What you can expect from the 2017 Cape Epic
19 October 2016
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Hello and welcome to another edition of the Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast. I’m Gerald de Kock, thanks for downloading. Most often the ten minutes or so of the podcast is dedicated to chatting to a passionate mountain biker, trail builder, race organiser, sponsor, in fact to anybody who has more than a passing interest in this great sport.
But today I’m going to ask for your indulgence as I take you through the recently released route for the 2017 ABSA Cape Epic. Over the last 13 years the Epic has earned a reputation as the toughest multi-day mountain bike stage race in the world. Of course this reputation is built on the untamed nature of the race with a combination of the roughest trails, monstrous climbs, torturous descents, fickle, sometimes inhospitable Cape weather and the sheer unpredictable nature of the event.
Spending eight days traversing the Western Cape whilst trying to survive everything the route designers and the weather Gods through at one. An Epic finishers shirt is a highly sought after garment, only the best prepared riders earn the right to wear it. In 2017, the 14th edition of the Epic, it covers 691km, including 15 400m of climbing.
Where 2017 kicks off
It starts on the 19th of March with the now traditional prologue time trial at the Merrendal Wine Estate just west of Durbanville. At just 26km it’s a good opportunity to settle the nerves ahead of the much longer, harder stages to come.
But with 750m of climbing, it will give riders a reasonably good education of just how well they are prepared. The notorious Stairway to Heaven climb will take them to the top of the Dorstberg and the Tygerberg Mountain Club trails through Hoogekraal. Plenty of single track and steep vineyards are on the menu there.
While the views of Table Bay, Table Mountain and Robben Island are spectacular, I don’t think many are going to pause to take a selfie. The prologue is all about time for the racing snakes, it’s about the fastest time they can cover the course in. For the rest, it’s about the amount of time they’ll have to rest and recover on that Sunday before heading to Hermanus for the start of the main event, the main course if you like.
Hermanus, in fact last hosted a stage in 2008 when the race was still a point journey from Knysna to Stellenbosch. 2017 will see the first two days exploring the trails in and around the Walker Bay and Hemel en Aarde valley. Again, true to tradition, stage one is a brutal test, 101km, 2 300m of vertical ascent. Soon after the start the road heads up that Rotary Way tar climb along the spine of the mountain overlooking the ocean on the right before they dip down into the Hemel en Aarde valley.
Then it’s up the 911 climb and some ups and downs along the flanks of the stunning wine farms of the Hemel en Aarde valley. Once they’ve reached Tesselaarsdal, they’ll have to confront the rugged climb and descent known as the Haarkappers Roote. This is named after a barber who regularly walked over the Klein Rivier mountains in the 50’s to cut hair in Stanford.
From the bottom of the tricky descent the route turns back towards Hermanus and they’ll have a chance to ride the Urban Assault mountain bike section on the outskirts of Hermanus and into the finish. As always though, there’s sure to be reasonable high attrition rate on the first day as those who did not put in the hours of training or who came into the event a little ill, will be cruelly exposed and sadly head home to prepare for yet another year.
The climbing continues on stage 2
The remaining riders, well, stage two takes them to a new race damp in the oft visited Epic village of Greyton in the shadow of the Riviersonderend mountains. But they’ll have to work really hard to get there. The day’s biggest challenge, Shaw’s Pass presents itself early in the piece. It’s only 4km, but gains more than 220m in altitude and in one section the grading kicks up to more than 20%. They’ll have more testing climbs later on either side of the Caledon Kloof and those mountains above Greyton.
But there will be some relief, those beautiful, stunning, single track trails through the fynbos before the finish. The relief of not having to pack up and load bags onto trucks on the Wednesday morning, they’ll be staying in Greyton that day. Will be complemented by stage three’s task, 78km and 1 600m of climbing, your average marathon race, but the ability to enjoy and be successful on those trails will depend on how hard the riders pushed on the first two days.
After a country meander that takes them through nearby Bareaville and historic Genadendal, it’s straight into a series of climbs. These include Mad Dog Bite, Zig-zag and the UFO. It’s been climbed before on the Epic, it’s named because of the rather strange looking UFO-like building perched on the top of the hill.
What of course goes up, must come down, as the cliché goes, so some thrilling descending in great rugged single track. That’s the problem because it is very rugged in this part of the world. The day could become very long thanks to sharp stones and rocks that litter this part of the route. That could lead to some serious punctures.
A road that heads straight up into the sky
Stage four is a moving day, Greyton to Elgin, the short-cut way, not via the highway. It’s rolling hills from the moment they leave Greyton on the longer stage of the event, 112km, a measured 2 150m of climbing. Riders will approach one particular climb with apprehension. It’s called Pumping Legs, for good reason.
As you approach it, it seems like the road heads straight up into the sky. Later they’ll cut through the Klipheuwel, Dassiesfontein Wind Energy facility near Caledon, dwarfed by the 100m high turbines with their 58m blades. No doubt envious of the energy those blades will produce.
On the way to the race village at Oak Valley, they’ll head up the Houwhoek Pass which was built in 1904. It’s also known as the River Pass because it follows the course of the Jakkals River. The Amabubesi riders, those who have completed in three or more Epics will feel at home as they hammer along familiar trails through Paul Cluver and to Oak Valley.
Having reached stage five, the survivors will be well into the rhythm of the Epic and they can almost sense home. It’s another out and back day that sees them enjoying some of the most creative and fun single track and trails in the country.
This is over 84km, they’ll also pay a hefty tax bill though, 2 100m of climbing over those 84km and they’ll ascend the legendary Nuweberg Pass from the eastern side. This is so-called a ‘fun day’ at the Epic and barring bad weather, it should be just that.
First, there are those few climbs to negotiate, including Nuweberg, there are a couple more tricky climbs and descents as the course weaves its way through the low hills above Grabouw and into the single track heaven. They’ll do most of the A-Z Trail, which is familiar to riders of the Wines2Whales and the Epic in the past. That’s above Elgin Grabouw Country Club and around Eikenhof Dam. They’ll enjoy the renown trails of Paul Cluver Estate, incredible bridges built here from alien vegetation and wine barrels and into Oak Valley they head back to the race village.
The queen stage of the 2017 Epic
Five stages done, six days done and then a fun day follows. What comes after that, a stun day. This in roadie parlins is the queen’s stage, stage six. I think in Epic speak, it is THE Epic stage of the 2017, a rude 2 750m of climbing over 103km and they loop around the Elgin Valley.
Most veterans will agree that Groenlandberg is the toughest climb the race has ever presented. It is a regular feature on the Epic, but the 9km of rock-strewn trail will take care of the best part of 600m of the day’s climbing, with an average gradient of 7%, but at times peaking at 20%.
All this inside the first 20km, it’s broken the best of riders before and surely in 2017 it will do again. The rocky trail across the back of Groenlandberg follows as do more tough climbs before they slip up underneath the N2 and explore the Grabouw side of the valley with a rare loop through the Kogelberg Nature Reserve. One of only 400 biospheres in this part of the world. The last time they went through there it was severely burnt, I think it will look beautiful this year – let’s hope.
The rejuvenated Lebanon Trails will lead them back under the N2 and then through more familiar single track to Oak Valley. Now, seven days behind the riders, those who have survived those seven days, they’ll sleep incredibly soundly in the village ahead of the final stage.
There’s always a sort of festive atmosphere there, but you don’t want to get too carried away because there’s a final day to ride and Val de Vie lies around 15km south east of Paarl. So a long way to go and it’ll become the fourth grand finale host venue opening up its massive polo fields for the occasion. The 85km journey from Elgin contains the least amount of climbing of all the stages, 1 350m. It might not feel like the least for all those riders who have completed the event, but then it is the last stage.
The 7km pull up Franschhoek Pass will be the big test, plenty of twists and turns as they run along the low slopes of the mountains outside Franschhoek and then they’ll pass the imposing statue of Nelson Mandela at the Victor Verster Prison, it’s in the gates there. It’ll be a great opportunity for those who haven’t seen that, it’s magnificent and just remember what a great contribution Nelson Mandela made to South Africa.
A champion flavour in 2017
They’ll roll into Val de Vie and have a fitting with that finishers shirt, they’ll wear it proudly, that’s for sure. Early indications that the professional field will be amongst the strongest yet. Olympic Champion Nino Schurter has already indicated he will be on the start line in March. Expect a clutch of the best to follow him, those are the cross country riders.
Amongst the marathon specialists, Karl Platt will bring the Team Bulls back, no doubt a strong showing from them. They look to defend the title they won last year. Kristian Hynek has won it before, Markus Kaufmann another top class rider, also wanting to join the winners club.
The women’s field could see young riders who shied away from the Epic in the past, are starting to get a feel of riding marathon stage races. Yana Belomoina last year came along with a very experienced Sabine Spitz and got stronger and stronger and they won a couple of stages towards the end of the Epic. So that is the indication we could see some of the younger riders, the likes of Jolanda Neff. I’m not saying she will be there, but that type of rider and let’s hope so. Defending champion Ariane Kleinhans and Annika Langvad, unlikely to have a tilt at the fourth title as a combination due to Annika’s decision to follow her dentistry studies, but that remains uncertain yet.
One of the most fascinating aspects next year will be the battle for the Last Lions. There are just four riders who competed at every single Cape Epic; John Gale, Mike Nixon, Craig Beech and Hannele Steyn. It’s incredible, 14 Cape Epics done, 10 000km, 205 000m of climbing, that’s 23 Everest summits, if you like, and earlier this month the unveiling of a beautiful Dylan Lewis sculpture of a lion will be awarded to the Last Lion standing.
It won’t be after next years or 2017’s event, it may be in five or six years’ time, depending on how long the tussles goes between these four riders. But it has certainly upped the stakes considerably because it’s a beautiful piece of artwork to have on one of; John Gale, Mike Nixon, Craig Beech or Hannele Steyn’s mantle pieces. We watch that battle with fascination.
Finall,y the question everyone always asks after a route launch, who will the route suite in 2017? It’s a very simple answer really, it will suite those teams who prepare best, that’s the formula that works best at the Cape Epic. We look forward to March 2017 and the next edition of Africa’s untamed mountain bike race. Thanks for listening, happy training to those of you who have entered, until next time, cheers.