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, both 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.
"I don't think it will sink in straight away," said 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!"
Stander, the 2009 Under 23 cross country world champion, combined well with Sauser, a similarly versatile racer and former elite cross and marathon country world champion, to capture the title on their fourth attempt. For the 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," said Sauser.
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 two hours, 33 minutes and 18 seconds.
The all-German Multivan Merida 2 pair of Jochen Kaess and Hanne Genze finished the stage in second place and completed the race in second place overall, seven minutes and eight seconds down on Sauser and Stander. Three-time winners and defending champions, Germans Stefan Sahm and Karl Platt (Team Bulls) completed the final podium places 21 minutes and nine seconds 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 tops women's standings, too
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 one hour 33 minutes and 35 seconds 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.
A race of attrition
A total of 603 two-rider teams started, but just 496 of those teams completed the gruelling eight-day stage race. Stander and Sauser's total winning time was 28 hours, 44 minutes and 44 seconds. The last team to finish was Die Blou Trein pair of Brenden Burke and Johan de Beer, who recorded a total time of 59 hours, 38 minutes and 56 seconds.
See Cyclingnews' complete coverage of the Cape Epic mountain bike stage race.