Defending champions Nino Schurter and Esther Süss both lost their partners on the Absa Cape Epic’s Stage 1 yesterday as the Untamed African MTB Race once again tore up the script.
On paper, the 110km/1900m course looked perfect for the marathon riders, but as we discovered yesterday the Absa Cape Epic is filled with surprises – and that’s exactly how the day played out.
The racing set off from Robertson’s Arabella Wine Estate at a blistering pace that was described as “dangerous” and “intense” by Karl Platt, who struggled in early parts of the stage.
Cross-country specialists Manuel Fumic and Henrique Avancini (Cannondale Factory Racing) entered the first water point in the lead followed closely by Alban Lakata and Kristian Hynek (Canyon Topeak) and overnight leaders Nicola Rohrbach and Daniel Geismayr (Centurion Vaude).
Despite the efforts of the yellow jersey wearers the Cannondale team kept the pace high and consolidated their early lead by attacking down the ‘Skid and Bones’ Land Rover Technical Terrain. Investec Songo Specialized’s Jaroslav Kulhavy and Howard Grotts followed in hot pursuit and managed to join Avancini/Fumic at the head of the race.
“Today was such a good day for us. We worked well with the Investec Songo Specialized guys and never went over our limit which is good,” said Avancini.
The cross-country quartet worked together for the remainder of the race and increased their lead to nearly six minutes at one point, much to the disbelief of the chasing team of Trek Selle San Marco 2’s Fabian Rabensteiner and Michele Casagrande, who would eventually secure the final step of the podium.
As the final 20km loomed the Czech Express assumed his characteristic position on the front of the pace line followed by Fumic, Avancini and Grotts, who appeared to be struggling in the final moments. The stage would eventually go to Cannondale Factory Racing who outfoxed Investec Songo Specialized in a sprint finish back at Arabella Wine Estate that handed them both the overall lead and yellow zebra jersey.
“It’s always nice to win a stage,” said Fumic. “And it’s great to be in yellow after a great ride today.”
Meanwhile, Schurter’s Scott-Sram partner Matthias Stirnemann took ill early in the stage and, in spite of finishing, will play no further part in the race. “Matthias suffered so much today. He has a stomach bug and wasn’t able to eat and keep anything down,” said Schurter. “He was completely empty and because of the infection he can’t continue the race.”
Yesterday’s leaders, Daniel Geismayr and Nicola Rohrbach of Centurion Vaude, also battled with the early pace but remain positive despite losing their overnight lead. “It was not a good day for us. We lost contact with the front riders and just couldn’t get back,” said Geismayr.
After a forgettable Prologue, Team BULLS put on a sterling display of grit, experience and determination to restore a glimmer of pride with a fifth-place finish. “I was so disappointed yesterday but you can never lose faith,” said Platt. This morning I struggled again and Urs (Huber) thought it was all over for this year’s Absa Cape Epic but suddenly I found my legs.”
After Sunday’s Prologue and Monday’s Stage 1 Cannondale Factory Racing lead Investec Songo Specialized on the general classification by 40.9 seconds. Centurion Vaude are third, 5.36,3 back and less than a minute ahead of Alban Lakata and Kristian Hynek of Canyon Topeak, in fourth.
In the Absa African Men’s special jersey race, Ellsworth-ASG’s HB Kruger and Stuart Marais bagged their first stage win of the race, beating Nico Bell and Matt Beers (NAD MTB) by half a second. However, Bell and Beers retain the red jersey.
“This is my first Absa Cape Epic, so to have been the first African team on the first real stage is a big occasion,” said Marais.
In the women’s race, multiple World Champion Annika Langvad and her young American partner Kate Courtney overcame a puncture to surge to a second successive victory.
The Investec Songo Specialized duo attacked early on the 110km stage. Despite a slow leak in Courtney’s back tyre, which at one point looked to have put their second victory in a row in danger, they were able to add to their lead from Sunday’s Prologue.
The pair finished the stage with a time of 4:45.22, while Langvad’s former partner Ariane Lüthi, riding with Githa Michiels, were second. After losing another 52 seconds on Monday, the Team Spur combination is now two minutes and four seconds off the pace.
The young Silverback-KMC team of Mariske Strauss and Annie Last enjoyed a strong final 30 kilometres of the stage to claim third for the day and third overall. The team Ascendis Health duo of Robyn de Groot and Sabine Spitz, who is suffering with a stomach bug, slipped back to fourth.
Langvad explained the mini drama which nearly derailed their stage: “Kate could feel that her rear wheel was leaking. We kept on riding for a bit but then she said: ‘No, we need to plug it.’ When we plugged it the second team caught us and they got a gap. We chased and got back to them and then on a climb we attacked and were able to keep it to the end.”
Courtney added: “Annika obviously has a lot of experience, but this is my first Absa Cape Epic and one of the first times I have been out there so long and responsible for my own equipment. She is teaching me a lot.”
Langvad, a four-time World Marathon Champion as well as a former Cross-Country World Champion, said the first long stage of the 2018 Absa Cape Epic was “hard” and “long” and that sentiment was shared by Lüthi.
“It was certainly a tough day out there today, but really beautiful riding,” said the rider who partnered Langvad to three wins in 2014, 2015 and 2016. “We could always see Annika and Kate ahead of us but we never quite managed to close the gap until they had their puncture. We then thought maybe we can take the stage if they take long enough to fix it, but they rode really, really strong and got back quickly – and still had enough to take the stage.”
Strauss and Last are now eight minutes behind the leaders, but have a healthy five-minute cushion over De Groot and Spitz, the same team they edged into third position in 2017.
But Stage 1 saw the end of any hope for defending champion Esther Süss when her Meerendal CBC partner Angelika Tazreiter was knocked off her bike by a rider from another batch who caught them. The crash injured Tazreiter‘s shoulder and she was forced to withdraw early on in the stage. Süss will continue wearing the newly renamed Leopard jersey for solo UCI riders.
The dormakaba team of Candice Lill and Amy Beth McDougall are lying fifth overall with a big lead in the inaugural Absa African Women’s special jersey race.
In the Dimension Data Masters category American road stars George Hincapie and Christian Vande Velde also fell victim to the vagaries of mountain biking when their charge for victory was halted by a series of punctures.
The misfortune to the Absa-WBR team allowed the relatively unheralded team of Massimo Debertolis and Ondrej Fojtik (Wilier Force 7C 2) to take over the lead in the over-40s race, with Mornington Cycles/TRush’s Brad Clarke and Rohin Adams six minutes back in second and three minutes up on third placed Bart Brentjens and Abraao Azevedo (CST Sandd A. Eagle AAZ).
A disappointed Vande Velde was philosophical about the outcome after they seemed to be extending their lead over the first half of the 110km stage.
“It was very hard day, given the circumstances,” said the American. “We actually were riding really good today until George got a flat on one of the rocky descents. We plugged it once, and then plugged it twice and it started working and were pretty happy with that.
“Then it started losing air and went down again and he pretty much rode a flat to the second water stop and we had a mechanic fix it. We thought we were good to go but the plug came out. We then put a tube in – it was just unbelievable. Every time we fixed it and worked really hard to catch back up, it would go flat again.”
In the Grand Masters category, South African Robert Sim and former Giro d’Italia stage winner Udo Boelts from Germany (Robert Daniel) extended their lead when they beat Barti Bucher and Hans Juerg Gerber (Meerendal CBC 2) by over seven minutes and are now more than 10 minutes clear.
Cycle Lab KTM’s Andrew Mclean and Joel Stransky finished third and have moved up to third overall, but are a distant 31 minutes behind the leaders.
In the Virgin Active Mixed category, the Argentinian pair of Agustina Maria Apaza and Cesar Lettoli (Merida Argentina) fought back over the closing kilometres of the stage to win for the second day in a row.
Midway through the stage, Journey by Junto’s Nicky Giliomee and Brennan Anderson were making inroads into the Argentinian’s lead, but the South Africans’ could not keep up the pressure and ended the stage 38 seconds behind and are now over four minutes back on general classification. Meerendal CBC’s Heinz Posch and Nina Brenn are a distant third, 18 minutes behind the leaders.
In the Exxaro special jersey race, Lucky Mlangeni and Tshepo Tlou (Exxaro/PWC) extended their lead beating Luyansa Thobigunya and Baphelele Mbobo (BMT Fairtree Academy) by over fifteen minutes and are now more than 20 minutes clear. Exxaro/RMB’s Rilamulele Gadabeni and Patrick Rengange finished third, maintaining their position on the overall podium, just over 10 seconds behind second place.