Dubbed the Queen stage, Stage 2 of the 2021 Absa Cape Epic would prove to be a challenging test for the race's front runners. The last time the race passed through this region was back in 2016, a day which also happened to mark the 100th stage of the race since its inception back in 2004. The Tulbagh region - like Ceres - is known for taking no prisoners and the wind-affected wide, open expanses mixed with the incredibly technical singletrack, can have a cumulative effect on the body as the race progresses.
With 96km and 2100m to negotiate the route might have looked more innocuous than the five-star-rated topography suggested but, with the relentless changes in elevation gain coupled with the energy-sapping terrain (rocks and sand aplenty), any preconceived notions surrounding its difficulty rating was quickly dismissed.
For NinetyOne-songo-Specialized's Jordan Sarrou and Mathew Beers, it would be a day of consolidation - leaving any chasing, attacking or moves to come from the teams below them on the general classification. What unfolded was a race of attrition where crashes and calculated risks ruled supreme.
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With a hard day's racing predicted, the men's field stayed together for most of the opening 25km of Stage 2 of the Absa Cape Epic. NinetyOne-songo-Specialized's Jordan Sarrou, was clearly struggling for the first several kilometres but managed to find his rhythm just before heading into the mountains. The gaps only really started to form on the first major climb of the day - the old Gydo Pass or gateway to the Witzenberg Valley.
The attritional nature of this stage would continue to thin the field, and the Witzenberg Valley would signal the start of the race proper. Categorized by lots of sand and rocky singletrack, the energy-sapping terrain would be another reason for the ongoing splits and it's here where the pace went up several notches. Fourteen teams became 10 and reduced even further when both Bulls teams, NinetyOne-songo-Specialized and Canyon Northwave MTB, Buff Scott MTB and Trek-Pirelli broke away at the 70km marker. These six teams would stay together for the bulk of Witzenberg Valley section of the route which circumnavigated the basin before heading skywards again.
Just before the climb out of the valley, Canyon Northwave MTB's Andreas Seewald and Martin Stosek attacked which caused panic in chasing group. Sarrou and Beers were first to react having to put in a big effort to make contact, the result of which blew the pursuers apart. As Canyon Northwave MTB and NinetyOne-songo-Specialized reached the upper ridgeline of the valley, Sarrou and Beers attacked in what would go down as the winning move of the day.
The NinetyOne-songo-Specialized team entered the challenging Old Wagon Trail descent with clean air ahead, the Frenchman using his superior XCO skills to set a blistering pace with Beers in tow. While Canyon Northwave MTB tried their utmost to follow the move, as out-and-out marathon racers, they stuck to their longterm game plan and negotiated the descent in a careful and calculated manner. The NinetyOne-songo-Specialized team kept the pace fast on the appreciably rocky and technical descent with Beers following Sarrou's Specialized S-Works Epic like a tracer bullet.
Once at the bottom, an 8km network of open gravel farm roads would see Beers take the lead on the front, the two continuing to put time into Seewald and Stosek, and the chasing teams of Buff Scott MTB, Trek-Pirelli and the two Bulls teams. In the end, it was a dominant display by NinetyOne-songo-Specialized who won the stage by 36 seconds, extending their lead on the GC to 2 minutes 14 seconds over Canyon Northwave MTB.
"It was awesome to win another stage and to win in the yellow jersey - you can't get any better than that," quipped Matthew Beers. "With Jordan's (Sarrou) pedigree in XCO and my background in motocross, we were able to send it down the Old Wagon Trail."
"The downhill (Old Wagon Trail descent) was super nice and we gapped the other teams," said Sarrou. "I struggled at the start but got better and better so I'm happy. Matt (beers) waited a little for me in the beginning, but we started rotating - it was amazing."
The women's race was a much closer affair today. It appeared as though 91-songo-Specialized's Sina Frei and Laura Stigger took a more measured approach leaving any moves to come from teams lower down on the general classification. It wasn't long before Frei and Stigger grew impatient and started to put down the hammer once the bunch crested the old Gydo Pass.
They opened a sizeable gap on Team Salusmed's Ariane Lüthi and Robyn de Groot and the Faces CST duo of Mariske Strauss and Candice Lill just before the drop into the Witzenberg Valley and continued to keep the momentum going. This put Team Salusmed and Faces CST under incredible pressure, the result of which forced a split here, too. Frei and Stigger continued to put time between themselves and second placed Team Salusmed securing another stage win in the process.
This means 91-songo-Specialized has increased their lead on the general classification to 7 minutes 32 seconds and 18 minutes and 10 seconds over Team Salusmed and Faces CST respectively.