Big news came out overnight, that has little immediate impact on the races we enjoy, but might change the size and scale of events in the future. Ironman announced that they have reached an agreement to acquire the Cape Epic mountain bike race. In addition to operating The Motatapu and The Pioneer multiple stage mountain bike races in New Zealand, the purchase of Cape Epic marks Ironman’s biggest step into the mountain biking market, as they aim to grow this race format substantially across the globe.
Founded in 2004, the Cape Epic is the only eight-day mountain bike (MTB) stage race classed as hors catégorie (beyond categorisation) by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI). Having recently completed its 13th edition, the race is unique in that it attracts world champions, Olympic champions, and other top professional riders, as well as a large field of international amateur participants.
“The Cape Epic is an iconic, world-class event that many consider the most prestigious mountain bike race in the world. This acquisition shows the commitment of Ironman and Wanda Sports to growing mass participation events worldwide,” said Andrew Messick, Chief Executive Officer of Ironman who also oversees the active lifestyle segment for Wanda Sports. “We see great potential in the mountain biking market, and the Cape Epic will anchor a portfolio of exciting and extraordinary off road and dirt-based races.”
Cape Epic founder Kevin Vermaak will spearhead this expansion for Ironman, and will be responsible for developing a worldwide series of mountain bike races.
Over the years the Cape Epic has grown into the most televised mountain-bike stage race in the world – it is a highlight on the professional racing calendar and attracts amateur riders wanting to challenge themselves in the same environment as the professional riders.
“We are very excited about the future of the Cape Epic and have been looking for an opportunity to take a significant step forward,” said Vermaak. “The event has changed the face of mountain biking and the opportunity to tap into the expertise of a global event business like Ironman will take it to the next level. I am honoured to be afforded the opportunity to lead Ironman’s mountain biking business and look forward to being part of the global strategy.”
Vermaak said that Lynn Naudé would remain to lead the existing Cape Epic management and staff who will continue to deliver the race at the highest level. He also confirmed that the Absa Cape Epic would continue to operate from Cape Town.
“The Cape Epic has come a long way since 2004 and is reaching a point where its expansion depends on the growth of the mountain bike endurance category across the world,” continued Vermaak. “With Ironman we’ve found a partner who is aligned with where we want to go in terms of building that category.”
What next for Ironman?
As Ironman already own The Pioneer, will they look to expand to other events that complement the Cape Epic as well? We might see other events move under the major brand, and it could even lead to a series. Brasil Ride in South America, and perhaps an event in Europe to start a global series. It seems like something that could be possible, but a long way off.
The idea of a global stage race series isn’t ridiculous. A number of events already work closely together, and it has been suggested by a race organiser in the past. With Masters athletes often the largest field at major races, it would cater for high level Masters riders, and Elite alike.
But Ironman will need to look at the current crop of popular events, why they are popular, and see if the IM business model works for mountain bikers. Those who were in triathlon for a long time bemoan the change that IM brought to events – taking away the grassroots feel and turning the sport into profit driven events. In essence, this also allows any sport to be more professional, as it brings in sponsors who can use the exposure and therefore provide real salaries for athletes.
Mountain biking isn’t the pro sport it was in the 90’s – but XCO and downhill are doing ok, especially thanks to RedBull TV, which from personal experience provided a better race experience, in terms of watching the action, than being there for a World Cup.
And while the Cape Epic is ‘The Tour de France for mountain bikes”, mountain biking operates on a different level. Especially distanced based mountain bike events like stage races and marathons. The majority of events globally are more user friendly, and more down to earth. There seems to be a real dichotomy between mountain bike racing, and what mountain bikers feel their sport is, and what the IM business model is if we base their potential plans off their triathlon business.
Perhaps we will see more ‘Epics’ roll out around the world – bringing the professionalism that Kevin Vermaak put into his event to the world – as a racer I think that would be excellent. Races like the Cape Epic, Swiss Epic and The Pioneer run with a great support crew, and each offers racers an exceptional experience. Plenty of other races already run at a similar level, they just don’t have the name there. The Cape Epic brought live coverage to marathon stage racing. Could this be extended to live TV for the whole race with increased backing from IM? Could IM bring greater coverage to their event in New Zealand – The Pioneer? If Vermaak helps their other grow and looks to increase the events they own, with strengthened corporate connections, would that be a bad thing? It’s unlikely to change events that we all know and love, but it might increase the range of mountain bike events on offer. As Imogen Smith stated in a post about stage races – they are ready-made holidays. And package holidays are a big thing, ready for further growth.
Of course, we might see depersonalisation of our major distance events. As an amateur I can think of the times I have been able to start a race in the same chute, or even elbow to elbow with world and national champions. Will opportunities like this disappear for hard working amateur athletes, as the elite get vaulted higher for increased exposure? It is all speculation at this point, but the reactions on social media this far do show a lot of concern. What do you think? Chime in below.