Gawie Combrinck and Johann Rabie look set for a second straight victory in the nine-day Old Mutual joBerg2c after consolidating their more than 19-minute lead on the penultimate stage through southern KwaZulu-Natal on Friday.
The defending champions plunged into the Umkomaas River Valley and powered their way out the other side to claim their fifth stage win for EAI Cycling in 4:04:37.
They bested Altech Autopage Karan Beef’s Hanco Kachelhoffer and Pieter Seyffert in a two-team sprint to relegate them to the runner-up spot in 4:04:38.
Stage one winners Sthembiso Masango and Mboneni Ngcobo of the RMB Change a Life team finished third on the day in 4:11:42.
After eight stages, the top two teams remain in the corresponding positions in the general classification with aggregate times of 31:50:25 and 32:09:40 respectively.
The Gear Change’s David George and Justin Tuck suffered mechanicals to slide into fourth on the stage in 4:12:22 and third on GC in 32:23:13.
Having lost their overall lead on this stage last year, Combrinck and Rabie made a more cautious start to the 99km route from MacKenzie Club near Ixopo to Jolivet Farm in the Highflats region.
Combrinck said they knew it would be a long technical day, which featured a total descent of 2 163m and more than 1 705m of climbing.
“We had some bad luck last year, so this year we pulled a bit more on the brakes coming down the Umkomaas and didn’t take any risks.”
Solo category stage winner Nico Pfitzenmaier led the charge through heavy mist, with all contenders present in the eight-rider lead bunch as they swept through the singletrack sections and switchbacks towards the valley floor.
The Gear Change duo lost 30 seconds on the leaders when George punctured at the 25km mark and were forced to chase back as they headed for the first waterpoint at St Josephine’s Bridge on the valley floor.
“We were quite a big group climbing back out again,” said Combrinck.
George and Tuck fell off the back of the group once more when the former double-punctured after 50km.
“Then just before the second waterpoint, Johann put the pressure on up the big dirt road climb and that’s where we got the gap on the others,” said Combrinck.
Only Kachelhoffer and Seyffert were able to answer their challenge and the two teams got away and stayed together through the third waterpoint.
Combrinck and Rabie held strong on the closing stretch along Charlie’s Catwalk and just managed to get the better of their rivals on the downhill as they headed towards the finish.
“It’s one day closer to the coast but we still have to make it through without having anything go wrong,” said Combrinck.
“Our aim is to keep it consistent and stay out of trouble.”
One team that did not escape unscathed was the Seattle Coffee mixed category leaders, Billy Stelling and Carmen Buchacher.
Buchacher dropped her chain near the start of the descent, forcing them to the back of their bunch.
“Then Carmen’s back wheel came loose and she dropped her chain again. And then right at the bottom she fell,” said Stelling.
By the time they emerged alongside the river at the first watering table, the two had forfeited their overnight lead and were more than 12 minutes behind Valencia Cycling’s Samantha Sanders and Justin Victor.
“We fought really hard and had them in our sights again by the last waterpoint,” said Stelling.
“We could see Justin was battling, so we rode past them. It was a hard day.”
Stelling and Buchacher took line honours in 4:36:57 to retain their category top spot in 35:58:40.
SasolRacing’s Yolande de Villiers and Catherine Williamson appear to have the women’s race in the bag as they notched up yet another stage win in 4:31:44 for an unchallenged overall time of 35:28:02.
The HiddenHunger pairing of David de Lima and Sean Henderson top the City Lodge vets section in 4:45:58 (35:57:24), with USN-Cycle Lab’s Chris Brand and Paul Furbank taking the masters category in 4:40:38 (34:50:01).
Pfitzenmaier’s stage win in 4:10:17 was not enough to unseat solo leader Timothy Hammond, who remains first after finishing in 4:11:42 (32:41:23). Women’s solo leader Paula Hardy again claimed the stage in 5:27:04 (39:51:43).
The 900km race reaches its conclusion at Scottburgh main beach on Saturday.
Men: 1. Johann Rabie & Gawie Combrinck (EAI Cycling) 4:04:37; 2. Pieter Seyffert & Hanco Kachelhoffer (Altech Autopage Karan Beef) 4:04:38; 3. Sthembiso Masango & Mboneni Ngcobo (RMB Change a Life) 4:11:42
Women: 1. Catherine Williamson & Yolande de Villiers (SasolRacing) 4:31:44; 2. Sarah van Heerden & Cindy Theunissen (Old Mutual) 5:12:12; 3. Carla Plens & Graziela Takay (Brazil Legionarias) 5:41:46
Mixed: 1. Carmen Buchacher & Billy Stelling (Seattle Coffee) 4:36:57; 2. Samantha Sanders & Justin Victor (Valencia Mixed) 4:38:24; 3. Hayley Smith & Darryn Purtell (Bell Equipment) 4:52:13
Men: 1. Johann Rabie & Gawie Combrinck (EAI Cycling) 31:50:25; 2. Pieter Seyffert & Hanco Kachelhoffer (Altech Autopage Karan Beef) 32:09:40; 3. David George & Justin Tuck (The Gear Change) 32:23:13
Women: 1. Catherine Williamson & Yolande de Villiers (SasolRacing) 35:28:02; 2. Sarah van Heerden & Cindy Theunissen (Old Mutual) 39:43:34; 3. Ann Olivier & Shirley-Ann van Heerden (Mazi Capital) 44:29:52
Mixed: 1. Carmen Buchacher & Billy Stelling (Seattle Coffee) 35:58:40; 2. Samantha Sanders & Justin Victor (Valencia Mixed) 36:05:38; 3. Hayley Smith & Darryn Purtell (Bell Equipment) 37:52:32