The final stage of the 2018 Absa Cape Epic looms on Sunday and, barring disaster, two United States riders will stand atop the Men’s and Women’s podiums for the first time ever.
Howard Grotts and Czech powerhouse Jaroslav Kulhavy have an 8 minute and 26 second cushion in the Men’s category after Saturday’s Stage 6 while Kate Courtney and partner Annika Langvad of Denmark are a massive 46 minutes ahead of their nearest women competitors.
With only a 67km stage left it seems that only serious illness or a big crash could stop them. Both Investec Songo Specialized teams triumphed in Saturday’s 76km Stage 6, much of it on the superb mix of singletrack around Wellington.
The racing was, however, anything but easy, especially with a resurgent Cannondale Factory Racing outfit looking to reclaim their second place from Canyon Topeak in the general classification in the Men’s category.
Attacks would come early and at regular intervals. Cannondale’s Henrique Avancini made his early ambitions known when he and Mani Fumic sent the leading group into a frenzy of watts and panic. The other top contenders had no choice but to follow in a fast-paced first hour of racing that would see Centurion Vaude’s Nicola Rohrbach hit the deck in a crash – something he, and teammate Daniel Geismayr, would never fully recover from.
“Today we rode for the GC,” said Avancini. “We had two goals: get clear of Centurion Vaude and get back our second place from Canyon Topeak. That’s why we put the pressure on early and kept the pace high.”
After riding at the measured pace for most of the morning Investec Songo Specialized would finally make their move on the Green Mamba – a long and steep brute of a climb. Cannondale were unable go with the attack and were forced to adopt a damage control approach for the remainder of the stage.
For Czech Express Kulhavy and Grotts it was full speed ahead, the two riding a faultless final 35km in which they asserted their dominance and consolidated their lead.
“We led for most of the stage and tried to press on all the time and put the other guys in the hurt box,” said Fumic. “Investec Songo Specialized attacked us on Mamba climb but we had nothing left. We saw Canyon Topeak were taking strain so we kept the pace on to get the gap and extend it.”
Their tactic worked and after initially marking Cannondale’s continued attacks, Canyon Topeak’s Alban Lakata was unable to match the intensity and fell off the pace. Lakata and partner Kristian Hynek would eventually finish Stage 6 in fifth position and surrender their four second lead and second position on the general classification to Cannondale.
“Today Investec Songo Specialized showed that they are unreachable,” said a dejected Lakata. “They are both in impressive shape. We lost second but tomorrow we will try again. It was a proper fight with Cannondale so let’s hope the legs are there tomorrow to close that gap.”
Jaroslav Kulhavy was pleased with the way he and partner Grotts performed on Stage 6, but mentioned the race is not over until they cross the finish line at Val de Vie Estate on Sunday’s Grand Finale. Still, their lead has grown to well over eight minutes and barring any misfortune the race is theirs for the taking.
“Howie (Grotts) has been getting stronger every day,” said Kulhavy. “We have to be careful tomorrow. We have a pretty good gap so there can’t be any crashes or mechanicals.”
“Today was perfect – after we got a gap, we just kept a consistent pace,” said Grotts. It’s been an incredible experience thus far and everything has just clicked for us.”
Trek Selle San Marco 2’s Fabian Rabensteiner and Michele Casagrande continued their consistent run of results by finishing second, leapfrogging Simon Stiebjahn and Tim Bohme (BULLS 2) to sixth overall in the general classification.
The biggest surprise of the day was the South African pairing of Matthew Beers and Nico Bell (NAD MTB), who appear to have found their groove after a series of illness setbacks hampered Beers’ earlier performances. The re-energised NAD MTB duo put in a great performance that saw them cross the line as the first all-South African team.
They now find themselves in third place overall on the Absa African Men’s special jersey competition behind leaders Matthys Beukes and Julian Jessop (PYGA Euro Steel) and HB Kruger and Stuart Marais (Ellsworth-ASG).
Meanwhile, illness and injury has been a constant spectre hanging over the women’s race and on Saturday it once again influenced the podium, with an obviously ill Mariske Strauss and partner Annie Last forced to concede second overall.
As Langvad and Courtney ride to victory, their rivals have been battling just to stay in the event, let alone remain competitive in the ever-changing fight for the second step of the podium.
On Saturday, as Langvad and Courtney moved to within one stage of a clean-sweep by winning the out-and back race from Wellington, it was Strauss’s turn to fall victim to illness and she had to dig deep to reach the finish line. The South African and her Silverback-KMC partner Annie Last finished sixth on the stage, a distant 16 minutes behind the rampant leaders.
Their result, in conjunction with an impressive ride by Robyn de Groot and Sabine Spitz on Saturday, means the Ascendis Health pair have moved into second overall, a distant 46 minutes back from Investec Songo Specialized but six minutes up on Strauss and Last.
“I felt so good today!” said Courtney as she got off her bike. “But this race is hard, very hard. It is an incredibly big challenge. I think it is hard to explain how difficult it is if you have not ridden the tough single tracks, and been out there all-day long.
“I think it is one of the most magical mountain bike races,” she added. “There is so much hype and so many people paying attention. You also get to do it in a team which is very special.”
One team hoping to break the sequence is the Ascendis Health pair who have been improving daily since Spitz shook off her virus.
“It would be fantastic if we could get a stage win tomorrow,” said De Groot, who won the Grand Finale at Val de Vie Estate in 2017.
In the Absa African Women’s special jersey race Candice Lill and Amy Beth McDougall (dormakaba) are over two hours ahead of Hannele Steyn and Jeannie Dreyer (Nolands Spar Ladies). Only a major disaster is going to prevent the dormakaba pair from collecting the trophy.
In the Dimension Data Masters category , the see-saw battle swung back toward the Italian/Czech combination of Massimo Debertolis and Ondrej Fojtik, who regained the blue jersey from Bart Brentjens and Abraao Azevedo on Saturday.
Debertolis and Fojtik (Wilier Force 7C 2) revelled in the single-track-laden route to and from Wellington and blasted to an eight-minute win in the category. The victory was enough to give them a six-minute lead over Brentjens and Azevedo (CST Sandd A. Eagle AAZ) going into the final 67km dash to the finish at Val de Vie Estate on Sunday.
In the race for the purple Grand Masters category jersey, Robert Sim and Udo Boelts (Robert Daniel) completed their sixth win of the week and extended their already impressive lead to a hard-to-beat 25 minutes.
Barti Bucher and Hans Juerg Gerber (Meerendal CBC 2) were second, just under three minutes off the pace on the stage.
A battered and bruised Nicky Giliomee and partner Brennan Anderson (Journey by Junto) will take a comfortable lead in the Virgin Active Mixed category into the Grand Finale.
The South Africans are 42 minutes ahead of Agustina Maria Apaza and Cesar Lettoli (Team Merida Argentina) after the Argentinians finished third on Saturday, 16 minutes and 28 seconds behind the winners. Ecuador’s Felipe Egues Espinosa and Ana Idrovo (Team Cikla – Toscana – JAC) were second, just 16 seconds ahead of Apaza and Lettoli.
Meanwhile, Lucky Mlangeni and Tshepo Tlou (Exxaro/PWC 1) began to truly believe that they will win the Exxaro special jersey after they continued their clean sweep with a seventh win on Saturday. Khumbudzo Masala and Kagiso Tlou (Exxaro/EOH) kept them honest on the sixth stage, coming home just under two minutes behind on the day.