The idea had been hatched many months before. Chatting on a group ride can sometimes change your life yet not it’s not surprising to us who crave adventure. This photo was taken in September, 2011 as Rob talks to Buki about wanting to do an “Epic” race in 2012…
The chance presented itself and Rob Russell and Charles Buki took it. After a long winter of training both the machine and the mind, the two were set to depart and ready for anything. March 21 R&B met at Dulles at 6:30 in the morning to begin the 20+ hours of travel to Johannesburg. The photo well represents the bleary eyes of a restless sleep.
Unpacking and rebuilding the bike can be a nerve wracking process but each tended to their machine in silence. The thoughts swirling in each rider ran the gamut from excitement to uncertainty, determination to self doubt. It’s all part of the experience and there was no turning back now. The two set out on a quick ride through the hills of Cape Town, the beautiful provincial capital of the Western Cape.
It was a good chance to let swollen legs unwind and nervous minds relax. Cape Town was developed by the Dutch East India Company, and is located on magnificent Table Bay. They rode through town seeing the World Cup soccer stadium, Robbins Island in the distance in the harbor (where President Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years), and got a glimpse of the city’s rightly famous Cape Dutch architectural traditions. The next day they picked up supplies at a bike shop and rode through the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Then it was on to Registration to pick up race materials and number plates followed by a dinner as big as nervous stomachs would allow. It would begin tomorrow.
March 25th the prologue began for R&B at 10am at Meerendahl, a vineyard in the hills outside of Cape Town. The two struggled through the prologue with a broken thumb, upset stomachs from a bug going around (which a day later would force American pro Adam Craig to abandon), 102 degree heat, and through two hours eight minutes at 93% maximum heart rate over 16 very steep, treeless South Africa miles. They finished in a disappointing 2 hours 8 minutes. This result put them near the back of the start line for the first stage the next morning from the town of Robertson.
By placing 460th in the prologue, their starting place at Robertson for Stage One required R&B to put in an extra effort each day to climb up in the standings. The Cape Epic spaces eight groups ten minutes apart at the start of most stages, thus requiring a great amount of work to bridge to the next group during a stage. Stage One for this year was a 115 km loop through the Great Karoo desert that three major climbs through extremely dusty conditions.
At 58 km in, the two were still struggling to find their legs, get a team rhythm, ride through persistent stomach problems, and in general move faster. The heat was taking a toll as well, and by the afternoon temperatures reached 46 C. By 78 km the duo were riding better and finished the day in just under 8 hours. This moved them from 460th to 378. At the finish line Rob thanks a fellow racer for helping pace them after his team mate dropped out.
The effort was not without a toll, however. At dinner Rob and Buki forced food into their hollow bellys. In less than 12 hours they would again line up. This is where the two experienced the ‘race outside the race’ – to conserve energy for 8 days one must focus on recovery as much as the pedaling. Wasted time will cost. As soon as they could the two finished prep for the next day and hit their beds like bricks. Rob knew the feeling, he had completed the grueling “Trans Rockies” race in 2009 with his brother. But this was different – hotter – harder. In stage races your body will either accept the stress and grow with it, or you will begin to shut down and soon you cannot finish, let alone compete. Only the training and effort you put in months before the event will determine which way it goes.
The second stage posed both actual and imagined challenges. With 1,650m of climbing (7,545 ft) over 119 km, it was less daunting than Stage One in some respects, but in every rider’s mind was the looming Stage Three sufferfest. R&B did their best to ride conservatively while still trying to move up the ranks. They hit the 40 km mark at just over two hours and the 90 km mark at just under five hours, passing American teams from Hawaii and Colorado, and in the final 25 km, managed to push hard and move up from 378 to 353. An outstanding day of effort, scenery and accomplishment.
Stage Three was 147 km and 2900 m of climbing and the distance plus the heat plus the toll of the first two stages made everyone wary. But the first 40 km were relatively flat fire roads that allowed racers to take advantage of several pacelines and by the 85 km mark R&B were the third place Americans with four US teams behind. At the 110 km point the two were about 7 hours in, and holding steady and finished the 92 mile stage in 9 hours 23 minutes, good enough to move from 353 up to 339th in the General Classification (GC), the measurement of the entire race as opposed to just the days’ stage. Lungs filled with hot dust the two rolled through the finish line exhausted.
That night there were rumors a storm was moving in and likely to hit during stage five, so that became an important pre-occupation. Stage Four began cooler with very difficult mountain top sand ridges above tree line that lasted forever. At the five hour mark R&B had covered the first 61 km of the 105 km stage, and then a ferocious two hour head wind stood in their way to the finish in Caledon. They finished the stage in 8:19 and move up from 339th to 319th. A little bit every day was the goal, as team mate Kevin Cater puts it, “Every 1% counts”
Stage five will probably go down as the most miserable day of bike racing in anyone’s memory who raced the Cape Epic this year. The temperature dropped to 40°f, in places the mud was six inch think peanut butter and the rain was endless. It was, in a word, epic. At 40 km Rob and Buki were getting hammered, but at the 100 km mark they had recovered a bit and were the second place.
They lost a bit that day in the GC, finishing the stage in 9:13, sliding a bit to 326th. Everyone from the last place finisher to Burry Stander and Christophe Sauser who won, will remember all 119 km stage with more than 8,500 feet of climbing through that unrelenting storm. It is the unpredictable nature of mountain bike racing one must prepare for. You go knowing you will be tested and when the test presents its self you will either press forward or quit. That storm only made R&B stronger. They would finish this thing.Their metal was afterall, “Titanium”
Stage six. Buki rolled up to the line with Rob and glanced up, “Thank God it’s not raining” he thought. “One more day after this” but first they had to survive Stage Six. ‘This’ was a ferocious day of climbing, ascending 7,200 feet in 52 miles. Deep breath… CRACK! The gun goes off and so do R&B. At five hours the two had covered 68 km and were solidly the third place Americans, and they held this position to the end of the stage, finishing the day with a GC position of 267. This was a big accomplishment. The bikes needed some TLC and while R&B managed to get the small mechanicals fixed the unrelenting climbs through the Elgin Valley really started to make each rider think, “This is plain nuts!” Each climb was so long they couldn’t wait to descend. Each descent was so painful on Buki’s broken thumb he couldn’t wait to climb. The disappointing prologue finish of 460 had been improved through the hardest part of the race to 267 in the GC. Also in the “Masters” category they felt pretty lucky for having gotten this far, and while the two whispered about good luck, they never really said anything out loud for fear of jinxing their fortunes.
Stage Seven from Oak Valley to Lourensford was a 64 km stage with required portage over historic wagon trails. Rob and Buki were ready to get on with and finish the race.
At the half way point R&B were in 3rd place for the American teams and working furiously for a good finish. With 10 km to go Rob and Buki slammed on the brakes – the unthinkable – a Dutch team that had crashed in front of them, one rider suffering a broken collar bone. The two did what they could to help but the Dutch would have to abandon. R&B started riding again but something was wrong – Rob’s rear tire was punctured. No good deed goes unpunished. Two dozen teams whizzed past while they fixed the flat (with help from a South African team).
Of course racing is hard. Endurance racing is a sublime combination of suffering and surrender. When they flatted with the end a few miles down the valley, it was painful seeing three dozen teams blow past, since both riders were having their best day of the race. They might have come in 280th or even better but for that flat. However 208 or 308 or even 408, requisite surrender was what Cape Epic is really all about. You take it on the chin and ride on keeping goal #1 in mind – FINISH.
After 53 hours, 550 miles, just over 55,000 feet of climbing and descending R&B rolled across the finish line having left what they had to give out in the wild and rugged South African countryside, 308th place overall.
And it’s exactly that sense of prolonged pushing, giving way at the most sublime moment, when Rob Russell and Charles Buki can realize what’s been accomplished. The winds at Haines Point, the false summits up Shenandoah Mountain, the grade at Coxey Brown, even the last push up Columbine at Leadville once again appear to test them….yeah, they’re all good, and they all hurt. But none quite so much, nor perhaps quite so exquisitely good as pulling each other through in South Africa, and coming home to friends and family without whom it would not have been remotely possible.
Thanks for reading and to those who were part of this amazing adventure a very, very special thank you.
-Rob Russell & Charles Buki