No South African has ever won the overall title at the ABSA Cape Epic, but on Sunday, Burry Stander could change that. The 23-year-old KwaZulu-Natalian and his Swiss teammate, Christoph Sauser (34) have not only been consistent, but also dominant during the past week, taking five stage wins and two second places.
And on Sunday, the world’s most prestigious mountain bike stage race wraps up with the South African/Swiss combination, racing for Team 36One-Songo-Specialized and holding 10-minute lead. Normally, a 10-minute lead going into the final day of any sports event would be considered comfortable. But in mountain bike racing, unpredictability is as much a rider’s companion as his padded shorts and helmet.
Should they avoid major mechanical problems, illness or injury on Sunday’s 79km trip from Oak Valley Wine Estate to Lourensford Wine Estate, Stander and Sauser should win. And it will be a well-earned, long-awaited win. Sauser, a two-time former world champion and Olympic medallist, won the race overall in 2006 with compatriot Silvio Bundi. But in their first three attempts as teammates (2008–2010), Sauser and Stander, always starting as title favourites, have fallen victim to injury, mechanical failure and illness – in that order.
On Saturday’s tough 128km Stage 6 that started and finished at Oak Valley, the 36One-Songo-Specialized pair were beaten to finish by Spain’s current Olympic Cross-country world champion, Jose Hermida and his Swiss teammate, Ralf Naef, a former Marathon world champion. Hermida and Naef had to work hard for the stage win though and only managed to shed Sauser and Stander close to the finish where they clocked a winning time of 05hr 00min 47sec.
Stander and Sauser rolled home 49 seconds later, with the Swiss Fluckiger brothers, Thomas and Mathias (Trek World Racing) claiming the final podium spot, two-and-a-half minutes later.
Nobody has posed a consistent daily threat to Stander and Sauser this year, but the team closest to them on the overall classification, Germans Jochen Kaess and Hannes Genze (Multivan Merida 2) finished Saturday’s stage fifth, losing another two minutes to 36One-Songo-Specialized. A distant third is the German Bulls team, defending champions and three-time winners.
It also appears as if a South African will win the women’s title. South African marathon champion, Karien van Jaarsveld and her Team USN teammate, British marathon champion, Sally Bigham, finished third on Saturday’s stage, but extended their lead significantly to 1hr 26min over the all-South African pair of Hanlie Booyens and Ischen Stopforth (ABSA aBreast).
Stage winners on Saturday, Italian Eva Lechner and Swiss Nathalie Schneitter (Colnago-Arreghini-Sudtirol) moved to less than a minute-and-a-half within a final podium place and are expected to chase that goal with purpose on Sunday.
The Master’s category on Saturday was won by Germans Cartsen Bresser and Udo Boelts (Team juwi), who lie 15th overall and have almost a one-hour lead over South Africans Robert Sim and Doug Brown with one stage remaining. Women’s marathon world champion, Esther Suss and Barti Bucher (Wheeler BiXS) have won every stage of the 2011 Mixed category race and have a one-hour advantage over second-placed South African, Erik Kleinhans and his Swiss fiancé, Ariane Luthi (Contego-Giant-Sludge).
Namibian Mannie Heymans and Rwandan Adrien Nyonshuti (Garmin adidas MTN), both sporting icons in their respective countries are ninth overall and the leading African team.
After seven days, the 2011 ABSA Cape Epic, which started with 1200 riders from 54 countries, will conclude. The 404 remaining teams and 44 individual riders that lost teammates along the way, will start the final stage having completed 648km and climbed 12850 vertical metres.
At 79km with 1700 metres of climbing, Sunday’s final stage isn’t quite a procession, but does usually see the category leaders with large advantages taking it a little easier. After what has been described as probably the toughest edition of the Cape Epic yet, you can’t really blame them.