Max Knox, the current South African marathon and national marathon series champion, was able to compete in his ninth Absa Cape Epic this year, thanks to a new venture into mountain biking by paint and coatings giant, Kansai Plascon. Although only 29 (he turned 30 on 27 March), Knox has a wealth of experience, having raced mountain bikes competitively for two decades, starting as a schoolboy in KwaZulu-Natal.
The Sabie resident, who normally races for New Holland/This Way Out, was paired up with Colombian XCO champion, Leonardo Paez, a strong climber who races for an Italian-based team, Polimedical FRM. They only met in person a week before the Cape Epic, and couldn’t communicate very easily (Paez can’t speak English and Knox can’t speak Spanish). It was Paez’s Cape Epic debut too.
But their eventual fourth overall, a day in third on GC and a second place on the Queen Stage against the strongest Cape Epic field ever assembled, certainly made an impact on the race. Knox was the highest placed South African at this year’s Cape Epic.
Compiled by Sean Badenhorst
Photos by Dino Lloyd
Fourth place at the Cape Epic – impressive! Your previous best was in 2008 when you were seventh. Was fourth place this year better or worse than you expected?
Thanks. It was a wonderful experience and I learned a lot. We had great morale and a good atmosphere in the team thanks to the folks from Plascon and Polimedical FRM, the team for which my teammate, Leo races for in Italy. A podium finish was our goal, so I was very disappointed to let the team down on the last day, especially after everyone’s hard efforts all week, but unfortunately that’s the way mountain biking works. Missing the podium by such a small margin (58 seconds) was a harsh reminder that it’s never over until you cross the finish line.
This was your ninth Cape Epic. Both Sauser and Platt mentioned the race has changed and is now much faster from the start of each stage with a higher intensity throughout. Was this your observation too?
Absolutely. The race is evolving in every aspect. From the course, the technology, the approach of the riders, the media around the event, its international status and global importance. I think with the World Cup XCO coming to South Africa the week before the Cape Epic next year, it’s just going to go from strength to strength. Instead of 40 UCI teams like we had this year, you might see 60 next year.
I think there is also a lot more nervous tension and stress in the bunch with the route designers adding longer sections of singletrack earlier in the race. Bunch positioning is crucial and everyone wants to be first into the singletrack! This causes plenty of tension in the bunch, and mentally it’s very taxing to always be fighting for positioning. Usually, in past Epics, this settled down after a day or two; however, this year, it was always full steam from metre one on every stage.
You mentioned during the race that Paez could have won the Cape Epic on his own. Were you kidding?
No, Leo is a world-class athlete. He has two Marathon World Championships bronze medals, is twice an Olympian and was in fantastic shape at the Epic. I love his riding style. He is very fast on the hills, never panics under pressure and is super smooth and conservative through the rough trails and downhills – always looking after his equipment. Mentally he is very strong, and I learned a lot from him even though we can’t speak the same language. However, most important in my eyes, he is a generous and caring person.
You finished 40 minutes ahead of the next South African/s at the Epic – Phil Buys and Matthys Beukes, who won the Absa African Jersey title. Do you think the introduction of the Red Jersey has become a limiting factor for South African riders? They’re aiming for Red and not Yellow?
Perhaps it’s a limiting factor, however, I think the African Jersey is very important. The Cape Epic attracts so much media attention and publicity for sponsors that the more opportunities for companies and athletes, to get publicity during the event, I think, the better. It would be wonderful to see the event implement more jersey opportunities in my opinion like for example, fastest team down the Landrover Technical Sections, a Young Riders team jersey for the Under-23 or Under-25 athletes competing; and perhaps an African Jersey in the women’s category.
I think the biggest limiting factor for the South African riders this year was that most of our top riders where competing in supporting roles. Putting your personal ambitions to one side for the better of the team is a very difficult thing to do especially in the world’s biggest race. So compliments to them for doing this, even though at times it looked like some of the South Africans were stronger than their team ‘captains’.
In the past, you have raced as a teammate with three riders that have been caught for using performance-enhancing practices/substances. This, combined with your ability to put minutes into your South African rivals has raised widespread suspicion about whether you are also doping. What is your position on this situation?
I do not dope. My racing results have been consistent from when I turned professional in 2006, through the implementation of the ADAMS system in 2009 and the implementation of the biological passport in 2012. I’m fully committed to clean sport.
Regarding former teammates, yes that is true. But I have also competed with other athletes who are world-class and clean, for example Kohei Yamamoto (2x Cape Epics), Thomas Zahnd (Cape Pioneer Trek), Christoph Sauser (Cape Pioneer Trek, Transalp), Mannie Heymans and Adrien Niyonshuti, to name just a few.
Obviously, it’s very disappointing when athletes choose to cross that line. However, I have no control over what other athletes choose to do. I can only focus on myself. At the end of the day every man and woman needs to make their own choices in life and face the consequences of their own actions. I don’t expect to be judged for another person’s actions, just as I wouldn’t expect someone else to be judged for my actions.
Being able to beat fellow South Africans by large margins and race up front with some of the sport’s best racers – what do you think makes it possible for you to be the only South African to be able to do this currently?
I’m by no means the first African athlete to do reasonably well at the Cape Epic. Mannie Heymans and Burry Stander are both African athletes who have won the race and were world-class athletes. I think South Africa has some amazingly talented young athletes at the moment. We have the Spur Schools Series, which is a world-class platform for young individuals to showcase their talent. We just need to get these guys and girls into the right support structures and give them the opportunities.
Take for example Burry Stander in 2008. He was a 20-year-old professional racing for GT, coming 50-60th in the XCO World Cup Series the previous year. Christoph Sauser and him team up for the Cape Epic and they win the first stage. They lead the race for the first few days. That XCO season Burry moves up the world rankings from the 50’s into the top 10 and even finishes second in a World Cup in Andorra behind Sauser. In my personal opinion nothing physically changed in Burry. However, mentally his self-confidence and personal belief after having the opportunity to race with one of the world’s best athletes and against some of the world’s best competition at the Cape Epic, gave him huge self-belief. The Cape Epic is the perfect platform for young riders to have eight quality days of competition against some of the world’s best riders in a slightly less stressful environment than XCO World Cup racing.
Take for example the young Frischknecht rider from SCOTT SRAM Racing. He is 20 years old and, guided by Nino Schurter, he won two stages at this year’s race. His morale and self-belief going into the XCO World Cup season having beaten riders like the Cannonade riders and Specialized riders is going to be super high and I think it will be interesting to follow his trajectory this season.
We have Gert Heyns and Alan Hatherly, two young riders who are world-class talents, and I think could really make huge impacts on the Cape Epic and carry that momentum onto an international platform. But they didn’t have the opportunity to do the race this year, which I think was sad. It would have been magic to see what they could have done.
Sometimes, I think especially in South Africa, athletes get caught up in worrying too much about power numbers. A strong performance in a race is made up of two key elements: the physical element and the mental element. Everyone can do the physical element (I have never met a lazy athlete – if anything, athletes tend to train more than necessary). However, the mental element is so crucial and often over looked by coaches. This can’t be measured with any instrument. Only an athlete can feel his/her morale, well-being and confidence. There is no better platform to build on this than at the Cape Epic and gain valuable international experience and confidence. Hopefully we can have a few more South Africans/Africans stand on the top step of the race in the not too distant future. We certainly have the talent in our country.
I also often hear that the Epic is too hard for young athletes. This is not true. Young athletes are very resilient and the experience and self-confidence an athlete can gain from performing well at the Cape Epic, far outweigh the negative impacts of doing the race. To coin a phrase I read recently, which I thought was wonderful from Christoph Sauser: “Out the comfort zone, that’s where the magic happens”.
We heard you were tested by anti-doping (SAIDS) often during the Cape Epic. Were you expecting this? Are you tested out of competition often?
SAIDS is a very proactive organisation in my experience and it is more a surprise if they are not at a race. So, yes if you are competing at the Cape Epic it is no surprise to be tested. I was tested on four separate occasions during the race. Two urine tests and two blood tests.
Yes, I am tested out of competition. I was put onto the whereabouts program or ADAMS system at the beginning of 2009. I have had 63 urine tests and 31 blood tests since the beginning of 2010. I have had one filling failure or strike in 2012.
In comparison to other athletes I am not sure if that is often or not. Currently, who gets tested and when is not made public. Perhaps it would be an interesting idea to make this information public at the end of each year, as it would give the public a more clear image of how the anti-doping systems work. I think the general public would love to be more educated on how the various systems work as it’s not always clear; and this might instil more public confidence in the athletes and their performances.
However, SAIDS is a small organisation, which needs to look after every sporting code in South Africa with limited resources and budget. I think often people in cycling tend to forget that our sport is not the only sport that they (SAIDS) need to worry about.
What do you think needs to be done to help clean up racing so that there isn’t so much suspicion about performances of riders that succeed, especially South Africans.
I can only speak from my personal experience. SAIDS are extremely proactive in the sport of cycling in South Africa. Most top South African cyclists are on the ADAMS system and are tested regularly with blood and urine. A bigger concern, which I think is often overlooked, is foreign athletes who train in South Africa without any whereabouts system compliance. SAIDS might wish to test these athletes, however, it’s impossible for them to find the athletes who aren’t on a whereabouts system.
All the foreign ProTour road riders who train here are on a whereabouts system, so SAIDS can find and test them. And I would expect most of the top XCO mountain bike racers too, since XCO is an Olympic discipline.
I think it’s unjust that they take flack for choosing to train on our shores (we do have a beautiful country with great weather). However, most European marathon mountain bike specialists aren’t on a whereabouts system.
One suggestion I have, although it’s a big ask, would be for the Cape Epic to implement a rule: All top 20-seeded teams have to be on ADAMS in their respective countries and have at least three blood tests in the build up to the Cape Epic. This would create a biological passport for the riders that don’t currently have one and go a long way to minimising the potential for doping; and the public suspicion around it. Any rider without the three random blood tests should not be permitted to start.
It was also very encouraging this year to see the Cape Epic implement a no-needle policy for pro riders when it came to the medical treatment. If you suffered from dehydration or illness and the race doctor had to inject you with some sort of medicine for your own health, no matter what it was, you were excluded from the race. This is a positive move in the right direction.
Back to the Cape Epic, you and Paez looked set to win Stage 4, breaking away up the Botrivier Pass. That mechanical near the end must have really been hugely demoralising? How did you deal with that setback?
For me it was a very rough one. The race had been super hard the previous stages, with plenty of short, punchy climbs and a lot of singletrack. I was also on the limit every day, and as any rider who has done Epic knows, one partner is always stronger than the other. So to finally start to feel good in the first real marathon stage of the race was a fantastic feeling. Getting a good lead heading into the final sections of the race was an ideal situation in the GC battle. Obviously your heart sinks when you start to feel your wheel lose air. Normally it’s a quick a fix; however, the wheel was too damaged and we had to insert a tube, losing time and the lead group of the stage. Obviously every team has setbacks in the Epic and you need to react quickly and professionally and try get on with the job. We did our best under the circumstances and fought back to finish the stage in fifth.
Do you think you’ll take another shot at winning the Cape Epic?
Absolutely! My motivation is already extremely high for 2018. It’s always good to build on a relationship and I think after one Epic, Paez’s and my teamwork can go from strength to strength.