Ask any endurance mountain biker about what event sits atop their bucket list, and chances are it will be the Cape Epic. The 8-day mountain bike stage race is known as one of the most demanding, and most rewarding, stage races around. Some call it the Tour de France of mountain biking. This can be in part due to the hors categorie status it shares with the lap around France. Or it could be due to the amount of international press it attracts, the live television coverage, or the prestige that a stage win or overall result brings with it. Or it could be because the Cape Epic attracts the best of the best, and you'll be racing the same trails in the same conditions as World, National and Olympic champions.

In 2019 two of Australia's best men's mountain bikers took aim at the Cape Epic, and Cam Ivory and Brendan Johnston had a fair crack at the race. This year, there are 20 Australian teams lining up to take on the race from 15-22 March. Over 8 days the route will travel 647 kilometres and take in 15550m of climbing. To put that into perspective, that's double the days of something like Port to Port, but nearly triple the distance and climbing. And with 650 teams of two you can be certain it will be pretty hectic.

With the likes of Wade Wallace and Allan Iacuone racing in Masters Men, a number of other strong Masters, Grand Masters and Mixed teams, there are also 3 women's teams. Larissa Roth is racing with Stefanie Van Amerongen, Gina Ricardo is racing with Gerogina Whitehouse, and probably the top ranked Australian women's team would be multiple Australian representatives Imogen Smith and Briony Mattocks, who will be racing in Imogen's Team colours.

With Smith having represented Australia at three Marathon (XCM) World Championships and one XCO World Championship, and Mattocks also having raced at two XCM World Championships, the two have a lot of high level racing experience. Both have stood on podiums at most major marathons and stage races around the country. Smith has won 6 stages of the Swiss Epic, Mattocks has won a stage of The Pioneer and placed 2nd overall. It's a strong, and experienced pairing - but the two are far from being full-time riders. We caught up with them to find out more.


Getting to know Imogen Smith

Imogen lives just outside Brisbane but started mountain biking in Sydney in the early noughties. She has raced on the road, but favours long-distance mountain bike races despite an early focus on XCO (and 24 hour solo funnily enough).

Age? 39
Years racing? 19
Disciplines? MTB - XCO and XCM, stage racing, plus some cyclocross when it's local
Strengths? Backing up 
Favourite terrain? Hills, especially technical climbs
Race result you’re most proud of? 20th at XCM World Champs in 2016
Bike spec rundown?
I ride the current Norco Revolver FS with a Fox Factory 32 SC fork, Shimano XTR M9100 12sp group set, wide EIE Carbon rims wrapped in Maxxis tyres, plus I use Mt Zoom finishing parts and a KS dropper post.
Favourite training snack? Megabake Witcheater bar when I'm training. A pink doughnut if I'm broken
Favourite bike gadget? Back Country Research strap - keeps my pockets free of spares.

Why the Cape Epic 2020?
I have wanted to do the Cape Epic for ever. Then, in about 2016 the race brought in new rules to support fair racing for elite women and I decided I wanted to race it in a women's team. This is a bit different for me because since 2013 I've always raced mixed with my husband and team-mate Mike Blewitt and in any case, the stars have never aligned with work commitments until this year, when I was lucky enough to secure an entry. That done, I set off in search of a partner. I am really glad that I can race with another Aussie and a fabulous specimen at that in Briony. She is an incredibly generous and positive competitor and I am really looking forward to our partnership. 
What is your goal for the race?
In terms of numbers and results, it's hard to say. Finishing in the top 10 of the women's UCI teams would be pretty cool. If we cracked the top 5 on any stage that would be a dream. But really? My goal is just to make it to the finish with both of us healthy and strong, to stay positive, and to soak up everything the greatest MTB race in the world can throw at us. And maybe see a giraffe.
Do you have a day job? What’s it like?
I do! I work full-time as a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology. I am very busy day-to-day and in my 'spare' time I work on publications and side projects aimed at furthering my career. Many days are full of meetings and I also manage a couple of staff. There's a fair bit of pressure in academia and it really makes me value my time on the bike, where I can focus and clear my head. Even if it's hard efforts, the bike is a welcome escape.

Imogen at the 2019 XCM World Championships.

Tell us about your training for Cape Epic? What’s a normal week day look like for you?
Last week I did nearly 21 hours' training and (for those data junkies out there) racked up a weekly T-Score of over 1000. That's a big week for me and most weeks are more like 14 hours and maybe 500-700 T-Score. Usually though, I get up sometime between 3:45am and 5am, train for 1 to 3.5 hours, race home, chug a recovery drink, take a rapid shower, and jump in the car half-dressed and with wet hair for the drive to work. (That's why I look so terrible in my profile pic - I never have time to do my hair!) I am pretty tired by evening and tend to go to bed early, as you'd imagine.

Imogen racing some local XCO. Photo: Brad Anderson

What keeps you going when racing and training gets tough?
All riders out there who like to race will know that pleasure and pain get really mixed up in your head, and the longer you do it, the more entwined they become. No matter how much I am suffering there's always a cheery little voice in my head shouting 'this is AWESOME!'. I am also pretty strongly aware of how lucky I am just to be able to ride hard and race my bike (let alone travel to new places to do it). I mean it's a ridiculous privilege. I'm not stuck behind my desk at work. I'm outside in nature, doing something that money can't buy. I often think, 'I'm fit, I'm capable. I'm so alive in this moment'. That's a special thing. It's not something I'll have forever and I treasure it.

Imogen at The Pioneer in 2018. Photo: Tim Bardsley-Smith

Share with us a trick to make stage racing more comfortable?
I have so many! Here's two: Good chamois cream (I use Ride Mechanic Downunder, it's an amazing Aussie brand and I never get saddle sores). PLUS eating more than you think you need, then eating some more. My special talent is being able to put away food like nobody's business. Seriously though I could give tips all day.
You two have raced against each other before, but not together. How’s that going to pan out!?
Haha I think we will be fine, mostly because Briony is a genuinely amazing person and is able to have fun and race hard, and we are both experienced enough to know that we have to put the partnership first, before everything else that happens in racing. We will have to work through the details as we go though, as I'm not even sure we will have a chance to train together in Australia before we leave for Cape Town - suddenly we're running out of weeks and the work commitments won't let up! [Ed's note: Briony lives in Sydney and Imo in Brisbane]. 

You’ve recently set up your own coaching practice – how does that affect the way you approach a big race?
Funnily enough my passion for coaching and my reasons for doing the Cape Epic are related. So often I meet women who have big goals but doubt their ability to achieve them, and I'm throwing myself into a situation a lot like that in South Africa. In my coaching I want to work with mountain bikers to support them to meet their goals, and doing the Cape Epic is part of demonstrating what's possible. Briony and I are just a couple of ordinary people who have chipped away at our riding over time and happen to like getting up early. If we can do this, anyone can!

You can follow Imogen Smith on Instagram and Strava.

Imogen checks out the Bay of Fires Trail in Tasmania.

Getting to know Briony Mattocks

Briony is a regular at just about any bike race in the greater Sydney area on the road or mountain bike, and also at just a out any major road or mountain bike race around the country as well, especially as she moves into her second year with Specialized Women's Racing (SWR).

Age?  35
Years racing? 6 (ish)
Disciplines? Mountain Bike (XCM, Stage), Road and the odd Gravel Race
Strengths? Singletrack and the back end of stage races!
Favourite terrain? Sydney’s hand-cut sandstone trails
Race result you’re most proud of? Won the Convict in 2019, wanted to have my name on that list since I started riding
Bike spec rundown? Specialized S-Works Epic with Shimano XTR 12spd drivetrain, Fox 32 Stepcast forks and Pro cockpit
Favourite training snack? Megabake bars are delicious, also love dates ESPECIALLY if they have peanut butter in them
Favourite bike gadget? I’ve just got a new Wahoo and am really enjoying getting to know it
Why the Cape Epic 2020? 
I view the Cape Epic as the toughest, most competitive and most challenging mountain bike race on the planet. It’s been on my bucket list since the day I heard about it. I had a crack at it back in 2018, but it ended rather early when I broke my collarbone – so I absolutely cannot wait to get back and even up the score. I love pairs racing, testing yourself day in/day out and racing the fastest people in the world. It will be epic.

What is your goal for the race? 
Not die. But also, a top ten finish and some good stage results would be awesome. I also want to show that it is not beyond the realm of possibility for two women with full time jobs and full time responsibilities – I think both Imo and I want to see more women at top tier events, so hopefully we can inspire some others to give it a crack.

Briony was part of the winning women's pair at the 2019 Cape to Cape - amongst other races! Photo: Tim Bardsley-Smith

Do you have a day job? What’s it like?
I do – I am a Product Owner at Telstra. If you have heard of (or are one of the 1.3m people who have signed up) to Telstra Plus, our loyalty program, that’s me! I run a team of eight people across Sydney and Melbourne who do design and build work. It’s quite consuming but really energising – I love bringing ideas to life, working with smart people, facing into complex problems and having something that generally keeps me on my toes and out of trouble.  

Tell us about your training for Cape Epic?
What’s a normal week day look like for you? I mostly train before work, which does mean the 4:00 alarm is pretty common. I have the option of riding road or MTB here in Sydney and can often tie a training session to a commute in to the office – anywhere from 90mins to 3 hours. The day is spent eating and in meetings (concurrently in most cases) and I’ll do some yoga and stretching in the evenings. I actually love it, it’s hard to get up each day but the roads are quiet (for at least the first bit), you are energised by the time you get to work and it’s great for managing stress.

What keeps you going when racing and training gets tough? 
I am a little bit OCD and if a session is on my program, I’ll mostly do it (or give it my best shot). I try to organise to ride with different people or groups to help me get out the door in the morning and to ensure I enjoy the time on the bike. Recognising that not all training sessions will go to plan is important too – sometimes your legs just won’t cooperate, but they will probably come back in a day or two! Don’t get too hung up on numbers – stay calm and follow the process. Chairs with wheels are the best when your legs are cooked.

Share with us a trick to make stage racing more comfortable? 
I go for all the marginal gains but as I don’t run them as independent controlled experiments I can’t actually tell you what works! Coconut water and heaps of hydration, stretching, foam rollers, as much food as you can eat (keep it healthy), elevated legs, ice baths (or cold water) – have also been known to hit the beetroot juice and take magnesium. In terms of comfort directly – can’t have enough Ride Mechanic chamois crème.

Briony at The Pioneer. Photo: Tim Bardsley-Smith

You two have raced against each other before, but not together. How’s that going to pan out!? 
I think it’s going to be great – no doubt there will be up’s and down’s (there always is), but I think we are quite a well matched team and have strengths that complement each other. I bring a sense of calm, humour, strong enjoyment around washing the bikes and a cute little chipmunk noise as I fall asleep.

You’ve got quite an Instagram following and you’re known for your spoofs of glamour bike shots – how did that come about? 
Under it all, I believe that female athletes should be taken seriously for their strengths and achievements and not for posing next to a bike in a bikini.

Mostly though, I’m just a bit of a larrikin and personally find it quite entertaining to mock some of the trends we see on social media and show that behind the filters, we are just normal people. All the photos I “recreate” are actually nominations – people send them to me as requests. I don’t mind having a laugh at my own expense generally and it seems others enjoy laughing at me too!

You can follow Briony on Instagram and Strava.