Alban Lakata and Robert Mennen are paired up as one of the favorite teams to take top honors at this year's Absa Cape Epic mountain bike stage race in South Africa. They will race together as Canyon Topeak Ergon.
Lakata, 33, participated in five previous editions of the Cape Epic, whereas this will be the 27-year-old Mennen's second attempt at a podium finish. Together, they boast plenty of experience to face the fast pace promised at this year's event, which will take place on March 17-24 in the Western Cape.
Both Lakata and Mennen have an impressive list of victories behind their names. Lakata was the TransAlp and Leadville 100 winner last year, the 2010 marathon world champion, silver medalist at the 2009 marathon world championships, the 2008 European marathon champion, five-time Austrian marathon national champion and has one World Cup win behind his name. He has won two Cape Epic stages and finished in third place overall in 2010 with Kevin Evans.
Mennen is also last year's winner of the TransAlp, silver medalist in last year's German marathon championships, bronze medalist in the 2012 German cross country national championships, 2012 Bike Marathon Willingen winner and finished in 12th place at the 2012 marathon Worlds. He took second at the UCI World Series Kitzalp Marathon.
Lakata, who started mountain biking in 2000, said his career goal is to win the Cape Epic.
Mennen, who started mountain biking 1998, said, "The Cape Epic is one of the most beautiful bike races in the world, and only a real mountain biker can win this race."
Having won last year's TransAlp with Mennen, Lakata is confident of their abilities. "We won the TransAlp, which is also a tough race, and last year we finished in fifth place in the GC [in the Cape Epic], only one minute and 25 seconds behind the third team. This year finishing on the podium is a goal!"
Mennen said, "The route looks tough, but every time I watch last year's DVD, I want to do this event again."
The two will prepare together by doing the Andalucia Bike Race later this month. "That should be enough. We're not married," said Mennen. "We get along very well. Alban is a very experienced and clever rider, and we're both focused and know how hard we can push each other."
"We believe that we have more potential than finishing in fifth place again. Last year was my first Cape Epic, and I learnt a lot. Until now, my training has gone very well and Alban is also on the right track. Our aim is to improve last year's results and finish on the podium!"
A sample week of training for Lakata this off-season has included two gym sessions per week, two interval training sessions on the bike per week and two longer rides of four to five hours per week on the road. Mennen has been running, spinning and riding, despite near freezing temperatures at his home.
Lakata is looking forward to the two stages in Stellenbosch. He finds the last stages more difficult "because you struggle with the lack of sleep. And crossing the finish line is like getting handcuffs off!"
"My hardest Cape Epic was in 2008, when I got really ill in the middle of the race, and my team forced me to carry on. And my favourite memory was when Kevin Evans, my partner in 2010, helped me to get through the last stages of the 2010 Epic. I know it's a team event, you win and also lose together, but at that time he behaved like a real friend. Riding in the leader's jersey is fantastic, and losing it is not all that great."
Mennen reckons that he and Lakata will need to have "a big portion of luck, be well and fit, and have good legs" to meet their objective.
Lakata's other major goal for the year is to win a world championship medal when the event is held in his home nation of Austria on June 29.