The 15th Absa Cape Epic starts on Sunday and there is good news and bad news. The good news is that no one is certain about who will win the men’s race. The bad news for the women’s elite field is that Annika Langvad may just be about unbeatable.
Langvad won the first leg of the UCI World Cup in Stellenbosch on Sunday with a display of race craft and power that was just about perfect.
Having taken some time off to finish her dental studies in 2017, she now has nothing else to "think about apart from racing". The Dane has won all three Epics she has taken part in. Her partner is Kate Courtney, the American regarded as the next big thing in mountain biking.
"I have had a lot of good racing in SA," said Langvad. "[I’ve won] one World Cup and three Cape Epics. I think Kate and I are among the favourites. It is a role we can take on. Racing with pressure is not new to us.
"It will be a new experience to partner up with Kate, and I will have to be the more experienced partner this time.
"Kate has also prepared super well for this race. We have not ridden a stage race together, which is kind of the charm of it. Looking at the numbers, training wise, it looks like I had one of the best winters ever.
"Having nothing else to think about apart from racing while training at home in the winter is awesome — just to go out and kill yourself in the summer."
There have been disruptions for some of the other teams.
Ariane Luthi, Langvad’s partner for those three victories, had to find a new partner after Austrian Christina Kollmann fell ill after a tooth infection became serious during the recent Tankwa Trek. She will team up with Belgian Githa Michiels.
The winner in 2017, Ester Suss, lost her partner that year, Jennie Stenerhag, to a hamstring injury. Candice Lill will now ride with fellow South African Amy Beth McDougall to form a team that could win the inaugural Absa African Women’s jersey for the first all-African team home.
Robyn de Groot took two months off to recover from a sciatica nerve problem and, with mountain bike legend Sabine Spitz, will be a serious threat — as will South African champion Mariske Strauss and her British teammate Annie Last.
And as for the men? You sense that Nino Schurter, who won the 2017 Epic with fellow Swiss Matthias Stirnemann, is getting a little tired of the questions about whether the 2018 route suits the shorter-distance stars of cross-country or the longer distance of the marathon circuit. It has been an ongoing theme since the route was announced in 2017.
"It … depends how the first stages go," said Schurter, the five-time cross-country world champion. "Some days are good for us cross-country riders, but we are ready for the long stages," he said.
In 2017, "we rode as a warm-up for this year. We didn’t expect to win last year, but I always had [it] somewhere in my mind that we could try to win it."
Alban Lakata, who has finished in just about every position in the top 10 at the Epic apart from first, is quietly confident this could be his year with partner Kristian Hynek.
"There are some things we have learnt from the past, new materials that can bring us to the top step of the podium. We are in top shape. Last year I was not in the same shape I am this year. Last year I kind of watched the race and was not sure what was going on. The cross-country guys brought a different racing style," Lakata said.
"What we lose at the beginning we can get back."