Star-studded field includes Olympic gold medallists and Tour de France winner

Cycling : 98th Tour de France 2011 / Stage 21 EVANS Cadel (AUS) Yellow Jersey /  Creteil - Paris Champs-Elysees (95Km)/  Ronde van Frankrijk / TDF / Etape Rit /(c) Tim De Waele

Cycling : 98th Tour de France 2011 / Stage 21
EVANS Cadel (AUS) Yellow Jersey /
Creteil – Paris Champs-Elysees (95Km)/
Ronde van Frankrijk / TDF / Etape Rit /(c) Tim De Waele

Both the men’s reigning Olympic champions, a Tour de France winner, a host of world champions and several previous Absa Cape Epic winners will be in the South African stage race’s strongest field yet when it kicks off on Sunday.

And the racing is going to be fiercer than ever, according to the top competitors at a press conference in Cape Town on Thursday.

“There are 10 teams that can win it,” said defending champion Karl Platt of the star-studded Men’s Category field. The German, who has won the event five times, will be defending the title with Swiss partner Urs Huber (Team Bulls).

“This year will be really exciting and more competitive than ever before,” said 2014 winner Kristian Hynek of the Czech Republic, who will be racing with Austrian Alban Lakata (Topeak Ergon). “There will be many teams trying to win.”

And the other five-time winner, Christoph Sauser of Switzerland, said “this year there is definitely the most depth … especially with so many teams having back ups”. Sauser returns to the race from a brief retirement and will be racing with former Olympic gold medallist and world champion Jaroslav Kulhavy (Investec Songo Specialized) of the Czech Republic.

As Sauser suggested, this year also sees the most back up teams ever in the race – seven teams will have support teams in the field who are on hand to help with spare parts off their bikes or to help fix mechanical problems.

Lining up alongside the former winners will be reigning Olympic gold medallist Nino Schurter of Switzerland, riding with countryman Matthias Stirnemann (Scott-SRAM). Schurter said he and his teammate were mainly in South Africa to gain experience for an attempted win in 2018, but “if we are in a good place (during the race) then for sure we will go for it”.

Former Tour de France winner Cadel Evans of Australia will be taking part in the Cape Epic for the first time but has retired from competitive racing and will “take it as it comes … I’ve always wanted to do the Absa Cape Epic but have no idea what we are in for”.

He and BMC Absa Racing Team partner George Hincapie of the USA – another Tour de France veteran – are “in it for the adventure”, said Evans at the press conference.

The women’s race is also shaping up to be a thriller, with two teams probably slight favourites.

Defending champion Ariane Lüthi of Switzerland has a new partner in German Adelheid Morath (Spur) this year after winning the last three events with Dane Annika Langvad.

“Like all the strong women on the start line we are going for the victory,” said Morath. “I am going for it 100%.”

In spite of her Cape Epic successes, Lüthi said she was “feeling more pressure seeing how Adelheid is riding. She goes so fast on the uphill … gravity doesn’t pull on her”.

Multiple South African champion Robyn de Groot has teamed up with German legend Sabine Spitz (Ascendis Health), herself a former Olympic gold medallist, and they should make for a powerful combination.

Spitz said she had got a taste of the Absa Cape Epic in her first race last year and was looking forward to the challenge. “The course looks tougher than last year and the stages are longer,” said the German.

Also in the field will be 22-year-old Olympic champion Jenny Rissveds of Sweden, who will be riding in the Mixed Category with her Scott-SRAM Next Level team manager Thomas Frischknecht.

She stressed however that she was riding this year more “to get experience for the future … I really have no idea what to expect”.

The Absa Cape Epic starts with a prologue at Meerendal Wine Estate on Sunday and finishes the following Sunday at Val de Vie Estate in Franchhoek after stages in and around Hermanus, Greyton and Elgin.

* 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.