Riders were greeted to uncharacteristically cold, wet and muddy conditions as the 2021 Absa Cape Epic Prologue kicked off on the slopes of Table Mountain in the heart of Cape Town, South Africa. In what has been considered a tumultuous, COVID-19-affected period for South African-hosted sports events, the 17th running of the event has represented a massive turning point for marathon mountain bike stage racing as a whole - the Cape Epic is considered the toughest mountain bike race on the planet.
The short and sharp cross-country-style course layout of the Table Mountain Prologue covers 600m of vertical ascent over 20km, and it was the cross-country riders who'd take full advantage of the terrain and muddy conditions on the day.
Despite the notably thinned international professional contingent, competition was still fierce in the women's race as 2021 UCI Short Track World Champion Sina Frei, and Laura Stigger of NinetyOne-songo-Specialized laid down early markers setting a blistering pace in the first half of the race. They used their cross-country mountain biking skills and wet-weather-riding prowess to dispatch the tricky and slippery terrain, passing many of their adversaries before the summit of Dead Man's Tree at 10km - the highest point of the course. The Songo-Specialized team kept the pace high on the 4.5km Tarmac section of Table Mountain road before starting the technical descent into Plum Pudding.
It was here where they consolidated their lead on closest rivals, the all-South African Faces CST team of Candice Lill and Mariske Strauss. Frei and Stigger would continue to stamp their dominance and eventually came home in first place in a time of 54min 08 seconds. Jostling for the bottom steps of the podium was Faces CST (Candice Lill and Mariske Strauss) and the Salusmed duo of Ariane Lüthi and Robyn de Groot, winners of this year's Swiss Epic. As pure marathon racers, the Salusmed team would always be on the backfoot but managed to put in a decent showing nonetheless finishing just 2 seconds behind runners up Faces CST (55min 41 seconds).
"It was really tough and conditions that we are used to from the XCO but we're happy and we know there is still a hard seven days to come," said Laura Stigger, NinetyOne-ongo-Specialized. "We had pretty good speed and communicated well and hopefully the momentum continues over the next few days."
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Despite the absence of 2019 winner's Nino Schurter and Lars Forster, the men's field still comprised a pretty substantial field including current UCI Marathon World Champion Andreas Seewald of Canyon Northwave MTB, 2016 winner Urs Huber (Team Bulls) and 2020 UCI XCO World Champion Jordan Sarrou (NinetyOne-songo-Specialized). WorldTour riders were out in full force, too - Lachlan Morton of EF Education-Nippo and Bora-Hansgrohe's Ben Zwiehoff and Lennard Kamna were present as well as former Qhubeka NextHash riders and finishers of all three Grand Tours, Jacques Janse Van Rensburg (DSC Pro Cycling) and Jaco Venter (First Move/ Fundsmith).
By the time the men's race kicked off, the course was pretty well ridden in, not to mention a lot drier than earlier in the day. Like the women's race, the cross-country specialists were expected to excel and it was the NinetyOne-songo-Specialized team of Jordan Sarrou and Matthew Beers who took the early lead at the 5.5km time check. They were followed closely by Bidon recup-Showpad's Frans Claes and Jens Schuermans and BMC-KTM's Filippo Colombo and Juri Zanotti. With a further 15km of loose, technical terrain still left to negotiate, NinetyOne-songo-Specialized would continue to extend their lead using their strengths to the max - Sarrou leading the technical sections and climbs, with Beers setting the pace of the flats.
By the time teams passed through the 11km time check at Dead Man's Tree, the Canyon Northwave MTB team of Andreas Seewald and Martin Stosek had leapfrogged Bidon recup-Showpad into second position. The Team Bulls paring of Urs Huber and Simon Schneller appeared to be having some problems out on course with their support team, Bulls 2 riding consistently faster splits across the board. While few and far between, mechanicals wreaked havoc with a few teams including race hopefuls Buff Scott's Hans Becking and Jose Dias, who lost time to a front-wheel puncture
The NinetyOne-songo-Specialized continued to hit their straps and increased the lead on Table Mountain road before dropping down into Plum Pudding and the Rhodes Memorial single track. By the time Sarrou and Beers crossed the line they'd put 1min 24 seconds into BMC-KTM finishing the 20km/600m course in 43min 24 seconds.
"It's an incredible feeling and I've been visualizing this since I came so close two years ago with Alan (Hatherley), said Beers. "Jordan (Sarrou) is a beast on the climbs and I was hanging on for dear life but I'm glad it all worked out."
Despite coming home third in a time of 45min 14 seconds, marathon experts Canyon Northwave MTB duo of Andreas Seewald and Martin Stosek were happy with their performance and the way things worked out.
"We are long distance marathon riders and this is a stage race so we tried to not lose much time," quipped Andreas Seewald. "We expect to do well on the longer stages and have motivation to do well there."
Tomorrow, the race moves to Ceres which marks the start of the race proper where 98km and 1850m of climbing lies in wait on Stage 1.