It’s the classic case of ‘all hands on deck’ ahead of the world’s premier mountain bike stage race.
“We’re in for a tight battle,” commented Ariane Lüthi ahead of Sunday’s start of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic. “This is the strongest field I’ve ever faced in the women’s category. I know I say it every year, but this year I believe it more than ever.”
According to Ariane, the biggest challenge is likely to come from the new Team Ascendis Health pairing of Robyn de Groot and Sabine Spitz, as well as Team Meerendal CBC – Esther Süss and Jennie Stenerhag.
“Then there is Mariske (Strauss) and Annie Last, as well as Candice (Lill) and Vera (Adrian). Candice rode well in the Tour of Good Hope and I’ve never seen her this strong,” she said.
“One can never say how it’s going to play out because it’s such an unpredictable race, but there are three or four teams in with a very good chance.”
As defending champion Ariane and new partner Adelheid Morath will set off at 10:35:25, as the last women’s team on Sunday’s prologue at Meerendal Wine Estate. It is often said that the race cannot be won on the prologue’s serpentine 26km route (with some 750m of climbing) but it can easily be lost on its dusty trails.
Knowing a fierce challenge lies ahead, from both the unforgiving terrain and the world-class competition, Ariane and Adelheid are confident and excited to start the battle.
“Adelheid is a super accomplished athlete and has prepared so much harder than for last year’s race (where she finished third overall with Sally Bigham),” Ariane said. “We had our last big training ride on Tuesday and I was amazed at how fast she was climbing.”
“We’ve also focused a lot on our teamwork the last few weeks – getting to know each other and building that trust is crucial for this race.”
“I feel very good after the Tour of Good Hope (a five-day road stage race held recently). It was good for my condition and form,” Ariane said. “It gave me a lot of confidence. I’ve definitely improved from last year, both strength and endurance wise. Also, I’ve worked a lot on my technical skills with Jo Dobinson of Biking in the Bosch.”
A first in the women’s race this year is the addition of a true back-up team, with Alice Pirard and Sabrina Enaux riding under the banner of Team Spur Foundation. Alice and Sabrina will ride in support of Ariane and Adelheid, but also to raise awareness for Spur Foundation’s charity, the Full Tummy Fund. “I’m really excited that it worked out,” Ariane said. “It’s an experiment, but for me it was about giving a second team a chance to benefit from our setup and getting two strong athletes to the event to help grow the depth of the women’s racing. We are also privileged to be able to draw attention to the amazing work of the Full Tummy Fund in this area.”
Alice and Sabrina set off at 10:19:35 on Sunday.
According to Team Spur boss Nic Lamond, who is riding his 10th Absa Cape Epic in 2017, and, alongside brother Simon, is gunning for a Masters GC podium, the 2017 route is likely to once again favour “the more technically-accomplished all-rounders.”
“The Epic is not a slog fest anymore, where the biggest engine wins,” he says. “Using the region’s more exciting technical terrain means teams need to know their strengths and exploit them. This rewards mountain bikers who do their homework and build on all their skills. Of course, this has been true for the past few years, but is definitely different from, say, five years ago. I’m incredibly proud of the entire Team Spur’s preparation and focus.”
The 2017 route will take riders through 691km of the Western Cape with some 15 400m of accumulated climbing over the eight days.
After the prologue it is on to Hermanus, for the 101km opening stage on Monday 20 March. Stage 2 sees riders heading inland to Greyton for two nights, with Stage 3 starting and finishing in the quaint town.
Stage 4 is another transition day, as the travelling circus moves on to Oak Valley Wine Estate. Stage 5 takes riders on a circular route around the Grabouw/Elgin area as does Saturday’s Queen Stage over 103km with some 2 750m of elevation gain.
Stage 7 will finish at the new Grand Finale venue, Val de Vie Estate near Paarl.
Catch all Sunday’s racing live on SuperSport and cape-epic.com. The Grand Finale – the final stage on Sunday, March 26 will be live from 9.30am to 1.30pm.
In addition, this year will see more live race coverage than ever before. Stages 1, 2, 4 and 6 will be live streamed from 9am to 12.20pm on cape-epic.com and Stages 3 and 5 from 8am to 11.20am.