It wouldn’t be the Absa Cape Epic without Karl Platt, and vice versa.
What was it about Karl Platt that made him so hard to beat? At the most competitive mountain bike stage race in the world, he’s trounced several world and Olympic champions, many times. It’s a 17-year question, asked by riders, team managers and fans since the very first Absa Cape Epic. The answer is complex – a weave of circumstance, timing and the athlete himself. From his childhood in Siberia, freakish physiology, skill, patience, intelligence, mindset and his sociability, he is the perfect puzzle-fit. All the pieces clicked into place with the ultimate stage race: the terrain, the number of days, even the time of year.
Mountain bike stage racing, in terms of top level racing, looked very different in the early 2000s. Long-hand, multi-day events were all but a fringe category where top professionals occasionally dabbled. In fact, it was only by chance that Platt rode the inaugural Absa Cape Epic – founder Kevin Vermaak invited Namibian star Mannie Heymans to the 2004 race, who in turn coaxed Platt into a three-week ‘training camp...’
From his childhood in Siberia, freakish physiology, skill, patience, intelligence, mindset and his sociability, he is the perfect puzzle-fit.
Although enraptured by ‘Africa’, Platt noted that the racing was not quite at the level of an average marathon race in Europe, “… and the race itself… it was not organised well… riding then, you would never believe it, looking at today’s event!” He put the experience behind him, not considering a return, however, after a phone call from Vermaak, he was persuaded that 2005 would be completely different.
Sure enough, in 2005 the field and racing standard had improved, as had the event organisation. Platt was hooked. Long-time rival and multiple world champion Christoph Sauser remembers, “I could see the Absa Cape Epic was already becoming Karl’s passion; and I think, that year, I also got infected with Epic fever.”
Over the following two years, Platt’s focus turned more towards multiday stage races. Coinciding perfectly with the first year the daily highlights of the race were broadcasted all around the planet, Platt arrived in 2007 with new race-partner Stefan Sahm and new team, built from scratch around the pairing, aiming for a level of professionalism akin to a high-tier European road team. The new Bulls-branded team was bold, highly unified, and on another level of organisation. A template for success was born.
The new Bulls-branded team was bold, highly unified, and on another level of organisation. A template for success was born.
It was the closest-fought edition yet or since. Deep into race week, after the GC lead had changed four times in six days, the Bulls sat a mere eleven seconds behind rival team Cannondale Vredestein’s Roel Paulissen and Jakob Fuglsang. In a dramatic penultimate day, Sahm drove hard on the trails along the Palmiet river, capitalising on a moment of weakness to seal overall victory. The Platt / Sahm partnership took them to another two victories in 2009 and 2010. Considering their rivals, this has to be considered one of the most impressive achievements in the sport. Mountain bike stage racing is a team endeavour, and the importance of a cohesive partnership was illustrated by their legendary symbiosis. It is considered one of the best pairings ever seen.
At the Absa Cape Epic, bad fortune befalls every team. The terrain is so wild and the racing so fierce that potentially race-ending incidents happen every hour, and to any team, at the highest level. It’s well documented – the teams that deal with it the best are the best, and Platt and Sahm were known for their cool, calculated approach to calamity. A sliced tyre? It barely cost them a minute. Twisted chain? Less than 45 seconds. A dislocated shoulder? Even quicker. Sauser once said about the chain repair, “It was one of the most impressive mechanical fixes I’ve ever seen.” It was a mastery of damage control.
“With Karl and the Epic… the two have grown up with one another and have achieved incredible things. They simply belong together.”
After health issues forced Sahm to take a support role in the team, Swiss marathon champion Urs Huber stepped in and the pair romped to a resounding win in 2016, with Platt scoring a record-equalling 5th title, drawing level with Christoph Sauser – a fitting milestone in a rivalry that had played out over a decade.
However, when it comes to the event, there is more to the German than the title ‘the ultimate stage racer’. He’s transcended ‘Platt the athlete’ and his legacy has become intertwined with the fabric of the race. He opened viewers’ eyes to both the brutality and also the nuances of the race. He broke new ground and set standards for professionalism and preparation that teams still follow today.
Teammates and rivals alike still wistfully remember riding alongside Platt, in full pomp, as the time of their lives. Sahm admits: “I don’t miss racing, to be honest. But if I did, someday, then for sure I’d do it with Karl. Even today, we still sync when we ride bikes together.”
Sauser says, “The Epic was Karl’s favourite race, his ‘rain dance’. He was Mr. Consistent! He maintained a super-high level, and made very few mistakes, if any.”
Carsten Bresser is a former teammate, podium finisher, Amabubesi member and the person who introduced him to Sahm (and Heymans) is equally misty-eyed, “With Karl and the Epic… the two have grown up with one another and have achieved incredible things. They simply belong together.”
Team BULLS’ 2016 Absa Cape Epic victory was incredibly emotional for everyone who experienced it first hand
Karl Platt and Urs Huber celebrate their victory at the 2016 Absa Cape Epic
Karl Platt has always been happy to offer a post-stage interview, no matter how demanding the day was
Victory for Team BULLS means everyone gets a champagne shower