Cape Town - The Multivan Merida team of Jose Hermida and Rudi van Houts won the first stage of the Absa Cape Epic on Monday, withstanding a concerted attack by the two Bulls teams over the final 20km in Citrusdal.

They used their experience of previous Epics to stay with the leading riders from the start of the 96km stage, and then put the hammer down just after the second water point at 52km to stretch out a lead of one minute, 20 seconds and take over the yellow jersey.

The duo crossed the line in a time of four hours, 30 minutes, 56 seconds (4:30:56) for the stage, to take the overall lead in the gruelling mountain bike race.

The Bulls teams of Karl Platt and Urs Huber (Bulls 1) and Thomas Dietsch and Tim Boehme (Bulls 2) had set the pace from the start and led through the first half.

Platt paid tribute to the resilience of Hermida and Van Houts, who between them have completed five Epics.

“It was like a bungee rope. They kept stretching away and we kept pulling, but they never came back.”

Nevertheless, the Bulls teams said they were pleased by they way they worked together, helping each other as they chased the runaway leaders.

“We can’t predict anything in the Epic. You can’t really plan for a stage because anything can happen.”

Defending champion Christoph Sauser and his partner, Olympic cross country champion Jaroslav Kulhavy, who won Sunday's prologue, struggled in the early stages and at one point were nearly five minutes down on the leaders.

But as the terrain levelled out in the final stages, they raised the tempo and started closing the gap, eventually finishing fourth, nearly three minutes off the pace.

Sauser and Kulhavy did enough, however, to hang on to second position overall.

Meanwhile, the women’s race was comfortably led by the BMC Wheelers team of Esther Suss and Jane Neussli, who demolished the rest of the field in a time of 5:20:00.

They led the overall standings by 32 minutes, ahead of South Africa’s Yolande Speedy and her English partner Catherine Williamson.

Tuesday's 143km second stage starts in Citrusdal and ends in Tulbagh. - Sapa