In the absence of the most dominant force in the Absa Cape Epic women’s race, the battle for the 2021 title could be the most captivating since 2017. With Annika Langvad having retired from professional racing, any one of four teams could ride home with the orange jerseys.
Since Langvad’s debut, in the 2014 Absa Cape Epic, no woman other than the Dane’s partners have stood upon the top step of the final podium, at Val de Vie, bar one year. In 2017 she took a leave of absence from the Untamed African Mountain Bike Race to complete her dentistry degree; that left a vacuum into which her rivals stepped with aplomb, contesting the most exciting edition since the women’s race was awarded Hors Catégorie status, by the UCI, in 2012.
One of the 2017 champions, Jennie Stenerhag, returns in 2021 for another tilt at the title. The Swedish marathon champ, who splits her time between her homeland and Stellenbosch, is racing with South African Amy McDougall as Team Fairtree. The pair have a realistic chance of overall success, especially given Stenerhag’s fastidious approach to preparation. Though that advantage may be negated somewhat by a number of riders having ridden the route after the race was cancelled last year.
“It has been a different preparation for this Absa Cape Epic, compared to other years” Stenerhag confessed. “I will only arrive in SA 10 days before the event starts. But I feel that I know the route for this year’s edition better than ever before, since I prepared a lot on this route ahead of the 2020 race. I also rode every stage during the planned 2020 Absa Cape Epic week, since the route was open and marked. Also, because it’s so close to ‘home’ and I have raced a lot in the area over the years, I know these trails very well.”
As do the riders who will be pinning the team number 51 to their Faces CST kits. Mariske Strauss and Candice Lill are no strangers to the trails of Ceres, Tulbagh, Wellington and Val de Vie. The pair have 5 and 3 Absa Cape Epic finishes respectively, a stage win each and 3 podium finishes between the 2 of them. They are also, unquestionably, the best women’s cross-country racers South Africa is yet to produce and start the 2021 Absa Cape Epic as favourites for both the overall women’s and Absa African Women’s Jersey titles.
“I didn’t know we were the favourites!” Lill laughed. “But honestly that doesn’t put any pressure on me. We know what we are capable of together and believe that we can win, regardless of what others think. We are both very motivated for this one for many reasons and it would be super cool to bring it home for South African women!”
“March 2020 feels like such a long time ago now” she continued, reflecting on the plan that originally brought her and Strauss together. “At the time, we had ‘joined forces’ to chase XCO points, in order to qualify 2 women for the Tokyo Olympics, but also because we really believed we could win the Absa Cape Epic together. In the meantime, we have developed hugely as riders and have a lot of international racing under the belt. We have been fortunate to be able to get to Europe to keep racing. So, we’re hoping to combine the speed and skill of XCO racing with our experience in the longer stage races on South African terrain for an amazing race and result together.”
19 months ago, Robyn de Groot and Ariane Lüthi may not have shared the favourites tag with Strauss and Lill. De Groot was still finding her form after an iliac artery surgery and Lüthi was competitive, if not the dominant rider who romped to three-straight wins alongside Langvad. Form, as the old cliché goes, is temporary, but class is permanent and the experienced pair are once again back to their bests.
Together they stormed to a perfect, 5 wins from 5 stages, victory at the Swiss Epic, in Graubünden. “Despite being fierce rivals over the years, we have also come to know one another well and developed a good friendship over the years” De Groot recounted of her partnership with Lüthi. “I suppose we have always had huge respect for one another, and what we stand for. The opportunity to race the Swiss Epic, in Graubünden, came about when Ariane’s sponsors, Gabriel Technologie, came on board just as I landed in Europe.”
“After a successful campaign at the Swiss Epic, in Graubünden, Ariane [Luthi] and her sponsors had a brain storm as to how it would be possible to make the Absa Cape Epic happen for us as a team this year” De Groot continued. “Due to the nature of the race, the exposure and the amazing stories that unfold along the way, they have shown incredible support, interest and enthusiasm to get behind us at this year’s Absa Cape Epic. We are excited, to say the least, to be racing as Team Salusmed.”
While the other three favourite teams have multiple finishes and titles between them, the final team in contention for overall victory are newcomers to the race. NinetyOne-songo-Specialized team, of Sina Frei and Laura Stigger make up for Absa Cape Epic inexperience with spectacular skills and imposing fire power. The Swiss/Austrian pair are 24 and 21 respectively, and are among cross-country racing’s brightest rising stars.
“The World Champion title gave me a lot of motivation to finish the season on a high” Frei enthused. “But of course, racing the Absa Cape Epic will be very different to contesting for the XCC World title! The stages are much longer but I will try to take the XCC ground speed into the Absa Cape Epic.”
“It’s a completely new experience for me to ride marathon events in general and stage races in particular” her partner, Stigger confessed. “The Absa Cape Epic may be my first proper stage race but we go into the event with a very experienced team behind us. Their support will, I’m sure, lead to good experiences in Africa.”
The French pairing of Marie Dufossé and Emma Terrigeol are young dark horses who could upset the more favoured teams. The Liv-Lapierre Racing team, of Sarah Hill and Vera Looser, are less of an unknown quantity; especially after Hill’s Absa African Jersey victory in 2019. As are former South African XCO Champion, Cherie Redecker, and Adelheid Morath. Redecker has not raced the Absa Cape Epic since 2015, but is an experienced campaigner, while Morath has notched up 2 podium finishes in her 3 previous race starts.
In the Absa African Jersey competition, within the Elite women’s race, Theresa Ralph returns for her 9th Absa Cape Epic alongside new Galileo Infiniti SPOT teammate Kim Le Court (Mauritius). While the darling of South African cycling, Cherise Willeit will make a return to mountain biking with 2018 Virgin Active Mixed category winner, Nicky Giliomee. The Honey Custom Apparel pair will, arguably, be having more fun than the rest of the Elite women’s field combined, as they have no pressure to perform.
South African Road Champion, Hayley Preen and double triathlon Olympian, Mari Rabie, round out the Elite women’s competition. The Land Rover Ladies team both boast good engines, in keeping with their sponsor’s reputation, but how the road racer and triathlete will fare on the Land Rover Technical Terrain remains a mystery. If they can conquer as one, they are sure to ruffle the feathers of the established mountain bikers who precede them in the list of favourites.
Mountain biking fans can follow @capeepic on Instagram or like the Cape Epic Facebook page to stay updated on all the team news in the build-up to the 2021 Absa Cape Epic. More information on the race, its route and its history is available at www.cape-epic.com.