Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Nine Month Journey To The Cape Epic

The 2012 Absa Cape Epic, the most gruelling mountain bike stage race in the world was held over eight days through 781 km of the Western Cape and 16,300 m of climbing over some of the magnificent passes in South Africa.

This year saw 1,200 riders from 46 countries including many current and past mountain bike Olympic and UCI world champions.

The racers competed in teams of two and my partner was Mike Maxwell and we called ourselves Team Singapore Racing Masters, together with Morten and Lars who formed the other Team Singapore Racing Vikings. This UCI race was open to professionals, and for amateurs through a lottery which was how the four of us got in.

In perspective, the race was akin to completing a marathon a day for 8 consecutive days and riding up and down Mount Everest twice, with extreme weather and tough terrain conditions thrown in to separate the men from the boys.

Race map
Thus, preparation and training was crucial to competing and completing what would be the toughest physical challenge of my life. And so started my nine month and eight day journey that culminated in the race on 25 March 2012.


I consulted the Singapore Sports Medicine Centre and received a Synvisc-One visco-supplement injection to my left knee which had an old torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus and consequently some osteoarthritis now. The treatment was meant to supplement the knee fluid to relieve pain and improve the knee joint’s shock absorbing abilities.

For my flat feet and bunions, I commissioned 2 pairs of customized carbon fibre orthotics to alleviate numbness and hot spots and it worked as advertised.

VO2max test
Mike and I got tested at Racers' Toolbox to determine our fuel efficiency, lactate threshold, body composition and VO2max. The results showed that I had decent VO2max at 69 ml/min/kg.

I was advised to spend the majority of my training intensity in the Fuel Efficiency Zone of 109 - 124 bpm in order to clear lactate more efficiently and recover faster for an endurance race like the Cape Epic.

And of course, I had my weekly massages by Ah Quan at Ancient Therapy. Unfortunately, they were nothing like the relaxing spa oil massages but deep tissue and sometimes painful rubs!


Typical Daisyway program
I generally followed the Daisyway Coaching System in the 6 months leading up to the race. On average, I logged 15 - 20 hours of physical activities per week. I modified my training and included other exercises to injury-proof and train my entire body, and avoid boredom. So in addition to cycling, I visited the gym and practiced Bikram Yoga.

On the boat to Ubin Island MTB trail
In typical week I would wake up at 5 am and rain or shine, do a 90 - 120 minute LSD or interval training road ride along the East Coast.

Weekends would be for longer off-road and road rides with the team ranging from 5 to 7 hours per session. We also participated in as many races as we could like the 12 Hour Endurance Challenge in Malaysia and the 12 Hour Night MTB Enduro in Singapore.

In October 2011, Lars and I were struck with dengue fever which we contracted from one of our trainings in Johor, Malaysia. Both our platelet count were low in the early 80s, but luckily did not go down any further. I had to miss the team training camp in Chiang Mai, Thailand and it took me a good eight weeks to claw back to full strength.

I hit the gym 2 – 3 times a week. My gym routine was mainly with free weights for overall body strength and protection, with squats and deadlifts to strengthen the legs especially the hamstring to stabilize my weaker left knee. Maswadi, my trainer at Fitness First coached me on functional exercises with a focus on core strength. We used the TRX, elastic bands and all types of balls like Bosu, medicine and Swiss - they really get your heart rate pumping!

Half tortoise pose
I practiced Bikram Yoga twice a week in the mornings before work. The 26 strict postures and 40° C temperature was always tough, but I found it to be a perfect complement to cycling as it works the core, balance and flexibility.

Training can be a lonely affair, but the solitude toughens the mind and spirit. Sometimes the bulb lights up and I think of interesting business and personal ideas especially whilst riding alone early morning on the weekdays. How cool was that?


Team dinner
I ate well and my diet consisted of low GI carbohydrates including oats, brown rice and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Protein included lean meat, fish and sashimi. I consumed little fat although I was aware that I should ideally have 25% of my calories in good fats. So I supplemented it with nuts, olive oil and oily fish like salmon and mackerel.

I also took multivitamins, omega-3, glucosamine and probiotics supplements daily. My weight went down to 64 kg and fat percentage became too low for the Tanita BC-1000 scanner to register. My indulgence was the daily 2 - 3 glasses of wine and beer, sometimes more depending on the occasion which often were the case!


S-Works 29er hard tail
I bought two bikes from Specialized dealer Tay Junction who partly sponsored us with a special price. My choice was the S-Works Stumpjumper Carbon 29er hard tail with SRAM XX components and RockShox SID Brain fork (8.6 kg without pedals) and another similar aluminium version as my training bike.

We swapped the 2 x 10 inner chain-ring from 24 to 22 so that it would be a little easier on the climbs. Tyre choice was critical, so we changed to the Maxxis CrossMarks USTs at a hefty 830 gm each, but highly recommended to minimize punctures and tears.

Mech training with Attitude Bike 
Our local bike service shop Attitude Bikes sponsored the servicing and maintenance of our race bikes and performed a fantastic job. I think this also explained why the bike performed flawlessly during the race with only a brake pad change.

I carried all the heavy stuff on the bike which included two water bottles and on the seat post mounted a tool bottle with inner tube, tyre plugs, patches, tools, chain link, derailleur hanger and pump. The gels, bars, pills and phone went into my jersey pockets.


For the race, I used Hammer products like Endurolytes, Anti-Fatigue Caps, Gels, Perpetuem Solids, Hammer Bars and Recoverite. The strategy was to religiously consume the Endurolytes and Anti-Fatigue Caps hourly, interspersed with calorie intake (either gels, bars or solid food at the water points) 30 minutes later also on an hourly basis.

My two water bottles were sufficient between water points with most instances having a little water left when topping up. I generously applied Hammer's anti-chafing cream on my bum and had just a touch of tender skin but nothing like the legendary saddle sores that some of the other racers developed.


PRE-RACE IN CAPE TOWN - Wednesday 21 March

Mike and I arrived at the Commodore Hotel at the V&A Waterfront and promptly settled down and assembled our bikes. There was a carnival atmosphere in Cape Town as the city prepared for one of the highlights of the year. There were fellow mountain bikers from Singapore as well - Frazer, Erdem and Cas were together with us, and a mixed team of Ken and Laura. 

God's country
We spent the next few days enjoying the city and getting some odds and ends for the race. The food was great, the people friendly and I felt safe unlike the perception that I initially had.

We did a warm up ride at the beautiful coast along Victoria Road to Camps Bay, and I also rode at the Tokai forest and ended with a welcoming troop of aggressive baboons in the car park.

V&A Waterfront
The race organisers did an impressive job on the event festivities and dinners. We collected our race bags and goodies and my race number of 414-1 was not very auspicious in Chinese - it sounded like "die will die". Oh well, I guess I will one day, just not at the Cape Epic please!

We opted for the Avis Premium Upgrade which meant that we stayed in hotels with a dedicated masseur and host instead of tents and portable toilets. And what a great decision it was given the wet, windy and freezing nights during the race.

2012 Absa Cape Epic Route Launch


PROLOGUE - Sunday 25 March
Meerendal Wine Estate
27 km distance 900 m climb

Ching Soo, Mike, Morten & Lars lining up for the start
The bus ferried us from Cape Town to Meerendal Wine Estate for the Prologue and it was an exciting moment at the start chute as Mike and I lined up behind Morten and Lars for our start at 10:05 am.

We settled into a rhythm to pace ourselves, although there was a gap in our speeds whereby Mike preferred a more conservative pace to preserve his knees and stamina.

Start chute
The Durbanville trail was fast and dusty with some nice technical single tracks created by the Tygerberg Mountain Bike Club ending with a lung busting climb to the finish.

We finished in 2:02 hours with stage positions 119 in Masters category and 385 in general classification.

I had been suffering from diarrhoea since morning and 15 riders that had stayed at the Commodore Hotel also suffered the same fate. I probably popped in more carbon pills than the carbon in my handlebars and was careful to rehydrate and top-up with electrolytes after the frequent visits to the loo.

Needless to say, I wasn’t feeling so good and had fever during the night as my body battled the germs. I tried to get some sleep at our new accommodation at the Little France Guesthouse in Robertson, but had to make a few disruptive visits to the toilet during the night.

Stairway to Heaven trail


STAGE 1 - Monday 26 March
115 km distance 2350 m climb

Dust everywhere
We woke up at 5 am, which would be the daily drill as we hurried to gobble down breakfast and prepared our ourselves and bikes for the 7 am race starts.

It was a very hot and dusty day and the temperature peaked at 43 °C. Three major climbs awaited us with the first 3 km littered with loose rocks and sand and tilting to 25%, forcing portage in many sections.

My diarrhoea was active and I had to make a pit stop at Water Point 2 to a desperately needed toilet relief.

Mike was slowing down significantly and we were getting increasingly frustrated at each other.

Big climb to Hangman's Tree

It was clear that there was a bigger gap than anticipated between Mike and I, and we were not sure how to address this miss-match as the situation became more tense.

We finished in 8:21 hours with our stage positions dropping to 146 in Masters category and 457 in general classification.

Thoughts from Stage 1


STAGE 2 - Tuesday 27 March
119 km distance 1650 m climb

I picked out many thorns from the tyres and the Stan's sealant oozed out and plugged the holes dutifully. I then had full confidence in the CrossMarks tyres and set them at 18 psi and 20 psi front and back respectively.

15 minutes into the race and a chiming sound brought my attention to a loose headset cover and I quickly stopped to tighten it.

Crossing the Breerivier
I passed through the charming village of McGregor and caught up with Mike at Water Point 1 but he was not looking nor feeling good. So I stayed close and kept an eye on him. Mike seem to be tiring and his head was hanging and I knew something was wrong.

Luckily for both of us, today's stage was all rideable and Mike held on to my arm or shoulder and I towed him on the climbs for the next 80 km until the finish line.

Team work
20 km before the end Mike stopped and slumped on the ground, exhausted and tired. I called the medics and they gave him some Eno salts and after about an hour Mike decided to push on.

We struggled and I towed Mike all the way to the end and we managed to complete within the cut-off time, finishing in 8:49 hours with stage positions 190 in Masters category and 551 in general classification.

We made it to the finish!
Unfortunately, Mike had to be ambulanced to hospital and was admitted to the ICU overnight. His potassium and sodium levels were imbalanced and his kidneys were functioning at 15%.

The endurance race combined with the Cataflam anti-inflammatory medication that Mike was taking resulted in a toxic effect on the kidneys that reduced its ability to regulate electrolytes.

We were all worried for him but word came back from the hospital that he was recovering well and was in good spirits.

Thoughts from Stage 2


STAGE 3 - Wednesday 28 March
Robertson to Caledon
147 km distance 2900 m climb

Race village
Mike dropped out of the race on doctor’s orders, so I had to ride solo. Which meant that I was an “orphaned rider” and could continue with the race but would not have a position ranking. I was also relegated to start behind everyone together with the other orphaned riders. It was a rather empty feeling that I had lost my partner and my enthusiasm somewhat waned.

2,900 metres!
Unfortunately, it didn't help that Stage 3 would be the longest stage in Cape Epic history with 4 huge climbs welcoming us. The climbs were steep and open with a notable long and fast downhill that didn't seem to end. The Garmin Edge 800 registered 61 km/h and my arms felt like exploding.

River crossing at the deep end
I found it tough and lonely riding alone without the benefit of a partner encouraging and pushing each other, and advantages like drafting and logistics management. Also, weaving through the backmarkers sapped energy, was risky and my shouts of "rider on the right!" on the climbs became part of my call sign. But I told myself that I will finish the Cape Epic no matter what happened or comes my way. 

By now the diarrhoea has subsided but my stomach and oesophagus was feeling queasy, like there was something stuck in there. I suspected it could have been the gels and sugar laden Energade and Coke, so I started to consume more solid food at the water points.

Woolworths water point

I looked forward to the water points by Woolworths, my favourites being rice cakes, Marmite sandwiches and salted boiled potatoes. They also had cut apples, oranges and yummy Woollies bars. The chain lube and eyeglasses cleaning services at the water points was nice and I was lucky not to have needed any mechanical support that was available.

As I was reaching the finish and our new race village in Caledon, I unexpectedly became a little emotional as the feeling of being part of the Cape Epic overwhelmed me. I completed stage 3 in 9:16 hours.

Mike was discharged from the hospital and it was good to see him well again as we settled down at our new accommodation at the Caledon Hotel.

Thoughts from Stage 3


STAGE 4 - Thursday 29 March
105 km distance 2600 m climb

Climbing the Kleinrivierberge
It wasn't always the longest days with the most climbs that were the hardest. Today’s stage was shorter and cooler than the previous three stages but it turned out to be the toughest for me.

First the wind, then the threat of fire. Together with a group of 20 riders, we lost time as we rode through an abandoned route because the race was re-routed when the gusting wind changed direction and a fire threatened the course and riders.

Bush fire
I rode through some barren and recently burnt hills and some stretches were really loose and rocky. We were perilously close to some bush fires that were stoked by the strong winds.

The last 20 km after Water Point 3 was up against 30 knot head and side winds as we battled to stay upright on our bikes. The north-westerly gusts were so strong that sand and water droplets from the ponds splashed on my face.

I struggled to keep up with a 30-strong peloton for some protection and stuck with them to the end. The winds were relentless, I was hurting and must admit that it pushed my spirit and mind to the absolute edge. The Caledon Botanical Gardens at the end was a welcome relief. I completed stage 4 in 7:53 hours.

Fortunately there were the things that made our life a little easier at the finish line like how our bikes were taken to be cleaned, getting a nice meal package from Woolworths at the finish tent and our ever obliging race host and physiotherapist Johann and Kerrie.

Thoughts from Stage 4


STAGE 5 - Friday 30 March
Caledon to Oak Valley/Elgin
119 km distance 2350 m climb

The body language captured it all
This had to be the coldest ride of my life. The weather was utterly miserable – it was raining, windy and muddy. The Garmin showed 8 °C and after factoring the rain and wind-chill factor, it must have been sub-zero and I was freezing with only a thin wind-breaker for protection. I was so cold that when I tried to speak, words were reduced to an incoherent mumble because I had spasm in the jaw muscles.

Pine forest
I couldn’t feel my hands and feet and had trouble shifting the gears as my thumbs were numb and not responding to my brain's instructions. Mud clogged my eyes and I was tearing and riding half-blind in some sections.

I was actually hoping for more hills so that I could spin and create heat for my body. There were lots of flowing but slippery single-tracks and beautiful loops in apple country through Lebanon, Thandi and Oak Valley - our new race village.

Mother nature can never to be messed with, she can break the most determined man and was in her full glory in the past few days. I was so glad that I survived and arrived at the finish line cold, wet and miserable. I completed stage 5 in 9:06 hours.

Our new accommodation was the historic Houw Hoek Inn. After every race, I was conscious to properly stretch and use the Trigger Point foam roller as part of my recovery routine. The daily massages also helped to ease the tense muscles, especially the ITB and piriformis.

Thoughts from Stage 5


STAGE 6 - Saturday 31 March
Oak Valley/Elgin
85 km distance 2200 m climb

Friendly locals
By now, Adele's Set Fire To The Rain wouldn’t stop playing in my head as the DJ spun them every morning without fail. I inspected the bike and realized that the rear brake pads were almost worn to metal after yesterday's muddy ride but had difficulty changing it. Luckily, I found a couple of mechanics who scrambled to change both pads and I made the start in the nick of time.

Groenlandberg Mountain
My left knee was coping well, the occasional pain quite bearable and usually after a while just goes away. After what we had experienced in the past few days, stage 6 was almost like a ride in the park. The sun came out and it turned out to be a pleasant ride.

Race village
I began to take time to enjoy the stunning scenery and the pristine Cape Nature Reserve and was rewarded by another round of sweet single tracks around the Oak Valley area. I completed stage 6 in 6:28 hours.

Thoughts from Stage 6


STAGE 7 - Sunday 1 April
Oak Valley/Elgin to Lourensford Wine Estate
64 km distance 1350 m climb

Gantouw Pass
Oh at last, the final day. The compulsory portage at the historic Gantouw Pass was a welcome relief, walking over ox wagon trails cut deep into the sandstone with a magnificent view of the coast.

Careful not to get into any accident or overly stress the bike, I was counting down the kilometres as I descended into the beautiful valley that is the Lourensford Wine Estate. The elation I felt as I rode down the final straight to the cheering crowd was magical, knowing that I had completed arguably the toughest mountain bike stage race in the world.

Coincidentally, Morten and Lars had also just finished and we basked in the wonderful atmosphere, our eight-day adventure now behind us. I completed stage 7 in 4:36 hours.

According to Dr Basil Bonner, the official race doctor for the current and previous eight races, the 2012 Cape Epic was probably the toughest that he has experienced. “We saw more clavicle fractures than the average for previous races. The route was dry, rocky and in many places very technical and riders came off their bikes more often. The first three days were very hot and the stages long and we treated several cases of dehydration. The heavy rain and cold temperatures on Thursday resulted in a number of riders suffering from hypothermia.” he said.

Finished at last!
As for me, I was happy that I completed the race unscathed given the diarrhoea, extreme weather conditions and pounding that my body had gone through the past eight days. Even my left knee was none for the worse.

At the celebration dinner at our new accommodation at Spier Estate, I found myself uncharacteristically gorging on ostrich, antelope, springbok and rich dessert until I could hardly walk. The same thing happened the next day - ice cream, chips, wine and cheese. Perhaps my body was craving for "nutrition" after so many days and months of intensive physical exertion.



I feel very lucky and privileged to have been able to participate and finish the Cape Epic. I had the opportunity to put in the required training, heavy financial investment and of having unstinting support from my lovely family Sophia and May Shann and work colleagues at NetApp.

The Attitude Bike team of Han and Walton did so much to keep my bikes tuned and perfect.

Along the way I learnt a lot about bikes, fitness, nutrition and myself. It also reaffirmed that real candour and open communication was critical to the success or failure of a team whether in sports, business or life. I was a little sad that my partner Mike could not finish the race with me.

Table Mountain
The Western Cape is so picturesque, it is truly God's country. The South African hospitality is amazing not just during the race, but throughout our stay in their beautiful country. The locals turned up in droves to cheer us along the way and it did wonders to lift our spirits and tired bodies.

The organisation of this race was world-class and flawless. Our wonderful race host and physiotherapist Johann and Kerrie went out of their way to take care of us and made this a remarkable experience - baie dankie!

The 2012 Absa Cape Epic was indeed a priceless and unforgettable life experience for me.



I promised myself a Cape Epic tattoo if I were to finish the race.

And so I did finish unscathed, and caught up with Jaws from Johnny Two Thumb in Singapore for the tattoo on my left calf.


Anonymous said...

Ching Soo - You're really one tough nut! Come hailstones to brimstones, you licked them all. Well done and a great inspiration to your fellow wannabe riders, though I think very few will be able to ride where you rode, especially the ABSA Epic. Great Report!

Gerald said...

Hi Ching Soo, I'm an avid cyclist and I was following the race very closely and have to say, I have the deepest respect for you on embarking and completeling this race.

I'm in my early forties and you have given me inspiration to do the same. I'm crossing my fingers on the lottery......

Kenneth Kwan said...

Hey Ching Soo,

I think what you went through will make a lot of Army Commandos feel like whatever they are suffering is just like taking a short cold bathe, compared to your endless grueling torture and fierce determination to finish the race!

Well done and I'm proud of you! In fact, I will share this with my friends to highlight the lesson on determination and focus!

Pat Fitzpatrick said...

Hey CS

Beautiful summation of your journey to prepare for the Cape Epic, The race its self and the emotion of setting a goal, working toward it and achieving the end result to finish what you started.

Well done mate, I am sure it will and has changed you forever.

Ciao PaT Fitzpatrick

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