A day in the life of the Epic
The Cape Epic is the real deal. It is an event that sucks you in on a daily basis, works you over and spits you out, leaving you exhausted, exhilarated and wanting more. And that’s just during the training and preparation phase. Once you’re at the race itself, whether you’re riding or working, you’re in the bubble: far from home, living out of a kit bag and being pushed harder than you’d ever considered possible. There is plenty of raw beauty to this race (the suffering makes you smile – eventually) but at its core the Epic is a multi-faceted, well-oiled, high-pressure machine, composed of innumerable moving parts and critical personnel.
Some of those people and functions are high-profile and well documented, others less so. For an alternative view on the beast that is the Cape Epic, we profile eight unusual role-players: men and women whose paths at the Epic will almost never cross but who often have to operate where the line between crisis and high performance tends to blur.
Words by Angus Powers Photos by Nick Muzik
This feature first appeared in the May/June issue of Ride.
The chopper pilot
The dead man’s curve is a height-velocity graph that summarises the occupational hazards of piloting a helicopter. Briefly put, the more speed you’re carrying, the lower you can fly. For instance, it’s considered dangerous to be hovering at 16m without any airspeed because if something untoward happens – say, an engine failure – your options are limited. “It’s frowned upon if you fly within the dead man’s curve, but most helicopter operations take place there,” says Schalk Boonzaaier, one of the two chopper pilots who fly the media cameramen at the Epic. “We’re not cowboys or anything but most of our flying is in the danger zone. After a day of flying, your mind is totally fried.
“The highest level of concentrations are needed for wind and rain. Then your skills get tested to the max because you can’t always get the shot without getting into a dangerous situation. Ultimately it’s all about keeping yourself and the photographer safe, so you must know when to say no. There are shots that can work if it’s a windy or rainy day, and there are shots that can’t.”
Boonzaaier is quietly spoken and unassuming, but appearances are deceptive. His day job is owning and running a SupaQuick garage in the sleepy coastal town of Kleinmond, he packs a quirky sense of humour, flies with a bialetti and a hiking gas stove for unscheduled coffee stops, and is one of the best in the business when it comes to piloting photographers or TV cameramen. It’s difficult to overstate the technical demands of flying the media at the Epic. Video and TV coverage require low, intense flying to get those pan shots that follow the riders’ flow, whereas stills photographers like to adjust their position in the air up or down by a metre at a time for perfect composition or to exploit light and shadow. Picture a low-flying chopper sliding backwards, and earthwards, at the same angle and speed as the world’s best mountain bikers hitting a descent – that’s what these pilots are capable of.
“After a while, the flying becomes second nature,” says Boonzaaier. “You don’t think about the flying any more, you start thinking about the shots. You need to get into the mind of the cameraman and build a relationship. It’s teamwork and communication. You can’t start not understanding each other once you get in the air.”
But back to those risk factors. “Two years ago, we were sitting on a little koppie and the wind was on our tail,” recalls Boonzaaier. “All of a sudden, the updraft hit us and tipped the helicopter forward off the koppie. Flying is all about reading the situation so I did sort of anticipate it. When it happened, we were prepared yet all we could do was just fly it out. This year, we were in a downdraft. We were sitting at full power and suddenly we started going down. The only thing you can do is break away to try escape the downdraft and hope you fly out before you hit the ground. Then your legs do get a bit shaky. But the most important thing is to not fly out of your comfort zone. If you’re not happy, then you don’t go and fly there.”
Although the helicopter pilots stay in the race village with the rest of the Epic crew, their job keeps them at one remove from the rest of the event.
They’re in the air before the gun goes at the start of every stage, and despite tracking the sharp end of the race, there’s an obvious disconnect that comes from being in the air when everyone else is on the ground. More so since the pilots spend the rest of their afternoons taking VIPs and paying punters for heli flips.
There is one thing which binds the chopper pilots to everyone else at the Epic. “The Epic pushes you to the limit. Which is why it’s called the Epic, I guess,” says Boonzaaier. “I’ve learnt that we’re fortunate enough to be here and we can push the limits, but you must know where your limits are. If you don’t know your limits, you’re going to get into trouble.”
At the Epic, it’s rare that the defending champion is reduced to riding alone after just a couple of days. Rarer still for both the defending men’s and women’s champions – in this case, Nino Schurter and Esther Suss – to suffer the same fate at the same race. For Suss, in particular, the 2018 Epic was an emotional rollercoaster as her race fell apart not once or twice, but three times.
It started when she limped out of the Tankwa Trek with nine stitches in her leg and had to return home to Switzerland to lick her wounds. Then her original partner, Jennie Stenerhag, suffered a hamstring injury in a crash just two weeks prior to the Epic. Angelika Tazreiter answered Suss’ call and made it to the Epic start line but not much further after abandoning with a dislocated shoulder less than an hour into Stage 1.
Like every rider who loses a teammate during the Epic, the experience took a psychological toll on Suss. “Sometimes I ask myself why am I doing this,” she says. “But it’s good for your head. You have to fight against yourself, you have to think positive, and maybe that is mental strength I can use later in the season. It’s not so easy to do a race that’s not a race, now that I start in C bunch, 10 minutes behind the leading women. Sometimes it’s not so easy to go hard when you know it’s for nothing. It is definitely a different mental space.”
Any rider can lose a partner, but only the UCI-registered professionals receive a unique jersey to mark their new, unwanted solo status. Formerly known as the Outcast jersey, in 2018 it was re-branded as the Leopard jersey, identifying those who continue to hunt alone.
Deep into the race, Suss was still struggling to rationalise how profoundly she had fallen out of favour with the cycling gods. After all, this was a rider with three Epic titles to her name but, unlike Schurter who abandoned the race when his partner pulled out, Suss was prepared to take inspiration wherever she might find it.
“I don’t find the sense yet,” she admitted. “Maybe later in the season I will find it. It can only get better from here. I have finished the Epic eight times; this will be my ninth. I am now in a totally different part of the race: I can’t go so hard in the singletrack and sometimes it’s really slow. But I realise that for the normal riders, it’s hard: they are on the bike for longer and they are not so fast. They can’t train so much if they have a job. I think it’s cool they can finish the Epic. They are really tough and can be proud of themselves.”
If you’re riding the Epic, to encounter a hyena on the trail is probably your worst nightmare. To do so means that you’re in real danger of missing the stage cut-off. On the other hand, if you’re in that much trouble, the hyenas are exactly who you want to see because these two riders – invisible to the majority of the field, but invaluable to the backmarkers – are probably your best chance of getting to the finish in one piece.
“The hyenas mark the end of the race. When we pass through a water point, the staff there can close down,” says Robert Vogel, better known as the CEO of the Pedal Power Association and with six consecutive Epics under his belt. “But we’re almost like counsellors as well. We’re counselling people who want to give up. We encourage them to ride to the next water point and some of them surprise themselves and realise that they can finish. We’re like psychologists out there. We see fatigue, mechanicals, dehydration, tears, arguments. A lot of emotion. We see people who are a bit shell-shocked when they understand that the Epic is seven days of the toughest mountain biking they’ll ever do. We see people turning themselves inside out just to survive.”
The hyenas will call in the medics when necessary, but they may not offer stricken riders any physical or outside assistance. “We see riders who don’t know how to use a CO2 inflator, how to break a chain or how to remove a derailleur hanger,” says Vogel. “We can instruct them and give them verbal encouragement, though.”
Starting each stage after the slowest group and coming in with the very last riders means the hyenas’ days are long. Very long. “You can’t just be an average rider to be a hyena. You’ve got to be able to ride at mid-pack pace,” says Vogel. Or even faster, like when Vogel had to hit full race pace for more than two hours to catch the new rear of the race when the backmarker he was assisting abandoned. “To ride for 10 hours, to handle the 35ºC to 40ºC heat… you need fitness for that. Don’t underestimate it.”
And to avoid becoming hyena prey? “If you ride a steady pace, you’ll always make it. The cut-offs are quite lenient,” says Vogel. “Don’t spend too much time at the water points, browsing the buffet. Be efficient. If you walk, walk quickly. And never abandon your partner. It’s a team race. Your partner can’t help you if he’s 5km down the track.”
Taking on the Epic as a rookie, even if you’re on a motorbike with a photographer riding pillion, is no joke. That said, as part of the three-man South African team who won the 2016 BMW GS Trophy, this is hardly Byron Coetsee’s first rodeo. But there’s no rodeo like the Epic rodeo, as Coetsee soon found out. “I had no idea. What caught me by surprise is how tiring it is, even with an engine,” he says. “So to do this without an engine…”
The modus operandi for the bikers who are carrying media is pretty standard. Be ready to roll by 06h30, head out ahead of the elite men or women, and get your photographer into the best positions possible without ever compromising the cyclists’ right of way. Carrying a pillion obviously comes with its own challenges, particularly when there’s the extra weight of camera bodies being slung unexpectedly from side to side while traversing tricky terrain. This being the Epic, there also always comes a time when you get more than you bargained for.
“There was one bit early on Stage 3 that should have been marked singletrack but was marked district road,” says Coetsee. “We checked the map and it was a blue line, which is usually okay for us. But it was not okay. My right engine cylinder and crash bar were literally touching the mountain-side and I couldn’t put my foot down on the left because there was no left. It was off the edge of the mountain. There was a guy ahead of me on a KTM who kept slipping and holding me up and behind us the cyclists were approaching. Now the pressure’s on and you can’t stop. It became one of those situations where one wrong move and everyone goes off the mountain. And we were high. Like in the clouds.”
Coetsee’s occupation as an IOS app developer is a relatively sedate one but as GS Trophy world champion he’s definitely been around the block. Even so, what he saw at the Epic blew his mind. “It’s ridiculous that it is possible to be this fit,” he says. “I knew these guys were fit and I’d heard a lot about the Epic and I ride a mountain bike myself. But this is something else, man. This is hardcore. For once, the word ‘epic’ means what it’s supposed to mean. For a change, it’s not just abused as an adjective. This is a hectic race and crazy respect to everyone who has finished it.”
The live-updates-from-the-field guy
The live race updates on the Epic’s social media channels do a good job of impersonating an all-seeing, all-knowing eye roving all over the course and constantly feeding interesting tidbits back to a hungry audience. In reality, the Epic’s media team are continuously adding and pulling information from an in-house WhatsApp group and one of the key contributors is their guy out in the field, Tudor Caradoc-Davies.
In civilian life Caradoc-Davies, is the editor and co-owner of The Mission, a punk fly-fishing magazine, but at the Epic his brief sounds like mission impossible: to track the leading men as closely as he can, from a car.
Over the years, Caradoc-Davies has refined his technique, with the result that he is everywhere yet nowhere. You can never find him, but somehow he’s at the centre of the action, popping up at seemingly random points on the course, scouring the blur of passing riders for data (time splits, mechanicals, riders without teammates), and firing off photographs or a video clip if there’s time.
After hitting a few water points he’ll head back to the finish, hoping to beat the leaders to the line, to get more pics and quotes from the podium. Then he grabs a chow in the shade somewhere, before starting his afternoon job: pouring his unique perspective on the day’s racing into the international-broadcast TV script.
Each day brings innumerable variables, but some things stay the same: dodging over-zealous traffic cops, perfecting the quick exit from a crowded water point, eating on the run, WhatsApping while driving, and making friends in high places (like restaurants at wine farms) for when there’s no cellphone reception and WiFi access becomes priceless.
There’s a real buzz to the job. That frisson of anticipation which runs through the crowd as the leaders get close never gets tired: spotting the dust cloud thrown up in the vineyards or feeling the throb of the approaching chopper in your gut. “Sometimes you really mission to get to a water point and you get an amazing shot,” says Caradoc-Davies. “I don’t pretend to be any kind of great photographer and I’m often just shooting from the hip, but sometimes it pays off.”
“You also get those insane days where the riders are struggling and it’s not that easy for us either. You get chronic heat, sandstorms, dust storms, rain and floods or freezing cold temperatures, all in one day. You’re dancing around trying to get the shots and still maintain some semblance of shelter back at your tent, trying to keep your stuff dry for the next few days. Then my car turns into a hobo cave as I try to dry things as I go.”
There’s also that one night during every race when the Epic crew let their hair down and sink a few drinks. “There’s an arm-wrestling contest every year,” says Caradoc-Davies. “Last year I really didn’t want to take part because I had fallen while fishing and had semi-popped my shoulder. People just select you according to size and I had to go against some huge guy who hitches trailers onto big trucks. It was just ridiculous.”
The Epic Tripper
“Cycle touring is the best way to see any country. You literally can smell the roses,” says Di Thomas. “You know, literally. It’s amazing.” And that’s exactly what the Epic Trippers programme offers its guests: a genuine Epic experience on the trails, bookended daily by bespoke hospitality.
Thomas’ Epic involvement dates to when her Day Trippers tour company ferried bikes to the start of the very first Epic in Knysna in 2004. A year later the Epic Trippers supporters’ programme was launched. Initially, Epic Trippers was open to the public and lasted for the full eight days, but it has gradually morphed into a high-end, and highly efficient, sponsor-only experience.
Thomas is the best kind of tour guide: straight-talking and effortlessly charming. “We get loads of VIPs, but I always insist on not knowing who the VIPs are,” she maintains. “As far as I’m concerned, everybody’s a VIP and I’m not going to treat anybody any differently. The Trippers get a really good feel for the Epic by riding a lot of the same terrain and many Trippers end up actually doing the Epic.
“Because we’ve grown with the Epic, we’ve watched it evolve in the same way that Epic Trippers has evolved. There was a lot of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants stuff in the beginning – for both us and the Epic – a lot of chaos behind the scenes that nobody ever saw. Obviously things have been refined endlessly since then but there will always be curve-balls. You’re dealing with people and you’re dealing with life so the sooner you come to realise that it’s never going to be completely smooth sailing, the better.”
Considering Thomas’ formidable multi-tasking skills – while organising the Epic Trippers programme, she’s also managed to ride four Epics – it’s difficult to imagine what would be enough to rile her. She’s certainly not short of uithouvermoë, having also completed three Freedom Challenges (“which makes the Epic look like a picnic on the beach!”)
Along the way, Thomas has witnessed plenty. “The Trippers have saved many an Epic rider’s race,” she admits. “If riders were prepared to take the time penalty, we’ve given up our bikes and wheels. Never to leaders, of course, only to backmarkers for whom it was just about survival.”
For Thomas, joining the trial ride of the proposed Epic route every August is a crucial part of planning the next year’s Trippers itinerary that will shadow and intersect the official race route at the best viewing points.
Even better, she says, “We get to see things the Epic will never see because we ride the really, really tough stuff and then it gets vetoed because it’s too hard!”
Situated a few hundred metres, or a few kilometres, from the more glamorous race village, Tweede Kamp is a world unto itself. Loosely arranged around the welcoming embrace of the Lime Bar Cafe (purveyor of precious commodities like burgers, beers and smoothies), Tweede Kamp is a grubby and hard-working service course populated overwhelmingly by mechanics and physiotherapists. If not the heartbeat of the Epic, it might be its soul. Pro riders rarely set foot here, and the shiny corporate brand activations never do. Yet this is where the vast majority of Epic riders get their daily running repairs, to both body and machine.
In a certain sense, the life of a mechanic at the Epic is elegantly simple. Start work at 06h00, do tyre pressure and other last-minute checks, and have your clients’ bikes ready to go. Then tidy up and maybe chillax for the rest of the morning (unless it’s a transition day, in which case you break camp, hit the road, and set up camp) before your riders roll in again after the stage with their bikes.
Graft until close to midnight, then crash in your tent. Press repeat.
Or, it’s not so simple. Servicing nine bikes after a wild and wet stage can get slightly surreal. “After a really wet one, we worked from when our riders got in straight through to the next morning when they picked up their bikes again. No sleep,” says Luke Rex, who has been a mechanic for 20 years and wrenched at 10 Epics. “At one Epic, the camp ran out of brake pads halfway through the race. Nobody had gear cables. Things could be sold at ridiculous prices to keep people going.
“If you can’t fix something, you ask somebody else to help and see if they can fix it. It’s never been so bad that stuff can’t get fixed, but it’s come very close! We’ve seen broken frames and broken wheels. One guy came home with a taped-up frame that had cracked on the seatpost. They had taped it with insulation tape 10km into the stage and he had ridden to the finish. When riders have had a really crap day out on the bike, you do see tempers. It all comes out on us. Later the riders will treat it as a big joke. It’s just one of those things.”
Sometimes those things stray into the realm of the truly outlandish. “One of my riders once put eggs into his tyres,” recalls Rex. “In the morning he asked me if I had noticed anything. I said, yes, because they all cracked. I had taken them out, cleaned it all up and put the tyre back on. I was too buggered to actually think too much about it.
“Why do I keep coming back? Because I can. It’s always a great opportunity. And a lot of the riders are actually your personal friends, so you want to keep them going. And you find out more about yourself. You find out that you can actually go as hard as Epic takes you.”
Which is how hard? “To breaking point and beyond.”
The last lion
Of all the thousands of riders who have started the Cape Epic over the years, only four – known as the Last Lions – have ridden all 14 editions. John Gale is one of them and to hear him tell it, there was never a plan. He rode the first Epic in 2004, only chanced on an entry to his second two weeks before the 2005 race, and had to rely on his partner lucking out with a lottery entry for his third.
“It’s a chain of luck that has resulted in me having done so many,” says Gale. “I didn’t even consciously decide to keep going. The Epic is such a big ask that you actually never know whether you’re going to be able to do it. Having done it once doesn’t mean you can do it again. It also gets less and less likely that you would survive eight days without hurting the bike or yourself or getting sick or crashing out through a mistake. To do it 14 times in a row is bizarrely unlikely.”
No kidding. To successfully avoid any kind of work or personal or family crisis that might derail your race is one thing; surviving 11 512km of Epic racing is something else entirely. Gale estimates he rides around 9 000km a year in training; that means another 126 000km to safely negotiate.
If the numbers are extraordinary, so are the changes in the race that Gale has seen first-hand. “The first year there was a bloke riding who wasn’t even entered. He was sleeping in the bushes outside the race village,” says Gale. “He’d ride up to the start and ask someone if they would put his tog bag in their car. Then he’d ride alongside us on his horrible bicycle and in his rugby shorts. He wouldn’t finish with us, he’d drift off and then try to find that guy with the car, get his tog bag back and then sleep in the bushes again. As odd as that sounds, in many ways that was the spirit of the Epic. It was about guys who were adventuring.
“These guys here,” and Gale gestures at the surrounding race village, “aren’t adventurers. They know exactly what’s coming, they’re well prepared and they’re well equipped. There is less of that spirit of facing the unknown. Which is why fewer people are sleeping in the tents. Personally, I don’t see the point of coming here and then isolating yourself from it all by staying in a guesthouse. If you’re going to be in the bubble, then surely you must be in the bubble? Immersed in it? A campervan I can understand, but getting in a car and leaving the race village? I don’t understand that.”
Gale’s approach is refreshingly old-school. He came to cycling after initially being a fencer and a runner. In training – “It’s kind of misleading to call it training, because I have fun” – he averages 8–9 hours a week for most of the year, before ramping it up to 11–12 hours a week for the seven months prior to Epic. Juggling commitments to the bike and to the family is similarly straightforward. “If you’re with the kids, be present. Try to make every minute count. If you’re riding, you ride.”
Gale’s 14 Epics have been split among six riding partners, and it’s those friendships and hardships he remembers most. “I’ve ridden with such amazing men,” he says. “That has been a very special privilege for me. A gift. Although everyone is going as fast as they can and everyone wants to be in front of the guy who is in front, the Epic is a survive-and-complete exercise. All endurance sport teaches you about yourself. You learn hard and sometimes uncomfortable things about your limitations. Where your breaking points are, I guess. Sometimes you’re a bit stronger than your partner and then there are certain lessons. Sometimes you’re a bit weaker and the lessons are different. But there are always lessons.”
As he heads off to his massage, Gale points out the Team Meerendal-CBC tent and imparts one final piece of wisdom: “The beer is free there.”