There will be many races within the race, but two stand out:
- The battle of the Olympic gold medallists: Switzerland’s Nino Schurter, who took home the gold in 2016, will be in the field racing against his great competitor Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic, the 2012 Olympic winner. Schurter will be riding with compatriot Matthias Stirnemann (SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing) and Kulhavy with Swiss Christoph Sauser (Investec Songo Specialized).
- The battle of the five-time winners. Sauser has been tempted back from a one-year retirement in a bid to beat his great rival Karl Platt to being the first to six wins. German Platt won the inaugural event in 2004 and bagged his fifth win in 2016. Platt will be riding with Swiss Urs Huber (Bulls) again this year.
But there are several others who will also be eyeing the top step of the podium. Foremost among these may be Austrian strongman Alban Lakata, who has finished second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth in the Absa Cape Epic and is desperate to add a first to his long list of accomplishments. He will be riding with Czech Kristian Hynek (Topeak Ergon), himself a former winner of the race, and hoping that the bad luck that has dogged him over the years is finally a thing of the past.
Another team that will be hoping their luck has turned will be Centurion Vaude’s German combination of Markus Kaufmann and Jochen Kaess. They appeared headed for a win in 2014 before falling foul of a broken frame and have since been held back by injuries.
And dark horse Italians Damiano Farraro and Samuele Porro (Trek Selle San Marco) raced to third place in their first Absa Cape Epic in 2016 and showed they have the pedigree to challenge for an overall win.
A South African with an eye on the podium will be national marathon champion Max Knox, riding with Columbian Hector Páez (Plascon). The South African has been in great form in 2016 and his partner is a tough and experienced rider who has notched up a series of successes over the years: expect them to be at the sharp end of the racing.
Significantly, all of these teams have strong back-up teams – a prerequisite to winning the Absa Cape Epic these days.
Other teams in the race who will be targeting stages include Manuel Fumic of Germany and Brazilian Henrique Avancini (Cannondale Factory Racing), the South African pairing of Philip Buys and Matthys Beukes (Pyga), Germans Martin Gluth and Julian Schelb (Silverback OMX Pro), and Switzerland’s Konny Looser, who is riding with up-and-coming South African Matt Beers (RED-E Ryder), another who has been in great form recently.
The winning team from the past three years has broken up with Annika Langvad returning to her studies after winning the Cross Country World Championships and the Absa Cape Epic in one year. Her partner Ariane Luthï of Switzerland – but South African-based – will be riding with German Adel Morath (Spur).
Luthï is vastly experienced at stage racing and her success at the Absa Cape Epic – she has also won the Mixed Category on two occasions – will give them some edge in a race that demands both cool heads and strong legs. Morath debuted at the race in 2016 and finished third overall with Briton Sally Bigham.
They will face a huge challenge from German mountain biking legend Sabine Spitz, who will be riding with South Africa’s Robyn de Groot (Ascendis Health). The 45-year-old German raced her first Cape Epic in 2016, finishing second overall with Ukranian Yana Belomoina, after a career that has seen her win gold, silver and bronze medals at the Olympic Games and world championships in both cross country and marathon disciplines. Spitz’s appetite for the Absa Cape Epic was clearly sparked in 2016 and she and Belomoina dominated the second half of the race, winning the last three stages.
De Groot, by contrast, was in imperious form early on in 2016 and she and partner Jennie Stenerhag of Sweden won the Prologue and Stage 1 before the latter fell victim to a heart condition.
There are other teams that will be aiming for the podium and perhaps getting on to the top step. Switzerland’s Esther Suss is a former Women’s and Mixed Category winner and will be riding with the aforementioned Stenerhag (Meerendal CBC). Both are wily competitors and while they might not have the firepower of the top two teams they will know that a lot can happen over eight days.
Another European pairing, Hielke Elferink of the Netherlands and Switzerland’s Cornelia Hug (Meerendal CBC1), will also be poised to strike if the top teams falter. The former has two Top 10 finishes at the Absa Cape Epic and Hug is an accomplished marathon specialist with some excellent results over the years.
Besides De Groot, South African interest will focus on local youngster and rising star Candice Neethling and her Namibian partner Vera Adrian (Dormakaba). They come off wins at both the Berg&Bush and Sani2c and will fancy their chances of a stage win or two.
Another young and promising South African, Mariske Strauss, will be teamed up with Briton Annie Last as Hansgrohe Cadence OMX Pro and will also be hoping to make an impression.
Dimension Data Masters
There are always several races within the race at the Absa Cape Epic and few are as fiercely contested as the Dimension Data Masters category.
In 2016 it was won by Dutchman Bart Brentjens and Brazilian partner Abraao Azevedo (CST Brentjens MTB) for the third year in succession, but they had to see off strong challenges in all those years. Besides winning the category for riders of over 40-years-old, Brentjens and Azevedo finished 14th overall in 2014, 16th in 2015 and 21st last year – remarkable performances given the quality competition from the phalanx of professional riders. Brentjens is a former overall winner, taking the title in 2005 with Belgian Roel Paulissen.
In 2017 Brentjens and Azevedo will face a formidable challenge from two Absa Cape Epic debutants who have a long and distinguished mountain biking pedigree. Germans Thorsten Keller and Max Friedrich (Craft Rocky Mountain) have been at or near the top of the sport in their country for many years. 44-year-old Keller has raced internationally since 1991, was a member of the German national mountain biking team and has notched up several podium positions since he started racing in the master's category. Friedrich has a similarly stellar career and in 2012 finished just 0,97 seconds behind winner Brentjens in the four-day Alpen Tour Trophy stage race. He has been the German marathon champion in the master's category six times and is familiar with South African conditions, having twice won the mixed category at the Cape Pioneer Trek.
Then there’s one of the biggest names in world cycling, former Tour de France winner Cadel Evans. Evans started his career as a mountain biker and won the World Cup series in 1998 and 1999 before turning to the road. He will be racing with another Tour de France veteran George Hincapie (BMC Absa Racing Team). Although they have played down their chances of success, they are both pedigreed racers and will go for it if they get a sniff.
The South African challenge is likely to be headed by the crack combination of Hannes Hanekom and Ben-Melt Swanepoel (@40). Both have finished the Absa Cape Epic eight times, with the former’s best finish being 17th overall and the latter eighth. Their experience and familiarity with the conditions should make them strong challengers. But keep an eye out for the Lamond brothers Nic and Simon (Podium Sports), who have both been consistently near the front of the race over the years and are skilled riders.
Two teams are likely to dice it out for this category, which was introduced in 2013 and has proved to be far more competitive than anticipated.
Swiss legend Barti Bucher and his Austrian partner Heinz Zoerweg (Meerendal CBC 3) have won the category twice since then and finished second overall in 2016 after a poor Stage 1 set them back. Bucher knows the top step of the Absa Cape Epic podium well – he has also won the Master's category twice and the Mixed once. Besides his two successes with Bucher, Zoerweg won the Grand Masters category with Andrew McLean in 2014.
They will, however, have to overcome 2016 winner Robert Sim and his fellow South African Doug Brown (Robert Daniel) if they are to win the category this year. Sim took the Grand Masters trophy in 2016 with German Udo Boelts and has a long history of podium finishes in the Master's category. Brown has twice won the Master's category and is looking to add a first to his second and third-place finishes in the Grand Masters. They will give the Europeans a stern test and Sim will be aiming to repeat his amazing performance in 2016 when he and Boelts finished 25th overall. This race should provide a thrilling sub-plot to the 2017 Absa Cape Epic.
Virgin Active Mixed
The presence of Olympic gold medallist Jenny Rissveds is bound to fire up the racing in the Virgin Active Mixed category.
The Swede has suggested that her objective will simply be to finish the race, but she has such outstanding ability that she is likely to be at or near the front anyway. The 22-year old will be riding with team manager Thomas Frischknecht of Switzerland (SCOTT SRAM Next Level), a former cross country and marathon world champion and still very strong on a bike at 47.
Two other teams are likely to be among the front-runners. The English/South African combination of Catherine Williamson and Johan Labuschagne (RBI Tech-Mitas) have both performed excellently in the Absa Cape Epic before: Williamson has won the Women’s category and Labuschagne notched up a second in the Mixed category. She has a reputation as a tough and determined competitor and their combination should be formidable.
Then there is 2016 Olympic triathlete Mari Rabie, who will be racing with Corrie Muller (Fairtree Capital). Rabie has never done an Absa Cape Epic before but is a strong cyclist and her partner has finished the event seven times – including the very first race in 2004– and notched up a second in the Master's category. Rabie thrilled South Africans by competing strongly at the Olympics, where she finished 11th overall.