The Absa Cape Epic has long held a reputation for being a brutal test of endurance, both mental and physical. But wherever the rider goes, so must the bike. This eight-day stage race through the raw and rugged hills near Cape Town, South Africa has earned itself the reputation as a bike burial ground, with many repeating the mantra – “what survives the Epic, will likely survive anything”.
I had viewed this statement – as you may well do – with some suspicion. How can this one event be so brutal compared with other races, or more general riding? However, recently attending the Epic for the first time has opened my eyes to the true enormity and difficulty of this multi-day stage race – think Tour De France intensity, shorter, yet far dirtier.
I managed to get out on a stage myself with Day Trippers, a tour company that runs in conjunction with the race for riders not keen on sampling the full 'experience'. I only rode half of the 113km first stage, which saw 2,800m of ascent for those actually racing. Despite my lack of ‘giving it a go’, the combination of thick sand, endless dust and a heavy shower meant that my new SRAM XX1 drivetrain was soon throwing its chain from the narrow-wide chainring. Now consider riders who were pushing far harder than I, covering twice the distance and with another six days ahead of them – it's not hard to imagine their bikes being ready for the morgue in short order.
With this in mind, the pro riders each have their own mechanics working tirelessly every evening and night rebuilding bikes and replacing what needs to be replaced before the next day.
Businesses can pay to be at the Epic – these are just a handful of the shops that were at the event all week. Private mechanics took a whole other section
Keen amateur riders call on privateer mechanics to look after their bikes each day. Shops across Cape Town move to the event with vast mobile setups, servicing paying rider bikes for the week. The demand for this service is another sign of how destructive the Epic really is.
We spoke with a variety of mechanics and brands at the Cape Epic in an effort to discover more about how the event is used for product development – and also just to get opinion on what equipment to bring.
Specialized no doubt has had plenty of feedback over the years with its ‘Epic’ range – a bike that’s used by approximately one-third of the event's 1,200 riders. At this race, Christoph Sauser had a 2016 suspension tune on trial.
Tyres don't last at the Cape Epic – punctures and tears are extremely common. Apparently, more than 98 percent of this year's riders went tubeless
According to the Specialized mechanics for Sauser and Jaroslav Julhavy, the bikes are mostly rebuilt every day, with tyres replaced if flatted during the stage. Dirty or overly hard stages usually call for new brake pads, chains and perhaps a suspension rebuild.
Martin Kirchner of SRAM Europe mentioned that the brand was testing seals in the RS-1 fork last year – directly, using rider and mechanic feedback. “However, our role here is mainly neutral service for any SRAM-equipped bikes, though single ring drivetrains have certainly taken some stress off our guys,” Kirchner said.
A bike designed around the dirt it races on (note the custom VeeRubber treads)
After the event, Victor Momsen of South African mountain bike brand Momsen gave us some insight into the firm's product development.
“The entire concept and design of the Momsen VIPA was done around producing a short travel, efficient stage-race bike for the many popular South African marathon events,” he said. “The Cape Epic represents a unique opportunity to have us race and test products on home soil.”
Momsen continued: “All our frames are tested to EN-standards as per the industry benchmark. However, real-world feedback in terms of frame stiffness, linkage durability and so on is something that is very hard to replicate without the bikes actually used in race conditions.
“We're constantly looking at ways to improve our bikes, and 2016 will see a new feature being added to the VIPA that is a direct result of rider feedback from events like the Cape-Epic,” he concluded.
SwiftCarbon is another local company that puts the Cape Epic to use – something we spoke with marketing manager Neil Gardiner about.
“The Cape Epic was and is the focal point of our Evil Twin (a bike I tested during the trip) project in many ways," Gardiner told BikeRadar. "It's the pinnacle of marathon and stage race mountain biking, and the high point of many riders’ seasons. It's also one of those rare high-level mass participation events. The trails are rugged and demanding and the equipment needs to be ready for it.
Charles Keey of SwiftCarbon had seen better days. Apparently the mechanic had to replace the headset bearings as they were contaminated with blood
“We use the week of intense racing on very rugged trails to test the reliability of the frame. It is said that a week at the Epic will show up issues that could take up to a year to develop under ‘normal conditions’,” Gardiner added.
He continued: “It's a stretch to say that we made the Evil Twin specially for the Epic, but we consider it to be one of the most complete tests of equipment – gruelling racing at the highest level in some pretty extreme trail and weather conditions. For our first full suspension frame, reliability is critical, so we figured that if it's Epic-ready then it's anything-ready.”
Swiss-based brands Assos and Scott have both used the Cape Epic as testing grounds for cross-country products. Assos’ new mountain clothing range is proof of this, while Scott Bikes South Africa have stated that the current Spark cross-country dual suspension machine was heavily influenced by findings from the Cape Epic of two years ago.
Mechanics hope for a dry stage – a wet one commonly means they'll work straight through the night
Speaking with co-owners of the Epic Bike Shop, Neville Cragg and Lance Stephenson, it quickly became apparent that mechanics can have as tough a time as the riders. While the riders are on their bikes for up to 10 hours of the day, the mechanics are working all the other hours.
“The average riders don’t have the same skills as the top guys and so are often harder on equipment," Stephenson explained. "With this, they throw money at their bikes so they can finish the event.”
Sending a rider out on a bike you've built is, added Stephenson, "very personal".
What an average bike looks like after an average dry stage. Rain means bike carnage
According to Cragg, the pre-event preparation is crucial to ensure bikes survive the Epic. Starting with a fresh drivetrain, new suspension seals and healthy bearings are all things that are a must. Even with a fully box-fresh setup though, Cragg went on, “nothing takes the shine off like the Cape Epic”.
We asked Cragg about componentry choices, with his opinion strongest on the use of single-ring drivetrains for simplicity and reliability. Given Shimano still doesn't offer such a wide gear range, the guys at the Epic Bike Shop are strong fans of SRAM.
Eugene Haley from Hullabaloo, the South African importer of Rocky Mountain, pointed out that it was the slower riders who often need the most detailed mechanical service. “These guys are spending so much time out there, shifting all the time. We’re effectively stripping these bikes every night and in poor conditions, we may end up replacing cables, bearings, brake pads, chains – the lot”.
For a closer look at the 2015 Absa Cape Epic event, see our photo gallery above.