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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)

Epic Training: Week 20

Oscar Foulkes January 22, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
Last week’s training update ended with a cautionary related to Piet injuring his hand in a fall on Saturday morning. He would have been back on his bike this week, except that he came down with a bad dose of flu. There’s never a good time for these things, but better two months before Epic than during it.

With Attakwas looming on Saturday, this wasn’t going to be a big week of riding. However, the training has to happen regardless of weather. I had arranged for my car to go in for service on Monday morning, with the idea that I would take my bike along, and then ride from the Foreshore. The part I didn’t plan is that Monday was a day of gale force south-easter, which made for ‘interesting’ riding until I got across to Pat’s Track on the Sea Point side of Signal Hill.

Monday was also the day of the fire above Deer Park (i.e. very close to our house), with the wind causing it to spread rapidly, although not in our direction.

A gentle spin on Tuesday was the final preparation for Attakwas, and as a result of Piet’s illness I made the trip to Oudtshoorn alone.

At this point in the report, I found that the appropriately descriptive words resisted my best efforts at retrieval from whatever part of the brain generates them. Attakwas is no ordinary mountain bike race. Yesterday’s is the furthest distance I’ve ridden a bike, with the most climbing, and the longest time in the saddle. The terrain – very steep climbs, often with loose rocks and gravel, and ending with a sustained head wind – adds another dimension to the data (120km with 2700m of climbing).

It’s also bigger than any single day of Cape Epic, which makes it an important race to cross off the to-do list.

The first quarter of the race can be ridden at pace. There aren’t any major climbs, so it’s easy to get sucked into going too fast. I’d been warned about the toughness of the final third of the race, so I let my heart rate determine my pace, rather than get tempted to follow the other riders flashing past me. The climbing got a bit more serious after the first water point, with a tester that had most riders pushing from the bottom. I was riding it until someone fell in front of me, but the rocks higher up would have caused me to walk for a bit anyway.

The really big climbs are between water points two and three. Once again, there were steep, loose sections that turned parts of the field into hikers. The descent into water point three took forever, with some mini climbs that caught me by surprise. At least I didn’t get surprised by any of the tricky sections, because this part of the race has a reputation as being bit of a graveyard. Many Epic dreams have been shattered on Attakwas.

I was very flat when I reached water point three. I tried hard to eat, recognising that I might have allowed myself to get into a nutritional deficit, but I couldn’t get more than a few mouthfuls down. In fact, I felt on the verge of tossing the contents of my stomach.

After this it was district roads all the way, with more big rolling hills than I care to remember. While getting to water point three had involved some tough climbs, the theoretically easier climbs leading up to water point four were turned into a dismal slog by my depleted physical state. I must have taken at least 30 minutes longer on this section, compared with the rest of the route.

When I was passed by a sweep vehicle carrying a couple of riders and their bikes, it seemed as if my body was shouting, “Pick me! Pick me!” It would have been so easy to abort at this point.

At water point four I shoved as much food and drink down my throat as I could. Thankfully, they had loads of ice, so I pushed a good handful up each leg of my shorts. My quads felt a lot more energetic after this.

The final 40km had many more rolling hills, except that this was directly into the wind. For the final 10 km I managed to hook onto a ‘bus’ that was travelling at pace. I just focused on the wheel ahead and forced my legs to pedal at the speed required. It was an exhilarating way to end a race that had such a flat middle section.

I would have preferred to finish somewhere in the middle of the field, rather than about 70% of the way down it. However, considering that in April last year I couldn’t have ridden to the first water point, I take this as a win. Most importantly, it extends the horizons of my physical endurance (note that I declined to refer to this as “comfort zone”).

It’s perhaps also a reflection of the difficulty of this event that I had very few comments about my breathing (in other words, everyone around me was in a bubble of pain).

Other than finishing, a further positive is that I felt energetic enough to drive the nearly four hours back to Cape Town afterwards (very little traffic on the N2 at this time on a Saturday, by the way). I’m not rushing to get involved in anything physical right now, but I could ride again today if necessary.

Eight weeks to the start…

The terrain is so tough that even the pros get forced off their bikes in places (Pic: Attakwas)

The terrain is so tough that even the pros get forced off their bikes in places (Pic: Attakwas)

Epic Training: Week 19

Oscar Foulkes January 15, 2017 Cape Epic 2 comments
For months, the focus of my training has been on those special eight days towards the end of March. Even while on holiday, the time saved by not working was dedicated to training (and recovery), rather than being given over to usual downtime activities. Several of the people I follow on Strava are also riding Epic, so I was getting daily updates of the many hours they were spending in the saddle.

There are a few races in the programme that are part of preparation for Epic, the first of which is Attakwas, on 21 January. When the entries were opened, in September, they sold out within hours. With less than a week to go to the race, there are now entries available on almost every forum or group populated by mountain bikers.

As long as there is residual base fitness, one can go straight from lazy holiday, complete with excessive eating and drinking, to a 65km race with 1400m of climbing without too much pain. Attakwas is 120km and 2900m of climbing, effectively double a stage of Wines2Whales or any one of the popular races, which explains why riders are having second thoughts.

My focus has been on Epic, but suddenly Attakwas is looming as ominously as Mordor. I’m not suggesting that the Cango Caves have suddenly become home to legions of Orcs, but it’s a challenging day of riding. And, despite all the training I’ve done, somewhat beyond my comfort zone.

Attakwas is a bigger day of riding (both distance and climbing) than any single day of Epic, so it’s an important way of stretching my comfort zone.

This week’s training has been aimed largely at recovery. On Tuesday, I did a spin of just over an hour that had a 10-minute portion in zone three. Thursday’s ride comprised a warm-up, followed by four three-minute climbs in a big gear, and then cool-down. I bumped into some friends just after starting, with the result that my supposed warm-up was ridden at much higher intensity than intended. I did my hill repeats alone, but I really ‘put my back into’ them, if the expression can be applied to an activity that involves the legs. I could feel it in my muscles the next day, which was satisfying.

Friday was a rest day, and then Saturday was an easy 90 minutes. Table Mountain has many kilometres of trails, so it was a big coincidence for me to bump into Piet shortly after I started. He was heading home after hurting his hand in a fall. It thankfully seems to just be soft tissue damage, so he shouldn’t lose more than a few days’ training, but anything more severe in the final months approaching Epic could be race-ending.

The approach to Mordor needs to be handled with caution.

All of a sudden, Attakwas is looming as ominously as Mordor

All of a sudden, Attakwas is looming as ominously as Mordor

Epic Training: Week 18

Oscar Foulkes January 8, 2017 Cape Epic No comments
My Strava feed is full of people clocking some serious miles on their bikes. In a way, it reminds me of cramming before exams, except that Epic is 10 weeks away, and cramming usually happens the night before. However, in the context of Epic, the final two to three months is crunch time. The deadline may be some time off, but now is the time to do the work.

After last week’s exertions, this week almost seemed casual, but in these matters I have to trust Lezandré’s programme. Extrapolating my rudimentary knowledge of training racehorses tells me that athletes can’t train at the same intensity all the time. There are ebbs and flows in the effort, with recovery interspersing periods of high intensity.

On Tuesday, I had to do three eight-minute climbs in a difficult gear (inevitably with low cadence). Conveniently, it takes about that long to do the Piesangvallei climb to the N2 from the golf course entrance. This is about building strength, but it’s also great for assisting the body in learning to recover from exertion.

Wednesday was a rest day (nice change after the previous week), as was Friday (I didn’t know what to do with myself). Lezandré was low-key for Thursday’s instruction, with an innocuous seeming “4-5 hours spin”. I rode from Plett to Harkerville, entering at the Kranskop viewpoint after traversing the adjacent MTO forests. That view just never gets old!

I found my way to the Red Route, following it to Garden of Eden, where I crossed the N2 to climb the initial single track section (or final one, depending which way one has ridden it) of Petrus-se-Brand. Then I turned around and bombed down it. What fun.

I cobbled a return route through Harkerville, and then retraced my tracks to Plett to end up with a ride lasting 4:27. All good.

Saturday’s ride comprised a set of yummy intervals – six repeats of five minutes in zone four, interspersed with ten minutes of recovery. Conveniently, the Robberg climb at the end of Longships Drive takes just a bit longer than that, with a perfect ten-minute return loop for recovery. Intervals may be boring to ride, but they are super-effective. In fact, they’re so good they could be the training equivalent of cramming.

I was going to leave it there, but I should add something about the experience of doing these intervals. I put extra effort into the start of the climb to get my heart rate into the right zone (no point hitting zone four halfway up), which is not necessarily the most pleasant way of doing these things. The last third of each interval involves the body and lungs doing their best to convince the brain that this is an extremely kak idea. The final two intervals are an exercise in dismissing pain, because the muscles’ initial freshness has been depleted. It’s amazing how quickly the body recovers during the ten-minute spin back to the start, which is part of the reason why intervals are such great training.

Thank goodness for banging rock music, because intervals would be even worse without the distraction.

Sunday’s ride saw me doing a similar ride to Thursday’s, except that I skipped the Petrus-se-Brand section, and did a full Red Route in Harkerville, to clock a solid 3:40 on the bike (a comfortable over-delivery on Lezandré’s required three hours).

The next time I’ll be on a bike is back in Cape Town. It feels a little emotional to be saying goodbye to the Garden Route trails, but I’ll be here again for the Knysna Bull, towards the end of February.

This video (not mine) gives a sense of what it’s like to ride through Harkerville. It’s a seriously special experience!

Epic Training: Week 17

Oscar Foulkes January 2, 2017 Cape Epic 2 comments
I’m tempted to make a (bad) pun about our meeting point for a couple of this week’s rides being Mon Petit Pain, because there was some pain involved. I can’t speak for Piet, though, because in addition to the same rides, he was also doing some big runs. By the end of it he could declare that not even his toughest week of Ironman training matched what Lezandré dished up last week.

I kicked off on Monday with a three-hour loop from City Bowl to Constantia Nek and back, mostly on the newly opened trails. On Tuesday we drove to Plettenberg Bay, which made it a rest day.

For Wednesday’s four-hour ride Lezandré suggested a double helping of the Harkerville Red Route, which we rode at a pace set by my heart rate. The idea was to stay below 140, but some of the steeper climbs pushed it to 150+. For the second loop, I let it stray a little higher, with the consequence that the second loop was faster than the first. We ended up riding for about three-and-a-quarter hours, so I suggested (not that forcefully, I’ll admit) that we do a little bit of Petrus-se-Brand to make up the time. Coffee and recovery eats at Mon Petit Pain was the winning suggestion.

Piet knocked out a half marathon (or close to it) on Thursday, while I kicked back on the couch. For Friday’s six-hour ride, we left Knysna via Simola Hill, and headed up the Uniondale road in search of Angie’s G-Spot. Apart from a few short descents, everything was on an uphill gradient, with several taxing climbs made tougher by temperatures that, in places, exceeded 39 degrees. Eventually, at the top of the Keurboomsrivier Game Trails, we turned around without having found the G-Spot (it seemed we just didn’t go deep enough into the mons, um mountains).

I headed back to Plett on the Wittedrift road, with Piet retracing our steps to Knysna. We parted with him cheerfully telling me that my return would be “all downhill”. How wrong he was – I didn’t reach the highest point on my ride back until I got to the 66km mark, by which time I had climbed 1540m. I ended up climbing more than 100m more than he did. The route was exposed (i.e. not shaded), with sections that were loose and rocky. The Coke and litre of water I bought at the shop in Wittedrift went down extremely well!

It was good to tick off 100km, but sobering to relate that to Attakwas, which we ride in three weeks’ time. That will involve an additional 20km in distance, and total climbing of around 2900m.

Both of us were relieved to just do a recovery spin on Saturday. I don’t know how Piet managed a 15km run in the afternoon, because I was pretty much glued to the couch.

Our programme had a four-hour ride on Sunday (i.e. New Year’s day), which we shifted to the afternoon. This wasn’t a great move; somehow it’s easier to tackle these things in the morning. Anyway, we rode up Phantom Pass, down the single track, and then up Simola Hill before messing around in the forest at the top of the ridge. At this point (around two hours) we’d had some quality riding, but were just about to run out of water. It was hot and sweaty, so we headed back to Knysna.

With the exception of the day following Friday’s marathon session, my body is feeling good. By the time we get to Epic, there won’t be rest days or recovery spins. My assumption (or is that hope?) is that the next 10 weeks of training will ensure that I can do this for eight consecutive days.

The Harkerville Red Route (pic: Dr Evil Classic)

The Harkerville Red Route (pic: Dr Evil Classic)

Epic Training: Week 16

Oscar Foulkes December 25, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
Last week’s training (which incorporated a day of this week) ended on a high. Both physically and emotionally, I felt great.

Then I was exposed to any endurance athlete’s worst nightmare. I started purging on Monday night, and spent the week with a severe case of the squirts, accompanied by the usual cramps. Lethargy, if not outright fatigue, was ever-present. If this had hit me in the middle of Epic, I would have had to withdraw.

I should add that I have a cast iron stomach. This shit just doesn’t happen to me. I grew up on a farm drinking damwater, which must have helped my body build up resistance to a wide range of bacteria. Unless it’s obviously ‘off’, I’ve never shied away from eating anything, whether it’s street food in Asia, or several days’ old leftovers from the fridge. Except for India, I drink tap water wherever I go. In fact, during our little boot camp, I thought that proper Epic preparation would include drinking tap water from various points on the route, not just riding the major climbs.

Anyway, I came down with a bug, the identity of which will be revealed some time next week when the results of the pathology are available. Blood samples are collected by nurses, whether pin prick to finger, or fully-blown draining of a vein. Collection of DNA samples involves a simple swab of the inside of one’s mouth. Urine samples are also quite straightforward. Stool samples, on the other hand, require some precision. Consider, firstly, the three-quarter inch diameter of the container, not to mention its double-tot capacity. And, by virtue of simple anatomy, one is essentially flying blind.

The required level of precision may not be on a par with dropping a bomb down a chimneystack from an altitude of 30 000 foot, but it’s certainly a bit more tricky than landing an A380 on the deck of an aircraft carrier. I’ll spare you the balance of the details, but without any mess I successfully collected and sealed a sample.

I delivered the pristine container to the pathologists. No sooner had the words “stool sample” left my lips, than the person across the counter was snapping on latex gloves. In fairness, if she’d been present during the collection of the sample, it would have been advisable for her to wear a Hazmat suit, but it just seemed to be an unnecessary sleight of my achievement.

A portion of the week was earmarked for recovery, so my training programme wasn’t dramatically affected. I had to call off gym on Wednesday, but I managed Thursday evening’s easy ride. It rained on Friday afternoon, although I was in any case not up to doing anything. Saturday morning, also, did not start well.

Buoyed by Sergeant Hardy’s runaway win under top weight on Saturday afternoon (earlier reports about him here), I headed out for an interval session (ten repeats of two minutes in zone four, interspersed with three minutes of easy riding).

This wasn’t the only time during the week that my heart rate got above 150. There was also a drive home, when my entire body was in a clench to prevent a massive explosion. When I reached safety I was very thankful to be pulling down trousers, rather than having to extricate myself from a bib short. It would not have ended well.

Lezandré’s programme included a three-hour ride on Christmas Day. My family is fully supportive of my Epic journey, but I suspect that would dry up quickly if I deserted them today. While on the subject of Christmas, I’ve had the perfect preparation for a day of overeating (in training terms, this week has been what athletes call a ‘taper’).

Merry Christmas!


Epic Training: Week 15

Oscar Foulkes December 19, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
My Cape Epic training programme – as it is for every other rider – is a tangible, daily connection with the event. However, other than watching Epic videos on YouTube, or going onto the Epic website, that’s as close it’s going to get until registration on 18 March.

Over the long weekend, and extending to Monday, I attended the Daisyway Cape Epic Boot Camp, which got 30-odd riders up close and personal with some of the biggest mountains we’re likely to ride on and over. Apart from the technical stuff we learnt, it was great to connect with other people who are on the same journey.

I have referred to the need for the 50% extra distance and climbing involved in Cape Epic stages to become the new normal. The activities this weekend opened the door to that, by enabling us to experience elements of Cape Epic in bite-sized pieces.

We rode in Caledon, Greyton and Grabouw, guided by Daisyway’s expert riders and selected affiliates, with mechanical guidance from Erica’s husband Spook (and 12-year-old son Tim). I truly couldn’t recommend them highly enough for riders at all levels of commitment to mountain biking.

While on the subject of recommendations, we stayed at Trail’s End Bike Hotel, which was a great base for our training activities.

We had some fun on singletrack sections, but my highlight was the ride up Groenlandberg. When we started the approach, we had already climbed 400m in the first 14km of the day’s riding. The actual Groenlandberg climb was another 9.7km, with 570m in elevation gained, and the views from the top were nothing short of spectacular. Apart from the adjacent valleys (Elgin and Villiersdorp), we could see all the way to False Bay, as well as the ocean near Hermanus.

The descent from Groenlandberg is fast, with numerous rocky sections (perfect terrain for a Yeti, by the way), and a secondary climb that took us up another 300m.

The biggest thing I learnt this weekend was about pace, which you may have gathered has been a concern, particularly with respect to my breathing difficulties at elevated heart rates. Erica and her team kept stressing the need to take it easy, mostly riding in heart rate zones two and three. Everyone is different, but it seemed as if other riders were generally in zone two when I was in zone three. At this level my breathing is impaired, but not in the alarming way it is in zone four.

Piet and I rode the last two days with strict top-end limits to my heart rate, and found that we climbed fast enough. If that’s what it takes to finish Epic, I’ll take it. I was pleased to set my mind at rest on this subject.

“Conquering as one” is a major theme of Cape Epic. Yes, it’s about each rider’s internal battle, especially when mechanicals or extreme fatigue threaten to end the race. But it’s also about the partner.

Piet and my Epic journey nearly ended at lunch of the first day of the boot camp, when he had pre-ordered me a Caesar salad (imagine that after riding for six hours). It’s a nutrition fail on a par with him willfully pushing me off my bike. But then I had a wardrobe malfunction on day four, by wearing kit with the branding of one of his competitors. Our partnership survived both infractions.

He’s a stronger rider than I am, which is theoretically the incorrect balance. However, I think it’s been relevant to my recovery from radiotherapy that the gap is as big as it is. Perhaps, if I had a partner who is more evenly matched, I may not have made the same kind of effort. Regardless of the difference in strength and fitness, Piet has been nothing but supportive and encouraging.

Whatever happens from this point, I’ve returned from the boot camp feeling great. It’s a far cry from the weeks during and after my treatment. I am so very grateful to feel this way.


Epic Training: Week 14

Oscar Foulkes December 12, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
Formal training took a breather this week, with Lezandré calling it a rest week, before the next big push leading up to Attakwas (I typed the first part of the sentence, and then realised that I’m absolutely the wrong person to be using the word “breather” for taking it easy).

Monday’s gym session was basically just active recovery after the excesses of Origin of Trails, with deadlifts forming the core of Wednesday’s session.

On Thursday evening, I took an easy pedal across to Signal Hill to check out Pat’s Track, which I entered at the kramat. I didn’t explore all of it, but it certainly gives an option for shortish rides. There are rocky sections that are bit of a tester going either up or down, so this trail requires a degree of technical skill.

I met up with some other riders for the opening of Tokai, at 7.00 on Saturday morning, where a festive atmosphere prevailed. Everyone in the group I met was on Cannondale (they are connected with the distributor), which made me think of the expression “bringing a knife to a gun fight”. If you’ll allow me some licence, this was a case of bringing a Yeti to a Cannon(dale) fight.

The first section of the up route has become a much steeper climb. It all feels a bit bare without the pine trees, but there is a veritable maize field of black wattle and eucalyptus doing its best to make up for their loss. While a lot of work has been done on the singletrack sections, with berms on many corners, most of the usual trails felt quite familiar. Much fun was had.

In the spirit of a week of exploration, what remained was the newly legal Newlands-Kirstenbosch-Cecilia stretch. There’s a comprehensive report on Bikehub (click here for it), which leaves me free to add some comment/opinion. As far as trail sharing is concerned, the hot spots are the entry/exit points in Newlands and Cecilia. On the Newlands end, going up isn’t an issue, because it’s a fairly steep climb in parts. However, this can create a problem if riders don’t exercise restraint going down. The Cecilia end is less steep, with pretty good visibility, and plenty of space for everyone. The bit in the middle is so high up that the number of walkers is limited.

In my opinion, this ride from Newlands to Cecilia is one of the top ten things to do in Cape Town. It is nothing short of magnificent.

Worryingly, there is a Strava segment for this ride, which is at odds with the concept of trail sharing. We all climb at different speeds, but I have to wonder if the leaders’ pace is not too speedy to leave time for a cheery greeting as walkers are passed.

While on housekeeping-related issues, riding these trails requires a level three activity permit from Table Mountain National Park, which costs just R500 for an entire year. Much of the money goes to their trail budget. Table Mountain Bikers (led by Rob Vogel) have done a huge amount of work in getting these additional trails opened. Support the cause by joining (here).

I need to develop a better understanding of the physiology of breathing and heart rate, particularly with respect to how it affects my ability to get through a day of Epic. I don’t have anything in the way of baseline information, because I didn’t measure heart rate during exercise until April this year, after the damage had already been done to my vocal chords. I’m in uncharted territory, so this will very much be a process of discovery.

The first 14 weeks of training (if I exclude the initial period that got me to Imana) have had a feeling of there being plenty of time left. We are now three months away from Epic, and it’s suddenly all feeling very close. There will be many hours of riding while we’re on holiday, which will be followed ten days later by Attakwas. February will whizz by, with a two-day race and a three-day race, and before I know it, I’ll be pushing off the start line on the biggest physical challenge of my life.

The Cecilia trail (pic: Bikehub)

The Cecilia trail (pic: Bikehub)

Epic Training: Week 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

Epic Training: Week 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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