Brandon Stewart and Jacques Rossouw came good on the first of the climbing stages when they snatched the win from overall leaders Kevin Evans and David George on day four of the nine-day Old Mutual joBerg2c on Monday.
The 122km stage from Sterkfontein Dam to Winterton in KwaZulu-Natal came down to a nail-biting sprint finish, with the FedGroup-Itec Connect team crossing the line a mere second ahead of Nedbank 360Life in 4:41:42.
RE:CM’s defending champions Waylon Woolcock and Neil MacDonald struggled on the technical sections and dropped off the pace in the closing stages to take third in 4:43:58.
Stewart and Rossouw’s result puts them less than a minute and a half behind Evans and George in the general classification. The latter had won the first two racing stages after the neutral first day.
According to Stewart, the technical nature of the course, which included 2 200m of climbing, had suited them perfectly after the relatively flat terrain through the Free State.
“It was so good to be in the trails. Today we pushed hard and took risks, so to get a stage win was just fantastic.”
The attacks started on the first major climb up Retief Klip where the top four teams, including Transact’s Gawie Combrinck and Nico Bell, got away.
The quartet was bunched closely together until after the second waterpoint at around 80km. Transact gambled with an attack leading up to Spioenkop, but were hauled in and left behind on the climb’s steep slopes.
Although Combrinck and Bell made up half a minute by the third waterpoint at the Tugela River crossing after a fast descent, they paid for their earlier efforts and were unable to reintegrate the leading group.
Woolcock and MacDonald also started to show signs of faltering and, with the two lead teams attacking the single track, they were left behind. By the start of the day’s final ascent, up Puff Adder Pass, they were about 30 seconds adrift and that was effectively game over for them.
Stewart said the race was still anyone’s game and that, with the terrain finally to their liking, they would continue to work at closing the gap over the next five days.
“Anything can happen; even to us. Last year we were leading until the second last stage and then lost 27 minutes with a cut sidewall.”
The international combinations once again dominated the women’s and mixed categories to cement their respective leads in the overall standings.
Ischen Stopforth and her British partner Catherine Williamson, riding in bizhub-FCF colours, were the first women across the line in 5:52:55.
Erik Kleinhans and his Swiss wife Ariane, riding for Contego 28E, romped home in 5:43:50.
The fifth stage covers 102km between Winterton and Kamberg in the Central Drakensberg.