For a few years now mountain bike stage racing in Australia has been growing.
Whether it was Terra-Australis, Mountains to Beach, The Red-Center Enduro or even Wildside in Tasmania – racers had a few options, but there never seemed to be one that hit the nail on the head with location, time of the year, and general levels of support from the Elite riders.
There has been no race (Stage race or otherwise) whose rise to prominence in the calendar has matched that of the Cape to Cape.
Held in the famously beautiful Margaret River, Western Australia, there is no doubt that attending the race requires a bit of planning and commitment – something that typically organisers have shied away from requiring of their potential competitor market. However, it’s a testament to the quality of the event the Cape to Cape sells out each year, and draws the absolute cream of the Australian MTB crowd – both from a Marathon perspective and also the shorter XCO format.
This year is no different, with the race being sold out a few months ago. Looking at the start-list, within the Elite ranks, it reads like a who’s who of the Australian MTB community.
The racing takes place over 4 days, and with no huge climbs to consider after the first few kilometers of Day 1, Stage 1, there are tactics abound – with teams, allegiances, and training buddies all working together to secure individual stage honors as well as the extremely prestigious overall prize.
Let’s go through who will be at the front, putting the hurt on, trying to take the win….
The mens race is an interesting mix of ‘old guard’ and ‘young guns’, let’s go through the more seasoned riders first….
Dan McConnell: 2013 World Cup sensation Dan McConnell has had a year and season that he could probably have only dreamt of. His win at the Albstadt World Cup took the world, and himself (as he mentioned in his post race interview) by surprise. What was less of a surprise though was how he used that result as a spring-board for the rest of his season. Visibly growing in confidence throughout the year, mixing on the front row of the grid with legends of the sport, Dan proved that his early season result was no fluke. His style of a conservative start (relative to the incredible early speed of some of the others) and then huge build throughout the races – with exceptional last lap finishing speed has seen him finish the season ranked 2nd overall in the UCI Mens World Cup standings. On paper, the 2nd best mountain biker in the world in 2013 – probably in with a shout then…
Paul van de Ploeg: Paul had kept a low profile throughout much of 2013, with crashes and injury keeping him off the MTB a bit and racing on the road and his CX bike a bit more than normal – in all cases using his now legendary power to great affect in both sprint finishes and bunch kicks. UCI ranked road-races in Asia might not have the glamour of the Tour de France or even the MTB world cup circuit, but from a preparation perspective, they did him proud. Not to be outdone by Dan McConnell’s sensational season long campaign, Paul showed up at the 2013 World Championships with one race on his mind, and only a few rides on his MTB under his belt. The World XC Eliminator Championships were his target from the outset, and throughout the various stages of the event, he rarely looked troubled. In the final, his choice to repeat the same tactic and line from the semi’s showed both courage and commitment – it was either gonna win it or lose it for him. The rest has become Australian MTB history – he won, World Champion 2013, nearly pooping himself in the process.
Andy Blair / Shaun Lewis / Swell-Specialized : Consider them as one threat, with two outcomes. Beaten last year by the slightest of margins by Lachy Norris, Andy will be looking to go one step better in 2013, and may have the formula correct this time around. With both XCO and XCM pedigree, he would always be hard to beat as an individual over all types of terrain, and his recent form has shown that everything is moving in the right direction to finish this season with a bang. A new team for 2013 brings an added dimension to his racing and Swell-Specialized have been showing all the other ‘teams’ out there how effectively a race can be managed when there is a mutual goal of team, rather than individual victory. His team mate Shaun Lewis has to be mentioned too as a contender for the very reason that as soon as you think one rider is ‘lead’ for the team, the other will spring. Who is team captain? What does it matter? They’ll have the last laugh if either is discounted or overlooked.
Ok – Andy and Shaun probably are ok to be considered as ‘old guard’, it is a bit harsh on Dan and Paul – but compared to the real ‘young guns’, they are old men. Who are the young punks trying to get up in grandads face?
Jack Haig: Probably the one rider that scares everyone. At the National U23 XCO Champs at the start of 2013, Jack Haig finally showed his hand. There had been a fair bit of a suggestion he had it in him (beating Julian Absalon in mid-2012 in an XCO is a fair gauge), but it was at Stromlo that everyone saw quite what he was capable of. Since then, he has barely touched an MTB in anger, focusing on the road season to great success with his Huon-Genesys team – recently winning the Tour of Tasmania in appalling conditions. Unlikely to be carrying a Salmon in his back pocket on the MTB, Jack will be right at the front of the Cape to Cape, with his only potential weakness being his lack of racing time on the MTB. I doubt it will matter.
Brendan Johnston: A stage winner from 2012. That should be enough to consider him part of the race in 2013 – but that doesn’t really do him justice. Last years Highland Fling podium marked a coming of age for the rider, and despite it being a surprise to a few, there was a definite sense amongst others that it was ‘due’. Since then, Brendan has been racing pretty much anything with a startline, and even things without finish lines (he was with me at the Brownie Points Burner when we all got lost – we still raced back to an imaginary finish!). Lots of stage races on the road has built some deep strength, and this combined with his obvious skill was showcased recently at The Scott 25hr with a few scorching hot laps. This is a rider that you would not want to let out of sight – as if you gave him a gap, you’d battle to close it.
Mark ‘Tupac’ Tupalski: If winning races was about being nice, no-one would stand a chance against this guy. Universally regarded as a ‘good bloke’, Tupac is also a complete assassin on the MTB. He will get you when you least expect it, and make it look like he isn’t even trying. Famous for chatting away, regardless of the level of effort put in, Mark is always ready for a conversation. Don’t let this fool you into thinking he doesn’t care. Mark has huge levels of skill and strength, and his coach claims some of his ‘numbers’ caused his software to crash. A podium at the Kowalski Classic shows he is right there at the front, but it would be fair to say that we are yet to see Mark in full flight. Cape to Cape might be the race that he shows his real ability
Kyle Ward: There are some people that just look right on a bike. No amount of ‘bike-fit’ jiggery pokery can make it happen, and no amount of skills courses can help you either. There is a mercurial talent about Kyle that everyone recognises, yet he would be the first to acknowledge his performances to date haven’t quite done his talent justice. Having battled with his racing strategy in the early part of the year, Kyle looked to have turned a corner at a recent race on Mount Stromlo, where over 4 hrs he showed the patience required to sit and watch a race before launching a devastating attack to take the win from a very good field. A week later, at the Kowalski Classic his patience deserted him – and an early effort developed into a suicidal attack, seeing him fade badly. One thing is for sure – on ‘blind’ tracks, with loose surfaces, there will be few in greater control of their bike, and few that ‘see the lines’ like Kyle. If he can keep his powder dry, control his enthusiasm for going fast all the time, and race with his head as well as his legs he could cause a shock.
Bec Henderson: Whatever she and Dan ate for breakfast this year – I want some! That isn’t to sound disparaging either – through determination, hard graft, commitment and more than a pinch of skill, Bec won the U23 XCO World Cup in 2013. Bec has shown she is ready to mix it with the biggest, baddest and best riders in the world, whilst still an U23. As a rider she looks effortless on the bike – seeming to free-wheel more than is possible for someone quite so fast. Probably the rider to watch from a ‘flow’ perspective – Bec is able to squeeze every ounce of speed from a track. When you combine this natural skill with her physical capabilities, you have the recipe for a perfect XCO rider. Who would go about beating Bec Henderson on an XCO? There is no-one in Australia that can tell you these days – since she rode away from the Elite women’s field at the Stromlo Nationals in February, she has cemented herself as Australia’s fastest woman. XCO specialist meets XCM expert……
Jenny Fay: Marathon racing guru and last years winner is back to defend her title. In 2012 she was unstoppable, racing aggressively from the first kilometer of day one, with a type of “shock and awe” tactic, she was rarely troubled. The good news for Fay fans is actually bad news for her competitors – she has changed coach since last year, and she is even fitter than before, she is riding for a new team in Swell-Specialized, which has great levels of support. Jenny has been away in Europe over the summer collecting her National Marathon MTB title, and also a win in the UCI Marathon World Series. So there is no doubt she has some form. Is she vulnerable? There is a ray of hope – she certainly gave everything in Europe, so might be a on a bit of a ‘down’ building back up into the Australian summer. Her focus on Marathons might have cost her a little bit of really top-end XC speed too. Nonetheless, to beat her you’ll need to practically kill her.
Peta Mullens: What a palmares. Peta has shaped herself into the ultimate all-rounder. Cape Epic podium finisher, 2012 Australian XCM Champion, 2013 Australian XCO Champion, and more road victories than I have space to go into – one thing you can sure of is that Peta knows where that finish line is. She can climb, she can descend, and she can handle a bike. Despite enjoying something of a ‘ditsy blond’ façade, Peta is a stone cold killer on a bike. She has grit, determination and racing smarts that will punish anyone if they don’t give her the respect she deserves. Unfortunately, Peta has struggled with injury a bit this year, so hasn’t quite found the form everyone knows she is capable of. However, if she toes a start-line, she will be there to win – and I don’t think anyone knows ‘winning’ as well as Peta.
Jenni King: Softly spoken, but as hard as rock. From a personal perspective, Jenni has always been a stand out competitor in Australian MTB – not just within the female ranks either. There is pretty much no-one else that seems to push themselves as hard, or hurt as much as Jenni. The 2011 Australian MTB Marathon Champs at Mnt Joyce saw an epic race between King and Fay that I will remember as one of the toughest competitions I have seen. With Elite men withdrawing quicker than catholic schoolboys, Jenni and Jenny smashed seven bells out of each other. To beat Jenni King you have to give everything you think you have, and then a little bit more. Multiple Australian XCO champion, 2011 Cape to Cape winner. If Jenni brings her “A-game” someone will need to find their ‘A+’ to get ahead of her.
Holly Harris: As in the mens fields, there are a few young contenders in the womens field ready to make a name for themselves. The standout rider in that category would have to be Holly Harris. Winning Australian U19 XCO title in 2012, Holly has taken her racing overseas this year – racing at World Champs as well as a number of big European races – Swiss and German Cup. If any of the ‘big guns’ slip up, Holly will be there to take advatange of it.
So – there you have it – the 2013 Cape to Cape is set to be a show down of Australias big hitters. Apologies to those riders whom I didn’t mention – Jackson, Cooper, Mather, Nairn, Fry, Willet, O’Shea – you cant get everyone in! To be honest, I left you out intentionally to provide you with more motivation! 😉