The Olympic and world mountain bike champion Nino Schurter (SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing) continued his march towards a first Absa Cape Epic title with another stage win at the 2017 event.
Schurter and teammate Matthias Stirnemann were comfortable throughout Stage 6, winning ahead of South African Max Knox and his Colombian parter Hector Paez (Kansai Plascon). In doing so, they opened up a lead of almost seven minutes in the overall standings ahead of second-placed Christoph Sauser and Jaroslav Kulhavy (Investec-Songo-Specialized). Third on the day went to Nicola Rohrbach and Daniel Geismayr (Centurion Vaude 2.)
Stage 6 was labelled as the 2017 Absa Cape Epic’s Queen Stage – the toughest of the seven stages. Riders set off from Oak Valley Wine Estate and were soon confronted with the major obstacle of the day, a daunting and lengthy climb up the Groenlandberg.
Disaster for Sauser and Kulhavy
It was on the way down from that crest that Sauser and Kulhavy’s race was effectively ended, with the former suffering yet another puncture. It allowed SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing to open their lengthy time gap. That brings Sauser’s total number of flats to 8, “More than the rest of the top 10 teams” according to one of our insiders in the race.
“The plan was basically to stay with Investec-Songo-Specialized the whole day and make sure they didn’t get away from us,” said Schurter. “We thought they might make a move today, but after Christoph got a flat on the first major downhill, we were able to attack and get away. From there we just went like it was another cross-country race. For us, it’s been eight days of cross-country riding.”
Once again at this Absa Cape Epic, the pace was set at the start by South Africans Philip Buys and Matthys Beukes (PYGA Euro Steel). This time they were joined by Rohrbach and Geismayr.
By water point 2 the Centurion Vaude 2 pair had opened a 45 second gap between themselves and the chasing pack (PYGA Euro Steel again succumbing to their 2017 puncture curse), but soon after they were caught by SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing, the SCOTT-SRAM Young Guns and Kansai Plascon. The Young Guns then punctured with Kansai Plascon and Centurion Vaude 2 dropping off the pace after water point 3. For the final 5km it was all Schurter and Stirnemann.
“I don’t know what happened today, but it was much less suffering than yesterday! It was a good day on the bike,” said Stirnemann. “Every day I feel like I am getting stronger on the bike. I recovered well last night; that showed this morning when I could get my rhythm a lot quicker.”
By the time the riders returned to Oak Valley a big crowd had gathered, and there were huge cheers for the first South African rider home. Reigning South African marathon champion Knox and Paez (a multiple Colombian national champion) have been in good shape all week, but have been rumbled by bad luck at inopportune moments. Today things finally went their way. Knox, tired but elated with second on the day, had nothing but praise for his teammate.
“The stage was tough, very tough. The pace was hard,” he said. “I have to say, my partner Hector is incredibly strong. I was riding at the limit, pushing myself to go harder the whole time. I was dropping off and barely hanging in, but Hector just kept encouraging me, kept pulling me along. He’s incredible. I have been feeling off my game all week, but he has been immense.”
Thanks to a steady week-long performance and an excellent Stage 6, Knox and Paez now also find themselves in third overall at the Absa Cape Epic. “This has been such a cross-country race so far; for us marathon racers there have only been two days that suited us, one of which was today. It’s amazing to be on the podium at last and great to come second today.
“This is such an amazing field this year; it’s been great to ride alongside world champions and Olympic champions. We’d obviously like to stay in the top three overall, but it’s not over yet. Tomorrow is another shorter day and the cross-country guys will be firing again.”
After another untimely puncture, five-time champion Sauser all but conceded defeat. “I have been in these situations before, so I can deal with it, but I am obviously very disappointed,” he said. “I just had no energy on the bike, especially after the puncture. It will be hard, but I will have to get up to race again in the morning. I think now, unless there is a major catastrophe, our chances of winning are over. Nino and Matthias are too strong. I don’t think we can catch them.”
Cape Epic stage victory at last for Mariske and Annie
After six days of intense battle at the Absa Cape Epic, the Hansgrohe Women’s race seems to have finally been settled, with experienced 40-somethings, Esther Süss and Jennie Stenerhag (Team Meerendal CBC) almost certain to take the 2017 title.
Mariske Strauss and Annie Last from Hansgrohe Cadence OMX Pro may have won the battle for the 103km Queen Stage on Saturday, but the crash and resultant broken handlebar to Robyn de Groot and Sabine Spitz (Ascendis Health) means Süss and Stenerhag have all but won the war for the Hansgrohe Women’s category.
The crash, about 75km into the stage, was the final devastating blow to a tough campaign for De Groot and Spitz and after another big crash and mechanicals on Stage 1 it means any meagre hope of victory for them has finally been snuffed out.
The massive amount of time it took to firstly make a series of temporary repairs to Spitz’s handlebar with sticks, and then a more permanent one to get them to the finish at the technical repair zone, meant the Ascendis Health pair finished way down in seventh, 35 minutes behind Strauss and Last.
The time gap also means the stage winners moved up to second overall, 35 minutes behind Suss and Stenerhag and 12 minutes ahead of De Groot and Spitz.
As De Groot and Spitz crossed the line, Spitz summed up the feelings of the team when she said with resignation that she “had about all the (trouble) I can take on this race”.
A massively disappointed De Groot simply said she “had no words today … it was a disaster” before going and crying on the shoulders of her parents near the finish line.
Stenerhag had mixed feelings about the day’s result. “It is never nice to hear that someone else has crashed, but when I was so tired it did mean I could slow down a bit because we knew they were not coming back at us.
“At about 14km to go Mariske and Annie came and we rode with them for a while, but I did not have the extra edge today and they have also been riding so well this week that we felt they were worth a win.
“But taking nothing for granted, this race is not over until it is over. Nothing is finalised until it is finished.”
Suss added another word of warning.
“I am extremely happy and it is nice that we have the bigger gap but we know with their handlebar that broke that it can happen to us as well. We still have to be safe until the finish line.”
Strauss and Last seemed a bit overwhelmed by their victory.
“We just kept it consistent,” said Strauss. “Annie was an amazing teammate today and it is really, really cool to have taken the win and the stage – this is a really special feeling.
“The plan was to just not lose time to Spur and then on the way up Groenlandberg we thought OK lets just crack on and keep it consistent. And then we caught Robyn and Sabine on the climb up Die Nek and so powered it a bit and never saw them again.
“My dad was on course and he was giving up splits so we knew we were catching Esther and Jennie.
“When we caught them we just kind of wound our way up to them. We have got seven days of riding in our legs so the fire to race is not as potent.
“After we passed them, I tried to just take it a metre at a time and not think about winning the stage, and with about a kilometre to go I finally thought ‘OK we can do this’.
“This is stunning. It is one of the biggest wins I have had.”
Rissveds and Frischknecht unstoppable in Cape Epic Mixed
In the Virgin Active Mixed category, Olympic champion Jenny Rissveds and Thomas Frischknecht (Scott Sram Nextlevel) won their seventh stage in a row and are now a massive 54 minutes ahead of Grant Usher and Amy Beth McDougall (joBerg2c-Valencia) with Johan Labuschagne and Catherine Williamson (RBI Tech-Mitas) 37 minutes further back.