In its eight year history, South Africa's Cape Epic has firmly established itself as the premier mountain biking stage race in the world. And there's no man more closely linked to that history than four-time champion, Karl Platt.
German Platt, 34, was there at the inaugural race in 2004, teaming up with his good friend Mannie Heymans to dominate the eight-stage event from start to finish and take the win with a 20-minute cushion. This year's race, covering 781km, will be the sixth year of his fruitful partnership with compatriot Stefan Sahm. Winning the overall title in 2007, 2009 and 2010, last year they ended third on the podium behind winners Christoph Sauser and Burry Stander (36ONE-Songo-Specialize).
No man has won the Cape Epic more than Platt, but it's clear his motivation is as strong as ever as he and Sahm look to wrest the title back into German hands. We caught up him on the eve of the race to discuss his preparations and hopes for this year's race.
Easy does it
Like all forms of bike racing these days, events are being staged across the world all year round, with the lines between the close and racing season increasingly blurred. It's all about peaking at the right time for the biggest races and for Platt, that means only one thing: late March and the Cape Epic.
But rather than taking it easy as his year's most important race appeared on the horizon, he dusted down his road bike to accept an invitation to ride the first-ever The Cape Rouleur, a multi-stage road cycling event for amateurs from HotChillee, the events company behind The London-Paris bike ride.
Platt took The Cape Rouleur's yellow jersey on stage one - and didn't relinquish it
It was an opportunity for the ultra-fit German to unwind in a sociable atmosphere, free from the stresses and strains of competition. While the 525km, three-day Western Cape event in brutal winds and scorching sunshine was a challenge for most, he comfortably took the yellow jersey in a field that contained fellow mountain biker Max Knox and 1987 Tour de France winner Stephen Roche. For Platt, the event, with support vehicles and motorbike outriders, was a chance to discover the roads of South Africa for the first time, despite spending a lot of time there in the last decade.
"Being on an escorted ride was such a great experience", he told BikeRadar. "It's something that's really unique in South Africa because people don't like to go on the roads because it's just too dangerous".
It was also a chance to return to his road roots (he rode for a small German team in 2004), where he used to spend up to his 90 percent of his training. "The first day especially, everyone was excited about the racing and we went very hard. But it was still a really nice atmosphere, there was lots of chatting to each other in the peloton".
Taking care of business
With the fun of The Cape Rouleur at an end, it's now time to get serious as he bids for a fifth Cape Epic crown. He's in terrific condition (despite an operation to repair a dislocated shoulder in 2009, he's avoided serious injury) but knows small mistakes or occasions of bad luck can have devastating consequences.
"In the past you always think about winning but you’re never 100 percent sure you can," he says. "So I do the best homework I can, come and just make clever decisions in the race. Sometimes you’re in the leader's jersey and you make a mistake and you’re gone, losing minutes or hours. If you’re not careful enough riding, the terrain is very rough and if you’re over heated somewhere, maybe you crash the bike or damage the tyres, so you need to be careful".
He believes there are six or seven teams capable of winning the overall and with the field getting stronger year on year, simply making sure they ride a good race might not be enough. And with the Epic very much a team event - the time of the rider in second place is recorded as that team's overall time - sticking together will be the order of the day.
"We have many, many challengers for the title - the South African team of David George and Kevin Evans, Christoph Sauser and Burry Stander and some of the European teams. It’s a big challenge. If you have a weak day, you’re finished.
"Your team is only as strong as its weakest part. It means you have to be more careful with your partner than yourself. If I watch after him, he watches after me. That takes us to a higher level".
After the Cape Epic, there's one event he's clearly itching to add to his considerable palmares - the mountain bike marathon world championships. This aside, he's won almost everything there is to win in his sport and now in his peak years, with a course that looks to suit his strengths, he knows this may be his year.
"It’s hard to say how long I have left at the top. It can be over from one year to another, if you’ve had enough and are mentally tired. But I'm still feeling fresh. I’m not on the downward wave just yet!"