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Huge battle expected for Cape Epic honours

The much-anticipated 2014 Absa Cape Epic begins with a 23-kilometre prologue on Sunday and several teams will be hoping to fire the first shot in what promises to be a huge battle among the world’s top riders.

The race against the clock is short and quick compared to the marathon stages that follow, but answers to some big questions will begin to emerge.

The course through the hills and valleys of Meerendal Wine Estate, Durbanville, contains some fairly technical riding: will the skills of František Raboň, the Czech roadie recently turned mountain biker, be up to it?

The answer to that could be key to his Team Meerendal Songo Specialized partner Christoph Sauser’s bid to be the first person ever to win the Absa Cape Epic five times.

Rabo┼ê has been on an intense learning curve under Sauser’s tutorship and this week claimed his technical riding was ÔÇ£100%ÔÇØ ÔǪ but can even the most gifted rider learn in little more than three months what others have taken years to perfect?

And will the recent form of Sauser’s greatest rival, German Karl Platt ÔÇô also a four-times winner of the world’s foremost mountain bike stage race ÔÇô and his Team Bulls partner, Swiss rider Urs Huber, follow through into the Epic? Will they live up to their favourites tag, or might they have peaked too early?

Pre-race favourites: Urs Huber and  Karl Platt (Bulls) with Frantisek Rabon and Christoph Sauser (Meerendal Songo Specialized)

A team that will expect to do well on the prologue is Scott-Odlo ÔÇô cross country World Champion Nino Schurter and South African Philip Buys. Both are excellent over the shorter cross country discipline and their explosive power and skills should come to the fore.

Their questions will come from Monday, when the long stages start ÔÇô four of the seven are over 100km. The final stage, a relatively sedate 69km, takes riders from Elgin to Lourensford Wine Estate, Somerset West, on 30 March.

There will also be considerable interest in the combination of German Robert Mennen and Czech Kristian Hynek (Topeak Ergon). Mennen entered Epic folklore last year when he was taken out by a duiker on stage one, breaking his collarbone. But that accident robbed enthusiasts of seeing how one of the world’s more talented riders performed in these conditions.

And what of the South African challenge? Will Fedgroup-Itec’s Kevin Evans and Max Knox have the firepower to challenge the world’s best and back up their hopes of a podium finish. Or will the local challenge come from Team RECM ÔÇô Erik Kleinhans and Nico Bell ÔÇô or Cannondale Blend’s ex-roadies Darren Lill and Waylon Woolcock.

Interest in the women’s race has been heightened this year by what might the strongest field ever ÔÇô in part thanks to the R700 000 prize purse, equal to that offered to the men. Two teams are distinct favourites, but who will be strongest between Team RECM 2 ÔÇô Arian Kleinhans (Swiss) and Annika Langvad (Danish) ÔÇô and the Team Meerendal pairing of Swiss veteran Esther S├╝ss and Briton Sally Bigham?

Kleinhans has won twice in the mixed category while Bigham has as many wins in the women’s race, one of those ÔÇô in 2013 ÔÇô with S├╝ss.

Langvad has an excellent pedigree and her partnership with Kleinhans will probably be more explosive and they just might have the edge. But will the greater experience of the Bigham/S├╝ss prevail over eight days?

If either falter, Swiss Milena Landtwing and Dutchwoman Hielke Elferink (Meerendal Wheeler) will be close to the front of the women’s field and hoping to profit.