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Race Report | Absa Cape Epic Stage 1 – The favourites go face to face

Cape Town/Oak Valley – The favourites of this year’s Absa Cape Epic will set out on tomorrow’s stage in the leaders’ jersey. Christoph Sauser (SUI) and Jaroslav Kulhavy (CZE) from Investec-Songo-Specialized team won the first stage of South Africa’s mountain bike race ahead of the toughest competition, which took the form of the German-Swiss team Karl Platt/Urs Huber (Team Bulls). Their lead in the general classification currently stands at 45 seconds – and as the Absa Cape Epic isn’t called the “Tour de France for mountain bikers” for nothing, a lot can happen over the next few days.

Christoph Sauser and Jaroslav Kulhavy from the Investec-Songo-Specialized team celebrate their victory in the first stage of the Absa Cape Epic 2015.
Christoph Sauser and Jaroslav Kulhavy from the Investec-Songo-Specialized team celebrate their victory in the first stage of the Absa Cape Epic 2015.

Due to mechanical problems, the ten pairs at the front of the race saw countless changes in the leadership and subsequent chases. The first long stage after the opening prologue gave the pros a taste of what could lie ahead. The 113 kilometres and challenging 2,800 vertical gain took riders through the Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve just outside of Cape Town and saw almost all of the top teams battle with technical issues. Sauser/Kulhavy lost two minutes with a torn sidewall and had to change the rear tyre in the tech-zone, which prompted the Bulls team to make their attack. But the Specialized riders, both showing their current top form, managed to catch back up and gain almost a minute over the final kilometres.

Christoph Sauser repairing the tyre.
Christoph Sauser repairing the tyre.
Even fat tyres didn’t get away without issues.
Even fat tyres didn’t get away without issues.

The Austrian Alban Lakata also suffered technical problems along with last year’s winner Kristian Hynek (CZE), the two riders for the Topeak Ergon team aiming for victory. They got the first sought-after mountain points on the revered 600 m climb of the Groenlandberg before dropping back through the field with a puncture and subsequent wheel change. “When you’re with the top riders you can’t get back four minutes, especially because we were on our own. As we were at the front at Hotspot it shows that we could have ridden to victory today. It was a very hard stage, but there are still even harder stages to come. The gaps are still within reach, I’m confident that we can catch back up”, says the former marathon world champion Lakata.

Jeff Doss and Randall Toltzman.
Jeff Doss and Randall Toltzman.
The leading group of the first stage.
The leading group of the first stage.
Riders on the approach to Nuweberg.
Riders on the approach to Nuweberg.

The cross-country specialists Rudi van Houts (NED) and José Hermida (ESP), Team Multivan Merida, made a strong impression, coming in third. “This is my sixth time riding the Epic”, says the jovial Spaniard Hermida, “and it appears that I’m slowly getting smarter for it. Rudi got a piece of plastic caught in his rear derailleur, but we calmly repaired it and rode on. Panicking, as you don’t want to lose time, ultimately doesn’t help. We mainly kept the leaders in sight and didn’t attack once.”

Yesterday’s surprising prologue winners showed that they’re not one-day specialists. The Swiss team of Fabian Giger/Martin Gujan crossed the finish in the Oak Valley vineyard in fifth place, and with just a little over six minutes gap in the GC they’re still in the mix.

Absa Cape Epic 2015 Stage 1 Elgin Absa Cape Epic 2015 Stage 1 Elgin

The German Jochen Käß along with his last-minute partner Daniel Geismayer (standing in for an injured Markus Kaufmann) gave a strong performance, with their Team Meerendal Centurion Vaude finishing sixth, and placing seventh on the GC after today’s stage.
Last year’s third placers, Tim Böhme and Simon Stiebjahn, Team Bulls, once again suffered technical issues just like the previous day’s prologue. “My hanger got bent and when I tried to straighten it, it snapped. Then we had to repair it at the checkpoint and we couldn’t close the gap afterwards”, says the 24-year-old Stiebjahn.

Left to right: Jaroslav Kulhavy, Urs Huber, Christoph Sauser, Karl Platt.
Left to right: Jaroslav Kulhavy, Urs Huber, Christoph Sauser, Karl Platt.
The riders on the Nuweberg.
The riders on the Nuweberg.

Amongst the women, Ariane Kleinhans (SUI) and marathon world champion Annika Langvad (DEN) rode brilliantly, further distancing second placed Jennie Stenerhag (SWE) and Robyn de Groot (RSA) from Team Ascendis Health with a gap of almost 22 minutes. Despite the South African resident Kleinhans’s crash, the favourites couldn’t be slowed. The Swiss rider Esther Süss (Meerdendal Wheeler) defended her podium ambitions alongside her Belgian partner Alice Pirard, arriving in third place, and placing third on the GC too.

Ariane Kleinhans and Annika Langvad.
Ariane Kleinhans and Annika Langvad.
Marleen Lourens.
Marleen Lourens.

Former pro road racer René Haslbacher and partner Sabine Sommer (Austria, Team ENS RH77) dominated the mixed category from the start and finished the stage with a lead of over nine minutes ahead of Peter Vesel (SLO) and the German rider Yvonne Kraft, Team Etis. Hanka Kupfernagel/Carsten Bresser (Team Dietrich Rocky Mountain) took fifth place. Multiple world cyclo-cross champion Hanke Kupfernagel admitted afterwards: “I’ve never suffered so much on a bike.”

Jaroslav Kulhavy shows he is in top form.
Jaroslav Kulhavy shows he is in top form.

Delivering an unbelievably strong performance, the German DTM champion Timo Scheider, riding with Martin Kiechle for Team Bulls, currently stands in 57th position in the male GC rankings. With 1,200 competitors in total and a strong professional presence too, placing within the first 100 is an incredible result. “Now I understand what the Cape Epic really is”, said a dusty and out-of-breath Scheider after crossing the line. “I had to fight cramps every so often, and after kilometre 60 it eased. Martin helped me push on. I definitely need to get stronger on the climbs and see where my limits are”, he continued.

Vlad Metaxa and Bonny Swanepoel taking a selfie after the stage.
Vlad Metaxa and Bonny Swanepoel taking a selfie after the stage.

The words of the riders:

Christoph Sauser (SUI) Investec Songo Specialized
Today was the last big test after the prologue didn’t quite go as planned. I didn’t feel that great then. Today I expected it to be really tough and at times it was then easier than I’d imagined. We were already in the lead when we ripped the tyre on the sharp stones. You can’t take risks during a stage race, so we changed the complete rear wheel in the tech-zone. This meant we left about two minutes behind, but could close the gap again and finished with almost a minute lead.

Karl Platt (GER) Bulls
The level was ok, I didn’t feel very fresh today, I don’t know why. Jaro and Susi were super strong. We could only follow their wheels, you could tell they really wanted to win today. We fought cleanly and nothing is lost yet. A gap of 45 seconds leaves everything open.

Urs Huber (SUI) Bulls
It was really fast at the start today, everyone wanted to win the mountain classification. By the second mountain, the selection had been made and we were away together. But it was very fast, we had to ride at our limit all day, but we’re happy with how it turned out.

Alban Lakata (AUT) Topeak Ergon
The puncture destroyed any chances we had of winning. By changing the wheel we lost four minutes that we couldn’t get back. But we’re in good shape, the same thing could happen to the others and then we’ll be back up there in the mix.

Robert Mennen (GER) Topeak Ergon
Today was a bit frustrating. We both punctured simultaneously on the descent. It’s almost quite funny when you get off your bike to repair something and then realize that your partner is standing there and mending one too. It wasn’t our day today, as Jeremiah (Bishop) then got a second flat. Perhaps the wheels lost air in the tech zone, somehow the pressure wasn’t quite right.

Absa Cape Epic 2015, Stage 2, Oak Valley , 92 kilometres/2,300 m climbing

The second loop in the Oak Valley fruit and wine growing area near Cape Town has a great mix of technical descents, fast singletrack and tough climbs, like the Nuweberg, which reaches a gradient of over 25 % at times. One of the highlights is the third water point, found on the Paul Cluver vineyard and estate. With specially laid North Shore obstacles, wooden bridges and walkways, spectators will get the see the mountain pros up close. The start is at 7am South African time (06.00 MEZ), and the sprint to the finish (ca. 11.45 MEZ) can be followed live on www.cape-epic.com.

Words: Absa Cape Epic press release

Photos: Ewald Sadie, Damien Schumann, Dominic Barnardt, Gary Perkin, Sam Clark, Shaun Roy, Nick Muzik, Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS