South African Erik Kleinhans and his Swiss wife, Ariane, are the undisputed fastest married couple in the world of marathon mountain bike racing. Last year, they won the Cape Epic mixed category against a classy field and also claimed the mixed division titles at the 2012 Nedbank Sani2c, Old Mutual joBerg2c and Columbia Grape Escape stage races.
Racing for Team RE:CM in 2013, they've been in good form in their respective individual categories and are primed to defend their Cape Epic title when the 2013 edition of the mountain bike stage race starts in Durbanville, South Africa on Sunday.
As professional mountain bike racers, they're in the rare position of spending more time together than most couples, tackling daily training rides in the trails around their home town of Stellenbosch, South Africa, spending up to six hours together on the bike and then more time together off the bike.
"We separate our riding and racing from our personal life. We've learned to do that because racing mountain bikes is our job. We just happen to work together. In a way it's a benefit that we know each other so well because we can share concerns and calm one another's nerves ahead of a race a lot easier than other mixed teams who may not even do much training together," said Erik.
While the strength of a mixed team is determined by the female's ability, the male's judgment and planning are key.
"I need to know when Ariane's able to push hard and when she's tired. I need to know which technical terrain she can ride and which she'll be nervous of riding. I need to know how to motivate her and when to do so. There's a lot of emotion management that goes on in mixed team racing and it can make or break a stage performance."
For Ariane, the biggest challenge is avoiding crashes and mechanical incidents. During the opening prologue stage last year, she damaged her front tyre on a rocky section and they lost valuable minutes. They reclaimed their lost time the following day, but had added pressure to do so.
"Physically and mentally we are so well prepared this year. But the uncertainty of a mechanical problem or a fall is something I'm constantly mindful of during the race. As the female, I'm usually pushing my limits more than Erik would be, which puts me at a higher risk of an incident that could cause a delay. I have to really concentrate hard all the time. Crossing the finish line is such a relief, but we get to share the reward if we win," smiled Ariane.
"We've minimised our risk of tyre problems by choosing the most robust Bontrager tyres possible for the race. We'd rather sacrifice a little bit of time for the weight penalty than risk losing a lot of time to tyre repair issues," said Erik.
The Team RE:CM couple sees three teams likely to be threats to their successful title defence next week: Team Biogen Britehouse's Theresa Ralph and Damian Perrin; the Rodish Race team of Peter Vesel and Anni Helstern and the Target-Trek-Moroni pair of Peta Mullins and Jarrod Moroni.
"Those are the teams we feel will be overall podium contenders this year. We'll be aware of them throughout," said Erik. "But we've stepped our preparation up too this year so have the right amount of confidence in place.
"With RE:CM, we have, for the first time, a properly professional set-up. We will be staying in buildings (not tents), will have a full-time dedicated manager/soigneur in Kandice Buys and a full-time mechanic in Magnus Gouws.
"Both of them are so experienced with bike racing. It's a real advantage to have that support just in the build-up. During the race it will count even more. This is after all our most important race of the year."
"As the defending champions, there's a lot of pressure on Erik and Ariane. But they've prepared really well and we've thrown our full support and infrastructure behind them," said Malcolm Lange of Lange Sports, the company that owns and manages Team RE:CM.
"The Cape Epic is a tough, unpredictable race. A small problem can turn into a big loss of time and we've made sure all controllable areas have been covered. Now it's up to Erik and Ariane to bring it all together one day at a time," said Lange.