The Absa Cape Epic’s Women’s race has been dominated in recent years by one rider, the five-time champion, Annika Langvad. In 2020 she lines up with 2016 Olympic Gold Medallist and 2017 Virgin Active Mixed category champion, Jenny Rissveds. Though due to the strength of the Women’s category, their victory is anything but guaranteed. The technical route, the quality of their opposition and the unpredictable nature of The Race That Measures All means that Langvad and Rissveds will have to be at their best to emerge as champions.
Langvad has won each of the five editions she has entered. Taking Ariane Lüthi (on three occasions), Kate Courtney and Anna van der Breggen (once each) with her in the process. During that time, she has also overcome hour-long time penalties and major mechanical issues to still secure titles. So, her and Rissveds’ rivals will need to hunt in packs if they are to prevail against the favourites.
There are three teams equally poised to heap pressure on Team 31: Outride. They are the Faces CST outfit, of Mariske Strauss and Candice Lill, the Fairtree team of Nadine Rieder and Jennie Stenerhag, and the dormakaba Blue squad, of Robyn de Groot and Adelheid Morath. At the 2020 Tankwa Trek, in early February, those three teams were separated by 37 seconds heading into the final stage. If they can repeat that performance and, in so doing, put pressure on Langvad and Rissveds, then the unpredictability of The Untamed African MTB Race can come into play.
Strauss and Lill have the cross-country power and skills to trouble Team 31: Outride on the plethora of technical trails in the first half of the race. They are also the most likely team to challenge the favourites for stage honours on the Prologue; along with the Ghost Factory Racing team, of Barbara Benkó and Anne Terpstra. The Faces CST pairing appear to be forging a strong partnership, with a good understanding both on and off the bike.
Rieder and Stenerhag, meanwhile, should come to the fore on the stages where the climbs are the steepest. Rieder was arguably the strongest rider in the race at the Tankwa Trek, though punctures cost her and Stenerhag in the overall reckoning. If Stenerhag can reign in her Fairtree teammate, on the challenging rocky descents in Eselfontein and the Witzenberg Valley, they can avoid unnecessary issues and remain in contention deep into the Absa Cape Epic.
De Groot and Morath are, arguably, a way off from firing perfectly as teammates. Morath arrived in South Africa during a heat wave and needed a few days to adjust. The German will have spent the best part of a month in the country, in the build-up to the Absa Cape Epic and as such should be perfectly acclimatised. On paper, she and De Groot are evenly matched and have the experience to challenge Team 31: Outride.
The Ghost Factory Racing combination of Benkó and Terpstra are dark horses in the Women’s title shake-up. There is no questioning the pair’s quality, though their lack of experience in the race could prove costly. Both riders are making their Absa Cape Epic debuts in 2020; what they could achieve, however, is to disrupt the race by making a fast start. A victory on the Prologue, for Benkó and Terpstra, could be the best result for mountain biking fans as it would throw the Women’s race wide open.
Behind the main favourites are a cluster of teams who will likely be targeting top five positions. Among those are the dormakaba red squad, of Amy McDougall and Sabine Spitz. Spitz is one of mountain biking’s most decorated athletes, but has been toying with retirement recently. With that said, securing a fifth-place finish is by no means beyond the dormakaba red pairing, but to do so they will have to best the Andermatt Spur team of Ariane Lüthi and Alice Pirard.
Lüthi and Pirard are firm friends and frequent training partners, when Lüthi departs South Africa for the European summer. That team dynamic could play into their favour over the course of the race. Though in Sarah Hill and Theresa Ralph, of Galileo Risk Infiniti, they have rivals who equally pride themselves on their ability to conquer the odds together.
Further down the favourites list there are four teams of largely unknown strengths. Two are Swedish while the other two are Australian. Imogen Smith and Briony Mattocks will represent MarathonMTB.com, and should be competitive despite Smith juggling media duties during the race. Gina Ricardo and Georgia Whitehouse spend much of their time racing on the road and both turned out in the UCI 2.1 category Women’s Herald Sun Tour in early February. They will be taking part in the Absa Cape Epic as part of their sponsor's, Wilson Asset Management's, bid to raise 1 Million, Australian Dollars, in aid of their country-men and -women affected by bushfires.
The Sweden Mountainbike and She Rides Pwrd by SCOTT teams take the total number of Swedish riders in the Elite Women’s field to six. Ingrid Kjellström and Hanna Näslund (Sweden Mountainbike) and Jessica Clarén and Sandra Backman (She Rides Pwrd by SCOTT) are unlikely to feature as close to the front of the field as their compatriots Jenny Rissveds and Jennie Stenerhag, however top ten results may be within their grasp.
Nicky Giliomee and Cherise Willeit round out the Women’s category. The Saint Ladies will no doubt be among the most popular teams in the race. With limited result pressure from themselves or their sponsors, they will be out to enjoy the Absa Cape Epic experience as much as possible. Though that being said, they are still racers at heart and will mix pre-stage socialising, over a Woolworths coffee, with pushing themselves to their limits on the bike.
To follow the action as it unfolds, throughout the 2020 Absa Cape Epic, visit www.cape-epic.com. The racing gets underway at the University of Cape Town, on Sunday 15 March, and concludes at Val de Vie, on the following Sunday; 22 March.
2020 Absa Cape Epic Women’s category start list:
50, Team 31: Outride, Annika Langvad, Jenny Rissveds