World's best riders return for top honors at Cape Epic

The most televised mountain bike race of all time, the Absa Cape Epic, starts this coming Sunday, March 25 and riders from all over the world are already making their way to the start in Cape Town, South Africa. Covering 781km over eight days, averaging over 100km each stage with 16300m of climbing (twice the height of Mt. Everest), riders will tackle rugged trails, from 25 percent rocky ascents to glorious, winding singletrack.

Among those 1200 racers are defending champions 36One-Songo-Specialized, made up of Swiss former cross country world champion and Olympic silver medalist Christoph Sauser, paired with former U23 cross country world champion Burry Stander, a South African. Their first victory together did not come easy, after injury, illness and a crash resulted in three failed attempts at the coveted title. That is the knife-edge of racing the Cape Epic - the highly competitive field will exploit one small weakness.

This formidable duo will be holding off a fierce charge from the Bulls team, German stage race specialists Karl Platt and Stefan Sahm, and three-time winners of the event. These two are master tacticians and are likely to bide their time in the early part of the week, waiting to capitalise on others' mistakes. Last year, Sahm was off his best form due to a thrombosis in his knee, but he appears to have overcome the condition and is poised to defend his considerable reputation.

Then there's the top contending all-South African team, 360life, with millions of local fans cheering them on. Kevin Evans is South Africa's most successful mountain biker with several national titles to his name (including a road time trial championship). He races with former road professional, three-time winner of the Giro del Cape and two-time Commonwealth medalist David George. On the first stage of the 2011 race, Evans crashed heavily and broke his collarbone, ending the team's hopes for another year. Clearly, the talented pair has a point to prove in 2012.

With the three firm favourites come several more understudies, notably the Swiss team Stöckli Pro. As the surprise team of 2011's race, this Swiss pair was up at the head of affairs all week, till Looser upended himself on the Groenlandberg descent towards Oak Valley, forcing him to walk to the finish carrying a broken frame. Huber has previously won the Crocodile Trophy, and is feared on the marathon circuit.

The German/Swiss team of Hannes Genze and Andreas Kugler will ride under the colours of the Multivan Merida team. Genze partnered up with Jochen Kaess in 2011 and this proved to be an effective combination, earning a stage win and second place overall. Swiss champion Kugler rode capably in support of the German pair. These two will be regulars on stage at the evening's pre-race ceremonies.

The ladies category is more competitive than ever in 2012. This is the first year that UCI points are awarded for the top teams in the race proving to be a major draw card for some of the world's top international and local riders. 2011's winning duo, Sally Bigham and Karien van Jaarsveld, are here, except on different teams. This year, Bigham rides with former marathon world champion Swiss Esther Süss, and van Jaarsveld with Scotswoman Jane Nüssli.

It is a race where dedicated amateurs from 46 countries have a rare chance to race alongside the best of the best - the heroes of their chosen sport. There are some famous amateurs riding too, like four-time world Formula One champion Alain Prost, 1995 Rugby World Cup hero Joel Stransky (Team Absa), former half marathon world champion and Olympic silver medalist Elana Meyer (Team Absa) and District 9 actress Vanessa Haywood (Team Absa).

It all begins in wine country, in among the lush vineyards of Durbanville, with Table Mountain as a backdrop. In this two-man team stage race, riders then traverse the thrilling scenery of the Western Cape. From the Cape Winelands to the shaley scrub of the Klein Karoo, through the apple orchards of Elgin/Grabouw and into the wine country again for the Grand Finale, the route features spectacular vistas, geological marvels and a protected biosphere with species of plants and animals unique to the area.

Lourensford Wine Estate will once again host the finish of the race and the Grand Finale celebrations on April 1. The Grand Finale will kick off with live entertainment by well-known South African band Freshlyground, a Farmers' Market, delectable food and wine as well as glorious scenery. Vantage points will be accessible to the general public, so that all may have a piece of the mountain biking action. Entrance is free.

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