• The Absa Cape Epic has gone from humble beginnings to the biggest event in the sport. (Steve Thomas)Source: Steve Thomas
As the Absa Cape Epic clicks into gear Steve Thomas travels back in time to the first ever race, and catches up with its creator, and the first ever winners
Steve Thomas

Cycling Central
20 Mar 2017 - 12:52 PM  UPDATED 20 Mar 2017 - 1:19 PM

There are many great stories to tell about covering that very first Cape Epic race some 14 years ago. At the time there were a handful of MTB stage races around the world, but this was to be the first of any scale in South Africa.

They ranged from 90km accidental singletrack jaunts in a loaded van to being chased by ostriches and township nights followed by dawn shoots from microlights. But, this was of course all about the racing. Although with such a tough event in such an extreme environment, for many it was the camaraderie and their own inner-side stories that truly put the Epic into the race.

One standout example was when the breakaway (including all of the main contenders) pushed a young Kenyan rider and allowed him and his soon to be illustrious teammate David Kinjah (of Chris Froome taming) to take a stage victory.

That may not sound much, but for the black African risers and supporters it was huge, especially given that the weaker rider of the duo had only been called up days before the event – and had previously only ever raced on a classical “Black Mamba” bike.

Things have come a long way since then, and the Cape Epic is the biggest and most respected MTB stage race in the world.

Fourteen years on we caught up with race creator Kevin Vermaak and the first winning men’s team of Mannie Heymans and Karl Platt, who is remarkably still the defending race champion, some 14 years later.

Steve Thomas: The first Epic, how much of a gamble was it to put on?
Kevin Vermaak: If something disastrous had happened – a serious accident or a major logistical failure – it would have been the end right there. There was no momentum from similar types of races and it was an event that was different from the norm, so it had to set a precedent that would attract people in the future. To be honest, I didn’t appreciate the scale of the risk at the very beginning but had soon committed myself 100 per cent to making it a success – from that point I was risking everything.

ST: There were so few such races then, did you think it would ever get so big?
KV: Well, yes and no. We set out from day one with a view to growing it from year-to-year, but I can’t honestly say that I envisioned the event as it is now. I set out to create an event that was the best of its type in the world and mainly looked outside mountain biking for inspiration and ideas. I wanted it to be an iconic African event that would attract riders from around the world, and from the early years, we devoted a lot of time and money on marketing the event internationally.

ST: What were the big lessons from that first race?
KV: There were two significant changes that were introduced after the first event. The first was that we offered riders much more than just an entry: we introduced extras such as premium packages, mobile homes, massages and so forth. The second was that we had something to show sponsors and had a product to sell commercially. Just one example was the fact that we had our own tents sporting a sponsor logo in the second year, a practice that continues to this day. In the first year, we rented unbranded tents for the riders.

ST: How much have things progressed in organization and stature?
KV: The first event it was just me, my first employee, a humongous spreadsheet and lots of printed box files. Now we have a comfortable 500 square meter office with 25 full-time staff. There’s also a large warehouse in Somerset West where we store stuff such as tents, railings and banners. Our organizational capacity and efficiency is such that we can now take on other events, such as we have done with the 2018 World Cup event in Stellenbosch. And my personal stress levels are such that I got to ride the race in 2016.

ST: What made you move on, and do you still have much involvement? Is it Ironman that own the race?
KV: I get asked this quite often, but I haven’t actually moved on. If anything I am more involved. IRONMAN own the event and are in turn part of the Wanda Sports group. I have been charged by them with creating an international series of stage races with the Absa Cape Epic as the pinnacle event. The other events will offer qualifying slots to the Cape Epic. We are in the process of building the series and have already announced that New Zealand’s The Pioneer event will be one of the series races. My designation is managing director of the Cape Epic MTB World Series and I am still working from the Cape Epic offices, where I interact and work with the race’s leadership and staff every day of the week.

ST: What has been the most memorable thing about the race?
KV: The very early days stand out when I was sleeping in the office most nights after very long working days and it seemed like an almost impossible challenge to get this thing off the ground. And then riding and finishing the race last year. Even though I had anticipated being in a semi-working mode I became totally and utterly absorbed by the rider experience. It was as if the rest of the world did not exist for those eight days … it is a feeling that I still long for. Those might have been the best eight days of my life.

ST: This year has Cadel Evans and Hincapie, Joaquim Rodriguez (with Jose Hermida) and Sven Nys riding etc - how do you see them doing?
KV: Well, on paper Cadel and Hincapie would be favourites for the Masters – they are young compared to their major competitors and are both very good riders. They have played down their chances of success and the race does tend to favour experienced riders, but they have such pedigree that I would be surprised if they are not right up there. Their major competition will be Bart Brentjens, riding with Abraao Azevedo in a team that has won the category three times in a row. Interestingly, a very young Cadel raced against a slightly older Bart in the World Cup MTB series before turning to road riding. Judging by his social media posts. I think Purito is taking a bit of strain with riding on technical sections. The technical stuff at the Cape Epic is on another level, particularly when it is combined with the stress of racing, but his partner is a legend.

ST: There's been a long-standing zero doping policy, how do you feel about Hincapie riding?
KV: The rule was introduced for any sanction imposed from January 1, 2013. George Hincapie’s confession about doping and the sanction imposed on him all predated that, so he qualifies to race. We chose that date because that was the time when we decided to impose the lifetime ban and did not think it was fair to apply it retrospectively. We have had had other riders taking part who were sanctioned before that date and whose ban has lapsed, but anybody sanctioned afterward has been banned for life. Our application of the rule has been consistent throughout and will continue to be so. We remain committed to rooting out the cheats.

ST: How has the atmosphere changed over the years?
KV: I think it has generally become better for the amateurs and more stressful for the professionals. The amateurs now enjoy a bigger “show” with thousands of spectators, opportunities for family to get involved, better services …an all-around better experience. For the professionals, it has become way more stressful. There is more prize money at stake, the racing has evolved to be competitive from the starting gun and everybody wants stage wins. The attacks start from the start now whereas in the early years the tactic was generally to attack 20km from the end of a stage. The tactics have also evolved and support of backup teams are crucial to success. I must say though that I’ve found professional mountain bikers to be awesome people. There are very few prima donnas in the sport and the riders are open and accessible. I know media people generally find them very easy to deal with compared to other sports.

The first winner of the Epic was Mannie Heymans (Mr African), who is a legend of African bike racing and MTB endurance racing, and now runs a bike shop in Namibia as well as working heavily on the development of Namibian cycling.

Steve Thomas: At the time how unique was that first Epic race?
Mannie Heymans: I had been racing stage races in Europe since 1998, including winning the first Transalp Challenge in 1998, so to have one in SA, and so close to my home (Namibia) was special. I think the first Epic opened a lot of people’s eyes.

ST: How many Epics have you ridden in all?
MH: I have ridden 10 and finished 9. In the 2nd Epic, my partner abandoned on the 2nd day and that was it for me. It was a big disappointment. After this, I managed a string of top ten placings but never had the right partner again to challenge for the win.
Another big highlight was winning the African jersey with Adrien Niyonshuti from Rwanda, and then there was my last expedition on a fat bike. Who knows, maybe I can still challenge for the mixed, masters and later grand masters jersey in future.

ST: How different is the race now compared to the first edition?
MH: The big difference must be that it is no longer a point-to-point race. For the village it’s great - you only have to pack bags 3 times. But on the flip side its always great if you can go from A to B to C etc.

German marathon racing specialist Karl Platt partnered Mannie Heymans to that first win – and has taken a record 5 victories since then (along with Christophe Sauser that is the record). He starts as defending champion again in 2017.

Steve Thomas: What were your impressions after the first race?
Karl Platt: After the first Epic I didn’t want to come back again because it was rough and tough! It was more like an adventure race and I was a XC racer and still young. But Kevin Vermaak promised it would get much better the next year and I believed! Now I am starting my 14th Epic.

ST: So much later and you're still winning, do you feel you've progressed and learned due to the race?
KP: I think so! I grew up with the race! Somehow I fell in love with Epic, with the Country with the people.

ST: What have been the major changes in the event since then?
KP: Every year it becomes more professional - and not only a little bit. Now it is THE benchmark of mountain bike races.