A dream start turned into the worst nightmare for Nedbank 360Life's David George and Kevin Evans as the 2012 ABSA Cape Epic got underway this week. But in Wednesday's monster stage 3, the pair clawed their way back into podium contention after losing 24 minutes due to a damaged tyre on stage 1.
Shortened slightly from 147km to 143km, the stage from Robertson to Caledon took the riders competing in the world's highest profile mountain bike stage race over some harsh terrain and up a total of 2900 metres of vertical ascent in dry, hot conditions.
As expected on such a long stage, early breaks ensued with first Renay Goustra and Rene Hasselbacher of Team Asrin RSA Web dashing off the front, only to be caught and passed by FedGroup-ITEC Connect's Brandon Stewart and Jacques Rossouw and the Milka Superior team of Chris Jongewaard and Jeroen Boloen, who attacked at the first water point.
But with a Plan B in place to take back as much time as possible through aggressive racing from the front, Evans and George were soon in control of the chase, passing the breakaway riders, attacking each climb and more shedding rivals steadily in the process. But they weren't able to shake off defending champions and race leaders, Burry Stander and Christoph Sauser of 36One-Songo-Specialized.
And at the end, Stander and Sauser, who as race leaders weren't obliged to do any work in the break, had the fresher legs and grabbed the victory in five hours, 31 minutes and four seconds. George and Evans rolled across the finish line three seconds later, satisfied at having pulled back time on most of their rivals.
While Stander and Sauser started the race as favourites, Evans and George became the sentimental favourites after the documentary "An Epic Tale" released just prior to the 2012 Cape Epic, flighted on South African cinema and television. The film depicts their tale of rotten luck in their failed efforts to win the 2011 Cape Epic and marathon world championships titles.
But the 2012 Cape Epic presented a new chapter in their victory quest. A sequel. On the opening day's 27km prologue time trial on Sunday, Evans and George stunned everyone, including themselves, by finishing the short, technical stage in second place, just 13 seconds down on Sauser and Stander, both former elite and U23 (respectively) cross country world champions and specialists on short, tight courses.
Their result confirmed that George, a former professional road racer, had improved his technical skills remarkably over the past year and that the pair had peaked perfectly in their quest to win the coveted title. It also unsettled their rivals. Optimism was at its peak in the Nedbank 360Life camp against a backdrop of the host nation that was bristling with anticipation. Could this be their year? Could they become the first South African team to win the Cape Epic?
The answer came the following day. After setting a rapid pace that only Stander and Sauser were able to match on the climbs in the opening part of stage 1, including securing the R10000 cash prize on offer at the King of the Mountains hot spot, the pair bumped into their nemesis, Bad Luck. A hole had torn in George's rear tyre just before the second water point.
A standard repair job with a purpose-made rubber plug failed as the tear was too large and a series of alternative solutions followed as they limped to the next technical zone. In the process, George and Evans lost the lead pack, they lost their second place, they lost time - lots of it - and they lost their best shot yet at winning the race they so badly want to win. But they didn't lose hope.
"It's part of the sport. It was a bad luck incident and had nothing to do with our choice of tyres. It can happen to any team at any time," said George. "We came to this race 100 percent prepared and hungry for the win. We also came in with amazing support from our sponsors and the South African public, which has been very inspiring.
"A bad day on the bike is a bad day on the bike. So many others have it much worse, which is why we have donated the two R10000 cash prizes we've won so far from the King of the Mountains hot spots to the JAG Foundation, a charity that uses sport to uplift the lives of kids in poor communities in South Africa."
After slipping to 15th place following their disastrous stage 1, George and Evans have climbed up to seventh overall and into the lead in the African Team competition. With four stages remaining, they're just under six minutes behind third-placed Alban Lakata and Robert Mennen of the Topeak Ergon team and just over six minutes behind second placed Swiss pair, Urs Huber and Konny Looser of Team Stockli Pro. But they're still 24 minutes behind leaders Sauser and Stander.
"We're racing every day as hard as we can. And we'll continue for the rest of the race. There are still four tough days left. If we don't have any bad luck, we believe we can move up into second place. The win is unlikely though. It would take some bad luck to strike Burry and Christoph to make that possible, and we don't want to wish bad luck on anyone. Especially not in this race!"