Darren Lill and Charles Keey are the top contenders for the African jersey in this year's Cape Epic. In 2013, these two riders were matching the top riders in the world, pedal stroke for pedal stroke, at the front of the field. This will be Lill's second Cape Epic and Keey's fifth. Together they will take on the challenging South African stage race from March 23 to March 30.
Lill only started mountain biking in 2011 while Keey has been around a bit longer, having switched from what he called a "frustrating" road scene to mountain biking in 2009.
"By 2010, I was fully converted to the dark side," said Keey. "The Cape Epic offers you the opportunity to ride on home soil against the best mountain bikers in the world, in the biggest event of its type in the world, how could I say no? I'm so lucky to have been given the opportunity to compete in the last four events and hoping there are many more to come. Although I've had good results in the past, I still don't think I've nailed the result I'm capable of achieving."
Lill is confident that the African jersey is well within their reach. "We also have the potential to finish on the podium overall. This year, my goal is to retain some extra weight going into the Cape Epic. It will help me with more strength on the rough and flat terrain, as well as act as a buffer from getting sick as I did last year due to a stomach bug, coming into the event too light. It weakens your immune system."
Keey said, "It's always very difficult to judge what kind of form all the Europeans will be coming to South Africa with. It's a much more open field this year with a couple of new partnerships forming and many 'dark horse' teams coming from Europe that have stellar resumes but no one knows their form.
"The cross country World Cup, a couple of days after the Cape Epic, might deter some of the cross country stars from the overall and lead them to focus on stage wins. On the flip side, this is the peak of our season, we race ultra marathons all the time and we know not to run light tires! I'm quietly confident that with a little luck on our side, Darren and I are going to be able to accomplish more than we hoped for.
"Fortunately we are both based in Cape Town so we try to get together at least three times a week. We're also on the same race programme, so a lot of travelling together helps the bond."
Both Lill and Keey boast an impressive list of victories behind their names. Lill, 31, was the King of the Mountain in the 2012 Volta ao Alentejo, National Road Champion (2011), African Continental Road Champion (2007 and 2006) and the 2007 Nevada City Classic winner. He also won the Pick 'n Pay 94.7 Cycle Challenge in 2005 and represented South Africa at the Commonwealth Games and World Championships.
Keey, 27, finished first in the Sabie Marathon World Series last year and in sixth place at the Sabie Marathon World Cup. He was second overall in the Sani2C and was the South African Student Road & Mountain Bike Champion. He finished on the podium in the Absa African jersey in 2011.
Lill is hoping their hard work and good risk management will help them be successful while Keey cited having the right partner and proper team support as critical.
Keey said, "I've raced in Robertson and Grabouw, but I've never done a Cape Epic that went through Greyton, so I'm looking forward to a new venue for sure. I think Darren and I are going to be better prepared than last year and a year's experience of racing together will make all the difference. I'm also looking forward to do good battle for the red jersey."
Lill reckons a stage win this year is at the top of his list of goals while Keey hopes to be the number one ranked South African rider in the upcoming marathon world championships in South Africa in June of this year.