Defending champion Chris Wolhuter is eyeing a hat-trick of titles at the Liberty Winelands Encounter despite the ever-increasing level of competition.
The 28-year-old Capetonian, who will partner Dylan Rebello in the three-day race that starts in Stellenbosch tomorrow, was not shy to talk about his ambitions.
“Three in a row would definitely be a goal for us, but I think the level of competition is increasing with each event,” said the Imbuko Wines rider, who won alongside Craig Boyes last year.
He said accomplished mountain bike exponents like Waylon Woolcock and HB Kruger and Andrew Hill and Marco Joubert would likely be in the mix and was “an indication of the challenge we will be facing”.
With prize-money of R100 000 on offer, Wolhuter, who lives in Wynberg, said there had been a significant increase in the strength of the teams.
“Last year there were more teams than the first year and this year there is a further increase, so it just shows how the event is growing.
“The prize-money is an attraction and it raises the general level of the race in more than just one aspect.”
Wolhuter and the Stellenbosch-based Rebello, his teammate for almost a year, aimed to finish among the top three African teams in the recent Cape Epic until several mechanicals put paid to their chances.
Although that race did not go quite according to plan, he said it was a good experience and they had recovered nicely from the effort.
“We are feeling quite good after the Epic and often when you have had good rest you can bounce quite well off it. But this will obviously be our first real test since then.”
Feeling that the format of the Liberty Winelands Encounter, in partnership with STANLIB, suited his riding style, Wolhuter said he was looking forward to the race.
“The multi-stage events require a different skill set and I do tend to get a bit stronger as the races go on. The longer it is, the better it suits me.”
He added that the race – which plays out in the Franschhoek, Paarl and Wellington areas – was a major attraction for riders in the Western Cape given its location and superior experience offered by the organisers.
“For us in Cape Town it is super easy to travel to because you don’t have to fly anywhere or worry about equipment logistics.
“In addition, they have done a lot of work on the course and you could see a significant improvement in the trails last year. Off the bike, they create a five-star experience so it’s always one to remember.”
Wolhuter said he was comfortable with his form this season, having won the Simonsberg Contour MTB stage race in February ahead of Czech rider Dominik Buksa.
“It was nice to see we can compete with overseas riders,” he said.
“I also came second in the PE Plett solo category, so I’m happy with the way things have gone.”