Arizona mountain bikers head to South Africa for world’s most grueling MTB stage race

At least four Arizona mountain bikers will head to South Africa on Tuesday to compete in one of the most grueling mountain bike races in the world.

Phoenix’s Melissa Ross and Scottsdale’s Debra Doss will work together as the only American female duo in the women’s open category of the Absa Cape Epic stage race March 15 to 22. Doss’s husband, Jeff Doss, and his teammate Randall Toltzman will race together in the men’s grand masters category.

“I am excited for the beautiful diverse habitat of this 500 mile adventure as well as meeting so many talented mountain bikers from around the world,” Debra Doss said. “I anticipate several ‘pinch me, this is so amazing’ as well as ‘I can’t believe I paid money for this pain and suffering’ moments.”

The Absa Cape Epic, held in the western Cape region of South Africa, is regarded as the Tour de France of mountain bike stage racing and draws more than 600 duo teams from around the world.

In eight days, riders will cover eight stages of 460 miles and 52,000 feet of climbing. Riders must enter as a two-person team, and teammates must stay within two minutes of one another at all times.

Absa Cape Epic Stages
  • Prologue: 20k/600m  =  12mi / 2,000ft of climbing
  • Stage 1: 113km/2800m  = 70mi / 9,000ft of climbing
  • Stage 2: 92k/2300m  =  57mi / 7,500ft of climbing
  • Stage 3: 128k/2300m  =  80mi / 7,500ft of climbing
  • Stage 4: 111k/2000m  =  69mi / 6,500ft of climbing
  • Stage 5: 117k/2500m  =  73mi / 8,200ft of climbing
  • Stage 6: 71k/2000m  =  44mi / 6,500ft of climbing
  • Stage 7: 87k/1500m  =  54mi / 4,900ft of climbing

Debra Doss, 45, is an amateur cross-country rider in the expert category and has competed in numerous endurance events in the last 10 years. A creative director for Hotwire Development and a mother of three, Doss has also been a volunteer for the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy.

Ross, 29, raced road as a pro in Europe and across the United States. In 2013, she switched her focus to mountain biking and also turned pro. Ross, a full-time cycling coach for FasCat Coaching, won her category at the 2014 Leadville Trail 100, a 100-mile mountain bike race in Leadville, Colo.

Ross and Doss, as Team Bitty Bitty, will compete against some of the toughest mountain biking teams in the world, as the race will offer equal prize money to women for the first time. They are sponsored by Rotor Components, Kenda Tires, Swiftwick Socks, Ride Cyclery Carlsbad, Hotwire Development, Bike Art By Melissa, RockTape, Osprey Packs, Klean Athlete, Sports Tag ID, JLVelo, Reynolds Cycling and Giro.

Jeff Doss and Toltzman, both 53, also as Team Bitty Bitty, will have their work cut out for them in a field of more than 40 teams.

Jeff, who has competed in high-level recreational riding and local endurance events, is the CEO and founder of Hotwire Development and Evolve Technologies in Scottsdale and father of three.

Toltzman, who also has competed in high-level recreational riding and local endurance events is a partner at Juggernaut & Juggernaut Defense Industrial Design.

The four riders have been training since September throughout the Valley, including at the McDowell Mountains, Phoenix Sonoran Preserve, Cave Creek, Black Canyon and Four Peaks, all of which are conditions similar to the dry rocky terrain in South Africa, Ross said.

Here’s what Ross had to say about the upcoming race:

CI: Why Cape Epic?

MR: The Cape Epic is known as the most challenging mountain bike races in the world and one of those races that you put on your bucket list to do.  When the opportunity presented itself, especially to ride with Deb, I couldn’t pass it up!

CI: You have been doing some heavy training on the mountain bike for a couple of years now – why did you make the transition to mainly focus on racing mountain bikes?

MR: When we moved to Arizona from Boston in 2012, I had no idea that there would be mountains in Phoenix!  My husband Aaron and I had just gone through the process of opening a bike shop back east, and at the last minute decided not to do it. That’s when he got a job with Faster and we were looking for a change, so we moved to Arizona. I had just finished the Philly Classic and the Tulsa Tough and pretty much decided the season was over due to the move. So when we arrived here and I saw all mountains, I just had this new excitement of exploring them and immediately got a mountain bike. I still did a full road season in 2013 (was the Copper Cup Champ) and at the same time did a lot of mountain bike racing. Once I got my pro license on the mountain bike, I new if I had to compete at that level, I had to be focused on the mountain bike.

CI: How did you and Debra meet and what do you like about racing together?

MR: We met in 2012. A few of my friends, Liz Vito, Tricia Davis and Gianna Bianchi and I had a weekly girls ride in the McDowells and randomly met Debra Doss and Karen Lewis on the trail. They loved that we had a girls ride and joined us!

CI: How did you prepare for Cape Epic?

MR: I have done more hours on the bike than I ever have in my life, including when I trained for NRC stage races! We started training in September with resistance training and weights at the gym and since then have spent most weekends riding together for several hours a day. We have also done big blocks of training with four or more days of riding lots of hours and lots of climbing.

CI: What’s the trick to staying within two minutes of your teammate?

Deb and I have probably spent more than 100 hours on the bike together, so we have a great dynamic and know how to pace each other, encourage each other and remember to remind each other to constantly drink and eat.

CI: What are your goals for this race?

MR: Since this is a world class event, we really don’t know what to expect. We will be competing against top UCI teams and the most decorated female mountain biker in the world [Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå of Norway]! However, we have trained hard so we know we can finish this race and we would like to make it a goal to beat at least one UCI team. We also want to enjoy the adventure and remember to pick our heads up and look around at the beautiful landscape we’ll be passing through!


Sarah Muench