Behind the scenes at the Epic

There’s no getting around it, March is Epic month. If you’re not riding you’ll be watching. It’s watched all over the world on television and thousands of column inches are dedicated to how tough it is on the riders. But what about the support crews? What goes on behind the scene to ensure the guys and girls on the bikes cross the finish line at Lourensford? Full Sus spoke to RE:CM’s Kandice Buys and FedGroup-Itec’s Bridgette Stewart to find out what it really takes to finish an Epic.

The 2014 FedGroup line-up: Neil McDonald, Bridgette Stewart, Kevin Evans and Brandon Stewart with their Trek Superfl y FS race
The 2014 FedGroup line-up: Neil McDonald, Bridgette Stewart, Kevin Evans and Brandon Stewart with their Trek Superfly FS race

When the riders line up at Meerendal Wine Estate on Sunday the 23rd of March they’ll have put in the hard kays in training, raced build-up events which most people would have to train specifically for and climbed a seemingly impossible number of meters. Preparation is key you see, we all know it. But as FedGroup-Itec team rider, and Epic team manager, Bridgette Stewart says, there is so much that can go wrong and with the intensity and the emotion of the Epic, something usually does. Like in the 2013 Epic when Neil McDonald and Brandon Stewart got separated in the dust cloud driven up by the ferociously turning wheels of the lead bunch at the start of a stage. Brandon was riding amongst the first five riders, in search of clear air, while Neil was misinformed that Brandon had experienced mechanical difficulties and ended up turning around to look for him.

The Impressive Chill Box
The Impressive Chill Box

It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as getting separated and being handed a time penalty to crack the team spirit. A simple mechanical failure at an inopportune moment can cost a team the race. And when a tremendous amount of time and money has been invested in getting to the Epic in the best possible form with the aim of securing a big result, failings that might be laughed off at the Sani2c become bitter divides within the team. That’s where the back-up staff becomes so important.

Kandice Buys has been in the game for twelve years and her key to keeping RE:CM’s Epic bids trouble free, is meticulous preparation. Having years of experience to draw upon clearly helps and having a team where everyone knows their roles leads to a situation where, baring the unexpected, things run like clockwork. I watched her in action at the Tankwa Trek in February and she comes across as unflappable, organised and a calming influence on the riders – even when they’re all worked up.

Kandice and Morne van Rensburg seeing to Ariane and Cherise’s hydration needs on the Tankwa Trek
Kandice and Morne van Rensburg seeing to Ariane and Cherise’s hydration needs on the Tankwa Trek

A typical day at the Epic for the RE:CM team:

  • The riders are up two hours before the start to eat breakfast, meaning that they’ll be up before five am most mornings.
  • The mechanics run a final check on the bikes. The bikes are given a full service after every stage, but in the morning before the start, they run another once over to ensure everything is tightened down, lubed up and running smoothly.
  • After breakfast the riders get their race food and bottles ready with the help of support crew.
  • Ariane Kleinhans likes to go for a decent warm-up ride before the start and this did cause the support crew a bit of stress initially, but over the years they’ve got used to Ariane’s routine and have now factored her longer warm-up into their morning schedule.
  • Twenty minutes before the race start the whole team heads down to the start chute after doing a last check to ensure they’ve got their gels and CO2 bombs for the day.
  • If everyone has stuck to their systems, then the riders should have everything they need for the stage.
  • Remember at the Epic riders aren’t allowed outside assistance, even in the tech-zones so the team spares boxes, which the race organisers ferry about, also need to be meticulously packed and restocked every evening.
  • If the race is moving race villages, once the riders are off the team has to pack up and move on pretty quickly to have everything set-up again in time for the riders’ return.
  • But if they’re staying put, the support crew has a few options. Some prefer to chill, or go for a ride themselves like the Bulls back-up like to do, others go to the tech-zones or supporters points. Kandice likes to watch from spectator points on the Epic and she’s always updating @Team_RECM’s twitter feed with race updates, so follow them if you want to know what’s happening live.
  • At two pm every afternoon there’s a team manager’s meeting with the Epic organisers.
  • Fifteen minutes before the riders are expected at the finish the support crew is in place and waiting. In big teams this could mean that they have to leave the final spectator or tech-zone before the last team member has passed through.
  • As soon as the riders come in, the mechanics take the bikes off to be serviced while the riders get to the task of rehydrating and feeding.
  • The bonus for the team manager is a pair placing in the top three of a category at the end of a stage, which means the riders are whisked off to the interviews and looked after by the race organisers. But the Epic is really good at looking after all the riders, so even if the riders don’t podium the support crew’s job is easier than it would be at most other races.
  • For the riders at the end of the stage the to do list is: shower, massage, lunch, sleep/chill, supper at half past six. The RE:CM team like to share a bottle of wine over supper, to help everyone relax completely. They also eat supper with the masses, unlike many of the other top teams. After supper the riders stay for prize giving and chat to the other riders for a bit before turning in.
  • The support crew meanwhile wind down after supper, if the bikes weren’t in too much of a mess after the stage.

 

When it’s written down like that it seems rather simple. But, when you see Kandice in action you realise just how hard team managers have to work. Bridgette Stewart often jokes that she’d find riding the Epic easier than providing backup to the FedGroup-Itec riders. That’s probably because she goes above and beyond for the Epic.

In fact at the 2013 Epic, while watching her pack the next day’s essentials into, husband, Brandon Stewart’s jersey pockets, Kevin Evans remarked that he couldn’t wait for that treatment too. And now that Kevin’s over his appendix issues, he’ll be getting just that when he teams up with Brandon on the 2014 start line.

Bridgette says that the difference between their team and most of the others is the fact that they’re a really tightknit group of friends. She sees her role not only as organiser and facilitator but also as sounding board for tactics and a shoulder to cry on when things get really tough.

As a professional cyclist herself, she knows what the guys are going through on the bike and as a result when she fulfils the role of support chief she does everything she can to make the rider’s lives easier. Virtually the only thing the FedGroup guys will have to do at the 2014 Epic is pedal. In fact the five star treatment they get would put most top hotels to shame.

The party piece for the FedGroup team is undoubtedly the Crusader Logistics Pantechnicon, known as the “Chill Box”. It’s a massive fully equipped ten sleeper camper van, which makes the hassle of packing up between race villages a minor inconvenience rather than the epic logistical exercise which needs to be executed with military precision.

The Chill Box doesn’t just make moving camps easier; with the fully equipped kitchen it helps the support crew prepare all the team meals in a hygienic environment. Stage races are notorious breeding grounds for bugs and as Darren Lill found out last year, they can all but end a rider’s hopes of a good finish. To help prevent the FedGroup riders picking up a nasty stomach bug, the guys won’t be eating in the race village and all their meals will be prepared in the Chill Box.

Speaking of getting sick, Kandice’s final words on the Epic were on the aftermath. After the highs of the race with the constant adrenaline and frantic atmosphere it’s almost inevitable that everyone comes down with a bit of a cold after the big race wraps up. It takes a few days to readjust to the pace of everyday life after the manic all action week, a minor collapse of the immune system and a layoff enforced by a doctor is just the tonic for the hard working behind the scenes guys and gals.

Hump Day:

Day three is by all accounts the hardest day for the support crews. The stress and lack of sleep have begun to catch up but the daily rhythm hasn’t overridden the body’s basic physiological warning signs yet. 2014’s day 3 coincides with the move of race village from Arabella Wines in Robertson to The Oaks Estate in Greyton so it’ll be a testing day for the support crews.

Bridgette Stewart
Bridgette Stewart

Brigdette Stewart is a pro mountain biker, team manager, wife and mother of two mountain biking grommets. She’s an ex-downhill nutter (she’s Greg Minnaar’s sister after all) and current cross country marathon sufferer. She describes herself as “permanently full throttle princess of note!” Follow her @BridgStewart.

Kandice Buys
Kandice Buys

Kandice Buys is a multi-discipline team manager, plying her skills for Lange-Sports on the road for Bonitas Pro Cycling and off it for RE:CM. Her work has taken her to 24 countries and she’s super-efficient, once uploading a ride report in under twelve minutes. Follow her @KandiceBuys.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

*