The Absa Cape Epic’s Most Successful Team Returns for 2022

cape epic
Annika LANGVAD,Haley BATTEN during Stage 5 of the 2020 Swiss Epic from Davos to Davos, Graubünden, Switzerland on 22 August 2020. Photo by Marius Holler.

With thirteen victories, across the elite men’s and women’s categories, Specialized Factory Racing is the most successful outfit in Absa Cape Epic history. The American bicycle behemoth returns for the 2022 edition with three teams, including one of the men’s defending champions.

Matt Beers of NinetyOne-songo-Specialized during stage 2 of the 2021 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race from Eselfontein in Ceres to Saronsberg in Tulbagh, South Africa on the 19th October 2021 Photo by Nick Muzik/Cape Epic

Specialized Factory Racing’s love affair with the Absa Cape Epic began in 2006 when Christoph Sauser won the first of his five titles, alongside Silvio Bundi. Sixteen years on and the brand has amassed an impressive thirteen overall victories, completed by some of the sport’s most illustrious names; including Annika Langvad, Jaroslav Kulhavý and Anna van der Breggen. During the 2022 edition of The Race That Measures All, three teams will be racing for Specialized Factory Racing, though they’ll be donning the colours of NinetyOne-songo-Specialized and Toyota-NinetyOne-Specialized.

Headlining the 2022 roster for the Absa Cape Epic is one of the 2021 defending champions, Matt Beers. The powerful South African will race alongside reigning XCC World Champion Christopher Blevins as Toyota-NinetyOne-Specialized 1. They will be supported by Tristan Nortje and the next British star off Trinity Racing’s production line, Cameron Mason as Toyota-NinetyOne-Specialized 2.

The task of defending the title which Sina Frei and Laura Stigger won in October falls to the talented American, Haley Batten, and Argentina’s Sofia Gomez Villafane. The duo will race as NinetyOne-songo-Specialized.

Annika LANGVAD,Haley BATTEN during Stage 5 of the 2020 Swiss Epic from Davos to Davos, Graubünden, Switzerland on 22 August 2020. Photo by Marius Holler.

“It’s still surreal to try to make the fact that I won the Absa Cape Epic sink in” confessed the South African XCM Champion, Beers. “All I dreamt about when I started mountain biking was winning the Absa Cape Epic, so yeah, it’s actually odd, but I’m extremely grateful to be in this position. I am equally as motivated to have the chance to defend my title with the best support, especially with Chris [Blevins] by my side.”

“It’s extremely exciting to be teaming up with Chris,” Beers continued. “He’s an absolute wizard on a bike and he’s been at the top level for so many years, despite his young age, in all disciplines. I know he’s a very smart guy with a lot of other really interesting projects off the bike. I’m excited to get to know him over this adventure and show off what South Africa has to offer.”

Annika LANGVAD and Haley BATTEN during Stage 1 of the 2020 Swiss Epic from Laax to Laax, Graubünden, Switzerland on 18 August 2020. Photo by Marius Holler.

“Well obviously he’s the defending champion and hometown hero,” Blevins smiled in response. “I couldn’t ask for a better partner. I’ve heard Matt has an incredible engine and can just torch it on the flats. It’s also quite nice that he’s taller than me, which I don’t see too often. So, the draft will be great!”

“The Absa Cape Epic was always a daunting, wild race to me when I was a younger athlete, and I always knew I wanted to meet the challenge and do it one day” the American continued. “I’ve done a lot of stage races on the road throughout my career, but those don’t quite compare to how rugged, scenic, and dynamic the Absa Cape Epic is. It’s simply the biggest, most prestigious MTB stage race in the world and I’m thrilled to line up for it this year. Also, after this race, I’ll have competed on every continent but Antarctica, which was a big bucket list goal of mine as a kid!”

In the women’s race the new pairing of Batten and Gomez Villafane have the added pressure of living up to Specialized Factory Racing’s amazing record in the Absa Cape Epic, and the 2022 team will thus have it all to do if they are to wear the first Ciovita Women’s category leader jerseys on the final podium at Val de Vie.

“The legacy that Annika Langvad has left at the Absa Cape Epic is one to admire but I do not feel any direct pressure from it” Gomez Villafane pointed out. “Specialized had a lot of talented athletes they could have picked to pair with Haley and for them to believe that I was the best option gives me great confidence and motivation to prepare the best I can. The support that Specialized has for their athletes at the Absa Cape Epic is incredible, which makes my job of pedalling my bike fast a whole lot easier to do. We do want to continue the legacy of the women’s Specialized team but at the same time we know that it’s the Absa Cape Epic, it is the hardest mountain bike race in the world.”

For her part, Batten was the last rider to race an Epic Series event alongside the Queen of Stage Racing, Annika Langvad. “Riding the Swiss Epic with Annika, in 2020, was an unforgettable experience” Batten recalled. “That event was such a new challenge for me at the time and to overcome each demanding stage with Annika’s help was such a great opportunity. Each day I gained something new from Annika’s depth of experience and I definitely became a better rider because of it. Thinking back on those memories and experiences has helped me prepare and build confidence for the Absa Cape Epic. Annika and I have remained great friends and I know that she will continue to support me as Sofia and I take on the Absa Cape Epic in 2022.”

The third Specialized Factory Racing team are wild-cards for the overall race, but are likely to be on support duties for Beers and Blevins. If the race progresses smoothly for the squad leaders, or ends in disaster early on, Nortje and Mason will be free to fly. “Last year was my first Absa Cape Epic” Nortje stated. “It was something I had been wanting to do since I first started cycling.”

“Unfortunately, my partner, Wessel Botha, had to pull out before the last day and that gave me a chance to race my own race on Stage 7,” he continued. “I managed to get away with the front guys and stay with them the whole stage. More importantly than staying with them even was the fact that I felt very comfortable with the pace. Being able to stay upfront on the last day showed me that I was capable of more than I thought and this gave me a lot of confidence for the 2022Absa Cape Epic.”

Mason continues the trend of recent years, set by Specialized Factory Racing bringing Tom Pidcock to the 2020 Absa Cape Epic. “Since I joined Trinity and saw that Tom was given the opportunity to ride the race, I knew it was something I had to do” Mason enthused. “I remember watching the Absa Cape Epic through old Specialized YouTube videos when I was a youth and loved how diverse the racing was but also how hard it looked. I think the volume will be a challenge for me but I am very excited to ride all the new trails and terrain that the race has to offer.” Mountain biking fans can follow the progress and fortunes of the Specialized Factory Racing team, as well as all their rivals, from the 20th to the 27th of March 2022 on