I’ve spent the last two weeks in South Africa preparing for the Absa Cape Epic which will start this Sunday 23rd of March. The time I’ve spent in South Africa has been great, however with three races and two abandons it hasn’t all gone to plan. With only days to go until the start of the big one I’m hoping to turn my fortunes around.
I met up with Orange Monkey Pro Team manager Paul Beales, and my Epic team mate Ben Roff on Tuesday the 4th of March, to fly to Cape Town. On arrival we were greeted by by team sponsor Paarl Media and taken to our accommodation in Durbanville on the outskirts of Cape Town. Bryan Strauss, father of our South African team mate Mariske, came to meet us at the hotel as we built our bikes. Bryan tipped us off that only a short ride away was the track for that weekend’s race, the Western Cape Open. When Ben and I were settled, and had our new Polygons assembled, we rolled around the corner to check the bikes over and take in a couple of laps of the course. We were greeted by short and steep climbs and descents, with modern trail features like a sizable double and a gap jump. Having this course on our doorsteps was great to set up our new suspension from BOS Mtb as well as try out tire options from Schwalbe. Sharp rocks and loose surfaces challenged the tires and I’ve been pleased with the robust yet lightweight Schwalbe Snake Skin casing.
We had a few days to get ready for the Western Cape Open race. It was my first event of the season and as a UCI registered race, points which determine world ranking and World Cup grid position were on offer. Unfortunately for me I hadn’t been feeling 100% healthy in the days leading into the race. After starting well I had to abandon after three laps due to stomach cramps and other issues which I’m not going to go into in too much detail! I spent the next 24 hours in bed. With some medicine and probiotics I managed to get back on my bike after two days of rest. Ben had a cracking race finishing 10th and Mariske won the Elite women’s race! If you don’t know Mariske Strauss yet then remember the name. She’s a huge talent with an even bigger smile. A crackin’ lass and a huge asset to the Orange Monkey team.
Over the next week Ben and I checked out some of the trails near Durbanville, including the Meerendal Wine Estate trails which will be used for the Cape Epic prologue. We also ventured up to Stellenbosch and Jonkershoek. The trails there are amazing and the place seems to be a mixture of students and mountain bikers. A nice town with a good atmosphere. We finished the day on a local trail called ‘G-Spot’ (ooo-eer) which is probably the most fun ‘pump and jump’ trail I’ve ever ridden.
The following Friday we flew out east to race the Cascades Classic UCI race in Pietermaritzburg. It was my first visit to the classic World Cup venue and the course is amazing. Re-vamped for the 2014 World Cup with some fast flowing dual ‘A line’ downhills and climbs for side-by-side racing. The Treehouse rock garden is rougher and steeper than it looks on TV too. I managed to ‘get it done’ three times in practice, feeling fast and confident on the course and more importantly over my illness. That evening we had dinner with the Paarl Media team. The team is very professional and is doing a great job of developing local riders in the Western Cape. They’ve made us feel very welcome and we’re fortunate to have such a supporting sponsor.
On the morning of race day Ben and I cycled in from our accommodation at the Aberfeldy guest house to the course. We arrived just in time to see Mariske taking yet another convincing victory! We had some time to relax before starting the 40 minute warm up to get us ready for a hard and fast race.
As a UCI 1 race there were points for the top 15 finishers and the race also met the standard needed for me to qualify for Team Scotland for the Commonwealth Games, so I was hoping for a good race. Once again I got a good start and was into the first singletrack in fourth position. I managed to hold position before settling into the second group around ten seconds behind the leading group of three. I remember dropping into the Treehouse rock garden, getting caught up in the rocks on exit, catching my handlebar on a tree and going ‘out the front door’. The next thing I can remember is being very confused. I’d landed heavily on the rocky trail face first. As spectators and marshals came to my aid I repeatedly asked ‘where’s my bike’, ‘how many laps have I got left’ and ‘can I start racing yet?’. I was taken down the hill to the medics when I realised I couldn’t remember anything from that day. I didn’t know how long I’d been in South Africa for and I didn’t know what I’d done for the last two weeks. I was heavily concussed but the medics took good care of me, checking me over and keeping me with them for observations. I started to realise that I’d taken a heavy knock as my memory returned. Otherwise, Ben had another cracking race finish 15th, securing more UCI points and showing his training for the Epic has gone well. That evening we all had a relaxing night with a traditional South African Braai. The next day I got back out on the bike for a recovery road ride with Ben, passing the site of Nelson Mandela’s capture, onwards to the Piggly Wiggly cafe for some apple pie, a smoothie and coffee. Later that day we were back on our way to the Western Cape.
So I had two races, two abandons, a corker of a black eye and only one more race remaining before the Epic kicked off. I started training again and thankfully didn’t have any headaches or issues following the concussion. On the Wednesday before the Epic there was an invitational event in aid of Songo.info. Songo is a charity aiming enable young people in Kayamandi, an area of deprivation on the outskirts of Stellenbosch, to access cycling as a vehicle to establish values, and allow them to set their own meaningful goals to realise their own potential.
We were lucky enough to receive an invitation to compete from Songo and Christoph Sauser. The format was a short track cross country race held in Kayamandi and the mens race followed the junior and women’s races. We raced for 30 minutes plus three laps on the playing fields, BMX track and through the streets and houses. There was a great atmosphere and people of Kayamandi who have benefited from the support of Songo.info were competing alongside Olympians and champions. It was a unique and exciting race and I feel very fortunate to have been allowed to take part in it.
The race itself went well for me. I made a good start and placed in the top ten going into the first climb and onto the BMX track. The pressure was on at the front with World Cup stars Lukas Fluckiger and Martin Fanger pushing the pace. Christoph Sauser was showing there is some XC speed still hiding in his marathon legs! The Topeak Ergon team were also to the fore. At the midway point a group of six riders pushed clear. I was on the limit and unable to bridge the gap, so settled into the battle for the top 10 with around eight other riders. I pushed to the finish and I think I held on for a top 15, but I have yet to see the full results. Sauser took the win from the two BMC riders.
Following the race there was an unveiling of a tribute to Burry Stander who was a significant supporter of Songo.info. Pictures of Burry and his Cape Epic winners jersey are displayed on the wall of the Songo clubhouse and those who knew Burry have begun to sign their names and write their own personal message on the wall below. It is a touching tribute to a young man who inspired so many people and is sadly missed. Riders who participated in the race were invited to leave their messages before making their way to the Ride In Cafe in Jonkershoek for food, drink and time together before things get serious this Sunday.
So all that is left to say is that the Cape Epic is almost upon us. We get started with the prologue on Sunday and that is followed by seven hard stages. All going to plan we will be finishing in Lourensford Wine Estate in just over a week’s time. I’ll be checking in afterwards and I hope I can share some of my insights from a successful race.
‘til then, so long.