A tough course underscored by dry and loose conditions has the world’s best cross-country riders revved up and ready to ride their hearts out on Saturday, 10 March.
Stellenbosch, South Africa. The excitement is building as the world’s best cross-country riders gravitate towards Stellenbosch for the Epic World Cup on 10 March. It might be 20 years since Stellenbosch last hosted a UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, but the Epic World Cup is looking to become the gold standard for World Cup races all over the world for the foreseeable future.
Stellenbosch is hugely popular as a mountain biking playground and has become a mecca for mountain bikers from all over the world. Many of the international riders spend a lot of time in the quaint town and refer to it as a world-class training destination.
Like defending champion Nino Schurter. Nino has been using the town as his training base for years already. “I’ve been coming here for 10 years now. Christoph (Sauser) showed us how beautiful Stellenbosch is and I train here in the European winter months – I love the place,” said Schurter.
He’s expecting the course to play a big part in the day’s racing and describes the 4.4km track as ‘dusty’ and appreciably ‘slippery’. “It’s a really tough course with steep uphills and difficult descents. I raced it a few weeks ago in the South African Cup – it was very dry and the surface pretty slippery but it’s a fun course,” he added.
He might be coming off a perfect season, but teammate Matthias Stirnemann proved he’s not invincible and beat the Olympic gold medalist in a South African Cup race a few weeks ago. Nino’s biggest challenge will come from a string of in-form competitors – in particular the imposing form of the Czech Express, Jaroslav Kulhavy. After an erratic 2017 season, Kulhavy will be looking to test his form ahead of this year’s Absa Cape Epic and maybe even upset Schurter in the process. “I hope I can beat Nino. I’ll at least try because it was a bit boring last year with Nino winning everything,” laughed Kulhavy. “We’ll see on the day, but I’ll try my best for success.”
BH-SR Suntour KMC’s Jordan Sarrou is another podium hopeful. He was confident ahead of race day and made his intentions pretty clear. “I want to beat Nino and I’ll try my best. The Epic World Cup is very early in the season, but I’ve prepared well and have raced well up until now. I think I’m ready,” said Sarrou.
Sarrou forms part of a three-prong French attack comprising Cannondale Factory Racing’s Maxime Marotte and Bianchi Countervail’s StéphaneTempier. The past few World Cup races have seen the French offensive develop into a highly competitive force and Maxime Marotte believes it’s the strong level of local competition back home that has spawned this renaissance. “We have a strong level in France at the moment and Julien (Absalon) is still racing too. The younger generation is in a good space at the moment and moving up through the ranks. We have a strong local championship,” quipped Marotte.
Kicking off at 12:20, the women’s race is expected to be just as fierce as the men’s. This year sees 22-year-old American cross-country specialist Kate Courtney join the elite ranks. The reigning under-23 overall World Cup winner is thrilled to be in South Africa and is looking forward to stepping up to elites not to mention racing the Absa Cape Epic just seven days later with partner Annika Langvad. “It’s my first year in the elite category. The Stellenbosch course has loads of steep climbs and a lot of technical sections, there’s nowhere to recover. I’m looking forward to the physical challenge of the race. It’s going to be a big learning curve for me but I’m excited and can’t wait.”
The biggest surprise remains the last-minute decision to race by World Champion Jolanda Neff. Neff, who was ruled out of competing in the Epic World Cup following a horrific crash that left her with a broken collarbone and fractured elbow, has made a remarkable recovery. “There was no way I was going to miss this event. It’s been five weeks now but everything feels good,” chirped Neff. “I won the Internacionales XCO Chelva race in Spain on Sunday and that motivated my decision to come race.”
Despite her injuries Neff is still one of the favourites in an exceptionally stacked women’s field that includes such icons as Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesja, Maja Wloszczowska, Annika Langvad, Annie Last, Emily Batty as well as South African hopeful and reigning national champion Mariske Strauss. The South African is in high spirits and will be giving it her all in front of a home crowd. “Stellenbosch is a special place for me personally. I’ve trained here and lived here as a student – it’s my home. Cross-country, as a discipline, has blossomed here in South Africa and the World Cup will help develop and nurture future talent.”
Saturday is set to go down in the books as the most epic World Cup ever – make sure you don’t miss any of the action and get down to Coetzenburg in Stellenbosch on 10 March to be part of the action. The first race kicks off at 08:30. Entrance and parking are free. An Epic World Cup is here, South Africa are you ready?