Team RECM’s Erik Kleinhans and Nico Bell, Team Cannondale Blend’s Darren Lill and Charles Keey and Team Fedgroup/Itec’s Kevin Evans and Neil MacDonald have all shown good form recently. They will all be aiming to wear the red African jersey when they get to the finish on March 30 at Lourensford wine estate after eight days of racing and will also be eyeing a place on the overall podium.
No all-South African team has won the race before, although the late Burry Stander won twice - in 2011 and 2012 - with Switzerland’s Christoph Sauser. But the rapid improvement in the standard of South African mountain biking has increasingly seen top local teams among the front riders at the race.
Keey and Lill finished ninth overall last year, but were set back when the latter picked up a stomach bug midway through the race. They had been performing strongly in the opening stages. “Yes, the African jersey will be the team’s primary goal. On the general classification … an overall top five. If everything goes well, maybe even better,” he said.
Keey says his training is “pretty much on track with last year - I decided to do a little less racing pre-Epic than in 2013 while spending more time at home”.
This weekend Lill won the 55km MTB Challenge at Le Bonheur, near Stellenbosch, ahead of Keey and a field of top international riders. Evans was third but had been leading before taking a wrong turn, suggesting he is back to form after his comeback.
Kleinhans won the Epic’s mixed category in 2012 and 2013 riding with his wife Ariane, while Bell has completed the Epic four times and placed eighth overall in 2012. They will, though, have another objective: “The main goal for Nico and I is to look after the Specialized-Songo-Meerendal team of Sauser and (Frantisek) Rabon, as their back up support while they are focussing on an overall title.
“Our second objective will be to wear the African jersey at the end of the week. Hopefully our support services are not needed and we can focus on goal number two,” said Kleinhans.
The back up role has become vital to the interests of the top contenders in recent years - the support team sometimes sacrificing a spare part - a wheel, for example - if the leading team has mechanical problems.
Stellenbosch-based Kleinhans is looking forward to riding with Bell: “We have similar riding styles, strengths and personalities, which I am sure will help us get through the week easier.”
Evans has stood on the Epic podium before but the top step has eluded him. This will be the first time he is riding with MacDonald, an accomplished local rider who has twice finished in the top 20 at the eight-day classic.
Evans said he and MacDonald would “definitely target the African Leaders jersey, and anything more will be a bonus for us”. The Plettenberg Bay rider has had nearly two years of setbacks through injuries and health scares, but is close to his best form again: “Yes, the form is good and our partnership is great. I'm one of the more experienced riders in the Epic, and will use all my various experiences, good and bad, to our advantage.
“We are also not one of the teams to 'watch' this year, so it will be great to see the other teams ride with that added pressure for a change.”
All three paid tribute to the impact of the Cape Epic on their sport: “The Cape Epic is the main goal of the year for many top mountain bikers all over the world, and this competition is what makes it really tough. Over the last years the routes have become really entertaining, making the suffering worthwhile for the riders,” said Kleinhans.
“For South African mountain biking the Cape Epic played a major part in the development and the continued progression of especially the SA riders, who can race against the best in the world.” Said Keey: “It completely changed the MTB scene in South Africa in a totally positive way. The South Africans have had to up their game to compete with the Europeans therefore increasing the level of racing throughout our local scene.
“Europeans now come to race some of our marathons because the level is so high and they are so well organised. The Cape Epic is still setting the bar in many areas especially the media coverage and professionalism of the sport and having the biggest prize purse in world mountain biking doesn't hurt either.”
Evans was similarly enthusiastic: “It has put South Africa and mountain biking on the map, but also the local riders have stepped up to the plate and can now compete on the same international level that once was so intimidating for us.”
Another all-South African pairing with an eye on the red jersey will be Team Scott’s Matthys Beukes and Gert Heyns, but they are relatively inexperienced and are more likely to challenge in years to come.
The race starts with a 23km prologue at Meerendal wine estate followed by seven stages – four of over 100km – which will take the riders to Robertson, Greyton, Elgin and, finally, Lourensford.