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Cape Epic: Prologue

Oscar Foulkes March 19, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
Seasoned Epic riders may find some of my observations quaint, on the basis of this stuff being old hat for them. Here goes anyway…

I have watched many television broadcasts of the Epic Prologue. And, yes, I have imagined how it would feel to be in that branded van, waiting to roll down the ramp. Up to that point it was all very exciting, maybe even in a Christmas Day kind of way (for a kid). However, within seconds of starting, my heart rate leapt to 145, and remained above 170 for most of the rest of the 26km.

The climbs were steep, and everyone seemed to be in hurry-up mode, which led to a vicious circle of extra effort and higher heart rate.

On balance it was all fun and exciting. Plus, riding in this randomized order for what is effectively a time trial meant that we got up close with riders we won’t see again for the rest of the race. On the Hoogekraal descent, I was passed by some international riders. These guys were a treat to watch on the trails, even if they were disappearing at a rapid rate.

We didn’t have any mechanicals, although I lost a lot of pressure in my rear tyre on the final climb. I had to ride the succession of berms leading to the finish with greater care than usual, because my rear wheel had hardly any traction.

I’ll be able to report with more authority tomorrow, but it seems that the one great thing about the Prologue is that it releases pre-race tension.

The advice that is handed out by experienced riders is to take it easy for the first few days. I didn’t see much of that today. However, that didn’t stop Paul Valstar, who was commentating at the final climb, from describing Piet and my Prologue effort as “riding conservatively”. Take a look at my heart rate chart alongside – does that look like someone who is taking it easy?

Tomorrow we start the real work of Cape Epic, a 102km loop from Hermanus to Stanford and back, with 2300m of climbing.

My heart rate during Prologue. Note the 168 bpm average, with a max of 188, hardly the effort of someone "riding conservatively".

My heart rate during Prologue. Note the 168 bpm average, with a max of 188, hardly the effort of someone “riding conservatively”.

By comparison, my diesel engine partner was cruising.

By comparison, my diesel engine partner was cruising.

Epic Training: Week 28

Oscar Foulkes March 18, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
Last week was billed as Kit Week. In truth, our kit wasn’t entirely complete, because we still needed socks. Having pushed out a boat laden with pinkness, we couldn’t exactly suddenly turn demure in the sock department. However, we found that the availability of pink socks is extremely limited. Most of what’s out there is more in the line of neon pink, which doesn’t work with the muted pink of our tops.

OK, so perhaps there isn’t anything terribly muted about two men in their fifties riding the world’s toughest mountain bike race in pink, but we had to at least make the effort. The problem is that the sole candidate cost an outrageous R390 per pair. You must understand that I am hard pressed to buy a t-shirt for more than R250.

With a nudge from Piet, and a reminder to self of Henry Kissinger’s “there is nothing that clears the mind like the absence of alternatives” I went out and bought two pairs for each of us (as opposed to the three sets of kit).

One of the week’s to-dos was putting together our wine list for the week (neither of us has any intention of doing this ‘dry’). As I was selecting appropriately epic wines, it occurred to me that these R390 pink jobs are to socks what Pinot Noir is to wine. I can easily justify spending R390 on a bottle of wine for a special occasion. I don’t know what this says about my priorities.

The theme for the wine list is that they should be excellent wines that represent the route. I had a few candidates lined up, but mailed a couple of wine friends for suggestions, both of whom chipped in with gifted bottles.

So, here’s our list:
Alheit Vineyards La Colline Semillon – this Franschhoek vineyard is over 80 years old, and the wines are made by the Alheits, who are based in Hemel-en-Aarde (two boxes ticked)

Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir – fabulous pinot from Hemel-en-Aarde
Savage ‘Follow the Line’ – some of the grapes come from the Overberg region (and we’ll be following telephone lines for much of the route)
Domain de la Vieille Julienne Côtes du Rhône – gifted along with the Savage, because the grape varieties are similar. Not that one needs justification for pulling the cork, but the Tour de France goes through the region, and Cape Epic is like the Tour de France of mountain biking (just not as far).
Luddite File 13 – shiraz from Bot River
Paul Cluver Pinot Noir – some of the most fun single track we’ll be riding is on this property
Crystallum Peter Max Pinot Noir – made in Bot River from Hemel-en-Aarde grapes. Our house wine, in case Messrs Sauser, Platt or Hincapie pop around for a drink.
Mullineux Syrah – qualifies on a technicality because of the Leeu Family Vineyards connection with Franschhoek (and Piet brought a few bottles along to the Daisyway training camp in December).

During the week I did a couple of easy ‘leg loosener’ rides, the second of which was a spin to Hout Bay on Friday afternoon. I encountered a few other Epic riders doing the same thing.

With our registration now complete, the excitement of pre-race vibe is close to maximum.

Numbers are on bikes. One more sleep…

Wine update: while packing, I came across a couple of Hemel-en-Aarde wines – the sensational Restless River Chardonnay and Alheit’s Vine Garden white blend – that both got added to the selection.

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Epic Training: Week 27

Oscar Foulkes March 12, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
The Velominati Rules leave no doubt about what type of kit is appropriate for which cycling discipline, but the sole prescriptions relating to looking great are reserved for the bike itself. Nevertheless, there is a requirement for team members taking part in a stage race to wear custom kit. One can’t pitch up at Cape Epic wearing matching Wines2Whales tops, even if they are of vintage provenance.

No, nothing less than specially made up shirts, with matching bib shorts, gilets and arm warmers, and the relevant year’s Cape Epic Riders’ logo, will suffice. If you are travelling with a support team, whether masseuse or mechanic, those people should have matching t-shirts. WAGs, too, should have appropriate kit (matching pom-poms optional).

This was Kit Week. On Monday, we took delivery of our Sergeant Hardy kit (see related post here). On Friday, we received our ABSA Pride goodie bags (a total spoil in the kit department). And, for good measure, Piet gave me a full set of RECM kit (complete with Epic rider logo).

I also picked up my Jenna Lowe Trust top (you can still donate here), bringing the tally to seven new tops and six new bib shorts, as well as four new gilets. The Velominati have a rule relating to the number of bikes one can own, but not the number of sets of cycling kit. My cupboard space (a fraction of that available in the master bedroom) is already full to overflowing, but I’m not going to test the possibility of the “S-1” rule by encroaching on the other cupboards. I may be living out of a suitcase for a while.

We’re on the ABSA Pride list thanks to Piet’s banking relationships. I bank with FNB, and have regarded myself as being on the winning side of the equation, thanks to my Ninja use of eBucks. The level of spoil from ABSA is on another level (but, in fairness, so is the scale of my use of FNB’s services – ABSA aren’t doing this for holders of savings accounts).

The structure of the week followed the usual pattern, with gym on Monday and Wednesday. I did a toned-down session of hill repeats on Tuesday, and similarly less intense intervals on Saturday.

I joined Piet for a road ride on Thursday with his gym trainer, Kate (comparisons with my trainer, Derek, would not be fair). Due to the strength of the wind we turned around at the Twelve Apostles, and rode up The Glen.

During this ride Piet made his decision about which bike to ride for the Cape Town Cycle Tour (mountain bike, because he’s had so little time on the new Santa Cruz). I deliberated for a few days, until the wind made up my mind for me. The Yeti would be more stable in the wind, plus I’d get some valuable distance riding in advance of Epic.

As it turned out, the choice of bikes was irrelevant. I feel for people who have trained hard with a target time, and especially for those who travelled from overseas. On my ride back from the start I passed a particularly disconsolate Italian.

The fact is that people were getting blown off their bikes at the start. Even if this was because of the wind tunnel effect on the Foreshore, the more social end of the field would have had a tough time getting around the course in a gale force south-easter. Also a factor was the possibility of fires in Hout Bay necessitating the use of roads for access by emergency vehicles.

For some, it would have been a relief to not ride in the wind. For others, it was all blow and no happy ending.

One week to go (and then it will be eight days of Rule 5) …

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)

Epic Training: Week 26

Oscar Foulkes March 5, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
We are now into the part of the training programme referred to as ‘tapering’. Things are taken just a little bit easier. The body gets a chance to properly recover from the fairly tough racing schedule we have followed since late January, as well as build up some reserves for the week of Epic.

Gym sessions on Monday and Wednesday focused more on mobility and recovery than strength. Wednesday morning’s hour-long spin on the road was about recovery only.

On Saturday, Piet and I did a meander around Meerendal and Hoogekraal. Having spent hardly any time on my bike during the week it was good to get out again. I certainly went at it faster than I should have, and discovered that the climbs get quite steep. Before I knew it, my heart rate was well over 170, with accompanying sound effects as a result of my restricted airway (best I don’t pull that stunt anywhere near a medic – I’ll be kicked off Epic faster than I can say Yeti).

Speaking of bikes, Piet was on his new Santa Cruz Tallboy. It’s the yellow version with turquoise branding, which looks very cool. If I hadn’t, after much deliberation, selected the Yeti, this is the bike I would have wanted for Epic. I suspect my days of keeping up with Piet on big descents are over. The Tallboy is a lot more stable on the trail than his old S-Works.

However, I’ve done our team no favours by insisting that we complete the Sergeant Hardy story by wearing my mother’s racing colours. Picture, if you can bear it, two middle-aged gents wearing pink shirts and pink socks, riding as a pair on these brightly coloured bikes (see alongside).

The fabulous Afrikaans word bont springs to mind. Our colourful ensemble is topped and tailed with black, in the form of black helmets (new, matching), black shoes and black gloves.

Sunday morning’s ride was an easy three-hour road ride to Noordhoek and back with my son.

Even this relatively casual week involved eight hours of either gym or riding. Over the months, my training programme has required a lot of shuffling of timetables, of squeezing things in, and of outright just not being available at certain times. My family has been massively supportive and tolerant. I could not have got this far without them. Thank you, Andrea. Thank you, Sophie. Thank you, Aedan.

The Prologue start times have been announced. We’re off at a very early 7.15am, which should leave enough time for us to get off the course before the seeded riders do their thing. I’d hate to be responsible for causing one of them to lose time on the route.

Next Sunday, I’m riding the Cape Town Cycle Tour in support of the Jenna Lowe Trust. Their aim is to raise R50 000 for two new oxygen machines at the Jenna Lowe Clinic at Groote Schuur Hospital. Click here to make a donation, however small (more information about the Jenna Lowe Trust is on their website). The entire process will take you less than a minute. Your support is much appreciated!

My immune system has done a sterling job for the past year. Three more weeks of defence against illness would be fantastic.

Two weeks to the start…

I’m riding The Argus in support of the Jenna Lowe Trust.  Follow this link to make donations.

Piet's new ride, the Santa Cruz Tallboy cc.

Piet’s new ride, the Santa Cruz Tallboy cc.

The other half of our colourful pairing, my Yeti ASR40, in turquoise that doesn't quite match that on the Santa Cruz.

The other half of our colourful pairing, my Yeti ASR40, in turquoise that doesn’t quite match that on the Santa Cruz.

Epic Training: Week 25

Oscar Foulkes February 27, 2017 Cape Epic 2 comments
It’s tempting, this week, to prattle about the little bits of training I did throughout the week. I could kick off with Monday morning’s Wattbike session that didn’t feel quite so lighthearted while I was doing it, or the same day’s banter-filled gym session. And then there was Wednesday morning’s ‘easy’ solo road ride that was ridden at slightly speedier pace than when I was slipstreaming Piet the previous week.

Certainly of significance, considering one of the cornerstones of my Epic journey, was the check-up on my throat. All clear, thank you, and we’ll schedule the surgery to enlarge my airway for April (while on the subject, perhaps the manufacturers of radiotherapy equipment should be sponsoring my Cape Epic entry).

This is all the easy stuff. Perhaps it’s all still too near, but I’m struggling to get perspective on the experience of riding the Knysna Bull from Friday to Sunday. It was a kind of physical intensity that also feels emotionally intense.

I should add that over three days we didn’t just ride the roughly 200km of the race, we also rode the 70-ish kilometres to the three days’ starts, which included the climb out of Knysna each day. In round numbers, the mileage we clocked was 100km, 90 km and 80km.

The plan was to turn the race into something that roughly approximates Epic stages, although Tankwa Trek, which we rode two weeks ago, does a better job of that. However, whereas Tankwa was largely ridden at a pace that ensured completion, Piet was in racing mode this weekend.

Because of us riding to the start each day, I couldn’t reliably answer any question about the ease or difficulty of the race. Those 70 to 90 minutes of constant pedalling depleted me of a pile of energy. It’s good training, but given my lack of roadie background, is not my strong suit.

Day One was the longest, with the most climbing, and the temperature got into the high 30s. This was the longest ride to the start, after which I battled my way through the day. Then, from the final water point, super-competitive Piet laid on the pressure because he wanted to catch up to his business partner, Jan. I had the ‘hand of Piet’ on my back up a few climbs, not because I couldn’t have got there myself, but because he wanted to go faster. The final part of the race was alongside the lagoon. Piet did what he most loves doing on a bicycle (going fast on the road for a long distance), and I did all I could to hang onto his back wheel. Over the final few kilometres we must have made up a kilometre on Jan and his riding partner, and despite a frenzied sprint to the finish line, failed by a metre to reel them in.

Day Two got wet and cold, with a long climb into the mountains above Rheenendal. The worst part of the climbing was a longish, very steep section just before the first water point that caused my heart rate to spike, and my breathing to sound like the braying of a donkey. I will admit to walking for a small part of this hill. There were a couple of downhill sections that were heaps of fun (and taken at high speed).

I have finally found one part of cycling that I can do on a par with Piet. I hesitate to say ‘faster than’, because that would simply spur him on. I suspect, though, that this parity will end when he upgrades from the S Works he currently rides. Until then, I have the Yeti advantage.

The final, flat section of Day Two was longer than the previous day. Once again, I latched onto the RECM Express, turning Piet’s back wheel into my entire universe.

On the pedal to the start of Day Three, Piet outlined his plan. It was akin to a trainer instructed his jockey to go the front from the start, and then to improve his position. At this point, I need to mention that I may be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome – when Piet laid out the plan, I immediately offered a range of elevated heart rates at which I would ride.

As things turned out, the pace of the first 10km was so furious that I couldn’t keep up. In horse racing parlance, I was off the bit from the start. It was easier for me to maintain high intensity once we got into the singletrack sections, because of the little bits of recovery in between. And, of course, thanks to the Yeti, hardly any braking was required on the descents.

Stopping at the water points for more than a nibble of banana bread, or a sip of Coke, was deemed a lunch break. The pressure was unrelenting, although this wasn’t a one-sided exercise. The ‘hand of Piet’ helped me up a few climbs, including one that had us passing pro rider Cherise Willeit, who happened to be at our end of the race.

For the big Pezula descent into Knysna I was, once again, on the lead, before a final visit to the hurt box, as I clung desperately to Piet’s back wheel for the final six kilometres. We finished just a couple of minutes behind Jan (claims of him stopping along the route to take pictures have not been substantiated).

Despite feeling a little shell-shocked at the intensity of the morning’s riding, after a shower and lunch I had no difficulty with the five-hour drive back to Cape Town.

To borrow from the investment world, achieving perspective is all about the benchmark one chooses. Against our stated objective of a final training race for Cape Epic we did what we wanted to do.

The intensity with which we rode at times was outside my comfort zone – both physical and emotional – but that, too is part of the process of being 100% prepared for Cape Epic.

Three weeks to go…

At the finish - somehow I've managed to not collapse after chasing The RECM Express for three days.

At the finish – somehow I’ve managed not to collapse after chasing The RECM Express for three days (pic: Amanda Bloch).

Epic Training: Week 24

Oscar Foulkes February 20, 2017 Cape Epic 1 comment
I spent weeks researching bikes before selecting my ‘Epic bike’. For a top rider, the choice of bike makes a marginal difference, but for someone of limited ability (like myself), the bike can make a big difference.

By contrast, I did very little research as far as riding partner is concerned. When my regular or occasional partners ran a mile, I had to resort to unusual methods. There isn’t a cycling version of Tindr (if there were, perhaps it could be called Peddlr), so I wrote a blog post Be My Epic Valentine.

As a result, a friend connected me with Piet (Viljoen), who met me for a coffee almost exactly a year ago. At that point, I was midway through six weeks of radiotherapy, I couldn’t speak, and was on my way to losing 10kg and cultivating a scab that covered the entire front of my neck. I didn’t eat solid food until early April, instead subsisting on soup and morphine.

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 under curatorship, or buying Greek bonds under threat of default. We couldn’t sensibly cycle together until the end of 2016, and yet Piet didn’t waver. The 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.

You may recall from earlier training updates that Piet’s actual objective this year is to run the Comrade’s Marathon, but with an additional layer of difficulty, in that it’s part of the Unogwaja Challenge, which will see the athletes cycle to Durban over 10 days. While running and cycling are not complementary athletic activities, they draw off the body’s single store of energy. My body is just about keeping on top of my training programme; Piet is doing this at the same time as running. Often, he cycles in the morning, and then runs 10 or 15km in the evening. I don’t know how he does it.

Actually, I do have an idea of how he does it, because I see it in action when we are cycling. He relishes challenges, and he sets them up as non-negotiable objectives. Going outside his comfort zone is something he does as a matter of course. It helps that he is a strong rider, but I’ve often seen him ride up steep and loose climbs that most people are walking up. This is as much about strength of will as it is about strength of muscles.

This week followed the regular pattern of gym on Monday and Wednesday. Tuesday’s ride consisted of hill repeats (in the wind, by the way), and I moved Thursday’s road ride to Wednesday morning, so that I could ride with Piet.

Our Wednesday ride to Hout Bay and back was largely uneventful, except for when the ‘La Perla Express’ passed us on the approach to the Twelve Apostles Hotel. Had we stepped on the gas while they were still alongside we might have had half a chance of hanging on to back of the peloton, but the gap was 20 or 30 metres by the time Piet suggested that we chase them down. Classic Piet. I felt like a dog chasing after a motorbike (well, I was, perhaps Piet could have caught them if he’d been on his own).

My Saturday ride had to wait until after my son’s water polo match (yes, he could have ubered there and back, but then I would have missed seeing his two goals). This was another of those sessions that just have to be endured – six five-minute intervals in zone four. However, there was a little bit of unexpected excitement towards the end of the fifth interval. As I looked up from my handlebars, I could see a cobra two or three metres ahead of me, moving in the same general direction. The correct course of action would have been to stop, and wait until it was gone. Instead, I just pedalled harder to get past it faster. Thankfully it veered off the path rather than take an interest in me.

It was only after I reached safety that I asked myself what the fuck I was thinking. There is no way I could out-ride a cobra going uphill. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time riding with Piet, in that I felt able to take on the impossible.

My plan for Sunday was to do a road ride with my son, but near-gale force wind killed that idea. Instead, I rode over to Pat’s Track, which is sheltered from the south-easter. The additional benefits of Pat’s Track are that it tests technical skills, going both down and up.

While it’s a physically challenging section of riding, it’s relatively short. I braved the wind back on the City Bowl side, but still ended up riding just 90 minutes instead of three hours. With Strava, there are no secrets, hence the message I received from Piet some time after getting home: “Are you doing the rest of your ride indoors?”

Well, I suppose he had run the Peninsula Marathon in the morning – running into the wind the whole way. It’s not as if he turned it into a half marathon, although that part is non-negotiable, because running Peninsula is part of qualifying for Comrades.

I’ve painted a picture of a partnership so unequal that you’d wonder how it works. However, before we even started this journey, Piet accepted that he was doing Epic with me, rather than the other way around. And, his actual objective is Unogwaja.

It’s been very good for me to have Piet as my partner. He has challenged and stretched me when it would have been all too easy for me to coast along while waving the “impaired breathing cancer treatment” banner. I’m not the victim type, but it would have been possible to get to – and through – Epic at a lower level of intensity.

Sometimes we over-think or over-research things. Often, great results follow from committing to the options that serendipity puts in front of us. My Epic partnership is one of those.

The difference between five and four is small. Somehow, however, reaching the point of there being just four weeks remaining to the start of Epic feels like a dramatic shift. It’s all feeling very close.

From every angle, these chaps are scary. Piet has a one-word strategy for snakes: "Avoid." (Pic: Tyrone Ping)

From every angle, these chaps are scary. Piet has a one-word strategy for snakes: “Avoid.” (Pic: Tyrone Ping)

Epic Training: Week 23

Oscar Foulkes February 13, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
I think I may be on record as saying that the world would be in better shape if we all ate more chickpeas, rather than the vast quantities of industrially produced animal protein we get through. That’s the theory. In practice – especially if one is on a training programme – it takes careful planning to ensure that one gets sufficient nutrition.

I know this because my family declared this a vegetarian week. I can’t recall ever being as ravenously hungry. I thought that our dinners were quite well put together (not to mention delicious), and I had eggs for breakfast on most days, but that still left me nutritionally short.

I admit to ‘cheating’, in that my lunches were not vegetarian, because I could see myself getting into all kinds of trouble on Tankwa weekend if I went into it underfed.

For vegans who train on this level, big respect, I truly don’t know how you do it. I craved cheese every day this week.

The week brought an additional bit of novelty, in that Piet took me to Concept Studio for a Watt Bike session on Monday morning. That’s good training, although I suspect that the final five weeks before Epic don’t leave much time to get the benefit of it.

In the final kilometres of the previous week’s race, Piet cracked a rim. It turned out that I had also cracked a rim, which made it a perfect pair for me, because I’d discovered a blemish on my front rim. Whereas Piet had a hugely frustrating time getting the correct replacement rim, by contrast I had a fantastic service experience. Within an hour of The Gear Change calling South (the Stellenbosch-based manufacturer of my rims), Nico was at the store with a spare set of wheels.

Mountain biking stage races have become something of a boom industry, with events like Wines2Whales selling out in minutes. I’m not going to say that the races have been dumbed down, but the organisers have certainly been mindful of reducing the metres climbed to a level that will keep the event interesting for strong riders, at the same time as attracting the more social component.

Tankwa Trek is not one of those. At the first meal, as I looked around at the riders, the majority of them sporting “a lean and hungry look”, I knew that Tankwa Trek is a different kind of race. In just five years it has grown tenfold, on the premise that it is both physically and technically challenging. It’s become a popular event for Cape Epic preparation, or for riders wanting more of a challenge. From a purely mountain biking perspective, its trails are fantastic. There was no shortage of pain this weekend, but I’ve rarely had as much fun riding singletrack.

Day One’s 90km with 2000m of climbing was undertaken in a heat wave. The maximum temperature I saw on my Garmin was 44 degrees, which explains why 70 riders did not complete the first day. The climbs were brutal, but we were rewarded with some sensational descents. This day was about survival.

Day Two was a similar distance, except that the climbing got tuned up a notch, to 2200m. To put that into perspective, it’s more than double the height of Table Mountain, measured from sea level. The central part of the day is the climb from the Ceres valley floor, up the Merino Monster in an almost unbroken ascent of over 1000m.

The pictures alongside give a tiny indication, although one needs to stand up there on the mountaintop to fully appreciate the scale.

We finished Day Two strong, in a time that was more than half an hour faster than Day One, despite the additional climbing.

By comparison, Day Three looked like it would be a breeze, in that there’s just 1200m of climbing. The difference is that the first 32km was all on district road. Riding was fast and furious, with many riders’ inner roadie bursting forth. I was at the limit within minutes. Looking back on the data, my heart rate never spiked, but aerobically I was in trouble. Thanks to Piet’s hand on my back at critical stages on some of the small climbs I was able to stay with a group, although I fell off the back of several of them. Then, with about 8km to go to the water point, he made a break for it with two other riders. I tried to stay with them, but blew up so badly that I couldn’t even stay with the group I’d just been with. Fortunately, another group came through soon after, so I was able to make my way back.

That high-speed section, during which he passed two more groups, was possibly just about the most fun Piet had on Tankwa. The man is a machine.

After leaving the water point, I mentioned to him that the 32km sprint had taken it out of me.

“That means you’re in the hurt box. It’s going to be a good day out.”

Thank you, Piet.

While the pressure didn’t let up when we entered the ‘broken’ part of the route, Piet played the part of the stronger partner, either riding ahead of me into the wind, or helping with a little push up the final bit of a climb.

I realise that Day Three is getting much more air time than the others, which isn’t a reflection of the quality of the trails on the other days, but this journey is as much an internal one as it is one that crosses the Western Cape’s biggest mountains.

With about 8km to the finish, Piet made a quick move past the group we’d followed down some singletrack. In retrospect, it was an extravagant use of energy, as I realised when it turned out that there was still a substantial amount of effort required to finish the stage.

My heart rate was well above 150 and my breath came in load roars. Having been in the hurt box all day, I scratched around it some more, finding four letters: H-T-F-U (a.k.a. Rule #5 – harden the fuck up).

The next week will be relatively easy, building up to riding the Knysna Bull at the end of the month. Piet has already announced that we’ll be riding the approximately 20km to the start of each day’s roughly 60km stage. Did I mention that this pre-stage ride includes the climb out of Knysna?

Refer to Rule #5 (but eat well).

A #TankwaLift on top of the Merino Monster (pic: Craig Kolesky)

A #TankwaLift on top of the Merino Monster (pic: Craig Kolesky)

There are some very steep sections to the climb up Merino (Pic: Oakpics)

There are some very steep sections to the climb up Merino. We started the climb on the valley floor in the distant background (Pic: Oakpics)

Epic Training: Week 22

Oscar Foulkes February 5, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
This is my 22nd week of sharing a training report, and it’s occurred to me that not once have I mentioned the people who build the trails I get so much enjoyment out of riding. This is a huge omission. I hope the guys who do the backbreaking work will forgive me. Actually, the task is not just physical. Before spade breaks soil, landowners need to be convinced that they want to have mountain biking trails crossing their land. In the case of wine farms, there is an obvious overlap with wine tourism, and hence a connection with wine sales.

Today, for example, I rode day two of the Fairtree Simonsberg Contour (the use of the word “contour” is a misnomer, by the way). Nearly half of the +-56km route was on singletrack, with the section known as Never Say Never Ending Again covering almost 10km. I should mention that it’s high up Simonsberg, in parts not reachable by earth moving equipment. This was all done by hand, with pick and shovel. In particularly gnarly spots, trail builder Meurant Botha deigned to add a few wooden bridges, some of which are quite elongated. I have no doubt that Meurant rode many of these sections in their original form.

He’s been building trails for 20 years, and thankfully he shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.

I missed my Monday gym session because of a meeting that overran by an hour, one of very few lapses in my training programme. Weekday rides have been 60 to 90 minutes throughout, but Tuesday’s ride needed to be three hours. It coincided with a day I needed to be in Paarl, so I thought I’d get a change of scenery, as well as some company in the form of Jimmy, who was also on the Daisyway training camp in December.

I started at the entrance to Val de Vie, and he took me up the Hawequa forestry road, to just below Du Toitskloof Pass. The brief was to stay below heart rate zone four, which wasn’t really possible, considering the steepness of the route. We ascended for over two hours, and then descended for about 40 minutes. That’s how big a climb it is. I discovered afterwards that Jimmy holds that KOM (King of the Mountain) on Strava. I suppose I should do a background check before setting up cycling dates.

We needed a little Epic Crew meeting to discuss our kit design, so I swopped Friday’s rest day with Thursday’s intervals. The cunning part of this arrangement was that there was a gale force southeaster blowing on Thursday. Before anyone chips in about me baulking at a challenge, I’ve often ridden in winds like this.

And then it was race weekend, for the Fairtree Simonsberg Contour. Both days were about 56km. Climbing on day one was just over 1000m, but day two was about 1400m, which was by far the more interesting day to ride (thank you, Meurant!). Aside from some admin 7km from the finish, in the form of Piet cracking his rear rim, which necessitated putting in a tube, we had a great day out, and finished strong.

I’m enormously grateful for reaching this physical state; it’s almost as if the first third of 2016 never happened. There truly is magic in following a process (or, my preferred abbreviated version, “there is magic in process”).

Next weekend we’re riding Tankwa Trek. All three days are roughly 90km. With the exception of the final day’s 1200m of climbing, we ascend about 2000m per stage. Let’s see if I can ‘finish strong’ with that as a physical test.

Six weeks to go.

Meurant Botha in riding mode (Pic: IOL)

Meurant Botha in riding mode (Pic: IOL)

Meurant in trail creating mode (pic: Michelle du Preez)

Meurant in trail creating mode (pic: Michelle du Preez)

Epic Training: Week 21

Oscar Foulkes January 29, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
With just eight weeks to go to the Cape Epic Prologue, there was no time for rest this week. Fortunately, the training process is working its magic, and my body bounced back quickly. Had I been a racehorse, the trainer might have said, “he took the run well”.

Monday and Wednesday were gym days. Two other Epic riders train at the same time, so there’s always plenty of cycling banter, which feels like an important component of arriving on the start line with my head in the right zone.

Tuesday and Thursday were both billed as 90-minute “tempo” rides, which I took to mean high intensity. It made a nice change to be heading out on my old routes without having any concern about keeping my heart rate below specified maximums. And, because I was riding for just 90 minutes I didn’t have the same concerns about blowing up, as I would on a 90km stage.

I was delighted to find that my times on most Strava segments were at early-2015 levels. A few hot laps don’t equate to Epic performance, but it was positive reinforcement nonetheless. Considering that I’ve never ridden as much as I have over the past 10 months, and I’m riding a superstar bicycle, one might have expected better. However, for all the additional fitness and strength in my muscles, my breathing remains impaired.

I may also have benefitted from something I call the reverse Samson effect. I thought it was time to truly enter the cycling spirit, by waxing my legs. Somehow, with my smooth, shiny legs my brain could fool my body into believing that I’m more of an athlete than I really am. Unlike Samson, who lost strength when he was deprived of hair, I got stronger.

Sergeant Hardy, a horse I race in partnership with my mother, has featured in my training reports. Despite a breathing impediment (he has a paralysed right vocal chord) so serious that it’s legitimate grounds for the purchaser cancelling a voetstoots auction sale, he is the top-rated three-year-old sprinter in the country. He’s become something of a talisman for our Epic journey, and it was Piet’s idea that we call our team Sergeant Hardy.

On Saturday, he faced the biggest challenge of his career, in the form of a $500,000 race on Sun Met day, for which he was the hot favourite. I’ve known for more than a year that he had this as a likely assignation, which makes 28 January 2017 just about the most anticipated day of my life. Sergeant Hardy is a big, powerful galloper. His running style is to take the lead early, and to literally run his rivals into the ground. He’s a special horse!

This time he was completely flat, and Richard Fourie was scrubbing at him from halfway just to keep him in contention. Barring a health issue surfacing in the next 24 hours, the only explanation is that after heavy rainfall on Thursday night the track developed a draw bias. He was drawn on the outside on the straight 1200m course, whereas the winners of the sprint races on Saturday were drawn towards the inside.

He finished well down the field. As an indication of how far below par that was, a horse he has comprehensively beaten on three occasions finished a 2½ length third. Richard was almost in tears as he walked back to the weighing room afterwards.

I haven’t shed a tear, but the scale of my disappointment has been substantial. It’s at a time like this that the words from Rudyard Kipling’s If spring to mind: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat these two imposters just the same.”

When things are going well, horse racing can deliver the most extraordinary highs – perhaps because one cannot be 100% assured of victory. When things don’t turn out as expected, there isn’t much to do other than say “that’s racing”, and look forward to the next time.

My mother’s racing colours are vieux rose (a.k.a. pink) with a white sash, which will be the inspiration for our Epic kit. For the races on Saturday we got quite involved in pink, as you can see in the pic alongside.

Saturday’s ride was supposed to be four hours, but was cut a bit shorter because of commitments I had at the racecourse. The four hours that were on the programme for Sunday were a suffer fest, after a day at the races of eating too little and drinking too much. My smooth and shiny legs felt as if they were laced with razor wire.

We have three stage races planned for February – the Fairtree Simonsberg Contour, Tankwa Trek and Knysna Bull. It’s going to be a busy month!

Monday update: In their report on the race, Sporting Post suggested that Sergeant Hardy was below-par because of breathing issues. I don’t agree – if that had been the issue he would have been affected towards the end of the race. It hurts to see this guy get unfairly underestimated or sleighted. Don’t worry, Champ, we’re flying your flag!

Horsing around - Team Sergeant Hardy flashing pink at the 2017 Sun Met (pic: Amanda Bloch)

Horsing around – Team Sergeant Hardy flashing pink at the Sun Met (pic: Amanda Bloch)

A happier day - leading in Sergeant Hardy after his first feature race win, on Met day 2016 (pic: Equine Edge)

A happier day – leading in Sergeant Hardy after his first feature race win, on Met day 2016 (pic: Equine Edge)