Cape Town - Swiss rider Christoph Sauser has declared the Absa Cape Epic the “greatest mountain bike race in the world" after wrapping up his fourth title at Lourensford wine estate on Sunday.
GALLERY: Absa Cape Epic Stage 7
“If you look at the media, and the fans, and the support, we become like superstars, being on television every day,” Sauser said after the final stage.
“This is the greatest race in the whole world. It's bigger now than the world cup and the world championships.
"Today we had four helicopters circling above us - at the world championships you are lucky if there is one - and the competition is so strong now."
Beset by mechanical failures on stages one and two, and losing time by taking a wrong turn on stage three, Sauser and his teammate, Olympic cross country champion Jaroslav Kulhavy, faced a seemingly impossible deficit of almost nine minutes behind the powerful Bulls team of Karl Platt and Urs Huber, who had the Bulls 2 and 3 teams in support.
The turning point for Sauser and Kulhavy came on the fourth stage when the Bulls teams went radically off course, confused by signs relating to the next day's stage.
In a controversial ruling, they were credited with time, but Platt and Huber lost the yellow jersey, and Sauser and Kulhavy never looked back, increasing the lead each day until they were more than seven minutes clear at the finish line.
Sauser's sentiments were shared by his rival, Platt, leader of the Bulls 1 team, who finished second overall.
“This race is so special to me, it is what made me famous as a racer,” Platt said.
“But every year it gets harder and harder to win the yellow jersey. You can't think about it and you can't plan your race, you just have to stay focused every day.”
The race was an emotional roller-coaster from the start for Sauser, riding with Kulhavy in memory of his former partner, Burry Stander, the brilliant young South African who was killed in a training accident in January.
Kulhavy, a teammate with Stander at Team Specialized, joined Sauser in a spur-of-the-moment decision to take part in the gruelling race, but nothing could have prepared him for what lay ahead.
“It is incredible, something I have never felt before," Kulhavy said.
"To race for eight days... every morning you wake up in the camper van, and there is another day ahead. It's so hard to be strong for eight days.”
Jaroslav Kulhavy (left) and Christoph Sauser hold up their trophy (Greg Beadle/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS)