Southern Hemisphere Powerhouses

Combine for Toyota-Specialized-NinetyOne

2022 Absa Cape Epic winner, Sofia Gómez Villafane, partners with debutant Samara Sheppard as the Toyota-Specialized-NinetyOne women seek to regain the title they ceded in 2023. Both the Argentinian, who resides in the United States, and the New Zealander, who calls Australia home, are fully focused on mountain bike marathon and ultra-endurance gravel racing in 2024, making them unique among the top women’s contenders. 

Sofia Gómez Villafane’s gravel racing palmarès is particularly impressive. In 2022 after winning the Absa Cape Epic alongside Haley Batten, she claimed the crown at the world’s biggest gravel race, Unbound. A year later she added the Leadville 100 title and the inaugural Life Time Grand Prix series victory. In 2024 Samara Sheppard joins her for the American gravel racing season, after taking on the Untamed African Mountain Bike Race together as team Toyota-Specialized-NinetyOne.

“Samara [Sheppard] was suggested to me by Katerina Nash this fall when she was asking me who I was going to go back to Absa Cape Epic with in 2024,” Gómez Villafane explained, of how the partnership came about. “Samara had an amazing race at the Marathon World Championships in 2023 [where she finished in sixth], and is a multi-time New Zealand and Oceania MTB Champ. We both have our backgrounds in XCO and have transitioned to more marathon distance events over the past years so I think we will be a good match up for this year’s Absa Cape Epic.”

As both athletes are focused on marathon rather than cross-country racing in 2024 the partnership, built on their mutual long-time links to Specialized Bicycles, makes a lot of sense. “I decided to not pursue an Olympic qualification, for Paris, due to my country's selection criteria,” the Argentinian noted. "In the case a spot was earned at the Pan American Championships in 2023 which has made my 2024 planning a lot easier, as I am not trying to balance out an XCO and endurance schedule. For me, the Absa Cape Epic has always served as this amazing training stimulus that gets me in really good shape for the spring and early summer races. I also just have a lot of love for this race and can't believe that this will be my fourth edition!”

Her new teammate will be making her Absa Cape Epic debut in 2024, though South Africa is hardly new to Sheppard. “It’s a dream for me to race in a strong female pair with Sofia, who brings a wealth of experience having raced Absa Cape Epic several times and won the event before,” she stated. “Also being able to do so with the professional support of Specialized Factory Racing will be amazing. I’ve enjoyed some serious gees on the trails around Elgin for Wines2Whales and the XCO World Cup in Stellenbosch in previous years, so I’m excited to see what Sofia and I can achieve together in South Africa.”

By the Numbers


First ACE: 2021

Finishes: 3

Best Result: 1st (2022)

Stage Wins: 4


First ACE: 2024

Finishes: N/A

Best Result: N/A

Stage Wins: N/A

Similarly, to Argentina, New Zealand has not qualified to send a woman to race for mountain biking gold in Paris. “In recent years, I've been focusing on marathon events and haven't been able to contribute to XCO qualification points for the Olympics,” Sheppard clarified. “As a result, New Zealand hasn’t qualified a women’s Olympic spot this year. Therefore, the Absa Cape Epic is a big focus for me this year. The back-to-back challenging race days will help strengthen and sharpen my legs for the Life Time Grand Prix.”

The excitement of racing against cross-country campaigners and the South African stage racers has Gómez Villafane fired up for the 2024 edition. “This year's women's field has some exciting new pairings, and it is looking like the women's race will be the most competitive yet!” she anticipated. “The biggest key to having a successful Absa Cape Epic with Samara will be our ability to communicate and work as a team. The past two years I have known my partner for the Absa Cape Epic – their strengths and weaknesses, their tell-tale signs of when they might be struggling or feeling good – really well. I have never even raced against Samara though; so, we will have a little bit of a crash course on getting to know each other and our riding styles the few days leading up to the event.”