Heat, dust, headwinds and a mechanical hiccup could not prevent Swiss Christoph Sauser and Czech Jaroslav Kulhavy from winning Stage 5 of the Absa Cape Epic from Worcester to Wellington on Friday – their fourth stage win of the 2015 race.
The Investec-Songo-Specialized combination now have an overall lead of more than 10 minutes and it seems only very bad luck – a crash, illness or a serious mechanical issue – can prevent them from winning the event, Sauser for a landmark fifth time.
The 121km route also included some fierce climbs and took them up the national monument that is Bain’s Kloof Pass and then almost immediately on to the fierce three-kilometre Full Monty climb in the Welvanpas trail network.
It was at the bottom of the Full Monty that Sauser and Kulhavy (Investec-Songo-Specialized) managed to shake off the last of the teams that were hanging on to their tails. By the time they crossed the finish line 15km later they were almost a minute ahead of the chasing Team Bulls, Germany’s Karl Platt and Swiss Urs Huber.
South Africans Darren Lill and Waylon Woolcock (RED-E Blend) had a brilliant ride to finish third and to take back the red Absa African special jersey. The race among the all-African teams is proving to be a thriller this year and it has changed shoulders after each of the last three stages.
It was a tough day for Topeak Ergon, the second placed team in the General Classification, as Austrian Alban Lakata first punctured near the start and then twisted a chain when it fell off on a descent. He replaced the chain at the official tech zone at Water Point 3.
Sauser revealed that Kulhavy had been stopped by a “huge branch” that got tangled in his rear wheel halfway through the ride. This had slightly damaged the Czech rider’s rear derailleur.
Sauser wasn’t aware of his partner’s difficulties but then he noticed Kulhavy was not behind him. “You are not allowed to ride back so you never know what could have gone wrong,” said Sauser.
For a moment he feared that his Absa Cape Epic might be over, but “then I was so relieved to see the yellow zebra jersey coming up the hill”.
He said they had ridden conservatively through the extensive network of trails towards the end of the ride after they had dropped the Bulls pairing who came second on the stage.
Platt said: “We had no luck for the past two stages, but finally we got some today …we were strong and we had no problems”.
Hynek and Lakata retained their second place overall, but the Czech rider admitted that the 10 minute and 51 second gap to the leaders was almost insurmountable with only two stages to go: “I don’t think we can close it without them getting mechanicals,” he said.
Another remarkable performance by an all-South African team on Friday came from fourth-placed Gawie Combrinck and Johann Rabie (EAI South Africa). They were among four all-South African teams in the top 10, while local rider Timo Cooper finished 10th with German Stefan Sahm (JAG Foundation).
But the local stars of the day were Lill and Woolcock, who took the red Absa African special jersey from Philip Buys and Matthys Beukes of Scott Factory Racing, who won Thursday’s Stage 4.
Lill said afterwards: “I was very happy for them because it is great for South African riding, but I have the feeling that they paid for it today.”
Saturday’s Stage 6 is a looped 72km course starting and finishing in Worcester. It includes more than 30km of singletrack but also some sharp climbs.
Men’s Stage 5 results
1. Investec-Songo-Specialized 2-1 Christoph Sauser (Switzerland) 2-2 Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic) 5:10.09,5
2. Bulls 4-1 Karl Platt (Germany) 4-2 Urs Huber (Switzerland) 5:11.03,0 +53,5
3. RED-E Blend 36-1 Darren Lill (South Africa) 36-2 Waylon Woolcock (South Africa) 5:12.07,1 +1.57,6
Men’s overall results
1. Investec-Songo-Specialized 2-1 Christoph Sauser (Switzerland) 2-2 Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic) 24:15.29,9
2. Topeak Ergon 1-1 Kristian Hynek (Czech Republic) 1-2 Alban Lakata (Austria) 24:26.21,3 +10.51,4
3. Bulls 4-1 Karl Platt (Germany) 4-2 Urs Huber (Switzerland) 24:31.13,9 +15.44,0
4. Multivan Merida 6-1 Jose Hermida (Spain) 6-2 Rudi van Houts (Netherlands) 24:42.10,3 +26.40,4
5. RED-E Blend 36-1 Darren Lill (South Africa) 36-2 Waylon Woolcock (South Africa) 25:07.21,9 +51.52,0
6. Novus OMX Pro 23-1 Martin Gujan (Switzerland) 23-2 Fabian Giger (Switzerland) 25:11.38,8 +56.08,9
7. Scott Factory Racing 7-1 Philip Buys (South Africa) 7-2 Matthys Beukes (South Africa) 25:16.14,3 +1:00.44,4
8. Meerendal Centurion Vaude 5-1 Jochen Kaess (Germany) 5-2 Daniel Geismayr (Austria) 25:18.17,5 +1:02.47,6
9. EAI South Africa 33-1 Gawie Combrinck (South Africa) 33-2 Johann Rabie (South Africa) 25:21.06,9 +1:05.37,0
10. USN 11-1 Rourke Croeser (South Africa) 11-2 Travis Walker (South Africa) 25:23.10,5 +1:07.40,6