The Men’s category is set for a thrilling finale after Olympic cross-country champion Nino Schurter and teammate Matthias Stirnemann (SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing) claimed their first stage win of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic on Friday.
Thanks to another strong ride they also moved into the overall race lead after the 84km Stage 5.
Second on Stage 5 was previous day’s winners Michiel van der Heidjen and Andri Frischknecht (SCOTT-SRAM Young Guns), giving the SCOTT teams excellent back-to-back victories.
Third went to Christoph Sauser and Jaroslav Kulhavy (Investec-Songo-Specialized) who had dropped badk to nearly two minutes behind Schurter and Stirnemann at one stage but fought magnificently to finish 17 seconds behind on the day.
After five magnificent days, it was eventually a mediocre day for Manuel Fumic and Henrique Avancini (Cannondale Factory Racing XC). Thanks to a ninth-place finish on the day, Fumic and Avancini have dropped to third overall, while Sauser and Kulhavy lurk in second, just 50 seconds off the front.
Matthias Stirnemann was left breathless after crossing the line, and had to take a few minutes to compose himself before talking to the media.
“The stage win feels great, especially after the start I had,” said Stirnemann. “In the beginning I was really struggling for rhythm. It took me quite a while to get started, but I think after the first climb of the day I started feeling much better. It was fast again from the start. In fact the whole stage was hard going...” After trailing off, he asked the waiting media to excuse him while he took time to recover.
Schurter on the other hand looked ready for another 84km. “It’s absolutely amazing to win the stage,” he said. “On the first big climb of the day I noticed that Christoph was struggling; that’s when we decided to go for it. Both the SCOTT teams were feeling good, so it’s great that we have now taken two stages for the team.”
Stage 6 of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic is billed as the Queen Stage - the toughest of all seven. It features the daunting Groenlandberg climb and a number of vicious up and downs - perhaps a day for the marathon experts to exert some control.
“I wouldn’t say we are favourites,” says Sauser. “Everyone has shown that they are so strong this week; and the terrain is super rough out there. The potential for mechanicals is very high. Tomorrow is another wait and see day.”
In the Hansgrohe Women’s category, a crash for Esther Suss near the finish almost derailed the Meerendal CBC challenge. “I thought it was the end of our race,” said Absa Cape Epic race leader Jennie Stenerhag when describing the crash. Suss, through, was able to quickly untangle herself from her bike and carry on riding.
South African Robyn de Groot and her German partner Sabine Spitz (Ascendis Health) ended up winning the sprint for the line, but despite their third stage victory on Friday, time is running out for them to challenge for the Hansgrohe Women’s category title.
On Friday De Groot and Spitz did everything they could, and even had some help from the unwitting male rider who caused Suss’s crash, but they could not make a significant dent in Meerendal’s almost 13-minute lead.
“It was quite tough out there today,” said Jennie Stenerhag after the finish. “Sabine and Robyn really put some pressure on us from the start, but we still managed to get the hotspot. After that it was very up and down. Sometimes they went super hard and then they eased off.”
De Groot was philosophical after the stage.
“We had no choice but to do our best to put them under pressure today. We have time to make up and we did our best. It was a really hard stage ... from the start it was pretty intense.
“We hoped we would get away and we got did away a couple of times, but not enough to make them stay away.”
In the Virgin Active Mixed category it was another successful day for Olympic champion Jenny Rissveds and partner Thomas Frischknecht (Scott-Sram Nextlevel). “Absolutely I would have taken this lead at this point if we had been offered it at the start,” she said.
Rissveds and Frischknecht enjoyed a huge victory on the stage and only a major disaster looks able to prevent them from taking that title when the race finishes at Val de Vie on Sunday. Grant Usher and Amy Beth McDougall (joBerg2c-Valencia) are second but with a 42-minute gap they have little realistic hope of a victory.
In the two “local” races within a race, it was once again business as usual, with Matthys Beukes and Philip Buys (PYGA Euro Steel) holding on to the Absa African special jersey and William Mokgopo and Phillimon Sebona (Diepsloot MTB Academy) further cementing their grip on the Exarro special jersey.
Beukes and Buys actually set the pace for the start of Stage 5, clearly aiming for a stage win. However a torn sidewall cost them precious time, and allowed Nico Bell and Gawie Combrinck (NAD Pro MTB) to sneak in ahead in the special jersey race on the day. Beukes and Buys still lead the category with a decent 15-minute gap. Mokgopo and Sebona currently sit in 48th place in the general category, while Beukes and Buys are lying ninth overall.
Cadel Evans and George Hincapie (BMC Absa Racing Team) have clearly found their Cape Epic groove, and now sit 27th overall after another stage win in the Dimension Data Masters category. They are still just under six minutes off the overall masters leaders of Tomi Misser and Ibon Zugasti (Orbea Factory), but they are making up time every day.
In the Grand Masters category, no one is close to catching Barti Bucher and Heinz Zoerweg (Meerendal CBC 3). They were first home once again on Stage 5 in the grand masters race and now sit with a comfortable hour-plus lead in the category.