in the bull pen
In the Bull Pen
Setting trends and bringing Groundbreaking live footage from the BULLS e-bikes.
The on-bike footage and live commentary from the BULLS e-bikes have become one of the standout features of the coverage of the race. While it is but one small cog in the massive Dimension Data-driven media machine that beams the Absa Cape Epic into homes and offices around the world, turning those pedals at the sharp end of the field is vital.
It all started back in 2015, when Stefan Sahm, a three-time winner of the Absa Cape Epic with fellow German, Karl Platt, took a spin on an anomaly for the time: a pedal-assist e-bike. BULLS Bikes had just dipped a toe into the off-road e-bike market – they were still seen as offensive ‘motor bikes’ by much of the cycling industry – and Sahm saw a gap that would allow him to remain involved in the Epic at the highest level, even if he was now retired from racing it.
The timing was also spot on to partner with ground-breaking 360-degree action camera technology, mounted on a special harness to suspend it above Sahm’s helmet. The rest, well, is written in the dirt and documented in hundreds of hours of live race footage.
As is the nature of The Race That Measures All and every part of it, the innovation curve is steep. Over the past few years, the 360-degree cameras have been replaced with bespoke action cameras, and the footage is as raw as you can get, streamed in real-time across the world through Dimension Data’s dedicated event communications network. There are also three riders in Sahm, Thomas Dietsch, a multiple French MTB champ and also a ‘retired’ BULLS rider and, accomplished South African rider, Ila Stow.
“In a similar way to how the athletes race, we have our own race,” says Myles Hoppe, Managing Director of Derrick Integrated Communications who project manages the BULLS Media e-bike production team. “And every year, we want to do better.”
The BULLS Media e-bike offers viewers a perspective of the race that can’t be captured by motorbikes or helicopters. Hoppe is particularly proud of the onboard commentary “Getting live onboard commentary from the BULLS Media e-bike team has been a game changer – we are able to get real time insights from the route.”
According to Hoppe in previous years riders had to wear a chest harness for the gimbal and the camera, resulting in them donning two separate pieces. However, this year, the team opted to integrate everything into one fully customised backpack, making the camera system more streamlined and efficient.
The gimbals in question were also custom-built and were designed to respond to the riders' needs as they change riding positions on their bikes during the race, making the footage even better ensuring the perfect camera angle, regardless of the terrain.
The other thing they keep revising and improving on each year is power management. “With each day’s racing lasting for hours, the camera system needs to be able to run autonomously for extended periods of time with no human intervention,” Hoppe says. This requires a lot of gear and an experienced crew.
Indeed, while the world sees the video feed from the three riders, it takes a four-person team to make it all happen, including a team manager, mechanic, content creator, camera technician techie and driver (who is also an additional set of hands).
It all starts for the crew at around 5am, with the riders arriving at 6. “It takes us approximately 20 minutes to gear up each of the riders. That sound doesn't sound like a lot, but there is a stringent checklist,” Hoppe says, explaining how they look at the weather and then prepare that backpack accordingly. “Our cameras are waterproof, but the backpack isn't. So we need to make sure we prepare accordingly. And then obviously, because it's for live TV, everything needs to be tested — including the comms with the director in the studio — before they're out the door.”
Stefan Sahm, who after his racing career stepped into the role of BULLS Bikes Quality Control and Supply Chain Manager ZEG, has been there since the first frames were filmed, but the 2023 Absa Cape Epic was a particularly special one for him. “I have never experienced rain on a race like during this Epic,” he begins.
“I mean, we’ve had wet days in years passed, but not on that level. The Queen stage over Groenlandberg was something else and will remember it forever,” he muses. “There were streams of crystal clear water running down the tracks. Later on, it was more of a mud-fest for the back-markers which made it even worse. The conditions were pretty wild but I think never really dangerous.”
According to Sahm not only the weather was spectacular during this year’s event, but also the racing, to which he has the best viewing seat. “I must say that Lukas and Georg are really transforming stage racing. What I see during the stages is just stunning and their way of riding and racing is something special — not holding back for a bit, no real tactics — it's just all-out racing and this is so cool to watch.”
Don’t be fooled by the motor though, Sahm still has to rely on his years of racing legs and technical trail skills to stay in touch with the front of the race. “The bike itself is very capable and I run a pretty solid spec to try to eliminate the possible technical issues like a flat tyre. What works against us is the overall weight of the bike and gear we carry. Compared to the world-class racers we carry around 25kg more and you can't trick physics.
Straight lines are easy and the rougher the better for us. With more travel and burlier tyres, we can take more risks,” he says explaining how this means that often they have to take the dodgy lines to not be in the riders’ way. “Also we are normally in the back of a group or at least in third position which means we rarely see something on a dusty downhill.”
So successful has the coverage been from the BULLS e-bikes at the Absa Cape Epic that the BULLS are now providing electrifying coverage on various other races in the Epic Series, including the Swiss Epic.
Perhaps the question most people want to be answered though, is whether he will be relinquishing that front-row seat to anyone in the near future. You can guess the answer but we’ll tell you anyway: “Both in terms of racing the Absa Cape Epic and doing it for the media squad, the experience is so unique and special that no matter how tough it is I want to come back and get more. It is kind of an addiction I guess. I have been a part of the race now for a long time on both sides, met a lot of good people and made a lot of friends throughout the years. It's the love for riding, racing and the people that makes this event so special. I loved the racing part for sure but to be honest, I really enjoy what I do now. It's not easy, but also still very rewarding.”