On March 22 this year Christoph Sauser and Jaroslav Kulhavy punched the air as they crossed the Absa Cape Epic Grand Finale finish line at Meerendal to win the world’s premier mountain bike stage race.
At the same time Sauser celebrated his fifth win in 11 starts, cementing his status as one of the leading mountain bikers in the history of the sport. As champagne sprayed and thousands of fans acknowledged an incredible achievement, Sauser reflected on his decision to retire as a professional and his years of taking on the Absa Cape Epic challenge: “This is the coolest thing in the world with all these spectators cheering us on … these moments are very rare,” said an elated Christoph. “With five kilometres to go I knew that we had it. I tried to absorb as much of it as I could, and thought about all the memories this race has given me.”
The Swiss master’s first experience of the race was in 2005 when he and partner Fredrik Kessiakoff finished second overall. He admitted later to being surprised by the intensity of the racing, but added: “I got the virus and I wanted to come back and get more”. Come back he did in 2006, winning comfortably with countryman Silvio Bundi – their 29-minute overall winning margin remains the biggest in the race to date.
In 2007 Christoph had the first of many unfortunate brushes with Lady Luck when his partner, Italy’s Johannes Pallhuber, had to pull out after three stages. At the same time the Cape Epic’s status was growing. Christoph’s Team Specialized manager Bobby Behan wrote at the time: “What was once a very small event has now become a major international race, with this year definitely being the most competitive so far in the men’s division. Seven of top ten UCI World Ranked Riders are here, including trade teams Merida and Cannondale Vredestein, who have each entered two teams.”
In 2008 Christoph was joined by Burry Stander, a combination that was to prove one of the race’s strongest ever. But first there was heartache to endure in 2008 (when Burry succumbed to a knee injury), 2009 (they were given an hour penalty for getting “outside assistance”) and 2010 (when both riders suffered from stomach problems). In 2011 their obvious potential was realised and they won four stagers on the way to a compelling overall victory. They repeated that triumph in 2012, winning by a commanding 27 minutes.
On January 3, 2013, South African cycling was plunged into one of its darkest moments when Stander, only 25 at the time, died after being hit by a taxi while training on the KwaZulu Natal South Coast.
Christoph turned to Specialized teammate and Olympic champion Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic to “win it for Burry”. Buoyed by the memory of their fallen colleague, the two-man team rode with the strength of three. They won emphatically – a perfect send off for one of South Africa’s greatest mountain bikers ever.
In 2014 Christoph teamed up with road professional turned mountain biker Frantisek Rabon, but the demands of the discipline and the steep learning curve proved too much for the Czech rider and they came home second. For 2015 Christoph turned again to Kulhavy and wrote his name into the history books.
In 2016 Christoph will be back but not among the racing snakes: word has it that he may team up with an up-and-coming star from his Songo.info charity.
Besides his Cape Epic successes, Christoph won the overall Cross Country World Cup series in 2004 and 2005, an Olympic Games Cross Country bronze medal in 2000, the Cross Country World Championship in 2008 and the Marathon World Championships in 2007, 2011 and 2013. His great rival Karl Platt, himself a four-time Absa Cape Epic winner, paid tribute to the retiring star: “Christoph is a great champion. He achieved in his career like no other … it is always an honour to race (against) him.”
“It’ll probably be a long time before we see such a complete rider at the race again,” said Absa Cape Epic founder Kevin Vermaak. “He in no small way made the racing what is it today, and in many ways he was more than that. He’s a true patron of the Epic.”
“We will miss him … it won’t be the same,” added Platt.
* The 2016 Absa Cape Epic mountain bike stage race takes place from 13 to 20 March and the much anticipated route can be viewed here. The 2016 race will host the 100th stage in the history of the event – the EPIC100 – on Tuesday 15 March.
Source: Cape Epic Media