The world biggest mountain bike race concluded at the end of March on the lush green fields at Val de Vie in Paarl. The 2018 event will go down as one of very best with plenty of upsets and team changes throughout the grueling event.
WORDS: FRANS LE ROUX
INJURIES & ILLNESSES
Even before the Epic started, various of the top teams had last-minute partner changes and illnesses. The 2017 defending Elite Women’s team of Esther Süss and Jennie Stenerhag were dealt a cruel blow when Stenerhag pulled out of the event with a serious hamstring injury she picked up at the Cycle Tour MTB Challenge. Team Meerendal and Cape Brewing Co. managed to secure the services of Austrian Angelika Tazreiter who would eventually pair up with Süss. Bad luck struck Süss during Stage One as her new partner Tazreiter crashed heavily and was forced to withdraw from the race. Another shocker on Stage One would see the defending Scott-SRAM team of Nino Schurter and Matthias Stirnemann also withdraw from the race when Stirnemann fell ill with a stomach bug. Team Spur’s Ariane Lüthi was also forced to hastily search for a new partner when her original partner, Christina Kollman-Forstner also withdrew from the race with an illness. Lüthi’s new partner, the Belgian XCO Champion Githa Michiels performed very well during the early stages of the race. However, Michiels was forced to withdraw on the morning of Stage Four after she developed a fever. From a South African point of view, it was devastating to see that defending African Jersey winner Philip Buys from team Pyga EuroSteel was forced to withdraw with an illness. He was replaced by promising youngster, Julian Jessop which proved to be a masterstroke as Jessop and Beukes powered on to claim the 2018 African Jersey.
When the route was announced initially, all the riders rejoiced when they saw the total distance of ‘only’ 658km. The total climbing meters seemed to be ‘adequate’ at just over 13 500m. The first four stages proved to be super tough, long and almost impossible for the backmarkers. Each of these four stages were over 110km with close on 2 000m of climbing per day. Spending those first days in Robertson and Worcester proved to be a rude awakening for some. The big change came on Stage Five in Wellington when a fast-paced time trail was introduced. The last time a time trail was introduced was back in 2011 when the late Burry Stander and Christoph Sauser claimed the victory. At only 39km this was the day were every rider could enjoy a couple of extra hours of recovery. Stage 6 and 7 were short too but the climbing proved to be more than enough for some.
Following the dominance of the Scott teams in 2017, both the elite men and women’s races were ruled by Investec-Songo-Specialized. To be more specific they were ruled by two American newbies and their respective pervious Epic winning partners. In the women’s race the baby-faced assassin of Kate Courtney proved to be the perfect match for Annika Langvad. The pair managed to win all but one stage as they claimed the overall victory by no less than 46 minutes. The second American to control the race came in the form of the diminutive Howard Grotts. Partnering with Jaroslav Kulhavy they blitzed their competition throughout the eight-day event. Kulhavy’s massive power and Grotts’ ability to climb well and hang on proved good enough to hand them their overall victory.
Once again from a South African perspective it would have been amazing to see one of our riders on the top step of the podium. It was disappointing that Max Knox did not enter the 2018 race. Knox had a solid 2017 where he was the only local male rider to grab a podium during the race on Stage Six. His team finished fourth overall and was minutes behind a podium spot. By no means a disappointment, but it would have been absolutely wonderful to see either Mariske Strauss or Robyn de Groot on the top step. Strauss was well on her way to claim yet another secondplace overall spot when she too struggled with a stomach issue during the latter part of the race. De Groot and Strauss effectively swopped positions from their respective 2017 results. Ariane Lüthi looked to be in the form of her life and judging by how well she did during the early parts of the race, it would have been great to see her slog it out with her old partner, Langvad. Not being able to witness the maestro that is Nino Schurter sure put a dent into the overall viewership. After his Stellenbosch World Cup result, Schurter had it all to prove.
Each year, plenty of decorated riders enter the Epic. None more so than the flamboyant Karl Platt from Team Bulls. Platt is a four time winner of the Cape Epic and some were rooting for his return to the podium. Stage Four was the only day where Platt and Urs Huber came close as they finished fourth on the day. The imposing figure of Alban Lakata once again lined up with Canyon Topeak team mate Kristian Hynek for the 2018 event. Lakata had plenty to say during the press launch just days before the event. After eight days of frenetic racing, Canyon Topeak finished in a respectable second overall position. Dormakaba’s Candice Lill and Amy Beth McDougall were the surprise package in the women’s race as the pair managed to claim the Absa African Women’s jersey with an impressive lead of close to three hours. The team finished in fourth overall on GC and missed out on the overall podium with less than an hour.
WHO TO WATCH IN 2019
Plenty of top riders have it all to prove in the 2019 edition of the Absa Cape Epic. No doubt we will see the Scott-SRAM guys back and fighting fit. Nino Schurter will be licking his lips when he lines up against Jaroslav Kulhavy. Hopefully Max Knox makes a return to the race and challenges the overall podium from a South African perspective. The women’s race should see plenty of action when Ester Süss and Jennie Stenerhag return, while Ariane Lüthi should be a realistic title contender if she finds a strong enough partner. At just 21 years of age, Kate Courtney could easily become the most decorated female Cape Epic rider in the event’s history. Keep an eye on Robyn de Groot and Mariske Strauss respectively as both these teams aim for the top step of the overall podium.