The last two race seasons have dealt a tough blow to industries and individuals around the world. In the small world of endurance mountain bike events, the going has been brutal for some, and merely terrible for others. Some events needed to make difficult decisions in early 2020, with last minute cancellations and postponements. And there’s a good chance that some events won’t be returning to the calendar.
Looking back two years, one thing was clear: the Epic Series was booming. I had recently returned home from the Swiss Epic, understandably upset that Imogen Smith and I had missed out on the win in the Mixed Pairs, after Imogen crashed on the final stage and ended up in an MRI machine instead of on the winner’s podium. Success is rare in bike racing, but when big wins get so close then vanish – it hurts. And the Swiss Epic would have been a Very Big Win.
A big part of that is where the Swiss Epic sits in the Epic Series. It is one of the major events in the series, alongside the Cape Epic, and The Pioneer. These three Legend races can earn you an Epic Legend medal if you complete all three. But there are other events in the Epic Series, with Cape to Cape, 4Islands Croatia, Wines2Whales, Andorra MTB Classic, Port to Port, Reef to Reef and the newly launched Cymru MTB Classic. These 3-4 day races offer up all the event experiences of the big events, but without the need to train for a 5-8 day event like the longer events.
But that’s not to say they aren’t top shelf experiences.
What makes an event part of the Epic Series?
To put it bluntly, ownership. The Ironman group have curated a range of events that fit into the Epic Series – but they certainly haven’t put every mountain bike event they own into the series! Each event has to have the right ingredients.
The trails and riding experience is really important, as each event needs to be unique. I could honestly say that the Swiss Epic has some of the best trails I have ever raced on, and similarly, The Pioneer has taken me into some of the most remote backcountry when racing – for a race in a geographically small developed nation. The trails at the Swiss Epic have demanded every ounce of attention to ride them blind (figuratively, and sometimes literally depending on the conditions). And the singletrack nirvana of some stages of the Cape to Cape have to be ridden to be believed.
The views I have woken up to, or climbed to, in both events are nothing short of overwhelmingly spectacular. While I’ll admit to getting overly emotional in beautiful alpine settings from time to time – the Epic Series events I have done in New Zealand (The Pioneer), Switzerland (Swiss Epic), Australia (Cape to Cape, Port to Port and Reef to Reef) and of course the Cape Epic in South Africa deliver beautiful scenery at nearly every turn.
For an event to be part of the Epic Series, it needs to offer something special. Sure, the location counts. But it runs a little deeper – the event culture needs to match the series as well. The event really needs to stand out.
Life as a rider at an Epic Series race
Trails and scenery are one thing, but it’s the event services off the bike that really lift the overall experience, adding to the memories you take home. You might not remember every corner your carve on a descent, but you will remember bad food, overflowing toilets and poor organisation.
It is easy for any race organiser to deliver a demanding course somewhere where nature provides the epic scenery and challenges. What stands out is when a race organiser is able to cater to the needs of riders, whether in a medical emergency, to keep their bikes running in the race, to keep the riders fed, hydrated and comfortable – and to even keep them connected with friends and family back home!
This is where the Epic Series races tend to truly come out to be a few steps beyond other events. My first experience at the Cape Epic in 2011, at the prologue, may sum it up. With my team mate Will, we struggled to find out rhythm. I battled jetlag, he battled the heat. The team that started behind us had caught us – worst of all, they were our friends! The battle heated up, heart rates skyrocketed, risks were taken, and we all managed to get through unscathed, ready for 7 days of real battling ahead.
But as we entered the start chute, cheered in by hundreds with our names booming over the loudspeakers, the finish line beckoned – along with event crew. My bike was taken, I was told it would be washed for me and placed in the bike park. I’d get a text when it was ready.
I was given a cold, wet towel to wipe down with, and lead to a stretch tent, providing shade on some cool grass, as I dug into the recovery meal pack I had been given. All I’d had to do was unclip. I know countless people who find the experience is the same, as grimaces turn to grins.
While I’d say the Cape Epic really is the benchmark, other events have similar offerings for the rider service. You’re not finished once you’re over the line – you’re a part of the event and the event centre is your home. The overwhelming feeling is ‘Come, sit, stay, relax – you’re a hero.’ And after a tough stage, that feels incredible.
While some of this comes down to the event culture that the event team create, that also seeps into us, the riders.
“Doing an Epic Series race you can feel the passion that is driving the organisation,” explains Stu Spies (above, left). “It throbs and breathes through every aspect of the race. Be it endless energy blasted at you in feed stops where the staff work like a F1 crew to get you back in the fray or to the instantaneously administered cold towel on a 40 deg day by a worried looking helper repeating ‘well done, well done’, you feel the need to push on simply to reward the love thrown in your direction!” It’s infectious, a constant reminder that you’re lucky to be there, it’s a privilege to race your bike and set a personal challenge. So make the most of it!
And this means that when you are doing that, making the most of it, challenging yourself and completing stages, the sense of relief and accomplishment can even be overwhelming – but it also brings out the camaraderie in each of us. Those you were annoyed at on the final push to the finish are now your pals, partners in back slapping and congratulatory pride. The Epic Series manage to set the tone. Sure, they have a range of supremely competitive and difficult events. But every rider knows the challenge to be on the start line in shape, and to make it to the finish line. The shared experience is one to cherish.
How it feels to finish an Epic Series race
I’ll admit, I’m a bit of an outlier here. I finished my first Cape Epic, solo, but had a DNF with injury and illness at the next. I didn’t finish the first Swiss Epic I did, pulling out while in the lead when my wife came ill. I did finish my first Cape to Cape that same year. Not as fast as I started – but happy to have made it. The first time I completed The Pioneer, I made it to the finish of a tremendously difficult 7 day event. Solo. The next two years I finished with my team mates – all in all a better experience. And the last Swiss Epic, again, we crashed out on the last day while in the leader’s jerseys with a healthy lead. I’ve started more than I have finished.
I have a competitive nature, so even writing this I have regrets about races not finished. But I cherish the ones I did finish, especially the ones I completed as a team. There is so much that happens in any bike race, but the Epic Series events are different again. Be it battling the conditions on a hot day in the Western Cape, juggling the demands of an alpine singletrack descent in near white out at the Swiss Epic, or negotiating the fast and relentless singletrack at Margaret River in Cape to Cape – each race has high demands physically and mentally. Throw in pairs racing, and the need to communicate, keep an eye on each other and get through it all in one piece – and I think the relief and sense of accomplishment is more than two-fold when you finish.
One of the most telling experiences was finishing The Pioneer in 2018. My wife and I almost hadn’t made it to the event, as I was quite sick about a fortnight before the event, and we had just moved house (not a great combination, trust me!). Every day was a battle, and only occasionally did we both fire on all cylinders. There were crashes, arguments, injuries – and the fact The Pioneer race routes took absolutely no prisoners – they were tough. Spectacularly tough, in raw, alpine terrain. But when we crossed the line in Queenstown, alongside the lake with the Remarkables towering over us – my wife burst into tears.
We’d had all sorts of battles for this race – but we had done it. Despite both of us having plenty of respectable race finished (ok, she has more than me) the triumph of finishing The Pioneer brought Imogen (ok and me) to tears. We had triumphed over the course, the elements, ourselves, and had a respectable finish in a fast Mixed field.
As they say, no risk, no reward. And while that’s not to say that Epic Series events have more risk – we do tend to make them major goals, as it is the standing they deserve. We have greater sacrifices in our preparation, and the racing itself isn’t easy. And because of this – the rewards are bigger as well. On the bike, in the event, and most importantly, the lived experiences and memories you take home. All sorts of things remind me of Epic Series events I have done. David Guetta’s Titanium almost brings a tear to my eye. My Graubuenden bottle openers, and St Moritz ‘health’ pillows – they are good memories. I can hear the applause as we cross the line, feel the endorphins of being at the finish – safe. And the anticipation of watching the clock. How much time did we put into the team behind? Is it enough? It’s a medley of emotions, but one that is long-lasting.
And I’ll be honest, it is not an easy feeling have a box of leader’s jerseys from the Swiss Epic, but not having finished it as a team. This does not sit well. The feeling of completing an event may not be priceless, but it’s close enough.
Epic Series 2022: The Cymru MTB Classic
As part of the Epic Series expansion, the 4Islands Croatia has been added to the line up this year, and a new event has also been launched, the Cymru MTB Classic. The United Kingdom has not been well served for stage races, and hasn’t had a great run for marathon events either. While they’ve got the terrain and trails (and enough people!) the difficulties on running competitive events on a lot of the trails has hampered the success of events that have been proposed in the past.
But the Epic Series will change that, with a 3-day, 150km stage race on 17-19 June. The routes have not been used in a mountain bike event before, and the racing will be in pairs. One of the greatest challenges to races like this in the UK is not just thinking up a route – but getting all land owners and land managers agreeing to a competitive mountain bike event being run on it. This is in part due to working closely with Visit Wales, who are providing top level support to the event.
So the Cymru MTB Classic will offer three all-new routes, routes that haven’t been able to be ridden before, let alone raced. It’s an experience that will be a first for anyone who signs up – and all within the rugged beauty of the Welsh countryside.
My memories of mountain bike racing in the UK are mixed. I had some great experiences, and plenty that left me wondering how good the racing could be if there was just a bit more support at the event. One memory that stands out is around feed zones at a 100 mile event. We could all pack our little feed bags in freezer/ziplock bags, with our race number on them. And I studiously did so. Then, as we approached a feed at about the 40 mile mark, as a break of about half a dozen, we came across all the racers bags, in a pile on a ground sheet, with the volunteer sat down with a rug on their lap, pointing at them.
Now, as an endurance cyclist, I may have some OCD tendencies, but surely if you’re alone in the woods assisting an event, and you have a lot of time on your hands and a few hundred items with a unique number on them… would you start putting them in order?
It’s a pet hate – but a situation the Cymru MTB Classic will certainly avoid, with professional on course feed zones and tech support, recovery meals after each stage, daily bike wash and secure storage and massage.
Ben Thomas, multiple British XCM Champion, also sees that the Epic Series stands out in the event market place, and is excited for the arrival of the Cymru MTB Classic.
“There’s no other series with the global scale and attention of the Epic Series, this is why big brands spend a lot of money sending their teams to these events,” Ben explains. And he’s right, the start list at races like the Cape Epic, Swiss Epic and 4Islands Croatia read like a who’s who of international cross-country and marathon racing.
In Australia, The Cape to Cape gathers the best riders in Australia, year on year. And it should do the same in the United Kingdom, who have often been starved of this type of event. “To have the Epic Series coming to the UK is huge for the sport on our little island!” Ben added.
Of course, big events and big experiences attract bigger costs as well. The infrastructure, planned closures, event services and the rest all need to be accounted for. And while the entry fee for the Cymru MTB Classic may be higher than some mountain bikers in the UK are accustomed to paying, it’s spot on for the event being offered, and a suitable fit for the Epic Series.
Looking at the costs with an Australian lens on, with some rough calculations, the event costs about $220 more than Cape to Cape does in Australia, although there is one day less racing. Given the differences in land access and trail building in Australia, that seems fine. And also consider that where Cape to Cape is held is a 3.5 hour drive from the world’s most isolated capital city… and an event within the UK for a little more isn’t surprising. You’d make up the difference in travel costs many times over – not to mention the extra day off work at each end to get there and back from the east coast.
From my experience at Epic Series events around the world, the Cymru MTB Classic won’t be comparable to anything in the UK. The Epic Series events are all in, and well-regarded the world over. They don’t take short cuts in making sure the event delivers on all fronts. With so much arranged for you, you line up, race hard on all new routes you can’t do otherwise, and enjoy the spoils after each stage! Finishing, placing or winning an Epic Series event is an official Big Deal. They’re not a walk in the park, and I guarantee it will be memorable, especially as you conquer the event with a team mate.
The Cymru MTB Classic is a big step for mountain biking in the United Kingdom. When I lived there from 2007 to late 2009, I was always amazed that marathon and stage racing didn’t really take off. Now is the time, with a globally significant event taking place right on their island. If you’re on the fence, don’t miss your chance to be part of this event. It would be a memorable experience, and a totally unique opportunity in the UK.
The Epic Series 2022
20-27 March: Absa Cape Epic – pinnacle event
19-23 April: 4Islands Croatia
19-22 May: Port to Port, Australia
17-19 June: Cymru MTB Classic, Wales
29 June-2 July: Andorra MTB Classic-Pyrenees
16-20 August: Swiss Epic, Switzerland
18-21 August: Reef to Reef, Australia
20-23 October: Cape to Cape, Australia
28 October – 6 November: FNB Wines2Whales, South Africa