Cadel Evans turning out for the Cape Epic - with George Hincapie in tow - was something of a surprise to many people, but not to the man himself.
Two years after hanging up his skinny race wheels the man who holds the mantle of being Australia’s greatest road racer returned to the dirt, the place it all started for him. Here’s what he had to say about the experience.
Cycling Central: What led you to doing the Cape Epic?
Cadel Evans: I heard about it when it started out, and read all about it and was curious. South Africa is also a great place to visit – beautiful landscapes, great people, and then we got the opportunity to do it.
The invite actually came from the race organiser, which we’re grateful for. It took a while to get it together; we had hoped to do it last year, but I had a knee operation just before and wouldn’t have been as fit as this time, so it was better this year. Someone must have also asked George at the right time too.
It was also interesting to return to mountain biking and to help promote the sport, and I wanted to see how we ranked as (former) Tour de France riders and I think a lot of people were interested to see this.
How did you find the two-man race format?
George and I have already raced a lot together on the road, and we know each other really well. We both raced on instincts, and we know each other’s instincts. We didn’t really speak (during the stages) because there could be issues hearing and communication. We know each other so well and had a really good partnership because of that.
I have to say that I was pretty lucky to ride with someone like George, I don’t know that there’s anyone else in the world that I’d prefer to ride such an event with.
The whole strategy of the two-man format, I think it’s fantastic with a good team-mate, although with the wrong team-mate it wouldn’t be much fun.
Because of the nature of the race, and for safety reasons, you’re sort of forced to have this format; one has a hunger flat, one is a better descender or whatever, you’re forced to find this balance, which is all part of the strategy of the race, and of course you’re looking at your competitors to see their strengths and weaknesses too. It’s evolved over the years, and I think it’s a great format.
Could the two-man format translate into road racing?
No... not at elite level, because you’d have such a big drafting effect. You could do it, in terms of two-man teams and in mass events, but for professionals, no. It would be a great way to approach some challenge type events. You could do something over the Alps or Dolomites, where you’re doing long distances; that could be interesting.
If you’d have ridden with somebody like Julien Absalon do you think you’d have been a podium contender overall?
People think of me as a professional bike rider but I only ride about three times a week. I do about 25 per cent or less duration of training than before. I’d need to train properly and be injury free – I did train this time, but mainly to minimise the suffering.
With another rider, somebody with more experience than me... Absalon, I think he’d be a fair bit quicker than me on the technical and downhill stuff, so I’d imagine I’d be slowing him there.
But George, it was his first real mountain bike race he was awesome. On the last day, we were picking up elite and pro teams during the stage and in his first MTB race. George was really good, and I don’t think there’s another road rider that could ride as well technically as he did.
So to think of winning... I’m in the masters category for a reason, I’m nowhere near as young or fit as I used to be.
How did the demands of the Cape Epic compare to those of a major week-long road stage race?
The Epic was eight days long and every day was really, really hard. From the start right through to the finish of the stages you were at your limit, not far off your threshold.
In a race like the Tour of the Basque Country, it’s tough, but there are breakaways and slower periods, where you’re effectively getting some recovery. In the Cape Epic every pedal stroke you do is a hard one.
As a training effect, it was really solid, I worked really hard for it. My heart rate was really up, and so I sent the stats to my coach to ask him some questions about it. It was like doing a massive block of a hard training, with no rest – so at the end of eight days you’re exhausted and your heart rate is still up.
I had a few lapses mentally, as you have to concentrate on the singletrack all of the time, and after a few days, I lapsed at times. In a mountain bike race, you have to be switched on and concentrating all of the time, you’re at a high level all of the time, and you have to push yourself all of the time, which is hard psychologically.
A lot of road riders would have trouble with just pushing themselves for all of that time. Even things like drinking are much harder in the Cape Epic, because you have to take your hands off the bars, and you can only carry so much food and drink with you – and there are just a few feed stations, and you want to make them as short as possible; meaning you burn a lot more calories.
If you were thrown into the Ardennes classics right now would you survive?
After riding the Cape Epic I’d probably be able to go the distance. I’d say I’d be good for 150km, but after that, it’d be a bit of an adventure into the unknown.
Do you have plans to do any more such races or events?
Yeah, on a personal level I’d really like to do the Cape Epic again, or an event that’s similar. We’ll see, there are a couple of ideas floating around at the moment. Certainly, I had a great time doing it, after 16 years way from mountain biking and two years out of racing, and we learned a lot of things, especially about the equipment and set up. I’ve never really raced full suspension like that, and this knowledge would all help in preparing and doing another similar event – so yes, I’d love to do more.