Just five months have passed since NinetyOne-songo-Specialized's Matthew Beers and Jordan Sarrou stormed to victory at the 2021 Absa Cape Epic. Due to COVID-19 and strict lockdowns in South Africa, last year's race was postponed to October after the 2020 edition was cancelled altogether. We're not complaining: last year's race - particularly the men's - was one of the most entertaining in years with a superb, live broadcast bringing the Untamed African MTB race to a broader demographic, extending its global reach and popularity.
This year, we can expect even spicier dynamics as the race moves back the traditional month of March - a period notorious for its mercurial weather, often underscored by intense heat and the odd rainy day, too. While there are a few teams missing (most notably Cannondale Factory Racing), the race roster is pretty much back to full strength so we can expect a very animated race. This means a tsunami of headliners, as the best cross-country riders in the world gravitate to Cape Town, South Africa to test their form and kick-start the season.
We've gone through the team line-ups in detail and compiled our top picks in both the men's and women's field based on rider experience, local terrain knowledge and team support structure.
Who to watch: Cape Epic men's race
1. Nino Schurter and Lars Forster, Scott-SRAM
Considered by many as the greatest mountain biker of all time, Nino Schurter will be looking to make it win number three at the Absa Cape Epic. Having given last year a miss to focus on a packed XCO schedule that included the World Championships, Nino and partner Lars Forster will be looking to steal the yellow leader jersey back from Specialized.
What makes Scott-SRAM all the more threatening is its support structure and back-up team of Andri Frischknecht and Juri Ragnoli should things go awry - a harsh reality that Nino and Lars know fully well. The two suffered an untimely puncture during Stage 3 in 2019 and lost time to Cannondale Factory Racing, but their back-up team helped limit any damage.
As the reigning World Champion (Schurter) and European Champion (Forster), the duo will wear two of the most recognized jerseys in the mountain biking world come the Prologue this Sunday. With intimate local knowledge of the terrain and route - Schurter considers South Africa his second home and owns property in Stellenbosch - they go into the 2022 race as undisputable favorites.
Our prediction: Overall win
2. Matt Beers and Christopher Blevins, Toyota-NinetyOne-Specialized
While you can't write off current Cape Epic champion Matthew Beers, he's without French powerhouse Jordan Sarrou this year, which represents a big blow for the defending team. The good news however, is that he's paired up with the reigning XCC short track World Champion, Christopher Blevins - a man known for his exceptional handling ability and mountain bike skills.
There's no doubting that these two will take the fight to Scott-SRAM but for a successful 2022 campaign, everything needs to align and the most important attribute is team cohesion. As a new pairing, there are question marks around the partnership but they seem well matched - Beers the turbodiesel and Blevins the high-revving two-stroke - and may upset some of the favorites over the eight days, and possibly even start Stage 1 in yellow.
Our prediction: Prologue win and third overall
3. Andreas Seewald and Martin Stosek, Canyon Northwave MTB
Last year's Cape Epic will be one to forget for the Canyon Northwave MTB duo of Andreas Seewald and Martin Stosek. After a dominant display, which included winning Stage 3, Martin Stosek succumbed to gastroenteritis overnight and had to withdraw from the race on the morning of Stage 4. This came as a massive disappointment for Seewald who rode the remainder of the race in the 'Leopard jersey' - a garment given to UCI-listed riders who've lost a partner in the race.
Going into 2022, Canyon Northwave MTB will have more experience and be better prepared this time round. Having elected to carry on and finish last year's race alone, Seewald used this time to study the terrain, play out scenarios in his head and practice race simulations and attacks together with Gert Heyns of Pyga Euro Steel, who also lost his partner. If what we saw between the Prologue and Stage 3 last year was anything to go by, Seewald and Stosek will have the overall win in mind.
Our prediction: Stage wins and podium contenders
4. Urs Huber and Simon Schneller, Bulls
The Bulls team is one of the most successful outfits ever to race the Absa Cape Epic and have five overall wins to their name - all five have involved Karl Platt but Urs Huber partnered Karl to victory in 2016. Despite winning Stage 1, Huber and Schneller had a tepid 2021 campaign marred by health issues that ultimately put them out of contention. This year, they will hope for a smooth passage where they can use their wealth of experience and massive support base to maximum effect.
The 2022 Cape Epic route suits Huber and Schneller who rely more on calculated consistency rather than emotions. The super-long stages are where they will thrive so expect them to feature high up on Stage 2 (123km), Stage 3 (101km) and Stage 5 (115km).
Our prediction: Stage wins
5. Hans Becking and Jose Dias, Buff-Megamo
Having won three stages last year including the Grande Finale, Hans Becking and Jose Dias come into the 2022 Cape Epic as one of a few teams that could potentially upset Scott-SRAM. The two aren't afraid of rolling the dice and showed last year that they enjoy dictating the pace as well as tearing the legs off their opponents.
Success will hinge heavily around tackling things a little differently and perhaps taking a more incognito approach this year. The expectation is for Becking and Dias to animate the race, but if they are clever and ride more economically, they could slowly open the throttle where it counts and stamp their authority on the outcome of the race.
Our prediction: Second overall, stage wins
Who to watch: Cape Epic women's race
1. Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and Robyn De Groot, BMC MTB Racing
Ferrand-Prévot is to women's mountain biking what Nino Schurter is to the men's sport - she's won pretty much everything there is including World Championship titles in XCO, XCM, road and cyclo-cross. There's no doubt she'll be looking to add the Absa Cape Epic to her palmares but mountain biking stage racing represents uncharted territory for the French rider. She will be relying heavily on local rider and Cape Epic stalwart, Robyn De Groot to guide her along the way.
The two might not have raced together before but they form a formidable pairing: De Groot has finished on the podium four times and finished second overall twice, so knows a thing or two about racing at the pointy end day after day. She will be Ferrand-Prévot's guiding light throughout the campaign as they look to challenge for the overall win - something that could be achieved given that the defending champions Sina Frei and Laura Stigger are not taking part this year.
Our prediction: Overall win
2. Mariske Strauss and Candice Lill, Faces Rola
They may not have won any stages last year but South Africa's Mariske Strauss and Candice Lill rode a calm and calculated race, using their immense local knowledge to claim second place overall. This year will be a little easier given Frei and Stigger aren't racing, so they'll be confident going into the 24km Prologue at Lourenford Wine Estate this Sunday.
With their main competition coming in the form of BMC MTB Racing, NinetyOne-Songo-Specialized combination of Hailey Batten and Sofia Gomez Villafane and the unproven duo of Ariane Luthi and Amy Wakefield (Symbtech ZA), the hope of a nation rests on the shoulders of South Africa's top-ranked team.
Our prediction: Podium contenders
3. Hailey Batten and Sofia Gomez Villafane, NinetyOne-Songo-Specialized
As defending champions Specialized will be expecting big things from this young team - and they'll be feeling the pressure. While Batten starts her first Cape Epic, Villafane embarks on her second, her first racing in the elite women's field. As cross-country specialists the two will have to change their usual approach and ride a measured race given the back-to-back longer stages.
If there's one place they can make their mark, it's at the Prologue where the cross-country mountain biking intensity and course will favour their style of racing. If all goes according to plan, they may very well start Stage 1 in the orange leader jerseys but will have teams with similar intentions breathing down their necks.
Our prediction: Prologue win, podium contenders