Wet and muddy conditions would dominate proceedings on the penultimate stage of the 2021 Absa Cape Epic, after overnight rain waterlogged the 81km/1850m course. This would make the racing incredibly tough and with overall podium positions still up for grabs in both the men's and women's race, the dynamics that played out were anything but sedate.
The first 20km of the stage featured the singletrack rollercoasters of the Wild Boar Trails and tight and steep vineyard climbs, before heading into the open expenses of Wellington's gravel roads where the frenetic pace splintered the men's field. The soggy and energy-sapping terrain would take its toll on the bodies and minds of all teams, not to mention challenge the integrity of their equipment as mechanicals played on repeat.
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The first 30km were fast with no real drama playing out among the frontrunners and a group of four teams comprising NinetyOne-songo-Specialized, Buff Scott MTB, Bulls 2 and Trek-Pirelli formed early on in the morning. The group of four worked well together to keep the pace high distancing the chasing bunch and establishing a hierarchy before the first real test of the day surfaced at the 35km marker.
For the first time of this year's race, Jordan Sarrou looked to be in a spot of bother yo-yoing off the back and having to dig incredibly deep to stay in contact with Bulls 2 and Buff Scott MTB. Trek-Pirelli's Fabian Rabensteiner was struggling, too, and would eventually lose contact forcing the Italian duo to drop back off the pace. This sparked a move from Buff Scott MTB to take advantage of the situation.
But no sooner did Trek-Pirelli lose contact than a mechanical struck for Hans Becking. This thwarted Buff Scott MTB's progress, forcing the team to pull over to fix a rear-wheel puncture - which allowed arch GC rivals, Trek-Pirelli back into the race. A chase back would ensue and the damage quickly reduced. Further up the road, NinetyOne-songo-Specialized and Bulls 2's Martin Frey and Simon Stiebjahn were driving the pace, the latter doing the lion's share of the work on the front.
With Bulls 2 sitting 6 minutes and 40 seconds behind NinetyOne-songo-Specialized on the GC, the French/South African combination would contribute very little to the cause and merely sit in - a damage control tactic with Sarrou still struggling from the earlier pace. In the end, Bulls 2 would win the sprint and take the stage, with Jordan Sarrou and Matthew Beers finishing closely behind.
"It's unbelievable and I have no words," said Simon Stiebjahn. "I want to say thank you to the whole team, everybody who is behind us and especially Martin (Frey) who was a strong fighter today."
Despite the mechanical for Buff Scott MTB, Hans Becking and Jose Dias would take back one minute and 56 seconds from Trek-Pirelli and now trail the Italians by just 47 seconds on the GC. Going into Stage 7, first and second spot look sealed but with third spot still to be decided, we can expect Becking and Jose to light things up as they chase a podium position.
"In the beginning I had a puncture in the front and Bulls 2 started to put on some pressure, and then we attacked," said Hans Becking. "And then we got a nail in the rear wheel and had to stop and fix it and that took some time. On the last climb, I was on the limit but we want a podium on the overall and we went on the attack again. It was a tough day out but we made the best of it I think."
It was a closer affair in the women's race on Stage 6 and although 91-songo-Specialized managed to come home with a seventh win in as many days, it was the Faces CST duo of Mariske Strauss and Candice Lill that would prove the strongest competition on the day for Sina Frei and Laura Stigger. With second spot in the general classification up for grabs, the all-South African team would put in a dominant display that culminated in a sprint to the line.
"It was quite interesting and an adventurous stage but Mariske (Strauss) and Candice (Lill) were really strong today and made us suffer today," said Laura Stigger. "I lost my contact lens twice and had a spare one with me and I took the wrong turn but that's not the reason why it was so close today, well done to the girls."
"We've been riding well and today was good and we're super proud of how we raced and how we came back," said Mariske Strauss.
The biggest losers in terms of time was Team Salusmed's Ariane Lüthi and Robyn de Groot who continue to struggle with the intensity of the race. They'd ultimately relinquish second position on the overall and now find themselves 11 minutes in arrears. That said, they've still got a lead of over an hour on fourth place Team Fairtree and, barring any incident, should finish on the overall podium when the race concludes in Val de Vie tomorrow.