There will be no easing into 2013 for mountain bike marathon racers. The Attakwas Extreme Challenge in Oudtshoorn, South Africa is regarded by most as the toughest single-day marathon race in the country and on Saturday, the seventh edition will guarantee another brutal season-opening test
Three-time Cape Epic winner and former marathon world champion Christoph Sauser (36ONE Songo Specialized) from Switzerland and four-time Cape Epic winner Karl Platt (Team Bulls) from Germany are among the favorites on the start line.
Heading up the "local" men's line-up is reigning South African Marathon Champion Max Knox (Specialized) and defending champion Matthys Beukes (CangoMTB.com). For Beukes, who lives nearby, there's a definite homeground advantage, but Knox's run of victories in the final quarter of 2012 make him a significant threat to Beukes' quest for back-to-back wins.
Other South Africans with an eye on the podium, if not the title, include Philip Buys (Scott Sports), former South African road race champion Darren Lill and former professional road racer with Team Sky, John Lee Augustyn, making a comeback to bike racing following a lengthy injury-related layoff. Former joBerg2c winner Waylon Woolcock and his Team RE:CM stablemates, Erik Kleinhans and Lourens Luus, will also have podium aspirations following a summer of solid training, as will 2012 Attakwas runner-up Charles Keey.
Sauser and Platt are unlikely to have the same form as their South African rivals following a bitterly cold European winter, but they've both been in South Africa over recent weeks wouldn't have entered if they didn't believe their form was good enough for a shot at the title.
Conspicuous by his absence will be former three-time winner Kevin Evans. The 33-year-old multiple South African marathon champion, now riding for the FedGroup ITEC team, underwent abdominal surgery in December and is still returning to full health.
The race will cover 121km, with 3000m of climbing - two thirds of it in the final half of the race.
The women's race boasts probably its strongest line-up of title contenders yet. All four previous winners will be on the start line: Yolande de Villiers (winner in 2007 and 2008), 2009 champion Ischen Stopforth, 2010 winner Yolande Speedy and two-time winner and defending champion Ariane Kleinhans (Team RE:CM).
Also on the entry list are former Cape Epic women's winners Sharon Laws and Hanlie Booyens. Laws is the current British Road Race Champion, but will once again be teaming up with Booyens for the 2013 Cape Epic and will use Attakwas as a key form tester.
The veteran men's (over 40) category is once again expected to be a hotly contested division and includes Robert Sim and Nico Pfitzenmaier, winners of the veteran title at the 2012 Bridge Cape Pioneer Trek stage race, which took place over some of the same route as Attakwas in October last year.
In the short history of the race, podium contenders have never been as plentiful. This is partly due to the Attakwas Extreme Challenge being named by Cycling South Africa as one of eight qualifying events for national team selection to the 2013 marathon world championships; and partly because it's the best form tester for the Cape Epic, which takes place in March. There's just enough time (56 days) before the Cape Epic to still alter the training for riders that face Attakwas disappointment.
The Attakwas marathon has attracted a record entry of just fewer than 800 riders, who will be pleased to know that a cooler day has been forecast (partly cloudy with a 27-degree Celsius maximum) for race day. Just finishing the Attakwas Extreme Challenge is considered a respectable feat, and there will be many aiming to beat the 11-hour cut-off.