Announcing the obvious is insulting to one’s audience, so I am not here to tell you about the days which follow. I’m not going to risk a fantasy league prediction (which will inevitably be wrong), or raise concerns about the route, or nominate the queen’s stage or most out of category climb. If you ride mountain bikes, you’ve been served all the relevant content.

I won’t be at Meerendal on Sunday. Nor will I be at any of the following days. I won’t watch the Epic’s daily broadcast highlights or obsessively follow the social media feeds. And neither will I be that possessed person late for every appointment this week, because I’m in the corridor or lobby, maddeningly attempting to refresh my device to show the latest rider tracking map.

There is absolutely no interest for me to participate in the Cape Epic. Cost. Training hours. Trail grading. These are all prohibitive factors, but - I am not indifferent it to.

Photo credit: Sam Clark. Cape Epic. SPORTZPICS.

Aspiration is not a bad thing

South Africa hosts stage races that are the envy of all. I’ve had Australian friends compete in the Epic, and they spoke for an entire week only in hyperbole when describing the event, especially its slick logistics.

For all its scale, standing and international appeal we occasionally like to hate on the Epic a bit. I understand the resistance to its corporatism and the cost escalation, elements regarded in contrast to the ethos of mountain biking being an affordable, off-road, adventure activity.

Targeting the Epic with ridicule is ridiculous. Like the retellings of high school or university memories, which grow greater in exaggeration and further from fact with time, criticism of the Epic has risen in parallel to the event’s popularity. It strikes me as sourcing from a sense that this eight-day stage race is not what mountain biking is supposed to be. But that’s an absurdly philosophical question: what is mountain biking supposed to be?

Downhill. Endurance stage racing. Trail riding. Enduro. Freeriding. Self-supported off-road touring. Gravel grinding on CX bikes. XCO. Off-road cycling can surely be all these things, without being held captive by a single definition.

Mountain biking is the participation sport and recreational activity of choice in South Africa 2017. It’s growth in the last decade has been immense, driven in no small part by the very active local racing calendar. Anchoring all of this, is our most prestigious race: the Epic.

Photo credit: Sportzpics. Gary Perkin. Cape Epic.

Perception and prejudice

For years, I was anti-Epic. How I dreaded that 6am Monday morning redeye between Cape Town and Joburg, with the inevitable Cape Epic branded fellow flyers: wearing their t-shirts, week after week. How I judged people who still rode with their Epic race numbers on their bikes, in October. How one nearly recoiled with the embarrassment at social events, when an intermediary would attempt to introduce you to someone who had done the Epic, because, you know: “they are a really serious mounter biker, you’d get along”.

During this period of indifference to the race, I would often mischievously mention the Cape Pioneer Trek in conversation, when the Epic was raised amongst new acquaintances. Or ask Epic riders why their Tallboys didn’t have dropper seatposts, as it was a mandatory requirement for all Santa Cruz bikes.

And then a friend did it. Someone who had left South Africa many years ago. On the lawn at Oak Valley, we sat chatting, and he confessed the inevitable: “this place, you know, it’s still the most beautiful place in the world. The variety. I see it differently now, to when I left”.

Photo credit: Sportzpics. Gary Perkin. Cape Epic.

My mate’s participation was an epiphany. He was nearly disqualified at the Meerendal prologue for riding in a lycra wife-beater (I hate the term, but vest is too generous a description for what he was riding in). His partner tested the organisers resolve even more by following in a The Phantom outfit (die ‘Skim’ if you read Rapport comics in the 1980s). Virulently anti-establishment, they found the event to be rewarding.

The benefit of influence

The Cape Epic has prestige. It might not be your kind of riding (it certainly is not mine), but it provides a great adventure for participants, especially the foreigners. And the appeal of it has attracted an affluent and ambitious rider, the likes of which South African biking had not known before. You might not like the people who participate, and find the ease at which they afford entry fees and the compounding costs of training for the event upsetting, but you never have to ride with them.

What the Cape Epic rider gifts all of us, is an ambition of agenda. Numbers will always turn the tide, yes, but your sport can always benefit from influential participants. South Africa has a formalised trail network the quality and breath in 2017 that was unimaginable in 2007. This despite many fires in the corresponding period, which destroyed riding resources.

The driven, career-obsessed, type-A personalities who are drawn to the Epic, are the calibre of people to further our trail access and security agenda. Especially when private - or public - authorities are indifferent to what we perceive as reasonable demands.

You don’t need to socialise with them, or ask them why they ride a negative stem, but the benefit of having them on our side is valuable. ‘But what of the cost? These events are making everything more expensive, I remember when tyres were R120’. Yes, when tyres flatted all the time too, and suspension only worked if ambient temperatures were warm enough.

Photo credit: Sportzpics. Gary Perkin. Cape Epic.

The desire for superior stage racing bikes, to place as best possible at the Epic, has ushered in the current market of motorcycle comparable mountain bike pricing. And the Epic as an event is not cheap, but it is certainly affordable to a sufficient number, with demand handsomely exceeding available entries, hence you can hardly question the pricing logic of those organising.

Would the Pyga Stage exist if there was no Epic? Would we have local carbon-fibre wheel suppliers such as South Industries and cSixx? These are products to be proud of as a South African mountain biker, and most of their business case sources in the demands of riders who desperately want to compete at the Epic.

And that’s why I’m down with it. The Epic makes people who have the disposal income to do so, buy a lot of new stuff, and the next year, you can buy that stuff, at quite a discount. South African mountain bike ownership is driven by stage racing, and the larger that bike park becomes, the greater its pre-owned tradability too, which is a great way of recycling value to those with less spending power, thanks to the gift of depreciation.

The Cape Epic is not so much good for, as much as it is crucial, to South African mountain biking. There needs to be an event this calibre: the marketing, exclusivity – all those things I’m not drawn to, but appreciate.

And it’s the one true endurance test Downhill riders take. 2011 World Champion, Tracey Mosely has done one and our very own legend beyond compare, Greg Minnaar, two. Not real mountain biking? You tell them that.