For the second year in a row the Cape Town Cycle Tour’s MTB Challenge has played a pivotal role in the build up to the Absa Cape Epic. In 2018 it was defending women’s champion Jennie Stenerhag who emerged from the event unable to defend her title, after tearing a hamstring in a seemingly innocuous crash. A year on, the defending champion laid low just two weeks before the Untamed African Mountain Bike Race is Howard Grotts.

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Specialized Shuffle Their Decks

The America rider was down to start the 2019 race with three-time Absa Cape Epic winner Jaroslav Kulhavý, for Investec-Songo-Specialized. Along with Cannondale Factory Racing and SCOTT-SRAM the partnership of Grotts and Kulhavý were among a trifecta of big favourites for the UCI Men’s category. Grotts’ withdrawal means that fellow Specialized Racing teammate Samuel Gaze steps up from the Specialized Foundation-Spur Schools League team to partner the Czech Express, Kulhavý.

Howard Grotts will not line up to defend the title he won in 2018, alongside Jaroslav Kulhavy, in this year’s Absa Cape Epic. Photo by Mark Sampson/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS.

The shuffling of cards within the Specialized deck has resulted in a team, popular with South African mountain biking fans, forming. NAD Pro’s Matthew Beers has filled Gaze’s slot alongside Alan Hatherly and the pair will now race under the banner of the Specialized Foundation-NAD. The CTCT MTB Challenge, on the 2nd of March, provided Beers and Hatherly with the final proof their sponsors needed to convince them that the young friends were on equally impressive form. The pair sprinted for the win ahead of a stellar field of international stars and in so doing they smashed the 60 kilometre race’s route record by three minutes. Grotts meanwhile had started the race too, but in finishing nearly 18 minutes behind the race winner Hatherly it was clear his health needed to come first and the decision was made to withdraw him from the Absa Cape Epic.

Alan Hatherly and Matthew Beers will team up as Specialized Foundation-NAD after Grotts’ withdrawal from the 2019 Absa Cape Epic. The pair have been near inseparable in recent races, finishing 17 seconds apart at the Knysna Bull and sprinting for the win against one another at the CTCT MTB Challenge. Photo by Sheldon Moultrie / CTCT.

Lill Lines Up The Wins

Like Hatherly and Beers, Candice Lill also used the CTCT MTB Challenge as a final confidence builder ahead of the Absa Cape Epic. The Summit Fin rider overcame Mariske Strauss and the defending champion, Stenerhag to claim a hard-fought win. The result comes on the back of victory for Lill in the Imbuko Big Five MTB Challenge on the 23rd of February. In the men’s race, which features a mammoth 3 020 metres of climbing in just 75 kilometres, the Centurion Vaude riders swept the field. Daniel Geismayr raced to victory over his Absa Cape Epic partner Jochen Käss and his support team rider, Vinzent Dorn. The top five was completed by South Africans Marco Joubert and Nicol Carstens. The Imbuko Giant combination were also the highest placed South Africans at the Momentum Health Tankwa Trek, presented by Biogen, at the beginning of February and have made no secret about their desire to win the Absa African Jersey competition.

Candice Lill has notched up two pre-Cape Epic wins. Photo by Ewald Sadie/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS.

AVDB Passes the Cyprus Test

On the same weekend as the Imbuko Big Five MTB Challenge took place in Wellington the first UCI HC (Hors Classe/Beyond Classification) mountain biking event of the season, the Cyprus Sunshine Cup was on the go on the Mediterranean island. While back in South Africa the Knysna Bull, made personal by Constantia, was taking place in the forests of the Garden Route.

Annika Langvad is once again looking in ominous form, as is her 2019 partner Anna van der Breggen. Photo by Ewald Sadie?Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS.

The attention in Cyprus was on Anna van der Breggen’s performance, where she was second – by just 1 minute – to her teammate Annika Langvad. A 1 minute time gap may not appear that small, after four stages, but ominously for the Investec-Songo-Specialized pairing’s rivals in the Absa Cape Epic the gap between first and third was a massive 7 minutes and 30 seconds. Langvad and Van Der Breggen were the only women from the Absa Cape Epic start list racing in the Cyprus Sunshine Cup, but the field still an impressive one. In securing first and second they defeated Sina Frei, Lisa Pasteiner, Linda Indergand, Anne Terpstra, Barbara Benko, Isla Short and Yana Belomoina.

The men’s race did not go as well for the Specialized Racing riders as the women’s event did in Cyprus. Kulhavý was a disappointing twentieth, while Grotts was fourteenth. The highest placed of the Absa Cape Epic racing men was Ondřej Cink, in eighth, who is set to start for Kross Racing alongside Sergio Mantecón Gutiérrez on the 17th of March. The fact that most of the men who will be starting the Absa Cape Epic performed relatively poorly in terms of results suggests that they were not racing to their full capacity or were using the Cyprus Sunshine Cup as the final four days of their last big training block.

Jaroslav Kulhavy has yet to show his Absa Cape Epic form. Photo by Greg Beadle/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS.

Sanders & Beers 100K Richer

Back in South Africa the Knysna Bull, made personal by Constantia, saw highly competitive men’s and women’s fields racing for a, winner-takes-all, R100 000 prize. In the women’s race dormakaba’s Samantha Sanders defeated Stenerhag and her partner Amy McDougall. Sanders looks to be in the form of her career, but the concern for the dormakaba team will be the lingering effects of McDougall’s chest infection. Illness forced the defending Absa African Women’s Jersey competitor out of the Momentum Health Tankwa Trek, presented by Biogen, earlier in February and cost her time on Stage 1 of the Knysna Bull, made personal by Constantia. Sabine Spitz, who it was confirmed on the 1st of March will be racing with fellow German Nadine Rieder at the Absa Cape Epic, was fifth after major punctures on Stages 2 and 3. The 2008 Olympic Gold Medallist had led the race after the Prologue and Stage 1, so she will be hoping that her bad luck is now out of the way ahead of the main goal of her season.

Sam Sanders (right) rode away R100 000 richer after her win at the Knysna Bull, made personal by Constantia. Photo by Caleb Bjergfelt.

The men’s race at the Knysna Bull, made personal by Constantia, was won by Beers; just 17 seconds ahead of Hatherly. The result proved that the pair are exceptionally equally matched right now and adds credence to the thought that they could be a dark horse team for the Absa Cape Epic title if anything should befall their designated leaders, Kulhavý and Gaze. In third after a Prologue and three marathon stages was HB Kruger, who will be lining up alongside Frans Claes for Pro Devonbosch Qhubeka in the Absa Cape Epic. Kruger won two stages, but a crash on Stage 1 cost him vital time, which effectively scuppered his chances of overall victory. The trio of South Africans saw off the challenge of international star Nicola Rohrbach at the Knysna Bull, made personal by Constantia. The Silverback SBC rider returned to racing after missing the Momentum Health Tankwa Trek, presented by Biogen, with illness and looked to be working towards full racing fitness.

Matt Beers held off Alan Hatherly by just 17 seconds to take home the 100K. Photo by Caleb Bjergfelt.

Good Sabie Sensations

The final major race on the exceptionally busy weekend of the 23rd of February was the 2019 Sabie Classic. The Lowveld ultra-marathon forms part of the UCI XCM series and as such attracted international riders like Yannick Lincoln and Antonin Marecaille along with a strong South African field. Matthys Beukes continued his one day race winning streak, which started with the Momentum Health Attakwas Extreme, presented by Biogen, in January. Beukes held of PYGA Euro Steel teammate Philip Buys to take the win, while NAD Pro MTB’s Nico Bell rounded out the podium.

Philip Buys and Matthys Beukes will take on their fourth Absa Cape Epic together this March. Photo by Ewald Sadie?Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Bell meanwhile remains a bit of an enigma in terms of the 2019 Absa Cape Epic. His NAD Pro team announced just days before Grotts’ withdrawal that due to health reasons Wessel Botha, who helped Beers to the 2018 FNB Wines2Whales title, would be stepping into Bell’s spot in the team’s Absa Cape Epic line-up. With Beers moving out to join Hatherly, Botha now needs a teammate. Bell is said to be optimistic of being able to race with the youngster, if his heath allows it. While the fourth member of the NAD Pro squad and former South African XCM Champion, Gawie Combrinck, is also an option to partner Botha.

There are options in the NAD Pro MTB roster as Wessel Botha (left) could pair up with Gawie Combrinck (second from left) or Nico Bell (second from right) now that Matt Beers (right) will be riding with Alan Hatherly for the Specialized Foundation-NAD team. Photo by NAD Pro MTB.

UCI S1 Action in the Med

Earlier in February two UCI S1 rated stage races took place in quick succession. In Spain the Mediterranean Epic, by GAES, was raced between the 14th and the 17th of the month. While in South Africa the Momentum Health Tankwa Trek, presented by Biogen, took place from the 7th to the 10th. The Mediterranean Epic, by GAES, was won by MMR Factory Racing’s David Valero Serrano. After four stages only 12 seconds separated Serrano and Trek Selle San Marco 2’s Fabian Rabensteiner. BUFF SCOTT’s Francesc Guerra Carretero was third, while Damiano Ferraro – of Trek Sele San Marco 1 – was fourth. Guerra Carretero’s Absa Cape Epic partner Enrique Morcillo Vergara was eighth, making the BUFF SCOTT paring the highest placed combination of riders preparing for the Untamed African Mountain Bike Race.

BUFF SCOTT’s Francesc Guerra Carretero and Enrique Morcillo Vergara were 3rd & 8th respectively in the Mediterranean Epic.

Cannondale Pass the Tankwa Test

At the premier field of mountain biking talent assembled thus far in the 2019 season gathered in the Koue Bokkeveld region of South Africa for the Momentum Health Tankwa Trek, presented by Biogen. On the start line were Manuel Fumic, Henrique Avancini, Karl Platt, Alban Lakata, Urs Huber, Simon Stiebjahn, Tristan de Lange and Simon Andreassen; along with those already mentioned in this form guide like Buys, Beukes, Hatherly, Gaze, Beers, Bell, Combrinck, Botha, Joubert, Carsetens, Geismayr Käss and Dorn. The key point which emerged over the four days of racing was that Avancini in particular is flying and that Cannondale Factory Racing in general are going to be very hard to beat at the Absa Cape Epic. The Brazilian was a class apart while his partner Fumic never succumbed to the pressure the formidable collection of rivals tried to exert upon him.

Henrique Avancini & Manuel Fumic proved to be the team to beat at the Momentum Health Tankwa Trek, presented by Biogen. Photo by Nick Muzik/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS.

The other Absa Cape Epic riders who emerged from the gruelling Momentum Health Tankwa Trek, presented by Biogen, with form credit in the bank – despite the results not reflecting their performance levels were Huber and Stiebjahn. After struggling in the forty degree heat on the opening stage, which started at 15:00, the pair gave Avancini and Fumic their biggest battle of the race. They could in fact have come close to winning the race, had they not taken a wrong turn – while in the lead on the Queen Stage. Their Bulls teammates, Lakata and Platt, did more to disguise their form ahead of the Absa Cape Epic at the Momentum Health Tankwa Trek, presented by Biogen. Both are wily campaigners however and could be saving themselves for a big performance in the coming weeks.

Karl Platt and Alban Lakata may spring a surprise or two at the Absa Cape Epic. Photo by Ewald Sadie/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS.

While the lead never changed hands in the UCI men’s race at the Momentum Health Tankwa Trek, presented by Biogen, the women’s race saw the pink jerseys change hands on the Queen Stage. Strauss and Stenerhag stormed into the race lead with a dominant performance on the Merino Monster climb, which left Lill and Strauss’ old Absa Cape Epic partner Annie Last unable to follow. The early race leaders, Tepstra and Benko, of Ghost Factory Racing won the opening two stages of the race; but struggled with punctures on their hardtails as the event wore on. With Benko spending an increasing amount of time in South Africa and the pair’s global popularity the hope remains that they will represent Ghost Factory Racing in the 2020 Absa Cape Epic.

Ariane Luthi did not have the best of races at the Momentum Health Tankwa Trek, presented by Biogen, but was strong on the road at the Tour of Goodhope. Photo by Ewald Sadie/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Prudently Avoiding Some of the Big Guns

The final race, to a ruler ran over the results, is the Prudential PE2Plett. The four day stage race was won by Kruger and Claes by a shade under 5 minutes over Gert Heyns and Arno du Toit. Heyns, is teaming up with European XCO Champion Lars Forster, to race in support of SCOTT SRAM’s Nino Schurter and Andri Frischknecht at the Absa Cape Epic. While Du Toit’s DSV Pro partner for the eight days of the Absa Cape Epic, Julian Jessop, finished fourth alongside SPOT Africa’s Timothy Hammond.

Mariske Strauss and Jennie Stenerhag were the strongest riders over 4 days at the Momentum Health Tankwa Trek, presented by Biogen. Photo by Ewald Sadie/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

SCOTT-SRAM’s Mystery Men

The great mystery in terms of race shape ahead of the 2019 Absa Cape Epic is provided by the SCOTT-SRAM riders, Schurter, Frischknecht and Forster. After training camps in Arizona and Stellenbosch there is no reason to question the World Champion’s preparation, Schurter will almost certainly be among the strongest riders in the Absa Cape Epic. His partner Frischknecht does not have the luxury of Schurter’s exceptional palmarès and years of experience however. Since taking silver at the Swiss cyclo-cross championships in January Frischknecht has not pinned a racing number to his jersey. Could that be an error from the meticulously prepared SCOTT-SRAM team? Only time will tell.

How strong will Nino Schurter be come the Absa Cape Epic? Very! Photo by Nick Muzik/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS.