Today marked a first for the Absa Cape Epic - two time trials in the 2011 race. A 32km route took racers through the foothills of Brandwacht. As in 2010, riders traversed the western side of Worcester in this semi-desert environment. An extra 5km loop along dual tracks past the local golf course was added to the route.
The route data showed 860m of climbing which may not seem like a lot, but over such a short distance, it still required a hard effort. As usual, the top teams left at one-minute intervals, racing only against the clock, some looking for a stage win and others to consolidate. Riders needed to hold back on this stage and save themselves for the next half of the Cape Epic saga.
Switzerland's Christoph Sauser and his South African teammate Burry Stander (36ONE Songo Specialized) returned to winning again in the stage 4 time trial. They completed the tough 32km course in a time of 1:10.01 and are now seven minutes and 48 seconds in the lead. They were again followed by Hannes Genze and Jochen Käss of Multivan Merida Biking in 1;11.34 with the Wildwolf-Trek Pro Racing team of Sergio Gutierrez Mantecon and Carlos Nicolas Coloma in third place in 1:12.08.
Christoph Sauser and Burry Stander maintain their overall lead with a time of 15:44.15. Hannes Genze and Jochen Käss of Multivan Merida Biking are in second in 15:52.03, followed by the Bulls team of Karl Platt and Stefan Sahm in 15:55.54. In fourth place overall are the Stöckli Pro team of Urs Huber and Konny Looser, who finished in fifth place today (16:11.01), with Versluys-Evenza's Nicolas Vermeulen and Kevin van Hoovels in fifth place overall (16:13.30). They finished in eighth place today.
"This is the first day in this year's Cape Epic that I really felt good and had good legs," said Stander. "I didn't need to rely on Christoph and could finally push him as he has done with me the last couple of days, putting me through the paces.
"It's also nice that we a have a bit more time today to recover ahead of the last two long stages. We've extended our lead but it's hard to say what'll happen in the next three days. We're doing what we need to every day and trying to ride conservatively as well as increase our lead. I just hope we have Lady Luck on our side."
"I've learnt that it's never good for me to think I'm going to have a nice racing day," said Sauser. "We caught up with Genze and Käss on the big downhill, rode together for a bit and in the next uphill pulled away. It's always a cool feeling catching the guys in front. If it's just down to pedalling, we stand a good chance to stay in front, but this race is not like an office job and an eight-minute lead is not a lot."
Genze noted that his partner Käss had a very good day. "I was feeling a bit weak this morning, but Jochen had obviously recovered and pushed the hammer down. After the first kilometre, I thought wow, Jochen is in good form. But luckily after about 10 minutes I also got into a nice rhythm. We wanted to increase our lead on the Bulls team today and I think we managed to do that."
"I felt very good - definitely better than yesterday - so I pushed Hannes," said Käss. "It was quite windy on the course and I was riding in front on the flat sections. We passed the Bulls in the middle of the race and are very happy with our fourth podium finish, but I think Sauser and Stander are too far ahead for us to catch up."
Current Spanish cross country champion Sergio Gutierrez Mantecon (Wildwolf-Trek Pro Racing) said, "We're extremely happy with our first podium finish and felt good today. This race is very difficult and the competition is exceptionally fierce with the best riders in the world participating. It's also a fantastic atmosphere with the school kids welcoming us at the finish line. It's a fun race and I'm sure we'll be back again."
Platt was impressed that Stander and Sauser caught up with them on a steep climb at the 10km mark. "It always gives riders an extra push to pass the leaders in front of them. Stefan is finding it tough to get his rhythm this year and you have to admit that you can't have the same legs every year. Christoph and Burry are super strong this year and one can't say whether there'll be a price to pay for riding so hard. Susi (Sauser) is in excellent shape and he seems to be getting stronger as the stage progresses. Burry is still young but old doesn't necessarily mean slower. I'm really surprised by Christoph - he gets skinnier each day and more confident. They're doing a great job."
To the comment that Sauser is training with a coach again, Platt comments that one never stops learning. "You need to learn all the time - even when you're 60."
Belgian champion Nicolas Vermeulen (team Versluys-Evenza) is happy with his team's performance. "I think our result in the overall is good. Milka-Trek had a mechanical, as did the Multivan Merida team. It was bad luck for them but good for us."
African Leaders' Jerseys
Mannie Heymans and Adrien Niyonshuti (team Garmin adidas MTN) maintain their lead in the African Jersey with an overall time of 16:53.47, followed by Paul Cordes and Charles Keey (MTN/Qhubeka) in 17:34.29. Brandon Stewart and Shan Wilson (Toyota DCM) are in third in 17:33.28. Heymans and Niyonshuti are now in 10th position overall.
South Africa's Brandon Stewart, riding with Shan Wilson as team Toyota DCM, said, "We were quite close to the leading team in the African jersey up to yesterday, but then Shan had two big crashes and we lost some time. We suspect he has a fractured collar bone and broken septum. We took it nice and easy today as tomorrow's stage will be really tough. This is Shan's 8th Cape Epic and I have a feeling nothing will let him pull out unless he really has to. He takes a couple of pain killers in the morning and carries on. In cycling, sometimes you're giving it and sometimes you're taking it. This is a team race and we're in it together whether it's good or bad. We'll try our best and hope to have some fun along the way, as that's important."
"We were fighting for the African jersey but then I broke a fork and had to carry on like that for 100km," said Wilson. "This will be a fight to the finish. We're third in the African jersey and will do our best to defend it. It's all in the head and one can train only so much. I love this race and the drama. It's the best novel or movie and you're the star actor in it. Today's time trial wasn't good. It felt as if someone with a hammer and nail was drilling into my collar bone. But this is what the Cape Epic is about. I'm a determined guy by nature and won't easily give up."
"We're not fighting for the African jersey. Our teammates have it and we're just trying to protect it," said Bassingthwaighte. "It means a lot to our team that we help them and we'll definitely be there for them if they have any problems."
Eva Lechner and Nathalie Schneitter (team Colnago Arreghini Südtirol) won the women's category for the fourth time, finishing in 1:27.16 (overall 22:10.55), ahead of Sally Bigham and Karien Van Jaarsveld (team USN) in a time of 1:37.04 (overall 21:02.19). Naomi Hansen and Jodie Willett of adidas in 1:37.55 (overall 21:59.56) were third with Hanlie Booyens and Ischen Stopforth of team Absa aBreast in fourth (1:40.41; overall 21:28.02). Bigham and Van Jaarsveld lead this category by 25 minutes and 43 seconds.
"The race was still quite hard today and in the nice singletrack we gave it our all. We had excellent team work today and were both feeling strong," said Schneitter.
"We're really happy with the race. Nathalie worked hard in the middle section of the race and I at the beginning and end. We finished in good time and look forward to the last three days of the race," said Lechner.
Van Jaarsveld commented that her team had a fun race. "Today was my kind of riding. It was pretty steep, but conditions were nice. We still have a long way to go - tomorrow's a monster of a day - so we'll just ride safely and conservatively to get to the finish."
"It was perfect to have a short course in the middle of the race to recover a bit," said Bigham. "We'll enjoy some recovery time and get ready for tomorrow."
Stopforth also enjoyed this stage. "Yesterday was really hard and we were a little bit tired today. We had some nice downhills though and it was great not to be in the saddle for seven hours."
Current downhill world champion Tracy Moseley from the United Kingdom said,"Today was fun and of course the rain helped a bit. It's nice to have some time to rest as it looks as if the next two days will be sheer hell. The Cape Epic is way bigger than I expected - it's massive. Yesterday was pretty rough, but I enjoyed today. Hopefully I'll survive the next two days and make it to the finish line at Lourensford."
The Wheeler - BIXS team, Bärti Bucher and Esther Suss again won the mixed category in 1:23.27 (overall 18:52.47), again followed by Erik Kleinhans and Ariane Lüthi (of Contego Giant Sludge) in 1:27.44 (overall 19:35.19). Ivonne Kraft and Peter Vesel of Raedisch Race finished in third place today in 1:29.01 (fifth overall; 21:16.02). The Swiss team of Daniel Annaheim and Renata Bucher (Baumat / zaboobikes.com) finished in fourth place (1:29.06) but are placed third overall (20:25.37). The Wheeler - Bixs team lead this category by 42 minutes and 32 seconds.
"I had fun today. It was also hard but great mountain bike riding. We at least have time to rest today," said Süss. "I had a sore throat and headache this morning, so taking time out will help a lot. Tomorrow we'll ride with a group because we need to look after ourselves."
"Ariane went for it today and we're quite disappointed that we didn't win," said Kleinhans. "We'd really like to win a stage and are getting better as the race goes on, but they're a strong team and it'll be hard to beat them. They would need to have a bad day."
"I only started mountain biking 18 month ago and trained really hard for this race," said Lüthi. "Erik is an excellent coach. Singletrack was a bit of a weakness of mine, but he helped me. We realised that I hold my head down - I used to be a swimmer - and only after that could I adapt and improve my style. I must complement Dr Evil - the route is very rewarding and beautiful."
The Juwi team (Carsten Bresser and Udo Boelts) won the time trail stage in 1:18.14 (overall 17:23.48), followed by the Nandos team of Adrian Enthoven and Gerrie Beukes in a time of 1:22.34 (overall 18:34.53). Robert Sim and Doug Brown of the Robert Daniel team in 1:22.44 were third (overall 18:10.07). Sim and Brown are still in second place overall in this category and the Juwi team lead by one hour, 11 minutes and five seconds.
"Every stage in this race is punishment, but the racing atmosphere is so fantastic that I can't hold back," said Enthoven. "Luckily Adrien and I are similar riders. This was another hard day - shorter doesn't mean easier. The shorter distance means it's intensity is higher. The cooler weather made a difference though and we enjoyed it."
Stage 5: Worcester to Oak Valley (143km; 2350m of climbing)
Stage 5 will be a real classic Cape Epic day out, the longest stage in years. With fast open roads, marked by three obstacles along the way, riders are advised to save their strength and cooperate with other teams to form larger groups, to take turns at the front to lighten the load.
The first climb of the day will be a shock to the system, not only from the gradient but also the track's surface. In parts, the climb is rideable, barely, and only the fittest and best bike handlers are likely to make it up without dabbing a foot.
As with everything, what goes up must come down, and those with full suspension bikes will be grateful for their weapon of choice. More open roads will help get some kilometres under the belt before the radio mast comes into view. Down the other side of this deceptive climb is a fast chute into farmlands and waiting for riders is a set of rolling hills that'll deaden the legs of even the most hardened campaigner.
At the 100km mark, riders reach the foot of the exquisite Groenlandberg, the grand old legend inviting us back in 2011 thanks to Cape Nature Conservation. The 15 percent gradient on the concrete path should be placed conservatively, with the remainder of the climb taking most riders well over an hour to complete. The north-facing slope will make for a challenging ascent on a hot afternoon but the rocky downhill sections leads to the famed Oak Valley singletrack to make it all worth it.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.