Tom Ritchey's 2013 Cape Epic Report

Tom is back from Cape Epic and shares his thoughts and experiences. In modern cycling, term “epic” gets thrown around a lot. Not every long, hard race is worthy of the term, but the Cape Epic is truly epic. Eight days. 698 kilometers (434 miles). Over 15,650 meters of climbing (51,345 vertical feet). It starts in Durbanville and finishes in Lourensford, South Africa, covering some of the roughest country in the world, and the competition is world class. Tom Ritchey has raced the Cape Epic four times, finishing as high as top 50 among the pro’s. “It’s become a meeting round. The Cape Epic has become a highly sought-after win for pro riders. Nino Schurter and Florian Vogel of the Scott-SwissPower team came here to win, and they got humbled. It’s not a normal stage race or mountain bike event…it’s the cycling equivalent of the Baja 500 or Paris Dakar, it’s challenging on a completely different level and things can go very wrong,” Ritchey said.

This year marks the 10th Anniversary of the event, and organizers invited Ritchey back to compete in the new Grand Masters category---the Cape Epic is a team event, raced with a partner with category defined by the age of both riders. Previously Ritchey had completed in the pro category as he was paired with a younger rider (like the XC racing legend Thomas Frischknecht). For 2013 Ritchey paired up with American cycling legend and Tour de France veteran Alex Stieda. Other celebrities on the start line included Formula One champion Alain Prost and Spanish football start Luis Enrique. But the Cape Epic doesn’t care if you’re a cycling legend. It breaks everyone, no matter who you are. “In the first stage, I got tangled up with another rider and he fell into me, gashing my leg open. A top pro got T-boned by an antelope at full speed. Professional riders end up in the hospital and out of the race. That was my main concern…it’s a very dangerous race.

The course contains crazy unknowns. When things happen, no one waits. There can be some pretty bad crashes and the group just rolls on, there are no yellow caution flags. It’s a hard-driving race and very competitive, with a huge emphasis on self-reliance. To finish you have to be a bit of a survivalist, ‘McGuyvering’ your own fixes and applying all your faculties and strength throughout the entire race.

You have to be prepared for the unknown,” Ritchey said. And as hard as the Cape Epic can be on the rider, it’s even more brutal on equipment. “I can’t tell you how many people were faster than us but broke down. You see failures that you just wouldn’t expect …this is not your normal Saturday trail ride. As a product designer, I’m thinking about it when I’m out there, and then when I’m back home designing future products. Maybe you think your equipment is durable…but this is where you really find out what holds up, and what doesn’t,” Ritchey said. Tom Ritchey rode a Scott Spark equipped with new Ritchey Vantage II 650b wheels.

“Mountain bike racing is all about being prepared and self sufficient, this event pushes the ride to the limit. It’s like riding seven or eight marathon events in a row, with minimal recovery, and you’re on your own most of the time. Alex was a great partner, he’s on a learning curve as a mountain biker but we both helped each other out. He’s got such a steady personality, he’s easy to work with and definitely not a whiner… he can suffer due to his history in the pro peloton. Even in light of all that, he had a couple of his hardest days on the bike. For a rider like Alex to say that, it’s significant. Tom and Alex rode for Project Rwanda/World Bike and finished 94th out of nearly 500, and an impressive 6th place overall in the Grand Masters Category. Here is Tom’s take on the highs and lows of this incredible event.

1. What was the hardest stage? Why?

Tom Ritchey: Stage 1. It was 90 degrees at the start and there was lots of sand, so 100kms worked out to a six hour day. There were a lot of crashes and complaints. This was where one of the pro’s got hit by antelope. The middle of the stage was basically unrideable…an hour of sand and climbs too steep even for the top pro riders. It fostered a lot of complaints after the stage that the course should actually be rideable. Even descents had so much sand that a lot of riders got into trouble. I had two good crashes, early on a guy fell into me and gashed my leg open, and then another guy was riding against traffic on the course to find his partner, came around a blind turn and wiped me out. A lot of people didn’t finish. Next to that, Stage 2 was the longest stage at 145kms. It was also plagued with some real challenges. We finished in front of Thomas and Urs who had nearly continuous flat problems. Miraculously, Alex and I did not flat. After a grueling 130kms, the stage finished with a descent that was like steep moonscape. The brush had been burned away previously and it was nothing but sharp rocks. It definitely wasn’t pretty or easy to deal with. In the back of my mind I was concerned about my wife Martha, who had her own course challenges with the clutch while getting the right-hand-drive motor home through the next valley to meet us at the stage finish. She made it and had some cold goodies for me at the finish, which was wonderful. So the first two stages were hellish. People were already pretty beat up. The medical facility---a big tent the size of a high school gym filled with beds---was full of riders hooked up to IV’s, with gashes, broken collarbones and broken ribs.

2. What was the most ‘fun’ stage? Or was there one?

Tom Ritchey: Easily, Stage 6. We had only 75kms that day and the temperatures cooled off. The course was almost an entire day of well-made singletrack. Unfortunately that’s another day where I crashed. When the build singletrack over there, cut the small trees and brush with a machete or something, leaving 2-3 inch tall spikes cut at an angle. You’re constantly worried about nailing these sharp spikes. We were in third position and I snagged a pedal. I didn’t see a cut-off root but it was like being launched off an aircraft carrier at 20mph and then stopping instantly. I came out of my shoe, went into and over the bar and when I landed I wondered what was broken with my bike and body. Alex came up and I told him something was definitely broken but I didn’t know what, and I needed to sit there and figure it out. As it turned out I just had a lot of bruising on my upper thighs and groin from the bar. After about 15 minutes we got back going and did quite well in the stage. That night the massage guy couldn’t even touch my thighs due to the bruising. It was a great stage, but even still it clearly had its challenges.

3. What was the hardest single spot on the entire course? One particular climb or technical section?

Tom Ritchey: That moonscape descent at the end of stage 2. We were tired, the midday sun was hot and we were worried about just getting back, and now your hands are on fire. We were braking nonstop over a 10km descent, constantly focused on the rocky, technical descent. Rather than some crazy uphill that you can barely ride, we got to the bottom of the hill and thought “I can’t believe my hands haven’t fallen off”. I got multiple blisters under my gloves, and after 40 years of riding I never get blisters. I’m still wondering what sort of carpal tunnel damage I’ll get from that descent.

5. Who were your closest rivals in the Grand Masters class? Where did they get the advantage over you, or where did you get the advantage over them?

Tom Ritchey: There were a handful of riders in the top 10 who we were chasing, passing and then trading places with. Even though we hadn’t ridden together before Alex and I could rival anyone due to our racing backgrounds. We were probably as fast as anyone in the bike handling department, so really it came down to endurance and just wear and tear on your body. Either you could survive because you know how to suffer or you just didn’t have the strength. For a lot of competitors this is ‘the’ event, and a lot of these racers had personal coaches and had trained all year just for this event. They must have spent a lot of money because they had their own mechanics, a team of massage people, nice big motor homes and tent chairs, the whole setup. The Grand Master contenders were not messing around.

6. Describe the most impressive or amazing or beautiful moment on the race.

Tom Ritchey: Finishing. Coming into Laurenceford, a beautiful valley East of Stellenbosch. There’s these vineyards and manicured hills next to a backdrop of incredible mountains. That area has a rugged, natural beauty to it. Flying through the last 20kms of downhill, reeling in a few more teams and feeling good with cooler temps and Alex riding well, it was a great way to wrap up the event.

7. You mention how extremely demanding the Cape Epic is compared to normal rides and races. Can you describe specifically the kind of terrain/trail that makes this so much more demanding than normal?

Tom Ritchey: The defining factors are the length of the stages and the saddle time at high intensity. It’s like riding an ultramarathon day after day after day, with a lot of danger and stress along the way. A lot of road races and even many off-road events have a part of the course where you can just chill, throttle back and recover mentally and physically and stay somewhat fresh for what comes next. At this year’s Cape Epic there’s hardly anywhere which allows for that. You really are on the rivet the whole time, even when you’re on a flat road, it’s only for a couple kilometers. You spent most of your time picking your way through tricky sections of sharp rock, and even the double track only had one decent line, it was so loose and sandy that you’d get bogged down if you weren’t concentrating. For every kilometer you rode it felt like two kilometers of road riding---so a 100km stage felt like twice that. Then there was the dust and heat. We started each stage at around 7am, and you only have an hour or two before the heat picked up. For the first four stages, it was hot, and I mean hot, by 10am. It was so hot that the AC in our motor home could not keep up.

8. How was your fitness coming into this year’s event? What sort of specific training do you do prior to an event like Cape Epic?

Tom Ritchey: My fitness was probably about what you could expect for a guy living in Northern California in March. I had lots of time in the saddle but not a lot of intensity. Going into the race was a complete overload of my faculties, my legs and lungs. The dust was definitely debilitating, it’s just so bad. There’s not much rain and when the whole group heads into the first climb it’s through this cloud of dust. You’re trying to get a position up the side of the road or in the middle where you could breathe. If started in the very front it was better but you had to get up earlier and just sit on the start line. I value my sleep and my coffee and wasn’t going to do that, but the tradeoff was dust. You cough it up and cough it out throughout the day. It’s pretty amazing to me, what your body is able to deal with, that I can breathe so much dust and end up okay at the end of the race.

9. You raced with Tour de France veteran Alex Stieda. How was his fitness coming into the race? Was he physically ready? Mentally?

Tom Ritchey: Alex trained. He got himself really fit, got his weight down to his old pro weight of 159lbs. He built up a Scott Spark 29er with Ritchey carbon wheels and parts, and he got really comfortable in a couple days. The only thing he didn’t train for was the strain on his lower back with all the climbing. He was strong, and we were very evenly matched, despite that he lives in Edmonton, Canada which limits his training during part of the year. His lower back was bothering him so much that on Stage 6 he barely made it. Mentally, Alex and I both know how to suffer, he’s more mentally strong than practically anyone I know. I was whimpering more than he was. He was not giving into it even though he was in pain.

10. The Cape Epic is very demanding on equipment. What sort of lessons do you take back with you?

Tom Ritchey: We had problems from the start, but so did almost everyone. Several of the Ritchey riders (Tom, Nino, Florian and Frishi) chose 650b wheels, which was great at times but we put ourselves at risk of having limited tire and wheel support during the race since 650b is still somewhat new. My gear survived most of it, but I did get a sidewall cut as big as anything I’ve ever seen. I thought I was done for. Alex found a medic who had an emergency space blanket and a suture kit. We cut it into sections that I could stuff into the tire. We wrapped it up inside my tire, burping some out of the bead to help keep it in place. Some 20 layers of this stuff helped hold my tire together. Mylar doesn’t stretch much, so I knew if I could run at tube and keep my pressure low I could finish the day.

11. Are you planning to go back next year?

Tom Ritchey: Probably not. This was the 10th Anniversary and the Grand Masters was a new category. When I got there, Frishi reminded me “You said you’d never do this again.” I told Martha that if it got too dangerous I’d drop out. But when things get really dangerous (and they did) your survival instincts take over. Sometimes it’s dangerous to keep going but turning back or finding a way out is not practical. Sometimes getting to the finish is really the safest option, once you’re out there.