The final stage of the 2018 Absa Cape Epic saw the two strongest teams crowned as champions, but it was no parade for the Grand Finale.
In the men’s race Czech Jaroslav Kulhavy notched up his third win, this time with young American Howard Grotts (Investec Songo Specialized). The powerful Kulhavy and accomplished climber Grotts made for a formidable combination and eventually dominated the category.
In the women’s race Dane Annika Langvad and American newcomer Kate Courtney (Investec Songo Specialized) were in total control from the Prologue, eventually securing the former’s fourth win out of four starts by a whopping 46 minutes.
With 69km and 2000m of vertical gain standing between riders and a finisher’s medal at Val De Vie Estate, this year’s Grand Finale was arguably the toughest in the Absa Cape Epic’s 15-year history.
And with four beastly climbs punctuating the final stage, even the sharp end of the field would feel every metre. Despite their eight-minute cushion over Cannondale Factory Racing’s Manuel Fumic and Henrique Avancini, Investec Songo Specialized would have to mark every attack and pray for a mechanical-free day following a string of bad luck earlier in the race.
Cannondale Factory Racing were first to make a move, together with Centurion Vaude, but these early attacks would prove futile as both teams struggled to respond to the counter attacks launched by Trek Selle San Marco 2, Buff Scott MTB, Canyon Topeak and Investec Songo Specialized.
The Trek Selle San Marco 2 pairing of Fabian Rabensteiner and Michele Casagrande attacked and took the sprint on the Dimension Data Hotspot and opened up a 20 second gap in the process. Further back Cannondale Factory Racing were struggling to maintain a rhythm and risked losing their overall podium to the dark horse Buff Scott MTB pair, who have been looking better and better as the race has progressed.
A heated exchange between Jeremiah Bishop (Canyon Topeak 2) and Manuel Fumic (Cannondale Factory Racing) would culminate in a crash after Fumic appeared to knock Bishop off his bike. Fumic however, was quick to dismiss the incident as “racing dynamics” and said there was no “foul play” intended.
The leading group would stay together for much of the stage before the Czech Express launched an attack on the Freedom Struggle climb in an attempt to splinter the group and gain an advantage heading into the final Land Rover Technical Terrain Section of the race – the “Bone Rattler”. Only Trek Selle San Marco 2 were able to counter their attack, responding with a daring move of their own that would ultimately hand them a well-deserved stage win.
“Today was a good day for us,” said Rabensteiner. “Jaro (Kulhavy) and Howie (Grotts) attacked on the last climb but we made a move on the descent and it was full-race-mode to the finish line.”
Canyon Topeak had a bit of a scare on the final descent after Kristian Hynek suffered a rear puncture. With Cannondale Factory Racing breathing down their necks just a few minutes down, Hynek was quick to fix the leak as the two managed to hold on to second place on the general classification.
For Investec Songo Specialized it was a case of minimising any unnecessary risks – particularly on the treacherous Bone Rattler descent. Their strategy paid off and despite gifting the stage to Trek Selle San Marco 2, they’d roll across the finish line at Val de Vie Estate as deserved champions after eight days of consistent riding.
“We had a pretty good ride,” said Kulhavy. “I’m very happy for Howie (Grotts) … he rode really well. Maybe we will come back next year to win again. Who knows – maybe I can try and beat Suzi’s (Christoph Sauser) record of five victories. I’ve learned a lot from him and he helped us a lot this year.”
In the Absa African Men’s special jersey competition Matthys Beukes and Julian Jessop (PYGA Euro Steel) went into the final stage with a 12-minute buffer over the Ellsworth-ASG pairing of HB Kruger and Stuart Marais – a position they’d defend to the finish line.
“We had to adapt on short notice after Phil (Buys) got sick,” said Beukes. “I’m really proud of Julian (Jessop) and the winning red jersey for the fifth time. We had to fight all week and we are happy.”
Langvad and Courtney were sublime as they crushed all opposition with an almost faultless display.
Their perfect party was gate-crashed on the final day by the PMRA/CST Racing team of Margot Moschetti and Raiza Goulao, who spoiled a clean-sweep by winning the Grand Finale. The French/Brazilian pair were followed home on the stage by South Africans Candice Lill and Amy Beth McDougall (dormakaba), who also wrapped up the Absa African Women’s special jersey and ended fourth overall.
Sabine Spitz and Robyn De Groot (Ascendis Health) claimed third on the stage, just ahead of the race winners, which secured their runner up spot on the overall standing. Annie Last and Mariske Strauss (Silverback-KMC) limped to the finish in fifth position to secure the final step on the overall podium.
The final stage results were relatively meaningless to the overall result as Langvad and Courtney had opened up a massive 46-minute lead during the previous seven days of racing and the only thing that was going to derail their charge to victory was a bad crash or serious mechanical. They remained on track throughout the final 67km to the finish line to claim the well-deserved victory.
“That was a good day,” said Langvad after the champagne celebrations on the finish line. “Our main goal today was just to get to the finish line.
Courtney was also a surprised at how well the eight days of racing had progressed.
“It is definitely a bit of an emotional finish for me. When I set out to do the Absa Cape Epic, my first marathon and stage race, people thought I was a little crazy but my inner circle supported me and helped me get here.”
In the Dimension Data Masters category, American former professional road stars George Hincapie and Christian Vande Velde (Absa – WBR) grabbed the final-stage glory, but could not prevent Massimo Debertolis and Ondrej Fojtik (Wilier Force 7C 2) from the honour of winning overall honours at the Absa Cape Epic on Sunday.
The Americans topped and tailed their Absa Cape Epic with a win in the Prologue in Cape Town last week and the Grand Finale, but the real heroes of the category were Debertolis and Fojtik, whose consistent week of riding allowed them to claim the overall title.
The Italian/Czech combination edged to an 11-minute win over Bart Brentjens and Abraao Azevedo (Sandd A. Eagle AAZ) with Australians Brad Clarke and Rohin Adams (Mornington Cycles/TRush) third after a week that saw the lead change hands four times.
“We are very happy to have won because in few stages we had lots of problems – we had problems in my body and we lost lots of time,” said Debertolis.
In the Grand Masters, Robert Sim and Udo Boelts (Robert Daniel) enjoyed a near perfect week, with only one bad day when a series of punctures threatened to derail their push for victory. Their four-minute victory in the final stage into Val de Vie Estate extended their lead to just less than 30 minutes over Meerendal CBC’s Barti Bucher and Hans Juerg Gerber.
“This is mission accomplished,” said Sim after the finish. “To win any category in the Absa Cape Epic you have to be focussed and keep your concentration, and today was that for us.”
The Virgin Active Mixed category was won by Cape Town’s Nicky Giliomee and KwaZulu-Natal’s Brennan Anderson, who only met three weeks ago. In the end they beat the early leaders, Agustina Maria Apaza and Cesar Lettoli (Merida Argentina) by over 40 minutes.
“We both had a rough start with a tummy bug at the beginning of the week. Brennan has been so strong – pushing and running to get me to the finish,” said Giliomee.
Meanwhile, Lucky Mlangeni and Tshepo Tlou (Exxaro/PWC 1) punched the air in joy on Sunday after they won the Exxaro special jersey race overall.
The Pretoria men have dominated the category for previously disadvantaged riders all week, winning seven stages. Today, they finished in second place behind Rilamulele Gadabeni and Patrick Rengane (Exxaro / RMB) on the seventh and final stage, taking a little time to savour the moment along the way.
“This is the most amazing feeling,” said Tlou. “I cannot believe we are here. I cannot believe we are winners.”