Picture: GETTY IMAGES/AFP/RODGER BOSCH
Picture: GETTY IMAGES/AFP/RODGER BOSCH

Last week the annual Absa Cape Epic returned to the Western Cape. The race, which has been described as the "Tour de France of mountain biking", ran from March 17 to 24. It’s a staged race covering about 700km of tough terrain, and contested by a maximum of 650 two-person teams.

In addition to the physical trials taken on by these brave (foolhardy?) 1,300 riders, the race itself is a huge logistical challenge because of its full-service nature. This means that a 1,000-strong organisation team lays on everything riders might need, including buffet breakfasts and dinners, tented accommodation, showers, a field hospital, a media centre, live entertainment, lounge areas, and even a bike wash service at the end of each stage.

The race, first staged in 2004, grew exponentially, attracting top local and international riders. Around the decade anniversary mark, the organisers realised they had to up their game in one critical area: connectivity.

After a chance encounter between Epic founder Kevin Vermaak and a manager at Dimension Data (on an unrelated trail ride one weekend), the technology company signed on to provide connectivity to the distributed area of the race route itself and the race villages, an undertaking of epic (forgive me) proportions.

"In that first year [2015] the core team was knackered by the Tuesday," recalls Dimension Data’s Wolf Stinnes. "There wasn’t anyone on the team that hadn’t pulled a 24-or even 36-hour shift without sleep. We were looking the worse for wear compared to the riders, but by the Thursday or Friday, we’d got into a rhythm and the riders were taking strain after 400km of cycling, and the pendulum swung in our favour."

This year is the fifth year of the partnership, and the scope of the connectivity platform continues to grow — with always-on critical services (such as medical, managed by Mediclinic), as well as bandwidth-hungry media teams, demanding more and more each year.

The Dimension Data team lays out a fibre-ring infrastructure as the base of this platform, with extras like Wi-Fi "bubbles" along the route. And given the remoteness of the locations, this means extending the network to the closest point available. "Often when we get to locations, six to four months in advance, there is nothing there and we need to set up from scratch," says Stinnes. "In the first year, we put in a 70Mbps primary link, and used satellite as our backup because of the remoteness. We had 100Mbps in total, and that was considered next-level at the time."

Since then, he says, the number of journalists covering the event has more than doubled each year, and some have upgraded their video quality to full HD. Despite this, "they get their material out there at twice the speed".

In addition to worldwide media coverage, medical and operations personnel are priority users of the network. And the providers had to earn the trust of the medical partners over time.

"In 2014," Stinnes says, "Mediclinic brought their own server out here with their own stored copy of riders’ medical information, downloaded ahead of time. By 2016 that had changed, [Mediclinic] having become comfortable with the reliability and capacity of our platform. So they were able to access their home-base infrastructure via the cloud, which gave them more access and information on riders. They are now better able to treat the patients with rich information on demand."

In 2017, for example, medics had to treat and support a rider who arrived at the starting point having been stung by a scorpion. The rider, luckily, had snapped a picture of the offending creature on his phone. Through remote consulting with experts, Mediclinic staff identified the exact type of scorpion and the right treatment for the sting. "They were able to treat him and get him on the start line for the last batch of starters setting off, and he finished that stage and ultimately the whole race," says Stinnes.

Scorpions are just part of the nearly biblical tests the Cape Epic holds for participants and organisers. Stinnes says in the years he’s been involved (four as a Dimension Data team member, and one as a rider), he’s seen floods, dust and rain. "One year we got a panicked call from a farmer near the race village to say we’d broken one of his tractors. Turns out the farm manager had decided to mow all his lawns around the race village so they would look better on the aerial footage, and he had mowed over cables and chewed up about 150m of fibre."

Stinnes says organisers were expecting a throughput of 4TB-5TB of data from media producers a day on the last weekend of the race, when coverage peaks. The network also now supports innovations like connected bikes that are capturing media and data and transmitting it from all over the route, including live-streaming.