A SOUTH AFRICAN MOUNTAIN BIKE STORY: CHAPTER 4
Five days into the 2023 Absa Cape Epic and Team Signal Racing’s Oli Munnik and Rogan Smart are at their limit. Piloting the brand-new Signal Spectre, they’re challenging for the newly introduced Amateur Category title, which is only amateur in name. At the sharp end it’s filled with ex-pros and guys that probably could be pros if they wanted a harder life. We asked Oli and Rogan a few questions after Stage 4.
How has this Epic been so far compared to previous Epics?
It’s as competitive as ever. Everyone brings their A game. Thinking back to the 2010s, I notice just how good our bikes and equipment are now. In the early days the route was littered with people who were fixing things. There were a lot more crashes. But the modern equipment, suspension, tyres and even clothing – it’s all just so good.
Stages 2 and 3 looked tough. How did you go on those key days leading to the halfway point in the race?
The first half of those two stages were good for me, personally, but I relied heavily on Rogan being a steady partner trying to motivate me through the second half of those stages, especially Stage 3 on Wednesday coming into Oak Valley. Once we went up Houw Hoek, Boswell and Mitch attacked our little group. That little burst took the three teams we were riding with up the road and we had to just play it safe and keep our own pace. When you’re in a partnership with someone in that situation it makes a huge difference. I couldn’t really ask for more from a partner. Stages 2 and 3 started well and then we had to go into, I wouldn’t call it survival mode, but rather management mode because I know that Friday, Saturday and Sunday are just going to be unreal!
How is your Signal Spectre standing up to its Absa Cape Epic test?
I have ridden a huge number of bikes in my career at the Absa Cape Epic, right from a Mongoose Meteor 26-inch hardtail with 3×9 drivetrain to more modern dual-suspension 29ers with single chainring drivetrains. It’s insane how the Spectre just feels so right for this kind of racing. I spend a lot of time in the Trail setting of the Fox rear shock. It allows you to pedal so efficiently all the while soaking up the bumps and allowing you to stay seated and pedal over the rough stuff. I’m very happy with how the Spectre is performing here and I reckon it’s going to be a really great bike for South Africans.
Have you had any mechanical incidents yet?
Nothing major, but on Stage 3, my fully-charged AXS gears battery went flat, which was a bit strange. But I have had this issue before in previous editions, so both Rogan and I are riding with spare AXS batteries, so we popped a spare one in and it got us to the finish. Experience in this race makes a big difference. No mechanicals so far, which is great. We’re not riding conservatively but mindful of reducing the risk of a mechanical incident.
There seems to be a lot of depth in the UCI and Amateur men’s categories this year. Do you agree?
Matt Beers and I were chatting on the finish line of Stage 4 and going over the field this year with some of our thoughts. He was saying that it’s very competitive in the top five and then there’s this huge amount of depth from about 10th to 40th position that’s never really been evident at this race. There’s an incredible battle going on from 10th to 40th and then you get the fierce Amateur battle a bit further down. Given my form now, we are lying in the 40s in GC. With this form in the past I would be in the high 20s or low 30s. Our GC position says a lot about the increased depth of this year’s field.
What is your plan for the remaining three days?
The plan is like every day at the Absa Cape Epic. Go as hard as you can for as long as you can and then get to the finish. Our plan is to race as hard as we can without killing ourselves. We would quite like to stay ahead of the Australian brothers team who are breathing down our neck. They’ve come into a rich vein of form the last two stages, so Rogan and I have our work cut out for us. But there’s no surrender at the Absa Cape Epic.
Five days into your first Cape Epic. How are you feeling?
Yeah, it’s been pretty brutal out there, but awesome at the same time! My body is definitely a bit more second-hand than it was on Saturday, but I guess everyone is in the same boat. There is definitely fatigue in the legs, but that’s to be expected. Tomorrow is a monster day, so a shorter TT today was a nice way to lead into the Queen Stage. But all things considered I am still feeling okay!
Which has been the toughest day for you personally so far?
I’d have to say Stage 1 in Hermanus was the toughest day for me. I think the nerves were still crazy, and I was still finding my feet, which resulted in many silly errors and anxious moments in the singletrack with all the other guys. Basically, making my ride harder than it needed to be, but I’m feeling a lot more composed now. So far that day I suffered the most, but the next few days could still change that!
And which day have you as a team felt your best?
From my perspective, I’d say Stage 2 – the long 116km day. We had a solid group for the first 50km odd, then in the punchy sections we just rode our own consistent pace and ended up finishing that day in a nice group and not feeling completely shattered, which is always nice.
What was your plan for the time trial and were you able to stick to it?
I wouldn’t say we had a set plan for the TT, because you never know how you are going to feel. So, we wanted to ride as hard as we could, without going crazy deep unnecessarily. We quietly expected the team behind us to catch us, which did happen, and then we finished all together. It was still a fun day out following Pinner down those trails, and happy to keep it rubber side down in the wind!
How is your Signal Spectre standing up to its Absa Cape Epic test?
The Spectre has been incredible over the last five days – this terrain is unrelenting, and that bike has been keeping my body in one piece on the technical stuff. The suspension is super plush on the rough descents, but also incredibly rigid up the climbs when you lock it out. I’m getting more comfortable on it each day, and today I really felt in sync with the bike!
You’re still in second place, 15 minutes off the GC lead in your category – what’s your strategy for the last three stages?
Yeah, in theory 15 minutes is a lot of time, but anything can happen. We will just keep the strategy of ‘never surrender’ and keep riding these last three stages as hard as we can and see what happens. If we know we’ve given it everything, then that’s all we can really ask for in my opinion.
After Stage 4 (five days), Team Signal Racing is lying second in the Amateur Men’s division. They’re 15 minutes off the Aussie/Yank duo of Mitchell Docker and Ian Boswell, both recently members of WorldTour road pro teams. The Australian James Brothers team – Hayden and Oliver – are 13 minutes behind them in third. It’s going to be a cracker battle over the final three stages…
For the previous chapters of A South African Mountain Bike Story: The Signal Spectre, click on the links below: