It’s 19 months late, but the 17th edition of the Absa Cape Epic will get underway this weekend. The disruptions to this race have been dramatic and significant. So much so that Sean Badenhorst believes this edition of what is meant to be the world’s most prestigious mountain bike stage race can’t be considered an ordinary Cape Epic and will need to have an asterisk next to the results…
By Sean Badenhorst
Can you recall when in March last year the 17th edition of the Absa Cape Epic was cancelled with 36 hours until the start? That meant that every rider that was entered – more than 1300 – was in Cape Town already. They had travelled from across the city, across the country and across the world – focussed, fit and fearless, ready to tackle the prologue on the slopes of Table Mountain.
They trained meticulously for months and months. They invested a huge amount of cash in their bikes, gear, nutrition, clothing and travel. Their families had made sacrifices to support them in their preparation. Their co-workers had their backs when necessary. They had carefully managed their teammate dynamics in order to arrive at the start of the prologue ready to race their bikes through eight days of pressure, as one.
And in a single crushing announcement on the Friday evening before the race, it was gone. All that preparation, planning, investment and sacrifice for nothing.
The reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic since March 2020 has been unprecedented. Hard lockdowns, business closures, travel bans, beach closures, event postponements, event cancellations, mass unemployment, face masks, rushed vaccines, science scepticism, political corruption, mass fear, freedom protests, misinformation, disinformation, medical mistrust, over-run hospitals, over-worked hospital staff, school disruptions and more. What a f***ing mess!
And in all of that, sports events, which, in the big picture, really are nice-to-haves, were tumbled around like a small kid in an angry shore-break, gasping for air but swallowing mouthfuls of salty fluid. Future uncertain, for certain… Waves of Covid-19 cases and deaths saw South Africa go through five levels of lockdown under government orders. Mountain bike event organisers aged a decade in 18 months trying to save their events, find sympathy from their sponsors and seek empathy from their entrants.
And yet, as South Africa starts to hesitantly seek some form of composure after riding out the Third Covid-19 Wave, mountain bike events that weathered the storm are happening. Not necessarily in their former glory, but they’re happening. Like a bright flower growing through the ashes of an incinerated Jonkershoek slope, the Cape Epic, the most significant mountain bike stage race of them all, is back.
Cancelled in March 2020 and then postponed in March 2021, a Cape Epic in October is going to be very interesting. For starters, the photographic and video coverage is going to be stunning! Normally shades of brown, bone dry and dusty in March, the province is currently layered in lush shades of green after the rainy season. On a sunny spring day, the Western Cape is the most beautiful place on earth.
The long-range weather forecast predicts both heat and rain – two factors beyond the control of the riders and which, historically, have had a damning impact on the race. Stage 1 in 2017 (heat) and Stage 5 in 2012 (rain and cold) must be the most weather-impacted stages in the race’s history. But it’s weather. And weather is part of mountain bike racing. The riders will deal with it like they always do.
Sections that are normally sandy will be firm and scratchy, dusty sections will be settled under the tyres of fewer than 600 riders. Hmmm, that’s less than half the normal field. That’s a big difference.
Comparing 2021 to 2019, the last edition, which, with 690 teams (1380 riders) was the biggest field in the race’s history (the pre-lockdown edition average is 617 teams), we see that the 2021 edition has a total of 292 teams (584 riders). The category with the biggest deficit over 2019 is the Masters (40-49 Males), which is 68% smaller this year.
With 31 teams, the UCI Men’s field is down by 46% over the 48 teams in 2019; and with 10 teams, the UCI Women’s field is up by 20% over its eight teams in 2019. So less depth in the racing men and more depth in the racing women.
Glaringly absent in the UCI men’s field are the defending champions, Nino Schurter and Lars Forster of SCOTT SRAM Racing and the 2019 runners-up, Cannondale Factory Racing’s Henrique Avancini and Manuel Fumic (and now also their deputies – Alan Hatherly and Simon Andreasson). This obviously means the men’s race will be wide open this year and the potential for new faces to climb the daily and overall podium looks good.
Does this take away the prestige of the event? Depends how you view it. On one hand yes, because the two best teams from the previous edition aren’t racing – they were the animators in 2019 and the only two teams to wear the race-leader’s jerseys. On the other hand, it is what it is. The UCI’s flagship mountain bike stage race that carries all the normal UCI points, media coverage and prizemoney. The riders that are on the start line deserve every bit of the glory they achieve.
Yes, there’s less depth, but if you look at the entry list, barring the names already mentioned, it really is a who’s who of marathon mountain bike racing. It’s actually quite a formidable field and there’s going to be some great racing. Sure, we’re likely to see a couple of Masters and Grand Masters teams in the top 20, but the daily podium hunts will be no less ruthless and compelling.
The UCI Women’s race actually offers a more exciting prospect than in 2019. With 10 fairly well-balanced teams, the racing should be close, possibly very close. There’s the added increased possibility that a South African – or South Africans – may win the overall title, which in itself is a sign of progress for the discipline in South Africa.
Consider too that five-time Cape Epic winner, Karl Platt and three-time marathon world champion, Alban Lakata, are racing as teammates in the Masters division (40-49) this year; and mountain bike-racing icons from past decades, Bart Brentjens, Carsten Bresser and Mannie Heymans are all in the Grand Masters division (50-plus); and five-time winner Christoph Sauser is racing with a teammate young enough to be his son in the UCI Men’s division; and you have many ingredients for an highly textured, interesting next chapter of this race.
But the Cape Epic is more than the riders. There’s a whole community of humans that make this race happen and ensure it runs smoothly. While they may not have made the same sacrifices as the riders have, they are deeply invested in the race and committed to ensuring it is a success.
The first edition of the Cape Epic was in 2004. It was a daring feat by everyone involved – organisers, sponsors, riders, support staff and more – because there was nothing like it, it made a significant impact on mountain biking, not only in South Africa, but globally. It wasn’t just another bicycle race, it became the bicycle race for the courageous and adventurous. It stirred up the human spirit.
Few could ever have imagined that the Cape Epic, the most established and famous mountain bike stage race in the world, would have to lie low and wait out a global pandemic before resuming. Sometimes it’s good to look back in history to make sense of the present. The Tour de France, the most famous bicycle in the world, had to pause while two World Wars raged. Each time it resumed, it came back stronger.
The Absa Cape Epic is releasing the pause button and pushing the play button and it’s actually a big deal. The 17th edition isn’t going to be an ordinary Cape Epic for a number of reasons. If anything, it will be testament to the commitment of the riders, the organisers, the sponsors, the volunteers and all those linked to the race directly or indirectly. It will be extraordinary.
Sure, the field is smaller, it’s missing a few big names, the new health and safety protocols are painful and there will be no spectators cheering the riders on. But that’s not the reason the results of this Cape Epic need an asterisk. Nope, this one needs an asterisk as a reminder that nothing can crush the human spirit. Nothing.