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The changing race of the Absa Cape Epic

2017-04-05

Christoph Sauser has taken part in all but the first Absa Cape Epic, winning five of those 13 events and spending time at or near the front of the race in nearly all of them.

So when he tells you the nature of the racing was different in 2017 you might want to take note: “I think this year has shown that the dynamic of the Cape Epic has changed,” he said after the finish at Val de Vie Estate. “Previously you could go slow and warm up in the first hour, but this year it has been full on for the first hour of the race. You needed to ride really hard as there was no let up.”

The power performances of cross-country specialists was evident this year with Manuel Fumic and Henrique Avancini (Cannondale Factory Racing XC) wearing yellow from the Prologue to Stage 5, after which the leaders’ jerseys were transferred to Nino Schurter and teammate Matthias Stirnemann (SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing), who kept them to the finish.

All four of those would be regarded primarily as cross-country specialists. The marathon racers who were fancied to dominate again this year will all have been disappointed by their performances.

It could be argued that Sauser and partner Jaroslav Kulhavy (Investec Songo Specialized) are both marathoners and cross-country riders, but the former’s success in recent years has been almost exclusively over longer distances.

Pre-race favourites Alban Lakata and Kristian Hynek (Topeak Ergon) are established marathoners and finished eighth, one place ahead of Jochen Kaess and Markus Kaufmann (Centurion Vaude), who had also been tipped as potential winners.

Defending champion and five-time winner Karl Platt and his partner Urs Huber (Bulls), who have both distinguished themselves over marathon distances in recent years, finished twelfth after a disappointing performance and a big crash on the final stage.

South African professional Erik Kleinhans finished the event for the 10th time this year and has a marginally different take on the nature of the racing.

“I suppose you could say the nature of the event changed slightly this year, but I think the biggest change was that there were shorter days. I think this encouraged the cross-country guys to race harder for longer. They do always come here to race, but previously the stages have maybe been a bit longer,” Kleinhans said.

“You also have to look at the field this year; there were 40 or 42 UCI teams. They start in front and they don’t like to give away their positions. I would say for the first hour I was in the lead bunch, then we would get to singletrack and the next thing these guys are all fighting to be in front. There was a much bigger fight this year to stay in the front, which you could say is very much a cross-country tactic.”

He added: “The overall speed of the racing was definitely faster than previous years. I think that the race has just become more important to the cross-country guys now. Nino Schurter said ‘after Olympics I want to win Epic’. It’s a big deal to win this event. It gets massive coverage, great live TV and it’s now something really special to win, that’s why the racing was so competitive.”

Another South African and nine-time participant, Max Knox, finished fourth overall this year with Colombian Hector Paez (Kansai Plascon) and essentially agreed with Sauser’s comments.

“The race is evolving in every aspect. From the course, the technology, the approach of the riders, the media around the event, its international status and global importance,” Knox said. “I think with the World Cup XCO coming to South Africa the week before the Cape Epic next year, it’s just going to go from strength to strength. Instead of 40 UCI teams like we had this year, you might see 60 next year.”

“I think there is also a lot more nervous tension and stress in the bunch with the route designers adding longer sections of singletrack earlier in the race. Bunch positioning is crucial and everyone wants to be first into the singletrack! This causes plenty of tension in the bunch, and mentally it’s very taxing to always be fighting for positioning. Usually, in past Epics this settled down after a day or two; however, this year, it was always full steam from metre one on every stage.”

Schurter himself said the race had been like “eight days of cross-country riding”.

They had come to scope out the event for a serious assault in 2018 “but we are a year early!” said the Olympic and world champion. “This is very special. To win the Olympics and then come to South Africa and win the Cape Epic, that is great. After Rio it was always my intention to come and win the Cape Epic, but this has taken us by surprise. I thought next year would be our year. We are ahead of schedule.”

After cementing their lead on Stage 6 Schurter said: “The plan was basically to stay with Investec Songo Specialized the whole day and make sure they didn’t get away from us. We thought they might make a move today, but after Christoph got a flat on the first major downhill, we were able to attack and get away. From there we just went like it was another cross-country race. For us, it’s been eight days of cross-country riding.”

One man who has literally had a bird’s eye view of the racing over the years has been commentator Neil Gardiner, who follows the racing from the vantage point of a helicopter.

“Yes, things have changed. I’d say this year was a turning point where we just became a lot more aware of it. It has been happening up until now but it has become pretty clear with the new winner,” Gardiner commented this week. “Christoph Sauser is completely right, he was at the coalface of it: he’s looking at the average speeds and he says it has gone up significantly.”

Gardiner believes that the cross-country riders are now “targeting the race … they’re taking it seriously.” He pointed to the fact that Schurter had personally chosen his partner and bought along a back up team – a key to success in the race – as an indication of his intent.

“At the front it was definitely faster. You could see it was faster because the groups were thinning out much more quickly. Within the first 10-to-15km the groups were thinning out.”

He believes that cross-country might give its adherents a physiological advantage: “I think that it’s a major factor that the guys can go deep, come back, go deep, come back, whereas the diesel engines can’t quite cope with that type of thing so they end up going into the red zone, taking  a longer time to recover and by that stage there’s a gap.”

Gardiner also believes that the increasingly high profile of the event and the prestige attached to winning it might have led to sponsors encouraging cross-country riders to go for the win.

Looking forward, Sauser said: “I think we will see faster starts now and riders will have to change they way they train, focussing more on speed and cutting back on long hours as the race starts to get closer.”

And then there’s Mannie Fumic’s theory. When asked why the cross-country teams were doing so well at the 2017 Cape Epic, the ever-cheerful German replied with a wink and a grin: “Well, we are just the better mountain bikers.”                    

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