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Americans Courtney and Grotts make Cape Epic history

By Matt Miller • Published
Kate Courtney and Howard Grotts celebrate their wins at the 2018 Absa Cape Epic. Photo by Michal Cerveny, courtesy of Specialized.

Kate Courtney and Howard Grotts became the first Americans to win the Absa Cape Epic mountain bike stage race, sealing their victories Sunday in Paarl, South Africa.

The eight-day, 435-mile mountain bike race is unique in that it requires all riders to team up with a partner and ride together for the entire race. It’s often seen as a key early season test for the world’s best cross-country racers.

Courtney, 22, partnered with world champion and Cape Epic veteran Annika Langvad from Denmark to take the gold in pro women’s field. This is Langvad’s fourth time racing and winning the Cape Epic, but her first time racing it with Courtney.

“This is my very first Cape Epic with a different partner. It was kind of a mental reset for me. I couldn’t just cruise on a rhythm that I already knew. I had to create a new partnership with Kate,” said Langvad.

Olympic champion Jaroslav Kulhavy, from the Czech Republic, teamed up with Grotts, 25, from Durango, Colorado to take gold in the pro men’s race. It’s Grotts’s second year racing the Cape Epic. His partner, Kulhavy, added this win to two previous titles in 2013 and 2015. Those two, as well as Courtney and Langvad, ride for the Specialized XC team.

Started in 2004, the Cape Epic has become the most anticipated cross-country stage race in mountain biking. It was granted UCI status in 2005, which made it the only team race with UCI backing at that time. The race requires that each two-person team ride together at all times.

Since then, it’s maintained the long-distance stages and thousands of feet of climbing every day. This year the course included nearly 50,000 feet of climbing.

“It’s something that’s been on my bucket list for a long time,” said Courtney.

This year is the first that she raced the Cape Epic. Courtney raced U23 at the World Cup from 2014-2017. Last year she won Val di Sole, Mont Sainte Anne, Lenzerheide, and Nove Mesto na Morave. At the World Cup opener in Stellenbosch, South Africa on March 10, she raced elite for the first time and placed 24th.

Courtney and Langvad finished with an overall time of 29:57:06 with a 46-minute gap between them and the next female finishers, Sabine Spitz and Robyn De Groot. They swept stages 1-6 and finished fourth in stage 7.

“[Anika’s] obviously a very talented cross country and marathon rider, but I think the Cape Epic is something entirely different, honestly,” said Courtney about Langvad. “It requires a lot of know-how and experience that I haven’t gotten yet, but she’s very talented at sharing that and has been a huge mentor to me so far.”

Grotts and Kulhavy finished with a time of 25:29:48 with a 10-minute margin between them and the next male finishers, Alban Lakata and Kristian Hynek. They had stage wins on five and six.

“We just stayed in control and didn’t take any risks on the descents,” Grotts said in a video after stage 7.

At the end of an intense week of racing, Courtney expressed relief in finishing without any major complications.

“I felt like I held my breath for eight days, just trying to hang on, not have any issues, not get sick, not have a mechanical, not get hurt,” she said.

Before this year, the race had only seen one American on the podium: Ex-professional road racer George Hincapie won the 2017 masters category with Australian Tour de France champion Cadel Evans.

The 2019 edition is already slated for March 17-24 of 2019. Lottery applications are open now until May 30. According to the Absa Cape Epic website, the early bird entries and lotteries are the “most common methods to secure an entry.” The event is expected to sell out.

Courtney, Langvad, and Kulhavy plan to race the full World Cup schedule this summer. Grotts will stick to a mostly U.S. racing schedule, but is expected to race in Val di Sole, Andorra, La Bresse, and the World Championships in Lenzerheide.

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