The Men’s category is set for a thrilling finale after Olympic cross-country champion Nino Schurter and teammate Matthias Stirnemann (SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing) claimed their first stage win of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic on Friday.
Thanks to another strong ride they also moved into the overall race lead after the 84km Stage 5.
Second on the day was previous stage winners Michiel van der Heidjen and Andri Frischknecht (SCOTT-SRAM Young Guns), giving the SCOTT teams excellent back-to-back victories.
Third went to Christoph Sauser and Jaroslav Kulhavy (Investec-Songo-Specialized) who had dropped back to nearly two minutes behind Schurter and Stirnemann at one stage but fought magnificently to finish 17 seconds behind on the day.
Fumic and Avancini lose Cape Epic lead
After five superb days, it was eventually a mediocre day for Manuel Fumic and Henrique Avancini (Cannondale Factory Racing XC). They’ve held the yellow zebra jersey since Sunday’s Prologue, but a puncture and bad day on the bike for Avancini handed the overall race lead to Schurter and Stirneman. Thanks to a ninth-place finish on the day, Fumic and Avancini have dropped to third overall, while Sauser and Kulhavy lurk in second, just 50 seconds off the front in the overall race.
On another fast day, SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing had to dig deep for the stage win, as Sauser (who was feeling off his game for the first half of the stage) and Kulhavy chased to the bitter end.
Stirnemann was left breathless after crossing the line, and had to take a few minutes to compose himself before talking to the media.
“The stage win feels great, especially after the start I had,” said Stirnemann. “In the beginning I was really struggling for rhythm. It took me quite a while to get started, but I think after the first climb of the day I started feeling much better. It was fast again from the start. In fact the whole stage was hard going…” After trailing off, he asked the waiting media to excuse him while he took time to recover.
Schurter on the other hand looked ready for another 84km. “It’s absolutely amazing to win the stage,” he said. “On the first big climb of the day I noticed that Christoph was struggling; that’s when we decided to go for it. Both the SCOTT teams were feeling good, so it’s great that we have now taken two stages for the team.”
After moving into yellow, Schurter expects an exciting finish to the Absa Cape Epic. “The yellow zebra jersey is obviously a bonus,” he said. “The cross-country guys have really been doing well at the Absa Cape Epic this year; we’re happy to continue the form. Tomorrow though; anything can happen. We look forward to it.”
Earlier in the day the pace was set by the all-South African pair of Matthys Beukes and Philip Buys (PYGA Euro Steel). Eager for a stage win, Beukes and Buys bolted out of the start chute, setting a high tempo from the word go. Unfortunately they suffered a torn sidewall, which put paid to their stage chances. Sauser meanwhile was struggling with an ailment and made an effort to conserve his energy.
“I felt horrible at the start,” said the five-time champion. “I felt slightly ill, had no rhythm and just couldn’t get going. It was suffering, but it was suffering of the highest level. The pace was fast and we just had to hang in. I always know what I don’t have at the start of the ride, I will have at the end of the ride, so I knew I just had to hang in there and everything would come right.”
With the SCOTT teams slowing slightly after their efforts today and yesterday, Sauser and Kulhavy were able to chase them down, though Sauser admits their tactics were slightly off. “Strategy-wise, I think we were actually too conservative on the day. We went a bit slowly on the trails, and in retrospect I should have lead Jaro through the trails because I know them so well. That was my only complaint for the day. Finishing strongly though definitely puts me in a better headspace for tonight and tomorrow.”
Stage 6 of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic is billed as the Queen Stage – the toughest of all seven. It features the daunting Groenlandberg climb and a number of vicious up and downs – perhaps a day for the marathon experts to exert some control.
“I wouldn’t say we are favourites,” says Sauser. “Everyone has shown that they are so strong this week; and the terrain is super rough out there. The potential for mechanicals is very high. Tomorrow is another wait and see day.”
Meanwhile, the 2017 pacesetter is sanguine about the remainder of the race. “We had some bad luck today, and my friend also struggled,” said Manuel Fumic. “But we made it, we kept fighting. That happens at these events. We are not disappointed at all; our performance has been amazing and we are very happy. Now, you know, there is no yellow jersey on us, so maybe tomorrow we have some fun. Now we party on the trails.”
Suss survives to hang on to the Cape Epic lead
“I thought it was the end of our race,” said Absa Cape Epic Hansgrohe Women’s category leader Jennie Stenerhag when describing her partner Esther Suss’s crash near the finish.
Suss was left lying on the ground tangled up in her bike just seven kilometres from the finish of Stage 5 after the crash. Meerendal CBC teammate Stenerhag had to help untangle her and eventually Suss was able to get up and rejoin the fight for a stage victory.
They eventually caught up with South African Robyn de Groot and her German partner Sabine Spitz (Ascendis Health) and the race ended in a sprint for the line. In spite of their third stage victory on Friday, time is running out for De Groot and Spitz to challenge for the Hansgrohe Women’s category title.
On the day De Groot and Spitz did everything they could – and even had some help from the unwitting male rider who caused Suss’s crash – but they could not make a significant dent in Meerendal’s almost 13-minute leed.
Saturday’s 103km Queen Stage, with a brutal 2 750m of vertical climbing, will be Ascendis Health’s last chance to haul themselves back into contention, but with just one short stage after that it seems likely Meerendal CBC will be crowned as champions at the finish in Sunday.
“It was quite tough out there today,” said Stenerhag after the finish. “Sabine and Robyn really put some pressure on us from the start, but we still managed to get the hotspot. After that it was very up and down. Sometimes they went super hard and then they eased off.
“We were all together near the end with about seven kays to go and we passed a group of men who had started ahead of us. They had stopped on the side to let us pass but the last guy, after Robyn had gone through, decided he was going to get back on to the singletrack and he got on right in front of Esther.
“She had no chance and tumbled with her bike on top of her.
“I thought it was the end of our race. We had to stop there and try to tangle her out of her bike first of all, and then get going. She is a little bit sore on her chest.
“We then had to go really hard and I put down everything I had to try and get back. We got back on with two kays to go and I am just really happy we came in together and did not lose any time after that crash.”
Suss said she expects to be ready for Saturday’s tough Queen Stage: “I think I will be okay. My chest is sore and shoulder is a bit stiff, I but will get a massage tonight and see how it is in the morning.”
De Groot was philosophical after the stage.
“We had no choice but to do our best to put them under pressure today. We have time to make up and we did our best. It was a really hard stage … from the start it was pretty intense.
“We hoped we would get away and we did away a couple of times, but not enough to make anything stay away.”
Stenerhag, while optimistic, was not prepared to take the victory of granted.
“Nothing is done until the end. I thought it was the end of our race out there today so you just never know. We have to wait until it really is over. We just have to stay with them and then try and not lose any time tomorrow and we will see.
“Absolutely I would have taken this lead at this point if we had been offered it at the start.”
Champions lead the Cape Epic Mixed
In the Virgin Active Mixed category, Jenny Rissveds and Thomas Frischknecht (Scott-Sram Nextlevel) enjoyed a huge victory on the stage and only a major disaster looks able to prevent them from taking that title when the race finishes at Val de Vie on Sunday.
Grant Usher and Amy Beth McDougall (joBerg2c-Valencia) are second, but with a 42-minute gap they have little realistic hope of a victory.