Morton is no stranger to South Africa, having ridden for Team Dimension Data (now Team NTT) for two seasons. Howes, who has spent his entire professional career with the Slipstream Sports organisation which manages EF Education First Pro Cycling, is the reigning American road champion. Both riders have mountain biking experience and took on the Leadville 100 in 2019. The 100-mile mountain bike race takes place at altitude, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and saw Morton finish third and Howes fifth.
Speaking about his experiences racing away from the WorldTour peloton in 2019, ahead of his debut at the Absa Cape Epic Morton said: “I loved it, sponsors loved it and I don’t really mind what the peloton thinks. The most important thing for me is that the wider cycling community enjoyed it and it gave everyone involved a chance to cross the void between professional men’s road cycling and the majority of bike users.”
There is, of course, a major difference between racing a single day mountain bike marathon and taking on the world’s premier mountain bike stage race. Thus, entering the race is not a decision he took lightly. “I’ve thought about it a lot after spending time in Cape Town a few years ago” Morton revealed. “The big drawcard for me is to see the level the top mountain bikers bring to such a big race. When I thought about adventure cycling, the Absa Cape Epic was always the event that popped into my head. Coming up in cycling, I thought it was a pipe dream, I can't wait to realise that dream.”
To prepare for racing across the rocky trails of the Western Cape this March, Morton and Howes planned to spend a significant amount of time on their mountain bikes leading up to the race. “I planned on spending a large amount of time on my MTB this off-season,” Morton said. “But situations change and I’m currently without it. I'm hoping an intense training period before the race will bring me up as close to below scratch as possible. I'm under no illusions that I’ll be able to mix it with the front guys on the rough stuff. Alex will, he’s mad. He also was the guy who taught me how to cut and tie tubes when you’re stuck. So in the case of a puncture, if we have to put a tube in he’ll be doing that part; I'm happy to pump.”
That team dynamic will be put to the test in the Absa Cape Epic when Morton and Howes will only have each other to rely upon. “We are pretty close and got a feel for that in Leadville and Dirty Kanza” Morton reflected of his partnership with Howes. “If there is any guy on the team that I want to go to the Absa Cape Epic with, it's Howes. Fewer guys often means less stress, but also added pressure. It sounds strange as they are similar emotions, but I cope with the latter much better.”
In recent years, the Absa Cape Epic has attracted several former WorldTour professionals, including Dimension Data Masters category winners Joaquim Rodriguez, Cadel Evans and George Hincapie. They have proved they still have that competitive flame burning brightly. As do the EF Education First riders, though they have more in common with 2019 UCI Women’s champion Anna van der Breggen, as they will return to the road after their mountain biking adventure. “If a pro or former pro pins a number on, you better believe that if they can go full gas, they will” Morton pointed out. “In our situation, it’s just where our full gas gets us. I don’t expect us to be anywhere near Nino [Schurter] and it’s stupid to think so. I have so much respect for what top mountain bikers are capable of, physically and technically.”
Morton and Howes will be aided in their bid to finish the Absa Cape Epic by having the choice of Cannondale’s superb mountain biking machines. With rumours abound that the American brand would be releasing a new version of their Scalpel-Si full-suspension cross-country bike in 2020, mountain biking fans would be eager to note what the EF Education First riders will be racing on at the Untamed African MTB Race. Morton, however, would not be drawn into dropping any hints. “I’ll be riding a Cannondale Super 6 with 33’s and a dropper” the Australian joked.