Absa Cape Epic champions return to defend their title

Before he headed to the warmth of the Western Cape ahead of the beginning  of his season, Nino Schurter, the 2017 Absa Cape Epic champion, decided to take part in a Nordic Ski race in his home town of Lenzerheide in Switzerland. He finished 18th, just five minutes behind the winner, after a crash had slowed him up … making us wonder, is there anything he can’t do?

The summer heat of his second home town of Stellenbosch, will be the perfect preparation for what he believes is the best way to start the season. Schurter had an astounding 2017, a year in which he utterly dominated mountain biking, beginning with his victory in the Absa Cape Epic, and then following that up by winning all six legs of the UCI Cross Country World Cup and his fifth Cross Country World Championship.

With the UCI MTB World Cup returning to Stellenbosch the week before the Absa Cape Epic, Schurter could set himself up for a repeat of last year if things go his way.

“The new schedule is truly the perfect schedule for me,” said Schurter, who will take part in his fifth Absa Cape Epic. “Having the first World Cup round in my second home is something I am looking forward to and I hope this schedule will remain in the years to come.”

Schurter said the Absa Cape Epic victory, his first win of the year, was a large part of his success in 2017, setting him up from the start with a victory that came as a “wonderful surprise”. Schurter and his Scott-Sram team, had a long-term plan to win the race in 2018. Little did they know that it would kick off a dream season that will become the stuff of legend.

“To be honest, the 2017 season also beat my expectations,” said Schurter. “Winning the Absa Cape Epic already was a wonderful surprise. The World Cup was, for sure, my main goal, but winning all of them was nothing I had planned on. Only when I saw I could be the first one to win five world cup races in a row, did I get some extra motivation to go for it. And after winning five, I said to myself, ‘Why not win them all?’ The icing on the cake was the World Championship at the end.”

“Winning the Absa Cape Epic was the base for the perfect season. It really spiced up the soup. Going to the first World Cup already having a major victory helped tremendously for the rest of the season. It is the biggest stage race to win and something I’m super proud of.”

Schurter will team up with fellow Swiss Matthias Stirnemann once again, while Michael van der Heijden and Andri Frischknecht of the Scott-Sram Young Guns, will be their support team. There are very few teams who can call on a back-up consisting of riders who won two stages on their debut Absa Cape Epic. Schurter said he had been very impressed with their performance, and believes they are definitely a pair to watch for the future. He and Stirnemann have formed a close bond, with Schurter smiling as he recalls how “funny” his teammate can be both on and off the bike.

They had humour, luck (not one mechanical in 2017) and strength in depth, the perfect combination. And now, after the snow of Switzerland, Schurter has the warmth of Stellenbosch. Could a perfect 2018 be on the cards?

Alban Lakata back for his ninth Absa Cape Epic search of the elusive win

Hope springs eternal for Alban Lakata as he heads into his ninth Absa Cape Epic, desperately seeking the win that has proved elusive for one of mountain biking’s true stars.

Lakata, the three-time Marathon World Champion, will once again team up with Kristian Hynek as Canyon Topeak, the Czech won on his debut in 2014. Erik Kleinhans, the South African manager of Canyon Topeak, who has two victories at the Absa Cape Epic in the Mixed category, hopes that 2018 could be the year that Lakata stops being the bridesmaid and never the bride. Lakata has finished second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth and 10th at the Untamed African MTB Race.

“Every year we hope and believe it will be the magical year for Alban to win that one race that he still so desperately wants to win before retirement,” said Kleinhans. “This year so far he and Kristian’s preparation has been very good. There is no shortage of talent and if all continues to go well with the training they will be ready to fight for the win.

“Luck also plays a big part at the event, which is why support teams have also become so important,” said Kleinhans, who will ride with veteran American Jeremiah Bishop as the back team for Canyon Topeak. “There is no one secret to winning this race. At the end of the day, all the different aspects need to fall into place, being fit, staying healthy, not having any problems on the course, the support staff and having a great environment to race.”

Lakata had a strong 2017, winning the Marathon World Championships for the third time. Having experienced some bad luck at the Absa Cape Epic in the past, the Austrian has had the good luck of having some great weather at his home town of Leinz in Austria for the intense sport of SkiMo, which plays a large part in his build-up. SkiMo is essentially a combination of skiing and mountaineering, with the emphasis on skiing uphill. He has had two training camps in Gran Canaria and one in South Africa, and will take part in the Tankwa Trek to get reacquainted with Western Cape conditions ahead of the Absa Cape Epic.

Kleinhans will take part in his 11th Absa Cape Epic, and believes the route to be one of the best and more challenging of those he has experienced, offering something for different types of riders. He thinks the winners at the race may have already made their stamp on the course in the first four days.

“The route seems to be a great balance with the first four days the longer and harder ones, and I believe more suited to the XCM racers. That comes before some shorter and more technical riding towards the end of the week that might suit the XCO racers. The first four days stand out for me, the area is not known for fast racing, nor for cool weather, and with the consecutive hard days it will form the 2018 Absa Cape Epic.”

“The time trial will be interesting and exciting for the spectators. And our riders are looking forward to it as it is a slight break in the normal day of Absa Cape Epic activity and will give the riders a little more sleep! It will change the dynamic a bit more for sure, with the shorter stage suiting the XCO racers a bit more, but if Alban and Kristian have good shape, they can ride a time-trial course as fast as the best in the world as they have proven before.”

* The 2018 Absa Cape Epic mountain bike stage race takes place from 18 to 25 March and the much anticipated route can be viewed here.