Two teams have emerged as equal favourites: the Team Bulls combination of German Karl Platt and Swiss Urs Huber and the Topeak Ergon Racing pairing of Austrian Alban Lakata and Czech Kristian Hynek.
Platt is just one win away from equalling Sauser’s record and has been in excellent form in recent races. Huber is yet to win the race but is a power rider who is bound to end up on the top step of the podium one day.
Strongman Lakata, the reigning marathon world champion, has finished sixth, fifth, fourth, third and second and more than once has been robbed of possible victory by bad luck: generally mechanical problems. His partner Hynek has raced the Epic twice, winning with German Robert Mennen in 2014 and finishing second with Lakata last year.
They will, however, know that if they falter several other teams will be set to swoop. New to the Epic are Greece’s Periklis Ilias and Portuguese champion Tiago Ferreira (Dolomiti Superbike), but both have outstanding records in marathon racing and showed good form recently by winning the six-day Andalucia Bike Race in Spain.
Italians Damiano Farraro and Samuele Porro (Trek-Selle San Marco) are also Cape Epic newcomers with impressive marathon racing records who will be determined to feature at the sharp end of the racing.
Three South African combinations will be scrapping for the Absa African special jersey – for the first team from the continent to finish – but will also be eyeing the overall podium. Darren Lill and Waylon Woolcock (USN Purefit), Nico Bell and Gawie Combrinck (NAD Pro MTB) and James Reid and Gert Heyns (Spur) all have the ability to rattle the European domination of the event.
Youngsters Reid and Heyns will have to overcome being thrown together at the 11th-hour after their scheduled teammates pulled out but they are both highly talented, have good records over longer distances and might be aiming to spring a surprise or two.
Sauser has retired from the professional ranks but will be in the field and riding with Kayamandi, Stellenbosch, youngster Sipho Madolo (Investec Songo Specialized). The latter is bound to gain valuable insights into racing from Sauser and shed some sweat trying to stay with the veteran, who is still remarkably quick on his bike.
In the Women’s category Ariane Kleinhans of Switzerland and Annika Langvad of Denmark (Spur-Specialized) will start as clear favourites for a third successive victory. They have an excellent team dynamic, are outstanding athletes and are both clever tactical riders.
But they are unlikely to have things their own way this year. Four combinations in particular have the pedigree to challenge for the overall win.
Foremost of these at the moment is probably the combination of England’s Sally Bigham, herself a former winner, and German Adel Morath (Topeak Ergon). Bigham is a former women’s winner and is determined to put two years of bad luck behind her.
Esther Süss of Switzerland has won the category twice and has teamed up with Briton Catherine Williamson (Meerendal Wheeler) this year in another strong combination.
Also in the field and as strong as anybody on paper are German Sabine Spitz, a former Olympic gold medallist, and her young partner, Yana Belomoina of the Ukraine (Sport for Good). They are, however, both first-timers in an event that generally rewards those who have experienced it before.
South African hopes will lie with national marathon champion Robyn de Groot, in excellent form recently, and her partner, Swede Jennie Stenerhag (Ascendis Health). They finished second to the Langvad/Kleinhans combination last year and are now a slick and accomplished combination.
For the first time in the 13-year history of the Absa Cape Epic the race will each day have a separate starting batch for the elite women riders, a move designed to make for more equal and better racing in the category.
The Absa Cape Epic starts on Sunday (March 13) with a Prologue at Meerendal Wine Estate, Durbanville, and then seven stages which will take the riders to Tulbagh, Wellington and Stellenbosch. The race finishes on March 20 when it returns to Meerendal for the Grand Finale.