Five-time champion Christoph Sauser is an Absa Cape Epic legend, and is using his marginally less competitive years to mentor young riders in the event, and away from it, too.
The 46-year-old Swiss rider has had one of the most successful and varied careers in mountain biking, winning multiple World Cup, World Championship and Olympic medals earlier on in his professional journey, and successfully morphing into one of the dominant marathon and stage race riders of his era.
His soft retirement from the sharp end of the Absa Cape Epic field came in 2015, with his final win alongside Jaroslav Kulhavy. A brief rematch with arch-rival Karl Platt, a four-time winner, in 2017 finally persuaded the newly-promoted Masters category racer that it was time to find a new angle on The Untamed African Mountain Bike Race. That has come with an interesting series of partners in recent years - we won’t count 2022’s wonderful collaboration with Platt in the Masters category - some 20-plus years his junior.
“Stopping racing was actually not that difficult. When you can’t keep up at the beginning at all, you must just forget about it. I am still with the Specialized team and it is good to be able to give back some of that experience to the team, so that is what I have been focussing on now.”
“For me as an 18-year-old, I would have died doing the Absa Cape Epic.” says Sauser. “It would have broken me. But I was also having to work, and these kids are half professional already today so their bodies have more of a chance of recovering.”
And that is part of what he is trying to facilitate through his association with the Specialized outfit - helping the team riders, old and new, young and experienced, manage the intense impact racing has on the body, in particular multi-day events like the Absa Cape Epic.
“Two years ago I rode with Alex [Malacarne], and he had a strong second part of the season. I think that can come from managing what we do during the event, and I think I am uniquely positioned to help. And it is what I love to do. I think Paul will be very strong the rest of the year.”
“With Paul it is almost extreme; he is just 18 years old, just coming off junior. The problem is to find a balance and to just think rationally.” Sauser’s 2023 partner is rising French star, Paul Magnier, who won the bronze medal at last year’s XCO World Championships. “He had a really tough day today, vomiting before and after breakfast, and then he struggled to eat and drink on the bike all day, which isn’t good. But he coped with it really well. He was sick again on the Hamilton-Russel climb - it was like he vomited a litre of water! - and we could ride again.”
Ride they did, finishing 34th overall on Stage 1 and then racing into 30th overall after a mammoth Stage 2.
Retired? Not so much. But in Sauser, Magnier couldn’t ask for a better mentor.