Inside the Cape Epic with Haley Batten and Sofia Gomez Villafañe
If they win, the duo will be the second and third American women in history to land on the top step of the South African race.
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In a field of 15 elite women’s teams, Americans Haley Batten and Sofia Gomez Villafañe are standout favorites at this week’s Cape Epic.
The duo, who both ride for Specialized, will face stiff competition from South African riders, as well as a team led by Pauline Ferrand-Prèvot, and two squads from Liv Racing, but they’re confident that their on-ground support, solid winter training, and in-race communication could land them on the top step.
Related: Who to watch at this year’s Cape Epic
Batten, 23, will focus on World Cups in the upcoming season, while Gomez Villafañe, 27, has her sights set on big races in many disciplines. Performing well at the Cape Epic is a season goal for both.
In addition to sporting the Specialized logo on their kit, the women will also be riding in support of Songo.info, 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 from their pre-race accommodations in Stellenbosch.
VeloNews: What has winter training been like for you two?
Haley Batten: I actually went back to school in Squamish BC. It’s definitely been a bit different than my winter last year, but it was nice to get back into a routine of going to school and doing all that. I also got in some good skills training there and have had some really nice breaks as well where I was back in Santa Cruz and got in some good endurance training. Definitely with this event on my calendar, it’s super important that I go in really strong and well-prepared in endurance, and a good base season is a big part of that. Although I was on the trainer a bit more than I was last season I think that I’m still really well prepared and ready to take on this big event.
Sofia Gomez Villafañe: My winter has been really good. Keegan [Swenson] and I went to Tucson a lot earlier than normal. We normally go at the beginning of the year but this year we were there in November, so I had a good December through early March there. For me, this base season I focused more on my tempo and riding hard all day. That really has to do with the fact that I’m switching more to gravel and marathon kind of racing but the training for it is actually perfect for what we’re about to embark on.
VN: Have you stage raced together? How will you complement each other, and what could potential tension points be?
Batten: We haven’t. Sofia’s going into a whole new event and series in the US, and I think that type of style and racing will really lend a hand to how strong she’ll be at this event. That’s a big reason why I wanted to team up with her for this. I really think that although we haven’t stage raced together, she has the strength. We’ve actually known each other for a long time and so I think we’ll be really compatible. We’ve already been able to ride the trails here and spend a lot of time leading into the Cape Epic together, and I think the way we communicate and our riding together it’s gonna be a really good matchup and I’m really looking forward to that
Gomez Villafañe: Like Haley said, everything is really positive. The only possible pinch point or tension point is making sure that our communication during the race stays open and that, if someone’s having a bad day, that we really focus on talking about that so we’re not just ripping each other’s legs off. You really want to make sure you communicate with your partner and that you work together to have a fast overall time rather than having one be redlined. The prologue and the first few stages are important, but really those last three days….the Cape Epic is a race that you lose not a race that is really won on certain key days.
VN: Who are you most intrigued by as competitors?
Batten: It’s gonna be a really exciting race. We have some local riders that know the terrain quite well and that’s gonna be a tool in their pocket, then we have Pauline [Ferrand Prevot] and some really good marathon racers as well that I’ve raced against including Ariane Lüthi in the Swiss Epic so I think we know there’s some really strong girls here and I’m really excited about that, it’ll raise the bar for us as well and allow us to really focus and dial in our prep and make sure we’re absolutely dialed for each day. At the end of the day, it’s up to me and Sofia and how we work together and making sure we use both of our strengths and make sure we’re both our best each day as a team. It’s not up to the individual riders it’s really up to how we ride together. It’s all about communicating and doing that well and I think that’s where the strongest team will win.
Gomez Villafañe: I’m the most intrigued about haley and I! I just can’t wait. The new thing this year is the prologue is a new course, new location, no one has really raced it. So we don’t know what a fast time is. Because it’s new it creates a whole new start to the race, where something that used to be super predicable for everyone is changed. The TT is a little harder so it’ll be interesting to see what times happen.
It’s good to see a lot of other Americans here too with Crystal [Anthony], Kaysee [Armstrong], and Serena [Bishop-Gordon]. It’s always good to have a strong American based-bontingency. It’ll be a good women’s race for sure.
VN: Is this the same course you rode last year Sofia?
Gomez Villafañe: The course always changes. The TT was always the same but that’s changed this year. Different towns, different trails, a completely new atmosphere. I think this year will be a lot more trails whereas last year was a bit more on fire road. I think that will bring a new aspect because speed won’t be as high. That will be interesting and obviously after the TT and the first day which is the queen stage it will be interesting to see what the times are and then really if there’s a clear leader, how much of a challenge people want to put up for stage wins.
VN: What do you like and dislike about stage racing versus say, World Cup-style events?
Batten: I actually love stage racing. I feel like every time we go to cool places whether it’s a World Cup or just traveling, I’m always finding ways to route on Strava and on my Wahoo how I can explore the best trails and the climbs and see everything in a short period of time. But when you’re preparing for a World Cup, you really need to save every match and prep for that one day and being able to go fully max for an hour and a half. So for me, these events are kinda like my dream of how I get to explore an area by having five hour rides every day in the coolest, most beautiful places. I feel like that’s really the true definition of mountain biking — that we get to fully explore a place and embrace what the sport has to offer.
Gomez Villafañe: It’s nice to have a goal. It’s such an early season goal that it actually makes you a lot more motivated in base training. World Cup racing is crazy, you need to do it a lot and go through that whole process — junior racing, then U23 then the elite to feel really comfortable. For me, it’s something I haven’t had the opportunity to do much of so I still get pretty overwhelmed in a World Cup. But at a stage race like this, you’re out for a very long time in very hot conditions so it’s a little bit easier to manage in that sense. It’s a different type of riding and I think the cool thing is we also get to share it with like 500 people out there doing the exact same course.
VN: What are your big goals for the 2022 season?
Batten: Honestly the Cape Epic is a big goal for me this season. Especially with Specialized’s women having performed so well at this event with Annika [Langvad, five-time winner] and Sina and Laura [Frei and Stigger, 2021 winners] doing so well last year, taking that challenge on is something that really excites me. I think Sofia and I are capable of performing 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 performing and building on what I was able to accomplish at World Cups last year and my eyes are definitely on world champs next year and seeing if I can come out and show that I’m strong at one of those large single day events.
Gomez Villafañe: For me, obviously the Cape Epic is also a huge goal but with the new program I’m one, Specialized Off-Road, what I really wanted was to be a professional cyclist and get to dabble in a lot of disciplines. Things I’m targeting — from the Cape Epic to eBike worlds and gravel worlds and Unbound. They’re such opposite spectrums of the sport yet I’m on a team that supports and actually encourages me dabbling in a bunch of disciplines.
Although Haley and I have completely different goals after march 27th, it’s amazing how beneficial this is going to be for both of us to build upon for the rest of the season.