Who to Watch MEN

The diesel-powered marathon men believe 2018 could be their year, but they will be wary of the class and strength of the Olympic distance cross country superstars who are set to make the 15th Absa Cape Epic the closest and most exciting race yet.

Nino Schurter returns to defend his Absa Cape Epic title which was the first victory in an outstanding 2017 season that saw him win every leg of the MTB World Cup series and take an incredible fifth cross country World Championship.

Nino Schurter & Matthias Stirnemann of SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing celebrate winning the 2017 Absa Cape Epic during the final stage (Stage 7) of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic. Photo by Shaun Roy/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS.

He and fellow Swiss Matthias Stirnemann (Scott-Sram) will team up once again, on a route that offers something for both the marathon and cross-country stars. That could suit two-time winner Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic, the 2012 Olympic gold medallist and former marathon world champion.

After finishing second with Absa Cape Epic legend Christoph Sauser in 2017, Kulhavy will ride with Howard Grotts, regarded as the best American mountain biker of his generation, in the colours of Investec Songo Specialized.

Jaroslav Kulhavy of Investec Songo Specialized during stage 3 of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race. Photo by Nick Muzik/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

The competition will be fierce this year with most of the top 10 teams from 2017 returning. The Swiss/ Austrian combination of Nicola Rohrbach and Daniel Geismayr (Centurion Vaude) claimed third place overall last year, showing the value of consistency, something their teammates, Germany’s Markus Kaufmann and Jochen Kaess will be seeking, along with the luck that has deserted them in past races.

Germany’s Manuel Fumic and Brazilian Henrique Avancini (Cannondale Factory Racing) set the 2017 race alight, winning the first two days in scorching heat. Behind Fumic’s gentle smile lies a hard competitor who should compete for a podium after finishing fourth and fifth in previous Absa Cape Epics.

Manuel Fumic and Henrique Avancini lead Nino Schurter and Matthias Stirnemann down the fast, open gravel roads towards Caledon. Photo by Ewald Sadie/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Alban Lakata may be a little tired of being asked when he is going to win an Absa Cape Epic, the Austrian having finished in just about every other spot in the top 10 on general classification, but first.

Lakata comes into the race as the 2017 UCI marathon world champion and with Canyon Topeak teammate and former winner, Kristen Hynek, is always a contender.

Karl Platt (BULLS) will take part in his 15th Absa Cape Epic, having failed to finish just one through injury. He craves another title to become the first and only rider with six Absa Cape Epic titles. The German took his fifth title in 2016 with the powerhouse Swiss, Urs Huber.

The South African challenge will be boosted by Philip Buys and Matthys Beukes (Pyga Euro Steel), and Nico Bell and Matthew Beers
(NAD Pro MTB).

They may just be a back-up team to Schurter and Stirnemann, but the young Swiss/Dutch team of Andri Frischknecht and Michiel van der Heijden (Scott - Sram Young Guns) were strong enough to take two stage wins and end sixth overall in their first Absa Cape Epic in 2017.

Who to watch WOMEN

In the search for constant innovation and development at the Absa Cape Epic, setting new international standards for elite women’s racing has been one of the greatest and proudest achievements of the Untamed African MTB Race.

Last year’s winners, Esther Süss and Jennie Stenerhag, have followed a path first ridden by Hanlie Booyens and the late Sharon Laws, who sadly passed away in December last year after a battle with cancer. Sharon had a special history at the Absa Cape Epic, having won every race she entered, in 2004 and 2009.

Esther Suss and Jennie Stenerhag celebrate winning the 2017 Absa Cape Epic during the final stage (stage 7) of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race. Photo by Mark Sampson/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Her fighting spirit, willingness to share experiences and incredible competitiveness will live on in the women’s race in 2018 and for years to come.

Süss and Stenerhag (Meerdendal CBC) will know the defence of their title will be tough. Three-time winner Annika Langvad returns after a year’s break and will be partnered with the 22-year-old American, Kate Courtney (Investec Songo Specialized 2), who took silver in the U23 World Championships in Cairns last year. Courtney is a superstar in the making, having won the U23 UCI World Cup Series overall, taking four out of a possible six victories. Denmark’s Langvad comes back to the Absa Cape Epic having won the Marathon World Championship for the fourth time in 2017.

Mariske Strauss and Annie Last during stage 3 of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic. Photo by Ewald Sadie/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Britian’s Annie Last finished second behind Neff at the UCI World Championships in Cairns, and with South African Mariska Strauss showed grit to take the runner’s up spot in the 2017 Absa Cape Epic. The two have paired up again for 2018.

Three-time champion Ariane Lüthi, the Swiss who is based in South Africa, had a tough 2017, but is hoping for a stronger 2018 with Austrian Christina Kollmann (Spur), who last rode the Epic with former winner Sally Bigham in 2015. Germany’s Sabine Spitz is such a mountain biking legend that she even has her own race named after her. The 46-year-old will again team up with South Africa’s Robyn de Groot (Ascendis Health) after they finished third together last year. De Groot was crowned South African marathon champion yet again in 2017.

Sabine Spitz and Robyn de Groot during stage 6 of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race. Photo by Ewald Sadie/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

As well as De Groot and Strauss, the South African challenge will be led by Candice Lill, Carmen Buchacher and Samantha Sanders in the dormakaba stable. Lill, who was fifth last year, has chosen to ride with Germany’s Adelheid Morath, who was Lüthi’s teammate in 2017. Buchacher and Sanders look clear favourites to be the top all-African team, having finished fifth and eighth respectively with different teammates in 2017.

Dimension Data Masters

In 2017, two Tour de France legends came to the Absa Cape Epic and won the Tour de France of mountain biking at their first attempt, taking the Dimension Data Masters by storm and changing the dynamic of the category for the foreseeable future.

Cadel Evans & George Hincapie BMC Absa Racing Team celebrate winning the Masters category during the final stage (stage 7) of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race. Photo by Shaun Roy/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Cadel Evans, winner of the 2011 Tour de France, and George Hincapie, won by five minutes, and in 2018 will be followed by former road racing icons who are flocking to the Absa Cape Epic as they seek another grand challenge on their cycling journey. Hincapie returns to the Dimension Data Masters category riding for team Absa with fellow American Christian van de Velde, who took fourth overall in the 2008 Tour and was the second rider from the USA to wear the pink leader’s jersey at the Giro d’Italia. Hincapie and Evans played down their chances of doing well last year, and while he and Van de Velde may do the same, few will believe them.

Hincapie and 2006 Tour winner Oscar Pereiro may get the chance to reenact their duel for a stage win at the 2005 Tour, which was ultimately won by Hincapie. Pereiro and Haimar Zubeldia will make up an all-Spanish team, bringing their climbing experience to the race. Zubeldia finally called an end to a 20-year road cycling career at the age of 40 last year, having taken part in 26 Grand Tours, with a fourth place in the 2007 Tour de France. While new to mountain biking, Pereiro has been a winner on the dirt in the past as the 1998 Spanish cyclocross champion.

Dutchman Erik Dekker could be a favourite to win in his first Absa Cape Epic. Riding with Maikel Govaarts, who finished fifth in the Masters in his only Epic in 2016, Dekker has shown impressive form in mountain biking. Dekker, silver medallist at the 1992 Olympics and winner of four stages of the Tour, is the current Dutch masters cross country champion and took third overall and the top Masters trophy in the gruelling Crocodile Trophy, beating the elite riders to win a stage. Govaarts approached Dekker to set up a formidable pairing that will take some beating.

Dekker has said he is looking forward to racing against fellow Dutchman Bart Brentjens, a four-time Masters champion at the race with Brazilian partner Abraao Azevedo. They finished third in 2017, but there will be no lack of motivation in what will be Brentjens final race in the Dimension Data Masters category before he moves up to the Grand Masters category. He and Azevedo won three titles in a row from 2014- 2016. Indeed, Brentjens would have his fifth title already had he and South African Robert Sim not lost to Azevedo and Nico Pfitzenmaier in 2013. Barts first win was in the Men’s category in 2007 with Rudi van Houts.

Dark horses for a podium could be Italy’s Massimo Debertolis, the 2004 marathon world champion, and Czech Ondrej Fojtik. The South African challenge will be led by Nic Lamond, who was seventh in the Masters in 2017 with brother Simon. He returns to the category for the second time with Australian Paris Basson. Lamond is an experienced hand at the Epic as he lines up for his 11th – it will be Basson’s third – having ended 17th in the elite race in 2015.

Grand Masters

Since the Grand Masters category was launched in 2013, Andrew McLean has finished first (2014), second (2015) and third (2016). After a year’s break, McLean returns to the race with Springbok rugby legend Joel Stransky (CycleLab KTM).

Stransky, who scored all the points when South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup, has been a constant at the Absa Cape Epic since 2010, although he had a disastrous start to 2017 when he crashed heavily during the Prologue, breaking ribs, puncturing his lung and suffering lacerations to his face. It was the only Absa Cape Epic he has never finished. His partner in 2017 was former Sharks centre, Jeremy Thomson, who has teamed up with South African endurance sport legend Martin Dreyer (LandRover Above and Beyond) in the highly competitive Grand Masters category.

It brings an interesting dynamic to the category, two former rugby stars teamed up with endurance stars, a race within a race, but that will not distract any of them from the ultimate goal of winning overall. Stransky has gotten stronger and faster on his Epic journey, and with close friend McLean, who has won the Masters category title twice (2007, 2010) and 24 category stages, could pose a threat to 2017 winner Barti Bucher of Switzerland.

Bucher - who has dominated the Grand Masters category - will race with fellow Swiss Hans Jeurg Gerber (Team Meerendal). Bucher has won twice with Austrian Heinz Zoerweg (Meerendal CBC 3) and they were second overall in 2016. Bucher, like McLean, has also had success in the Masters category, while McLean and Zoerweg won seven stages in 2014. Keep an eye on South African Robert Sims and his German teammate Udo Boelts (Robert Daniel), the 2016 winners who took an incredible 25th place overall that same year.

Virgin Active Mixed

The 2018 Virgin Active Mixed category will be something of a family a fair for some of the top South Africans.

Nicky Giliomee rode her first Absa Cape Epic with her aunt, Maureen Lourens, in 2016, 19 years after she had been a flower girl at her wedding at the age of three. In 2018, Giliomee and Lourens will race against each other in the Mixed category for the first time, having taken an impressive 10th in the women’s elite field in their only race together. For her 7th edition, Lourens, who finished 5th in the women’s race in 2013, has chosen Bradley Hemphill (Speed Structures) as her partner, the latter making a return to the race after competing in the first three editions. Giliomee will team up with former road cyclist Dusty Day (Junto It) to take on a field full of first-timers in the Mixed category.

After racing in the women’s eld for the last seven Absa Cape Epic’s, Yolandi du Toit has made the switch to the Mixed category with Gus Klohn (Gear Powerbar) for 2018. Du Toit, who enjoyed a highly successful career as a road cyclist before she made the move to mountain biking, has finished fifth in the women’s event twice and is hoping to emulate that success. Henning Blaauw’s nickname is the Pirate and he will be looking for treasure in his 13th Absa Cape Epic, having been one of the pioneers to take part in the first race back in 2004. He has focused on the Mixed category for the last six years. He and Louise Ferreira (Team Globeflight) will partner up for the fifth consecutive year, looking to improve upon their eighth place in 2017.

Argentina will be represented by Epic debutants Agustina Maria Apaza and Cessar Lettoli (Merida Argentina). Apaza has been his country’s national cross country champion five times and marathon champion four times. Although they are newbies to the race, they will be a team to look out for in the Virgin Active Mixed category.

Carlo Campagnolo and fellow Italian Giuliana Massarotto (Team Appenn- inica 1) will seek to ensure there is a European pairing on the top of the podium for the fourth year in a row. Campagnolo will be making his Absa Cape Epic debut, while Massarotto will be taking part in her sixth.

ABSA African Special Jersey

It is entirely appropriate that in her 15th Absa Cape Epic, Hannele Steyn will be in the mix for the trophy named in her honour.

Steyn will team up with fellow South African Jeannie Dreyer (Nolands Spar Ladies) to compete for the first edition of the Absa African special jersey, to be the first all-African team to cross the line. Steyn, one of the four remaining Last Lions, will be racing with Dreyer for the first time at the Epic.

Hannele Steyn. Photo credit: Zoon Cronje.

Dreyer, who is married to South African endurance sport legend Martin, is one of the country’s top long-distance mountain bikers, a former winner of the arduous 2 300km Freedom Challenge. She and her husband became the first people to take mountain bikes to the summit of Kilimanjaro last year, riding down Africa’s highest mountain.

Dreyer will be taking part in her fifth Absa Cape Epic having ridden in the first race in 2004. She has recorded some impressive results. She was eighth in the Women’s category in 2017 and fourth in 2014, and sixth in the Virgin Active Mixed category in 2007. Coincidently, she finished one position ahead of Steyn in the mixed race that year, with Steyn riding with downhill mountain bike star Greg Minnaar.

Steyn and Dreyer will find themselves up against a strong line-up of mainly South African teams. Carmen Buchacher and Samantha Sanders (dormakaba 2) are probably the favourites. Buchacher, along with Namibian Michelle Vorster, were the top-placed all-African team in 2017 in their debut Absa Cape Epic. They ended fifth overall and took third on the sixth stage, showing the consistency needed during a stage race. Sanders is a former South African cross country champion who was in dominant form during the 2017 season, while Buchacher spent the South African winter racing in Europe where she finished third in the Austrian National Championships.

Their main rivals will be Fienie Barnard and Dalene van der Leek (LIVBeyond), who come into the Epic as an experienced pairing having ridden Africa’s Untamed African MTB Race together for the first time in 2017, where they ended ninth. Last year was the first time Barnard has taken part in the Women’s category in her four Epics having tasted success in the Mixed category when she was third in 2008 with her husband, Kobus. Barnard is a former marathon world champion in the 35-39 age group. The 2018 race will be an emotional one for Van der Leek, who took 7th overall with the late Sharon Laws in 2016. Laws, who won the first-ever Absa Cape Epic in 2004 and again in 2009, lost her battle with cancer last year.

It seems a lifetime and yet just yesterday when Burry Stander, the greatest South African mountain biking talent of his generation, lost his life in a motor accident while riding his bike ve years ago when he was just 25. As the only South African to have won the race, the trophy that honours his name - the Burry Stander Memorial Trophy - for the top all-African Men’s category team has become one of the most intensely contested for prizes the Absa Cape Epic.

Nico Bell of NAD Pro MTB leads PYGA Euro Steel riders Philip Buys and Matthys Beukes during stage 4 of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic. Photo by Nick Muzik/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Philip Buys and Matthys Beukes (Pyga Euro Steel), the winners of the inaugural Absa African Men’s special jersey, know they will be marked men in the race for the red jersey this year. They have won it together in 2013, 2015 and 2017, with Beukes also tasting victory with Gert Heyns in 2014. Buys has garnered a wealth of experience in his career, and at the age of 29 will take part in his eighth Absa Cape Epic. He is a four-time African Champion, former South African champion, competed in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014 and can call himself an Olympian after he was part of the South African team in London in 2012 along with Stander. He has seven Absa Cape Epic stage wins to his name, including a glorious Grand Finale win with Nino Schurter in 2014.

Buys has stated that it is time the Africans dominated the Absa Cape Epic, and their race for the Absa African Men’s special jersey has also seen them in the mix with the elite of world mountain biking. Their seventh place last year has only been bettered by fifth in 2015. They have won the Absa African special jersey every time they have ridden together.

They will be pushed hard by Nico Bell and Matthew Beers (NAD Pro MTB) in their first Epic together. Bell has a strong Absa Cape Epic history, and along with long-time teammate Gawie Combrinck boasted 12 Absa Cape Epic finishes between them, but also had
to sacrifice their own ambitions in the past as a back-up team for Christoph Sauser, but still managed a fine 11th overall in 2017 and eighth in 2012. Beers has finished in 20th and 21st position in the Men’s category. Other Africans to watch out for include the experienced Michael Posthumus and Derrin Smith (William Simpson), and young debutants Jaco Pelser and Matthew Keyser (Silverback Racing). After winning the Exxaro special jersey in 2017 with William Mokgopo, Phillimon Sebona will challenge for the Absa African special jersey with Julian Jessop (Pyga Euro Steel 2).

The Exxaro Special Jersey

The race for the winners’ green jersey, which goes to a team of historically disadvantaged riders under the age of 26, has become an intense battle for prestige, as well as the first pedal strokes on a journey of hope and development. The stakes have also risen with an increased prize purse in 2018. The winning team will receive R50 000, with second and third winning R30 000 and R20 000 respectively.

In 2017, William Mokgopo and Phillimon Sebona, riding for the Diepsloot Mountain Bike Academy, won the Exxaro special jersey. They ended 33rd overall in the men’s elite field, with Sebona winning the competition for the third time while Mokgopo claimed his first in his fifth Absa Cape Epic.

Phillimon Sebona and William Mokgopo of team Diepsloot MTB Academy 1 win the overall category for the Exxaro jersey after (stage 7) of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic. Photo by Greg Beadle/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Winning the jersey not only comes with honour and prize money, but the chance to attend the elite Bakala Academy in Leuven, Belgium. They spent eight days at the academy in June, going through tests and training, and learning from the World Tour riders on the Etixx Quick-Step team. The Bakala Academy will also host the winners of the Exxaro special jersey for 2018 and 2019.

The Exxaro MTB academy was established in 2011, while the competition has grown to include academies from around South Africa.

The rise in entries for the Exxaro special jersey doubled from 2016 to 2017, with 19 teams competing. In August last year, Exxaro, a coal and heavy minerals mining company, extended their partnership as Headline Sponsor with the Absa Cape Epic for another five years.

The growth in the Exxaro special jersey race has not only been in the number of teams competing, but the development of the riders themselves. Since the inception of the special jersey in 2012, the race has seen 42 riders in the top 100 within the Men’s category. In 2012 there were four riders who managed to gain a position within the top 100, in 2017 we saw 11 development riders roll over the finish line in top 100 with the winning team coming in 33rd place. That’s 11% of the top 100 men’s positions filled by development riders, showing just how successful the academies are who are helping these young stars find their wheels. “In the beginning we used the term Exxaro ‘development’ jersey, but we have dropped that because the riders aren’t really development riders anymore,” said Mellis Walker of the Exxaro MTB Academy steering committee. “They compete on their own footing with other riders. We now call it the Exxaro jersey, and we believe that is an acknowledgement and testament of how those riders have grown over the years.”

Azukile Simayile and Sipho Madolo, who won the first Exxaro jersey, competed for the Absa African Men’s special jersey in 2014. They finished 11th behind red jersey winners Matthys Beukes and Gert Heyns, and were 30th overall and 24th in the men’s elite field. Sebona and Jan Montshioa, who won the Exxaro special jersey in 2014, were just two places below them in the race for the Burry Stander Memorial Trophy in 13th, finishing 33rd place in the general classification and 27th in the Men’s category.

The Absa Cape Epic has partnered with three additional academies, Diepsloot MTB Academy in Johannesburg, the Christoph Sauser-backed Songo.info academy in Stellenbosch and Martin Dreyer’s Change a Life Academy in KwaZulu-Natal, and worked with the BMT academy in Stellenbosch and Velokhaya in Khayelitsha. The Absa Cape Epic sponsor two entries for each of their partner academies to assist in the growth of development teams in MTB.

In 2018, Sebona, who went on to win three major mountain bike races in 2017 after his Epic success, has moved on to the Pyga Euro Steel team, while Mokgopo has formed his own team, but will compete for the green jersey one more time. For Mokgopo, who has become a mentor at the Diepsloot Mountain Bike Academy, the Exxaro special jersey is more than just a race for first prize. It is a race of honour, pride and growth.