Swiss mountain biking maestro Christoph Sauser has come out of retirement in a bid to win the Absa Cape Epic for a sixth time, so what was it that persuaded him to get back in the saddle?
“Jaroslav (Kulhavy) asked me a few times during the year to race with him again. It began to make me think… . and then when I started to train for the Wines2Whales in October I realised that I quickly gained shape like in previous years,” Sauser says.
Czech Kulhavy was, of course, Sauser’s partner in two of his victories and will be at his side on March 19 as Team Investec Songo Specialized. Backing them will be two highly accomplished support teams, which Sauser says was also a factor in making him decide to race again.
The back up will come from Team NAD Pro MTB’s South African pairing of Nico Bell and Gawie Combrinck and American/Costa Rican combination of Howard Grotts and Paolo Montoya (Spur Songo Specialized) . In recent years support teams have become fundamental to Absa Cape Epic success and the recruitment of two quality pairings is a clear signal of Investec Songo Specialized’s intentions.
Sauser’s comments on how he feels after his year-long break from competition also leave you in little doubt: “I have never been more motivated – meaning I am fresh in my mind and my body,” he says.
Asked if being the first to six wins was a factor in his return, Sauser says his yearning to succeed remained the same as when he first took the title back in 2006. “The sixth (win) is for the books and statistics … which I am sure will make me proud when I’m looking back.”
The Sauser and Kulhavy combination has won both of the Cape Epics they have competed in and the Swiss legend has described his partner as perhaps the most powerful cyclist he has ever ridden alongside.
Kulhavy won the Olympic gold medial in 2012 and silver in 2016. He has won the cross country and marathon world championships once each and in 2011 also took home the cross country World Cup series title.
Although he will be targeting the World Cup circuit again this year, the Cape Epic remains a major priority: “It is a big challenge to try to win,” Kulhavy says. “Christoph is coming back from retirement, so it’s an amazing challenge for us and for our whole team as well.”
Both are alert to the fact that the field will be exceptionally strong this year. “There are many really good teams in the overall standing, and very fast teams just for a stage win,” Kulhavy comments. “It will be quite hard to keep concentrating day-by-day on (racing against) this strong field.”
Sauser says winning would “probably need the same strengths as two years ago, but the big difference will be the density of the field … there are many more teams with backups”.
He will be able to fall back on his extensive knowledge of the Western Cape, where he spends chunks of time throughout the year. “It will be my first time racing properly in Hermanus and I am looking forward to it. Greyton I know from the 2104 Absa Cape Epic and Grabouw I know like my own pocket from previous Epics and especially the Wines2Whales.”
Based in Stellenbosch when he is in South Africa, Sauser often trains in the areas where the race is staged.
“I had three very good build up weeks before Christmas in Stellenbosch. Then last month I was at home in Switzerland, where I took it easy for one week and then three weeks of great training again, which included lots of back country skiing, snow biking, running and gym.”
Now he is back in South Africa for the Attakwas Extreme, the Grabouw leg of the National MTB Series and the Tankwa Trek, which he will ride with New Zealander Sam Gaze. He will then return home before heading back to South Africa for a few events before the Absa Cape Epic.
He is looking forward to the “challenge of winning the Tour de France of mountain biking”, raising awareness for the songo.info charity and having “the very best team and equipment supporting us”.
Kulhavy will arrive in South Africa six days before the race “as usual” after a series of training camps and then racing in Cyprus.
He says he is a great fan of mountain biking in this country: “I like riding through winelands and a lot of singletrack and technical sections … there is nothing boring and the weather is also perfect.”
* The 2017 Absa Cape Epic mountain bike stage race takes place from 19 to 26 March and the much anticipated route can be viewed here.