By Nic Lamond in Cape Town, South Africa
Almost one out of every five riders in the 2008 Absa Cape Epic didn't cross the finish line in Lourensford on Saturday. Many of those who did, did so alone, having said good-bye to their riding partners somewhere along the treacherous route. Of the 598 two-person teams that signed up in Knysna at the race start, just 436 were still intact by race end. It seems the race's reputation as a tough test of skill and will survives for at least another year.
Women's winner Pia Sundstedt (Rocky Mountain) endorsed the Absa Cape Epic's credentials, remarking, "I have done many stage races in the world - the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia - but I felt like I did at the end of those races on the first day of the Epic."
Sundstedt and Canadian team-mate Alison Sydor had a slow start to this year's race with some mechanical trouble and Pia's niggling knee injury but rode stronger every day, surprising all by placing 27th in GC and beating the first-placed mixed team of Ivonne Kraft and Nico Pfitzenmaier (Joybike-Maloja Express). "The top mixed teams raced hard," Sydor admitted, "We saw it first hand! But it is great to race in a women's team - it is a different dynamic. It is great to know you share the responsibilities. It is important to have a partner you trust coming in, who will give their all. I have never felt the team spirit like that of mountain bike stage racing."
Sydor agreed with Sundstedt's impression of the Absa Cape Epic: "It's the toughest sporting event I've done in my life - it's a long ride, but a great ride."
Pfitzenmaier was ecstatic about their victory in the mixed category after nine long days battling it out with the second-placed South African pair of Yolandè de Villiers and Johan Labuschagne (Cyclelab Toyota). He revealed the secret to the German pair's winning partnership after the race. "You need to be calm, patient and optimistic and you need to look around and enjoy what you're doing. High five the kids when you ride past them - such moments give you such power. You go through all the stages in life: the joy and the tears. It makes the race so intense." An emotional Ivonne Kraft agreed, "There's fun, pain, exhaustion and happiness at the end."
The masters category was won by the South African and Swiss pairing of Doug Brown and Barti Bucher. The unlikely duo had met as competitors last year at the TransAlp Challenge. Brown knew in an instant that Bucher had the mettle to survive Africa's toughest race when he saw him riding hard with a broken pedal. The fact that neither of them speak the other's language was not an issue according to Brown, "There's not much talking anyway. Mountain biking is not a verbal sport, but there's plenty of swearing and body language. You know how your partner is doing!"
For Barti Bucher the Absa Cape Epic came as a surprise, "Before I got to South Africa I thought [the Epic] would be 'nice' riding. I would see some parks and some game. But on the first day I didn't see a thing!" The Swiss believes the Absa Cape Epic rewards a very specific type of rider. "You have to be a complete rider. You have to know how to ride in sand, sun and mud."
See Cyclingnews'full coverage of the Cape Epic.