IT'S CAPE Epic time again.
Jumping off on Sunday, the world's top mountain bikers battle for glory in the prestigious Absa Cape Epic.
Considered by many cyclists to be the "Tour de France of dirt", the race covers a distance of 781km, 16 300m of it uphill.
Riders take to the course on Sunday in Durbanville and will finish eight days later at Lourensford Wine Estate in Somerset West.
Now in its ninth year, the race has become one of the most important events on the global mountain biking calendar. Its reputation as a tough but rewarding race attracts an international field of professionals and amateurs eager to test their fitness levels and skill over the gruelling terrain.
The route changes each year, and this year the 1 200 riders will begin their eight-day adventure at Meerendal Wine Estate with a relatively short 27km time trial. Riders then make their way to Robertson to begin the big race in earnest with Monday's 115km stage.
The route heads through the rocky Klein Karoo, passing through the towns of Ashton, Macgregor, Caledon and Elgin-Grabouw before crossing the Hottentots-Holland mountain range for the finish at Lourensford. While the leading professional teams will cross the finish line in four to five hours each day, tail-enders can expect to spend up to 11 hours in the saddle.
Riders compete in two-person teams in the categories of Men's, Ladies, Mixed and Masters. A maximum of two minutes is allowed between team members at all times. Riders can incur time penalties or even disqualification if they split apart.
The competition for the overall yellow leader's jersey is always fierce. Mountain Bike Marathon world champion Christoph Sauser from Switzerland and SA national champion Burry Stander are the defending champions and favourites to cross the line at Lourensford wearing the coveted jersey. They will be riding for Team 36ONE Songo Specialized, raising awareness and funds for local sports development charity Songo.info.
Another team with designs on the overall title is the world-class German combination of Stefan Sahm and Karl Platt.
They will be riding for bike manufacturer Team Bulls, and are the most successful pairing the race has produced, with three overall wins, in 2007, 2009 and 2010.
Follow Nic Lamond's daily Absa Cape Epic column in the Cape Times, as he and his riding partner, Carl Pasio, tackle the treacherous race.