Kevin Vermaak, 43, founded the Absa Cape Epic in 2004 at a time when there were no similar events in South Africa and the sport of mountain biking was in its infancy in the country. His vision was to create the world’s premier mountain bike event and set a new benchmark for the sport - today the Absa Cape Epic is routinely referred to as “the Tour de France of mountain biking”. The growth of the Absa Cape Epic has been paralleled by an explosion in mountain biking in South Africa and there are now more than 50 stage races. Kevin, a Capetonian and UCT electrical engineering graduate, worked in IT in London in the early 2000s and, as a passionate mountain biker, took part in events across the world, including two mountain bike crossings of the Himalayas. He conceived the Absa Cape Epic while taking part in the La Ruta de los Conquistadores in Costa Rica in November, 2002. By February 2003 he was back in South Africa after eight years in London to establish the Cape Epic. Vermaak rode the Absa Cape Epic for the first time in 2016.
The route starts and finishes in the Western Cape, South Africa. It is redesigned every year. Race week lasts 8 days and typically covers around 700 kilometres (435 mi). The shortest Absa Cape Epic will be in 2016 at 647 kilometres (402 mi), the longest route being in 2008 at 966 kilometres (600 mi). The route originally was a point-to-point race, beginning in Knysna and ending in the winelands of the Western Cape. This format changed in 2009, where riders spent multiple days in each stage location to ensure the route could fully explore the best mountain biking that the region had to offer. This format looks likely to be the way forward for the organisation.
Two person team
All riders must enter as a two-person team. Initially the team concept was developed because stage racing often takes riders through some very remote areas, and having partners who are bound by the race rules to look after each other serves a very valuable safety function. A two-person team race originated as an adventure – but this concept of ‘looking after each other’ still runs deep in the ethos and technique of stage racing. It’s gone from being a necessity to an integral part of race tactics. Even the pros have to be in perfect sync, taking care of one another. Riders in a team must remain within 2 minutes of each other at all times during the race or face a one-hour penalty. This is enforced by means of timing mats places through the stage. After a third offence, the team is disqualified. Teams are expected to reach the finish line by the specified maximum stage time, team dynamics therefore are a major part of the race.
Categories and leader jerseys
All riders aim to win stages, but mostly they want to win in their category. There are five categories: Men, Women, Mixed, Masters and Grand Masters. The colours denoting the category leaders are: yellow – Men; orange – Women, green – Mixed (a woman and a man), blue – Masters (both riders must be 40 years or older on 31 December of the year of the race), purple – Grand Masters (both riders must be 50 years or older on 31 December of the year of the race). The category leaders competition is decided by totaling the time each team takes on the daily stages. The team with the lowest overall time at the end of each stage receives ceremonial leaders’ jerseys and the right to start the next stage of the race in those jerseys.
Blue numbers boards
Any rider who does not complete a stage within the maximum stage time for the first time will be classified as a blue board rider. Blue board riders will be entitled to continue the race (they may start the following stage), but will not be classified as official race finishers. Should any blue board rider fail for the second time to finish a stage within the maximum stage time or fail to start a stage, he or she will not be allowed to continue the race.
UCI licensed riders who lose their partners will be allowed to continue riding but without influencing the outcome of the race. They are required to ride in an Outcast Jersey. Riders in this jersey may not ride within the first 30 teams or interfere with the race or other categories such as the mixed or ladies teams. Any rider or team accepting mechanical or any other assistance from the outcast rider will be penalised. This will give the rider the opportunity to finish the race, be it unofficially, but still be part of the experience.
Internal technical and tactical support
It is allowed - any rider, including riders from the same sponsor (but not in the same 2-rider team) can provide technical assistance and equipment from his own bicycle to support another rider. Teams can also form alliances with other riders and teams, even if they are not of the same sponsor.
Pro-Am aspect of the race
Amateurs use the same chute, ride the same course and stay in the same race village as the UCI registered riders, which include world and national champions and Olympic medalists.
This is a loyalty programme to recognise riders that return each year to ride the Absa Cape Epic. "Amabubesi" means "pack of lions" in Zulu. In addition to a special certificate to honour their achievement, members receive a set of benefits. Three finishes secures entry into the club, but as the race has matured, additional benefits have been reserved for riders that have completed a greater number of races. Special Amabubesi merchandise range is available only for members.
South Africa got its much sought-after first overall winner of the Absa Cape Epic in 2011 when Burry Stander, riding with Switzerland’s Christoph Sauser, swept to a commanding win. The same combination went on to win it again in 2012.
The Swiss-South African pair won for the first time on their fourth attempt after a run of bad luck - injuries, crashes and mechanical problems - hampered their earlier efforts. They pulled out in 2008 when Stander injured his knee, finished sixth in 2009 and second in 2010.
Stander had made a name for himself on the cross country World Cup circuit, winning the Under-23 World Championship and consistently finishing near the front of the men’s elite field. In the 2008 Summer Olympics, held in Beijing, Stander finished 15th in the cross-country mountain bike race. In the 2012 Summer Olympics, in London, he finished 5th in the same discipline. In June 2012 he won his second elite World Cup race, at Windham in New York.
Tragically, on January 3, 2013, he was killed in an accident with a minibus taxi while training near his home at Shelly Beach, KwaZulu Natal. He was 25 and beginning to fulfil the massive promise of his early career.
His death shocked the country - he had become well-known beyond cycling circles after the 2012 Olympics - and cast a pall over the 2013 Absa Cape Epic. Sauser, who had been scheduled to ride with Stander, raced with Olympic gold medallist Jaroslav Kulhavý and the pair emerged as overall winners. Both had been teammates of Stander, riding for bike manufacturer Specialized, and dedicated their win to him.
Stander’s wife Cherise, herself a top professional rider, rode the 2013 event with his brother Duane.
Recent editions of the Absa Cape Epic have started with a prologue followed by seven stages on the following seven days. The prologue is characteristically less than 30 km and held on a course that favours riders with technical skills. The stages normally range from between 80 km to 140 km. The longest stage in Absa Cape Epic history was the 146 km Stage 5 in 2008, which took riders from Swellendam to Bredasdorp.
Marking the opening day of the race, this is a two-man team time trial, where teams usually leave at timed intervals. Riders use the prologue as an opportunity to be seeded in a faster group, ensuring a good position for the mass start the following day. The first ever prologue of the Absa Cape Epic was in Knysna in 2008. A sloping start ramp launches the team into motion after a countdown.
In most stages of the race, teams start together, either in a mass start or in staggered, seeded group starts. As they roll out of the respective start towns, the teams are led by a vehicle, without racing. Once out of the neutral zone is the real start, setting riders on their way. The second member of the first team across the line wins. Riders in a group finish in the same time as the lead rider. Time bonuses for intermediate sprints have been offered in the past. Stage lengths usually vary between 60 km and 145 km. Long stages cause major shifts in the general classification and large time differences between teams. A maximum ride time is allotted for each day and teams must complete the stage within that time. If they arrive after their start group’s maximum allotted time they will be listed as unofficial finishers.
Some years, an individual time trial appears midway through raceweek, this is a two-man team time trial, where teams usually leave at timed intervals. Like the prologue, it’s an all out effort. The distance varies but typically is around 30 km, which is regarded by the main field, who are not contending for overall victory, as an ‘easy’ day.
In its inaugural year, the Absa Cape Epic attracted one of the biggest names in the sport. 2004 saw stage-racing supremo Karl Platt team up with Namibian Mannie Heymans, one of the world’s top marathoners at the time. The week’s racing was white hot, with impressive performances from Team GT Africa and the motivated Kenyans David Kinjah and Davidson Kamau. However Platt and Heymans controlled the race throughout, winning six out of the eight stages, with a 20-minute lead overall.
In 2005 the field got more than they bargained for with former world champion, Olympic gold medalist and mountain biking legend Bart Brentjens arriving at the start with equally fast Roel Paulissen as his partner. The Dutch / Belgian team dominated the race, even more so than Platt and Heymans had the year before.
Fortunately for all, Brentjens had proved his point, not returning for the 2006 edition, leaving the Swiss team of Christoph Sauser and Silvio Bundi to race the legs off the field. Previous winner Platt only managed 3rd, partnered with Carsten Bresser. This was to be the Absa Cape Epic’s most convincing win yet, with Sauser and Bundi’s 29min 08sec lead over Johannes Sickmuller and Christian Heule.
It was as if Karl Platt had been plotting his revenge after two humiliating defeats – he’d formed a new team with Stefan Sahm – the Bulls. They won Stage 1 in a close sprint finish against Roel Paulissen and Jakob Fuglsang of Cannondale Vredestein. This set the tone for the week – a dramatic back-and-forth battle with the leader jerseys changing shoulders four times. Platt and Sahm had the final word, wearing their yellow leaders’ jerseys on the final stage into Lourensford Wine Estate.
Roel Paulissen and Jakob Fuglsang were back, baying for the Bulls’ blood. After a dominant performance on Stage 2, and with the Bulls imploding that same day heading into Calitzdorp, Cannondale Vredestein had a comfortable lead over the Germans. Only once was their lead under threat with some tyre trouble outside Bredasdorp. The Belgian/Danish team had made their case winning the 2008 event convincingly.
New rivals came to the fore in 2009 – Team songo.info of South African Burry Stander and Swiss Christoph Sauser. The pair won the prologue and the first 3 stages, until Stander’s momentary lapse of concentration put an end to their overall hopes with a smashed front wheel. The Bulls capitalized and held their leader’s jerseys until the end, but not without a challenge from old rival Bart Brentjens, partnered with Australian Chris Jongewaard. Their campaign was not without incident, breaking a chain on the penultimate stage into Oak Valley. True to form, it was repaired quickly and they limited their losses.
Even as outright race favourites, the Bulls still had to prove themselves, after what many said was a lucky win in 2009. Their strength and tactical aptitude was tested to the limit as Team MTN Qhubeka’s Kevin Evans and Alban Lakata powered to victory on Stage 1, taking the race lead. Illness put Stander out of action early in the race but made good with 3 stage victories while MTN Qhubeka’s tyre woes lost them South Africa’s chance at an overall win at the Absa Cape Epic. Arriving at Lourensford, the Bulls had prevailed – it was Platt’s fourth victory, Sahm’s third. By 2011, teams were left wondering how to break this phenomenal run of success.
Burry Stander made history on 3 April 2011, as the first South African to win the Absa Cape Epic in its 8th edition. Stander and his Swiss teammate, former world champion and Olympic medallist Christoph Sauser won 5 of the 7 days. Stander and Sauser finished in an overall time of 28:44.44,0. In second place in an overall time of 28:51.52,8 were the German team of Hannes Genze and Jochen Käss (Multivan Mérida Biking), with the Bulls, Karl Platt and Stefan Sahm, in third place overall in 29:05.53,7. The Bulls Team of Karl Platt and Stefan Sahm won the Absa Cape Epic in 2007, 2009 and 2010, and Karl Platt won in the inaugural year (2004) with Mannie Heymans from Namibia.
The 36ONE-Songo-Specialized team of Burry Stander and Christoph Sauser walked away with top honours as overall winners of the 2012 Absa Cape Epic, following their victory of 2011. With a 25-minute-and-57-second lead time at the start of the final stage, Stander and Sauser finished in an overall time of 31:46.50,5. In second place in an overall time of 32:14.12,6 were the South African duo of Kevin Evans and David George (360Life), with the German-Swiss team of Hannes Genze and Andreas Kugler of Multivan Mérida Biking in third place overall in 32:17.57,5. The Bulls 2 team of Thomas Dietsch and Tim Boehme finished fourth overall (32:18.48,2) with Alban Lakata and Robert Mennen (Topeak Ergo Racing) in fifth (32:19.22,7). The Bulls 1 team of Karl Platt and Stefan Sahm, who won the Absa Cape Epic in 2007, 2009 and 2010, finished in sixth place overall (33:03.00,2).
Team Burry Stander-Songo, Christoph Sauser and Jaroslav Kulhavý, won the 2013 Absa Cape Epic by 7:10. With this fourth win, Christoph Sauser tied Karl Platt for the most Absa Cape Epic victories. In second place in an overall time of 29:47.55,3 were Team Bulls' Karl Platt and new partner Urs Huber, followed by teammates Thomas Dietsch and Tim Boehme with a time of 30:07.35,9.
Topeak Ergon’s Kristian Hynek (Czechoslovakia) and Robert Mennen (Germany) emerged as overall winners after a dramatic event in which the lead changed several times. Pre-race favourites Karl Platt (Germany) and Urs Huber (Switzerland) of the Bulls team pulled out on Stage 4 after the German, bidding for his fifth win, injured his knee in a crash. Switzerland’s Christoph Sauser, also seeking to be the first to win five times, and his Czech partner Frantisek Rabon finished second after a race plagued by mechanical problems and punctures. The women’s event was comfortably won by Ariane Kleinhans (Switzerland) and Annika Langvad (Denmark) after they overcame a poor Stage 1 in which they too were plagued by punctures.
Swiss legend Christoph Sauser sealed his legacy on his last Absa Cape Epic as a professional by becoming the first person to win it five times with partner Jaroslav Kulhavý. Defending champions Ariane Kleinhans and Annika Langvad dominated the Women’s category again, winning by more than an hour overall in spite of having to overcome a 73-minute penalty after inadvertently taking a short cut on Stage 2. The race was also memorable for the tough weather conditions, with riders having to confront rain, heat or wind on each of the stages.
Karl Platt of Germany manages to equal Christoph Sauser with his fifth Absa Cape Epic win when he sails to victory with racing partner Urs Huber as Team Bulls. Ariane Kleinhans and Annika Langvad take home the women's trophy once again with a third consecutive win. The Women's category rule change ensuring that women started in a separate batch to the men made for exciting racing with Yana Belomoina and Sabine Spitz claiming three stage wins from the reigning champions.
The holding company of the Absa Cape Epic brand is named Grandstand Management and this events team is responsible for all that is required for a full service mountain bike stage race. They coordinate route design and permission requests, rider registration, race rules, emergency and medical services, marshals, timing and results, optional extras available to riders as well as crew and volunteer management. On the logistics side there is the planning and implementation of infrastructure such as tents, marquees, security, ablution facilities and catering, to name a few. In addition to the aspects of the race mentioned, the events team manage the relationships with the various stage locations, venues, towns and municipalities that the race visits each year to ensure that the event meets with their expectations and assists them to maximise their opportunities.
After each stage riders arrive at the finish to a full-service race village. The forward planning begins up to two years before the race. Finding a location for a race village involves complex planning for space, water, electricity access and other amenities. The entire race village moves from one location to another. Typically each location is used for two nights. 1 200 fully supported riders start the event, the vast majority eating and sleeping within the village - most in one-man tents supplied by the organisers, others in camper vans which they can hire. Ablution and medical facilities are provided. The bikes require attention too, with a free cleaning service and mechanics on hand. The Absa Cape Epic crew of more than 1 000 also stay in the race village. Besides these, media representatives from TV, digital and print need to be accommodated.
There are several areas of speciality required to run the event:
The Mediclinic race hospital is equipped to handle any medical emergency, either at the village or out on the course. A UCI anti-doping official and an anti-doping caravan also accompany the medical team.
A team of thirty trained marshals not only show riders the way, but ensure the safety of cyclists. The marshals are trained in first-aid, with a number having more advanced medical training.
Shower trailers are available throughout the race, with the units being towed between the various stages to await the riders.
Pro tech zones
These are situated at all waterpoints. They are for the use of UCI-registered riders only. The organisers will transport one wheel set and one tool bag per two-rider team to each of the zones for every stage. The content of the tool bag is at the team’s discretion and may consist of anything riders wish to use – tools, spares, tyre sealant, food, waterbottles, sunscreen. No technical or mechanical assistance is provided and teams may only access their own boxes and wheelsets.
These are provided for amateur riders, with a mechanic present to aid them with their repairs.
In 2014 the Absa Cape Epic matched the women’s prize purse to the men’s prize purse for the first time. The increase to R700 000 for the women’s category took the total prize purse for all categories to R1 600 000.
At the time this was the highest prize purse for women’s cycling globally, including road races.
Alan Cameron, MD of Sasol Oil: “We’re delighted to be sponsoring the legendary Absa Cape Epic. This gruelling race demands exceptional performance from all riders, regardless of their gender. We believe the prize money should reflect this and we’re therefore proud to be increasing the women’s prize to equal that of the men.”
The overall winners of the Absa Cape Epic are awarded a floating trophy designed by local artist Neil Jonker, and receive a replica trophy for each rider to keep. If the same team wins the race three times, they get to keep it.
The Absa Cape Epic is the most televised mountain bike race in the world. With more than 25 000 hours global television broadcast in 22 languages to 175 countries since 2004, including UK, USA, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Czech Republic, Japan, Brazil, Egypt and Rwanda. Viewers tune in to watch news clips, highlights packages and an hour-long program worldwide. Photographs and articles about the event have appeared in the New York Times the LA Times, Sports Illustrated, as well as dozens of international and local bicycle magazines and websites.
The Absa Cape Epic has four official charities, all benefiting the community in their own unique way.
JAG Foundation The JAG Foundation was founded in 2007 is made up of 5 core programs focusing on different sporting codes being: Rugby, Running, Cycling, basic athletic movement and anti-bullying. Sport is not just a game, it’s a set of life lessons and any child growing up without it is seen as disadvantaged. The JAG Foundation enlists local celebrities to ride the race to raise funds in the All Stars Challenge. South African rugby players Robbi Kempson, Breyton Paulse and footballer Mark Fish have all taken part.
Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) CANSA’s purpose is to lead the fight against cancer in South Africa. Its mission is to be the preferred non-profit organisation that enables research, educates the public and provides support to all people affected by cancer. CANSA Active is an initiative created under the auspices of CANSA that addresses environmental conditions and creates a support base for people to be encouraged to become active and lead a healthy life style, while at the same time promoting staying safe in the sun by utilizing the education and sun screen products provided by CANSA and it's invaluable partners.
Laureus - Sport for Good Foundation Laureus’ core concept is simple, brilliant and daunting: to create global awards that recognise the achievements of today’s sporting heroes; to bring sportspeople together; united in achievement but divided by sporting code. Once that community is brought together, putting to work their reach and the support and investment of Laureus’ Founding Patrons and Partners, it creates a powerful message that can help social projects around the world who use sport as a tool for social change. That message, simply, is Laureus Sport for Good.
Qhubeka Qhubeka helps people move forward and progress by giving bicycles in return for work done to improve communities, the environment or academic results. Having a bicycle changes lives by increasing the distance a person can travel, what they can carry, where they can go and how fast they can get there.
Exxaro is the Development Academy Partner to the Absa Cape Epic and sponsor of the Exxaro Academy. The goal of the Exxaro Academy is to introduce the mountain biking experience to historically disadvantaged communities and individuals, and ultimately assist to transform the sport in South Africa. Additionally, Exxaro Academy riders and all other Historically Disadvantaged South African riders under the age of 26 are eligible to be awarded the Exxaro Special Jersey during the Absa Cape Epic.
In December 2012 the Absa Cape Epic introduced a lifetime ban for all athletes found guilty of a doping offence.
This followed the first high-profile doping case in South African mountain biking. In November, the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS) announced that top cyclist and previous Absa Cape Epic contender, David George, tested positive for the banned drug, EPO (Erythropoietin) and would face a charge of doping at an independent tribunal.
George was subsequently given a two-year ban from all competitive cycling. SAIDS indicated that only results dating back to 29 August 2012 - when its test was carried out - could be erased. Riding with Kevin Evans, he had finished second in the 2012 Absa Cape Epic which took place in March and the result therefore stood.
Kevin Vermaak, founder of the race, said at the time: “As of 1 January 2013, any athlete (professional or amateur) caught using performance-enhancing substances, whether at another event or out of competition, will be banned for life from participating in the Absa Cape Epic. Not only will the person not be allowed to participate (as an amateur rider or UCI- licensed elite), but the individual will also be banned from being involved on any level, including as a team manager. This is harsher than what is required currently by any federation, but is our considered opinion of what should be enforced even on a wider scale with regards to event participation of convicted dope cheats.”
Vermaak continued: “We've chosen not to apply this retrospectively because we believe that would be naive. As has been exposed in recent months, cycling has a dark past. Many riders from this previous era have rediscovered the joy of cycling as mountain bikers and participate in the Absa Cape Epic as their expression of riding clean. Previous offenders, who have served their suspension term, may ride future Absa Cape Epics. We want to be part of the new era of cleaner cycling, and therefore only future offenders will receive the lifetime bans.”
Subsequent to this decision several riders have been banned from riding in the Absa Cape Epic for life.
In spite of extensive testing there have, however, been only two positive in-competition doping tests at the Absa Cape Epic. Both were amateur riders.
Three teams have won more than one Absa Cape Epic – Karl Platt and Stefan Sahm of Team Bulls, Christoph Sauser and Burry Stander of 36One-Songo-Specialized and Christoph Sauser again with Jaroslav Kulhavy in Team Burry Stander –SONGO and Investec-Songo-Specialized respectively. Christoph Sauser and Karl Platt are the only riders to have won the race five times. There are four riders who have completed all 13 editions of the Absa Cape Epic, with only one woman on that exclusive list, Hannele Steyn of South Africa. Karl Platt, Mannie Heymans, Bart Brentjens, Roel Paulissen, Jaroslav Kulhavy and Stefan Sahm all won the Absa Cape Epic the first time they rode the race. The Absa Cape Epic has been won five times by teams who led the general classification from the first stage and holding the lead all the way to the finish. Karl Platt and Mannie Heymans did it during the first edition, 2004. Bart Brentjens and Roel Paulissen repeated the feat the next year and Christoph Sauser and Burry Stander in both 2011 and 2012, followed by Karl Platt and Urs Huber in 2016. There is one team that has won the Absa Cape Epic Women’s category twice – the partnership of Sharon Laws (GBR) and Hanlie Booyens (RSA). The only women's team to win the category three times are Ariane Kleinhans (RSA) with partner Annike Langvad (DEN).
James Williamson (1983–2010) was an Australian journalist and cyclist who won the World Solo 24-hour mountain bike Championships in Canada in 2008.
On 23 March 2010, James Williamson died whilst competing in the Absa Cape Epic, a 722 km eight-day race in South Africa. After competing in the first two stages and being in 18th place in the field of 1200, he died in his tent prior to the third stage. His death was due to an undiagnosed heart condition; an autopsy found that one of the chambers of his heart was not functioning correctly, which led to the enlargement of one of the ventricles in his heart.
Williamson was also an editor at Enduro magazine and blogged during each race on his personal website. His final post was written two days before his death.