At the ripe old age of 39 five-time Absa Cape Epic winner Christoph Sauser is finally hanging up his aero helmet. We were hoping to get decent beer time with the Swiss multiple Mountain Bike World Champion as he hung out in his second home in Stellenbosch after the Epic. But as he ordered a coffee and chuckled he reminded us that the beer will only happen in July. After Marathon World Championships in Italy. When his retirement officially begins… By Nic Lamond
“You’ll still see me in Stellies. I have the best friends here,” Sauser responds quickly when asked what exactly retirement looks like for him. “Job-wise, I am going to be Global Sports Marketing and Performance Director for Specialized. Working closely with our athletes, product development, marketing high-end products, brand ambassador. I will still take part in races, but more adventure-style with friends. For fun.”
When you dig through the dusty annals of mountain biking there are few stars with Christoph Sauser’s pedigree and permanence. Sauser, or Susi, as he’s affectionately known by friends and fans, started mountain biking in the good old days. When it was commonplace to race both the cross-country and downhill over a weekend. The technical skills he picked up along the way parlayed into strong results when Susi chose to pursue the cross-country discipline wholeheartedly in the late 90s. In 1999, when Cadel Evans won his last UCI Cross-country World Cup Series, a 23-year-old Susi took third.
He took bronze again at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. As we all know, Cadel left mountain biking to pursue his road career, eventually winning the Road World Championships in 2009 and the Tour de France in 2011. But Susi hung around, preferring the freedom of training on his beloved Alpine paths and the intense racing. He became known for two quirky behaviours – his solo mountain bike journeys, traversing the precipitous landscape around his hometown of Sigriswil, and his lack of interest in keeping the scores of trophies and medals of his conquests.
Susi won the World Cup Series in 2004 and 2005. In 2006 he proved he had the lungs for the longer stuff too, taking his first Cape Epic victory alongside fellow Swiss rider Silvio Bundi. So what is the most exciting aspect of stage racing?
“The most difficult part is definitely the question mark that lies behind every corner or rock. A race like the Epic is never over until you cross the finish line. One single rock in millions can mess up your whole race and your dreams! You only have to go wrong by a single millimeter, which can rip your sidewall, and then the kak begins,” he admitted, demonstrating his grasp of the South African vernacular. His first Epic win signaled Susi’s shifting focus on endurance racing and in 2007 he promptly won the UCI Marathon World Champs.
But Susi wasn’t quite done with the high-intensity of cross-country lap racing and he surprised many with his UCI Cross-country World Champs victory in Val di Sole in the Italian Alps in 2008. It was also the year he rode his first Epic with a rising talent from South Africa called Burry Stander for the now-famous sports and education charity Susi founded, songo.info. Although Burry pulled out of the race with a knee injury while in the leaders’ jersey the youngster had done enough to impress Susi, and he recruited him into his Specialized Factory team.
After three unsuccessful attempts at the eight-day stage race, including a second place in 2010, Susi and Burry triumphed in 2011 and again in 2012. To cement his reputation as one of the greatest endurance riders on fat tyres Sauser reclaimed the Marathon World Championship title in 2011 and again in 2013.
Burry’s untimely death while training for the 2013 Cape Epic was
particularly hard on Susi. But he shouldered the grief and enlisted Czech powerhouse Jaroslav Kulhavy to take overall victory in Burry’s honour in 2013. The two Specialized riders have just added to the tally at the 2015 Cape Epic, making Susi the first and only rider to record five overall wins at the prestigious race.
“It is the Tour de France of mountain biking and it does makes me proud to have my ‘stamp’ in the books of the Epic,” Susi said. “Obviously, as a results-driven competitor all the stage wins and especially the overall victories are important to me. But much more important are all the good memories I have and to know that I inspire people to do what we love to do – ride our bikes! I am also super grateful that I could help Burry to achieve big dreams during an unfortunately too-short life!”
Arguably Susi’s greatest legacy can be found off the bike. His friendship with Songo Fipaza and the huge impact they’ve had on Songo’s community. On a dusty hillside in Kayamandi township, outside Susi’s adopted home of Stellenbosch, you’ll find a group of boys and girls racing BMXs on a serpentine track. Jumping their bikes and grinning from ear to ear. Inside the modest clubhouse, desks, computers and a library support their education. No riding till all the homework is done! This is the grassroots work of songo.info. With a small group of dedicated trustees and friends, Susi has shifted these children’s perspectives on what is possible. “Being the founder of songo.info and inspiring people, knowing I can change lives for good, even a little bit, makes me proud.”
And the big question: was 2015 really the last time we’ll see Christoph Sauser lining up at the Absa Cape Epic? “I would not be surprised to line up again. Together with a good friend. Racing for a cold beer after the finish line!”
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*Originally published in TREAD Issue 34, 2015 – All rights reserved