Dust to Dust
Once you’ve ridden the world’s toughest mountain bike stage race, whether you’re a raw first-timer or a multiple champion, it’s impossible to walk away.
Christoph Sauser Tried
One of the most decorated mountain bikers in the world tried to walk away from the Cape Epic, that glorious eight-day race of attrition across the foot of Africa. Sauser tried to go out on top but now he’s back, willing to risk his dirt track dreams being turned to dust, just like every other rider on the Epic start line.
They call the Cape Epic the Tour de France of mountain biking, and they’re not far wrong. With a hors categorie classification from the UCI, the richest purse, and the biggest TV coverage in mountain biking, overall victory at the Epic is a huge deal. In fact, the field is so stacked that the only thing a pro might trade his Epic title for is an Olympic or World Championship gold medal.
As Sauser drily observes, “The race makes the stars.”
For the uninitiated, the Cape Epic is a race so far out of your comfort zone that you might as well be inhabiting a parallel dimension. The route changes every year but is guaranteed to deliver 700km of trail and jeep-track nirvana, with 15000m of climbing thrown in to keep it just this side of a sufferfest. And the conditions are harsh, the weather changeable, and the landscape unrelentingly, beautifully African.
Heat, dust, wind, and rain sweep across the race as it traverses the southwestern tip of South Africa, literally a stone’s throw from the legendary Cape of Storms and Table Mountain. The prologue is usually a civilized affair but Stage One, deliberately designed to winnow the field, is carnage. For the next six days, it’s a matter of survival for pro and amateur alike, whether you’re still riding with your teammate or forging on alone.
Yet after the race, once the fog of fatigue has faded, rider after rider reports one over-riding emotion.
“Yes, there is the prestige of saying 'I’ve done the Cape Epic,'” admits Sauser. “You say that and everybody knows that you can ride a bike. But it’s true. You get Epic depression. You’ve been so dedicated; every day was based around the Cape Epic. And after Epic, you think, ‘What now? Why ride my bike now?’"
What’s wrong with these people? Are they on drugs? Not that kind—the Cape Epic slaps a life ban on all drug cheats. Is doing the Epic once not enough?
The answer is no. Once is never enough. If you’ve done the Epic once, you need to do it twice. If you’ve done it twice, then you aim for three and membership of the Amabhubesi (Zulu for "pride of lions"), the badge of honor reserved for triple Epic finishers.
Muses Sauser: “I’m sure it is kind of like a drug: the preparation, the winning…I like that question mark: ‘Can he do it? Can he not do it? Can he do it? Can he not do it?’ It’s the adrenalin. It’s cool.”
So How Did it Come to This?
Lining up at the Cape Epic a month shy of his 41st birthday and gunning for a record-breaking sixth win? Sauser was supposed to be happily retired, employed by Specialized as a performance director, his palmares (including those five Epic victories, an Olympic bronze and four World titles) safely filed away.
“It was at the 2016 Albstadt World Cup,” says Sauser, chuckling at the memory. “Jaro [Jaroslav Kulhavý: Sauser’s partner in winning the Epic in 2013 and 2015] was warming up and he said, ‘Next year we do the Cape Epic together?’ I said, ‘You just focus on the race!’ But it was obviously super-important for him to do the Epic again.”
Sauser’s new job meant more time on the road taking care of work and his Songo.info charity, but he stayed in shape with gonzo hikes in the Swiss Alps and by riding for fun. “I never did serious intervals and hardly ever touched my S-Works Epic,” he says. “I just rode my trail bikes.” That didn’t mean he wasn’t spoilt for choice. Back home in the small Swiss vineyard town of Yvorne, Sauser has a full quiver of Specialized machines to play with, after all.
But when it came to preparing for a three-day race late last year with the U23 World Champ, Sam Gaze, Sauser’s power numbers were too good to ignore. “Jaro had always asked me to do the Epic, so that’s how we came together again,” says Sauser. “I love a challenge and going to the limit.”
On the other hand, the good life is not so easily forgotten. Neither mind nor body can be deluded about that. “Sometimes you can regret coming back,” he concedes. “You have to do the training and that means you have to go and hurt yourself, and sometimes, that is not nice. And I obviously also had my doubts: ‘Will I be able to do it?’” He grimaces. “Because if things go bad, geez, I haven’t raced for almost a year-and-a-half, and if I don’t perform, then what?”
There's No Such Thing as a Free Ride at the Cape Epic, No Matter Who You Are
You can be Epic royalty but bad karma will come knocking, often sooner rather than later. Before Sauser’s hat trick of victories in 2011, 2012, and 2013, the Swiss and his South African teammate, the late, great Burry Stander, were derailed by a triumvirate of dire mechanicals and injuries in 2008, 2009, and 2010.
The Epic’s rugged trails and race pressure day in and day out have always been the ultimate stress test for man and machine. If there is weakness, rest assured, it will be found out. But what is literally a race for survival of the fittest also makes fertile ground for innovation.
Maybe it’s his Swiss reserve, but you wouldn’t pick Sauser as an ideas guy. But in many ways, as a bike geek and a perfectionist, Sauser drives the evolution of Team Specialized at the Cape Epic. Sauser and Kulhavý's new gear for the 2017 Epic includes the totally overhauled, brand-new Renegade tires, fast rolling but now more supple and grippy.
But the addiction to detail doesn’t stop there. With contenders for overall glory increasingly relying on a back-up team to rescue them from what would otherwise be race-ending mechanicals, Sauser has no problem with upping the ante.
“This year is definitely the most competitive year at the Epic,” he declares. “And if so many guys have one backup team, I like to have two. That’s how it is. I always want to be a bit better in everything. If you have an early mechanical, you use your first backup team. Then your second backup team can help you chase back. You have to step up.”
It's as Much a Mind Game as Anything Else
“Without backup,” maintains Sauser, “it’s like riding on eggshells. You hit one of those million rocks the wrong way and that’s it: your six days of work are gone. If you don’t have backup and the other guys do, it affects you mentally—you know that if there’s a mechanical, they’ll be supported and you won’t.”
“It’s actually very funny: when you’re in the leader’s jersey, you’re always so worried that something bad can happen. But if you’re chasing, you’re convinced that nothing can really happen to the leaders. You think: ‘Well, it could happen, but it’s not going to happen.’ When we’re behind, I have to force myself to realize that the leaders must be really worried all the time.”
But this is mountain bike racing, and you shouldn’t overthink it. Kulhavý doesn’t, that’s for sure. With the Czech powerhouse, it’s plug and play. “Jaro arrives in the best possible shape and he wants to win,” says Sauser approvingly. “People say you must have some crazy strategy every day, but we just go out and hit it. We go full gas, all or nothing. It’s so hard to plan Epic: we know the important stuff on the route but we don’t have a massive plan. Anyway, you can be dominating, but in a second, it’s gone. That’s what makes an Epic win so big, because over eight days, it all has to come together.”
Now consider the talent on the 2017 start line—a thousand amateurs who've committed a year of their lives to this race. There's also Alban Lakata and Jose Hermida, both of whom are former World Champions. And then there's Nino Schurter, the reigning Olympic and World Champion. Kristian Hynek and Urs Huber, both former Epic winners. Karl Platt, another five-time Epic champion. Jaroslav Kulhavý, the former Epic, Olympic, and World Champion. The list goes on.
The stakes are so high, the roll of the dice so decisive, the experience so transformative. None of them can resist it. If the only thing tougher than racing the Epic is winning it, then the only thing tougher than winning it is walking away.
“You know, I can only lose,” mutters Sauser. “In 2015, I stepped away as a winner. Now if I don’t win, then, yeah….” He shrugs off that train of thought. “But that’s the risk and the challenge. If you don’t risk, you’re not going to win. That’s just how it is.”