Following the conclusion of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic, in which Christoph Sauser raced to second position overall alongside Investec-songo-Specialized teammate Jaroslav Kulhavý, Sauser has decided to retire from competitive mountain bike racing. This year’s event was always intended as a once off return, and though the presence of the biggest name in mountain bike stage racing once again lit up the field at events like FNB Wines2Whales; the Fairview Attakwas Extreme; and the Momentum Health Tankwa Trek, presented by Biogen; his primary aim was to win the 2017 Absa Cape Epic.
Sadly there was no fairy-tale ending to the epilogue of Sauser’s elite racing career. He and Kulhavý battled courageously through a series of energy sapping and time losing mechanicals, fighting back to near parity on two of the three occasions. In previous years, comebacks like those the Investec-songo-Specialized riders launched would have been enough to see Sauser and Kulhavý standing one step higher on the Absa Cape Epic podium, at Val de Vie Estate on Sunday the 26th of March. But the 2017 edition produced a vastly different race, one dominated by the aggression and explosive power of the cross country specialists rather than the war of attrition usually fought by the marathon racers who have traditionally dominated the Absa Cape Epic.
“I think this year has shown that the dynamic of the Cape Epic has changed. Previously you could go slow and warm up in the first hour, but this year it has been full on for the first hour of the race. You needed to ride really hard as there was no let up. This week you had to stay up the front the whole time, there was just no slacking of pace. That can be tiring physically and emotionally. Going forward, I think we will see faster starts now and riders will have to change the way they train, focussing more on speed and cutting back on long hours as the race start gets closer” Sauser predicted.
But the question on all mountain biking fans’ minds is the one of retirement. Was the 2017 Absa Cape Epic really Christoph Sauser’s last as a professional mountain biker? And if so will he be back to take on the likes of Cadel Evans and George Hincapie or Bart Brentjens and Abraao Azevedo in the Masters category? “No” was the simple answer. “Maybe, I’ll ride it with a friend. But to do interval training to win the Masters category… I won’t do that” he confirmed.
Of the 14 Absa Cape Epic’s Sauser has competed in 13, finished 12, won 5, finished outside of the podium on 4 occasions and occupied the second step 3 times. His rivalry with fellow 5 time winner Karl Platt provided much of the narrative for the last 10 years. But as Sauser himself said the Absa Cape Epic is evolving. The stages have not become significantly shorter, though the last two editions have not featured a stage over 120 kilometres, the race still passed the 100 kilometre mark on half the scheduled stages of this year’s Absa Cape Epic. What has changed is the riding approach which has evolved to suit the increased technicality of the route. Much was made of the 2016 Absa Cape Epic containing a higher percentage of singletrack than ever before, this year there were no such claims – but even the jeep track was more technical. This encouraged Jaroslav Kulhavý’s fellow cross-country specialists like Nino Schurter, Matthias Stimemann, Manuel Fumic and Henrique Avancini to go on the offensive early in each stage, knowing that if they put enough time into the marathon riders early on they would not be able to close the gap later in the stage because the technical terrain would negate some of the stamina of the long distance specialists. Sauser, despite being the oldest of the marathon specialists, was the marathon racer who adapted best. Though he did concede to “suffering at a very high level” during the race. With Sauser’s beloved Stellenbosch hosting the opening round of the UCI Mountain Biking World Cup in 2018, the weekend before the Absa Cape Epic gets underway, all indications are that more cross-country stars will line up for next year’s race than ever before.
Now though his attention must shift to the 2017 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup and preparing the Specialized Racing stars for the opening round in Nové Město na Moravě, in Kulhavý’s homeland the Czech Republic, on the 20th and 21st of May. Plus there is always work to be done raising funds for songo.info. The charity’s ever expanding mandate is helping a larger number of children in Kayamandi every year, and once were the escape through sport was the primary focus now upliftment though education is taking on an increasingly significant role. That said he is exceptionally proud of the young riders who took part for songo-Investec at the Absa Cape Epic this year. Thando Klaas and Lorenzo le Roux finished fourth in the Exxaro development category while the less experienced team of Theo Ngubane and Lwazi Ntsakaza finished 275th overall in their first Absa Cape Epic attempt.
To read more about the 2017 Absa Cape Epic visit www.cape-epic.com and to find about the great work that Christoph Sauser’s charity songo.info does within the Kayamandi community in Stellenbosch please visit www.songo.info.
2017 Absa Cape Epic | Selected Results
General Classification | Men
1) SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing: Nino Schurter & Matthias Stimemann (26:35:06.5)
2) Investec-songo-Specialized: Christoph Sauser & Jaroslav Kulhavý (+8:07)
3) Centurion Vaude 2: Nicola Rohrbach & Daniel Geismayr (+19:34)
4) Kansai Plascon: Max Knox & Leonardo Paez (+20:32)
5) Cannondale Factory Racing XC: Manuel Fumic & Henrique Avancini (+29:50)