Legend canoeist Martin Dreyer and team-mate John Ntuli of team USN celebrate after the first climb during stage 3 of the 2012 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race held from Robertson Primary School in Robertson to Overberg Primary & High School. Photo by Greg Beadle/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Cape Town - The Absa Cape Epic has done it again. Despite 2016 being an Olympic year, with means most of the world’s top mountain bike riders focus on the relatively short cross country discipline, the status of the gruelling race around the Western Cape is clearly demonstrated by the top-quality field for the event on March 13-20.

At the race’s pro rider introduction press conference on Wednesday, there was the normal smattering of former world champions, previous winners and big names in the sport. For the organisers this was something of a relief with the field probably slightly stronger than expected for an Olympic year, particularly in the women’s race.

It is a given that every year a healthy sprinkling of the world’s top riders can be seen taking part in the eight-day ultra-marathon, but every four years there are generally fewer elite rides as they opt to prepare for the faster and shorter cross country event at the Olympics. That is not the case this year.

Heading the list of male riders are last year’s runners up, current Marathon World Champion and multiple top-five finisher Alban Lakata of Austria and his partner, 2014 winner from the Czech Republic, Kristian Hynek.

The Topeak Ergon pair has the pedigree to beat any team and it would take a brave gambler to bet against them.

Lakata, who added a second world title to his name when he won the World Championships on an extremely tough, mountainous 87km course in Germany last year, has finished sixth, fifth, fourth, third and second in previous Cape Epics. His partner, Hynek has gone one better in the Epic, winning in his first attempt in 2014.

Last year they had to accept second behind Mr Epic, Christoph Sauser and Czech Jaroslav Kulhavy. After that record fifth win, Sauser retired as a professional rider at the end of last season, opening up the way for Karl Platt of Germany to draw level and join him with five victories in the race.

Platt will be riding for Team Bulls with Swiss strongman Urs Huber, and the former’s canny racing strategy combined with the latter’s power makes for a compelling combination.

Another team with an excellent pedigree is the German combination of Markus Kaufmann and Jochen Kaess (Centurion Vaude). In 2014 they showed that they have the firepower to win before succumbing to a broken frame.

Othe top-five contenders include Dolomiti Superbike’s former World Champion Periklis Ilias (Greece) and Portuguese champion Tiago Ferreira; former Epic yellow-jersey holder Rudi van Houts (Netherlands) and Hans Becking (Netherlands) of Team CST; and the well-known Team Wheeler-BiXS-iXS’s Swiss pairing of Konny Looser and Martin Gujan.

The women’s event has also attracted a potent lineup led by the dominant defending champions Denmark’s Annika Langvad and her Swiss partner Ariane Kleinhans (Spur-Specialized) who have electrified the Absa Cape Epic women’s category for the past two years.

Their natural athleticism, outstanding team dynamic and smart tactical approach has seen them dominate in spite of the field getting stronger each year.

Perhaps their strongest challenge will come from Topeak Ergon Racing’s two-time race winner Sally Bigham (England) and Adelheid Morath (Germany). They won the Swiss Epic in September last year when they beat Langvad and Kleinhans into second place.

Esther Suss (Switzerland) and Catherine Williamson (England) have three wins between them (Suss in 2011 with and 2012 and Williamson in 2013) so the Meerendal Wheeler pairing know what it takes.

And exciting combination is CST Superior MTB’s Sabine Spitz (Germany) and Yana Belomoina (Ukraine). Spitz is a former Olympic gold, silver and bronze medallist, and a former cross country world champion. At 43 years old she is still very competitive and as one of the most decorated women’s riders ever her experience will guide Belomoina, just 24, who has emerged in recent years as one of the best cross country riders in the world.

The South African challenge will be led by Ascendis Health’s Robyn de Groot, riding with Swede Jennie Stenerhag. These two finished second last year and are in excellent form in 2016. They have been riding together for some time and appear to be getting stronger each year.

Independent Media