Drama on Stage 3 Sees Yellow Jerseys Change Hands
It's not over until it's over. A disastrous rear-wheel puncture saw Scott-SRAM MTB-Racing concede the Yellow Jerseys to Cannondale Factory Racing on Wednesday, proving once again that the Absa Cape Epic is won only when you cross the finish line at Val de Vie Estate during the Grand Finale.
Cannondale Factory Racing put on a tactical clinic for the rest of the field on Wednesday's brutal 107-kilometre Stage 3 and ended up not only taking the stage win, but also moved firmly into first on the overall GC. Henrique Avancini and Manuel Fumic now have a 2:41 buffer over Scott-SRAM MTB-Racing, with the BULLS Heroes outfit of Urs Huber and Simon Stiebjahn in third, 7:45 adrift.
"Today was a special one for us," was the word from Avancini after the finish. "The approach was to put the guys in the hurt box early and just push a little bit here and there. That's what we did."
"We went into the stage wanting to put the Yellow Jersey under pressure," agreed Fumic. "On the first long climb we were working hard on the front and saw Lars (Forster) was struggling."
"We knew then we had them where we wanted them and we put on a little bit more pressure," he added.
Cannondale Factory Racing forced the pace up the iconic Groenlandberg climb and then let it all hang out further on the treacherous descent. It was not long after that when Lars Forster slashed his rear tyre.
Scott-SRAM MTB-Racing, under the ice cool leadership of Nino Schurter, stayed calm as they worked to repair the tyre while the field streamed past. However, they could not make the repair and were forced to descend on the rim toward the Houw Hoek Hotel water point at 60km. Their back-up team (DSV-SCOTT-SRAM) eventually caught them and gave them a wheel, but by then they had already lost a staggering nine minutes.
Cannondale Factory Racing picked up their hydration vests at the Houw Hoek Hotel water point and forged ahead. According to Fumic they didn't attack or get overeager, instead opting to ride at a steady pace out front. "There are still a few days to go so we tried to stay relaxed and consistent," he said.
Schurter and Forster put in a phenomenal effort over the last 40-kilometres to limit their losses, eventually reducing the nine minutes down to 6:45.
BULLS Heroes (Urs Huber and Simon Stiebjahn) finished the day in second while Damiano Ferraro and Samuele Porro of Trek Selle San Marco went one better than on Stage 2 to finish on the podium.
Scott-SRAM MTB-Racing were not alone in their misery during the brutal stage, however. Stage 2 runner's up KROSS-SPUR suffered a severe mechanical after taking the Dimension Data hotspot on the top of Nuweberg. They eventually limped home way down the field but live to fight for stage honours once again.
Matt Beers of SpecializedFoundationNAD crashed hard, buckling his wheel. "He hit a sharp rock which rolled his front wheel and put him on his side," said partner Alan Hatherly. "I actually thought we were done after that, but he picked himself up and we chased back to the group," he said.
"Obviously after that our main concern was the Absa African Men's Jersey, once we had reeled in IMBUKO GIANT we actually moved through the field. So we're happy with that."
SpecializedFoundationNAD had the good fortune of being able to take a wheel from Jaroslav Kulhavy after Beers' crash. Kulhavy was completing the stage solo because his Investec-songo-Specialized partner, Sam Gaze, abandoned the race a few kilometres from the start after he did not recover sufficiently from his Stage 1 crash.
No doubt SpecializedFoundationNAD will be targeting Thursday's 43km time trial. They will have their work cut out for them however with some of the other XCO specialists also targeting the time trial stage honours.
Punctures Sink the Hopes of Challengers
Four-time race winner and current Absa Cape Epic Women's category leader, Annika Langvad's mantra for the gruelling eight-day event has always been: "Never to take anything for granted until you cross the finish line". On Wednesday her conservative approach was once again vindicated as the second-placed team of Ariane Lüthi and Maja Wloszczowska (Kross-Spur Racing) were pretty much blown out of contention by punctures.
Langvad and Anna Van der Breggen (Investec-songo-Specialized) had already established a lead of a minute at the first water point just 22km into Wednesday's out-and-back Stage 3 from Oak Valley Estate. So when Lüthi's drama began, they were unaware their nearest challengers were in difficulty even before the climb up the iconic Groenlandberg.
In the end the leading pair cruised home in 5:23:43 to record their fourth win from four stages. With half of this year's Absa Cape Epic completed, the Danish / Dutch combination has established a massive 23-minute lead.
In the dice for the minor placings, Candice Lill and Adelheid Morath (Summit Fin), who were with Lüthi when she had her first puncture, have moved up to second overall after finishing the 107km ride six minutes behind the leaders. They were followed home 14 minutes later by Silverback-Fairtree's Jennie Stenerhag and Mariske Strauss. Lüthi and Wloszczowska ended fourth on the stage, but did just enough to hold third overall on GC.
"On the downhill after the Dimension Data Hotspot I flatted," said Lüthi after finally crossing the line. "I didn't even think I had hit anything. Many other times I thought I was in more danger of puncturing so it was quite a weird puncture actually.
"We fixed it pretty quickly but then thought it safer to change the wheel. At the tech zone we changed the wheel, but we are sharing with our (male teammates) who have the same wheels. So we took a wheel that they had already changed and it already had a plug in it.
"We had to stop again because it lost air, so we actually then had to fix the guys' problem and that cost us time again. Then we had to change the wheel a second time at the next tech zone.
"But this is the Absa Cape Epic and you always have to keep going … you never know what is going to happen."
There is no way Langvad will admit it, but such has been the dominance of the Investec-songo-Specialized train that it is hard to see anybody coming close – unless bad luck derails their charge of course.
"It was good today," said the four-time Absa Cape Epic women's champion. "I was not feeling good yesterday, but I felt much more recovered today and we had a nice and steady day. It was so brutal the terrain today. There were so many rocks I can hardly feel my arms because it was so rough out there, but I am very happy to take the victory.
"There was a hotspot early in the race and we decided to test our legs and those of our competitors up the first climb. Once we had a gap we just decided to keep it steady and make the others work hard if they wanted to catch."
"We did not hear about Ariane's hassles. We did not even know what was going on."
Lill and Morath arrived with huge grins as their move up to second overall was announced when they crossed the line.
"Amazing result today," said Lill. "We certainly did not expect that. Today was a stage where you really had to think about how long it was and how much climbing there was. If you blow yourself on Groenlandberg there are still so many climbs to go.
"We were with Ariane when she punctured but you cannot get too excited and try and sprint away. We just rode at our own pace. It was important not to go too fast on the descents so we were really careful not to make any mistakes and puncture."
On Thursday riders face a much shorter time in the saddle, but the 43km time trial that starts and finishes at Oak Valley favours the stronger riders. Langvad and Van der Breggen are are likely to increase their lead – barring any incidents of course.
The leading Absa African Women's team pulled out of the event when Amy McDougall was forced to withdraw with a stomach bug on Wednesday, leaving her dormakaba Ladies teammate Sam Sanders to ride on alone in the Leopard jersey. Their withdrawal leaves the Galileo Risk pairing of Theresa Ralph and Sarah Hill to take over as the top all-African women's team with a lead of almost three hours.