Jose Antonio Hermida
Legends of the Epic:
The Grand Finale finishes in the heart of South African mountain biking for the first time since the 2006. Though this time Stellenbosch itself, rather than a storied wine farm, hosts the final finish line.
In the early years the Absa Cape Epic grew off the reputation of legends of the sport, who came to Africa to do battle. The race did not just take however. It gave too, adding to the myth around the champions who put their hearts and souls into the contest. One of those legends of the Epic is Jose Antonio Hermida.
The Epic Series spoke to the 2004 Olympic Silver Medallist about what brought him to the Absa Cape Epic. What keeps him coming back to Epic Series races, now that he’s contesting for the NTT Masters’ jersey. As well as his advice for aspiring stage racers.
Epic Series: Tell us about your first Absa Cape Epic back in 2007… What attracted you to the race back then, what did your fellow XCO racers think of you going off to South Africa with only a handful of the other cross-country stars and what are your best memories from that first Epic?
Jose Hermida: Well, 2007 is a long time ago now. It’s great to look back and see what the Absa Cape Epic has achieved and I achieved too, since then. What attracted me initially was the prospect of discovering a long stage race. To do it in South Africa added to the prospect of adventure. Leading into 2007 the race had already held three editions and we had some good comments and feedback from riders on the XCO circuit. From early on riders were using the race to sharpen up their form for the cross-country season, and of course many stayed in South Africa during the European winter so they could do good quality training. Once a few XCO riders decided to go it became a magnet…
ES: You won Stage 3 that year (in 2007) and went on to win a total of five stages in the men’s elite category. Are there any that stand out in particular as special moments in your career?
JH: Yes, that’s true. That year Ralph Naef and I won Stage 3 together for Multivan Merida. It was an epic fight with the Absa Cape Epic stars, Karl Platt and Stephan Sahm. So, that was a great win and a special one to look back on. Another beautiful victory was the stage win wearing World Champion’s XCO jersey, on Stage 6 in 2011. Taking my first yellow leaders’ jersey, alongside Rudi van Houts, on Stage 1 in 2013, was also very special.
ES: In 2014 yourself and Rudi van Houts won the Prologue. What happened on that Stage 1 when you were in the yellow jerseys? And how did you deal with finishing the race solo once Rudi had withdrawn?
JH: That was a great moment, winning the Prologue and taking the leader’s jersey. But happiness was short. We lost over an hour on Stage 1 and eventually Rudi withdrew from the race. Finishing the Absa Cape Epic alone wasn’t great. I always wanted to ride with a partner and friend, so to lose Rudi was a sad moment. Fortunately, it there were just two days to go and I used them for quality training. Rudi stayed on as a supporter, which was great.
My toughest edition was in 2015 though. After Stage 3 I started to feel bad, it went from bad to worse. I ended up losing lot of weight in the remaining three days. Once back to Europe I had to undergo several tests, after which we found out that I had a bacterium in my stomach. It took me the whole of 2015 to kill the bacteria feel like an athlete again.
ES: You twice finished fourth on the general classification. Looking back now, are you happy with that as your best result? Or do you feel there were moments when bad luck or a split-second wrong decision made the difference and prevented you from finishing on the final GC podium or perhaps winning the Epic?
JH: Yes, Rudi and I performed well, in 2013 and 2015, finishing fourth on both occasions. Through the years we learned that the Absa Cape Epic is a race of experience, it requires you to stay calm and to have a good partnership. When you put all in together, not just your partner on the bike but the whole team, then results arrive. That was clear and it was always special for Rudi, and before him Ralph, and I to maintain this balance. But doing so was always hard. With our XCO focus, as more aggressive, explosive riders, the Absa Cape Epic was always a challenge. And racing it so early in the season, we were never in the perfect shape.
ES: In your final two seasons in the elite race, you took on the Absa Cape Epic with Joaquim Rodriguez. It always seemed like you were having fun throughout the Epics you raced, but it looked like it was more fun and less pressure racing with Joaquim. What stands out for you from those editions in 2017 and 2018?
JH: Yes, that was the time I closed out my XCO career and wanted to explore a new and different racing. Even with Purito’s formidable pedigree as a former road pro – and winner of stages in all three Grand Tours, classics, and stage races – as you say it was always fun. After 10 years of racing the Absa Cape Epic, and finishing every edition I started back to the first one in 2007 even, I just wanted to ride with a friend and have fun. Having fun was the real secret of my Epics.
ES: In 2019 yourself and Joaquim dominated the NTT Masters Category. Tell us about starting in the A-Batch with all the top amateurs and the age-group racers like Bart Brentjens. It must have been a different kind of pressure, because I’m sure the group looked to you and Joaquim to do a lot of work in the early kilometres every day, but once it split up you could probably enjoy the riding a lot more and look around more than you ever did as a pro!
JH: It was different way of racing, still hard and fast, but different. Every day, after a group of top teams was created, we set a tempo speed until the finish. But racing is racing and we had some days of "panic" too. Anything can happen at the Absa Cape Epic, and it’s the epic until end. You never know if a team, or a mechanical, or the terrain can ruin all your work from previous days…
ES: You became an Epic Legend (not that you weren’t a legend of the Absa Cape Epic already with 10 finishes and 5 stage wins, plus a couple of days in the yellow jerseys) at 4Islands MTB Croatia this year (2023). What did receiving that medal mean to you?
JH: Jajajaja... Yes, that was a big unexpected surprise and I loved it!
I love the Epic Series’ philosophy of racing, to discover new places and share the experiences with a partner, who in my case has always been a good friend. So, it was a great achieve Epic Legend status and honestly, I'm proud.
ES: Tell us about the 4Islands MTB Croatia race… It is almost completely unique in mountain biking, with the accommodation on boats and the transfers between stages. Plus, the riding is really though, despite the shorter stage distances.
JH: Taking part in 4Islands was an idea I had in my mind for long time, and when the Epic Series organization got in touch I jumped at the opportunity. Sarah Harrop invited me on behalf of the race and it was an immediate YES!! I love the event. Looking to be back, it was a great experience and great racing too.
ES: What makes Andorra Epic Pyrenees unique as an event? You must have raced and trained in Andorra many times over your pro career, so going back for a stage race must have been special too.
JH: Going to Andorra made the event experience special in general, but for an Epic Series follower it was even better. To have started my journey in South Africa, in 2007, then to go island hopping and racing in Croatia, then to earn an Epic Legend medal in the Pyrenees, just 40 kilometres from my home. The whole journey is so special.
That being said, I’d been to Andorra many times before, to race and train. But I discovered new trails during Andorra Epic Pyrenees, which was very surprising. It showed me again how stage races open up places, which you think of as your back garden, but still have so many things to explore and experience.
ES: What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you started your Epic Series/Absa Cape Epic journey back in 2007?
JH: To be patient during the race, to always bring tubeless tyre plugs, and to remember that sometimes it’s not about winning, but just about getting to the finish.
Another tip I can offer riders, and this is one I knew from day one in 2007, when you do the Absa Cape Epic, or any Epic Series event, ride with a friend and enjoy every moment; because they don't come back!