Gary Perkin. Cape Epic. Sportzpics.

South African Candice Neethling is 25 and her Namibian partner Vera Adrian just 23 but their form in stage races in 2016 hints at a big future. They will both be taking part in the eight-day Absa Cape Epic for the first time and they have made it clear that 2017 will be a year of “getting to know” the rigours of the race.

The Dorma Kaba will, however, have a good shot at another prize on offer: the opportunity to be the first all-African team across the line.

Standing in their way will be six-time finisher Theresa Ralph, 41, and Yolandi du Toit, 31, (Team Galileo Risk Garmin) who has completed the Untamed African MTB race four times.

The latter pair’s experience of this event could be critical, but Neethling and Adrian won the Sani2c and Berg&Bush stage races in 2016 and have the talent to burn.

Ralph has second, third, fourth and fifth place finishes in the Absa Cape Epic. The fifth place in 2016 was secured with du Toit, when they were the first African women’s team to finish.

Here is what the two teams have to say about their approach to the 2017 race:

Dorma Kaba

Adrian believes the youthful Dorma Kaba team will give it their all, but ought to remain realistic. “Because we are so young it will not be our goal to ride onto the podium, but rather to gather valuable experience and finish strongly. Obviously, if there is a chance for podium position we will not refuse it.”

Neethling agrees, “We are going into the race with a conservative approach because young and it is our first Cape Epic.

“We will see how we feel during the first few days and maybe go for some stage podiums if we are feeling strong in the later stages. That being said, our wins at Sani2c and Berg & Bush were a surprise to both of us. We will go in with the same positive energy and willingness to suffer and dig deep.”

The Dorma Kaba riders have followed separate training regimes.

“I spent December and January in Europe. A training camp on Gran Canaria has given me form for the Epic. The last few weeks before the race itself, I will be in South Africa again and hopefully do some training rides together with Candice,” says Adrian.

Neethling says she is happy with the progress she has made. “It has been a solid few weeks of progressive work. The last few weeks going into the Cape Epic will be about sharpening, getting race-ready and staying mentally and physically fresh.”

Galileo Risk Garmin

Ralph believes she and her partner are on track for a fruitful Cape Epic in 2017 for several reasons.

“This will be our second Cape Epic and fifth stage race together – so we are still learning about each other.

“Nevertheless, Yolandi and myself are well suited. Our strengths are similar and so are our weaknesses, so no partner is riding away from the other. We communicate well and ride well as a team, so we are getting stronger together and are hoping for a successful Cape Epic this year.”

Emma Hill. Cape Epic. Sportzpics.

Ralph says the success she and her partner hope for will not come without mastering the challenges of an untamed trail.

“I have seen the profile and it will be a very tough route this year – possibly the toughest ever! I started the season with riding the Attakwas to give myself a shock to the system. I will be doing hill work and a few stage races before the event to get accustomed to multiple stage racing.

“My coach Mike Posthumus, from Science2Sport, has been helping me with my training and I have great confidence in his skills. A great fault of many riders is to over-train and with the doctor monitoring me I can train without the fear of burnout. Many athletes think the more the better and come into the Cape Epic fatigued, which is not where you need to be for such a gruelling stage race.”

Du Toit believes it is easy to over-prepare for the eight-day race, and says that a cautious approach to training can be the blueprint for survival.

Ewald Sadie. Cape Epic. Sporzpics.

“For the 2016 edition of the Cape Epic I started too early with high-intensity work and by the time the Epic rolled around I wasn’t feeling as fresh as I wanted to. I probably did too much in the build-up period. I believe my conservative training approach for this year will benefit me more and I look forward to seeing where my form is come Cape Epic 2017 .”

Ralph and du Toit aim to be the first finishers to wave the African flag at this year’s Epic, but admit there is no guarantee.

“With each year the Cape Epic seems to get tougher and with the ever-changing route you are always heading into the unknown. This year there is a very strong ladies field and all the top girls are pairing up with different partners. I think realistically our goal this year would be a top seven finish. If we get a top five like we did last year then we will be ecstatic,” shares Ralph.