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By Chris Whitfield

AN act of sportsmanship on Friday's hot, rugged and mountainous stage five of the Absa Cape Epic may have decided the destination of the race.

The stage was won by Roel Paulissen of Belgium and Italian partner Riccardo Chiarini (Torpado) in a thrilling finish, but they have virtually no chance of getting into the yellow jersey by the finish on Sunday and a lot of the focus was on the overall battle behind them.

 

 

Disaster struck for overall leaders Robert Mennen of Germany and Kristian Hynek of the Czech Republic (Topeak-Ergon) about 40km into the 115km stage when the latter simultaneously punctured both his front and back tyres.

"I don't know whether it was a sharp rock of piece of glass, but I got a double flat on a section of singletrack," said Hynek.

They had been following directly behind Germans Markus Kaufmann and Jochen Kaess (Centurion Vaude), who were out of the race for the yellow jersey after Tuesday's stage two when Kaufmann's frame broke.

"I screamed at them to help," said Hynek. The Germans, friends of Mennen, stopped and fortunately Kaufmann's wheels and gearing were compatible with Hynek's bike and he took them off his bike handed them over.

"That was an amazing sporting gesture and I owe them big time now," said Hynek.

Meanwhile, second-placed overall team Christoph Sauser, of Switzerland, and Czech Frantizek Rabon (Meerendal Songo Specialized) surged ahead and began to make inroads into the Topeak-Ergon team's nearly 12-minute overall cushion.

They passed through the first water point at 44km more than four minutes ahead of Hynek and Mennen, but then Sauser's run of bad luck this year struck again. Riding down a grassy section of downhill he slashed his tyre on a hidden rock.

The cut in Sauser's tubeless tyre was too big for sealant to stop the leaking and he had to put a tube into it.

By the time they finished third in the 115km stage from Greyton to Elgin, Sauser and Rabon were only two minutes ahead of Hynek and Mennen - the latter finishing fifth but still enjoying an overall lead of nine minutes and 48 seconds, which might prove decisive with only two more days of racing left.

Hynek felt that with only two stages left their lead should be enough to secure the win if they did not have mechanical issues, punctures or crashes: "But many things can happen ... 10 minutes may not be enough."

Sauser said later that he has had three punctures and a crash this year - more than in the past three years in spite of using the same frame, rims and tyres as last year. He still believed a win was possible: "If you think you will lose then you will lose."

"There are still two days to go and anything can happen," said Rabon.

Meanwhile, Former overall winner Paulissen was celebrating after winning the stage with Chiarini.

Philip Buys and cross country world champion Nino Schurter (Scott-Odlo) finished only six seconds behind them after a dramatic chase into the overnight stop at Elgin.

Paulissen won the Epic in 2005 and 2008, and said it was a great feeling to be back on the podium.

They had passed South African Buys and Swiss Schurter on a big climb up the notorious Groelandberg near the end but feared that the talented combination would catch them on the descent to the finish.

"Near the end there was a little ramp and they were 50 metres behind us. I said to Riccardo 'this is everything or nothing' and we managed to stay ahead ... it was a big victory for both of us," said Paulissen. Torpado now lie fourth overall but are 19 minutes behind the leaders.

Buys and Schurter are fifth overall, another 11 minutes back.

One of the notable performances on the day was the fourth finish by former Superbike legend Ben Bostrom of America, riding with Costa Rican Paolo Cesar Montoya (Meerendal Songo Specialized 2) in his first Cape Epic. "I thought we might be top ten today (they are lying 16th overall), but top five! I am so happy and lucky to be here."

The day also saw another top rider having to withdraw. This time it was Dutchman Rudi van Houts, partner of Spaniard Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida). Van Houts crashed on Thursday and started Friday but soon pulled out.

In the women's category Swiss Ariane Kleinhans and Dane Annike Langvad (RECM 2) won the stage by a significant 14 minutes, taking their overall lead over Swiss Esther Suss and Briton Sally Bigham (Meerendal) to more than 15 minutes. This represents a dramatic turnaround after the RECM pairing were nearly 24 minutes behind after Monday's stage one when they suffered from a series of punctures and technical problems.

"I am smiling because of the singletrack near the finish. Not only because it was fun, but finally we got some shade. It was so hot today," said Langvad. "After today we are feeling more comfortable in the lead and feeling confident. We had no problems."

Kleinhans added: "I actually was afraid of this stage, because Sally and Esther love long hard climbs like we had today. They are good climbers."

The eight-stage race finishes at Lourensford Wine Estate on Sunday