The start of the Cape Epic is just around the corner, on Saturday, March 21. Now in its sixth year, the race will begin with a prologue on the slopes of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, and will finish eight days and 685km later at the Lourensford Wine Estate in Somerset West.
Some 1,200 athletes from 46 countries will participate in the African stage race – the only stage race categorized as hors categorie or "HC" by the UCI.
Mountain bikers are coming all the way from nations like Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Israel, Mexico, Russia, Sweden and Venezuela to earn points and have an epic race experience. Throughout the week, the 600 two-person teams will climb 14,663 meters, the equivalent of two trips up Mount Everest.
Returning for the 2009 edition is a team time trial prologue of 16.5km on the slopes of Table Mountain. Teams will depart at 30-second intervals and race against the clock to determine their start seeding for stage one, which begins in Gordon Bay the following day.
Fires raged across Table Mountain earlier this week and forced the cancellation of practice sessions on Thursday. However, practice sessions on Friday and the prologue on Saturday will continue as scheduled.
In 2006, the Cape Epic became the first team mountain bike stage race at which UCI points were awarded. The race's HC designation draws some of the sport's top racers, including world cross country champion Christoph Sauser, Olympic gold medallist Bart Brentjens, Olympic silver medallist Jose Hermida as well as the 2007 Cape Epic winners and runners-up in 2008, Karl Platt and Stefan Sahm.
The race will also see under-23 UCI World Cup winner Burry Stander, Kevin Evans and David George showcasing some of South Africa's best talents. Multiple-time world champion and World Cup winner Alison Sydor is also expected to return. The racers will team up to form duo men's, women's, mixed and masters teams.
The Cape Epic is a massive logistics project, with organisers pitching over 1,400 tents per day and transporting 275 tonnes of equipment from stage town to stage town. Some 27 heavy-duty trucks and transporters and over 700 crew, volunteers and supplier representatives are involved in implementing the largest mountain bike stage race in the world.
- Stage 1 – March 21: Capetown – Capetown, 19km
- Stage 2 – March 22: Gordon's Bay – Villiersdorp, 112km
- Stage 3 – March 23: Villiersdorp – Villiersdorp, 110km
- Stage 4 – March 24: Villiersdorp – Greyton, 73km
- Stage 5 – March 25: Greyton – Greyton , 114km
- Stage 6 – March 26: Greyton – Oak Valley, 111km
- Stage 7 – March 27: Oak Valley – Oak Valley, 86km
- Stage 8 – March 28: Oak Valley – Lourensford, 60km
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Platt and Sahm
Team Bulls' Karl Platt and Stefan Sahm will return to defend or better their second place from last year. The two Germans won the race in 2007, and Platt also won in 2004 when he rode with previous partner Carsten Bresser.
"I've participated in the Cape Epic since its inception – this will be my sixth race," said Platt, who is a six-time winner of the TransAlp and also a winner of the TransRockies, TransGermany, TransScwarzwald and German marathon championships. "Of course we want to win, but you never know what can happen."
His partner Sahm, also boasts an impressive list of wins behind his name such as the TransAlp, the TransGermany, the Trans Schwarzwald, the Riva del Garda and Willingen marathons, and the National Bundesliga.
Platt has been sticking to his training program without any significant alterations. "Never change a winning recipe. I try to do the same every year. I think it works and hope that it will prove to be right again this year," he said. Teammate Sahm has been mixing up cross-country skiing and road riding to complement his mountain bike training and racing.
Sauser and Stander
World champion Christoph Sauser will again pair up with U23 World Cup champion Burry Stander. The two powerhouses are officially teammates this year with Specialized and they are hoping for a better year than last year.
That's when the pair had to officially withdraw after Stander injured his knee and could not continue racing without risking damaging his hopes for the Olympic Games. Both went on to have successful seasons.
Leuchs and Alberati
Another pairing to watch is Team Felt's Kashi Leuchs and Italian Paolo Alberati. The experienced marathon rider Alberati has been summoned to replace Miguel Martinez who will not race the Cape Epic according to the recommendations of doctors treating a muscular condition aggravated by long races. Alberati is a former road racer, who has contested the Giro d'Italia and Tour Montanes.
"I'm as excited as I would be if it were my first race," said Alberati. "The Cape Epic is the kind of competition that suits me, with stages of up to 118km in length."
Dietsch and Böhme
Frenchman Thomas Dietsch, 33, and German Tim Böhme, 25, will compete at the Team Bulls 2. Dietsch, winner of the World Cup Marathon in 2007, had a number one UCI marathon ranking in 2007. He was the French marathon champion in 2006 and 2008, the European marathon champion in 2003 and 2004, and the winner of the TransGermany in 2008.
Böhme in turn completed over 20 world and European championships in his career. He is also a two-time German champion in the junior and team categories, was ranked number 10 in the world (under-23 category) and finished the TransAlp twice.
The two just met in December and have been training together in Mallorca and Cyprus during the last two months. "This year I'm prepared and have trained significantly more so as to ensure that I'll be able to recover faster after every stage," said Dietsch.
Brentjens and Jongewaard
Bart Brentjens and Chris Jongewaard will team up. Jongewaard is coming off a successful Australia season racing Down Under during which he defended his national cross-country title.
Brenjens won gold in 1996 and 2004 at the Olympic Games and while he may be racing the younger fast guys, he's no slouch at 40. The Dutch-Australian pairing could be one of the strongest in the field.
Huber and Zahnd
Switzerland's Urs Huber and Thomas Zahnd have paired up for the coming week. Huber won 12 races in 2008 and is placed second in the UCI's marathon rankings, and it will be Zahnd's fourth Cape Epic. The pair will form Team Stoeckli-Craft.
Huber will be participating in his first Cape Epic this year, whereas Zahnd has completed the race three times. "The three Cape Epics I've done to date have been an awesome experience. It'll be great to have Urs as my partner this year. I'm interested to see how it would work with a new partner as Sandro Spaeth was my partner for three years in a row," Zahnd said.
The pair do not often train together as both riders live more than 100km apart. "But we train together when we attend the training camps like the one we did at the end of January," said Huber.
Zahnd's training programme is similar to that of previous years. He said: "I spent a lot more time cross-country skiing as we experienced a heavy winter." Huber spends most of his time cycling, jogging and going to the gym. "I've also done a marathon – a first for me – in which I finished second," he said.
Zahnd won third place in the Swiss Marathon Championship in 2006, one of the stages of the 2007 Cape Epic and first place in the St Wendel Marathon last year. Huber finished third in the UCI Marathon World Championships and second in the European Championships last year.
Flueckinger and Flueckinger
The two brothers, Lukas and Matthias Flueckinger, from Switzerland are still young, but they have been making their presence felt on the elite World Cup circuit throughout 2008.
Riding for the new Trek World Cup Team, the pair will show their strength against their elders as teammates over the course of eight days. The race comes just after the two will have completed a team training camp nearby.
Stewart and Knox
On the home front, Pietermaritzburg area stars Brandon Stewart and Max Knox will represent Team DCM Chrome. Both already have Cape Epic experience. Stewart won a stage at the 2006 Cape Epic and was the top African in 2007. Knox also has a second place stage finish to his name from last year.
Living in the same town, both train together almost every day. Stewart will be racing his sixth Cape Epic this year. "A strong mind and a solid training programme are essential to complete this race successfully," said Stewart. He added, "I've never considered not entering the Absa Cape Epic, but this year will be a whole new ball game."
George and Evans
David George and Kevin Evans will also represent South Africa as they race for the MTN Energade Team. The two excelled to a third place in 2008, overcoming a bad day on Stage 1. They are South Africa's best chance for a local win.
Yolandi du Toit and Janneke Leask
On the women's side, Yolandi du Toit, 23, of Heidelberg in Gauteng will be participating with teammate Janneke Leask as Team DCM Chrome. The pair will represent South Africa.
"It's a race I've always wanted to do, and seeing as I couldn't finish last year, I have unfinished business with the Cape Epic," said du Toit. "I really hope to complete the event this year – everything else will be a bonus."
Booyens and Laws
35-year-old Hanlie Booyens, who lives and trains in Stellenbosch, will be participating with teammate Sharon Laws as Team Absa Ladies. They finished first in the women's division in 2004.
Booyens also finished third in the TransAlp in 2004, second in the Cape Epic in 2005, was South Africa's cross-country champion in both 2003 and 2004 and the Drifter Champion in 2004.
She said: "This year is a reunion race for us. Sharon and I are great friends, but seldom see each other as she lives in England. The Cape Epic was a good, albeit rather painful, excuse to have some fun together. We expect to hurt, suffer, cry – and hopefully not die! Above all we want to have fun no matter what the end result."
Heike Jakins and Nikki Haywood
Heike Jakins, 43, lives and trains in Hout Bay and will be riding with Nikki Haywood. Jakins only started cycling four years ago and finished in the top 100 women and fifth in her age group in this year's Pick 'n Pay Argus Cycling Tour. She participated in the Cape Epic last year as well as the Cederberg Escape.
"I promised myself after the first day of the Cape Epic last year never to do it again," said Jakins. "I'm back to fight the challenge. Last year I was a late entry and did not have the hours of training necessary. This year I've done the best I can. I think this year's Cape Epic will be a little easier, but still challenging with more technical and less district roads.
"Women must be strong physically and mentally – there are always little surprises along the way, having to carry or push your bike, handling the different terrain from steep climbs to technical down hills and riding single tracks that are usually for hikers."