The 2013 Cape Pioneer Trek international mountain bike stage race that starts on Sunday near Oudtshoorn in South Africa's Western Cape Province will celebrate its fifth edition with its strongest racing field yet.
Both the men's and women's categories have attracted riders that have excelled at international level in marathons and stage races, including multiple current and former national, continental and world champions, setting the scene for seven days of thrilling podium battles.
Starting the race as men's division favourites are the Westvaal Bells Cycling duo of Nico Bell and Gawie Combrinck, the 2012 champions. Both confirmed their good form last Saturday when they finished second and third respectively at the MTN Ride Crater Cruise, the final round of the national marathon series. Bell's second place finish there also secured him the 2013 MTN South African Marathon Series title.
There's more depth than ever before in the men's field and Bell and Combrinck will be wary of, among others, the Scott Factory Racing team comprising Philip Buys and Matthys Beukes; the Asrin Cycling team of James Reid and Jens Scheurmans; Team RE:CM's Erik Kleinhans and Waylon Woolcock; and FedGroup Itec's Brandon Stewart and Konny Looser.
Buys and Beukes were sixth overall and the top African team at the 2013 Cape Epic, while Reid, the current South African marathon champion, will have a strong teammate in Scheurmans, a 20-year-old Belgian cross country specialist. The RE:CM pair of Woolcock and Kleinhans showed they're in good form at last Saturday's Crater Cruise marathon, where Woolcock took the win and Kleinhans was fifth.
Stewart, one of the most experienced stage racers in the world, with stage wins in African, European and North American races and Looser, a two-time European Under 23 marathon champion, come off two South African stage race wins in the past two weeks at Isuzu 3 Towers and FedGroup Berg & Bush with superb race sharpness.
Other teams sure to be in podium contention include EAI Cycling's Hanco Kachelhoffer and Johann Rabie; Contego Giant Elite's Louis Bresler Knipe and Gert Heyns; Rocky Mountain Factory Racing's Renay Groustra and Daniel Gathof; Pfitz-Hill's Nico Pfitzenmaier and Andrew Hill; and Continental's Ben Melt Swanepoel and Yannick Lincoln.
Missing from the start list is the Cannondale Blend team of Charles Keey and Darren Lill. Keey has withdrawn due to illness, but Lill will ride the event in the solo division to build fitness following an injury-induced layoff.
In the women's event, there's a small, but exceptionally strong field. Two-time marathon world champion Annika Langvad of Denmark and current Swiss marathon champion Ariane Kleinhans, riding as Team RE:CM, start as the favourites on paper.
But former marathon world champion Esther Suss and British marathon specialist Jane Nuessli (Wheeler BMC) lead a strong challenge that also includes 2011 Cape Pioneer Trek champion Ischen Stopforth and current South African marathon champion Robyn de Groot (Biogen SA) and defending champions Yolandi de Villiers and Yolande Speedy (Klein Karoo Chicks).
In the highly competitive mixed category, John-Lee Augustyn, a top South African road pro returning from an injury layoff will pair up with eight-time elite women's South African road champion, Anriette Schoeman (TREAD 32GI); and the Dutch pairing of Mirre Stallen and Nard Clappers (Cube Nutswerk 3), will be among a number of teams out to dethrone 2012 champions, Jennie Stenerhag and Craig Gerber (Asrin Cycling 3).
With large entry numbers in the solo men, solo women, veteran men and master men categories, the event is set to deliver its largest and most competitive edition yet.
The 549km race will start with a 14.8km prologue time trial at Buffelsdrift Game Lodge at noon on Sunday. Monday's stage 1 will take the riders from Buffelsdrift to Calitzdorp over 105km with Tuesday's stage 2, the event's queen stage, starting in Calitzdorp and finishing on the summit of the Swartberg Pass 92km later.
Stage 3 will be a 107km trek from Prince Albert to De Rust, followed by the short, but ascent-heavy 70km leg to Herold. Stage 5 will take the riders from the dry desert-like terrain of the Klein Karoo down to the coastal forests in George over a 70km route with a 91km final haul to the finish in Oudtshoorn on stage 6.