The Cape Epic is a South African stage race I’ve heard mountain bikers talk about for over a decade.
The Cape Epic is a South African stage race I’ve heard mountain bikers talk about for over a decade. Held in March, racers can look forward to 49,000 feet of climbing over eight days and 434 miles. Participants are required to race in two-person teams. This rule adds a fun and challenging dynamic to an exciting event.
Mark Seaburg had secured a spot in the race, but his initial race partner informed him six months before the race start that he would no longer be able to make it. Fortunately, that gave Mark enough time to find another teammate.
Thanks to a recommendation from my husband JayP, that turned out to be me. Mark and I have known each other for several years through ultra-bike racing circles. We’ve attended many of the same events and have ridden together here and there. We were confident we would be able to ride and work well together. However, we both come from the land of ice and snow, so we knew the South African heat would be one of our biggest challenges.
Traveling to Cape Town is a two-day epic journey in itself. We arrived with all our luggage late Thursday evening and were greeted by our mechanic for the week who transported us to our hotel. Our Salsa Spearfishes were ready to join the group ride early Friday morning, up to the scenic Table Mountain for views of Cape Town and the Atlantic Ocean. After some fun downhill singletrack, we headed back to the hotel for some rest. That evening, the race staff held the Around the World dinner party where all the participating countries were announced. It was fun to see racers from all corners of the globe.
Saturday morning, after a 15-minute walk to downtown Cape Town, we had our race briefing, registration, and packet pick up at the historic Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. We met our local driver for the week, Daniella, and then did our final shakedown ride back up to Table Mountain before checking in our bikes in to be transported to Sunday’s prologue race.
It was finally go time! The 8:50 a.m. prologue was 16 miles with 2,460 feet of climbing in time trial fashion. It was a short bus ride to the Meerendal Wine Estates, one of the oldest wine estates in South Africa and the center of mountain biking in the Western Cape. We waited in line for our turn on the stage, 3,2,1 GO!
We were off, and it felt great! We rolled out on some grass and got right into the climbing, which was loose, steep and technical. It was HOT. Mark and I rode well together through the rolling vineyard and super fun singletrack. About five miles from the finish, my stomach went south. The heat and my nerves were probably the cause. I had to get off my bike and walk a bit. Once over the finish line, I sat down in the shade and chugged the Hulk green juice which became a favorite drink for the remaining days of the race. Mark was fine.
It was a two-hour drive to the seaside town Hermanus the start of Stage 1. We stopped along the way at a store for some delicious locally made snacks. The food in South Africa is all very fresh, locally grown, and made with pride. Known for whale watching opportunities, Hermanus is beautiful, and our hotel was right on the spectacular waterfront.
In the background, you can see a racer being carried to the top of the mountain for a helicopter evacuation. The heat was that debilitating...
Monday morning’s Stage One was 63 miles with 7,545 feet of climbing and a difficulty rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. The riding was a super fun mix of double and singletrack. We were having fun and feeling good until we reached the two-mile, 2,000-foot climb over Haarkapper’s Roete. The temperature rose to 118 F according to my Garmin. That’s when the carnage began. We saw other teams vomiting and lying on the ground. One man was being carried by another to the top of the pass where he would get evacuated by a helicopter. Once we started heading down, Mark began to feel the heat and started to slow down. We were pouring water over each other to try and cool down, and took rest in the shade under the very sparse trees on course. Things got worse as the sun just beat down on us on a wide open sandy doubletrack.
When we arrived at the last aid station, we were showered with cold water by volunteers. Time was running out. The cutoff was 9.5 hours, and it wasn’t looking good for us. The last six miles of the course was rolling technical singletrack with a few steep climbs. Mark was having a hard time riding and needed to walk up several sections. His stomach had failed; he could no longer eat or drink and began to suffer from heatstroke. We made it to the finish line in 10.5 hours missing the cut off by an hour. The rule is that if a team misses the cut off one day, they are assigned Blue Board numbers and can no longer be classified as official race finishers, but can continue to race. This is pretty harsh considering the race entry fee, travel time, and expense to get here.
Back at the hotel, Mark felt so bad that he was unable to eat or drink to recover properly. We spoke about our options for the following day. The rule is if a team misses the cut off a second day, they are out of the race and no longer allowed on course. But if one team member finishes within the cut off time, that person can continue, though they will not receive an official finishing time.
Stage Two on Tuesday was shortened from 64 miles to 40 due to the number of competitors who suffered from heatstroke on Monday. Mark and I decided that if we got to a point during the race where it was obvious we would not make the six-hour cut off, I would go ahead. It took us three hours to get to the first aid station and halfway point of 20 miles. The temperature had reached 108 F. Mark was not feeling well, and there was a fair amount of climbing ahead. He suggested that I continue without him. I didn’t want to, but our race would be over if we didn’t make the cutoff. He assured me he would be fine and finish, just at a slower pace, so I went on ahead.
I told him I would wait until five minutes before the cutoff to see if he made it, which I did. Unfortunately, Mark did not make it, so I finished myself and waited for him to cross the line. Mark arrived a half hour later. He had stopped to rest and vomit due to heatstroke again, and his Cape Epic was over. It was hard for both of us. We had come so far and wanted to finish this together as Team Salsa! Mark got some rest that evening and was able to make a quick recovery. For the remainder of the trip, he helped crew our group while I continued to race.
There was no longer any reason to crush myself, so I enjoyed the next five days of racing. They were filled with cooler temps and the most beautiful epic rides on varied terrain of doubletrack, singletrack, and pavement through vineyards and apple orchards. There was a lot of climbing! The downhills were wicked fast and technical which is right up my alley and is where I passed many racers.
The starting corrals were labeled A through I and went off in 20-minute intervals. Due to missing the cutoff on the first day, we were Blue Boarded (which is exchanging our original number plate with black numbers for one with blue numbers) I had to start in the last coral labeled “I” every day. This added the challenge of riding my way up and around other racers, but also added fun by challenging myself to catch those who started 20 minutes ahead of me.
The aid stations were in located in villages filled with locals and kids who loved to give high-fives. They were stocked with the kindest and most helpful volunteers, water, Energade and picnic type food like sandwiches, fruit, cake, potatoes, and candy. There were mechanics to oil chains and help make bike repairs if needed. The Oakley company was there to clean the sweat and dirt from our sunglasses. I felt like a rock star which I believe had a lot to do with my recovery. As soon as I finished each day, I would eat a meal, drink tons of water, and take in 12-15 GU electrolyte pills along with another meal. As part of our package, we were offered a 45-minute massage every day which also aided recovery.
Many of the same spectators were on the course every day. All the racers had their names on their backs so many people would yell my name as I rode by and cheered, “Well done!” “Looking great!”, and I would tell them they were looking great too, which made them laugh. My energy was high, and I enjoyed every minute with a big smile knowing how fortunate I was to be in South Africa participating in the Cape Epic Mountain Bike Race. It was a pleasure chatting and riding with different teams from all over the world who would always ask, “What happened to your partner?”.
I knew the last day would be emotional so I savored it, stopping to look around and take pictures. We rode past the huge Nelson Mandela statue located at the Drankenstein Correctional Center where he spent the last part of his imprisonment for campaigning against Apartheid. As I neared the finish at the renowned Val de Vie Polo fields, the tears started to flow. I didn’t want the race to be over! I was greeted by staff who whisked my bike away to be cleaned and led me to a huge lunch box filled with treats.
Most of the course was ridable if you had the skills and confidence. Mark and I were both very impressed with how the Spearfishes climbed liked Billy Goats and ripped the downhills like tornados. For us, the Spearfish was the perfect tool for this race. Mark got his crash out of the way before the race while trying to climb some stairs in the city. I was fortunate to have only one minor crash as I was passing some riders on a downhill. Neither of us had any flats or mechanicals.
The Cape Epic is a super fun, stunning, and demanding course with tight cutoffs. I would highly recommend it. But be sure to focus on a training plan and come prepared for anything, especially seriously hot weather. I was proud of my accomplishment and ability to make it through each day. Thank you, Salsa Cycles, Mark Seaburg, JayP and everyone that followed along and shared this adventure with us.