Picture: SHAUN ROY/CAPE EPIC/SPORTZPICS
Picture: SHAUN ROY/CAPE EPIC/SPORTZPICS

Fanties Pass in the Tulbagh Valley is not for the faint-hearted, and so it proved on the third stage of the Absa Cape Epic in Saronsberg on Wednesday, as Sina Frei and Laura Stigger powered up it to take their fourth win on the trot and extend their overall lead.

While the young Swiss-Austrian duo are looking dominant, their NinetyOne-songo-Specialised teammates and leaders in the men’s race, Matt Beers of SA and France’s Jordan Sarrou, have a scrap on their hands.

They were fifth on Wednesday, losing half a minute overall to stage winners German Andreas Seewald and Czech Martin Stosek (Canyon-Northwave), who had attacked on the brutal Fanties Pass, which has an average grading of 14%, with a 20% stretch thrown in for good measure. 

“It was super tough at the end,” said Frei, the Tokyo Olympic silver medallist. “We had some really good teamwork and it’s amazing to win another stage. Of course we were hoping for a little bit of a bigger gap because the end was pretty fast and we suffered a lot. It’s super nice to extend the lead.” 

On a hot day with temperatures topping at 38°C, the team aspect of the Epic came to the fore for all top three women’s teams.

The 24-year-old Swiss had to slow up to allow the 21-year-old Stigger to hold her wheel, with the Austrian admitting she had “suffered quite a lot”. They won by 4min 38sec from Ariane Lüthi of Switzerland and SA’s Robyn de Groot (Salusmed), with South Africans Candice Lill and Mariske Strauss (Faces CST) third, 6:08 behind. They now lead overall from Salusmed by 11:15 with four days to go. Lill and Strauss make up the top three, but are 24:19 off the pace.

“They [Frei and Stigger] have a lot of road experience and are very smart racers,” said Lüthi, a three-time winner of the women’s race. “It’s super nice to race against them. We wanted to keep the pressure on them today, but attacking them is very hard. We don’t have the sort of watts they have.” 

De Groot had suffered badly on Fanties, saying she had a “very bad patch”, but she recovered on the flat towards the finish to ensure they remained in second. Strauss crashed again, her fourth crash in four days: “Four for four. I’m a little battered and bruised, but nothing major. It’s racing. It happens. We managed to consolidate and get to the finish in one piece.” 

Seewald, the world marathon champion, and Stosek have made it clear they are at their first Epic to win the general classification, but the need to claw back time from Beers and Sarrou saw them hit Fanties Pass hard. 

“Our plan worked perfectly today,” said Seewald. “We controlled the pace on the long single-track section from the front and could afford to take it a little easy — this was good because we didn’t know the trail that well. Then on the steep climb, we attacked. It was brutally hard. I almost did not believe we could get a nice gap. Then there was a gap and towards the finish. Luckily we had one team [Trek-Pireli] with us so we could push full gas and hold it to the finish.”

“The Italian guys worked with us towards the finish,” said Stosek. “I was confident we could do it in the sprint at the end because I know Andy had good legs today. He almost killed me on the climb.” 

Samuele Porro and Fabian Rabensteiner of Trek-Pireli lost the sprint by two seconds, followed home by Swiss Urs Huber and Germany’s Simon Schneller (Bulls 1) in third, and their German teammates, Martin Frey and Simon Stiebjahn (Bulls 2) fourth.  Beers and Sarrou still lead overall by 1:43. 

“That was a super hard stage. I knew it would be really, really hard,” said Beers. “I’ve ridden that climb [Fanties] but it was even worse after the climb along the mountain. We hung on and rode really well. We managed to make sure the gap wasn’t too bad, only 30 seconds. There are still some stages to go.” 

Thursday’s fourth stage of the Epic will be a relatively short and sharp 73km transition to the Slanghoek Valley. With rugged, uneven trails, this could either prove to be a day when the racing takes a breath or a stage that could burst the race apart.

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