Some of Europe's top endurance mountain bikers will be out for revenge at the 2013 UCI Marathon World Series opener in Sabie, South Africa on Saturday. The race comes less than one month before the Cape Epic mountain bike stage race.
Last year's race turned out to be an unofficial test between the top riders from South Africa and some of Europe's best riders. The local riders eventually dominated, with Kevin Evans taking the win in 2012. Max Knox finished second and David George was third. Germany's Karl Platt, who finished fourth, nine minutes behind Evans, was the best placed international rider. Frenchman Thomas Dietsch, who finished ninth, and Germany’s Tim Bohme (11th) were the next best of the European riders.
Quite a few of Europe's best marathoners will be back in action at the MTN Sabie. German Steffen Thum, the overall winner of the 2011- 2012 UCI MTB Marathon World Series, has already entered, as has his compatriot Simon Gegenheimer, who finished fourth overall in the same series.
Thum, who finished 24th overall last year, is no stranger to Sabie. Thanks to his consistency, he managed to finish in the top 25 last year every time he raced in the World Series.
"I have to be honest with myself. At this stage I am not yet ready to race to win," said Thum. "I will be happy with a top-10 finish. It is important for me to get some points from the race because it is the first of the UCI's World Series."
Thum reckons it will be tough for the international riders to beat the South Africans on their home turf. "The South Africans are used to the conditions and there is also the matter of pride at stake."
However, Thum predicts that Platt and his teammates from Team Bulls will be capable of spoiling the local riders' fun.
Platt, who has won the Cape Epic a record four times (2004, 2007, 2009 and 2011), has become almost a household name in South African mountain biking and will be back in Sabie. He also won the race in 2011 after perfectly executing a strategy that didn't waste unnecessary energy by covering kamikaze attacks and ended with a perfectly time race-winning attack.
In a sort of changing of the guard, the top European favorites will race some new faces who have been doing well so far this season including Matthys Beukes (Contego), Lourens Luus (RE:CM) and Erik Kleinhans (RE:CM). They'll also take on established South African pro favorite Max Knox, who was second last year after a flat tire. Evans will not be racing as he recovers from complications following abdominal surgery.
Luus hails from Sabie and has high hopes for racing on home turf. "I cannot compete in a race hoping to finish second. That will be a defeatist approach. I am not saying that I am going to win, but I will certainly give it my all to achieve a good result."
Kleinhans, who is now coached by former marathon world champion Christoph Sauser, said, "It would be great if I could hold my current good form until Sabie, but just keep in mind that Sabie is an UCI-sanctioned race. This means that some of the world's best riders will be competing."
"But I can promise this. If I have good legs and there is an opportunity, I will definitely do my best to make the most of it. But remember, mountain biking is a very unpredictable sport. Nothing is ever certain until you have reached the finish."
Theresa Ralph is one of the favorites for the women's race. The 38-year-old is not daunted by her younger competition although she will have a tough battle against Ariane Kleinhans.
"I'm like a fine wine. I get better with age. The best is yet to come," said Ralph. Her performances during last year's MTN Marathon series proved that there is truth in these words.
In 2012, aged 37, she was involved in a battle royal with Kleinhans (RE:CM). Both riders eventually won three races in the MTN series. Kleinhans began her MTN campaign with a "blitzkrieg" by winning in Barberton, Tulbagh and Sabie. Ralph, on the other hand, dominated during the last races by winning at Clarens, Mabalingwe and the Crater Cruise.
Both also finished second twice - Kleinhans at Mabalingwe and the Gravel Travel and Ralph at Sabie and Hilton. After the worst results of both riders were also taken into account, Kleinhans was declared the overall winner.
But Ralph, the mother of two, made it clear that she has no plans of giving up. "I don't believe in racing for second. I fully realize that, in mountain biking, you cannot win all the time because every race is unpredictable. But after any race it is important for me to be able to say that I have given it my all."
Ralph, who is still looking for a sponsor, is beginning her MTN campaign at Sabie. "I will not miss the Sabie marathon for anything in the world. It is one of my favourite races on the local calendar."
Asked why, Ralph explained that Sabie's climbs, that seem to go on forever, suit her style of riding. She compares her riding style to that of a diesel engine. "I may not be one of the fastest riders, but when I have found my rhythm I can keep going for hours on end.
"I just love riding at Sabie. I once even rode the Sabie marathon route as part of my preparation for the Cape Epic."
Ralph juggles being a mom, working six hours a day and training. Normally she gets up at quarter to five to do a training ride. At seven she is back at home. Then it is a race against the clock to prepare the kids for school and herself for work. If there is time, Ralph will try to fit in another training session during lunch time, but it all depends on what activities her kids have in the afternoon. "I try to do my long training rides over the weekend," she said.
Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for coverage of the Sabie Marathon.