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Jaroslav Kulhavy and Christoph Sauser make their way through the Meerendal Manor House during the Prologue of the 2013 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race held at Meerendal Wine Estate in Durbanville outside Cape Town, South Africa on the 17 March 2013.

Photo: Karin Schermbrucker/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

The race against the clock is short and quick compared to the marathon stages that follow, but answers to some big questions will begin to emerge.

The course through the hills and valleys of Meerendal Wine Estate, Durbanville, contains some fairly technical riding: will the skills of František Raboň, the Czech roadie recently turned mountain biker, be up to it? The answer to that could be key to his Team Meerendal Songo Specialized partner Christoph Sauser’s bid to be the first person ever to win the Absa Cape Epic five times.

Raboň has been on an intense learning curve under Sauser’s tutorship and this week claimed his technical riding was “100%” … but can even the most gifted rider learn in little more than three months what others have taken years to perfect?

Sauser vs. Platt

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(Left to Right) Urs Huber and Karl Platt (Bulls) with Frantisek Rabon and Christoph Sauser (Meerendal Songo Specialized)

Photo: Ashleigh Coetzer

And will the recent form of Sauser’s greatest rival, German Karl Platt - also a four-times winner of the world’s foremost mountain bike stage race - and his Team Bulls partner, Swiss rider Urs Huber, follow through into the Epic? Will they live up to their favourites tag, or might they have peaked too early?

A team that will expect to do well on the prologue is Scott-Odlo - cross country World Champion Nino Schurter and South African Philip Buys. Both are excellent over the shorter cross country discipline and their explosive power and skills should come to the fore. Their questions will come from Monday, when the long stages start - four of the seven are over 100km. The final stage, a relatively sedate 69km, takes riders from Elgin to Lourensford Wine Estate, Somerset West, on March 30.

There will also be considerable interest in the combination of German Robert Mennen and Czech Kristian Hynek (Topeak Ergon). Mennen entered Epic folklore last year when he was taken out by a duiker on stage one, breaking his collarbone. But that accident robbed enthusiasts of seeing how one of the world’s more talented riders performed in these conditions.

And what of the South African challenge? Will Fedgroup-Itec’s Kevin Evans and Max Knox have the firepower to challenge the world’s best and back up their hopes of a podium finish. Or will the local challenge come from Team RECM - Erik Kleinhans and Nico Bell - or Cannondale Blend’s ex-roadies Darren Lill and Waylon Woolcock.

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Max Knox of Team Burry Stander-SONGO 2 during stage 5 of the 2013 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race held from Wellington, South Africa on 22 March 2013.

Photo: Greg Beadle/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Interest in the women’s race has been heightened this year by what might the strongest field ever - in part thanks to the R700 000 prize purse, equal to that offered to the men. Two teams are distinct favourites, but who will be strongest between Team RECM 2 - Arian Kleinhans (Swiss) and Annika Langvad (Danish) - and the Team Meerendal pairing of Swiss veteran Esther Süss and Briton Sally Bigham?

Kleinhans has won twice in the mixed category while Bigham has as many wins in the women’s race, one of those - in 2013 - with Süss.

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Ariane Kleinhans and her husband Erik on their way to victory in the 2013 Absa Cape Epic

Photo: Sam Clark/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Langvad has an excellent pedigree and her partnership with Kleinhans will probably be more explosive and they just might have the edge. But will the greater experience of the Bigham/Süss prevail over eight days?

If either falter, Swiss Milena Landtwing and Dutchwoman Hielke Elferink (Meerendal Wheeler) will be close to the front of the women’s field and hoping to profit.

Words: Chris Whitfield