Toughness and teamwork at Cape Epic with Team NO SHOX

A few months before the 2019 ABSA Cape Epic, we ran a contest giving away two prized and much sought-after entry slots to the race. Here is the story of the competition winners, Tomás Montes and Sergi Florenza, two experienced mountain bikers from Spain, who were keen to test their skills against the race.

"You just don’t recover after that distance."

There are only eight days to go, but the white flag was already raised after the first stage for the members of Team NO SHOX, our guests at what has been touted by many as the toughest mountain bike stage race. Taking place in the early season, Cape Epic has grown to become the reference point for mountain bike marathon stage races, and as a long-running proud partner to the event, we’ve been happy to help its progress.

8 days, 630 kilometres and 16,650 metres of elevation are the cold numbers that give you a slight insight into why this is truly epic.

“We entered the ASSOS Make It Epic competition for fun and never expected to win,” laughs Montes, the Barcelona-based photographer and journalist riding for team NO SHOX. “ Sergi and I ride together all the time. We’ve got a running joke that Sergi is always telling me to slow down, so we made a deal that Cape Epic would be the one time that this wouldn’t happen.”

It did happen though. Many times, Montes tells us afterward.

A bout of tendonitis in Florenza’s knee kept him off the bike for almost the entire month prior to leaving, meaning he arrived in South Africa without the same level of training as his teammate and longtime friend, for whom keeping his foot on the gas felt like the best way to appreciate the prize of a Cape Epic entry. “We rode really well together and Sergi rode awesomely considering his preparation. I did everything I could to help, but it didn’t extend to pushing him up the steep climbs — my gear ratio just wasn’t suited to that!”

The pair, who only got confirmation that they had an entry to Cape Epic in early January, had a little over two months to not only prepare themselves physically but also source a mountain bike for Montes. As a rider, he has truly stripped back his bike collection, and now deploys his titanium flared-bar Sonder Camino gravel bike with 27.5 wheels on basically every ride. And as versatile as this gravel setup might be, even Montes knew it wouldn’t suffice for the rigours and notoriously technical terrain of the Cape Epic. He went for a Ritchey 29er while teammate Florenza rode a handmade steel bike from Barcelona’s Enrico (Kiko) Bellé that had beauty to go along with its all-rounder capabilities. “I wouldn’t question our decision to ride hardtails,” refutes Montes, “We got through the whole race without any mechanicals. OK, we definitely ended up suffering a lot on the descents with arm pump and neck ache, but we had an advantage on the climbs. We come from a mountain biking background and have always practised the sport so I figured we’d be OK. And we were okay — in that respect.”

It’s hard just to get through the stages, let alone the sweltering heat and technical sections.

He shrugs: “It is what it is. Everyone will struggle; you just have to go with it.”

Toughness and team spirit are perhaps exactly the right elements needed to complete Cape Epic, which mixes relentless climbs with only the briefest moment of respite before facing a descent that demands full alertness and physical strength to stay upright. Then there’s the teamwork: sheltering your partner from the conditions and spurring them on to perform when they’re feeling at their lowest. “I think the hardest days for us were the ones when Florenza focused too much on the altitude profile. The days when we just rode without looking down at the picture on our top tube felt easier somehow.” Montes muses over this briefly.

“I remember one particular trail so vividly,” he recalls, his eyes lighting up. “It must have been stage five. I was in that state when you’re so tired that you just don’t want to pedal any longer but this trail was so sublime and flowy that those 15 minutes of flow where I could just cruise around the curves were the greatest reward imaginable.”

"After each stage you fall into a routine that consumes all your time: recovery, shower, laundry, repair the bike, wash your bike bottles, stretch, and then eat. By the time you want to take a walk to see something of the Village it is already nighttime, and you just want to sleep. Then it repeats again. If you don’t keep to this routine, you lose focus and mistakes will happen that you will probably pay for — like forgetting to prepare your drinks for the next day.”

Overwhelming fatigue from the riding dragged them into slumber each night, as the pair lay down in one of Cape Epic’s storybook tents in their uniform manner. Line upon line of red tents get decamped from finish zone to finish zone with a logistical prowess that defies belief. Calling it a moving village would be an understatement — it’s a certifiable town with electricity, water supplies, sewage works and more that relocates every two stages to house and cater for the 1,300 riders and vast number of race staff and 62 volunteers. “Honestly, you can truly tell that it is not just the brilliant route that has been devised so carefully — before this experience I’d never have imagined that it could be possible to create something of this quality in terms of logistics, provision, and cleanliness,” adds Montes, a confirmation that the event lives up to its epic billing.

Two weeks after the race, life is just getting back to normal for Montes. He’d planned on documenting the race through more in-race photography, but quickly realised that the ups and downs of dusty singletrack at Cape Epic are best seen through unobscured vision — rather than a viewfinder.

On this April morning, his thoughts are a delight to follow and his descriptions of the scenery vividly depict an event that should be on everyone’s to-do list. It is definitely on ours.

Total ride time of 45.45.18,8

Tomás Montes @arrieredupeloton
Sergi Florenza @rocketinmypocket

Official race imagery: Nick Muzik / Shaun Roy / Greg Beadle
NO SHOX imagery from the riders.