The 2014 Cape Epic is shaping up to be one of the most tightly-contested in years, with top teams in both the men's and women's categories showing excellent form in recent races.
The Team Bulls pairing of Karl Platt and Urs Huber have emerged as favourites for the Epic - which starts with a prologue at Meerendal Wine Estate, Durbanville, on Sunday - with a series of compelling performances.
On Saturday, they fired another shot across the bows of their rivals by taking first and second at the MTN South African National MTB Series race in Tulbagh. Platt finished the rugged 105km course - which included a huge 2630m of vertical gain - in 4:34:27, a little more than two minutes ahead of Huber.
But they will face a massive challenge from Switzerland's Christoph Sauser - who, like Platt, has won the Epic four times - and his Czech teammate Frantisek Rabon (Team Meerendal Songo Specialized). Sauser and Rabon did not take part in the Tulbagh event, but both have shown good form in other races. Rabon, a top road racer who has converted to mountain biking, is something of an unknown quantity at this level but is highly regarded by his fellow professionals.
Germany's Robert Mennen finished third at Tulbagh and his partnership with Czech Kristian Hynek (Topeak Ergon) is also expected to be a strong in the Epic.
Another team eyeing the top step of the podium when the race finishes at Lourensford Wine Estate on March 30 is Scott-Odlo MTB Racing - brilliant multiple cross country world champion Nino Schurter and South Africa's African Champion Philip Buys.
"We are definitely going for the overall win," said Buys. "We have prepared well and have great support and I would love to make it worth everyone's effort and time. The Epic is a very unpredictable race, so I would say are chances for an overall win can go any direction."
Buys's pedigree was on show at the weekend when he won the opening round of the Southern African cross country series at a sweltering Cascades MTB Park in Pietermaritzburg.
The women's race at Tulbagh also suggested a big battle ahead at the Epic. Stellenbosch-based Swiss marathon champion Ariane Kleinhans won the 74km event in 03:17:32, a little more than two minutes ahead of England's Sally Bigham. The British woman reportedly had technical problems with a shock absorber.
Kleinhans will ride with Dane Annike Langvad (Team RECM) in the Epic while Bigham renews her successful partnership with Swiss Esther Süss (Team Meerendal). Süss and Bigham will be aiming to repeat their 2012 victory, but Kleinhans and Langvad are a powerful combination. The Epic winner should be one of these teams.
Three all-South African teams seem destined to fight it out for the distinctive Best Africans' jersey - for the first team of African riders to finish the Cape Epic - but will also expect to be racing at the sharp end of the field this year.
Team RECM's Erik Kleinhans and Nico Bell, Team Cannondale Blend's Darren Lill and Waylon Woolcock and Team Fedgroup/Itec's Kevin Evans and Max Knox have all shown good form recently. They will all be aiming to wear the red African jersey when they get to the finish and will also be eyeing a place on the overall podium.
No all-South African team has won the race before, although the late Burry Stander won twice - in 2011 and 2012 - with Switzerland's Christoph Sauser. But the rapid improvement in the standard of South African mountain biking has increasingly seen top local teams among the front riders at the race.
Lill changed partners with just days to go. He had been scheduled to ride with Capetonian Charles Keey, but will instead team up with Woolcock .
"Unfortunately Charles hasn’t been going as well as he would like the last few weeks," said Lill. "He suggested that it makes more sense for him to ride with Andrew Hill on the RED-E Blend team and for Waylon to partner with me."
Keey and Lill finished ninth overall last year, but were set back when the latter picked up a stomach bug midway through the race. They had been performing strongly in the opening stages and had a comfortable lead in the race for the African Jersey, awarded to the first all-African team to finish.
Lill said he and Woolcock would have the African jersey "firmly in our sights, and a podium (top three overall) would be great". He added though that the depth of the international field out for the Epic this year mean that getting on to the podium "will be tough this year … I think even more challenging than last year".
"I’ve known Waylon through road racing since we were juniors. He’s progressed really well as a MTB rider the last few years,” said Lill, himself a successful convert from road to mountain bike.
Kleinhans won the Epic's mixed category in 2012 and 2013 riding with his wife Ariane, while Bell has completed the Epic four times and placed eighth overall in 2012. They will, though, have another objective: "The main goal for Nico and I is to look after the Specialized-Songo-Meerendal team of Sauser and (Frantisek) Rabon, as their back up support while they are focussing on an overall title."
"Our second objective will be to wear the African jersey at the end of the week. Hopefully our support services are not needed and we can focus on goal number two," said Kleinhans.
The back up role has become vital to the interests of the top contenders in recent years - the support team sometimes sacrificing a spare part - a wheel, for example - if the leading team has mechanical problems.
Stellenbosch-based Kleinhans is looking forward to riding with Bell. "We have similar riding styles, strengths and personalities, which I am sure will help us get through the week easier."
Evans has stood on the Epic podium before but the top step has eluded him. The Plettenberg Bay rider has had nearly two years of setbacks through injuries and health scares, but is close to his best form again. "Yes, the form is good and our partnership is great. I'm one of the more experienced riders in the Epic, and will use all my various experiences, good and bad, to our advantage.
Evans had planned to ride with Neil MacDonald until just a few days ago, but now MacDonald will partner with Johann Rabie in another all-South African combination.
"We are also not one of the teams to 'watch' this year, so it will be great to see the other teams ride with that added pressure for a change," said Evans.
Another all-South African pairing with an eye on the red jersey will be Team Scott's Matthys Beukes and Gert Heyns, but they are relatively inexperienced and are more likely to challenge in years to come.
At least four mixed teams will be hoping to win their category. Top road and mountain bike rider Cherise Stander's win in the Argus cycle tour two weekends ago suggested she is back to her best and her combination with elite-level triathlete Theo Blignaut in Team RE:CM will be closely watched.
Their competition is likely to come from three strong combinations: France's Karl Zoetemelk and Switzerland's Sarah Koba (Assos Werkmannschaft), Austrian Christina Kollman and Cape Town's Nizaam Essa (Asrin Cycling) and the German pairing of Bettin Uhlig and Tom Janas (Sportograf.com-Wheeler iXS).
Essa will only meet Kollman this week after his original partner - last year's women's winner Catherine Williamson - broke a leg in a skiing accident. The Austrian is, however, a strong rider with exceptional technical skills and Essa said they "really want to go for it".
The top teams in the masters category - 40 to 49 years old - will also expect to be near the front of the field. Dutchman Bart Brentjens' long and distinguished career - including Olympic gold in 1996 and overall winner of the 2005 Epic - suggests that he and Brazilian Abraao Azevedo (Meerendal Superior Brentjens) will start as favourites. Azevedo won the masters last year with Nico Pfitzenmaier.
But Germans Udo Boelts and Lothat Leder (Pfalz) clearly have their sights set on a win and South African pair Shan Wilson and Adrian Enthoven (Definitive Bikes) will also be competitive.
The Grand Masters Category (for riders 50-year-olds and more) was only introduced in 2013, and immediately proved to be highly competitive - last year's winners finished in the top 30.
This year those winning teammates - Switzerland's Barti Bucher and Austrian Heinz Zoerweg - will be in opposing camps: Bucher teams up with South African Doug Brown (Team Meerendal Songo-Specialized 4), a combination that has previously won the Masters category, and Zoerweg with South African cycling legend Andrew McLean (CycleLab Toyota).
The contest between these two teams is bound to be intense, but all-South African partnership Ebenhaezer Espach and Corrie Muller (Absa Grand Masters) will also fancy their chances.
Then there's the race for the Exxaro jersey, a development category raced between historically disadvantaged riders where both are under the age of 26. Over the years this category has become increasingly competitive. Siphosenkosi Madolo and Azukile Simayile (Meerendal-Songo-Specialized) are the clear favourites, having already won the Exxaro Jersey in 2012.
They rode together again in 2013 but Simayile was hospitalised with severe hydration and Phillemon Sebona and Prince Maseko took the category. Sebona is riding with Jan Motshioa (Exxaro /PwC) this year and will be strong challengers.