A victory in the 2012 Absa Cape Epic is the only thing on the minds of Kevin Evans and David George of Team Nedbank 360Life. The South African pair have been preparing meticulously for the HC-categorized mountain bike stage race for the past eleven-and-a-half months. And on Sunday, March 25, their quest will begin when the race starts with a 27km prologue time trial at Meerendal Wine Estate in South Africa's Western Cape province.
Evans and George have partnered three times previously for the Cape Epic, each time in a serious bid to become the first South African team to win the demanding race, which this year covers a distance of 781km with 16,300m of vertical ascent.
"The Absa Cape Epic is arguably the biggest, toughest and most important stage race in the world, and it's on our door step, bringing the world stage of mountain biking to us... you've gotta do that!" said Evans. "Our chances are as good as any other. We believe it's achievable in 2012 to become the first South Africans to win."
"We return every year for the beauty and uniqueness of the race and the pairs racing format, as well as the opportunity to take on the world's best mountain bikers in our own backyard," said George.
In 2008, they were third, and in 2009, they were fourth. They raced on different teams in 2010 and last year, racing for the first time as Team Nedbank 360Life, their bid ended suddenly on stage 2 when Evans crashed on a descent and smashed his left collarbone. George continued to finish solo, but from the minute Evans woke from the anaesthetic following the surgery to repair his collarbone, their sights were adjusted to achieving victory in the 2012 edition.
"Kev and I have very different personalities and backgrounds which compliment each other in our preparation and approach," said George. "On the bike, we're so similar, within a couple grams of body weight and couple of watts of power. We're one of the most evenly matched teams."
"Dave and I will be riding our fourth Cape Epic together. We're best mates and have fun together - that's important," said Evans.
Last year they embraced the shift towards the 29-inch wheel platform. They raced to a number of podiums in late 2011 and early 2012 and also won the gruelling Cape Pioneer Trek six-day stage race last October.
The distance and elevation of the Cape Epic is one thing, but it's the brutal terrain that causes the most damage to both riders and bikes. The Western Cape region is very stony and rocky and it has some steep and long ascents and descents. It's also very dry during the South African summer, which makes it sketchy and unpredictable. The combination of these factors results in a relentless landscape that's claimed many a Cape Epic dream.
For Evans and George though, they have spent hours test-riding in an effort to ensure they conquer both the terrain and their rivals. And it all comes together over the next 10 days.
Speaking of rivals, on the start list are some of the biggest names in the sport. Defending champions, Christoph Sauser and Burry Stander of Team 36One Songo/Specialized will go into the race as favourites. Multiple-time champions Karl Platt and Stefan Sahm of Team Bulls are back to try and claim a fourth title together and Hannes Genze, runner-up last year, has partnered with Andreas Kugler, sixth last year, for Team Multivan Merida. And that's just a handful of teams in a field of over 600 pairs.
The eight-day race begins with a prologue time trial that will take riders over 27 challenging kilometres to the event's first ever mountaintop finish. Views of the Cape Winelands and Table Mountain as well as special permission to race through protected Renosterveld vegetation, create a spectacular backdrop to the event's opening stanza.
The riders then face five successive stages longer than 100km, including the Cape Epic's longest ever stage, a 147km haul (with 2900m of climbing) on stage 4. The last two days are shorter, but no less demanding. Course designer, Leon Evans, aka Dr. Evil, has declared that he believes this is the hardest Cape Epic course he has ever designed. A fact that's given many a novice a sleepless night, but which has added to the intrigue of the world's most televised mountain bike event.
Nedgroup Life commissioned a movie crew to document Evans and George's quest to win the 2011 Cape Epic. The movie, An Epic Tale, has been screening over the past two weeks to sold-out cinemas in South Africa. It's essentially a tale of bad luck, brilliantly capturing the pain and sacrifice these two riders have endured in what has essentially been their failure - so far - to win the race they most want to win.
This year there is no movie crew following them. This year Evans and George have learned from their mistakes and prepared even more meticulously. But this is mountain biking where anything can happen. This is also the Cape Epic where many dreams are dashed, but where many others also come true. There may be no movie crew this year, but you can be sure that Evans and George have set their minds and hearts on that elusive happy ending.