Sponsored First Ascent athlete Luke Evans and partner Richard Damant share with us their Cape Epic story. From the highs to the lows, as well as highlight the gear that got them through the gruelling 8-day MTB stage race, where they finished it off in 37th position overall and 11th in the African Teams!
All photos courtesy of Zoon Cronje and other
Training for the ABSA Cape Epic is no walk in the park, what did your average training week look like and how long in advance did you begin your preparations?
Luke: I’m a full-time student and Rich works full-time so our training programs are probably not always exactly what we want them to be, but we put a lot into the race.
December is the crucial period to get some hours in the bank and some strength in the legs. I was probably averaging close to 18 hours a week in total with lots of low cadence work for leg strength as well as off bike strength work with a Biokinetisist.
In the build-up to the race my hours dropped a bit and the proper interval work started with usually two really hard sessions a week and around 14 hours training per a week.
I’m quite fussy with my nutrition so I watch my diet quite closely to help with consistency and weight. Rich and I used Attakwas and Tankwa Trek as our two prep races to gauge form, test nutrition and equipment.
The Cape Epic covers 700km of harsh terrain and 15 000m of climbing and has been described as the “Tour de France of mountain biking". With daily challenges to overcome, which was your most testing day and how did you as a team get through it?
Luke: My biggest daily challenge always seemed to be waking up! With all stage races finding a routine really helps you to get through each day and not worry too much about the upcoming day of racing, allowing you to focus on resting and recovering.
For me my most testing day was stage 3, at 125km long it’s not the ideal day to have bad legs. I was in such a dark place for the first 3 hours and I have no idea how I managed to hang onto Rich, but luckily my legs managed to come through and we managed to turn it into a really good day by keeping a positive attitude!
Richard: The last two days were definitely my hardest two days where I was struggling with a very bad pain around my diaphragm area which was making it almost impossible to sleep and very difficult to breathe deeply. I felt like I was giving it absolutely everything on those two days, but just had very little power, barely able to hold the bunch on the tar road out of Wellington. I had to dig really deep and focus on getting into a good rhythm.
MTB pairs stage racing can be particularly challenging and Luke really showed the positive side of it – showing patience when I was struggling and encouraging me and revving me up when I showed brief signs of regaining a bit of power. Luke set the pace on the flats and helped us to limit the damage as much as possible!
I thought at the time that it was stomach issues but it turned out after a short stint in hospital after the race that I had fluid in my lungs which was causing the pain and difficulty breathing.
With all-four seasons encountered during this year’s Cape Epic, every-day is unpredictable from terrain to weather conditions and as the event description eludes it is ‘Africa’s untamed MTB event’. What were your key attributes and motivation (mottos) which got you through each day?
Luke: I think the most important thing for Epic is having the ability to remain calm and composed. It’s such a long race that you will have bad days, punctures and crashes, but how you deal with those moments of adversity can be the difference between success and failure.
Rich and I put emphasis on never panicking and no matter how bad things were going we always pushed as hard as we could and fought for every second. Keeping a level head also helps avoid clashes in the partnership which can really ruin the race for you.
Ensuring that you are well-equipped from head to toe is key when taking on the Cape Epic. Which First Ascent apparel did you make use of and what were some of the garments key features which assisted you?
Kit for an ultra-event like Epic where you are spending close on 5 hours a day in the saddle is so crucial. We used the Pro-Elite Gel Bibs and for me that was my stand-out piece of kit. I never had a saddle sore or moment of discomfort the whole race.
We rode in the Domestique Jerseys and First Ascent went out of their way to tailor fit them to us, to give us an aero advantage for the blistering fast starts every day. The Quik-Wic fabric also did the trick in ensuring we never overheated in the notorious Epic heat.
Out of the eight days of riding, which was the most memorable for you and why did it stand out as your ultimate day?
Luke: Stage 2 was really memorable for me, we decided to roll the dice and hang on for dear life with some of the faster pros and see if we could make it to the line (Not an advisable strategy for a 110km stage), we had some early issues when I took a big crash but we kept the pace hot and were riding amongst some top company, with 30km to go we were just inside the top 25 but unfortunately we paid a bit for our early efforts when Rich’s lower back locked up and we slipped out of the top 30.
To do well in Epic you have to be consistent, so it may not have been the wisest move but getting to race with some of the top Europeans and push your limits is what bike racing is about for me, so I really loved it.
Richard: The Prologue starting at UCT and riding on Table Mountain was one of the best experiences I have ever had on a bike! The whole vibe at the start of Epic is incredible, with a combination of nerves and excitement to start, after months of training and waiting in anticipation for this moment! I studied at UCT and still have a lot of friends and family in CT who came out to support which made the day extra special!
Going up the brutally steep 15% Dead Man’s Tree Climb up to Tafelberg Road was the stand-out moment where we were greeted by a wall of screaming spectators (a number of whom were my mates) and a guy ringing a massive gong-sounding bell! You can’t blame me for feeling a bit like I was racing up an Alpine pass in the Tour de France and I know Luke got the same burst of energy because he nearly crashed into me when he came flying past through the narrow gap between spectators!
The Cape Epic tests you both emotionally and physically. How do you mentally prepare yourself for each stage, and how does having a team mate on the journey help you to get through those tough days?
Luke: A strong bond between partner is everything in Epic, when its day 7 you wake up feeling like a train has hit you, your legs just don’t get firing and you dropping off the back of groups the only thing that can keep you going is your partners support. We tried to keep the vibe light-hearted off the bikes but what really got me through epic was a jar of Nutella and our post stage banter.
Richard: As I mentioned before, pairs stage racing canbe both incredibly challenging and rewarding! When two partners are fairly evenly matched there are bound to be times when one is stronger than the other and this proved to be the case. Luke and I were able to gauge this fairly intuitively and we also communicated well. We worked very well together during these times with the stronger person working on the flats and letting the other partner set the pace on the climbs.
Despite the work I put in before Epic, Luke is much faster than me on the technical stuff because of his downhill MTB background. Luke was really good at setting a pace where I could follow his lines which helped me to up my game significantly and also helped us to minimise the risk of punctures.
From the high’s to the low’s, was their a specific moment during the eight-days that stood out to you and will become a memory which you will never forget?
Luke: There are definitely so many moments and lessons I will take with me in life but for me the moment I will never forget will be when we were cruising up Bains Kloof, a 100km into the queen stage on the wheels of the pros, I had grown up reading about in magazines.
Richard: Besides the Prologue which I spoke about before Stage 6 and 7 definitely stand-out for the suffering, but I will hold on to the way I pushed through those and also how much it helps having a team mate there slogging it out with you.
The 122km 3rd stage, the longest of the race, was also a highlight for me because of the way we worked together when Luke was going through a rough patch and then hammered it home on the final 20km into Worcester to finish strong!
Now that you have conquered the ABSA Cape Epic, what advice will you pass onto those thinking of taking up the challenge in 2019, when it comes to training, equipment, as well as the week of the event?
Luke: Epic is harder than you think, no matter how fit you are. It strains you mentally and emotionally in a way few other races do. Having the right partner is crucial when you are putting so much into a race, you need to have a mutual understanding and respect of each other to ensure you don’t end up having conflicts during the race. Make sure you don’t take it too seriously too, things will go wrong and at the end of the day it’s just a bike race so take it in and try to keep positive.
For training I think that most people get intimidated by the distance and just do long hours but it’s not the time that kills you in epic it’s the intensity. So I would recommend doing more high intensity training with less hours than you might think necessary. Having a training program from a trusted coach is always good as it helps to put the mind to rest as to if you are prepared enough, no matter your goal for the race.
Richard: To add on to what Luke said, it’s important to test your equipment and nutrition in a number of races before the Epic (and importantly in a stage race). Also, enjoy the build-up to the race, that is half the fun!