A pair of Durango cyclists have returned to South Africa to race in one of the toughest mountain bike races there is this week.
Christopher Blevins and Sophia Gomez Villafane will both race in the eight-day, 402-mile Absa Cape Epic, climbing 50,770 feet along the way.
Last year Villafane, racing for Ninety One-songo-Specialized, won the stage race with her teammate, Haley Batten. She’ll look to defend her crown with a new rider by her side this year, Katerina Nash.
Blevins and his teammate on Toyota-Specialized-Ninety One, Matthew Beers, won the 2022 men’s prologue to start the race in the yellow Ciovita leader jerseys and ended up finishing on the podium in third place.
The two will join forces again this year.
Unlike most mountain bike races, the Cape Epic uses a team format so the time doesn’t stop until the second biker crosses the finish line, forcing them to work together.
“Having some familiarity, having done one Epic and knowing what I’m getting myself into is good, but also daunting,” Blevins said in a Specialized Factory Racing video. “It’s been a really good lead up to it and there’s no shortage of motivation and excitement for this so (we’re) really fired up and we’re really hungry to go win this thing, and nothing else.”
In 2022, three men’s teams laid hands on the yellow leader jerseys, though only two raced in it, and in 2023 all three return to the Western Cape to do battle once more. Orbea x Leatt x S.C., Canyon Northwave MTB and Toyota-Specialized-Ninety One, however, will not be the only teams battling for victory this year.
After Blevins and Beers won the prologue in 2022, Canyon Northwave MTB seized the leader jerseys on Stage 1. Andreas Seewald and Martin Stosek proceeded to hold the lead until the final stage, when Georg Egger and Lukas Baum became the first riders to overturn a deficit during the Absa Cape Epic’s grand finale. Racing with a single support crew member, Speed Company Racing were the ultimate underdogs last year. In 2023, they return with not one, but two title sponsors and targets on their backs.
Blevins and Beers may not have been able to mount a sustained challenge to the Canyon Northwave team when Baum and Egger, now racing as, Orbea x Leatt x S.C. surged from third after Stage 5 to first after Stage 7. They did, however, learn a great deal from the experience and are highly motivated to add another Absa Cape Epic title to Specialized’s total. Aside from Egger and Baum, they will face stern competition from Seewald and Stosek as well as a number of well-known and new challengers.
The primary threat to the top three from 2022 is the SCOTT SRAM MTB Racing team. Nino Schurter is already a two-time Absa Cape Epic winner and his 2023 partner, Andri Frischknecht, is the 2018 Swiss Epic champion.
The CM.com Women’s category is far more open. Of the top combinations only the 8capital team and the newly formed e-FORT.net/SeattleCoffeeCo team have completed an Absa Cape Epic together before.
With only three of the competitors in the field have stage wins to their name, the defending champion, Villafane, holds a significant psychological advantage going into this year’s race. Not only has the Specialized Factory Racing women’s team won every edition they have entered, but the Argentine, who raced for Fort Lewis College, is a senior figure in the peloton too.
In her new partner, Nash, Villafane has a talented and experienced racer alongside her for Ninety One-songo-Specialized. The Czech rider has notched eight mountain bike and cyclocross World Cup wins during her career, which also includes three trips to the Olympic Games, culminating in a fifth place in Rio 2016. Nash also has stage racing experience, having won the six-day Breck Epic in Colorado.
Their top ranked rivals are the Absa Cape Epic debutantes, Greete Steinburg and Monica Yuliana Calderon Martinez, of Cannondale Vas Arabay. The Estonian and Colombian are both marathon specialists with Steinburg having notched up an Epic Series podium already at the 4Islands MTB Croatia in 2022.
The 2023 Absa Cape Epic, from March 19-26, promises to stretch every team almost to their breaking point, to trial partnerships both old and new, and to reward those resolute enough to overcome its demands.
The racing kicks off with a threshold testing 27-kilometer prologue where seconds and start batches are battled for on the fast and flowy trails of Meerendal Wine Estate and the greater Tygerberg Mountain Bike Club network.
The second stage will start in Hermanus and end 98 kilometers later back in Hermanus after 2,550 meters of climbing.
The riders will then leave Hermanus on Stage 3 and pedal 100 kilometers with 2,300 meters of climbing to reach the finish at the Oak Valley Estate.
Once in Oak Valley Estate, there is a midweek time trial. Though short on kilometers, with only 47, the punchy nature of Elgin’s terrain could prove to be pivotal.
Stage 5, the 102-kilometer Queen Stage, departs Oak Valley Estate and pits teams against a climb of Tierkop followed by Groenlandberg, a notorious peak towering 1,181 meters above sea level as the riders will have to climb 2,450 meters on the day.
For the penultimate stage, the entire 82-kilometer route takes place within the grounds of one single estate – Lourensford Wine Estate, one of the largest and most singletrack-laden properties in South Africa.
The final stage features two ferocious climbs and a total of 2,400 meters of climbing over 80 kilometers. Speed Company Racing proved the grand finale is no procession in 2022 and 2023’s conclusion provides far more opportunities to make up time, or lose it.