Coming up to its 17th edition, the Absa Cape Epic is the pinnacle of mountain bike stage racing. It attracts the highest profile professional athletes and the most competitive of amateurs, who over eight days test their limits across the stunning Western Cape province of South Africa. Earlier this year CyclingTips Founder Wade Wallace and ex-pro teammate Allan ‘Alby’ Iacuone fell short at the 2019 Cape Epic, but in early 2020 they’ll be having another crack. The pair will be documenting their journey along the way. Please join them as they begin their adventure.
Words: Wade Wallace | Video: Phil Golston and Malcolm Bloedel | Photography supplied by Cape Epic
This year’s Absa Cape Epic was possibly the most beautiful and gruelling experience of my life. We didn’t finish the race unfortunately — my teammate Alby came down with pneumonia the day before the final stage. If it wasn’t him, it would have been me a day or two later.
The race was so incredibly difficult that we found ourselves on our limit from the outset of every stage. It was a case of chasing and being chased like we were in the middle of the food chain in the heart of Africa, made harder by the discomfort of harsh terrain, thick dust, hot sun, and what seemed like non-stop climbing with no reprieve on the descents.
It wasn’t a month after we returned home when we began talking about doing it again. “Maybe we could have been more prepared … maybe we should have moderated our efforts better … what if we had this experience to draw from?”
I don’t know if endurance amnesia is an official medical diagnosis but I can tell you it exists. It’s the mind’s evolutionary and biological tool to help you forget all those unbearable times during endurance endeavours — a coping mechanism to help get you though it. “Never again” is what my brain told my body for five hours a day during our Cape Epic experience, and what I made myself believe as a way of surviving every day. But within weeks of the race, all that had been forgotten. For some reason, we’ve decided to do it all again.
TESTINGWhat doesn't kill you, makes you stronger
Getting a baseline gauge of where you’re at is the first step in the training process. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses helps you determine what you need to focus on to be able to satisfy the demands of the event.
The first step in this was calling on my friend Dr. Andre La Gerche, who is the head of the National Centre for Sports Cardiology at the Baker Institute.
Andre and his team are doing some fascinating studies on heart conditions in athletes and he welcomed us to enlist in a study he’s doing on former athletes to study our hearts through a number of different tests, including VO2max, body composition, blood work, and so on. These would be useful for establishing a baseline in our training as well as tracking our progression.
As you’ll see from the video above, both Alby and I are not impressive athletic specimens compared to the cyclists who usually fill these pages. Keep in mind though that we’re both 46, and that VO2max drops off by about 1ml/kg/min per year after 30 years of age. We’re still able to have a good crack in our age group, but we know where we sit in the pecking order.
Here’s what we found from our testing:
Body fat: 20%
Absolute VO2max: 5.043 litres/min
Relative VO2max: 57.7 ml/kg/min
Lactate threshold: 389 watts (4.47 W/kg)
Peak load: 509 watts
Body fat: 19.9%
Absolute VO2max: 3.989 litres/min
Relative VO2max: 61.6 ml/kg/min
Lactate threshold: 324 watts (5 W/kg)
Peak load: 448 watts
What can we improve? Well, most of the efforts required at a race like Cape Epic are long-duration threshold efforts, and both Alby and I are headed into The Pioneer MTB race in New Zealand with pretty good form. It’ll be nice for us to be able to squeeze an extra 50 watts out, but what will really make a difference is to be able to hit our peak form at the right time, while getting down to 10% body fat. That’ll mean losing about 5-6kg for Alby, and 8-9kg for me, which will make an enormous difference if we stay healthy.
COACHING & TRAININGThe job of a coach is not to motivate you, but to hold you back
I’ve worked with Mark Fenner of FTP Training for three years now and there’s a special bond you begin to build with your coach. A good coach is just as much a psychologist as he or she is a trainer.
The value of a coach isn’t to motivate you or tell you what to do. Their job is to be objective, to understand your life situation, and, more than anything, to hold you back from yourself.
It’s easy to overdo it as a cyclist. When you’re motivated, training slightly scared, and addicted to the feeling of fatigue, you’re setting yourself up to overtrain. Sometimes health and fitness can become two different things, and this is the most difficult balance to keep.
The deal I always make for myself with these events is that I will not sacrifice my family or my job. I wrote about the two-and-a-quarter rule way back in 2010, and figure that I can fit my quarter of a point into less than 10 hours a week of training. After incorporating my work commute for recovery rides, it adds up to a sufficient training load for our goals.
Here’s what a typical training week looks like for me:
- Monday: Commute to and from work at recovery pace (45 minutes each way). I often do this on my ebike. Total: 1.5 hours.
- Tuesday: Zwift session before work (1 hour, moderate intensity with usually 2-3 longer threshold intervals). Commute to and from work at recovery pace (45 minutes each way). Total: 2.5 hours.
- Wednesday: Commute to and from work at recovery pace (45 minutes each way). Total: 1.5 hours.
- Thursday: Zwift session before work (1 hour, less intense than Tuesday). Commute to and from work at recovery pace (45 minutes each way). Total: 2.5 hours.
- Friday: Commute to and from work at recovery pace (45 minutes each way). Total: 1.5 hours.
- Saturday: 90 minutes on Zwift (the ‘McCarthy Special’ workout is my nemesis) or a bunch ride of moderate intensity.
- Sunday: A four-hour ride in the hills, with about 2,500m of climbing and a couple 20-minute threshold efforts.
Alby and I rarely get out on the mountain bike together in between events. As you can see, most of my training is done on Zwift (with the front wheel raised to 6-8%) or on the road bike. This is simply for time efficiency.
ONWARDS & UPWARDSThe journey is just as important as the outcome
Over the years I’ve realised that wins are hard to come by, and when you do win that amazing feeling quickly subsides. I’ve come to appreciate the process of putting together that magic puzzle of training, building, testing, training more, and having the discipline to rest. With nearly everything only a tap away on your phone these days, getting fit is one of the few things left for which there are no shortcuts, and no way to buy it. Discipline, consistency and hard work do pay off here, while teaching a valuable lesson about other important things in life.
Next week we embark on our first major event to prepare us for the 2020 Absa Cape Epic – The Pioneer. Six gruelling stages across the South Island of New Zealand will be a qualifier for the Cape Epic in March, and a test to see what we need to work on.