Staring on Friday 27 October the Shiraz race sees battle lines drawn between a stacked field of elite men’s teams. There are arguably three tiers of teams: the favourites, the dark horses and those who will be racing for a top ten finish. PYGA Euro Steel, Imbuko Giant A, Insect Science, Elysator.ch and Cannondale Factory Racing headline the 2023 edition of FNB Wines2Whales.
The team whose name which jumps immediately from the list is Cannondale Factory Racing. Alan Hatherly and Simon Andreassen are not frequent stage racers. Their World Cup pedigree is such however that if they start fresh rather than fatigued, from their long cross-country seasons, the rest of the elite men’s teams will have their work cut out for them.
They too will however have to monitor their rivals closely. One of 2022’s winning team, Konny Looser, is back to defend his title. For the 2023 Switchback Looser lines up alongside Felix Stehli. The former needs no introduction to South African cycling fans, as he has been racing here frequently over the last decade and a half. Stehli is a newcomer to FNB W2W, he primarily races on the road for EF Education-NIPPO Development Team but is no stranger to the technical trails high in the Swiss Alps. With the experience of Looser alongside him, Stehli could well help the Elysator.ch team to a second title in as many years.
Toyota Specialized songo should have been among the combinations demanding the respect of their rivals. Sadly, Matt Beers’ crash in his final gravel race of the season, The Big Sugar Classic in the United States’s Northwest Arkansas, has resulted in a last-minute shake-up for the team. Tristan Nortje will now be partnered by Joshua Louw. The Realty Dynamix Powerbar road racer has FNB W2W as well as Cape Epic finishes to his name but his best result of sixteenth, alongside Freddie Visser in 2021, does not augur well for Nortje’s aspirations of winning the race in 2023.
A team who starts very much in contention for victory are PYGA Euro Steel. The prolific winners were the first elite men’s champions of the Switchback route, in 2021. That year Philip Buys was partnered by Gert Heyns. This year he races with Namibian Alex Miller. The pair are both power riders and the climbs of the new Stage 1 should suit them. The drag up to the Lourensford Nek, though long is not particularly steep, so it is unlikely to advantage the lithe pure climbers. Their singletrack prowess and Buys’ vast experience will also aid the team in what could be a tactical and testing edition of the race.
PYGA Euro Steel have two back-up teams to call upon. The first is the combination of Ruan van der Westhuizen and Wian van den Bergh. The second is that of Michael Foster and Jaedon Terlouw. Though nominated as PYGA Euro Steel 3, Foster and Terlouw are likely to be closest to Buys and Miller should they need assistance.
Imbuko Giant A are a team who prefer the longer and steeper ascents. Though Marco Joubert and Wessel Botha have other strings to their bows too. Botha is a former race winner, alongside Beers in 2018 and 2019. He and Joubert have enjoyed a stellar season together and will be able to call upon the support of Pieter du Toit and Franko van Zyl in their bid to win the overall title. Additional support and options may also be offered to the Imbuko Giant stable by the WK Kitchens- Imbuko Type Dev combination of Thomas Hudson and Rudi Koen.
The final of the main favourites are Keagan Bontekoning and Arno du Toit, of Insect Science. The men in the neon yellow kit will likely be highly visible in the front group, but may need a touch of luck to secure the overall title. The flood affected route could provide the opportunities for fortune to swing in their favour. Insect Science also have two support teams to aid in their cause with Herman Fourie and Jan Withaar providing the key backing, while CP van Wyk and Jurgens Uys will be racing for their own goals.
Valley Electrical Titan Racing’s Heyns and Matthew Keyser are on the cusp of the main favourites group. As a former champion Heyns knows exactly what to do to win FNB W2W. Though his build-up has been different this year. “My preparation for this year’s race has been a bit unconventional, I did a bike packing trip with my wife for three weeks so rode a lot but in an unstructured way,” Heyns confessed. At the time when he spoke to FNB Wines2Whales he noted: “I still have a week or two left to work on some intensity though, so it’s going to be interesting to see what the form is like for the event.”
“Matty [Keyser] and myself are aiming for a podium,” he confirmed. “FNB W2W has gained a lot of prestige amongst local racers over the last few years. The prize purse is attractive and that definitely boosts the event’s racing field.”
A crop of talented young riders then make-up the next group of teams to watch. On paper Daniel van der Walt and Johan van Zyl arguably have the most firepower in the group. Yet, the Computer Mania do not have the stage racing experience of Trek SA’s Justin Chesterton and Kai von During. Chesterton and Von During have been knocking on the door of a stellar result this year and a top five general classification finish at FNB W2W could be the kick-start they need ahead of the 2024 season. To achieve that they will have to best fellow under 23 fliers Tyler Lange and Luke Moir, who line-up as team Billy’s Beach.
Outsiders for a top result close out the elite men’s field. These include Project Dream SA’s Johan de Villiers and Jordan Boshoff, as well as Grand Africa’s Matthew Leppan and Erick Heyns, and ACDC Pro Racing’s Damion Gomez and Gert Jansen van Rensburg. 37-year-old Austrian Wolfgang Krenn and his 1Of1 Austrian Bikes / Team Vorarlberg teammate, 26-year-old, Moran Vermeulen are unknown quantities. Krenn is a highly experienced mountain biker, while Vermeulen predominantly races on the road for a UCI Continental Cycling Team.
The final UCI men’s elite team are the Exxaro Jersey winners from the Cape Epic, Zola Ngxakeni and Ntlantla Nonkasa. Racing as Toyota Specialized songo 2 the pair are competing for the final time in the Exxaro competition. In 2024 Ngxakeni ages out of the category, so FNB W2W is their last opportunity to secure that the light green jersey as a combination.
To watch the 2023 FNB Wines2Whales racing action unfold follow @wines_2_whales on Instagram or like the Wines2Whales Facebook page. Regular updates will be posted on the Instagram and Facebook stories. Fans can also catch the daily highlights on the Epic Series YouTube channel and read all about how the racing unfolded on www.epic-series.com/wines2whales.
The race will get underway at 08:00, in Lourensford Wine Estate, before the teams are bused to the Oak Valley race village for lunch and the official Stage 1 prize giving, which takes place at 16:30. Stage 2 and 3 will begin at 07:00, as scheduled, following the same routes as used by the mid-week Pinotage event. The 2023 FNB Wines2Whales racing will conclude in Lourensford on Sunday, 29 October, and the final prize giving will be conducted at 13:00.