Inside the Cape Epic starring Haley Batten and Sofia Gomez Villafane

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In a field of 15 elite women’s teams, Americans Haley Batten and Sofia Gomez Villafañe are the standout favorites at this week’s Cape Epic.

The duo, both riding for Specialized, will face stiff competition from South African riders as well as a team led by Pauline Ferrand-Prèvot and two teams from Liv Racing, but they are confident their support is solid on site during winter training and communication during the race could take them to the top level.

Related: Who to see at this year’s Cape Epic

Batten, 23, will be focusing on World Cups in the coming season, while Gomez Villafañe, 27, has his sights set on big races in many disciplines. A good performance at the Cape Epic is a season goal for both of them.

As well as sporting the Specialized logo on their gear, the women will support, a social development program that uses sport and education to provide opportunities for children in the Stellenbosch region of South Africa.

We caught up with Batten and Gomez Villafañe at their pre-race accommodation in Stellenbosch.

VeloNews: How was the winter training for both of you?

Haley Batten: I actually went back to school in Squamish BC. It was definitely a bit different than my winter last year, but it was nice to get back into the routine of going to school and doing all of that. I also got a good skill workout there and also had some really nice breaks when I was back in Santa Cruz and did a good cardio workout. With this event on my calendar it’s definitely super important that I go into endurance really strong and well prepared and a good base season is a big part of that. Even though I’ve been a bit more on the coach than last season, I think I’m still very well prepared and ready to face this big event.

Sofia Gomez Villafane: My winter was really good. Keegan [Swenson] and I went to Tucson much earlier than usual. We usually go early in the year but this year we were there in November so I had a good December to early March there. This base season I’ve been more focused on my pace and been riding hard all day. It really has to do with me transitioning more into gravel and marathon racing, but the training for that is actually perfect for what we’re tackling now.

VN: Did you do stage races together? How will they complement each other and what could be potential points of tension?

bar: We dont have. Sofia is competing in a whole new event and series in the US and I think that kind of style and racing will really help how strong she will be in this event. That’s a big reason I wanted to partner with her on this. I really think she has the power even though we haven’t done any stage races together. We’ve actually known each other for a long time and I think we’ll be a very good match. We’ve already been able to ride the trails here and spend a lot of time leading into Cape Epic together and I think the way we communicate and the way we ride together is going to be a really good matchup that I’m really looking forward to that

Gomez Villafane: Like Haley said, everything is really positive. The only potential sticking point or point of tension is to make sure our communication stays open throughout the race and that if someone is having a bad day, we really focus on talking about it so we’re not just tearing our legs apart. You should really make sure that you are communicating with your partner and that you are working together to have a quick overall time rather than having a redline. The prologue and first few stages are important, but really those last three days… the Cape Epic is a race to lose, not a race to really win on certain key days.

VN: Who fascinates you most as a competitor?

Bar: It’s going to be a really exciting race. We have some local riders who know the terrain pretty well and that will be a tool in their pocket, then we have Pauline [Ferrand Prevot] and also some really good marathon runners that I’ve raced against including Ariane Lüthi in the Swiss Epic so we know there are some really strong girls here and I’m really happy about that it’s going to raise the bar for us well and allow us to really focus and dial in our preparation and make sure we are absolutely dialed in for each day. At the end of the day it’s up to me and Sofia how we work together and make sure we leverage our two strengths and make sure we do our best as a team every day. It’s not up to the individual riders, it’s really how we ride together. It’s all about communicating and doing it well, and I think that’s where the strongest team wins.

Gomez Villafane: I am most intrigued by Haley and I! I can barely wait for it. What’s new this year is that the prologue is a new track, a new place, nobody really rode. So we don’t know what fast time is. Because it’s new, it creates a whole new start for racing, changing something that used to be super predictable for everyone. The TT is a bit more difficult so it will be interesting to see what times happen.

It’s good to see a lot of other Americans here with Crystal [Anthony]Kaysee [Armstrong]and Serena [Bishop-Gordon]. It’s always good to have a strong American bontingency. It will be a good women’s race for sure.

VN: Is this the same circuit you drove in Sofia last year?

Gomez Villafane: The course is always changing. The TT has always been the same, but that has changed this year. Different cities, different trails, a completely new atmosphere. I think this year there will be a lot more trails while last year was a little bit more on fire roads. I think it will bring a new aspect because the speed will not be that high. That’s going to be interesting and of course after the TT and day one which is the queen stage it’s going to be interesting to see how the times are and then if there really is a clear leader in how much of a challenge people are willing to take on for stage wins .

VN: What do you like and dislike about stage races versus say World Cup like events?

Bar: I actually love stage races. I feel like every time we go somewhere cool, whether it’s a World Cup or just traveling, I always find ways to route on Strava and on my Wahoo as I explore the best trails and climbs and can see everything in a short time from time. But when you’re preparing for a World Cup, you really have to save up every game and prepare for that one day to max out for an hour and a half. So for me these events are kind of like my dream of exploring an area by doing five hour drives every day in the coolest and most beautiful places. I think that really is the true definition of mountain biking – being able to fully explore a place and embrace what the sport has to offer.

Gomez Villafane: IIt’s nice to have a goal. It’s such an early season goal that it actually makes you a lot more motivated in basic training. World cup racing is crazy, you have to do a lot and go through this whole process – junior races, then U23 and then elite, to really feel comfortable. For me it’s something I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to do, so I’m still pretty overwhelmed at a World Cup. But in a stage race like this you’re out in very hot conditions for a very long time, so it’s a bit more manageable in that regard. It’s a different way of riding and I think the cool thing is that we can also share it with about 500 people out there who are riding the exact same course.

VN: What are your big goals for the 2022 season?

Bar: To be honest, the Cape Epic is a big goal for me this season. Especially since the women from Specialized did so well at this event with Annika [Langvad, five-time winner] and Sina and Laura [Frei and Stigger, 2021 winners] Last year went so well, taking on this challenge is something that really excites me. I think that Sofia and I are able to do really well. As Sofia mentioned, this event itself is actually really good training and preparation for the rest of the season. My eyes are definitely on performance and what I was able to achieve at World Cups last year and my eyes are definitely on World Champions next year and if I can come out and show I’m strong at one of these big singles day events.

Gomez Villafane: For me, of course, the Cape Epic is also a big goal, but with the new program that I am, Specialized Off-Road, I really wanted to be a professional cyclist and try myself in many disciplines. Things I aim for – from Cape Epic to eBike worlds and Gravel worlds to Unbound. They’re such opposite spectrums of the sport, but I’m on a team that supports and actually encourages me to try a range of disciplines.

Although Haley and I have wildly different goals after March 27th, it’s amazing how beneficial it will be for both of us to build on that for the rest of the season.

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