Photo credit: Dom Barnardt. Cape Epic. Sportzpics.

Three years ago Centurion Vaude’s Jochen Kaess and Markus Kaufmann, both German, were leading after two days but a broken frame put them out of contention. On Stage 3 Topeak Ergon’s Kristian Hynek of the Czech Republic and Robert Mennen, also German, took the lead.

But disaster struck for Hynek and Mennen on Stage 5 when the former simultaneously punctured both his front and back tyres. The Centurion Vaude pair stopped and fortunately Kaufmann’s wheels and gearing were compatible with Hynek’s bike: he took them off his bike and handed them over. “That was an amazing sporting gesture and I owe them big time,” said Hynek after going on to take the overall win.

It is unlikely that the debt will be repaid this year: both teams are among the race favourites.

Photo credit: Karin Schermbrucker. Cape Epic. Sportzpics.

Kaess and Kaufmann are back together but Mennen has since been replaced in the Topeak Ergon team by Austrian Alban Lakata, who has previously finished sixth, fifth, fourth, third and second in the Absa Cape Epic.

Now, desperate for a win, Lakata says he faces “probably the most competitive field ever”.

“Sure, the win is what we want, but this years edition has a brutal starter field and it will be very hard to achieve the victory,” says the Austrian strongman. “I see Bulls (Karl Platt and Urs Huber), Specialized (Christoph Sauser and Jaroslav Kulhavy), Scott (Nino Schurter and Matthias Stirnemann) and Centurion Vaude as the main contenders for the title.”

Hynek is clearly deadly serious and declares himself “100% focussed … this year I decided to focus my preparation fully on the Cape Epic and South African conditions.”

Photo credit: Karin Schermbrucker. Cape Epic. Sportzpics.

To this end he will spend nearly three months in Stellenbosch training with local Erik Kleinhans. He has also kicked off his racing season earlier than normal and last weekend finished second to Sauser at the Attakwas Extreme. This weekend he will do the national marathon series race in Grabouw and then the Tankwa Trek, by which time he will have been joined in South Africa by Lakata.

Kaess and Kaufmann were among the favourites before disaster struck in 2014 and injuries have prevented them from riding together in the Cape Epic since then. “After our bad luck in the last years our goal is to win the race,” says Kaufmann. “But of course we would be also happy about the overall podium … a lot of really strong teams are taking part in the race.”

Kaess adds: “The challenge is harder every year and this year Susi (Sauser) is back in the business … plus Bulls and Topeak. The podium is our minimum goal but we are looking with one eye at the overall win.”

All four have been poring over the route and are anticipating a tough challenge.

“I know Hermanus a bit – we stayed there for three weeks two years ago,” says Hynek. “We are planning to do some training in Hermanus and Greyton to get to know them and get used to the conditions. The stages will be very hard and challenging, as always.”

Photo credit: Ewald Sadie. Cape Epic. Sportzpics.

And, in another indication of their ambitions, both teams have excellent support. Lakata and Hynek will be able to depend on an experienced back up team in Kleinhans and the USA’s Jeremiah Bishop. Centurion Vaude’s support team of Austrians Daniel Geismayr and Hermann Pernsteiner finished ninth in 2016 and will provide powerful assistance.

Lakata has started eight Cape Epics and finished seven, Hynek three and finished two, Kaufmann has finished the event four times and Kaess five times. What is it that keeps them coming back?

“The Cape Epic is the biggest race in the world and must do for marathon racers like us,” says Lakata. Hynek adds: “The race is special, the atmosphere is unique and the competition is very, very high. I have won it once, but I am 100% motivated to win it again with Alban.”

“The Absa Cape Epic is one of my favourite race and the plan is to win this race once in my life,” says Kaess. And Kaufmann: “We learned a lot in the Epics in the past and want to do a perfect race. When everything runs fine, everything is possible.