The 2016 Absa Cape Epic starting on Sunday is shaping up to be a thriller as several teams jockey for the crown previously worn by five-time winner Christoph Sauser.
Two teams have emerged as equal favourites: the Team Bulls combination of German Karl Platt and Swiss Urs Huber and the Topeak Ergon Racing pairing of Austrian Alban Lakata and Czech Kristian Hynek. Platt is just one win away from equalling Sauser’s record and has been in excellent form in recent races. Huber is yet to win the race but is a power rider who is bound to end up on the top step of the podium one day.
Strongman Lakata, the reigning marathon world champion, has finished sixth, fifth, fourth, third and second and more than once has been robbed of possible victory by bad luck: generally mechanical problems. His partner Hynek has raced the Epic twice, winning with German Robert Mennen in 2014 and finishing second with Lakata last year.
They will, however, know that if they falter several other teams will be set to swoop. New to the Epic are Greece’s Periklis Ilias and Portuguese champion Tiago Ferreira (Dolomiti Superbike), but both have outstanding records in marathon racing and showed good form recently by winning the six-day Andalucia Bike Race in Spain.
Italians Damiano Farraro and Samuele Porro (Trek-Selle San Marco) are also Cape Epic newcomers with impressive marathon racing records who will be determined to feature at the sharp end of the racing.
Three South African combinations will be scrapping for the Absa African special jersey – for the first team from the continent to finish – but will also be eyeing the overall podium. Darren Lill and Waylon Woolcock (USN Purefit), Nico Bell and Gawie Combrinck (NAD Pro MTB) and James Reid and Gert Heyns (Spur) all have the ability to rattle the European domination of the event.
Youngsters Reid and Heyns will have to overcome being thrown together at the 11th-hour after their scheduled teammates pulled out but they are both highly talented, have good records over longer distances and might be aiming to spring a surprise or two.
Sauser has retired from the professional ranks but will be in the field and riding with Kayamandi, Stellenbosch, youngster Sipho Madolo (Investec Songo Specialized). The latter is bound to gain valuable insights into racing from Sauser and shed some sweat trying to stay with the veteran, who is still remarkably quick on his bike.
In the Women’s category Ariane Kleinhans of Switzerland and Annika Langvad of Denmark (Spur-Specialized) will start as clear favourites for a third successive victory. They have an excellent team dynamic, are outstanding athletes and are both clever tactical riders.
But they are unlikely to have things their own way this year. Four combinations in particular have the pedigree to challenge for the overall win.
Foremost of these at the moment is probably the combination of England’s Sally Bigham, herself a former winner, and German Adel Morath (Topeak Ergon). Bigham is a former women’s winner and is determined to put two years of bad luck behind her.
Esther Süss of Switzerland has won the category twice and has teamed up with Briton Catherine Williamson (Meerendal Wheeler) this year in another strong combination.
Also in the field and as strong as anybody on paper are German Sabine Spitz, a former Olympic gold medallist, and her young partner, Yana Belomoina of the Ukraine (Sport for Good). They are, however, both first-timers in an event that generally rewards those who have experienced it before.
South African hopes will lie with national marathon champion Robyn de Groot, in excellent form recently, and her partner, Swede Jennie Stenerhag (Ascendis Health). They finished second to the Langvad/Kleinhans combination last year and are now a slick and accomplished combination.
For the first time in the 13-year history of the Absa Cape Epic the race will each day have a separate starting batch for the elite women riders, a move designed to make for more equal and better racing in the category.
The Absa Cape Epic starts on Sunday (March 13) with a Prologue at Meerendal Wine Estate, Durbanville, and then seven stages which will take the riders to Tulbagh, Wellington and Stellenbosch. The race finishes on March 20 when it returns to Meerendal for the Grand Finale.
* The 2016 Absa Cape Epic mountain bike stage race takes place from 13 to 20 March and the much anticipated route can be viewed here. The 2016 race will host the 100th stage in the history of the event – the EPIC100 – on Tuesday 15 March.
Some sun, some rain and a bit of wind too…
Five-time Absa Cape Epic winner Christoph Sauser likes to point out that you can’t predict how tough a mountain bike route will be without knowing what the conditions are like.
Fundamental to those conditions is the weather: a headwind is ghastly, but a tailwind is terrific. Rain can settle down trails nicely, but too much can churn up mud and damage equipment. Heat can take its toll, as can extreme cold.
In years gone by Absa Cape Epic competitors have faced weather that has ranged from bitterly cold and wet to tropically hot – and everything between those extremes. Many of the 2016 riders will this week have been poring over weather reports while taking a break from packing, last-minute preparation and managing the butterflies in their stomachs.
If the long-range weather reports are anything to go by, they will be expecting a mixed bag: some showers (maybe), some plus 30ºC days, and some wind.
Conditions for Sunday’s Prologue at Meerendal Wine Estate in Durbanville should be cool but quite windy. Accuweather is, however, predicting “morning showers” and a maximum temperature of 21ºC. The much vaunted yr.no (http://yr.no) site says there might be showers on Saturday evening but the day in question will be cloudy with a “fresh breeze”. It also predicts a maximum of 21ºC.
On Sunday evening the race will decamp to Tulbagh and on Monday’s Stage 1 the heat will be turned up. Both yr.no (http://yr.no) and Accuweather are predicting maximums of 33ºC with little wind. Accuweather says the day will be “sunny, pleasant and warmer” but most riders would prefer a cooler day.
Stage 2 travels around Tulbagh and it will again be hot: yr.no (http://yr.no) is predicting 32ºC and Accuweather 33ºC, and both agree that there will be little wind.
On Stage 3 riders will travel from Tulbagh to Wellington, which is also shaping up to be warm. Well, yr.no (http://yr.no) says the mercury will touch 32ºC but Accuweather is predicting a more modest 28ºC. There might be a “moderate breeze” early on but it seems destined to ease off as the day goes on.
Stage 4 stays in Wellington and yr.no (http://yr.no) says it will still be hot – 30ºC with a light breeze. However, Accuweather is predicting that it will be “warm with some sun” and a maximum of 26ºC.
Stage 5 – a transition from Wellington to Stellenbosch – is where the predictions diverge: Accuweather says there will be showers in Wellington and “a little rain” in Stellenbosch, while yr.no (http://yr.no) is convinced it will be clear. Both are as one though on the fact that the maximum will be 25ºC and there will be a bit more wind about: a “light breeze”, says yr.no (http://yr.no).
yr.no (http://yr.no) is, however, predicting that the rain will hit Stellenbosch on Saturday for Stage 6’s route around the area: it is expecting a significant 4,4mm to fall between 8am and 2pm and a maximum temperature of just 17ºC. Accuweather, by sharp contrast, is anticipating a “partly sunny” day with a maximum of 26ºC. They agree, however that there will be a bit of a breeze around.
And then it is the Grand Finale, the final stage that takers riders from Stellenbosch back to Meerendal. yr.no (http://yr.no) is expecting a droplet or two early on in Durbanville and a maximum of 21ºC, but Accuweather says it’ll get to 25ºC, there won’t be any rain and there will be “clouds and sun”. They agree that there will be little wind.
All pretty promising given that there are no extreme extremes anticipated, but bear in mind that long-range weather forecasting is not an exact science …
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