Two top contenders Naef and Williamson out of Cape Epic due to injuries

Ralf Naef, one of the contenders for the men's overall title at the Cape Epic, has had to withdraw due to an injury picked up in a fall while training. And England's Catherine Williamson, a favourite for a win in the mixed category, is also out of the Epic after breaking her leg in a skiing accident. The eight-day, 718km mountain bike stage race race starts with a prologue at Meerendal Wine Estate, Durbanville, South Africa on March 23.

Switzerland's Naef, previously a top-10 Cape Epic finisher and one of the world's top riders, was scheduled to partner with countryman Lukas Flückiger in Team BMC. They were widely expected to be among the front-runners at this year's race.

BMC said in a statement that Naef "sustained an injury to his quadriceps a few weeks ago during training, and it has turned out to be more severe than anticipated."

Flückiger will now partner with rising star Martin Fanger, who is also Swiss. The team's director sportif Alex Moos said, "It is Martin's first Cape Epic and a fabulous opportunity for him to experience multi-stage racing with the top riders in the world. Lukas has amassed lots of experience over the years and they are both really motivated and prepared to race. We remain optimistic!"

Fanger, 25, has showed considerable potential in recent years and his results last year included a sixth place in the UCI World Cup Cross Country race at Albstadt, Germany, in May.

Williamson - winner of the women's category with Yolande Speedy last year - was to ride with South African Nizaam Essa (Team Asrin). Williamson broke her leg in a fall while skiing last week but, according to Essa, is hoping to be back on her bike and competing again in three months.

Essa will instead partner with Austrian marathon champion Christina Kollman. "She only weighs 48kg but has power and good technical skills," said Essa.

He will meet Kollman for the first time when she arrives in Cape Town five days before the Epic, but is determined that they can challenge for the top step of the podium when the race finishes at Lourensford Wine Estate, Somerset West, on March 30.

"We really want to go for it - we're hoping to win it," he said.

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