Yesterday at the Cape Epic was a good day for us, but not a very good one. Although we won Stage 2, we also got dropped on the big climb of the day. Part of that was mental, not being 100% prepared for going deep. But today was a very good day: it was hard, but we could still go deeper and faster.
Sometimes in stage racing you get to a point where the legs just seize up. It's so difficult because you want to push, but your legs just feel blocked. We won yesterday because even if I go completely to my limit, I don't really blow up. I'm like a diesel engine.
Today started off hectic because when you're heading into those trail systems around Greyton, the guys know the routes and you can see the tension building way before we hit the singletrack. Especially at the beginning of the day when everybody is still together.
I also went for it, but not totally. It wears you out, always trying to get in there first or second. But fifth or sixth or tenth position is also OK. I always check who's at the front and if his partner is maybe further back, then that team is no danger. But it wasn't easy this morning because we rode out with the sun straight in our eyes and it was super-dusty, so visibility was very bad.
For the first two-thirds of the stage, Nicola Rohrbach and Centurion Vaude 2 were definitely driving it the most. It worked out for them – they got a podium and third place. Nino Schurter was always well placed, and Cannondale Factory Racing too. They're always well placed in the trails.
But after Water Point 3, we came out into open fields and from there Jaroslav [Kulhavy] and I really took the initiative. I lead into the UFO climb, then Jaro took over, with Nino on his wheel, and then it was really hard and we made some time on Cannondale.
Then it was a singletrack descent, really going on forever. You had to be switched on. Once even Nino came in too fast in the wrong gear and had to quickly stop, get off, get the right gear and then ride.
Cannondale almost came back but they were already so much on the limit that when there was another switchback uphill, they were dropped again.
It was then flat open roads to the finish. Jaro and I got onto the wheels of Scott-SRAM, the Vaude guys got onto the train at the last second, and then Jaro just hit it.
For the sprint finish, I knew Nino had been recovering behind Jaro and obviously I can't out-sprint him so I was looking for his partner Matthias Stirnemann. Centurion Vaude somehow weren't in my head at all. I was just looking for Matthias – I tried to overtake him to get into the last right-hander first but that didn't work out. Then it was just give everything for the line….it was a hard sprint.
A stage win is big. Some guys would kill for a stage win and if we're there, why should we hold back? It would be kind of cool if I could win 40 stages – two more to go! – but most important is that we cut our gap to Cannondale, the race leaders, by half.
The trails we rode today were unreal. I mean, who builds them?! Incredible trails that just go on forever. I like the Epic's combination of trail days, when you can hit those berms, and the transition stages, which are more like the old format of the Epic. Transition stages are cool – it's about drafting and positioning. And although I prefer the big days to the shorter days, the Epic is a good combination of both.
I think on Thursday and Saturday we'll see more of the marathon teams. With the open roads on Thursday, Jaro and I will wear skinsuits. We wear them when it's windy and fast, but not aero helmets. It's too hot for that. But seeing Jaro in a full skinsuit riding next to Cannondale in their baggies just doesn't look right!
It's funny, this morning I had a very hard time eating breakfast. I think I ate a bit too much dinner. I had to force down my bowls of porridge, and then in the race I had only one bar and a gel. On the other days I've been quite hungry.
After a hot stage, I try to drink a lot before lunch. If you eat and you haven't drunk enough and then you get a thirst attack, drinking on top of food messes you up.
Also, in a stage race I just eat energy. I love veggies and salad and all that stuff, but it's all bulk. I eat energy: calorie-rich, easily edible stuff. Like pasta, chicken, potatoes. No fibrous or chewy food. I even Nutribullet my food to make it easier, so I'm almost drinking calories.
Our Specialized bikes are going absolutely perfect. The biggest improvement since my last Cape Epic in 2015 is using the Rockshox SID fork instead of the RS-1. The SID is stiffer and it's much quicker to change a wheel. A lot of the marathon guys are still on the RS-1, but I made that decision for our team and I had to push hard for it.
No GC rider will be holding back ahead of Saturday's queen stage. Maybe if Topeak-Ergon don't have the firepower of two years ago when they challenged Jaro and me, they'll hold back for a couple of days to try and win that stage. They're both good climbers.
I don't know why but I'm quite relaxed about the GC. Time will tell. I certainly didn't expect to ride into the leaders' jersey today. Cannondale and Scott-SRAM are clearly our biggest rivals. The other teams are starting to lose more and more time and that adds up over the eight days.
I just hope it's going to be a good competition which won't be decided by a flat tyre or a crash or something like that. The top teams haven't had many mechanicals and that's partly why the GC is still so close. A good, fair competition. Mano a mano.