Two teams - each with a Swiss connection - are emerging as the favourites for what promises to be a hotly-contested women's category at the 2014 Cape Epic.
Will Swiss national but Stellenbosch resident Ariane Kleinhans or her countrywoman Esther Süss stand on top of the podium at Lourensford wine estate, Somerset West, on March 30 after 718km of racing through the Western Cape? Or could the vagaries of eight days of challenging riding - mechanical problems, injuries or illness being the most common - undermine the favourites and hand the win to one of the lesser-fancied teams?
An added incentive this year is the biggest pot of prize money ever put up for a women's race - R690,000, matching that of the elite men's riders.
Kleinhans has won the mixed category of the race for the past two years with her husband Erik, the South African professional. This year, though, she will be joined by Denmark's Annika Langvad as Team RECM 2 in the women's division.
Langvad has won the world marathon championship twice and, together with Kleinhans, comfortably took first place in their category in the Cape Pioneer Trek in October of last year. "She was a machine. She's a complete rider - a good climber and very good technically," said Kleinhans, adding that "we definitely want to win it".
Much-decorated veteran Süss is also eyeing the win and will be reunited with Briton Sally Bigham in Team Meerendal 3. The pair won the category in the 2012 Cape Epic and each has tasted success in the race before: Süss twice winning the mixed category and Bigham the women's category in 2011 with Karien van Jaarsveld.
Süss knows too well, though, that success or failure in the Cape Epic can be influenced by events beyond a riders' control: illness, for example, ended her efforts to win the 2013 race with Jane Nuessli. "I hope we will have more luck," said Süss.
But both top teams have prepared well and are confident they will be in good form when the race kicks off on March 20 with a 23km prologue at Meerendal wine estate.
Should they falter, word from their fellow professionals is that Team Meerendal Wheeler 18's Milena Landtwing (Swiss too) and Hielke Elferink (Netherlands) are riding strongly as the Epic approaches. They will be spurred on by Team Meerendal Wheeler 7's Sara Mertens (Belgium) and Laura Turpijn (Netherlands).
South Africans who will be near the front of the field include Yolande de Villiers and Ischen Stopforth (Team SasolRacing) and Hanlie Booyens and Mariska Strauss (Team Pragma Orange Monkey).
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