It’s commonly thought that experimentation on animals is unethical. But there’s little sympathy for those guinea pigs who were sent on the 2012 Absa Cape Epic route reconnaissance over the weekend, covering 3 of the 8 days of the race. Known by the crew as ‘the trial ride’ this demanding excursion is a dress rehearsal of race week, where a select few, who are sworn to secrecy, follow the route plotted out by route designer Dr Evil and his team.
Dr Evil’s real name is Leon Evans, father of multiple South African marathon champion and major Absa Cape Epic contender Kevin. He is a mountain biker himself, and as many believe, a sadist too. Months before the 2011 event he was already planning the 2012 route and how to make it as challenging and rewarding as possible for the 1200 brave riders who attempt this race. For professionals and amateurs alike, his responsibility is to make sure every rider truly earns their medal when they reach the finish.
Race director Kati Csak and the race crew start their work on the new route as early, searching for start/finish locations 18-months before and spending the time ironing out the myriad logistical details. The final route is the result of a dynamic collaboration. Evans will often suggest an interesting path through a previously untouched region and the Absa Cape Epic office will find or if necessary create a venue large enough to host the race. Before the trial ride, Evans links his favourite sections together to test it out on those poor unsuspecting few intrepids (although now they are becoming wise to his evil ways).
Back to the secrecy factor, the trial riders are forbidden to speak of their whereabouts over the weekend, even to husbands and wives. Twitter is banned on tour and smartphones’ geolocation services are to be switched off. The purpose of the recce is to establish the feasibility of the planned route. The riders are tested to exhaustion to determine if this combination is too hard, or too easy (this happens rarely).
In the months leading up to the trial ride, Dr Evil scouts the course, identifying various key sections. The landowners’ cooperation is key to finding the best paths through their properties. Without this valuable input, this race would not be possible. Many go the extra mile, offering to take down fences , open gates, re-locate animals for race day, making sure riders enjoy an unsurpassed experience of the region. Route planning involves the painstaking process of patching all the different sections together and the trial ride is the first opportunity to ride it all in one consecutive go, and for several days in a row to ensure tired legs.
The riders evaluate the gradients, the trail surfaces plus the locations of waterpoints, medic points, media vantage areas and spectator areas. With more singletrack featured in the last few years, Csak decides whether or not to institute staggered starts to ensure the smooth flow of the race. On occasion the trial riders come across obstacles that impede their progress. Once there was a raging river crossing their path, forcing a detour of several kilometres and some grumpy faces. Come raceday, riders will enjoy one of the greatest inventions of the modern world, a bridge.
The recce crew consists of Absa Cape Epic full time office staff as well as selected event and media crew who ride the route, all with varying abilities to ensure a wide cross selection representing the spread in the field, which is crucial in establishing appropriate maximum ride times. Polar provides the telemetry sensors which plot riders’ progress, with head of Polar’s distribution company IHF, Peter Figg, following remotely in Johannesburg on his laptop via the local cell coverage. Day Trippers, who organise the Absa Cape Epic’s companion programme provide the much-needed sustenance, while co-owner Steve Thomas spots some suitable sections to showcase the race to the programme’s participants.
As one would expect, Dr Evil’s car and the bikes of the riders are decked out with high tech equipment. Firstly, GoPro bike-mounted cameras capture the action on the trails while eight different GPS and bike computers are used to map and measure the course. Interestingly, there’s almost a 2% variance between the various devices. It may seem like a tiny amount, unless you’re the once who has to ride that extra 3km after 10 hours in the saddle.
While Dr Evil watches the trial riders tackle the rugged (yet beautiful) terrain, the logistics team is sampling the 2012 race menus to decide what riders will be eating. While they enjoy a hearty lunch they’re mapping out the race village and ordering supplies like tents, tables and chairs. The media department are planning TV coverage for 2012 including live broadcasts and a race crew representative will travel to the world mountain biking championships to sign up the professionals.
So far, the 2012 route promises the best of the last few years, plus some fresh new surprises (some pleasant, some a little more challenging).