The pre-race press conference, held just three days before the start of the Absa Cape Epic, set the assembled mountain biking media abuzz when they heard that Lars Forster would partner Nino Schurter for SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing. Other revelations made in the conference room of the Tsogo Sun SunSquare City Bowl hotel were that Alan Hatherly and Matt Beers are targeting the Absa African Jersey and that everyone is cagey about their chances given the risk of mechanicals on the technical 2019 route.
“Andri [Frischknecht] had a stomach bug during our training camp. We need to have the strongest possible team so we decided it is best for Lars [Foster] and I to race together” Schurter explained. “I want to go to war with a sharp knife. Not a little one” Frischknecht ruefully joked. “I think we can be the perfect back up team” the SCOTT SRAM rider, who will now be partnering South African Gert Heyns, said.
After the illness enforced changes Investec-songo-Specialized and Specialized Foundation-NAD made the previous week their time on stage was eagerly anticipated. Beers in particular did not disappoint as he had the room in hysterics at his account of how he attempted to fix a puncture before NAD Pro MTB’s Nico Bell came to his rescue. Beers’ description of “stabbing ineffectively at it” had Jaroslav Kulhavý looking a faux concerned. “I’ve had Nico [Bell] try to teach me some stuff. I’ve tried to learn from him, but it might be the battle of the bone heads” Beers laughed at the question of who would be the trail-side mechanic between him, Hatherly, Kulhavý and Gaze. “Susi [Christoph Sauser] won’t be too far back” Kulhavý smiled in response.
When asked if he and Hatherly would be targeting the overall victory Beers was characteristically frank: “Everyone must just relax, it’s a hard race. We’ll focus on the red jersey first and then take it from there.” “We are riding as a support team for Jaro [Kulhavý] and Sam [Gaze]” Hatherly more diplomatically elaborated. “To be a good support team we need to be right up there with the leaders and hopefully that will be good enough to win us the red jerseys” the Under 23 World Champion concluded.
Their designated team leaders Kulhavý and Gaze are physically similar. Both are tall powerful riders and that could amplify their advantage over the more slightly built riders on the rolling sections of the route. “I’ve seen the damage Jaro [Kulhavý] has done in the past so I’m scared but also excited” Gaze praised. “Sammy [Gaze] has the same body type as me so we can work together really well. Hopefully it can be a good Absa Cape Epic for us. We have a bigger chance for the sprints. Sammy is super-fast” the Czech Express predicted.
Team Bulls are another squad that has seen dramatic changes ahead of the 2019 Absa Cape Epic, though all of their rider switches were confirmed by January 1st. Reflecting on riding with former rival Alban Lakata, Karl Platt said: “In the past two years Urs [Huber] and I had two bad years. Then, I broke my pelvis. So in June Stibi [Simon Stiebjahn] and Urs rode the Transalp together, they found each other and I was on my own. Then Alban spoke to me saying his team was ending and he asked if we could race the Absa Cape Epic together…”
“We have become like brothers” since then Platt stated, echoing the sentiments of those who have seen them in training that there is genuine chemistry between the two elder statesmen of the mountain biking field. The question remains however if there is a dedicated leading team among the Bulls Legends and Bulls Heroes squads. “We as a racer don’t think about the team dynamics before the race. It’s racing. It’s hard to predict. Our goal is to be in front. I’ve been riding the Epic for fifteen years and only have five wins” Platt countered. “So you can never say before how it will go.”
Manuel Fumic was without his great friend and Absa Cape Epic partner, Henrique Avancini at the press conference. “He has been trying to leave since Tuesday, but he has finally landed now” Fumic updated everyone on Avancini’s whereabouts. “I’m not sure if he got stuck in Brazil on purpose; he’s just got a baby now so I think he wants to spend as much time at home as possible” the German joked.
Switching his attention to the race he continued: “All signs are good and I’m just really excited.” Fumic is particularly enthusiastic about his partnership with Avancini. “He is one of those really strong riders in both disciplines. He had a good cross country season last year and took that form into winning the marathon worlds. Racing next to a World Champion gives me big motivation. As does the support I get from him being Brazilian. His country-men and -women are such passionate fans” Fumic recounted.
At the press conference much focus was placed on the importance of back-up teams. Fumic though thinks slightly differently on the matter. “As Matt [Beers] sort of said if you can’t fix a puncture you aren’t much help” he laughed. “Everyone talks about the back-up team but nobody talks about the crew behind you. They are so important, we race and then come in in afternoon and then the crew take over. Having a good crew looking after you, your bikes and everything around you makes a massive difference and we have that with Cannondale Factory Racing.”
Two other riders who will be without the support of a back-up team are Nicola Rohrbach and Konny Looser. The Silverback SBC riders are focusing instead on the controllable elements and hoping that they can mitigate bad luck with skill and good equipment choices. “Konny [Looser] has that experience you need for the Absa Cape Epic” Rohrbach stated. “The past is past but I’m looking to the future. With Nicola I have a good partner and I’m looking forward to a good race” Looser added. “You train for an event and then you hope it all comes together on race day” the Swiss rider who has spent a great deal of time in Africa, engaged as he is to a Namibian, concluded.
The 2019 Absa Cape Epic gets underway on Sunday with the Prologue on the slopes of Table Mountain. The 21 kilometre long course features 600 metres of climbing and starts and finishes on the University of Cape Town’s sport fields. The UCI men’s racing action starts at 11:45am and is sure to be fast and furious. As last year’s stage winner Rohrbach was keen to point out though, winning the Prologue does not guarantee a good week ahead. “After the eight days the Prologue doesn’t really matter if you finish 1st or 10th, as long as you don’t lose too much time” the Swiss powerhouse concluded.