On his fourth attempt, Burry Stander became the first South African to win the ABSA Cape Epic when the eight-day, 707km mountain bike race finished at Lourensford Wine Estate near Cape Town on Sunday.
The 23-year-old Stander and his Swiss teammate, Christoph Sauser, racing for the 36One-Songo-Specialized team, finished fifth on the eighth and final stage, but had built up a lead of more than 10 minutes over their nearest rivals during the gruelling race and simply had to finish without encountering any problems to secure one of the most coveted titles in international bicycle racing.
Stander, the 2009 Under-23 World Champion in the Olympic Cross-country discipline, combined well with Sauser, a similarly versatile racer, to capture the title on their fourth attempt. For 34-year-old Sauser, the victory was one of his career highlights.
“I won before in 2006, but since then the Cape Epic has become so competitive, attracting all the top riders in the world. It’s a different race now and I’m pleased I could be a part of helping Burry become the first South African winner,” explained Sauser, a multiple World Champion and one of the most successful mountain bike racers ever.
“I don’t think it will sink in straight away,” smiled Stander. “You spend so much energy in this race just avoiding trouble and when you’re leading there’s always pressure on you. I’m sure it will sink in over the next week that I’m first South African winner. I suppose it’s on a par with winning the World Championships. It’s a really important race victory!”
The final stage was a relatively short, but testing 59km leg from Oak Valley to Lourensford with 1700m of ascent. It was won by the Swiss Fluckiger brothers, Mathias and Lukas (Trek World Racing), who broke clear early on and finished in a time of 02hr 33min 18sec.
The all-German Multivan Merida 2 pair of Jochen Kaess and Hanne Genze finished the stage in second place and also completed the race in second place overall, 07min 08sec down on Sauser and Stander. Three-time winners and defending champions, Germans Stefan Sahm and Karl Platt (Team Bulls), completed the final podium places 21min 09sec off the pace.
Stander and Sauser had to contend with a puncture that cost them four minutes early on during the final stage, but after a hard chase, they managed to rejoin the front riders. Stander also revealed that he’d picked up a viral infection in his mouth on Stage 4, but which he concealed so as not to show any sign of weakness to his rivals.
“Winning the prologue put pressure on us from the first day. You can’t show any weakness in such a strong field. My mouth was in agony, but fortunately the infection it didn’t affect the rest of my body,” said Stander.
South African marathon champion, Karien van Jaarsveld gave the host nation a second category win when she and her British teammate, Sally Bigham (Team USN) claimed a dominant victory in the women’s race. Their consistency throughout the eight-day event paid dividends, giving them a final victory margin of 1hr 33min 35sec over Italian Eva Lechner and Swiss Nathalie Schneitter (Colnago-Arreghini-Sudtirol), who won the final stage and in the process, moved from fourth to second overall. Third place overall was the all-South African ABSA aBreast team of Hanlie Booyens and Ischen Stopforth.
“Sally is a very experienced mountain bike racer. It was a real privilege to race with her,” said Van Jaarsveld, who only started racing bicycles less than two years ago. “Leading the race for so long came with a lot of pressure, but we never let it affect our initial strategy, which was to finish and to race every stage with a combination of strength and caution.”
Team USN inherited the race lead after Stage 2 when early leaders, Schneitter and Lechner were handed a one-hour penalty for infringing the race’s ‘outside assistance’ rule. But Van Jaarsveld and Bigham promptly set about adding credibility to their race leadership, winning Stage 3, the toughest stage of the race and then pacing themselves consistently to increase their overall lead.
With the Master’s category wrapped up courtesy of six stage wins, Carsten Bresser and Udo Boelts could have been forgiven for taking the final stage a little easier. But the Germans would have none of it and charged to the stage win and the overall title ahead of South Africans Robert Sim and Doug Brown. Rounding out the Master’s overall podium were South Africans Gerrie Beukes and Adrian Enthoven (Team Nandos)
The Mixed category was dominated by the Swiss pair of Esther Suss and Barti Bucher (Wheeler BiXS), but they were happy to see perennial runners-up throughout the race, Erik Kleinhans and Ariane Luthi (Contego-Giant-Sludge), claim the final stage honours. Bucher and Suss were almost an hour ahead of Kleinhans and Luthi in the General Classification. Third place went to German Ivonne Kraft and her Slovakian teammate, Peter Vesel (Raedisch Race).
Namibian Mannie Heymans and Rwandan Adrien Nyonshuti finished ninth overall and captured the top African team title.
A total of 603 two-rider teams started, but just 496 of those teams completed the gruelling eight-day event. Stander and Sauser’s total winning time was 28hrs 44min 44sec. The last team to finish was Die Blou Trein pair of Brenden Burke and Johan de Beer, who recorded a total time of 59hrs 38min, 56min.
For detailed, full results, race information and a gallery of images, visit www.cape-epic.com