The creation of the Untamed African Mountain Bike Race was a major step not just in the life of founder Kevin Vermaak, but in the sport of mountain biking in general. In the sixteen years since that inaugural edition, many things have changed as Vermaak reflected ahead of his second Absa Cape Epic start.
“There are some obvious changes in the tech” Vermaak began. “When you look at the videos from the first Absa Cape Epic, back in 2004, it just looks weird. There are four main things; narrow little bars with bar-ends, hard-tails, tiny wheels and backpacks. The Cape Epic has become so racy that nobody, or nearly nobody, wears a hydration pack now. Looking back, the riders look almost like tortoises hunched over small bikes with backpacks on.”
“When we launched the Absa Cape Epic mountain biking was very different in South Africa” Vermaak remembered. “Part of the idea was that the Cape Epic would be the major African stage race to compliment the big stage races in North America, Central/South America, Europe and Australia. It completed the World Series of stage races. In South Africa though there weren’t really stage races and one day races were not typically longer than 100 kilometres. In our first edition we had seven consecutive days of over 100 kilometres in length, just the eighth day was shorter. It changed South African mountain biking in just three years, helped create the depth of racing we see now and attracted endurance athletes for other sports into mountain biking.”
Building the race as a must do event for professional riders was no easy feat. Many of the world’s foremost mountain bikers never raced marathon or stage race events at the time the Absa Cape Epic came into being. “Pros can’t race every race. So if you can be the race they all want to do, then immediately you have this global position as number one,” Vermaak explained. To achieve that Vermaak had to convince riders to try stage racing: “It wasn’t just about selling the idea of the Epic, it was also about convincing riders of the concept of doing a stage race. Good riders were World Cup winners, so they needed to be convinced to take on a stage race. It was a real challenge, proving it wouldn’t destroy their season and showing that we provided a really good media offering – which was great for riders looking to build their personal brands.”
International stars like Karl Platt, Christoph Sauser and Bart Brentjens entering the race lent it a lot of early credibility. “Karl Platt was a bit different. He came in the first year but needed some convincing to return; especially after I gave him a handshake, some sunglasses, from a competing sponsor which he couldn’t wear, and a piece of African art for winning the race,” Vermaak remembered with a laugh. “He was a big name in marathon and stage racing, so it was great to get that endorsement from year one. But we never really struggled with marathon specialists to be honest; the real tipping point was to get Christoph Sauser to do his first race. He had been coming to South Africa for nearly a decade but had never raced here. To get someone like Sauser, who was an Olympic silver medallist and cross-country World Champion, to race a stage race – in South Africa – and take it seriously, wanting to win, was a big deal.”
“He virtually became our ambassador on the World Cup circuit” Vermaak remembered fondly. “Sauser, Bobby Behan – who was the Specialized team manager at the time – and Bart Brentjens gave me an in on the World Cup circuit. They flew our flag and promoted the race with their peers while they were at the peak of their powers.”
“It was a real coup to get Roel Paulissen and Bart to race the second edition of the Absa Cape Epic in 2005. Roel was the highest ranked mountain biker in the world at the time and Bart had of course won the first ever Olympic gold medal in mountain biking” Vermaak said. “Bart Brentjens was also the first person to coin the phrase the ‘Tour de France of mountain biking’.”
On a more personal note, Vermaak will be riding the race he founded sixteen editions ago for just the second time, this year. “It’s not the tough ones I pick, but rather the short years” Vermaak laughed at the suggestion that the 2019 Absa Cape Epic, like the 2016 race was particularly challenging. “Both times the routes have been the steepest in the history of the race. And this year the fires aren’t helping either. But that’s not in my thinking; it’s more about where the company is and where I am in my life. To be honest, it’s definitely easier to ride than to work at the race. And it’s not just me saying that, people who have ridden and then gone on to work on the event unanimously agree.”
“In my case, I must admit, it has changed though; I don’t really work at the race per-say” Vermaak confessed. “The senior staff have been involved for so long, they are so passionate and dedicated, they are always seeking out better ways to do things and improve the race. So it is actually easier for me to work than it is to ride; because the team is so good that they take care of it” he praised.
His preparation for the race, on the bike, has hardly been ideal however. “Terrible” was Vermaak’s initial reaction to the question of how his training has gone. “I crashed and broke my wrist and now I have prepatellar bursitis” he laughed ruefully. “But Zwift has been a great development. Andrew [Hunt] and I have ridden together only once since we did La Ruta de los Conquistadores together in 2002; when I joined him on a two hour ride in the Houston National Park, on a trip I had to the States. We have ridden together on Zwift and that’s as good as it’s been training together.
Like his fellow Absa Cape Epic entrants, Vermaak is currently juggling work, family and final preparation commitments for the big race. Moving his son’s first set of Technic LEGO – a sleek yellow and blue racing yacht – from his desk Vermaak reached for a still sealed ASSOS package. “It’s really quite cool, I’ve got the new ASSOS Dimension Data kit” he said, proudly revealing a crisp green and white jersey. “I really love what Dimension Data do for the race so I’m excited to ride a day in their colours” he enthused, clearly as eager to get his 2019 Absa Cape Epic journey underway as any first-timer. Sixteen years on it is clear that Vermaak’s passion for the race, and the partners who have helped him build it from an idea to the world leader it is today, still burns as bright as ever.