David George and Kevin Evans are the 2011 champions and clear favourites to win the 2012 edition of the Bridge Cape Pioneer Trek mountain bike stage race, which starts on Sunday near Oudtshoorn in South Africa's Western Cape Province, but the Nedbank Team 360Life duo knows better than to be too confident.
The seven-day event, which has attracted a large contingent of European competitors, in addition to most of South Africa's top mountain bike racers, will cover a total of 534 kilometres and include a total of 11,516 metres of climbing. The race will traverse a range of vegetation and terrain including the Klein Karoo and Great Karoo, which are rugged desert-like areas, coastal indigenous bush, cultivated forests and craggy mountain ranges.
"It has been a long year, but we are in a good place mentally and physically. This, combined with the great atmosphere of the Cape Pioneer Trek, gives us a good level of confidence. But possibly better than any other professional team, we know that anything can happen in mountain bike racing. And because most of this race is in the Karoo, nothing can be certain. It's such an unforgiving area," said George.
George and Evans finished second at the 2012 Cape Epic, losing out on a certain shot at overall victory with a cut tyre on stage 1. At last year's Cape Pioneer Trek, the pair benefitted from the tyre problems experienced by rivals Christoph Sauser, the 2011 Marathon World Champion, and his partner Max Knox.
"Even with a shorter route, the pace is likely to be faster. And it's usually at higher speeds that you make those small errors - or big errors - that can cost you dearly. We may be the favourites, but we're not taking anything for granted and will take it one day at a time."
For Evans, who lives in the nearby coastal town of Knysna, the Cape Pioneer Trek is virtually a hometown race.
"I spent so much of my youth racing and training in this area. Besides having a lot of local support, the Cape Pioneer Trek offers such varied challenges with amazing scenery. And the participant and community focus in this race is amazing. The organisers make you feel very much at home no matter where you are from."
The 2012 edition of the race will have a typically African start. Sunday's short, punchy 15km prologue time trial stage will be held in the Buffelsdrift Game Reserve, which is home to a variety of big game including rhino, elephant, Cape Buffalo, giraffe and hippo.
With 300 metres of vertical ascent, it's a moderately challenging stage expected to yield small time gaps between the top teams. Evans and George have both won the South African elite time trial title in road racing in the past and will be difficult to beat in a time trial stage should everything go smoothly.
Challengers to George and Evans for the overall title include Nico Bell and Gawie Combrinck (Westvaal Columbia), Ben Melt Swanepoel and Matthys Beukes (Cango MTB.com), Craig Boyes and Louis Knipe (Contego 28E) and brothers Johan and David Labuschagne (Bridge Lab Brothers).
The top masters category teams of Nico Pfitzenmaier and Robert Sim (Robert Daniel Momsen) and Barti Bucher and Ernst Engeli (Bix - Sherpa Tensing Pedalerie) are also strong enough to challenge for overall podium places.
Women's category winners in 2011, Ischen Stopforth and Catherine Williamson (Bridge bizhub Ladies), are back to defend their title and will be wary of the pairing of the experienced pairing of Yolande de Villiers and Yolande Speedy (Klein Karoo Chicks), Jackie Church and Sarah van Heerden (Wilde 2) and Kate Slegrova and Caren Henschel (Cycle Training).
The popular mixed category sees the return of 2011 winners, Erik and Ariane Kleinhans (Contego 28E), who will be challenged daily by the likes of Jennie Stenerhag and Craig Gerber (Newline Sport), Hanlie Booyens and Cornelius Muller (Momentum Mixed) and Yolandi du Toit and Dirk Oerlemans (Bridge Torq Zone).
With last year's dominant winner, Matthys Beukes, racing in the team event, the solo category is wide open.