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Stage 3 of the Absa Cape Epic from Tulbagh to Wellington. Picture: SHAUN ROY/CAPE EPIC/SPORTZPICS
Stage 3 of the Absa Cape Epic from Tulbagh to Wellington. Picture: SHAUN ROY/CAPE EPIC/SPORTZPICS

It was, you suspected, just a matter of time before the two past and present world champions in the Absa Cape Epic found their groove, flexed their muscles and reminded all and sundry that the Epic is not won in the first few days. 

Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, a former world champion in cyclocross, road racing and MTB cross-country, and her SA partner Robyn de Groot (BMC) came back hard to win the 123km second stage from Lourensford to Greyton, and put themselves six minutes and some change behind orange-jersey leaders Sofia Gomez Villafane and Haley Batten (NinetyOne-Songo-Specialized). 

Nino Schurter, the current cross-country world champion, won a close sprint with Swiss Scott-Sram partner Lars Forster to take their first stage after three days of an Epic marked by punctures.

There were more punctures, which is a cause for concern, but they rode with composure and control to set themselves up for a win that moved them to fifth overall.

Ferrand-Prévot of France and De Groot marked their time during the race, with Candice Lill and Mariske Strauss (Face Rola) setting the pace with Villafane and Batten. At 85km, Ferrand-Prévot went hard up Jacques’ Climb, followed by De Groot.

Ariane Lüthi and Amy Wakefield (Symbtech ZA) et al were blown away on the climb, and BMC settled into a time trial groove that ensured their win. 

“Yesterday [prologue] was very tough. Pauline had a bad day out there. It’s incredible how she bounced back today, absolutely amazing in fact. She was so determined,” said De Groot of Ferrand-Prévot, who is riding the Epic for the first time.

“I made the mistake of going out too fast in the beginning yesterday,” admitted Ferrand-Prévot. “I paid the price for that. Today I started slower and rode into the day; it was a much better strategy. I made a small attack on the big climb. Robyn was super strong and I saw that she was coming with me. We made a good gap and, after that, we just rode a nice rhythm to the finish.” 

NinetyOne-Songo-Specialized may hold the lead, but they are aware of the challenge sitting in second.

“It just shows you how unpredictable this race is,” said Batten. “We really had to adapt and go with the flow today. This is not going to be an easy race over the next few days, but we are ready for the challenge. Today I really had to dig deep. Coming from cross-country, I am not used to six hours in the saddle, even though that’s how I trained. Sofia was amazing in the last quarter of the race, she really kicked into gear and helped us get home.”

Similarly, Schurter and Forster worked themselves into a race-winning position by being smart. Leaders Andreas Seewald and Martin Stošek (Canyon Northwave MTB), and Hans Becking and Jose Dias (Buff-Megamo), hung tough all day, but were pushed hard by South Africans Matt Beers and Christopher Blevins (Toyota-NinetyOne-Specialized) of the US, who came back strongly after two bad days.

“I’m still not 100% better,” said Beers, who won in 2021, “but obviously very happy with the ride. To be honest, I struggled to get a line on the finish and couldn’t work out which way to go.”

As with the women, the men’s race held together until late, Sram-Scott kicked hard on Jacques’ Climb before Schurter had another puncture. With the leading seven teams now back together at the last water station, Schurter played rope-a-dope and went out hard and early as Foster looked to be umming and aahing. 

Blevin led the sprint, but Beers could not get past Becking as the win went to the  Swiss.

“It’s always nice to win,” said Schurter, “but we had bad luck again. I don’t know what it is, for some reason, I am just struggling with my gear this week. The legs feel great though and I felt good throughout today’s stage. The sprint was not really a sprint finish but more just a case of who could hold on the longest. Whoever had the legs at the end was going to win that one. It’s great to take the win and it gives us motivation for tomorrow.” 

Seewald and Stošek were fourth, 10sec behind, and they have close on a 5min lead on Becking and Diasm, with Beers and Blevins third, 8min behind. 

The third stage is a 101km “roll around the dry, dusty, and rocky trails of Greyton”, according to the organisers. Nothing has been certain thus far.


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