Finnish national champion Jukka Vastaranta and Dutch National Champion Jelmer Pietersma will participate together in this year's Absa Cape Epic as team Milka-Trek 2. The mountain bike stage race will start on March 27 and wrap up on April 3.
Vastaranta, 26, started mountain biking when he was nine and participated in his first race when he was 11, but he said that he does not really know what to expect of his very first Cape Epic.
As an accomplished mountain bike and road bike athlete, Vastaranta was the European junior mountain bike champion in 2001, the Finnish elite mountain bike champion in 2001, 2009 and 2010, and also came fourth at the European marathon championships. As a road biker, he was the junior winner of the World Cup in 2001, finished second at the World Championships in 2002, won a stage at the Ster Electro Tour in 2005, and came in second at the Tour of Luxembourg in 2005. In 2009, he also raced with the Finnish National Team.
Pietersma, 28, has twice been the under 23 Dutch mountain bike champion and was the winner of the Tour De France VTT in 2009.
Although it will be Vastaranta's first Cape Epic, Pietersma is returning for his second time after participating last year. "The Absa Cape Epic is one of the biggest races in the world. I thoroughly enjoyed the 2010 event. During the first stages, I felt really strong - we were riding for the podium and took a stage victory. However, I got sick after stage 4 and then it was a struggle for me to get to the finish.
"This year I have a very strong riding partner in Vastaranta, so I hope I'll be able to get my revenge on last year by riding a good Cape Epic without any illness or problems, achieving a great result."
The two riders have similar styles despite their different sizes.
"We're not really climbers, but we can if we have to," said Vastaranta. "When we compete in the same events, we also usually achieve similar results, so I believe we're of equal strength which is great."
Pietersma, however, said that Vastaranta underestimates what a good climber he (Vastaranta) is. "He is strong in the climbs as well as being good with the downhills. I'm also not bad at climbs and downhills, but I'm also strong in the flat parts - so we're a good team."
Although winning is their goal, Vastaranta is not overly confident. "The last month hasn't been exactly perfect. In fact, I haven't been able to ride any longer than three hours at a time. So we'll just have to see what happens," he said.
Pietersma agreed that winning the Cape Epic is very hard, stating: "The world's best riders will participate and it's also important to have no problems with your health or equipment. So it's very hard to say that you think you'll be able to win. But we're in good shape and if we don't have much problems we can go for a podium finish for sure. The race is often won by the team that has the least problems."
Apart from riding together for a couple of minutes at the various events they participate in, the two have not been able to train together due to their different geographical locations. "I don't really have a training programme, but just try to go for long rides. However, the last couple of months have been bad in this regard."
Pietersma believes that the fact that they are not able to train together is not necessarily negative. "Everyone has their own trainers and training methods. And I think that's a good thing when you compete at this level. A rider must do what he thinks is best for himself and what is good for me, is not always good for another rider. We all do the best we can to prepare, but we do it in different ways," he said.
Pietersma's goals for 2011 include becoming the Dutch National cross country and marathon Champion, achieving a top 15 placement in the cross country World Cup, being in the top 15 at the World Championships, and making it into the top 10 at the European Championship.
Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for full coverage of the Cape Epic mountain bike stage race.