The sharp improvement in the strength of the women’s field for the 2015 Absa Cape Epic will inevitably give rise to an intense battle for the podium positions. Can a South African woman get on to one of those steps when the race finishes at Meerendal on 22 March?
The best bet might be an Epic newbie, Robyn de Groot. Although relatively new to mountain biking she has already won the marathon national championships twice, and finished sixth at the marathon world championships last year. She will be riding with Sweden’s Jennie Stenerhag, herself a two-times national champion, in Team Ascendis Health. How does De Groot fancy her chances? “With this being my first Absa Cape Epic and such a strong women’s field it is hard to say. I guess (our objective) will be to ride our bikes to the best of our ability as a team. Like any competitive athlete the podium will be an objective and something we will be striving towards.” Stenerhag, who has two Epic finishes to her name, concurred: “The goal is to try to get on to the podium. But Epic is Epic and the competition is tough, so anything can happen.”
In September of last year De Groot and Stenerhag convincingly won the PE to Plett four-day mountain bike stage race. “I feel Jennie and I compliment one another as riding partners,” said De Groot. “We both operate professionally, seem to make similar decisions and share ways of thinking during both the good times and bad times. We did three stage races together last year so we know that the partnership works and we know each other well,” added Stenerhag. “We have a very similar riding style, which makes for a perfect combination.”
She added that Annika Langvad (Denmark) and Ariane Kleinhans (Switzerland) will be the favourites “since they won last year and also won the Swiss Epic together. But there are many teams this year which stand a good chance of winning. Sally Bigham (Great Britain) and Esther Suss (Switzerland) are coming back with different partners and Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesja (Norway) is one of the best mountain bikers in the world: we cannot count her out even if she does not have experience of stage races.”
Asked about the team dynamic in an event of this nature, De Groot said: “If other stage races are anything to go by it is a huge factor. This sport is incredibly harsh, it tests your limits in so many ways … that dynamic may even become the fuel within the team when the going gets tough.” Stenerhag again shares her teammate’s sentiments: “The team dynamic is very important, almost more important then having two strong riders in the team. You must be able to help each other no matter what happens, and also understand each other when the going gets tough! It is also important that you get along well off the bike.”
And their choice of bike? “We have just been spoilt with the most beautiful looking Scott Spark RC 29er,” said De Groot. “It is dual-suspension which will certainly be a great option for the Epic terrain. The best description of the ride: it makes me want to play on the trails.”
Stenerhag paid tribute to the race’s standing: “The Absa Cape Epic is seen as one of the highest profile mountain bike races in the world, and it is prestigious to be standing on that podium after eight days of hard racing! The organisation has done a phenomenal job to build up such an event from scratch. I was working as a volunteer at the first Epic in 2004 and it is amazing to see how it has grown!”
This year’s race takes place from 15 to 22 March and will once again take 1 200 riders through some of the Western Cape’s most unspoilt territory. The race kicks off with a prologue on Table Mountain, starting from the University of Cape Town, and finishes eight days later at Meerendal Wine Estate in Durbanville. Meerendal will host the finish of the race and the Grand Finale celebrations for the first time. The Grand Finale will kick off with live entertainment, a farmer’s market, great food and wine and glorious scenery. Vantage points will be accessible to the general public. Entrance is free.