Theo Blignaut and former South Coast rider Cherise Stander of RECM Mixed finished Stage One of the Absa Cape Epic in third place in the Mixed category on Monday.
The stage was as tough as it was beautiful with the most spectacular views rewarded after the most demanding climbs.
The day was characterised by a fast start at water point one, where the real challenge began. Three major climbs, all on rough surfaces, took riders through fynbos deep into the foothills of the Langeberg Mountains.
Tortoise Hill stood out with its double peak and precariously steep descent, followed by some relentless ridgeline riding and the sharp zigzag climb, which started off through cooling pine trees before once again heading for the skies.
It was the harsh surface which made the day challenging – as well as the fact that most of the climbing was packed into the 45km section in the middle of the stage. Riders were able to make some time on the final 25km as the terrain eased back into flowing farm and gravel roads. Temperatures for this stage ranged from 19 to 22 degrees Celcius with light rain.
The course took the riders through rain in a loop, starting and finishing in Robertson, over some of the most rugged terrain in the Western Cape and up three brutal climbs. All of the top teams had problems during the day, ranging from punctures and mechanical problems to crashes and illness.
Several teams who had an eye on the Men’s category podium were set back – among them favourites Karl Platt, from Germany, and Swiss teammate Urs Huber (Bulls), who slipped into seventh place overall and are five minutes off the pace, with fears that Huber may be getting ill.
The biggest setback of the day probably befell Spaniard José Hermida and his Dutch partner Rudi van Houts (Team Multivan Merida), who had won Sunday’s prologue but finished more than one hour and 15 minutes off the pace on Sunday. Hermida fell victim to stomach problems overnight and struggled throughout.
In the women’s event, pre-race favourites and prologue winners Ariane Kleinhans and Annika Langvad had a disastrous day with a series of punctures and problems and fell 25 minutes off the pace. Kaufmann and Kaess – who came into the Epic unheralded – survived a flat tyre and a fall to eventually pull away near the end of the stage.
The Men’s category of Stage One was won by the Centurion-Vaude team of Markus Kaufmann and Jochen Kaess in a time of 4:42.50,3. They were followed by Swiss/Czech duo Christoph Sauser and František Rabon (Meerendal Songo Specialized) in 4:44.49,1.
Lukas Fluckiger and Martin Fanger of team BMC Mountainbike Racing crossed the finish line 0,2 seconds after team Meerendal Songo Specialized, to claim the third place on the podium in a time of 4:44.49,3. The Bulls 2 team of Tim Boehme and Simon Stiebjahn finished in fourth place (4:44.49,5) with Konny Looser and Hannes Genze of Meerendal Centurion Wheeler in fifth place (4:44.49,6). The Bulls team of Karl Platt and Urs Huber finished seventh in 4:47.00,9.
Kaufmann and Kaess now lead the men’s category with an overall time of 41 seconds (5:43.28,1). Fluckiger and Fanger of BMC Mountainbike Racing are placed second overall in 5:44.09,3, with Sauser and Raboñ of team Meerendal Songo Specialized in third with an overall time of 5:47.11,8.
Says Kaess of Centurion-Vaude: “All the teams had problems today including flat tyres and other mechanical problems. Luckily ours wasn’t that big, so we were able to repair it fast. Like always, Stage 1 was really hard – especially with all the climbs and loose gravel. We had top 5 as our minimum goal and now that we’re in the overall lead, the top 3 is what we want. But we’re a long way from the finish.”
Adds teammate Kaufmann: “I suffered a lot today, but Jochen was a great partner. Everybody had problems, which made a hard stage even tougher.”
Says Rabon of Meerendal Songo Specialized: “I have some experience in grand tours but I’ve never experienced anything like this. It was crazy out there! We had a puncture and had to chase back like crazy. And then we punctured again. Chased again! I went flat out today. Everything that happened today was incredible. We’re fighting for podium.”
Adds teammate Sauser: “At the start of today I was afraid because I wasn’t sure how Franti was going to react. But he showed how strong he is. He might be getting stronger and stronger while others will get weaker I think.”
According to Erik Kleinhans of team RECM: “We swopped tyres with Sauser today when he had a flat. We were fine until Nico then had a puncture – now we’re out of the race. That’s our work though – we’re here to support Sauser and Raboñ.”
Sasol Women’s Category:
Esther Süss and Sally Bigham of Meerendal won the Women’s category in a time of 5:24.31,7 (overall 6:36.48,0), ahead of Swedish/South African duo Jennie Stenerhag and Theresa Ralph (Cape Brewing Company) in a time of 5:40.42,7 (overall 6:56.26,0).
In third place were Ariane Kleinhans and Annika Langvad of RECM 2 in 5:49.20,6 (overall 6:59.27,6). Süss and Bigham lead this category by 19 minutes and 38 seconds.
Says Bigham of team Meerendal: “We had no problems, but rode hard and well. It was a strong day for us. The focus is solid rides to keep in contention. We have to be smart. It’s always nice to win a stage and to win and take the overall lead is special. I want to beat someone because I am the strongest, not because the other team had problems. It’s all part of the Epic I guess.”
Adds Süss: “I’m very happy to take the top step on the podium. We had lots of fun today. It’s nice that it all worked out for us today but it’s a long road to Lourensford Wine Estate. I feel confident and happy.”
Stenerhag of the Cape Brewing Company says it was hard but also lots of fun. “We worked so well together and I’m very happy. We complement each other really well. I can’t believe we were second today.”
Her teammate Ralph adds: “I told Jennie she better believe we’re second and keep working so that we can keep our position.”
For Langvad of RECM 2 it was an awful day. “We had punctures the whole time. And every time we fixed it we had to fight our way back. Just to get another puncture. It was horrible.”
Shan Wilson and Adrian Enthoven of Definitive Bikes won the Masters category in a time of 5:25.32,2 (overall 6:36.16,3). They were followed by Pascal de Kort and Bart van de Water (Technofit) in 5:29.57,4 (overall 6:43.24,4). In third place were the Pragma Teahmo team of Leon Erasmus and Dennis du Toit in 5:37.51,7 (overall 6:52.28,1).
They were followed by Bart Brentjens and Abraao Azevedo of BETCH.nl Superior Meerendal in 5:40.47,9. Brentjens and Azevedo are placed third in this category with an overall time of 6:49.40,0. Wilson and Enthoven lead the category by 7 minutes and 8 seconds.
Says Wilson of Definitive Bikes: “This was so hard and broke me again and again and again. It was a really tough stage and I’m happy with our win. To pull off a win was not what I expected. We had problems along the way, so to win was great.”
Adds Enthoven: “It was a hard stage. The middle section took so much energy. We managed to control our problems and I’m happy with our win.”
Grand Masters Category:
Andrew Mclean and Heinz Zoerweg of Cycle Lab Toyota again finished in first place in the Grand Masters in a time of 5:09.21,1 (overall 6:18.27,3). They were followed by Bärti Bucher and Doug Brown of Meerendal Songo Specialized 4 in 5:21.14,0 (overall 6:30.52,1) with team Absa Grand Masters of Eben Espach and Corrie Muller in third place in 5:38.57,4 (overall 6:53.16,5) Mclean and Zoerweg lead the category by 12 minutes and 25 seconds.
According to Andrew Mclean (Cycle Lab Toyota), their team had absolutely no problems. “We had a good, hard stage and are happy to keep the lead. We enjoy riding together and hope to keep going like this.”
Says Brown of Meerendal Songo Specialized 4: “Phew! So hard and tough. I’m still enjoying riding with Bärti. There were some big climbs. It’s a stage worthy of a Cape Epic blazer!”
Absa African Jersey:
The Absa African special jersey was won by Darren Lill and Waylon Woolcock of team Cannondale Blend (overall 5:49.17,9).
Says Woolcock of Cannondale Blend: “All the teams went to the dark side at one stage today for sure. Everyone had his or her fair share of bad luck. We managed our problems and kept a consistent pace. It’s important to be at the front but there are still six days to go, so we had to make sure we don’t kill ourselves in an effort to stay with the leaders.”
Siphosenkosi Madolo and Azukile Simayile of team Meerendal Songo Specialized 16 managed to secure the Exxaro special jersey for the second day in a row with their impressive performance during Stage 1. Their overall time is 6:52.40,9 and they are placed 42nd overall.
Stage Two: Robertson to Robertson (103km, 1550m of climbing)
After the rude awakening of Stage One, Stage Two will be far gentler. The day will once again start off fast, including some amazing single track riding, before visiting the quaint village of McGregor with its well-preserved 19th century architecture.
Water point two right in the main road promises a festival atmosphere where the warm hospitality of the Langeberg region is sure to lift the spirits. Speeds increase as district roads head deep into the unspoiled expanses of this rugged and striking landscape of red sandstone and underlying shale formations.
The hardest climb of the day, Neil’s Folly, awaits around the 75km mark, but riders will get to enjoy some wonderful sections of the day’s characteristic flowing semi-desert Karoo trails, before descending into the lush Breede River Valley, and home to Arabella Wines.
Follow the Absa Cape Epic at www.cape-epic.com