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Epic 2018: Sergeant Hardy leads the charge

Oscar Foulkes November 6, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
The talisman of our 2017 Cape Epic, and indeed our entire ‘team story’, is a racehorse by the name of Sergeant Hardy. To recap – he has a paralysed right vocal chord, which reduces the amount of air he can inhale. Following five surgeries on my vocal chords, as well as a six-week radiotherapy course, my breathing was also restricted.

The similarities end there, because my equine brother is not only seriously talented, but also much better looking.

Regardless of his physical handicap, he has claims to being the best sprinter of his generation. It is one of the great privileges of my life to be associated with so fine a racehorse, by virtue of my mother having bred him, and the two of us racing him together. He runs in her racing colours, which Piet and I adopted for our Epic kit.

He made his seasonal debut at Kenilworth on Tuesday, against a strong field of sprinters of various ages. In fact, it’s pretty much the same line-up that will contest the major sprint races this season. Despite this being a prep run and him not being fully wound-up, he stormed home under close to top weight. The fairy tale lives on.

Tuesday would usually be a training day. I did get home in time to jump on the bike, but I postponed to Wednesday morning. This was a hill session on the mountain, and then on Thursday I had another hill session (this time on the Wattbike).

Hills are basically about strength training, riding in a big gear at low RPM for six minutes at a time. This week involved five repeats per session.

Saturday’s ride was supposed to be three-and-a-half hours on the mountain, but Piet wanted to get in some training for the Double Century. So, we rode to Simonstown on the road. I tacked on the ride to meet him, plus getting home over Camps Bay drive, so ended up on close to four hours.

An 80km mountain ride was on the programme for Sunday. I rode with some mates as far as Tokai, following the trails above Kirstenbosch and then dipping to the Green Belt. They continued to Kalk Bay on the road, while I headed up to the Tokai trails. I mistimed my entry to the singletrack, and got stuck behind a large group of riders, many of whom were walking down the steep sections. As frustrating as this was, it was also satisfying to be able to compare with my former self. There was a time that I would also have been walking in some places.

Getting back was a slog. My legs were toast – the cumulative effect of a big week, as well as riding to Tokai into a headwind. Including a stop for buying and eating a sandwich in Tokai, the day ended up on five hours.

While on the subject of headwinds, I have an apprehension about Stage Three next year, in which we ride from Arabella to Worcester. If there’s a cold front coming in – and early ones are possible in late March – we’ll be riding into a headwind for pretty much all of the 122km.

Justin Snaith, who trains Sergeant Hardy, believes in having him super fit as a way of reducing the impact of his impaired breathing. As a big, strong horse, he is capable of doing a lot more than his more average stable mates.

I don’t have the same physical attributes as Sergeant Hardy, but Erica Green is following a similar strategy with my training programme. The fitter and stronger I am, the less I’m affected by reduced air intake.

We’ll have a new (still-to-be-decided) team name for 2018. Whatever we decide on, Sergeant Hardy remains a personal talisman.

Sergeant Hardy leads the charge, beating a fine field.

Sergeant Hardy leads the charge, beating a fine field. I’m sure Erica could repurpose jockey Bernard Fayd’Herbe’s perfect balance for charging down singletrack.

Our 2017 kit was drew inspiration from my mother's racing colours.

Our 2017 kit drew inspiration from my mother’s racing colours.

Introducing Team Sergeant Hardy

Oscar Foulkes March 11, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
Throughout my training diary there are references to the information below. With Cape Epic kicking off in a week’s time, this is the quick and dirty introduction.

Who are the riders?
Piet Viljoen (54) – a man with a declared intent of doing something every year that scares him. Amazingly, in 2017, Cape Epic isn’t it. His main target this year is Unogwaja Challenge, which will see the group cycle to Durban over 10 days and then run the Comrades Marathon. He ran his first Two Oceans Ultra in 2016, and also has several Iron Man races under his belt. Cycling, however, is his first love. While this is his first Cape Epic, he has ridden just about all the major races. I’m in awe of the training programme he has followed, in simultaneously preparing for two different endurance events.

Oscar Foulkes (50) – that’s me. I guess I have a similar attitude to endurance as Piet does, except that he is a much stronger rider. My MTB track record encompasses all the usual suspects, although they were completed at a level of intensity that seems social by comparison with Piet’s. My Cape Epic journey has an extra dose of complexity due to my breathing being impaired as a result of multiple surgeries on my vocal chords to remove tumours. And, a year ago I had just completed a six-week course of radiotherapy that saw me losing 13% of my body weight (and it’s not as if I had that spare). Cape Epic was a great motivating factor as I started the process of building up my strength.

How did we meet?
We have a number of mutual friends, and one of them introduced us after I put up an Epic-related post for Valentine’s Day.

Who or what is Sergeant Hardy?
Sergeant Hardy is a racehorse I own in partnership with my mother. She bred him, but couldn’t sell him because he was found to have a paralysed vocal chord. This is so serious a defect that it’s grounds for cancellation of sale (after the fall of hammer, nogal) at a voetstoots auction. Despite his reduced breathing capacity he has won five of his eight starts, and he is the highest rated three-year-old sprinter in the country.

Why the pink kit?
Sergeant Hardy races in my mother’s colours – vieux rose with a white sash. It was Piet’s suggestion that we name our team Sergeant Hardy, and it then followed that the kit had to match the racing colours. If anything demonstrates how much of a team player Piet is, it’s his willingness to spend a fortune on pink cycling kit that he may never wear again.

Hoarse power?
That was my son’s comment when he heard that our team is being named after a horse. Breathing isn’t the only action affected by my vocal chords.

Our Epic aspirations?
To finish every day early enough in the afternoon that we have sufficient time to recover for the next day’s riding.

Our Cape Epic kit - that is a lot of pink!

Our Cape Epic kit – that is a lot of pink!

My mother and I leading in Sergeant Hardy after his first feature race win, on Met day 2016 (pic: Equine Edge)

My mother and I leading in Sergeant Hardy after his first feature race win, on Met day 2016 (pic: Equine Edge)

Chasing Dreams

Oscar Foulkes October 4, 2022 Uncategorized No comments
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There are a several inherent problems in making movies about horse racing. The first of these is that it’s hard to simultaneously capture both the euphoric highs of winning, and the reality of the day-to-day. Also, when it comes to anticipated outcomes, Hollywood is much better at keeping the tension going when there’s a knife/gun-wielding invader with evil intent wandering around a dark building, than in a dramatised horse race.

It’s not a successful genre. I’d rather watch the grainy footage on YouTube of Secretariat’s record-setting romp in the Belmont Stakes, than the movie that was made. In fairness, having said all of this, I should go back and re-watch Phar Lap, Sea Biscuit and Secretariat.

This is a long way of getting to the point that Chasing the Win does a great job of showing you what it’s really like to be connected with racehorses. The official summary goes like this:

“Chasing the Win is a feature length documentary film that follows the meteoric rise of a rookie trainer, a long time owner, and their beloved racehorse after an unprecedented victory thrusts them into the global spotlight of horse racing. Success and fame are followed by the hard hitting reality of what it means to survive in the Sport of Kings.”

The driving force behind the excitement of being connected with racehorses is that success is not guaranteed, no matter how much money you spend. Owning a bigger yacht or faster car is a linearly predictable application of cash. Certain highly professional, well-funded outfits often outperform the averages, but success is never guaranteed.

In some cases, the biggest successes are the products of projects that were started decades ago. A case in point is Kirsten Rausing’s 2022 Arc winner, Alpinista. Rausing bought her fourth dam (that’s great-great-grandam) in 1985, channeling childhood learnings from her grandfather.

Competing for the same prizes are people of lesser means, who are driven by the same dreams. It happens more often than you’d think that the horse owned/trained/bred by the ‘small guy’ beats the one representing the elite. I should mention that the Irish loom large in all of this, with their affinity for horses.

Back to Chasing the Win, with its cast of Irishmen, led by the Sheehy brothers from County Kinsale, who have owned horses in the US for many decades, trying to find champions on a shoestring budget. Their horse Kinsale King has not shown any form as a young racehorse, and they turn him over to another Irishman, the struggling small-time trainer Carl O’Callaghan, who sorts out his issues and gets him winning.

The documentary opens with Kinsale King’s famous win the Dubai Golden Shaheen against the world’s top sprinters, following the horse and his people to the world’s top race meetings.

As someone who has owned shares of racehorses for many years, I can vouch for the authenticity of the story. A 1200m race may last just 70 seconds, but there are many hours of preparation and anticipation that go into it.

During the time that our horse Sergeant Hardy was racing, I had equivalent aspirations. He began his career as the underdog, with serious breathing issues, and nevertheless proved himself to be the best sprinter of his crop in South Africa. If African Horse Sickness travel restrictions weren’t an issue, I’d have actively pursued an invitation to the international race meetings in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

The film’s co-director is the owner’s daughter, Laura Sheehy, which may account for the authenticity of the behind-the-scenes stories.

I watched Chasing the Win on YouTube (here’s a link to other options).

Magic in Process

Oscar Foulkes September 11, 2022 Uncategorized No comments

I get all kinds of responses from people who hear me speak for the first time. I don’t blame them – before I open my mouth, I’m never entirely certain exactly what sound will come out. Usually, people think I have laryngitis. Once, a Woolies cashier openly laughed at me, and I often have call centre employees call me Ma’am.

I would have thought that the name Oscar is a big enough clue as to my gender, but hey, who knows these days?

At several points since 2006 I haven’t been able to do anything other than whisper, so I take this as a win. Being saved from phone calls is also a win, but it can be extremely frustrating to ring someone’s doorbell, and for them not to be able to hear me over the intercom. Joining in on dinner table conversations was generally impossible, and I went through periods of actively avoiding parties or restaurants. Even now, I often prefer to remain quiet.

I was once on my way to have a meeting with someone called Luke. At the entrance, the security guard asked me whom I was there to see. I don’t think he saw the humour of my Darth Vader-ish voice telling him I was there to see Luke (“I am your father, Luke”).

From about 2003 or 2004, my voice got progressively more hoarse, until I lost it entirely, in 2006. The cause of this was found to be cancerous growths on my vocal chords, and since then I’ve had six surgeries, as well as a six-week course of radiation. Vocal chords are extremely sensitive bits of equipment; while these treatments have left me without cancer, I have extensive scarring. Hence the voice.

There was a time that I referred to myself as the Boardroom Whisperer. My brother called me Il Voce (the voice).

Before this started, I had already started reading the Harry Potter series to my daughter. The growing hoarseness was progressive, but I just kept going, complete with made-up voices for all the main characters. Believe me, you’d rather listen to the Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter, but we’d already started, and even though she was perfectly capable of reading The Deathly Hallows herself, we had to finish it the way we’d started. The main problem was that the final book was more than three times as long as the first!

Books are a process. They have a defined structure, complete with start and end points. Words make up sentences. Sentences make paragraphs. Paragraphs make pages. Pages make chapters, and chapters make books. One step follows from another. Small bits cumulatively make something big. This also works in reverse for people writing books. Even writing just 500 words a day can be life changing for an aspirant author.

The point of this is that all of us who loved the Harry Potter books got completely drawn into the world of supernatural powers. I’m here to tell you that every one of us has superpowers, and they don’t require the use of spells, or finding horcruxes.

There is magic in process. Let me give you an example.

By the end of 2015, my surgeon had decided that he couldn’t keep cutting away at my vocal chords. He prescribed a six-week course of radiation, which resulted in the worst pain I’ve ever experienced. I lived on soup and morphine for something like two months in the first quarter of 2016. At the end of it I’d lost nearly 15% of my body weight, and it’s not as if I ever had much in reserve.

I already had an entry for the 2017 Cape Epic, which was almost exactly 12 months after I finished radiotherapy. I was a keen mountain biker, so it just seemed like a simple process of starting to ride again, and the rest would fall into place.

After my first few rides, I realised that this wasn’t going according to plan. In fact, I felt so bad on the bike that if I didn’t have the objective of getting fit for Epic I might have stopped right there. I could barely cycle around the block, and even the tiniest bit of exertion had me sounding like Darth Vader because I could barely breathe.

I went to the Sports Science Institute for a proper training programme. I stuck the programme onto the fridge, just as I had done with the schedule for my 33 radiotherapy appointments, and I followed the instructions to the letter.

13 weeks later, I completed the four-day Imana Wild Ride, along the coast from Morgan Bay to Umngazi, which is one of the most awe-inspiring bits of landscape in South Africa. I can highly recommend the experience!

Training continued from August until March, and then we rode the 2017 Cape Epic. It’s one of the toughest mountain biking stage races in the world. Over the course of eight days we covered nearly 700km, climbing 15000m. My body had got stronger, but I still made a lot of noise when breathing. I can’t tell you how many times fellow riders offered me asthma pumps, or how many times they rode ahead to let my partner know that I might be in trouble.

That we reached the finish line is a testament to the power of following a structured training programme – in other words, the Magic of Process.

After finishing Epic, I discovered that I’d trained for – and ridden – the event on something like 50% of my breathing capacity. It’s not quite the same as breathing through a straw, but it gives you an idea of the effect. Sometimes it’s better not to know things like this, because I might not even have attempted it if I’d known about this limitation.

I need to tell you a bit about my riding partner, Piet Viljoen. We met as a result of a blog I posted in February 2016, entitled Will You Be My Epic Valentine? At that point, I could barely whisper, I certainly wasn’t strong enough to exercise, and I still had nearly a month of treatment left. Piet, on the other hand, was about to run the Two Oceans Ultra, was in training for a full Iron Man, and would go on to do a bunch of extreme endurance events in 2017.

Piet is a value investor, but even a ‘reversion to mean’ model would have had difficulty forecasting the extent of my recovery. In my darkest days, I was the equivalent of buying into African Bank while it was in curatorship, or purchasing Greek bonds under threat of default. We couldn’t sensibly cycle together until the end of 2016, and yet Piet didn’t waver. His level of commitment puts his immediate “yes” on the level of “I do”. I have spent many hours looking at the back of Piet’s RECM cycling kit, with the strapline: “Follow your conviction.” Even if I’ve been the one doing the following, I can tell you that the conviction part is real.

And this was on the back of a brief coffee meeting with someone who until that point had been a complete stranger. It says a lot for the power of making a choice … and sticking to it.

I can tell you that it makes a HUGE difference to share a challenge with someone who has the kind of values, energy and commitment that support your objectives.

Far from the 2017 experience scaring us off, we repeated Cape Epic in 2018 and 2019.

There’s a little bit of synchronicity to my Epic story, in that a racehorse I co-owned with my mother, Sergeant Hardy, was at point the country’s top-rated sprinter despite having impaired breathing. Our Cape Epic team name was Hoarse Power (with an ‘a’), and we rode the first one in pink kit that was inspired by my mother’s racing colours.

There are a number of other learnings from the experience of riding Epic, or indeed any other endurance event. The simplest, and most obvious, is that as long as you keep turning the cranks you will get to the finish. What I’ve also learnt is that pain is not permanent. While you’re working your way up the mountain, it may feel as if the pain will never end, but before you know it you’ll find yourself having fun on the descents.

This is a phenomenon I’ve experienced in all kinds of real-life situations. Those feelings of difficulty pass. Whether it’s the “are we there yet?” of long journeys, or troubled times, they all pass.

A few months ago, I even found myself applying ‘Epic Mind’ during particularly unpleasant root canal treatment.

Attitude is a big contributor to how we deal with the stresses and difficulties that we encounter. Do we turn molehills into mountains, or the other way around?

I can’t point to empirical evidence, but I believe that one of the things that has helped me is that since the age of 17 I have meditated for 20 minutes twice a day. That’s well over 8000 hours of being in a deep state of relaxation. The daily benefits are release of stress, greater clarity of thinking, and better sleep, and I believe that the effects are cumulative. Whether this has helped me to be more resilient, I don’t know, but I couldn’t imagine living my life without it.

Every moment we’re alive, we’re being invited to answer the question, “What action are you going to take next?” The most obvious benefit of taking part in a series of directed actions – or what one could call a process – is that we are more likely to move closer to our objective.

The second benefit is that it’s very hard for us to feel that we’re victims when we keep taking conscious actions. There are times we may feel that we have no power, but the one thing that no-one can take away from us is the choice of how to respond. Even if all other power has been removed from us, we still have control over that choice.

A structured sequence of actions may seem like an extremely boring way of doing things, but it has a knack of delivering results … almost as if by magic.

What I like about having them listed on a sheet of paper on my fridge is that there’s no negotiation. Especially when it comes to training, if there isn’t a programme or plan, one can easily create all kinds of reasons to justify why one shouldn’t get onto the bike.

I like that the programme’s daily steps are binary. Either one has done what’s required, or one hasn’t. The power of those daily steps is cumulative. Each increment brings one closer to the objective.

By making each step manageable, we get positive feedback on a daily basis, which reinforces commitment to the process. People who work in the field of motivation recommend having a mental picture of oneself as the complete article. So, if I visualise myself as a Cape Epic finisher it’s easier to follow the actions that will get me there.

But this thing isn’t just about visualisation, or working my way through lists posted on the fridge. There has to be an element of selfishness to the way I allocate my time every week to make sure that I do the training that is required. Plus, if I have to be on the bike early on a Sunday morning I’m not exactly up for a big night of partying on a Saturday. In this respect, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have the buy-in and support of my entire family.

The other key person in the process is my coach, Erica Green. She may not be pedalling the bike, but she is as invested as each of her athletes.

The point is that we’re better off with a network of support around us.

While planning this talk, I’ve had the thought that it might have greater impact if the person standing here were an Olympian, or had national colours. However, that could create a disconnect because of the athlete’s superior capabilities. It could make the achievements seem out of reach.

I’m just a regular person. I didn’t start this with superior physical abilities.

Apart from the proper preparation, the one thing that all endurance activities share is the endurance part. Basically, no matter how tough the going gets, one needs to have the mental power to keep going. Mind over matter is a ‘thing’.

My friend Jonno Proudfoot, who swam from Mozambique to Madagascar, talks about creating a web of accountability, in which you are so committed to key people and sponsors that giving up is just not an option. This is the power of not just making the choice to tackle a challenge, but also telling family and friends about the decision. Once you’ve added sponsors and a support team, there are a LOT of people that you don’t possibly want to let down.

If you are well enough prepared, and pace yourself properly, you’re unlikely to find yourself in the zone where it’s too hard to keep going. However, even with the best preparation, there are days when the conditions are adverse, and you have to dig deep. When this happens, there are just two things to think about:

  • firstly, by maintaining movement you keep getting closer to the finish … in other words, what is the next action I need to take
  • secondly, giving up is not an option

Sometimes you just have to ‘vasbyt’.

Each of us has different dreams at different times in our lives. Putting together a series of directed actions is the magical process that turns dreams to reality … no wands required!

It was through reading to my kids that I discovered Dr Seuss’ wonderful book, Oh The Places You’ll Go. I highly recommend that you go out and get a copy, but I leave you with the first two paragraphs:

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself 
any direction you choose.

(This was a talk I presented in 2018, with update reflecting the third Epic, in 2019)

Recovery

Oscar Foulkes February 26, 2019 Cape Epic No comments

When I was training for my first Cape Epic, in 2017, I posted weekly training updates. Seeing as I found my riding partner as a result of a blog post (Be My Epic Valentine), it seemed only right to continue the story. The biggest motivation, though, was to share the journey from cancer treatment to Epic.

I posted daily updates during the event, and when I took on the 2018 race I did the writing all over again.

Not that you’d know it – because I haven’t posted about it here – I’m about to do my third Epic. I’ve done all the work, but none of the writing. Theoretically, this has nothing to do with powering my bike over insanely difficult routes. And yet, this event is almost as much a mind challenge as it is a physical challenge.

Writing, I find, is an extremely valuable tool in straightening out my thinking. Last year, I had some major life changes, which I wrote about using the tag “Adventures of Re-“ (click here for them). Further life changes followed at the beginning of February this year, when my now-adult daughter and son both left home (and Cape Town) for big adventures. None of the above makes for great emotional space, with “re-“ words such as ‘relevance’ becoming more appropriate to my personal perspective than the more exciting ones. In my journey along the road of reskill, retool, and reinvent, I have gone through some very dark days.

Sticking with “re-“ words, the process has tested my resilience, not to mention depleting my resources.

What I’m getting to, is that training for Epic in this condition seems to be far harder than my first, when I was battling my way through recovery (there’s a good “re-“ word) from radiotherapy, in addition to which I didn’t realise the extent to which my breathing was impaired. The one with big physical challenges should have been harder than the one with emotional issues. From this perspective, it doesn’t seem that way.

As usual, this time there was a heavy block of training over the holiday period, between Christmas and mid-January. Basically, I rode for two days in a row and then rested for a day. Each day of riding averaged something like five or six hours. I got back from this, and went straight into riding Attakwas (not called ‘extreme’ for nothing).

I had done all the work, but my body just wasn’t firing. Something felt wrong. At the beginning of February I bailed halfway through day one of a two-day race, and then rode day two at a sedate pace. Following this, I visited my GP, who has substantial experience in participating in ultra-marathon trail running events. He took blood for a variety of tests (all clear, including liver, miraculously), and supported coach Erica Green’s prescription that I needed a break for recovery.

I did nothing for an entire week, and then started riding a little in the following week. Last week I took part in the Knysna Bull, which is a three-day race plus prologue. I got through it all fine, returning to Cape Town feeling energised, and looking forward to rolling off the start line on 17 March.

Meanwhile, my riding partner, Piet Viljoen, has been in the form of his life. In 2017, he was also training for Comrades, and last year he was training for Ironman. This year, cycling has been his sole athletic focus, with obvious effects on his strength. Fortunately, he has been extremely patient with me, demonstrating that Epic is very much a team effort between the two riders. Epic’s theme of ‘conquer as one’ is real. There have been Epic stages when I’ve been the stronger (very few, admittedly), and it could happen again in 2019. The extremeness of the physical challenge takes riders into places that one can’t predict, no matter the levels of fitness or cycling prowess.

For all the physical slog I’ve experienced, while my body has felt ‘not-right’, the one bright part has been downhills. As the front wheel of my bike drops below the rear, I am immediately connected with my happy place. During Knysna Bull, there were three different timed descents, which I rode as fast as I possibly could. I think that played a big part in me finding my mojo again. Descending is certainly not the same as slogging through a long climb or a holding on for dear life on a pacey flat section, but I’m going downhill faster than ever, and it definitely helps to lift my spirit.

This year marks a change in our team’s ‘theme’. Previously, my top-rated racehorse Sergeant Hardy was talismanic of our Cape Epic efforts, because of our shared breathing problems. He’s just had a surgical procedure to increase his breathing capacity, and will return to the track later in the year. We are sporting new kit this year, bearing the logos of investment and financial services companies in which Piet is involved. The team name, Compound Cubed, is a reference to the miracle of compounding, which is the mathematical basis for his investment wizardry.

While I don’t know for certain if not writing training updates made any difference to how I felt at the end of January, I’m now feeling excited about Cape Epic 2019. I started writing about my Epic preparation as a way of sharing the journey. Perhaps the physical act of writing was also important for my journey.

I haven’t stopped writing, I’ve just been covering different material (click here for that). In a way, this is more manifesto than the recording of an experience.

Our ‘strip’ for Cape Epic 2019.

Another happy place for me – riding Sergeant Hardy on the beach. (pic: Donna Bernhardi)


Most Epic Steeds

Oscar Foulkes October 11, 2018 Cape Epic No comments

We Cape Epic riders know that big questions will be asked of us over the event’s eight days. Until the official route announcement every September, we just don’t know the detail. But we do expect them get their pound of flesh.

Two days of extreme heat made 2017 unforgettable, ending dozens of riders’ Epic aspirations. In 2018, we had four consecutive days of 110+km (along with everything else, of course). Continuing the theme of novelty for the wrong reasons, in 2019 we’ll climb more metres per kilometre than any other Epic. Of specific concern are the days with 2650m, 2700m, 2800m and 2850m of climbing.

I’m expecting it to be my toughest Epic. If the organisers ask for theme songs for Epic 2019, I nominate Talking Heads’ Life During Wartime. Here’s a selection of a few pertinent lines:

This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco
This ain’t no fooling around

My chest is aching, burns like a furnace


I just hope there is no reason to invoke the line about “mudd club” (that’s mud with one ‘d’).

We can’t control the route, so there’s no point getting hung up about it. Rather focus on the things we can do something about, like preparation, and our own attitude while we’re suffering our way through a tough stage.

Of course, we also get to choose our weapon, in the form of the bike we ride. I was provided with a Santa Cruz Tallboy for the 2018 Epic (read more about that here). I love its ability to comfortably negotiate just about any gnarly or technical terrain. Riding the Tallboy did wonders for building my confidence.

Since April, I’ve been riding the Santa Cruz Blur, a handy extension to their family of downhill and cross country bikes. It weighs 10kg (or slightly less), which makes it the bike that Sir Isaac Newton would have chosen if he was riding Cape Epic in 2019 (assuming, of course, that he could be teleported from the 17th century, and squeeze himself into Lycra).

Riding a bike that light is a game changer when there’s a lot of climbing to be done. Actually, it’s a game changer on the flat as well, but there won’t be much of that in 2019.

While on the subject of lightness, I lifted a time trial bike when was at my local bike shop a few weeks ago. I swear it weighed kilograms more than my Blur, which was a big surprise.

A lot of climbing means there’s also a lot of descending, much of which will be technical. This is where the Santa Cruz downhill pedigree comes into play. Riding a Tallboy for five months definitely upped my confidence levels (it’s pretty much bullet proof). My riding changed thanks to the Tallboy; on the Blur I’m descending as fast, if not faster, than on the Tallboy.

The Blur is also great on nippy singletrack that has many twists and turns, because its lightness makes it very responsive to small shifts in body weight.

The name of the Blur is a reference to its speed. However, in the way it handles technical terrain, it blurs the traditional lines between cross country and marathon bikes (take a look at Oli Munnik throwing it around in the video alongside).

Last week, on a gentle Zone 2 ride, I passed a rider on a downhill bike as I hit the gravel at the end of Tafelberg Road. Even though it was an ‘easy’ day, my plan was to go full-gas on the descent to Vredehoek. He seemed to be having some casual fun, but clearly caught the bug, because I had him on my tail all the way down (huge trust from him to ride at pace, this close to someone of unknown skills). It was an exhilarating dash, especially with the drier weather having left the corners very loose and gravelly.

To some extent, it was a case of taking a knife to a gunfight, but the Blur acquitted itself extremely well.

When I was researching bikes before my first Epic I may have mentioned a couple of technical specs of one bike to Oli. “How does the bike feel?” he asked me. I realised that I was already doing that. I just didn’t trust myself to base a big decision on that.

Since then, and making allowance for my very average abilities on a bike, I’ve become more aware of ‘feel’. So, while the Blur is on a par with Tallboy in the way it handles technical stuff, how it feels is different. On the Blur, I feel a closer connection with the trail, and yes, I do have to ride it slightly differently.

While on the subject of ‘feel’, last week I rode Sergeant Hardy for the first time. You can click here for more detail, but the short version is that he’s a racehorse I own in partnership with my mother. We both have impaired breathing (that’s where the similarities end, unfortunately), but despite this handicap he was one of the top-rated sprinters in the world earlier this year. Our Epic team is called Hoarse Power because of him, and he has been talismanic for our mountain biking exploits.

Sitting on his back while walking through the waves on the beach is one of the most memorable physical experiences I’ve ever had. The feel was extraordinary – and that was without even breaking into a canter.

In horse racing, Newton’s Second Law can be applied to calculate the difference in result when the weight carried by the horse changes (i.e. jockey and saddle). Sergeant Hardy weighs more than 550kg, and yet a kilo or two in weight carried makes a significant difference over 1200m.

I’ll be around 76kg when I ride Epic, which covers much bigger distances. The lightest bike makes a big difference to how much effort I’ll expend in getting around the route.

A Blur, a Blur! My kingdom for a Blur!*

*with apologies to Shakespeare

(Disclosure: I have the use of a Santa Cruz Blur, but have not been offered any inducements or rewards to say nice things. This is 100% about the bike getting under my skin.)

Riding a different kind of ‘tall boy’ – me on Sergeant Hardy.


Adventures of Re: May

Oscar Foulkes June 5, 2018 Adventures of Re- No comments

On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl.

– Dr Seuss

During my conversation with Heather Parker (read about it here), she mentioned that in addition to her executive MBA, she had also trained as a life coach. On the basis that I wouldn’t dream of tackling Cape Epic without a coach, I felt that this important process similarly needed a coach.

At the end of the day, the coachee is the person doing the work and making things happen, but it helps to have the structure of a process, as well as an outside pair of eyes to help find perspective.

At Heather’s instigation, one of the first steps was to do an Enneagram test. The results generally fell within the parameters of what I thought I knew about myself, but also opened my eyes to a few things. These were overlaid with the outcomes of the ‘purpose exercise’ she shared with me. This was used to get a rough outline in place.

In the spirit of active recovery, I made contact with a friend who runs an NGO. It turns out that this organisation is about to embark on a radical reinvention process. My friend immediately included me in a bunch of meetings related to their intended changes. It remains to be seen how I can contribute (it’s looking to me as if they are pretty well resourced from a skilled humans perspective), but it’s been exciting to witness the emergence of something as revolutionary as they are planning. It’s certainly been an eye-opener to experience the openness with which I’ve been included.

One of the benefits of this interaction is that it’s giving me the opportunity of trying out the ‘wild card role’ that I’ve often been drawn by, and which seems to be indicated by the Enneagram results.

Regardless of self-indulgent reinvention processes, one needs income. One of the commercial enterprises I identified was pinhooking, essentially the purchase of yearling Thoroughbreds, with the aim of selling them as early two-year-olds on a Ready to Run sale, which is something I’ve done on a small scale before. I’m doing this as part of a partnership, so that I can get something of a portfolio in place to spread the risk. We did most of our buying in April, but during May we also bought a weanling that we’ll sell as a yearling in January. The downside, of course, is that the income is preceded by expenditure, but at least it’s a start.

A major positive is that I don’t need to take on the risk of starting a fully-fledged business. And, it flows naturally from existing skills, knowledge and experience.

Horses also feature in my interim plan, by way of Sergeant Hardy and others. The month started hopefully, with Sergeant Hardy contesting a major race in Johannesburg. Being the top-rated sprinter in the country, and having won a similar race at the end of January, I had high hopes of him finishing in the money. However, altitude seemed to get the better of him, and he ran unplaced.

The one thing I can say for certainty about the ‘business’ of owning horses is that one lives in hope. Over the seven-day period from 26 May, we had six runners. Four of them were favourites (i.e. the top selection in the betting), including Sergeant Hardy. There’s no need to go into the details of what happened in each case, but the end result was two fifths and two fourths. The positive is that each of them must be close to being winning prospects next time out. Well, that’s the hope.

It can be tempting to give in to the embrace of depression. It doesn’t take much more than some sleep deprivation, perhaps combined with a broken exercise pattern and a couple of things that haven’t turned out as expected. Before you know it, your brain has started to assemble confirmatory negative thoughts. While cycling on Sunday morning, I noticed my brain doing this. In response, I made a concerted effort to snap out of it. I don’t mean to trivialise the situation of people for whom depression is an illness. However, I’d be failing this process and accompanying journal if I didn’t report those feelings, however temporary.

One of my coffee sessions during the month was with Vanessa Raphaely, who left her position as Cosmopolitan editor, not to mention the structure/comfort of family business, to find a new direction. Her advice boiled down to two words: “Just do.”

In the course of ‘just doing’, she has written a children’s book and a novel. But perhaps her biggest achievement over the past few years is a Facebook group, The Village, which is a brilliant resource for parents of tweens and teenagers. It must rank as one of the very few parts of the Internet where comments are made in huge quantity without even the slightest bit of trolling, flaming or hate speech. In fact, it may be the online world’s most supportive space, which could explain its growth to nearly 20 000 members, a high percentage of whom engage on a regular basis.

“Just do” also happens to be a perfect antidote to the states of mind that most easily slide into depression’s dark embrace. More importantly, by ‘doing’ we take the first steps into the future.

In theory, this woolly chap is going to develop into a strapping yearling by late January.

In theory, this woolly chap is going to develop into a strapping yearling by late January, earning us a profit.

Epic 2018: Hoarse Power

Oscar Foulkes March 26, 2018 Cape Epic No comments

Every Stage of Epic, whether long or short, has its own challenges. In the case of the final one, from Wellington to Val de Vie, the pressure point was doing more than half the day’s climbing in the first 18km. Piet and I had agreed that we’d ride this at a manageable pace, expecting to suffer for anything up to two hours, and then see what we’ve got left in the tank.

I woke up on the Sunday morning noticing that my legs were considerably less painful than they’d been all week. Good start.

We were also blessed with a cool start to the day, thanks to overnight drizzle and remaining cloud cover. Also good.

Due to the obscene amount of climbing, the start operated as batches of three groups all going off together. It wasn’t long before we got into the climbing. I need to understand the phenomenon a bit better, but there is something quite different to the pain at the start of a day than at the end. To take my mind off it, in my head I replayed a video I’d been sent the day before, of Sergeant Hardy taking a roll in the sand (posted on my Instagram account).

The top of the Hawequas climb is just below Du Toitskloof Pass, which is a long way up when you look at it from the perspective of the valley floor, and the slopes are steep. There was a group of drummers at the end point of the climb, who could be heard from a long way away. That was cool.

Due to traffic on the descent, we couldn’t make as much use of the free miles as we might have wanted to, but at least we were no longer climbing. Shortly after the first water point there was another significant climb, and then we were into a route profile one could describe as rolling hills.

From the second water point to the end was a distance of about 30km. However, the final bit was all downhill or flat, so we effectively had just over 20km to the end. Once again, I was like a horse on its way back to the stable. I didn’t mind taking the pain of riding hard on hills, because they weren’t long climbs, and were followed by descents. This was not only recovery time, but also additional opportunity to pass other riders, especially when the terrain was making them think about what lines to take.

We may have passed 50 or more teams between the second water point and the top of the final climb. I was in the red, but unlike the previous stage when I had desperately been clinging to Piet’s back wheel, this time I was setting the pace (being in the driver’s seat does make a difference). I suspect I may not have been able to do it if that stretch had all been on the flat. The undulations gave me recovery time, and letting the Tallboy loose on the downhills got the adrenaline going.

Then we reached the section I’d been waiting for since the start of Epic. The Land Rover Technical Terrain for Stage 8, called Bone Rattler, is a zig-zag descent that ends at the entrance to Pearl Valley. The terrain of the final zags comprises rocks of varying sizes, up to baby head and slightly bigger. I pedalled hard at the top of the hill to get momentum, pointed the Tallboy, and released brakes. The bike is made for that stuff, and handled beautifully.

Then it was just a case of getting across the finish line.

Last year, Piet pulled me up Franschhoek Pass. Over the final 20km I was just going through the motions. It made a big difference to reach the end of Epic feeling the strongest I’d felt all week. If this isn’t proof of Erica Green’s excellent coaching then I don’t know what is.

On every stage, we moved up the GC, ending just below mid-point in the field. Considering that my participation was in doubt 10 days before the start, and that the final month of preparation was interrupted by injury, I’m delighted with the outcome. But regardless of GC position, it was a great week on the bike.

However, it’s not just about the bike. Cape Epic is a team sport, and as a partner Piet is investment grade. My top tip for people contemplating Epic is to make sure you have the right partner. I don’t know how one assesses this stuff in advance, because I got lucky.

Of course, none of this would be possible without my family completely embracing this project, and giving me the support and time to do it. Thank you!

P.S. Being a noisy breather, especially when the going gets tough, results in a wide range of comments from other riders. At the top of a particularly difficult climb this week, Piet asked me how I was. “I’m breathing”, was my answer, indicating that at that point I was capable of the bare minimum of biological activity to sustain life. The sounds of my laboured breathing suggested I was inhaling more than my fair share, because quick as a flash, a rider close by pipes up: “Leave some oxygen for us!”

Team Hoarse Power (pic: Amanda Bloch)

Team Hoarse Power (pic: Amanda Bloch)

Epic 2018: Taking the Tallboy line

Oscar Foulkes March 19, 2018 Cape Epic No comments

There are all kinds of issues related to riding 110km Cape Epic stages. From the perspective of this daily update, however, the major consideration is that getting in after 2.30pm doesn’t leave a lot of time for penning something worthwhile. I’ll leave the rest of the issues to your imagination.

I’m going to start with the obvious, given that the race village at Arabella occupies the Normandy Stud paddocks in which Sergeant Hardy frolicked as a foal. For those of you new to the story, Sergeant Hardy is the breathing impaired horse I race in partnership with my mother. On Sun Met day, he beat the best sprinters in the country, and was last week included in the Longines-sponsored list of The World’s Best Racehorses. Our Epic kit is inspired by my mother’s racing colours (worn by the jockey when Sergeant Hardy races). The Hoarse Power printed on our cycling shorts ties together my own breathing issues and medical history with that of Sergeant Hardy (although unlike me, he is a proper athlete).

Nostalgia made further appearances this morning, when we cycled through Excelsior, which is where I spent a big chunk of my childhood. And later we rode through Piet’s brother’s farm, Steenboksvlakte.

Today’s stage started at quite a pace – we ticked off the first 15km in 30 minutes, and the pace stayed pretty steady until we hit the first big climb. The Land Rover technical zone was the descent from this climb. As we entered it, there was a group of riders ahead of us. Getting past them required the application of what I call The Tallboy Line (with apologies to golfers who make use of The Tiger Line). In case you hadn’t guessed, this required some off-piste cycling over terrain that would generally be avoided. Unless you’re riding a Santa Cruz Tallboy, of course.

Once we got past these riders, it was pretty much full gas over some pretty gnarly terrain. Such fun!

A bit later, we were able to repeat the exercise from the top of the Skuilkrans climb, passing something like 20 teams in the process. Again, this required regular use of The Tallboy Line, on the rockiest, steepest, off-camber parts of the track. There doesn’t seem to be a segment for this on Strava. I did promise that ego would not make an appearance today, but it would have been interesting to see how us schleppers at the rear of the field stacked up against the more talented riders in groups ahead.

I did a blog post when researching bikes for Epic (click here to read it). Given my breathing difficulties, I was more concerned about having a bike that made up for my breathing (along the lines of an Iron Lung). I’ve learnt that being assisted in descending quickly can be as valuable. And, even if it doesn’t translate into a shorter time out on the road, letting rip on the Tallboy is a huge amount of fun.

We ended the day comfortably within our budget of seven hours (with about 20 minutes to spare). Three long days await, so this afternoon we’re deep into recovery mode.

Sergeant Hardy returns to the winner's enclosure after the Cape Flying Championship

Sergeant Hardy returns to the winner’s enclosure after the Cape Flying Championship

Epic 2018: Paddock time

Oscar Foulkes February 19, 2018 Cape Epic No comments

During the week I was sent a little video of Sergeant Hardy in the paddock at the Snaiths’ farm. After three races in five weeks he earned the break from full training! Interestingly, his ‘paddock buddy’ is Copper Force, which nearly beat Legal Eagle in the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate.

This week I also received my training schedule leading up to Cape Epic. Apart from the fact that I need to recover from Tankwa Trek, Erica thought she saw indications of fatigue in my Wattbike stats. Admittedly, I may have recovered from some of this in the extended taper leading up to Tankwa Trek, but she’s taking no chances. As she put it to me, “rather a week off now, than in two weeks’ time.” In a sense, I’m having my own version of ‘paddock time’.

I didn’t expect to feel fresh on my gentle Wednesday morning pedal, but I knew that I needed to get it out of the way.

I was supposed to do an easy 70km on the road on Saturday. Instead, I spent just about the entire day on the road, except that I was driving from one chore to the next.

I met up with Piet for Sunday’s 80km on the road. We rode from Camps Bay, setting off at quite a pace. On the approach to Llandudno I realised that my heart rate was way too high for the type of ride intended. While I backed off, Piet chased down an ebike (ever the wheel chaser!). I managed to keep it sensible going up Chapman’s Peak, but allowed myself to get a little carried away on Black Hill. I pushed a few watts as my heart rate peaked at 172 bpm.

At the bottom of Black Hill, we turned left on Main Road, taking advantage of road closures for the Peninsula Marathon. I was intrigued to see the runner carrying the flag for sub-5:00 running solo. Had he out-run his bus, or had they out-run him? Or was no-one interested in running sub-5:00?

Later we passed a group of riders on Coco-Mat bikes. The collective noun for a group of cyclists is a peloton. If they are riding on wooden bikes (as these were), does it become a grove? Orchard, I’m assuming, would only apply if the wood used for the bike construction came from a fruit-bearing tree.

We completed just over 78km in exactly three hours, which qualifies as recovery pace.

With four weeks to Epic, my attention now turns to the wine list (you can read about our 2017 wine list here). Given that we’re doing a mountain bike race, the theme for this year’s list is wineries (or wines) with mountain/berg in the name. Mont would be the French equivalent (not be confused with mons, although the two words have similar etymology). We’re taking a broad view on this one, allowing words denoting parts of mountains, like Côte (slope).

If the temperatures in 2018 are anything like 2017, wine from Côte Rôtie (roasted slope) would be entirely appropriate!

We passed a group of these wooden bikes on Sunday (would that be a grove of them?)

We passed a group of these wooden bikes on Sunday (would that be a grove of them?)