least my endurance had improved (or so I thought while I was riding).

I’m trying to compare 2016 performances with 2016 only, but taking 40 minutes longer on this year’s race (over almost exactly the same course) compared with 2015, was more than a little disheartening. The first half took 10 minutes (or 8%) longer, which suggests that the mud on the second half of the route must have contributed to the overall 40 minutes.

Nevertheless, there were a few Strava PRs on downhill sections before it all got too wet to go flying down the slopes.

I’d had five or six hours of interrupted sleep on Friday night, and the same on Thursday and Wednesday. I’m hoping that the disappointing result was the product of that fatigue, added to a body not yet fully recovered from the previous week’s training.

For someone who is just hoping to finish the Epic without too much pain, it shouldn’t matter how fast I’m riding prep races. However, with the amount of time that’s going into training, I’m looking for indications that the effort is paying off.

Shelley’s poem Ode to the West Wind, which has rebirth as its central theme, ends with the line: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” From this I take my cue. In the absence of positive reinforcement I’ll just keep following the process, and trusting that it’s going to deliver a good result!

Homemade birthday cards

Homemade birthday cards

Epic Training: Week Six

Oscar Foulkes October 17, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
I reached Friday of week six feeling fantastic.

After warm-up, the guts of Tuesday’s ride was 30 minutes in zone three, not that I bothered too much with staying under the zone four threshold (turns out that unbroken 30-minute climbs aren’t easy to find, even in the City Bowl). Wednesday’s gym session involved deadlifts with 10kg more than the week before, and Thursday’s ride included three six-minute climbs, also in zone three. Once again, I found that I regularly strayed into zone four, but recovery was quick.

So far, so good. On Saturday, I rode for three hours, almost entirely under the stipulated zone four threshold. The morning’s entertainment was provided by testing a top-spec Cannondale Scalpel. It was quick on the descents, and climbed well enough. If I wasn’t riding Epic, it would be a great bike for a variety of situations.

But, this race covers nearly 700km, with 15400m of climbing. As much as I like the Scalpel, I don’t think it’s my Epic bike. Thus far, the Santa Cruz Tallboy sets the standard, but I still need to test the Yeti. In the course of setting this up, I spoke to Dave George on the phone. It transpired that they didn’t have any demo bikes available, which meant that I’d need to borrow a bike from a mutual contact. During the conversation, at the start of which Dave had written down my name and phone number, he offered to change the saddle on the loan bike, saying, “You wouldn’t want to ride with a male saddle.” Clearly, my name isn’t sufficiently masculine to off-set perceptions created by my high-pitched voice!

At this point, ‘life’ intervened. I spent all of Saturday at a horse auction, leaving at 11.40pm to fetch my daughter at Pearl Valley (now also part of Val de Vie, and where we are responsible for all F&B in the clubhouse). I finally got to bed at 2.00am, only to spontaneously wake up at 6.30am. A little later, with just four-and-a-half hours’ sleep, I headed out on a three-hour ride, which turned into nearly four hours. There will be Epic stages that could take almost as many hours as I slept the night before, so this was preparation of sorts.

While on the subject of sleeping, Piet is emphatic that we need a motorhome. I agree, it’s more comfortable, and having our own space would also aid in the recovery process when the day’s riding has been completed. I spent almost a week researching options, and by the time I got back to the preferred supplier, they were sold out of four-berth vehicles. Luckily, we’ve ended up with a free upgrade to a six-berth, which gives both of us spacious ‘quarters’.

There’s just one problem: Cape Epic had already allocated all the available spaces for motorhomes by the time I received my official entry. It’s hard not to resort to “it’s not fair!”

The motorhome plan also involves us having our own mechanic, as well a soigneur, which mimics a professional set-up. That being the case, I’d have to get around to making a decision about shaving my legs. How could I possibly live in the motorhome village while sporting hairy legs?

That will have to be a decision for another day. We may end up in tents after all.

At Saturday night’s auction we sold a horse in which I had a share. Those proceeds have been earmarked for my Epic bike. Along the way, 500kg of supremely athletic flesh and blood would have been traded for 12kg of state-of-the-art carbon, rubber and bits of metal, to be ridden by the most average of mountain bikers. It’s an interesting exchange.

This week’s priority is to secure a spot for the motorhome, or I’ll be searching for a new partner (one who likes sleeping in tents).

The domestic arrangements at Cape Epic. The setting is all very scenic, but much more comfortable in the motorhomes than tents.

The domestic arrangements at Cape Epic. The setting is all very scenic, but much more comfortable in the motorhomes than tents.

Epic Training: Week Five

Oscar Foulkes October 10, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
There could be a life lesson in this. You may think that I’m talking about the mental aspect, in which riders “force heart and nerve and sinew” over the Cape Epic course. No, what I have in mind is the training, which on its own is a massive commitment, or so it seemed to me when I heard about other people doing it.

I print out every week’s training schedule, which gets posted on the fridge. Yes, I’m a digital creature, who lives in the cloud, as it were, but somehow it’s important that every week’s structure takes a physical form. I did the same thing with the schedule for my 33 radiotherapy treatments, except that then I crossed off each session as it was completed.

Having a plan, especially one in printed form, takes away negotiation. It simply becomes something that has to be done, regardless of the weather or how I feel. Being given this value – or, put differently, me having accepted the path – helps me to just do it.

During Monday’s conditioning session I managed to just about deadlift my body weight, which is big progress for me (for perspective, the guys who train at the same time as me weigh the same, but deadlift 100kg).

Tuesday’s ride was a warm-up, followed by three eight-minute climbs in a big gear, and then a cool-down. Thursday’s ride was billed as an easy spin, which it may have been by comparison, but there’s no such thing as a totally easy ride on the City side of Table Mountain. On Saturday, I did a warm-up followed by six repeats of heart rate in zone four for five minutes. These had ten-minute gaps to allow decent recovery. This was on the same route as Tuesday’s climbs.

Sunday’s ride was just two hours on the mountain, with high cadence, but keeping heart rate below zone four.

As usual, the more interesting stuff happened off the bike. On Wednesday night, I was invited to join the Val de Vie management team at the Cape Epic route launch. My connection to Val de Vie is that we are responsible for the hospitality (i.e. restaurant, bar and ballroom) on the estate, which now also includes the adjacent Pearl Valley. I was sitting next to Ryk Neethling, who professed to be getting chills (of awe and excitement) when watching the preview video. Mountain biking may be a different discipline to swimming, but training remains training. He told me about the long distance swimming he did, in which he swam 20km every day for eight years. He started talking about the importance of breathing, when we were interrupted by the next part of the programme. I’ve arranged to get the detail on the breathing, which is one of my top concerns at the moment. Swimmers spend a lot of time facedown in the water; I have no doubt they’d know something about breathing properly.

While on the subject of breathing, during the week we discovered that a racehorse I own a small share of has a paralysed arytenoid cartilage. This causes one vocal chord to block the airway, and requires tie-back surgery. Without this procedure he’ll never reach his full potential (which appears to be significant). Coincidentally, I have an interest in another racehorse – Sergeant Hardy – that also has a paralysis, but is apparently not affected by it (or he is such a superlative athlete that even with the disability he is still superior to many). Breathing appears to be a theme at the moment.

What we’ve learnt about Sergeant Hardy is that he needs to be extremely fit (you can read about him here and here). There’s no such thing as him going into a race slightly underdone. In my case, breathing only becomes an issue at elevated heart rate. In other words, the fitter and stronger I am, the less of an issue my breathing will be.

Process is an uninterrupted sequence of directed actions (much like a training programme).

There is magic in process.


Impaired breathing appears to not have affected Sergeant Hardy, now a winner of four of his five starts.

Epic Training: Week Four

Oscar Foulkes October 3, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
In our family, “assume the position” can mean only one thing – me on the couch on a Sunday afternoon, reading the FT Weekend on iPad, with the strong likelihood of a nap somewhere along the line. I can occasionally get coaxed into doing the week’s supermarket run. However, there was no possibility of this yesterday, as I was busy with ‘recovery’, having ridden a 60+km race in Elgin earlier in the day.

I can put a tick next to Week Four on the programme, and would regard it as a generally positive step towards March 2017.

For the first ride of the week I deviated from the easy recovery ride I was supposed to do, because I had the opportunity of test riding the Santa Cruz Tallboy 3cc. I also made the ride a bit longer than the intended hour, because I wanted to have a go at the Rhodes Memorial single track.

I started the ride by going up the loose, rocky single track between the Herzlia sportsfields and the Deer Park parking area. You have to get the line just right, or you end up spinning out and having to walk the rest of the way. For starters, the Tallboy climbs like a boss, consuming far less energy than propelling my existing GT Zaskar. Plus – and this is an important factor – I felt as if I could point it at just about any line, without any concerns about not making it.

This bit of trail isn’t a Strava segment, but without making any special effort on the uphill Rhodes single track, which is a ‘segment’, I banged out a new PR (personal record). On the climbing/flat/downhill run between the Vredehoek quarry and Rhodes, I was 10% quicker than I’d been the previous weekend.

The implications for riding a bike like this on Epic is that one can either go faster with the same effort, or go at the same speed and save energy. For marginal riders, this bike could make the difference between finishing a stage, or not.

I didn’t attack the downhill single track with any great aggression, so I didn’t do it any faster than on the Zaskar, but I’m certain that the Tallboy is more forgiving.

I’ve never ridden a ‘one-by’ (i.e. just one chain ring in front), so I was interested to see how I would cope on steep climbs. Thanks to the 12th gear, which takes the form of a ring so much larger than the rest of the cluster that it is variously described as “dinner plate” or “frisbee”, I had no difficulties climbing steep sections. Just to make sure, I rode up a climb known on Strava as Motherfucker. Without making any particular effort, I rode it in a time not far off my PR from last year. This is with a 34T in front – the smaller 32T one would use on Epic would make it a lot easier.

Training will build up muscles in my legs, but there’s nothing I can do about having a reduced intake of air. However, the Tallboy reverses many of my body’s deficiencies. If you’ll excuse the expression, it’s like an Iron Lung, except that it’s mostly carbon, of course. There is also the option of adding carbon wheels (at a cost of roughly 25% more), which would make the bike even faster. Mountain biking equipment is a slippery slope. Those slopes, I can report with confidence, are covered in carbon.

Piet was with me at the start of the Apple Blossom MTB. “Try to ride at 15km/h average”, he said, followed by a quick fist bump, and then we were off. He started like a scalded cat – so much so, that he may have been leading the race before the end of the ‘neutral’ zone.

I, on the other hand, went as fast as my noisy air intake would allow, having an internal conversation which reached the conclusion that I absolutely had to have the Tallboy, with carbon wheels nogal. After a while people stopped passing me, and the ride settled into a rhythm. The Oak Valley trails were an absolute treat. So well designed are they, that my clunky-by-comparison Zaskar felt as light as a feather. My spirit was lifted, which was a good thing, because there were some big climbs ahead.

All ended well, with Strava telling me I’d averaged 14.8 km/h. In truth, this was a bit below par for the course, but under the circumstances it was close enough. As far as race position was concerned, I was bang on two-thirds down the field. Had a ridden just a few minutes faster, I would have been in the median position.

It would be wrong to compare with anything other than 2016, so I can happily report that I’m getting stronger.

Even so, knowing that I can give myself an additional boost, just by changing bicycles, is an extremely attractive prospect.

Iron lung

Iron lung