The tenth edition of the Absa Cape Epic promises to be the most exciting edition to date. Last year's three Olympic medalists will compete for top honours with current and past world champions.
In the men's category, there are some serious podium contenders. One of the top teams is the Bulls with Karl Platt and Urs Huber. Platt has won more Cape Epics than any other rider. At four out of nine, he is clearly a stage race specialist. He has also won the TransAlp Challenge, the Trans Germany and a long list of others. His teammate Huber is a stage race specialist, with some impressive titles to his name, even though he is only 27. He has won the TransAlp and has twice taken line honours at the grueling Crocodile Trophy in Australia.
The most successful duo in the history of the race Karl Platt and Stefan Sahm were master tacticians with a never say die attitude and near-telepathic team dynamic. In 2013, this newly paired Bulls team is an unknown quantity. Without that charmed Platt and Sahm team dynamic, Platt will need to spend a little extra energy reigning Huber in. But if their rivals make even the slightest mistake, Platt will not hesitate for a second to capitalise.
The Topeak-Ergon team of Alban Lakata and Robert Mennen is another to watch. Lakata bears the rainbow stripes of a former world championship victory on his sleeve. The Austrian strongman has six Cape Epic finishes under his belt, with varying levels of success experiences. After a low-key performance in 2007 with Roman Peter, he teamed with Bart Brentjens in 2008 and hung on for deal life for a stage win in Swellendam. With Kevin Evans, he won stage 1 in 2010 and held the race lead 'til a disastrous wheel incident cost them their leaders' jerseys. Teamed with business science student and Epic rookie Mennen, the two managed a creditable fifth place in 2012 and later in the year won TransAlp together. This is the team that has Platt and Huber's attention in 2013.
The second Bulls team of Thomas Dietsche and Tim Boehme hope to make their mark. Dietsch and Boehme have ridden in support of two of Platt and Sahm's three successful Cape Epic campaigns. They have helped by pulling their team leaders along in their slipstream in certain critical sections of the race, and also acted as 'organ donors' in the event of Platt or Sahm having a mechanical. When Sahm's form faltered in 2012, Dietsche and Boehme were relieved of their duties and set free to ride for themselves, ending up fourth overall. Team dynamics play a vital role in the race, and only one other contending duo in the race (Lakata and Mennen) has had as much experience competing together at the Cape Epic. This is a well-oiled combination.
The Burry Stander - Songo team consisting of Christoph Sauser and Jaroslav Kulhavy will be riding in support of their fallen friend and teammate Burry Stander, and will have extra motivation in 2013. Aiming to equal Karl Platt's record four Cape Epic wins, Sauser is the most versatile and decorated of all riders racing today. He is a multiple World Cup winner, Olympic medalist and former cross country and marathon world champion. He has won the Cape Epic three times - the first time partnered with Silvio Bundi, the next two with the late Burry Stander. Jaroslav Kulhavy is the current Olympic gold medalist and former world cross country champion and is currently ranked number 3 in the world. New to long course stage racing, this will be Kulhavy's first Cape Epic. He is a specialist at lap racing - high intensity efforts over 90 minutes. A typical stage can last up to five and a half hours, plus there is the compounding fatigue over the course of the week, so Kulhavy will need to measure his efforts each day and learn how to recover well. Fortunately he has a good teacher.
Scott-Swisspower team Nino Schurter and Florian Vogel need no introduction. Twenty-six year-old Schurter is the number one cross country rider in the world today. In 2012, he won all but two of the UCI World Cup races he entered, took silver at the London Olympics and ended his season with a world title winning performance in Saalfelden, Austria. Vogel is one of Switzerland's finest cross country riders, having been chosen to represent his country at the Olympics from a stellar squad of hopefuls. He's a former European cross country champion and Swiss cross country and cyclo-cross champion. Their debut at the 2010 Cape Epic was low key, apart from two electrifying stages. In both, the Swiss pair's plans were stymied, the first by mechanical failure, and on the penultimate day, Schurter ran out of steam 5km from the line. This year, they are older and wiser, and also well-accustomed to working in alliance - a team dynamic that will stand them in good stead while hunting for stage wins.
José Hermida and Rudi van Houts of Multivan Merida are a fun-loving pair, but when the chips are down, they can certainly show the viewers what world class mountain biking is all about. Hermida's palmares speak for themselves - he took silver at the 2004 Olympic Games and fourth place at the 2012 Olympics, in 2010 he was cross country world champion and holds three gold medals at the European Championships. He has won three stages at the Cape Epic and in 2013 has said he'd like to aim for an overall ranking. Fresh-faced Van Houts is no softy and has garnered some impressive titles. Apart from two stage wins at the Cape Epic (riding with Bart Brentjens and Hermida, respectively), he is a two-time Dutch cross country champion and had been voted Dutch Mountain Biker of the Year three times.
Newcomers to the race, Marco Fontana and Manuel Fumic of Cannondale Factory Racing, are not short of credentials. Fontana took Bronze at the 2012 Olympic Games and as a youngster won the 2008 cross country European championships. He is a five-time Italian cross country champion and four-time Italian cyclo-cross champion. Fumic won the under 23 cross country world championships in 2004 and was seventh at the London Olympics, shortly after being crowned German cross country champion. They are here at the Cape Epic on a reconnaissance mission and to hunt for stage wins. Look out for them on the shorter days.
Two-time marathon world champion Roel Paulissen has won 12 stages at the Cape Epic, finishing at the top of the overall podium twice. The first time was with mountain bike legend Bart Brentjens and the second was with Jakob Fuglsang, who now rides for pro road cycling team Saxo-Tinkoff. He has won a record ten Belgium cross country championships and has represented his country at four Olympic Games - an impressive CV indeed. Although Italian Yader Zoli has won three Italian cross country championships, he is unlikely to be on the likes of Platt and Sauser's radars - that was almost five years ago. But if they are in good shape, this relative anonymity could be used to their advantage when making an escape in a long stage early in the week. They will be riding as Torpado Surfingshop.
The ladies category is bound to be as exciting as the men's this year. BMC Wheeler team Esther Süss and Jane Nuessli will ride together for the first time. Süss is a two-time winner, once in the mixed category and once in the ladies. She started cycling in 1998 and has been world marathon champion. At 38, she placed fifth in the London Olympics, racing against women 10 years younger and more. Nuessli is 35 and is one of the top marathon racers in the world. With teamwork being a major factor when it comes to success at the Cape Epic, their only weakness is that they have never competed together at the race. As professional athletes, they will surely have what it takes to overcome that.
Topeak-Ergon’s Sally Bigham and Milena Landtwing is most probably the only team that can test the Süss / Nuessli duo. After a successful campaign in 2012 with Ester Süss, Bigham is now on a new team with Swiss rider Landtwing. Bigham heads the UCI World Marathon rankings and has thrice been crowned British champion. Landtwing is a former Swiss marathon champion and TransAlp winner. She won a stage last year at the race and placed second overall in the mixed category.
In the masters category, there are some mountain biking legends to watch out for. This year, former Cape Epic overall winner Bart Brentjens teams up with South African Rob Sim as team Superior Brentjens 2. In 2005, Brentjens won emphatically, partnered with Roel Paulissen, and has been a regular on the podium ever since. Originally a market gardener by trade, mountain biking legend Bart Brentjens has had the longest career at the top in mountain biking history. Since the early nineties he has earned himself a world cross country title and Olympic gold and bronze medals. Brentjens' reputation as a 'partner killer' precedes him. He has never started with the same one twice and it is not an unusual sight to see Brentjens on a long lone breakaway, with an exhausted partner battling on in his wake. But Sim is no slouch - till the start of stage 5 at the 2012 Absa Cape Epic, him and Nico Pfitzenmaier were leading Brentjens and partner Weevers in their category by over 45 minutes till a crash forced Pfitzenmaier out of the race. Sim seems to get stronger each year and judging by Brentjens recent remarks to the press, they will be evenly matched to take on this tough category.
Nico Pfitzenmaier and Abraao Azevedo will be racing as team Bridge. With terrible luck last year during the dreadful conditions at the race in 2012 on stage 5, Pfitzenmaier crashed out, unable to continue. All the more tragic, he and Rob Sim held a 45-minute lead. His partner opted to ride with Brentjens for the 2013 edition, so he paired up with Brazilian and Cape Epic rookie Abraao Azevedo. Pfitzenmaier has completed eight editions, holds two overall titles and has won 22 stages. He is also considered to be one of the most perceptive and generous partners in the race. If you are an Epic newbie like Azevedo, there is no better option than Pfitzenmaier.
Carsten Bresser and Udo Boelts of team Juwi are the most experienced masters racers in the race. Bresser has placed third in the men's category in 2006, is a two-time Olympian and five-time winner. No stranger to stage racing either, Boelts placed ninth in the Tour de France, has won a stage at the Giro d'Italia and is a three-time German road race champion. Paired together in 2011, they won the masters category. Both know a thing or two about suffering and as tried and tested partnerships go, this one ranks up there with Platt and Sahm - a dream team of note. They will hope that counts for something when they come up against the likes of Brentjens.
In the mixed category, the husband and wife combination of Erik and Ariane Kleinhans makes for that all-important X-factor of teamwork. This has often proven to be a race decider, especially in the mixed category. Erik knows Ariane's fatigue levels almost telepathically and they are able to measure their output perfectly. Erik is a former South African cross country champion and Swiss-born Ariane a winner of several marathons in her new home country. Having won in 2012, they have cracked the formula - they will ride their own race, careful not to get caught up in the excitement and spend unnecessary energy. Expect to see them at the top of the leaderboard.