A bookmaker might bracket three of the men’s teams entered for the 2016 Absa Cape Epic as favourites … but would be wary of giving long odds to several more.
The Absa Cape Epic’s post-Sauser era will kick off with fierce competition to make it into the top 10, let alone the podium places.
Last year’s second-placed finishers Alban Lakata of Austria and his Czech teammate Kristian Hynek (Topeak Ergon Racing) will probably start as most people’s tip for a win: the Austrian powerhouse won the Marathon World Championships in 2015 and has finished sixth, fifth, fourth, third and second in previous Cape Epics. He is desperate to add a win at the world’s premier mountain bike stage race to his palmares.
His partner Hynek has gone one better, winning in his first attempt at the Cape Epic in 2014. Last year they had to accept second best to Switzerland’s Christoph Sauser and his Czech teammate Jaroslav Kulhavy, but both have spent the European winter focused on this event.
Sauser retired as a professional rider at the end of last season after a record fifth Cape Epic win and Team Bulls’s Karl Platt of Germany, a four-time winner, will be going all out to draw level. Platt has teamed up again with Swiss strongman Urs Huber, and the former’s canny racing strategy combined with the latter’s power makes for a compelling combination.
An unsung pairing, but one with an excellent pedigree, is the German combination of Markus Kaufmann and Jochen Kaess (Centurion Vaude by Meerendal). In 2014 they showed that they have the firepower to win the event before succumbing to a broken frame. Kaufmann has been struggling with injuries recently but if he arrives at the start in good shape on March 13 they will be serious contenders.
In recent years support teams have become critical to Absa Cape Epic success and all three of these leading combinations will have strong backup.
Lakata and Hynek have recruited South African Erik Kleinhans and the USA’s Jeremiah Bishop, Platt and Huber will be supported by Germans Simon Stiebjahn and Tim Boehme and Kaufmann and Kaess will be able to call on Austrians Daniel Geismayr and Hermann Pernsteiner.
Kleinhans supported Sauser and Kulhavy to victory last year so brings vital experience, while Stiebjahn and Boehme themselves finished third overall in 2014 after Platt pulled out.
Another pairing signalling their intent by bringing along a powerful support team are Italians Samuel Porro and Damiano Ferraro (Trek-Sella San Marco). These accomplished marathon specialists are first-timers at the Cape Epic this year so they may have limited ambitions, but they have bought along Spain’s Ivan Alvarez Gutierrez and Italian Fabian Rabensteiner, who are both highly competent mountain bikers and will provide excellent support when required.
Then there are a number of teams of outstanding athletes who could mix it with the top guns on any day:
* Spur-Specialized’s Howard Grotts (USA) and James Reid (South Africa) are both young cross country specialists who will be racing the Absa Cape Epic for the first time. They are outstanding athletes and their participation might well give spectators a glimpse into the future of the Absa Cape Epic.
* Dolomiti Superbike’s Periklis Ilias (Greece) and Tiago Ferreira (Portugal) will be watched closely by their rivals. Ilias is a former Marathon World Champion and obviously very strong over longer distances while Ferreira is the reigning Portuguese champion. They are both taking part in the Cape Epic for the first time.
* Team CST Superior’s Rudi van Houts (Netherlands) and Hans Becking (Netherlands) have managed to stay under the radar as pre-race speculation has mounted, but are both excellent athletes. Van Houts, riding with irrepressible Spaniard José Hermida, has worn yellow at the Cape Epic in the past (before being struck by one or other setback) and Becking won the Brasil Ride stage race in impressive fashion in 2015. They may well have ambitions to make life difficult for the top dogs and have the ability to do so.
* Team Wheeler-BiXS-iXS Pro’s Swiss pairing of Konny Looser and Martin Gujan could also surprise the favourites. Looser has been spending lots of time in South Africa and performing strongly in marathon-type events, while Gujan’s blistering speed took him to the Cape Epic Prologue victory last year.
* And a team that is bound to entertain: Cannondale Factory Racing’s Manuel Fumic (Germany) and Henrique Avancini (Brazil). Fumic raced the 2013 Cape Epic with Marco Fontana in baggies and is one of the more colourful personalities among the top professionals. They are unlikely to challenge for the overall standings but their skills could see them in contention on shorter stages. Watch out for them on technical sections of the course.
Then there are the all-South African teams. They will be competing for the red Absa African special jersey – for the first team with both riders from the continent to finish – but will one of them challenge for a podium position?
Recent form suggests that Scott LCB Factory Racing’s young pairing of Matthys Beukes and Gert Heyns might have a shot at disturbing the European dominance. Both have tasted stage victory in previous editions of the Cape Epic and are highly talented.
The determined duo of Darren Lill and Waylon Woolcock, former roadies but now accomplished mountain bikers and racing in USN Purefit colours, will also fancy their chances for the Absa African jersey and are hoping to finish in the top five.
And then there are tough veterans Gawie Combrinck and Nico Bell of NAD Pro MTB. Their experience, strength and consistency means they will always be there or thereabouts and ready to take advantage of rivals’ weaknesses.
And two other teams to watch: Sauser will be back in the field with South African Sipho Madolo, a product of the Swiss star’s Song.info cycling and charity project in Stellenbosch. Team InvestecSongoSpecialized won’t win, but the competitive fires burn deep in Sauser and Madolo is a genuine talent.
And another South African with a future joining an established international star will be Contego Swift Carbon’s Adriaan Louw, who partners with Swede Calle Friberg.
They may not be expecting too much from the event, but Louw is potentially a future Cape Epic star and Friberg the reigning Swedish cross country champion: they will be targeting a stage or two to show their abilities.