Motivated by the memory of his good friend, the late Burry Stander, Swiss multiple mountain bike racing world champion, Christoph Sauser, came back from two punctures to win the Attakwas Extreme Challenge in Oudtshoorn, in South Africa’s Western Cape Province on Saturday.
Sauser (36ONE-Songo-Specialized) competed as Stander’s teammate for the past four editions the ABSA Cape Epic mountain bike stage race, the last two of which they won. On Saturday the Swiss also broke the Attakwas course record, clocking a time of 04hrs56min29sec for the 121km race, which has an accumulated vertical ascent of 2900 metres. The previous record was 05:01:50.
A surprise second place finish went to 21-year-old South African racer, Lourens Luus (Team RE:CM) who also broke the previous record in a time of 04:58:06. Luus’s Team RE:CM teammate, Erik Kleinhans secured third place, with the Cannondale Blend Properties pair of Charles Keey and Darren Lill claiming fourth and fifth places respectively.
The women’s race was also won by a Swiss rider. Ariane Kleinhans of Team RE:CM became the first woman to win the race three times after claiming the coveted title in 2011 and 2012. Kleinhans, who is married to men’s race third-place finisher, Erik, and lives in South Africa, clocked a winning time of 05:42:29, which is also a new record.
Finishing second was current British road race champion and former Cape Epic winner, Sharon Laws (Toyota) with former two-time Attakwas winner, Yolande de Villiers (Toyota Supercycling), rounding out the top three.
Sauser’s race wasn’t as straightforward as he’d have liked. He had two punctures, the first after 30 minutes and the second at around two hours into the race.
“I managed to plug the first one and still felt I was in with a chance of the win. But the plug came out later and then I had no more CO2 bombs, so had to use a pump. Then I thought my chances of winning were gone,” explained Sauser.
“I just decided to ride a steady tempo because the last half was mostly into a headwind. I passed quite a lot of riders on the technical descent of Attakwas and then I started to see Max Knox (Specialized) and Lourens up ahead. They were about 15 seconds apart from each other for ages, so I set about catching them. Once I caught them it was great to have a small group for a bit, especially with that headwind. Erik was about a minute ahead in the lead at that stage and I thought then I could still get the win.”
Knox was struggling with a leaking tyre after a series of problems earlier in the race and dropped out of contention and then out of the race, while Kleinhans punctured just before the fourth water point, losing his lead to Luus and Sauser. The Swiss then attacked the young South African on the penultimate climb and set off alone to claim the win.
“I thought that was actually the last climb when I attacked and I realised with five kilometres to go that I could actually beat the record, so I went for it,” explained Sauser.
“I was thinking about Burry a lot today. Max’s national marathon champion’s jersey is almost the same as Burry’s national XC champion’s jersey; and a few times, when Max was up ahead, it felt like I was chasing Burry. It has been a crazy two weeks with Burry’s death and I think today it was, more than ever for me, a good feeling to be alive.”
In the women’s race, Laws set a fast pace from the start and rode with some of the leading men. But she later dropped back and was joined by Kleinhans, who then rode clear of her at the 50km mark just before the King of the Mountain ascent.
“I must have been quite a bit quicker than Sharon on the long, quite technical descent, because I had quite a good gap on her by halfway. Every so often I would catch some men, but I spent most of the last 20km on my own riding into that headwind. It was one of those races you just could not wait for the finish to come,” said Kleinhans.
The top 10 men and women each received gold medals. There were 33 riders that completed the race in under six hours and they were awarded silver medals.
A total of 608 men and 46 women completed the event within the 11-hour cut-off. Among those were members of the ABSA Cape Epic Celebrity Team, including actress and model, Vanessa Haywood (08:53:34), TV presenter, Dr Michael Mol, (08:53:35) motor rally driver, Gugu Zulu (09:09:52) and former Springbok rugby players, Joel Stransky (06:54:58), Tiaan Strauss (07:19:54) and Corne Krige (07:19:58).
According to Carel Herholdt of Dryland Events, the organisers, there was an 84% finisher rate.
“This is a little lower than the 88% finisher rate we got last year, but it could be as a result of 55% of the participants being first-timers at Attakwas,” he said.