For many riders, Stage 5's 84km and 2900m jaunt around Wellington would represent the 'real Queen Stage' of the 2021 Absa Cape Epic with its five massive climbs and leg-sapping terrain. With three challenging stages still to go, any mistakes and mechanicals today would be costly - even for the NinetyOne-songo-Specialized men's team of Jordan Sarrou and Matt Beers and their six-minute lead.
The overnight rain didn't stick around for as long as expected. Instead, the morning started with cooler overcast conditions, with the rain having transformed the dusty tracks into veritable hero dirt. For both the men's and women's races, the bottom steps of the podiums are still up for grabs and fireworks were expected to playout for the full 84km.
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The major contenders stayed together for most of the day - NinetyOne-songo-Specialized, Bull 2, Trek-Pirelli and yesterday's stage winners, Hans Becking and Jose Dias of Buff Scott MTB. For leaders Jordan Sarrou and Matthew Beers, they'd have no real need to control the race choosing to rather sit back and react to any moves and dynamics thanks to their sizeable lead. Of the protagonists, all eyes were on Buff Scott MTB's Hans Becking and Jose Dias who found themselves just over four minutes adrift off the bottom step of the overall podium at the start of the day.
Despite a bit of tactical bluffing from Hans Becking and Jose Dias who found themselves off the pace at times, the Buff Scott MTB duo made their move just before the last climb of the stage, the revered Aap d'Huez: a steep, single-track climb complete with 21 switchbacks. They opened up a decent gap and continued this momentum into the rough and tricky singletrack climb leaving the chasing bunch to work hard to regain contact - something that would never happen.
Becking and Dias would open over a minute gap by the time they passed through the 73km time check, with Bulls 2 and NinetyOne-songo-Specialized trailing in second and third spot respectively. Trek-Pirelli were unable to match the pace of the chasing pack and were under pressure to not lose too much time with Buff Scott MTB breathing down their necks in the GC. All the climbing, or at least the bulk of the climbing, would be done by the time the technical Full Monty descent came into play - it's here where Trek-Pirelli would need to take some risks to mitigate any damage suffered on the climbs.
With just 14km left to negotiate, Buff Scott MTB kept the throttle pinned and used their skills to continue their assault on the podium. With a couple of short and sharp stings in the tail, the final 10km were fast, furious and flat-out. In the end, Hans Becking and Jose Dias made it two for two and stamped their authority on the race going clear by over one minute 30 seconds over Bulls 2 and NinetyOne-songo-Specialized who finished in second and third, respectively. Trek-Pirelli came home in fourth spot, just a few seconds off Jordan Sarrou and Matt Beers.
"It was rough and the rain changed the course a bit but we stayed in the front group and felt very good all day," said Hans Becking. "We decided to go and it's a super feeling when your legs just do what you ask them to do and I'm super proud for winning two stages as a newbie - he's (Jose Dias) is the best partner to have at the Epic."
What does this mean for the race? Well, NinetyOne-songo-Specialized are still in yellow and lead Bulls 2 by 6 minutes and 40 seconds on the overall. The biggest shake-up is a little further down where Trek-Pirelli's third-place position is under threat from Buff Scott MTB who are now just over 2 minutes behind. It's all to play for in tomorrow's 90km/2300m sufferfest around Wellington - even NinetyOne-songo-Specialized will need to stay focussed as attacks are expected to come thick and fast.
91-songo-Specialized's Sina Frei and Laura Stigger made it six from six with another dominant display. While the Swiss/Austrian duo increased their lead on the general classification, it was the Faces CST team of Mariske Strauss and Candice Lill who were the real movers on today's stage clawing back nearly 10 minutes on the GC on Team Salusmed. The all-South African team came in just 1 minute and 43 seconds behind 91-songo-Specialized and just under 10 minutes ahead of Team Salusmed's Ariane Lüthi and Robyn de Groot who were struggling for a third day in a row.
"It's special to share this jersey (Absa African jersey) with Candice (Lill), said Mariske Strauss. "It's the cherry on top and inspires the next generation of racers and shows we (South Africans) are able to fight with the top guns of the world."
Like the men's race, it's still all to play for on the bottom two steps of the podium - Ariane Lüthi and Robyn de Groot will hope the legs pitch up on Stage 6 as it's a certainty that Faces CST will look to pile on the pressure tomorrow in a bid to move up to second position on the general classification.