2019 Absa Cape Epic starts this weekend – who to watch

 

Stellar elite field set for 2019 Absa Cape Epic

 

The Absa Cape Epic is the most competitive mountain bike stage race in the world. The pinnacle of the Epic Series is in its sixteenth edition and the Untamed African Mountain Bike Race again showcases the best riders on the planet in peak condition. The exceptional elite field features two Olympic champions, plus several world, continental and national champions and ten previous winners.

The star-studded line-up is headed to the prologue at UCT, held on the slopes of the iconic Table Mountain in Cape Town. Here’s a who-to-watch list, to know who to look out for at the sharp end of the field. For more info, and to catch the action on live streaming go to www.cape-epic.com

MEN

Investec-Songo-Specialized

1-1 Jaroslav Kulhavý [CZE]

Age: 34

Epics completed: 4

Stage wins: 13

Best result: 1st (2013, 2015, 2018)

2012 Olympic Gold Medallist

 

1-2 Sam Gaze [NZL]

Age: 23

Epics completed: 0

2017 Under 23 World Champion XCO

 

The unfortunate withdrawal of one half of last year’s winning team forced a last-minute reshuffle in the Specialized camp. Luckily the highly successful factory racing team has deep pool of talent to draw from and young Sam Gaze was nominated to ride with the Czech express. Even though the former under 23 world champion is a newbie, Gaze has more than enough pedigree to fill Grott’s shoes. As the winner of the 2018 Stellenbosch UCI World Cup he’s one of a small handful of riders to truly put the imperious Nino Schurter to the sword on the circuit over a span of eight years

Another such rider is Kulhavy himself: dubbed as the world’s most complete mountain biker, with a full range of titles to his name – Olympic, world cross country, world marathon and Absa Cape Epic championships. Although it’s hard to tell how team chemistry will pan out with the specific pressures of mountain bike stage racing at the highest level, the pair spend a great deal of time together on tour, and know each other’s strengths and (very few) weaknesses well. Watt for Watt, they seem an even more deadly match than the successful Kulhavy / Grotts combo. Safe to say, Schurter’s radar pinged loudly when this news broke.

Also, if Gaze needed any more stage race insight and guidance, he has the expert back-up of multiple world champion five-time Absa Cape Epic winner Christoph Sauser, who’s partnered with Danish champion Simon Andreassen. Scott-SRAM, Bulls and Cannondale Factory Racing better find a solution quick or they’re set for another trouncing.

 

Bulls

2-1 Karl Platt [GER]

Age: 41

Epics completed: 14

Stage wins: 17

Best result: 1st (2004, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2016)

2015 German Champion XCM

 

2-2 Alban Lakata [AUT]

Age: 39

Epics completed: 9

Stage wins: 3

Best result: 2nd (2015)

4x World Champion XCM

 

6-1 Urs Huber [SWI]

Age: 33

Epics completed: 8

Stage wins: 5

Best result: 1st (2016)

2016 Swiss Champion XCM

 

6-1 Simon Stiebjahn [GER]

Age: 28

Epics completed: 6

Stage wins: 0

Best result: 3rd (2014)

2012 U23 European Champion XCM

 

Race favourites Investec-Songo-Specialized and Scott-SRAM are all too familiar with the big names who’ll challenge them in 2019. However several of 2019’s team combinations come in different forms. Most notable are the Bulls – a new pairing sees five-time Absa Cape Epic winner Karl Platt race with none other than Alban Lakata, second in 2018. The two are certainly not strangers, having gone head to head at the race for over a decade. They know each other well and where master tactician Platt may have used Lakata’s weaknesses against him in the past, he’ll know exactly how to harness the raw power that carried the Austrian to three marathon world titles. Could this be his last try for a record sixth win?

For the last two years, we haven’t seen the form that carried Platt to a convincing 2016 victory. With both riders well into the twilight of their careers, fans wonder if they ever will again, given the speed and relative youth of their rivals. The Bulls’ best bet is to hold true to the tactic that served them well. Keep a high rhythm and wait for others to make a mistake. Ever-evolving, the Bulls seem to have a different take on the back up team concept, preferring to field two super-strong teams to hedge their bets, with Platt’s six-time partner Urs Huber pairing with Stiebjahn. The German is a worthy partner to the 2016 champion considering that he too has a podium spot to his name. It makes for a stealthy two-pronged tactic to keep rivals guessing. Both have back up from the young, yet fast-maturing duo of Martin Frey and Simon Schneller.

 

Cannondale Factory Racing                  

3-1 Manuel Fumic [GER]

Age: 36

Epics completed: 4

Stage wins: 5

Best result: 3rd (2018)

2nd 2013 World Championships XCO

 

3-2 Henrique Avancini [BRA]

Age: 29

Epics completed: 3

Stage wins: 5

Best result: 3rd (2018)

2018 World Champion XCM

 

If history were to repeat itself, as it’s done every year that Fumic and Avancini have ridden together, we’d suggest (to fans and rivals) to keep a close eye on Cannondale Factory Racing in the early stages of the race. Their explosive style and fearless attacking netted has them five stage wins to date. They’re likely to pile on the pressure from the get-go, which will have a strong influence on the race’s outcome, whether or not they repeat 2018’s podium spot. They excel on all types of terrain. As cross country specialists, highly competitive on the UCI World Cup circuit (Avancini placed second at the Mont-Saint-Anne leg last year), they still managed to take it to the marathoners, even before they reach their favourite terrain of tight singletrack and short steep climbs.

Avancini is the current Marathon World Champion and Fumic the German Cross Country Champion. As a partnership they’re a joy to watch and have legions of supporters across the world, but one can’t help wish they were bringing a much-needed back-up team – their GC chances have been scuppered more than once already at the race. That said, they are due some good luck and with their firepower and stage racing experience, they’re the biggest threats to Investec-songo-Specialized and Scott-SRAM.

 

Scott-SRAM

4-1 Nino Schurter [SWI]

Age: 32

Epics completed: 4

Stage wins: 4

Best result: 1st (2017)

2016 Olympic Gold Medallist

 

4-2 Andri Frischknecht [SWI]

Age: 24

Epics completed: 1

Stage wins: 2

Best result: 6th (2017)

2018 Swiss Epic Winner

 

It’s a longstanding debate at the Absa Cape Epic: who will win – the short-form cross country specialists or the turbo diesel-engined marathon hard-men? The 2017 edition was direct evidence that talent transfers and champions prevail. Pure-bred cross country racer Nino Schurter adjusted his preparation for the 2017 race, brought along an excellent back up team and romped home with Matthias Stirnemann for the win. Stirnemann fell ill early on in the 2018 edition, writing off their attempt to repeat it, but the Olympic and world champion returns for revenge, this time with Andri Frischknecht at his side.

Schurter is the best mountain biker of his generation, capturing a full set of Olympic medals and seven world titles so far – second place simply won’t do. This puts his partner under immense pressure, under which many a mortal would suffer. However the son of mountain bike legend Thomas Frischknecht is now coming of age, winning the Swiss Epic in 2018, showing he’s up to the task. The dynamic required for success from these two involves Schurter leading from the front, with an eye on young Andri, making sure he doesn’t go too deep too early and pay the price. Backed up by European cross country champion Lars Forster and top South African rider Gert Heyns, mechanical and tactical assistance will be close at hand.

 

Canyon

5-1 Kristian Hynek

Age: 38

Epics completed: 4

Stage wins: 2

Best result: 1st (2014)

2012 European Champion XCM

 

5-2 Petter Fagerhaug

Age: 21

Epics completed: 0

2017 Norwegian Champion XCO

 

Hynek hit a home run on his first outing at the 2014 Absa Cape Epic, partnered with Robert Mennen. This edition saw all the elements that make for a thrilling contest (endeavor, intrigue, unexpected alliances and pure firepower) with one key ingredient – a deadly team dynamic. In the following years, Hynek partnered with marathon legend Lakata and not seen the top step since his debut, leaving the question “is it the partnership…” This year should go some way to answering that, with his talented new Norwegian superstar partner.

Fagerhaug won the men’s under-23 race at the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Stellenbosch in 2018 and went on to win two more in the series, so there is no doubting his ability to dice at the front with the world’s finest. What is under scrutiny however is his ability, at 21 years old, to maintain this level throughout the week. Hynek’s ability to impart his experience will play a huge role in how the final few days pan out. Fagerhaug’s 2019 strategy may be ‘race to learn’ but don’t be surprised to see this pair on the podium during the week.

 

PYGA Euro Steel

7-1 Philip Buys [RSA]

Age: 30

Epics completed: 7

Stage wins: 3

Best result: 5th (2014, 2015)

4x African Continental Champion XCO

 

7-2 Matthys Beukes [RSA]

Age: 31

Epics completed: 5

Stage wins: 2

Best result: 5th (2015)

2018 Cape Pioneer Trek Winner

 

The tried and tested all-South African team is back with a bang. Buys will want to forget the painful memory of missing the 2018 race due to illness; while Beukes keeps the pairing buoyant with the momentum of back-to-back Absa African jersey wins. This adds them to a short list of favourites when it comes to predicting a winner of the category, and we shouldn’t discount a possible top five on GC, overall. With their experience (Buys raced with none other than Nino Schurter in 2014) there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. They have won stages before, in do-or-die mode, but with the stakes as they are, they may play it safe and aim for a high placing at the end of the week. The Absa African jersey is worth too much to them to risk blowing up.

They have the pace to stay up at the front with the best and are underwritten by their backup team, consisting of Phillimon Sebona and Pieter Du Toit (who rode together to a creditable 25th place in 2018). Sebona is one of the great success stories of the Exxaro Mountain Biking Academy and the Exxaro Special Jersey initiative. With the home crowd behind these four all the way, they have a little extra morale boost to carry them high up the leader board again.

 

Silverback SBC

8-1 Nicola Rohrbach [SWI]

Age: 32

Epics completed: 3

Stage wins: 4

Best result: 2nd (2016)

6th 2017 World Championships XCM

 

8-1 Konny Looser [SWI]

Age: 30

Epics completed: 5

Stage Wins: 0

Best result: 11th (2012)

2017 Swiss Champion XCM

 

Looking back to Looser’s debut in 2011, partnered with Urs Huber, the youthful Swiss rode out of his skin to match Huber’s pace all week. That was till a fateful crash on Groenlandberg wrecked his frame and the team’s 4th place on GC. Since then however, he hasn’t been seen inside the top ten after Huber moved to the Bulls, never quite getting the team formula right. Given his performance at the race and that he claimed the Swiss marathon title in 2017, there’s no doubt he has the ability perform far better than his results stats show, given the right partner.

The right partner could well be fellow Swiss Nicola Rohrbach. He’s proved there’s no shortage of firepower in his legs, with two podium places and a stage win in his three year history at the race. Rohrbach has also proved that he doesn’t need to partner with Daniel Geismayr to post a top result, getting second in 2016 riding with Matthias Pfrommer. Both in their athletic prime, this dark horse team will be closely followed by fans, their new sponsors and of course their rivals.

 

Centurion Vaude               

9-1 Daniel Geismayr [AUT]

Age: 29

Epics completed: 5

Stage wins: 3

Best result: 3rd (2017)

2018 Austrian Champion XCM

 

9-2 Jochen Käß [GER]

Age: 37

Epics completed: 6

Stage wins: 3

Best result: 2nd (2011)

2017 Swiss Epic winner

 

Keeping it interesting, the 2018 edition is marked by the contrast of established team combinations and some new and surprising pairings rolling up on the start ramp at UCT in March. Centurion Vaude’s configuration is somewhere in-between. Geismayr and Käß have only ridden the Absa Cape Epic once together, despite being on the same trade team for seven years. Proving their quality, they teamed up to win the 2017 Swiss Epic. Another change from previous years: they’re backed up by two young newbies.

The bookmakers may give those facts some weight when predicting a result. But as consummate professionals, this two are at the top of their game and can be relied upon to deliver a high placing and possibly a couple of stage wins to top it off. Ever consistent, Käß hasn’t shown much sign of coming off his physical peak, even at 37. At 29, Daniel Geismayr is in his prime and will be looking to add more top results to his palmarès. Tactically, they’ll know not to chase the cross country bandits blindly and to keep their composure in the early part of the week when the race ignites. They’ll aim to keep their powder dry, stay in contention and keep something left in the tank to pounce on opportunities as the weekend approaches.

 

Trek Selle San Marco

10-1 Damiano Ferraro [ITA]

Age: 32

Epics completed: 3

Stage wins: 1

Best result: 3rd (2016)

5th 2015 World Championships XCM

 

10-2 Samuele Porro [ITA]

Age: 30

Epics completed: 2

Stage wins: 2

Best result: 3rd (2016)

2x Italian Champion XCM

 

16-1 Fabian Rabensteiner [ITA]

Age: 28

Epics completed: 3

Stage wins: 1

Best result: 6th (2018)

3rd 2018 European Championships XCM

 

16-2 Michele Casagrande [ITA]

Age: 34

Epics completed: 1

Stage wins: 1

Best result: 6th (2018)

2nd 2018 Roc D’Azur

 

“The Trekkies” as they’re affectionally known are an ever-present force at the Absa Cape Epic. They may not have big hitter names with majestic titles like the Scott-SRAMs and Investec-songo-Specializeds of the world, but they’re never to be discounted, regularly popping up on the podium. They’re a tight-knit crew, all four similarly matched and they vary the team combinations year by year, depending on form, to tweak the mix. 2018 saw Rabensteiner and Casagrande take the prestigious Grand Finale stage at Val de Vie Estate. Though Ferraro and Porro were the so-called primary team, the second pairing was set free to make hay while the sun shone. Unpredictability is their secret superpower.

Ferraro and Porro are issued with the more prestigious number board, but given the nature of the Italian team, and of the race itself, don’t be surprised to see the ‘back-up’ team take glory. All of the riders have won stages at the Absa Cape Epic and all are capable of winning more. Like with the Bulls, a dominant team is not as clearly defined as in other camps, and they’ll play this to their advantage, both tactically and when negotiating with Lady Luck – a notoriously prickly mistress.

 

Specialized Foundation NAD

13-1 Alan Hatherly [RSA]

Age: 23

Epics completed: 0

2018 Under 23 World Champion XCO

 

13-2 Matthew Beers [RSA]

Age: 25

Epics completed: 3

Best result: 15th (2018)

2017 Cape Pioneer Trek Winner

 

The likely wearers of the red Absa African jerseys by the end of race week can be narrowed down to two teams: Pyga Euro Steel, and this outfit. Hatherly took the Under 23 Cross Country World Championship title last year, making this a team to watch closely, not only for the battle for the red Absa African jersey, but also for stage wins. Beers gets stronger and more consistent every year and is primed for the limelight of world mountain biking. Riding with Nico Bell in 2018, the pair had a slow start, with Beers ailing, but halfway through race week they were up front with the biggest names in the sport.

As a team, there’ll be no time wasted getting to know each other – they’re great friends off the bike and regular training partners out on the trails. They’ll also have the expert guidance of Christoph Sauser (who has 13 Epic starts and 5 wins under the belt). Sauser will focus more closely on newbie Hatherly (Beers has already chalked up three finishes) hoping to share tips on how to measure the effort perfectly to go the full distance, all the way from the start ramp to the podium. If all goes to plan, they’ll be Buys and Beukes’ biggest headache.

 

Kross

14-1 Sergio Mantecón Gutiérrez [ESP]

Age: 34

Epics completed: 1

Stage Wins: 0

Best result: 25th (2011)

2x Spanish Champion XCO

 

14-2 Ondřej Cink [CZE]

Age: 28

Epics completed: 0

Stage Wins: N/A

2015 Czech Champion XCO

 

It’s clear that Cink is a classy rider – after a top ten overall on the UCI World Cup circuit and a podium spot at the Andorra leg in 2016, he transferred his high-output engine and mastery of the bicycle to the road, earning him a berth on the Bahrain-Merida team’s Tour de France squad only six months after his tarmac debut. The Czech has since returned to his first love, fortunately for mountain biking fans, and for Mantecón Gutiérrez (who’ll have his work cut out for him).

It’s the two-time Spanish cross country champion’s second Absa Cape Epic, his first was 8 years ago, riding with Olympic bronze medallist Carlos Coloma Nicolas. After a disastrous prologue, the pair focused on individual stages, coming up with a podium spot on stage 4. But like many others, it’s likely they’ll aim for a high GC placing, not just to get their name in lights at the biggest mountain bike stage race in the world, but also to earn UCI points on their road to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.

 

WOMEN

Investec-Songo-Specialized

50-1 Annika Langvad [DEN]

Age: 34

Epics completed: 4

Stage wins: 24

Best result: 1st (2014, 2015, 2016, 2018)

2016 World Champion XCO

 

50-1 Anna van der Breggen [NED]

Age: 28

Epics completed: 0

Stage Wins: N/A

Current Olympic and World Road Champion

 

Langvad has a perfect four-from-four record at the Absa Cape Epic. Three of those four wins came from a lethal partnership with Ariane Lüthi, but last year’s pairing with new mountain biking star Kate Courtney strongly suggests that Langvad is the common denominator for success at the race, therefore Van Der Breggen is in good hands. As a five-time Marathon World Champion, Langvad is clearly well-suited to long format racing, not to forget she’s also won six UCI World Cups and ended 2018 ranked second overall. It’s a unique kind of mentorship for Langvad. Van Der Breggen is more than able to match her power, but the Dutchwoman will lean on her heavily for support and insight into the nuances of racing off-road day after day.

The current Olympic and world road champion is an Absa Cape Epic rookie, but no stranger to flat bars – when her road schedule allowed, she raced on the UCI World Cup circuit in 2018, familiarising herself with the demands of mountain biking. Despite Van Der Breggen’s relative inexperience, she has a significant advantage in that her ‘redline’ is higher compared to that of her rivals (except perhaps for Annika Langvad herself). This ‘maximum capacity’ is commonly the point at which riders make errors, both technical and in pacing. So as long as the pair stays conservative throughout and only push hard where it counts, there’s little to stop Langvad equal Christoph Sauser and Karl Platt’s record five victories.

 

Meerendal WIAWIS Rotwild

51-1 Sabine Spitz [GER]

Age: 47

Epics completed: 3

Stage wins: 7

Best result: 2nd (2016, 2018)

2008 Olympic Champion

 

51-1 Nadine Rieder [GER]

Age: 29

Epics completed: 0

Stage Wins: 0

3rd German Championships XCO

 

Spitz has a full collection of Olympic medals, bronze in 2004, gold in 2008 and silver in 2012. She’s also a former world and national champion. Very few athletes in the world have a list of palmarès like hers and the Absa Cape Epic is only title missing from that. She and Robyn de Groot were the pre-race favourites in 2017 but she crashed badly, losing significant time on two stages and these setbacks ultimately cost them the victory. In 2018’s edition the German / South African pair rolled out a solid performance for second on GC.

This year De Groot is out with injury so Spitz pairs up with fellow German Nadine Rieder. Although the 29-year-old may not be as well-known as her illustrious teammate, Rieder is placed third in the German XCO Championships and at Ischgl Ironbike, plus won the final round of the highly competitive Internationale MTB Bundesliga series. Spitz herself has named the pairing the “German Dream Team” so it’s clear that the triple Olympic medallist has faith in her new partner. Rieder will no doubt be determined to prove she’s worthy of this confidence.

 

Silverback Fairtree

52-1 Jennie Stenerhag [SWE]

Age: 43

Epics completed: 4

Stage wins: 4

Best result: 1st (2017)

2017 Swiss Epic Winner

 

52-2 Mariske Strauss [RSA]

Age: 27

Epics completed: 4

Stage Wins: 1

Best result: 2nd (2017)

2018 South African Champion XCO

 

There’s a vast age gap between Strauss and Stenerhag and they could not have more varied career paths. Strauss has focused almost exclusively on cross country racing, delving into stage racing occasionally. She delivered her best Absa Cape Epic result (second) in 2017, riding with British cross country star Annie Last. Stenerhag’s stats include Swedish road and mountain biking titles in the marathon discipline. Since switching from asphalt, and making Cape Town her home, she’s been an ever-present force on the local and international stage racing scene, and has placed first, second and third at the Absa Cape Epic.

Strauss’ memories of the 2018 race range from the high of dicing at the front among the rainbow-sleeved Annika Langvad and Kate Courtney to the lows of catching a stomach bug and running on empty over the last two days. As much of an unlikely pairing as it is, the two are unbreakably positive and fans expect them to bring out the best in each other and put together a stellar performance.

 

Kross-Spur Racing

53-1 Ariane Lüthi [SWI]

Age: 35

Epics completed: 7

Stage wins: 17

Best result: 1st (2014, 2015, 2016)

2x Swiss champion XCM

 

53-2 Maja Włoszczowska [POL]

Age: 35

Epics completed: 0

Stage Wins: N/A

2x Olympic Silver Medallist

 

The 2018 edition saw a low point in Lüthi’s illustrious Absa Cape Epic career. After three wins in the women’s category and two in the mixed, her DNF will surely fuel the fire in her to come back guns blazing. She’s struggled in the last two years to find the level of partner to replace Annika Langvad, but this year she’s hit the jackpot with UCI World Cup star Włoszczowska, former Cross Country World Champion and two-time Olympic Silver Medallist.

Former teammate of 2017 Cross Country World Champion Jolanda Neff, the Pole brings the firepower necessary to challenge the Investec-songo-Specialized duo and Lüthi has the experience of seven Absa Cape Epics under her belt to contribute. Włoszczowska’s form will be primed with the World Cup season starting soon and if Lüthi hits peak fitness on the 17th of March, there’s no doubt we’ll see a victory salute from these two, at least once during race week.

 

Summit Fin

54-1 Candice Lill [RSA]

Age: 27

Epics completed: 2

Stage Wins: 0

Best result: 4th (2018)

2x African Continental Champion XCO

 

54-2 Adelheid Morath [GER]

Age: 34

Epics completed: 2

Stage Wins: 0

Best result: 3rd (2016)

2015 Swiss Epic winner

 

Touted in pre-race predictions for the 2018 edition as serious GC podium contenders, Lill and Morath’s campaign ended before it began, with Morath fracturing her scaphoid at the Stellenbosch leg of the UCI World Cup. The pairing did get to show their talents later in the year, dominating the field at the Wines2Whales, which reassures them that the combination is well-dialled – a vital component to mountain bike stage racing.

Lill’s raw ability was apparent early in her career, taking third at the XCO World Championships as a junior behind Pauline Ferrand-Prevot. Morath has been a regular top ten finisher on the UCI World Cup circuit and is a former German champion. With her international experience and Lill’s local knowledge of the trails, having raced on this terrain year after year, the time is right to reach their full potential and prove the analysts right, albeit a year later.

 

dormakaba

55-1 Amy Beth McDougall [RSA]

Age: 29

Epics completed: 3

Stage Wins: 0

Best result: 4th (2018)

2017 Cape Pioneer Trek Winner

 

55-2 Samantha Sanders [RSA]

Age: 35

Epics completed: 2

Stage Wins: 0

Best result: 8th (2017)

2013 South African Champion XCO

 

In 2018 dormakaba fielded two teams and won the inaugural women’s Absa African Jersey competition. Even though they’re down to one now, it’s still highly likely that the red jerseys will end up on the shoulders of this pair. Sanders and McDougall rode with different partners last year but they still are highly familiar with each other’s capabilities, backing each other up in local races throughout the year.

McDougall raced the mixed category at the Absa Cape Epic, and had a number of successful stage race partnerships, including with Ariane Lüthi. But in Sanders she has forged an understanding that has transcended changes in sponsors. Both McDougall and Sanders excel on technical terrain, so expect them to come into their own on the rocky trails around Stellenbosch.

 

Galileo Risk

56-1 Theresa Ralph [RSA]

Age: 43

Epics completed: 8

Stage Wins: 0

Best result: 2nd (2012)

2018 joBerg2c Winner

 

56-2 Sarah Hill [RSA]

Age: 25

Epics completed: 0

Stage Wins: N/A

2018 joBerg2c Winner

 

Sarah Hill holds rookie status, so Theresa Ralph will act as mentor, being one of the more experienced Absa Cape Epic riders in the field. Ralph has placed second, third, fourth and fifth before but a victory to complete the set looks unlikely. That won’t deter them from aiming at the Absa Africa jersey competition though. Her and Hill aren’t the types to let dormakaba have it easy.

It’ll be a head-to-head battle between Ralph and Hill and dormakaba’s McDougall and Sanders. With the prize money and prestige of wearing red at stake, they’d best be served taking the pragmatic approach – leave the UCI World Cup stars to fight it out and focus on the other all-South African teams. In this rare case, it’s a case of ‘less risk, more reward’.