In keeping with the continued international growth of marathons and stage races, the decision to place more emphasis on quality over quantity has led to an almost 40 per cent increase in entries for the 2012 Bridge Cape Pioneer Trek mountain bike stage race, which takes place from October 14-20 in South Africa's Western Cape Province.
Not surprisingly, the majority of the field for the fourth edition of the seven-day stage race is composed of South Africans, with a growing international contingent eager to join in.
Eighteen per cent of the total entrants will compete in the increasingly popular solo category and the remainder in two-rider teams. Many of the more established high profile mountain bike stage races only offer a two-rider team option.
The international entries make up 25 per cent of the total field, with Switzerland boasting almost half of the international representation and the second biggest nation entry after South Africa. The remaining nations represented are The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, United Kingdom, Australia, Namibia and Austria.
"We're very excited about the growing numbers, both in total and the international segment," said Henco Rademeyer of Dryland Events, the organisers. "Our decision to tighten up the stages in terms of overall distance and difficulty is likely to ensure even bigger numbers in 2013, since the experience should be more memorable and attractive."
The difficulty of the race has been increasing each year, and the 2011 six-day event had a total of 659 kilometres with 12,670 metres of vertical ascent - a significant challenge, even for the professionals. But the organisers decided to take a new approach and focus instead on quality, not quantity. So the 2012 edition will take place over seven days with a total of 534km and 11,516m of vertical ascent.
"With the abundance of brutal terrain at our disposal, it's simple to make a race ridiculously hard. But there comes a tipping point where it starts to put the riders off. We decided less is more when it comes to the Cape Pioneer Trek and have revamped it to be more a race than a survival test," said Rademeyer.
There's still a quantity element in the race with stage 2 offering a serious challenge and a substantial reward. The event's signature stage invites riders to climb a massive 2,760 metres in just 85 kilometres. The first team to the mountain top finish on the peaks of the Swartberg Pass will pocket R100000 (US $12000), the biggest stage win prize money for a mountain bike stage race anywhere in the world.
In addition to the solo category, there is also a masters category within the team division. This is for riders that are aged 50 and over, which is quite rare in stage racing.
"It requires a greater effort from a support perspective to offer a solo category because as the race organisers, we need to keep track of the individual racers and ensure they're safe throughout each stage. With two-rider teams, each rider is aware of the safety of his/her partner, which makes it a lot easier for the organisers," said Carel Herholdt of Dryland Events.
"A masters category is a must-have. It's really tough for riders in their 50s and 60s to compete against riders in their early 40s. It's important to give this age group recognition and a reason to be more competitive. Through our new title sponsor, Bridge, this is now possible," said Herholdt.
This is the first year of a five-year sponsorship by Bridge, a financial solutions company. The corporate backing from Bridge, along with a R100,000 (US $12,000) contribution from headline sponsor, Wilde Juices, has helped enable the organisers to increase the prize money across all categories, with a total prize purse of R300,000 (US $37,000). The duo categories are: open men, open women, open mixed, veteran (40-49 years) and master (50 years and over). There are also categories for solo men and solo women.