Racing the World
"The Epic Series stands out on the global mountain bike stage race scene" ‑ Mike Blewitt
There may be riders with more Epic Series race finishes than Mike Blewitt, but nobody has done more of the Epic Series events. He’s unquestionably the best travelled competitor, having taken part in his native Australia, in neighbouring New Zealand, in Europe and of course in the Pinnacle Event, the Absa Cape Epic in South Africa.
As the founder and editor of MarathonMTB.com Mike Blewitt is one of the most authoritative voices in marathon mountain biking and stage racing. He has written more about races, results and bike technology than most. Blewitt is also an Epic Legend, having earned The Pioneer Fuelled by Nutri-Grain, SPAR Swiss Epic and Absa Cape Epic finishes. In addition to the completion of two of the Epic Series’ Legend races and the Pinnacle event, he has also done all three of the Australian events.
“The Epic Series stands out on the global mountain bike stage race scene thanks to a cohesive event experience,” Blewitt reflected. “That's not to say they are the same races held in different settings; each event has a unique character and requires its own skill set to complete. The Absa Cape Epic is far and away the behemoth, and should be given the respect it deserves by anyone contemplating it.”
“The difficulty of the event comes from all sides. The arduous training needed to complete it, the travel needed if you're from the Oceania region like I am, the unforgiving terrain, the weather extremes, and the competition” he advised. “This final one really counts – you cannot let up for a minute at the Absa Cape Epic if you have dreams of a good result.”
“The SPAR Swiss Epic changes tact a little; as it's shorter, but the stages pack a lot of climbing in with technical descents. However, the rewards for the work seem all the greater. Both in the trails but also the villages or towns you stay in. Once you're across the finish line, the battle is over and everything runs just as it should in Switzerland” Blewitt revealed.
The Pioneer Fuelled by Nutri-Grain was a uniquely New Zealand event,” he continued. “Kiwis will often understate the difficulty of just about any wee outdoor event, and The Pioneer took no prisoners with demanding backcountry routes through infrequently ridden stations. The climbs were steep, the views were vast, and the geothermal hot springs were very welcome when they were near the event villages.”
Despite his vast mountain biking experience and encyclopaedic knowledge, Blewitt’s race towards earning Epic Legend status has been anything but easy. “My first visit to South Africa for the Absa Cape Epic was in 2011,” he begun. “It was a decision made just four months previously. This seemed like plenty of time but in hindsight, it's last minute for an amateur! The immense size of the race and how well the country and the city of Cape Town embraced it really puts the event on another level.”
“Mountain biking is a niche sport, but the Absa Cape Epic had a way of making us all feel like champions. My team mate crashed out in 2011 so I finished solo, but we really wanted to finish as a team – that was the driving factor. But 2012 and 2013 saw me DNF with injury and a virus respectively. I have a huge respect for the Absa Cape Epic, but it's a tough beast to finish as a team. I guess I'll have to go back sooner or later. I remember being on the start line in 2012 for the final stage, and being quite overwhelmed by the elation of all those rolling off to take on the final stage. I wanted to share in their elation, but I really felt like I was missing out.”
In New Zealand, unlike in South Africa, Blewitt has excelled. This he attributes to it being closer to home. “You can't underestimate how much 24 hours of travel takes it out of you! It is always a balance making sure you arrive in time for an event, but don't burn through all the annual leave you have. I think The Pioneer Fuelled by Nutri-Grain just tends to be less busy on the trails, so pushing on in dark times rewards you. We had some very tough days in 2017, but with my team mate Justin [Morris] we had some good finishes. Racing in 2018 was tough. We had just moved house, I was racing with my wife Imogen Smith, and I had just been pretty ill. I had a huge question mark in my head about finishing. We raced as we could, Imogen had a nasty crash on the Alex trails, but she pushed on as she's a tough soldier. We finished that race and while we would have loved to have done better, it was a very strong Mixed field that year and we were so happy to have made it back to Queenstown.”
“The weather and terrain of the South Island really doesn't compare to the south east of Queensland in Australia” Blewitt pointed out. Nor does his home region’s climate prepare him or his wife, Smith, well for the rigors of the Absa Cape Epic or the climbing of the SPAR Swiss Epic. “Despite two overall DNFs at the SPAR Swiss Epic, but with half a dozen stage wins – when Imogen and I race together we do well.”
It seems, in fact, that the event in Graubünden is Blewitt’s favourite of the series. “I don't have a problem with camping,” he was quick to qualify. “But the SPAR Swiss Epic with hotels just adds another level.”
“It's not just about being in a hotel, but also the convenience. Having your bag delivered to the hotel, or even in your room in 2015, is that extra step that makes the difference after a five-hour day in the Alps. Proper toilets and showers, linen, being able to wash your gear – it makes a big difference. I love the Swiss Alps. I like travelling there, racing there, hiking there – it's like getting to race in the mountains of my mind. The hotel stays are a bonus. I would really like to do that one again. I think it suits Imogen and me – and we have a score to settle after 2015 and 2019. I often think my competitive drive left many years ago, but it hurts having a drawer of leader jerseys but no overall win.”
There are, however, some very fond memories which he holds dear from the SPAR Swiss Epic. “My best memory from the Epic Series is possibly the start of Stage 2 of the SPAR Swiss Epic, in 2015, in Leukerbad. We were on the start line with my mountain bike heroes, including Alban Lakata and Sally Bigham. We rode well as a team that day, executing a race plan and getting everything out of our team dynamic that we could,” Blewitt smiled. “A big part of that was the post stage as well. Friends were racing the Flow event and every day we caught up for a drink to laugh and share memories. That's what amateur mountain bike events are all about. That trip was great, but we really felt like it all clicked on that stage. We added time to our overall lead, had a great day, and enjoyed the company on the trails.”
Which is ultimately what the Epic Series is ideally all about. Having a great time, making new friends , testing partnerships and challenging one’s personal limits.