By Chris Whitfield
German Robert Mennen and his Czech teammate Kristian Hynek (Topeak-Ergon) coolly defended their lead during the seventh and final stage of the Absa Cape Epic to take overall honours in the prestigious mountain bike stage race for the first time on Sunday.
A large and lively crowd gathered at the finish line at Lourensford Wine Estate, Somerset West, also witnessed Gert Heyns and Matthys Beukes (Scott factory Racing) become the first South Africans ever to win the closing stage – the most sought after stage in the event.
And adopted South African Ariane Kleinhans – Swiss but living in Stellenbosch – and her Danish teammate Annike Langvad were warmly cheered across the line as they won the women’s category by some distance.
Mennen and Hynek started the 67km stage from Elgin with a more than 10-minute lead and defended it comfortably – finishing in a group containing their main general classification rivals.
“I got some revenge for last year,” said Mennen afterwards in reference to the incident in the 2013 Absa Cape Epic when he hit a duiker that ran in front of his bicycle, was thrown over his handlebars and broke his collarbone.
“But I never thought I could win the biggest mountain bike stage race in the world …it feels incredible,” said Mennen, who has competed in the Cape Epic twice before.
Hynek was riding his first Epic and confessed to sleeping very little on Saturday night: “It was a big relief to cross the line after having problems on the earlier stages, but nothing went wrong today.”
With a little bit of help from their friends, Hynek and Mennen held on to the zebra-striped yellow leaders’ jersey from Stage Three. On earlier stages, Hynek had twice been the beneficiary of sportsmanship by fellow professionals Centurion-Vaude – Germans Markus Kaufmann and Jochen Kaess – when they handed over their wheels after he got punctures.
About 45km into Sunday’s stage a group of four riders – none in contention for overall laurels – broke away.
Cross-country world champion Nino Schurter of Switzerland and his South African teammate Philip Buys (Scott-Odlo) turned up the pace and their back-up team – locals Matthys Beukes and Gert Heyns (Scott Factory Racing) – joined them. The chasing pack – led by former Epic winner Roel Paulissen of Belgium and Riccardo Chiarini of Italy (Torpado) – could not reel them in.
As the two teams approached the finish line on the grass at Lourensford, Buys and Schurter backed off, allowing the young South Africans to take the stage and make a piece of Epic history.
An emotional Beukes said the win in the prestigious final stage into Lourensford was “unbelievable … to do this with my two best friends [Heyns and Buys] and the world champion – who’s also become our friend – was very special”.
They and the Scott-Odlo team had got away from others on the portage down the old wagon trail alongside Sir Lowry’s Pass. “Once we realised we were going to win in front of our friends and family nothing could have stopped us … we could have gone on forever,” said Beukes.
Four-time winner Christoph Sauser of Switzerland had started the day with Czech partner Frantisek Rabon (Meerendal Songo Specialized) determined to make inroads into the overall lead of Hynek and Mennen, but had to settle for second overall after being unable to shake off the Topeak-Ergon team.
Sauser said he was disappointed not to win after “chasing the yellow every day … but that’s the Cape Epic, that’s how it is”. He and Rabon suffered several punctures and some technical problems during the race.
Rabon, competing in his first Cape Epic since switching to mountain biking from road racing, said he had been “to hell and back many times”. He had learnt that the racing was more intense than on the road – where you could rest in the peleton on a bad day.
There was some consolation for the Bulls team after losing race favourite Karl Platt to an injury when its back-up team – Germans Tim Boehme and Simon Stiebjahn (Bulls 2) – finished third overall.
Kleinhans and Langvad (RECM2) won the women’s category by more than 30 minutes, overturning a 24-minute deficit after Stage One when they were plagued by punctures and mechanical problems.
They had ridden a conservative race Sunday to hold their lead, but still won the stage by 12 minutes.
Langvad said the finish at Lourensford was “amazing … overwhelming … surreal with this huge crowd.”
Kleinhans thanked South Africans who had “adopted me as their daughter … their support made me very emotional”.
Esther Suss of Switzerland and Briton Sally Bigham (Meerendal) finished second and South African Theresa Ralph and Swede Jennie Stenerhag (Cape Brewing Company) were third.