Rain, mud and wind grabbed the full attention of the riders on stage 1 of the 2013 Cape Pioneer Trek mountain bike stage race in South Africa on Monday, but it was Brandon Stewart and Konny Looser of the FedGroup Itec team that grabbed the spotlight when they won the stage and took the overall lead.
Stewart and Looser outsprinted the all-South African Team RE:CM pair of Waylon Woolcock and Erik Kleinhans to claim the demanding 105km stage from Buffelsdrift to Calitzdorp in a time of 4 hours, 23 minutes and 54 seconds. They now have a 51-second lead over Woolcock and Kleinhans in the general classification.
Sunday's stage winners, the Scott Factory Racing team of Philip Buys and Matthys Beukes, finished in third place almost 10-and-a-half minutes back on a day that saw huge time gaps appear as riders battled the conditions. The first 12 kilometres delivered a spirit-crushing start as riders struggled with mud build-up on wheels and chains.
Many suffered subsequent mechanical problems, particularly broken rear gear derailleurs, while others found themselves riding the remainder of the rain-hit stage, on their own, with limited bunch-riding options for protection against a relentless wind, which was from the front in the final 15km.
The Team RE:CM pair of Ariane Kleinhans and Annika Langvad produced an impressive performance to win the women's category and finish 12th overall in a time of 5:02:17, allowing them to substantially extend their overnight lead.
Second home was the Wheeler BMC pair of Esther Suss and Jane Nuessli, who finished 16 minutes later. Third placed women's team was Biogen SA's Ischen Stopforth and Robyn de Groot who were 32 minutes down on the winners.
Defending champions, Jennie Stenerhag and Craig Gerber (Asrin Cycling 3) secured the stage win in the mixed category and grabbed the overall lead by more than six minutes. The Dutch team Cube Nutswerk 2 comprising Micha de Vries and Rik van den Hannenberg won the veteran men's stage and extended their overall lead.
Top masters on Monday were the Wilde 3 pair of Izak Visagie and Lieb Loots, who finished a remarkable 13th overall and extended their lead to 54 minutes over their nearest rivals; while the first solo riders home, who now lead their respective categories overall, were South Africans Adriaan Louw (men) and Kate Slegrova (women).
"When we hit that mud it was chaos. All the riders were forced to stop. It wasn't a skill thing, but a movement challenge! I couldn't get my wheels to turn because they were so caked up with mud, so I ended up running with my bike on my shoulder for a while just to keep moving. Then, when I could ride, I was cupping my hand over the back tyre to keep moving the mud off. It was crazy!" said stage winner, Brandon Stewart.
Once the road surface changed and the race regained some composure, only three teams were left in the battle upfront - FedGroup Itec, RE:CM and Scott Factory Racing with the gaps to the next teams large and growing.
"When I saw Phil (Buys) suffering on one of the steep climbs, I decided to push the pace a bit and that opened up a gap on the Scott guys, which meant that the overall lead was a strong possibility for us. That was very motivating and by the second water point (66km into the stage) we had built up a decent gap on them. Then it was just a matter of dealing with the RE:CM guys, who are riding really strong," said Stewart.
On the final big climb of the day, Kleinhans began to drop off the pace. Stewart and Looser sensed an opportunity to go for the win alone, but then decided to be conservative on the subsequent technical descent, which saw the quartet tackle the final 15km of district roads together and head for a weary sprint finish.
Stage 2 preview
A 92km stage with 2760 metres of vertical ascent and a mountain-top finish awaits the riders on Tuesday. The last section is to the summit of the Swartberg Pass, which climbs a massive 1,100 metres in just 12 kilometres.
The stage offers R112 000 (US $12 000) to the first team to the summit and is the richest single stage prize in mountain bike racing. Any teams that intended to take Monday's stage a little easy in order to be fresh for stage 2 would have had their plans smudged by the conditions.
"I can tell you that the conditions today made it a day that nobody could take easy," said Stewart. "Our goal is the overall title but we'll be giving tomorrow's stage a full go. We won't let anyone get away from us before that last climb if we can help it. It's going to be a huge showdown!"
Khombisa Media, an airport billboard advertising company, has added R30,000 to the stage 2 purse, specifically for the women, with R25,000 for the first women's team to the summit and R5,000 to the first solo female to the finish line.
To ensure consistent performances throughout the event, the organisers will only pay the stage 2 prize money to winners should they accumulate a minimum of 35 points for the entire Cape Pioneer Trek. Points are awarded daily to the top 10 finishers on each stage and top five in the prologue.
Full results are not available at the time of posting.