Stage 1 Review (113km, 2450m of climbing)
Markus Kaufmann and Jochen Kaess (Team Centurion-Vaude) survived a brutal 113km opening stage of the Absa Cape Epic to notch up a telling win on Monday as several top contenders suffered setbacks.
The Germans finished in 4h42m50,3s, two minutes ahead of a sprinting group of five teams led home by Switzerland’s four-time Epic winner Christoph Sauser and his Czech teammate Frantisek Rabon (Meerendal Songo Specilized).
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.
But biggest setback of the day probably befell Spaniard Jose 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 yesterday. Hermida fell victim to stomach problems overnight and struggled throughout.
In the women’s even, 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 a flat tyre and a fall to eventually pull away near the end of the stage.
“It was really crazy - every team had a problem,” said Kaufmann afterwards.
With 50km to go six teams had regrouped and were racing for the win, but then each of their rivals picked up problems.
“We had problems and the other guys had problems … but in the end we won it and we are very happy,” said Kaess.
Moving ominously up the field, after finishing second are Sauser and Rabon, who were two minutes behind the leaders in spite of having two punctures themselves. Sauser has won the race four times and Stage 1’s result moves the team into third overall.
“I believe we are one of the favourites now, if not the favourites,” said Sauser. “The route is going to favour us more and more from now.”
He pointed to the long 134km stage three from Robertson to Greyton on Wednesday as one where he and Rabon - who has what his fellow professionals like to call a “big engine” - could profit.
The Czech, relatively new to mountain biking from a professional road riding career, said “we showed today we can fight back even if the luck was not on our side”.
Second overall, and third in a sprint finish with Sauser and Rabon, were Team BMC’s Lukas Fluckiger and Martin Fanger (both Swiss).
The women’s race also gave rise to high drama. Kleinhans (Swiss) and Langvad (Danish) vowed to carry on fighting after their difficult day.
“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,” said Langvad.
They eventually finished third but are nearly 25 minutes behind Stage1’s winner, Briton Sally Bigham and Swiss Esther Suss (Meerendal), who finished in 5h24m31,7s.
“It’s always nice to win a stage, and to win a stage and take the overall lead is special,” said Bigham. “I want to beat someone because I am the strongest not because the other team had troubles, but I guess it’s all part of the Epic,” she added.
Cape Brewing Company’s Jennie Stenerhag of Sweden and Theresa Ralph of South Africa took advantage of RECM’s problems to move up into second place but are 16 minutes behind the leaders.
On Monday night riders would have gone to bed with one eye on the heavens. Although Tuesday’s 101km stage was billed as being easier than Monday, the weatherman had been predicting significant downpours overnight - which could make for another testing day.
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