Johannesburg – Germans Markus Kaufmann and Jochen Kaess (Team Centurion-Vaude) survived a day of carnage on a rainswept 113km stage one of the Absa Cape Epic on Monday to win in 4h 42m 50,3s.
The course took the riders in a loop, starting and finishing in Robertson, over some of the toughest terrain in the Western Cape and up three brutal climbs.
All of the top teams had problems 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 ill.
But biggest setback of the day 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 on Monday. Hermida fell victim to stomach problems overnight and was a pale shadow of his normal self.
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 survived a flat tyre and a fall to 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 up the field, after finishing second on Monday, are Team Meerendal Songo Specialized’s Christoph Sauser and Frantisek Rabon, who were two minutes behind the leaders in spite of having two punctures themselves.
Sauser has won the race four times and Monday’s result moves them into third overall.
“I believe we are one of the favourites now, if not the favourites,” said Switzerland’s Sauser.
“The route is going to favour us more and more from now.”
He pointed to the 134km stage three from Robertson to Greyton on Wednesday as one where he and Czech teammate Rabon 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 on Monday in a sprint finish with Sauser and Rabon, are Team BMC’s Lukas Fluckiger and Martin Fanger, both from Switzerland.
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 Ä just to get another puncture. It was horrible,” said Langvad.
They eventually finished third but are nearly 25 minutes behind Monday’s winner, Briton Sally Bigham and Swiss Esther Suss (Meerendal), who finished in 5h 24m 31,7s.
“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'm 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.
Tuesday’s 101km stage is billed as being easier than Monday, but the weatherman has been predicting significant downpours overnight, which could make for tricky conditions. - Sapa