Riders in an Absa Cape Epic. Picture: GALLO IMAGES
Riders in an Absa Cape Epic. Picture: GALLO IMAGES

On a day when one team made suffering to win a stage of the Absa Cape Epic look easy and two others showed bullish form to take a tight sprint for their victory, the pecking order in the 2021 edition of the race showed signs of what is to come after the first stage in Ceres on Monday.

Swiss Sina Frei and Austrian Laura Stigger (NinetyOne-Songo-Specialized) romped home by the best part of five minutes to claim their second win in their first Cape Epic. Ariane Lüthi, the Swiss national champion and SA’s Robyn de Groot (Salusmed) were second with the SA pairing of Candice Lill and Mariske Strauss (Faces CST) in third.

Frei and Stigger now have a 6.5 minute lead over Lüthi and De Groot, with Strauss and Lill a further 7 min back.

“It just looks easy,” said the 21-year-old Stigger, a junior world champion on the road and on a mountain bike. “We had a pretty good race. For us it was not so easy actually. We had to fight, but happy to take away the win.” 

Silver medallist at the Tokyo Olympics, Frei said her legs were “super tired” and that they had “suffered” a lot on the 98km stage with 1,850m of climbing. The pair had broken away before the 46km Hotspot, and drove hard solo all the way home.

“It was not the plan to be alone so early on,” said Frei. “We just kept going, but the last 20km were long.” 

Lüthi and Strauss both had crashes, but Lüthi, a three-time winner of the women’s category, talked down what her teammate called “quite a bad crash” on a deceptive stage, the first under 100km at the Epic since 2013. That may be, suggested local commentators, Lüthi wanting to ensure the leaders did not think she was showing weakness.

“It was nothing bad. I was a bit dark, I slipped and locked the front wheel. I was back on the bike quickly and didn’t hurt myself. It’s quite weird to ride so much flat after riding so much in Europe in the Alps. You’re just constantly pedalling, always working, never having a long break and just freewheeling,” said Luthi. 

The men’s race shaped up to become an eight-way sprint with 26km to go, after the two Bulls teams and the Canyon-Northwave outfit of German Andreas Seewald and Czech Martin Stosek caught prologue winners and overall leaders SA’s Matt Beers and Frenchman Jordan Sarrou (NinetyOne-songo-Specialized).

The two Bulls outfits tag-teamed to fly into the final corner to set up Swiss Urs Huber and German Simon Schneller (Bulls 1) for the stage win. Their German teammates, Martin Frey and Simon Stiebjahn (Bulls 2), were second, with Seewald and Stosek third. 

Beers and Sarrou were just 5 sec back after Beers had to overcome the issue of grass stuck in his rear cassette which robbed him of some of his gearing towards the end. The prologue winners still lead overall by 1 min  47 sec. 

“It was a really nice stage,” said Huber, who won the Epic in 2016 with five-time winner Karl Platt. “We were a group of four teams coming to the end. Simon and I had checked the last kilometres. We knew the track. We were in the front in the important moment to win the stage. We are looking forward to [Tuesday’s stage]. We know it a bit from previous years. It should be fine for us.” 

Beers and Sarrou were the first over Dead Man’s Hill, but the chasing pack worked hard to pull them back in. Their fourth place on the stage was a saving grace, but with Canyon Northwave 1:47 back, Bulls 2 2:08 and Bulls 1 2:17, a solid ride on the 96km to Saronsberg on Tuesday will be crucial for them. 

“I got a bit of grass stuck in my cassette and couldn’t use the last few gears,” said Beers. “I was just having to spin a lot. If it wasn’t the Epic, you could just stop and take it out, but there was no ways I could do that. We just had to consolidate and make sure we didn’t lose time, and that’s what we did.”

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