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To watch

The Elite Women set to compete for the top step of the podium at the 2021 Absa Cape Epic.

Over the history of the race, we’ve seen a greater depth of competition develop in the women’s field and the event continues to lure some of the best mountain bikers on the planet. Riders take on the challenge of testing their abilities over the eight days and against some world class competition. In terms of pairings, the women’s field appears far more dynamic — we’ve seen fewer of those established, stalwart partnerships that we’re used to in the men’s category. This year is no different — almost all the top contending teams are new pairings for the race. What will be different this year is that there is no clear favourite, and the winning team in Val de Vie is hard to predict without drawing out several permutations of how the race unfolds. Questions will remain, at least till the start gun: how will the cross country riders play to their strengths and ride out front from the gun?

How long can they last on their own? At what point in the week will the young riders learn to pace themselves correctly? When will the experienced athletes make their move to capitalise on any mistakes? Which of the new pairings’ team dynamics will thrive and which will falter? History tells us that the Prologue reveals much about how the week will unfold. However, with this being an Olympic year and the world’s vastly differing cycling calendars makes comparing the highly fatigued international cross country riders at the end of their season to the local marathoners and stage racers who’ve lacked exposure to top level competition an interesting concept. The UCI World Cup stars may still find good form. We wait to see how fleeting and fickle that form can be, and if freshness will prevail.

Fierce rivals turned teammates is the narrative of the inveterate Lüthi / de Groot pairing. If you were to add up all of their combined Absa Cape Epic victories, national titles and world championship podiums into a points tally, Lüthi and de Groot top the list. Arguably the most evenly matched team, the Swiss / South African duo is collectively the most experienced in the race. Focusing on marathon and stage racing, they’re likely to struggle to match the speed of the likes of Frei, Stigger, Lill and Strauss, so their game plan will surely look to the long game, keeping the pressure on so that they’re ready to pounce on any and every mistake.

The all-South African pairing has been a long time coming, and should’ve been an obvious one if it weren’t for trade team obligations and alliances. Together they’re the perfect combination of XCO speed, stage racing experience and local knowledge of the trails and conditions. Plus, they’re uncannily well matched physically, as is evidenced by their UCI World Cup results. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses like all good rivals do and in 2021 they can use that to their full advantage. They could well become the first all South African team to win the race since 2007, if The Race That Measures All allows for it. Don’t be fooled by the friendly demeanour, when the racing gets underway, these two are all business.

As a previous Absa Cape Epic winner, Stenerhag’s quiet confidence will temper well with McDougall’s enthusiasm. Stenerhag’s road background is all but forgotten after her successful switch to mountain biking, and also the fact that the Swede refers to South Africa as her second home. She know the trails of the Western Cape like the back of her hand, as does McDougall who is equally comfortable on the Untamed terrain – after all, she did win the Absa African Women’s jersey competition in its inaugural year. They’re unlikely to follow the early moves by the speedier cross country racers, but are sure to find the podium at some point during race week.

Given the firepower and palmares of the Swiss and the Austrian, this is the team to watch at the 2021 race. Both are almost invariably mixing it up at the front on the UCI World Cup circuit. Stigger has held the under 23 world title three times and Frei is an Olympic silver medallist and is the current short track world champion. On paper, their all-out speed is leagues ahead of the rest. However speed doesn’t always convert to an eight-day format. Plus, Frei has already peaked twice this season (at Tokyo 2020 and the XCC World Champs) and they’re relatively young and inexperienced at stage racing. Luckily their trade team staff is not — they’ll be applying the know how that took the likes of Annika Langvad, Christoph Sauser, Burry Stander, Ariane Lüthi and Jaroslav Kulhavy to victory.