But this Friday the two Team Bulls racers will begin the 2016 Tankwa Trek as a two-man team, intent on testing their form and fine-tuning their gear choices ahead of next month’s Absa Cape Epic, where Platt will try and claim a record-equalling fifth crown and Uber his first.

The Tankwa Trek takes place in the Koue Bokkeveld region of the Western Cape province and covers a total distance of 265km with 5 250 metres of vertical ascent. This offers a similar distance:ascent ratio to the Cape Epic. The Tankwa Trek also has a blend of long climbs and fast descents, rocky and hardpack terrain and farm roads, jeep track, historic ox wagon routes and singletrack – all of which combine to form a stimulating mountain bike racing challenge.

Anyone serious about success at the 2016 Absa Cape Epic is competing in a short stage race in February. It’s a key part of preparation for the prestigious international eight-day race.

Robyn de Groot and her Ascendis Health teammate, Jennie Stenerhag, claw their way up the Merino Monster climb during the 2015 DUTOIT Tankwa Trek. They will be defending their women's category title at the 2016 edition, which starts on Friday. Photo credit: www.oakpics.com

However, the majority of the Cape Epic title contenders in the various categories have chosen to compete at the DUTOIT Tankwa Trek, which starts on Friday with an 89km leg with 1 900 metres of ascent. Stage 2 on Saturday covers 87km with over 2 200 metres of climbing, including the formidable Merino Monster mountain ascent; and the final stage on Sunday is a 78km leg, but with an 11km neutral zone, making it a total of 89km with 1150 metres of elevation.

Each stage starts and finishes at the Kaleo Guest Farm and takes riders on some spectacular routes through and around the Witzenberg and Ceres valleys over some unforgiving terrain and challenging gradients. It's both brutal and beautiful in equal measure.

In addition to Platt and Huber, who are the favourites to claim the men’s team title, the start list is packed with powerful pairings, including the Spur-Specialized duo of James Reid (RSA) and Howard Grotts (USA), Team Telkom’s Johann Rabie (RSA) and HB Kruger (RSA), Team NAD’s Gawie Combrinck (RSA) and Nico Bell (RSA), Team USN Purefit’s Waylon Woolcock (RSA) and Darren Lill (RSA) and Thule TIB’s Tyronne White (RSA) and Andrew Hill (RSA).

Another notable name on the team division start list is that of five-time Cape Epic winner, Christoph Sauser. The Swiss ace is retired from full-time racing but is helping nurture Sam Gaze, his Investec-Songo-Specialized teammate, as part of his development project, Songo.info. It will be Sauser’s first participation in the Tankwa Trek.

While the main focus of the event is on the team category, there’s a strong Solo men’s division that includes the likes of South Africans, Erik Kleinhans (Topeak Ergon), Adriaan Louw (Contego Swift), Ben Melt Swanepoel (Squirt Merida) and Nico Pfitzenmaier (Dorma). A possible podium contender from abroad here is Markus Bauer (GER), who is currently 20th on the UCI Marathon Series rankings.

Solo riders are permitted to race alongside, but not interfere with the tactics of the teams, which form the majority of event entries and earn the majority of the prizemoney.

The women’s field is relatively small, but high in quality and includes the defending champions, Ascendis Health’s Robyn de Groot (RSA) and Jennie Stenerhag (SWE) and multiple Cape Epic winner, Arianne Kleinhans (SUI) and her South African teammate, Candice Neethling. They will be racing as Team Spur Dorma. Another strong pairing is that of Yolandi du Toit and Theresa Ralph (Garmin Galileo Risk).

One noteable name on the start list for in the women’s Solo division is Frenchwoman Fanny Bourdon, runner-up at the 2015 Roc d’Azur and currently ninth in the UCI Marathon Series rankings.

As usual, there are a large number of entries in the Veteran (40-49 years) and Master (50-plus years) categories, which are normally as competitive as the Elite men and women’s divisions.

Among the favourites to claim the Veteran men’s title are the Robert Daniel pair of Rob Sim (RSA) and Udo Boelts (GER), while the Cycle Lab Toyota pairing of Andrew McLean (RSA) and Doug Brown (RSA) are likely to be hard to beat in the Master’s division.

“Once again we have a very strong line-up of serious stage racers for the Tankwa Trek. The timing and terrain of the race have made it the ideal Cape Epic preparation race. And it is indeed a race. There are many three-day events, but the Tankwa Trek is a pure race. We are in the process of applying for UCI status and hope to have it for our 2017 edition,” said Henco Rademeyer of Dryland Events, the company that organises the race.

As much as the route can be brutal, it can be just as beautiful. The 2016 DUTOIT Tankwa Trek will once again embrace the mountains and valleys of the Koue Bokkeveld region of the Western Cape. Photo credit: www.oakpics.com

“For 2016 we have secured at total of R250 000 in prizemoney. This is a very good purse for such a short stage race and it has helped attract a world-class field of riders.

“But of course while the podium contenders get the media spotlight, we’ve once again ensured that every one of the more than 700 entrants feels important. We’ve been told that the hospitality and food at the Tankwa Trek is among the best of any stage race and we’re committed to continuing that tradition again this year,” smiled Rademeyer.

Few mountain bike events have seen such a growth in popularity as the Tankwa Trek. At the inaugural event in 2013, there were 92 entrants. The fourth edition will see 740 riders take the start line.

Among those 740 entrants are former Springbok rugby stars, Bob Skinstad, Joel Stransky and Tiaan Strauss, as well as former Proteas cricket ace, Gary Kirsten, who will be teaming up with Dr Michael Mol for his first Cape Epic next month.

The Tankwa Trek’s three stages have each been designed and developed by local farmers that are also keen mountain bikers. They’ve been successful in creating a comprehensive ‘tour’ of the fruit-growing region where DUTOIT Group, a leading producer of fruit and vegetables and the event’s title sponsor, is based.

DUTOIT Group provides employment and social support for a large number of the local residents, some of whom will also be competing in the event, via a DUTOIT Group upliftment programme.

“The Tankwa Trek truly has become established as both a key economic boost for the region as well as a firm favourite on the mountain bike racing calendar. We can’t increase the size of the field more than this, but we are looking forward to creating another premium quality experience for both participants and their supporters,” added Rademeyer.

To follow the action of the 2016 edition, like the Facebook page: Tankwa Trek and follow @tankwatrek on twitter. For more detailed information on the event, visit http://www.tankwatrek.co.za.