It’s the extreme conditions that make the Bridge Cape Pioneer Trek the most unpredictable of mountain bike stage races and the top contenders for the 2014 edition, which starts in Oudtshoorn, South Africa on Sunday, have been scrutinising the long-term weather forecast with great interest.
Last year, torrential rain during the final two days made what should have been easier stages into character, skills and perseverance tests seldom seen in mountain bike stage racing. That the first five days take place in the Karoo, one of the driest regions in South Africa, made the relentless rainy stages even more telling, taking riders well beyond their limits physically and emotionally.
But the prospects of heavy rain are slim this year and it’s the course that’s likely to determine the final outcome in what is a very competitive international field, attracted by the event’s new UCI-grading status, daily TV coverage, and over R450 000 (US$45 000) in prize money.
The course is once again exceptionally varied, taking the riders through three different eco-regions, over a distance of 574km with 11 958 metres of vertical ascent in seven days. The terrain ranges from smooth hardpack to loose and rocky to soft and loamy, with a higher percentage of singletrack than in previous editions.
Once again the iconic mountaintop finish at the summit of the Swartberg Pass on Stage 2 (Day 3) will offer a tactical challenge to the top racers. Do they put everything into trying to win the huge prize purse on that stage, or do they take a more measured approach and try to win the race overall? It’s possible to do both, but with the depth of the field this year, increasingly unlikely…
At 86km, Stage 2 is relatively short in distance, but it makes up for that with the total vertical ascent of 2 781 metres, over 1 000 of those climbing metres coming in the final 11km. It’s the richest stage in mountain bike stage racing with a total of R250 000 (about US$25 000) in cash, split equally between the first men’s team and the first women’s team to crest the summit.
Who are the main contenders? The list long, but worth examining:
The men’s race sees the all-German Team Bulls pairing of Tim Bohme and Simon Stiebjahn tackling the event for the first time. But they’re not new to stage racing, having finished third overall at the 2014 ABSA Cape Epic. They’ll be up against most of South Africa’s top marathon racers, including the Team RECM pair of Erik Kleinhans and Nico Bell, winners overall in 2013 and 2012 respectively.
Also in the hunt for men’s podium places are the Cannondale Blend duo of Waylon Woolcock and Darren Lill and the SCOTT Factory Racing team of Philip Buys and Matthys Beukes. Woolcock won the race with Kleinhans last year, while Buys and Beukes confirmed their good form after winning the tough Mankele 3 Towers three-day race last weekend.
Another former winner, Gawie Combrinck (2012), has teamed up with former top South African road racer, Johann Rabie in what could be a formidable pairing for this kind of race, while South African marathon champion, James Reid (Trek), has secured a last-minute partnership with young Austrian racer, Hermann Pernsteiner, bronze medallist at the 2014 Austrian marathon championships.
Another young pairing that promises much is the Kargo Pro Racing team of Rourke Croeser and Travis Walker. They won the PE-Plett four-day stage race last month and appear to have good form for the Cape Pioneer Trek, while the partnership of Adriaan Louw (Fairview) and Lourens Luus (RECM) could also deliver some podium-topping results.
Relatively unknown to South Africans, but also likely to enter the men’s podium mix is the Spanish duo of Ismael Sanchez and Ramon Portabella. Sanchez was fifth at the 2014 Spanish marathon championships, while Portabella was third at last month’s Quebrantaheusos, a UCI Marathon World Series race in Spain.
While the women’s race will be without defending champions, Ariane Kleinhans and Anika Langvad, it does boast more depth than ever before. Former marathon world champion, Esther Suss (SUI) and former multiple ABSA Cape Epic podium finisher, Theresa Ralph (RSA), have teamed up on Team Meerendal and would be considered by most the pre-race favourites, but only marginally.
They’ll be up against the Biogen Toyota Cape Brewing Co. pairing of South African marathon champion, Robyn de Groot and Swedish marathon champion, Jennie Stenerhag, winners of last month’s PE-Plett and the 2014 Sani2c stage races.
Asrin Cycling’s Catherine Williamson (GBR) and Alice Pirard (BEL) will also be aiming for regular podium appearances, while former South African marathon champion, Cherise Stander (RECM) and compatriot, Candice Neethling (Velo Life) and Mauritian ace, Aurelie Halbachs and South African Yolandi du Toit also form combinations that add depth to the women’s title contender list.
There are more than 400 riders from 15 countries that will start the race at Buffelsdrift Game Lodge in Sunday’s opening prologue time trial stage.
Full race schedule:
Sunday 12 October: Prologue time trial, Buffelsdrift Game Lodge – 15.3km/371m
Monday 13 October: Stage 1, Oudtshoorn–Calitzdorp – 100km/1794m
Tuesday 14 October: Stage 2, Calitzdorp–Swartberg Summit – 86km/2781m
Wednesday 15 October: Stage 3, Prince Albert–De Rust – 107km/1543m
Thursday 16 October: Stage 4, De Rust–George – 109km/2690m
Friday 17 October: Stage 5, George–Herold – 71km/1755m
Saturday 18 October: Stage 6, Herold–Oudtshoorn – 86km/1024m
There will be daily TV highlights on SuperSport Channel 208 in South Africa. For more information on the Bridge Cape Pioneer Trek, visit www.capepioneer.co.za. For race updates, follow @BridgeCPT on twitter and Bridge Cape Pioneer Trek on Facebook.