Race debutants Andri Frischknecht and Michiel Van der Heijden (SCOTT-SRAM Young Guns), with a whole lot of help from 2016 Olympic champion Nino Schurter and partner Matthias Stirnemann (SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing), ruled the day on Stage 4 of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic.
The SCOTT-SRAM Young Guns crossed the line first in a time of 4:10.00,3 with Schurter and Stirnemann popping wheelies (almost into the fencing) right behind them.
Overall leaders Manuel Fumic and Henrique Avancini (Cannondale Factory Racing XC) finished third on the day, two-and-a-half minutes off the pace. Their time was enough to retain the yellow zebra leader jersey, though.
How it happened: Stage 4 of the Cape Epic
Stage 4 of the Absa Cape Epic was a 112km trek from Elandskloof near Greyton to Oak Valley Wine Estate in Elgin. It was a day that most expected marathon men Christoph Sauser and Jaroslav Kulhavy (Investec-Songo-Specialized) to make their move and knock the cheeky cross-country kings off their perch.
Instead, it was cross-country star Schurter who threw down the gauntlet, and in doing so helped guide his younger team of Frischknecht (the 2015 Swiss under-23 cross-country champion) and Van der Heijden (the 2014 under-23 cross-country world champion) to a surprise stage victory.
“We never ride with a plan – we just like to ride,” said Schurter. “Today it worked out very well for both our teams, so that’s fantastic. The last big climb was terrible, very sandy, but both our teams seemed to manage it best and we were able to get away.”
The day started cool and overcast – a relief for the riders who have baked in the high temperatures since the Prologue – but as has been the case since the start, the race pace was hot again. For most of the day the elite bunch stayed together, until the surprise leaders of Hector Paez and Max Knox (Kansai Plascon) emerged at the front of the pack. The pair appeared strong and three hours into the day’s racing they had forced a gap of 45 seconds between them and the chasing pack.
The Botrivier Pass, though, had the final say in the matter, as teams took strain up the sandy climb. Both SCOTT teams managed the climb best, while once over the top Investec-Songo-Specialized suffered a torn sidewall. “We woke up this morning with the intention of making a move, and trying to ride into the yellow jersey,” said Sauser. “Jaro must have ridden over 1000 rocks today and right at the end he managed to hit one that tore his sidewall. We used two plugs, but still kept losing air. We put a third plug in, but it cost us a lot of time. Tomorrow will be tough to make up time, but there is still the big stage on Saturday to come.”
Sauser added that, “The racing is fast and very exciting, but to be honest I’d rather have a boring race and be in the lead!”
In contrast, stage winner Andri Frischknecht, was thrilled to have an exciting day’s racing. “We are very happy and very surprised. When we looked at the stage – 112km – our main aim was just to survive. But this stage win is amazing; super cool. Riding with Nino and Matthias was great motivation, and when we managed the last sandy climb quite well, we started to think that we could take the stage. It was horrible (up the climb) but we made it!”
Despite appearing to struggle in the latter half of the day, and finishing third on the stage, overall leader Manual Fumic was upbeat about Cannondale Factory Racing XC’s ride. “We thought Nino and Matthias would go for it today, so we just wanted to keep Susi and Jaro in check,” he said.
“We managed to do that pretty well for most of the day, so we are happy again with the result. We weren’t too worried with Scott making up time; we knew we had a decent gap on them. Today was all about managing the pace and keeping Investec-Songo-Specialized close. I would definitely say it’s another good day for us. It’s a long way till Sunday, so today we did not want to waste too much energy.”
When asked why the cross-country teams are doing so well at the 2017 Absa Cape Epic, Fumic replied with a wink and a grin, “Well, we are just the better mountain bikers.”
Want to know more? All results are online.
Advantage: Suss and Stenerhag
The pendulum in the Hansgrohe Women’s category at the Absa Cape Epic swung a little more toward a victory for Esther Suss and Jennie Stenerhag (Meerendal CBC) on Thursday with the duo adding another three minutes 40 seconds to their lead after the 112km Stage 4 from Greyton to Elgin.
The Meerendal CBC pair were able to take advantage of some bad luck at a crucial point in Thursday’s race when Sabine Spitz sliced the sidewall of her front tyre and she and partner Robyn de Groot (Ascendis Health) were forced to let the race leaders ride off into the distance.
Ascendis Health’s problems also allowed the young Hansgrohe Cadence OMX Pro team of Mariske Strauss and Annie Last to claim second position on the stage, three minutes behind the race leaders, and consolidate their third position overall.
The disaster happened about 85km into the stage near the beginning of the long 15km Botrivier Pass, the main climb of the day just as the leading teams were starting to make their push for victory.
“We had a really bad sidewall cut pretty much on the pressure point on the day,” said Spitz’s partner, South African Robyn de Groot. “It was just really bad luck and our day changed from a matter of trying to gain anything we could on the leaders, to rather trying to limit our losses.
“The first portion of the climb was quite sandy with some sharp rocks and Sabine must have hit one at just the wrong angle. Her tyre was cut badly and went flat straight away.
“I don’t know how much time we lost. We were just too busy trying to get it right so we did not have to stop again.”
Stenerhag was content to take the win and even more pleased to have extended their overall lead to a solid 12 minutes 40 seconds with just three stages remaining.
“Obviously we are happy with the win,” said Stenerhag. “It is not that nice to win because of somebody else’s bad luck, but it is all racing and we have to be happy with the win and extend our lead a little bit.
“The stage wasn’t as hard as I expected. Almost all the ladies teams were together for the first 70km or something so it wasn’t that fast. But then obviously at the end with all the climbing that was hard.”
Although in a strong position with just three days of racing left, the Swede, who was forced to withdraw last year with health problems, is all too aware that things can still go wrong.
“We always want to win the stages and extend the lead as much as we can so we will keep riding hard tomorrow and not ride conservatively. It is mountain biking and you saw what happened to the others today – you are never safe.”
Combrinck, Bell close red jersey gap at Absa Cape Epic
After a day of mixed riding conditions on Stage 4 of the Absa Cape Epic, PYGA Euro Steel riders Philip Buys and Matthys Beukes still hold onto the Absa African special jersey, while NAD Pro MTB (Nico Bell and Gawie Combrinck) made a dash to claim a top 10 spot on the stage.
Diepsloot MTB Academy (William Mokgopo and Phillimon Sebona) flew triumphantly over the finish to extend their lead for the Exxaro special jersey to over an hour. The leading all-African women’s team of Vera Adrian and Candice Lill (dormakaba) experienced yet another strong stage to add to their dream Absa Cape Epic debut.
Riding as support team for Investec-Songo-Specialized, NAD Pro MTB raced hard on the day to finish ninth with a time of 4:16.39,3.
Combrink was happy after the strong result. “Today was more of a marathon stage, so if you were smart you could hide away in the bunch. We were just in the front at the right times and Nico really set a tough pace. In the end, guys really got going but being in the front made it a little easier for us.
“Our goal was just to stay in the front and support Christoph Sauser and Jaroslav Kulhavy if they had problems. We want to be right there to help if they they have any mechanical issues,” said Combrinck.
The NAD Pro MTB pair were well prepared to keep up with the pace of the front runners.
“Conditions were good. It had been raining nonstop last month in Nelspruit so we are used to cooler temperatures. Today was a little less punchy so it suited us better,” added Combrinck.
PYGA Euro Steel have managed keep the Absa African special jersey, though. Having a healthy overall lead in the category, the South Africans could afford small mishaps. Although they finished 15th for Stage 4, they still lead the chase for the special jersey. They are nearly 17 minutes in front of NAD Pro MTB in overall time.
Buys says he is happy to have the Absa African special jersey heading into Stage 5, but admits Stage 4 didn’t go according to plan.
“Before we started that long climb I was a bit off the pace. There was a particular area where we went over what I think was a piece of fence, and it looked like half of the bunch got caught out by it too. So from there we had to chase them all over again just as we started with the climb so it was tough going,” said Buys.
Buys continued that in spite of PYGA Euro Steel’s mediocre day, there is no need to change strategy and a stage win is still possible.
Meanwhile, Diepsloot MTB Academy are growing in confidence. With a lead that is worth over an hour in time, the Exxaro special jersey leaders are among the few content teams on the Absa Cape Epic. Their time today was 5:09.13,9.
Sebona said, “Yesterday was a very strong day; today we continued with that strength. It wasn’t easy though because we spent some long hours out there on the saddle, but everything is going according to plan.”
His partner Mokgopo, added, “Today, the most important thing was keeping consistency and pacing ourselves from the start and we did that. We weren’t trying to kill the legs today because I think the test is going to be stage six where we are going to try as hard as we can because we only have one day to go, so we can risk whatever we have. If we manage to build up an hour’s gap then I think we can afford to play around.
The dormakaba riders Vera Adrian and Candice Lill finished fifth yet again. The pair have looked fit every day of this year’s Cape Epic, collecting a time of 5:14.42,6 on Stage 4.
Candice Lill explained the conditions on Stage 4, “ In the beginning it was a lot of open roads and quite windy so being in the group it was a bit difficult because you had to fight for position all the time to stay out the wind and there were even a couple of crashes.
“Then there was a point when it got really hard and we did not make that break, so we were in the second group, but I think we still rode strong and maybe made a bit of time on the leaders near the end.”
Evans and Hincapie having a ball at the Absa Cape Epic
“This is an absolutely fantastic event. I have raced for some 20 years on the road and mountain bike and I have never ever experience anything like the Absa Cape Epic.”
Those are the words of Cadel Evans, a man who has seen nearly all there has to be seen in cycling. Besides his heralded Tour de France win he was a professional mountain biker in his time and was twice a World Cup series winner.
Evans’s Absa Cape Epic partner is road racing veteran George Hincapie (BMC Absa Racing). It is Hincapie’s first ever mountain bike stage race but they are third in the Dimension Data Masters category and clearly enjoying themselves.
“This is a completely new experience for me. This is not only my first Cape Epic, but also my first time in South Africa and I am loving every moment of the experience,” said Evans.
Evans and Hincapie have won stages 3 and 4 in the Dimension Data Masters’ category. They are now third in a very competitive category.
“At one stage today (Stage 4) it felt like a road race because of the big bunch riding and open roads. George being a 99.9% road cyclist did really well today! He is actually doing an awesome job,” added Evans
Hincapie said: “The Absa Cape Epic is certainly something new. It is a lot harder than I expected or thought it would be for sure. I will be in shape again at the end of the race!
“With it being my first time in South Africa I would have loved to look around while we are riding and try to appreciate the beauty of it, but these guys are really racing hard so there is no time to look around. I am staying a week longer in the country so will use that time to have a look around.”
For many years mountain bikers have labelled the Absa Cape Epic as the Tour de France of mountain biking. Evans, as a former winner of the Tour, believes there is some truth in this.
“Firstly I believe the Absa Cape Epic should pride itself on its uniqueness with regards to the racing environment and the event that it is. But in terms of prestige, endurance and the event being the pinnacle of the sport, yes, the Absa Cape Epic is the Tour de France on the mountain bike stage racing, especially in a non-Olympic year.”