If you’re reading this it means you have a bit of spare time and if you have a bit of spare time you’re probably not at the Cape Epic.
The world’s most exciting, prestigious, and demanding mountain bike race is on now. Eight days, 718km, climbing 14,850m. Television crews, helicopters, pasta parties. You’re missing out and so am I.
The thing to do in situations like these is find a substitute, something cheaper, closer, more achievable. You could spend the entire European summer in stage races, beginning in Spain and working your way through Greece, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Czech, and perhaps back to Portugal. If you lived in South Africa you could pretty much go all year – their local Tread Magazine recently published a list of 41 stage races the country offers, “and that’s not even all of them”. The problem here in Australia we don’t have a lot of marathon stage races, (although we’re getting more, with the Port to Port coming to NSW in May, and the Two Oceans race planned for next year) – moreover, there just aren’t any pairs-only marathon stage races. At least not until Two Oceans gets up and running.
Of the dozens of media releases that the Cape Epic’s publicity machine is churning out every day, I’ve been most struck by the story about two South African women who will be teaming up: 41-year-old Hanlie Booyens, veteran of six Epics, and XCO rider Mariske Strauss, who’s just 23 and new to the race.
I liked the story because it captures what’s great about pairs racing. A pairs race is the perfect initiation into a wide and frightening world of marathon stage racing, where you have to push beyond exhaustion and pain. With two riders on track at the same time, required, usually to finish each stage and pass each checkpoint within a few minutes of one another, teammates work together through crashes, mechanicals, climbs, singletrack, and descents to get to the finish line. The story of the pairing of young Strauss with experienced Booyens is a classic narrative of the changing of the guard, the passing of wisdom, exuberance combining with experience, endurance with energy. Each helping the other overcome the adversity and agony of the world’s fiercest stage race.
After ten years’ XCO and marathon riding, I did my first stage race last year at Transalp in a mixed pair with Mike Blewitt, who’s done so many of the things that he loses count at around 20. If I was exuberant, he was experienced, and together we had more success than either of us had ever managed before, coming 3rd in the mixed category. I’d never raced in a pair, and I found out a lot about my capacity to suffer in the process. With Mike there I pushed harder than I had in my life, I took more risks, and I found that physical limits really are limited mostly by the mind. With two pairs of eyes on the track and two pairs of hands for mechanicals, I felt a lot safer than I would on my own, with two highly organised minds on the job, we ate and hydrated well, and (almost) everything worked on the course.
But if pairs racing is so good, why isn’t it more popular in Australia?
Martin and Juliane Wisata, themselves Euros and the team behind Rocky Trail Entertainment, who run MTB events in NSW and ACT, are behind the recent AMB 100 marathon, which offered a pairs category, and are big fans of the format.
‘We’ve been following the rise in popularity overseas,’ says Martin.
‘The Cape Epic event in South Africa and Transalp in Germany have become major events that offer pairs categories exclusively. Also, from our work with the Crocodile Trophy in Queensland and the Alpentour Trophy in Austria, which both offer “Adventure Pairs” category, we have seen first-hand how much fun the couples, mates, and friends have together out on track,’ says Martin.
The lack of pairs racing certainly has a lot to do with the lack of marathon stage races. The travel distances within Australia, the logistics – trucks, support crews, catering, event villages – and the sheer toughness of these events mean that organisers hesitate to jump in.
‘To create a stand-alone event for just pairs is very risky,’ says Martin.
‘Our solution was to offer it as part of the AMB 100, which had already been established. We were able to pioneer this format and will keep growing it. I think it will start to create a spiral effect – the more teams participate the more popularity the pairs categories at our events will gain… So we’re prepared to keep fanning the flame. It’ll take off,’ he says.
‘From a race organiser’s perspective, it can mean lots more entries, better media coverage, and happier competitors – especially at the Crocodile Trophy, the category has grown nicely,’ he says.
‘Many riders actually find it comforting to know that they won’t run the risk of ending up riding by themselves for hours, but having someone to lean onto (often quite literally),’ says Martin.
And for Martin it’s the same – he’s considering jumping into pairs racing with partner Juliane: ‘In a way after four completed Crocodile Trophies, I’m contemplating if I could be the buddy that could push someone and help someone to finish the race who doesn’t think he or she could ever do it.’
And me? I learnt how to wash my bike from a dripping tap, and how to get to the front of a toilet queue of 100 teutonic giants 20 seconds before the start gun. I learnt how to wash kit in a bidet and get it dry in three hours, and how to say left and right in three new languages. How to bomb a gravel descent, climb a 20 kilometre mountain. In eight days racing with a partner I learnt more about mountain bike racing than I had in ten years, and my experiences were heightened because they were shared. Better than achieving for myself, I was being able to give that to someone else, too. And Mike and I, after ten years of antagonising one another, learnt to get along.
As veteran Cape Epic racer Booyens says: ‘If you can be a positive, happy team you’re 80% there. Obviously you need the mileage, you need luck with mechanicals and staying healthy and injury free, but in the end you will hate it if you lose joy, whether you race or just ride.’
And Martin’s tip for a great pairs race?
‘If you rock up in matching kit, that always is a huge confidence booster.’