You have to work with what you get. Our team manager came into the campervan 45 minutes before the start of Stage 2 and asked if we had checked our emails. Because of the predicted heat and humidity, the race organisers had shortened Stage 2 from 102km to 62km.
I knew it was going to be super-fast and it was also going to be hard to make up time on such a short stage.
But I'm sure Nino Schurter (Scott-SRAM MTB Racing) and Manuel Fumic (Cannondale Factory Racing) had big smiles on their faces when they heard the news. And I'm sure that when the African Jersey holders (Team Pyga Euro Steel) heard the news too, they were like, "Let's do it!" Two years ago, they got away with it and were successful, but not today.
The race started super-fast: I was in about 10th position because it was so strung out and difficult to get to the front. On the asphalt climb up Rotary Way there were already attacks but once we went off-road, it was single file. But full on: shifting, braking, shifting, braking, accelerating.
The Pyga guys lead the whole way. They went flat-out but then paid for it when they blew completely on the main obstacle of the day, Shaw's Pass, at about 40km.
Before we got to Shaw's Pass, four teams had gone away: Cannondale, Scott, Pyga and Investec-Songo-Specialized. I pretty much went into the climb last, and had no adrenalin so I lost maybe 20 seconds. Jaroslav [Kulhavy] had to wait for me, and then there was lots of singletrail and we could never see the leaders.
But it was very important that we kept a cool head and didn't start taking risks because both Jaro and I knew we could chase back on the open road, as long as we didn't make mistakes.
When we came out on the district road, Pyga's Phil Buys took a drink but in doing that he lost 5-10m. I was behind him so I jumped on Jaro's wheel. Off we went and Pyga couldn't get back on.
Everyone rode with just two water bottles from start to finish. I knew nobody was going to stop at the water point. Jaro ran out so I gave him something to drink towards the end.
We made contact again coming into Caledon. There was still one climb left which everyone knew from the stage profile was going to be a kicker. We went flat out and got a 15-20 second gap on Scott and Cannondale.
Then there was a bit of forest with a very loose surface and coming in at about 30km/h, I misjudged a sharp right-hand turn and rise. I was in completely the wrong gear so I jumped off and just pushed the bike up. You don't want to risk breaking something at that point.
That brought the two chasing teams very close, but we still kept the best position for the sprint. Jaro and I came down the final hill together, with Nino on my wheel. We started sprinting, Nino passed me and I looked back, but his partner Matthias Stirnemann wasn't coming. So, finally, a stage win! And it was the first day we didn't lose time either, so I'm super-happy.
I think it's the shortest stage in the history of the Epic. Although the last day is usually not long, I'm almost sure this was the shortest stage ever.
Afterwards, Nino told me that Scott and Cannondale didn't expect Jaro and I to come back and that they were already making plans for the top step of the podium. For us to win the stage is really cool, especially dropping the others on the final climb after we were dropped earlier.
As for the other teams, I think the Bulls and Topeak-Ergon have good firepower up to a certain wattage – they can maintain a high wattage for a very long time, maybe more than five hours – but you need that top-end power. I am so lucky that I still have it, so far.
I think the Bulls and Topeak will get better during the week, but at the moment they're lacking that top-end firepower to go when it's important. Like me today at Shaw's Pass.
Jaro and I are still almost three minutes behind the race leaders, but we won't do anything risky. Tomorrow will be interesting – it's 80km, with lots of singletrail – but it's too short to make back much time. But Thursday will be a big one: lots of climbing into Elgin, and maybe a really hot day out in no-man's-land.
We have to wait for the right moment.
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