Riders were met with near-ideal weather conditions for the start of Stage 1 of the 2021 Absa Cape Epic, a great motivator considering the tough and rocky trails that make up the Ceres region of the Western Cape. After an intense-but-short 20k Prologue, the 98km/1850m course would come as a shock to the system for many teams, not to mention a veritable stress test of equipment, as mechanicals would prove to plague both the professional and amateurs.
The testing course would take in a smorgasbord of terrain types native to Ceres, including open gravel roads and the technical singletrack and steep, loose climbs of the Eselfontein trail playground. While the spring weather conditions are noticeably cooler than the usual scorching summer temperatures of March (the traditional race month), the frenetic pace coupled with multiple attacks would fracture the men's and women's fields and split the race wide open.
Here's how the day's racing played out...
The racing dynamics among the men's teams was fairly tame for the first dozen kilometers. The stage itself was dominated by three big climbs including the torturous 'Dead Man Walking' climb (Dimension Data Hotspot) but it was more the hostile terrain than vertical meters that would splinter the field. At 22km, disaster struck for yesterday's runners-up, BMC-KMC's Filippo Colombo and Juri Zanotti, who suffered an untimely rear derailleur mechanical followed shortly by another issue, this time a front wheel puncture. This misfortunate would ultimately derail both their stage ambitions and overall race hopes.
Race leaders, NinetyOne-songo-Specialized team of Jordan Sarrou and Matthew Beers, were on a mission to stamp their authority early on in the stage when they attacked up the Dimension Data Hotspot opening up a 30 second lead over Canyon Northwave MTB. Jordan Sarrou moved to the front on the descent and Beers followed - the two would continue pushing the pace hard in an attempt to break up the chasing bunch. Several kilometers later, on a flat and furiously fast gravel section, Beers appeared to be struggling, which brought Canyon Northwave MTB and both Bulls teams back in contention.
NinetyOne-songo-Specialized wouldn't panic but rather use the security of the group to recover and force the other teams to drive the pace. The Bulls team lead by Urs Huber and Simon Schneller were looking strong and confident thanks to the company of their support team of Martin Frey and Simon Stiebjahn. There'd be more issues for Matt Beers at the 73km marker, the South African marathon champion drifted to the back of the leading group - something seemed to be bothering him and the NinetyOne-songo-Specialized team could do nothing but sit in and let the other teams do the lion's share of the work.
With 18km to go, the pace increased significantly as marathon World Champion, Andreas Seewald of Canyon Northwave MTB moved to the front and began to drive the pace followed closely by the two Bulls teams. Beers was still having issues with his rear wheel - something we'd later learn was a clogged rear derailleur. These dynamics would continue to playout for the next 12km with no team able to get away or make any progress off the front. This would eventually culminate in a sprint finish with Bulls 1, Bulls 2 and Canyon Northwave MTB nabbing podium positions. NinetyOne-songo-Specialized would follow closely behind in fourth place but lose no time, retaining their overall lead on the GC of 1 minute 47 seconds.
"It was a nice stage and we were a group of 4 or 5 teams> Simon (Schneller) and me checked the last section of the course in the morning and were in the front at the important moment and took the stage," said Urs Huber. "We are looking forward to tomorrow and we know the stage from previous years and should be fine. We will look to repeat the result tomorrow."
The biggest mover on the GC is Bulls 2 who jump from fifth to third position. Despite their stage win, Team Bulls find themselves in fourth but their overall intentions are clear - they've come here to win. Tomorrow's 96km/2100m Queen Stage in Tulbagh is sure to be another test and teams will need to nurse equipment and tires or face the consequences.
Sina Frei and Laura Stigger of 91-songo-Specialized started the day where they left off in the Prologue, and kept the pace extremely high during the early parts of Stage 1. Like the men, mechanicals would be an issue for many of the teams but the only real losers of the day would be the Liv-Lapierre Racing duo of Sarah Hill and Vera Looser, the latter of whom got barbed wire tangled in her rear wheel and tire.
Frei and Stigger would make their mark on the Dimension Data Hotspot - the Dead Man Walking Climb - and kept pushing the pace on the descent where they gapped Team Salusmed's Ariane Lüthi and Robyn de Groot. It wasn't smooth sailing for Salumed as Lüthi suffered a crash while attempting to chase back some time on 91-songo-Specialized. Yesterday's second-place finishers, Candice Lill and Mariske Strauss (Faces CST) lost 12 minutes today owing to Strauss suffering a crash. They still managed to come home in third spot and increased their lead in Absa African Women special jersey category.
In the end, it was a flawless display by 91-songo-Specialized who extended their lead to 6 minutes and 29 seconds over Team Salusmed.
"The legs are super tired and we suffered a lot. It wasn't easy and wasn't part of the plan to be alone so early. The last 20 kays were very hard," said Sina Frei.
With six tough-and-tricky stages still left to negotiate, Frei And Stigger will need to be cautious as both body and mind begin to fatigue. After tomorrow's Queen Stage we'll have a better indication of how the race will unfold in the women's race where we're likely to see movement on the bottom steps of the podium.