The top three teams on the Cape Epic general classification have never been this close this deep in the race. Jaroslav Kulhavy and I lost 40 seconds to overall leaders Cannondale Factory Racing on Stage 4 so we're now down to third position overall, 33 seconds behind Scott-SRAM MTB Racing.
We're obviously disappointed, especially because it all started so well. Nico Bell on our back-up team did such a good job – every time the tempo slowed down, he went to the front and drove it. For us, it was important that there was no resting before the final climbs. That all went according to plan.
Stage 4 was quite windy - more cross or headwind than tailwind - but I didn't mind that. There was also a lot of single-trail between Water Point 2 and Botrivier and we rode quite hard there so nobody arrived at Botrivier feeling fresh any more.
I struggled a bit in the sandy sections of Botrivier Pass. It was super-sandy. I've never liked sand, because I don't do well in it. I don't know why, but I've always struggled. But as soon as we came off the sand, there was no problem any more.
On the next tight switchback climb I felt super-good again. Kansai Plascon had got away, but not much later they had some sort of tyre problem and we passed them. We were with Scott on an uphill single-track when Jaro hit a rock at the perfect angle and got a big sidewall cut.
We had to fix it twice and it took quite a bit of time, maybe three minutes. First we put in two plugs, but we kept losing air so we had to stop again and put in a third one. Another problem was that the valve core was quite tight and difficult to unscrew. I should have taken my glove off and then it wouldn't have been such an issue, but you know, you keep on trying.
We rode for about 20 minutes before having to stop to put that third plug in. We use Dynaplug, an American product. Once a Dynaplug is in and it's sealed, it will stay sealed. I'm not sure anything else would have plugged that cut.
We had just fixed the tyre with the two plugs and our support team, Gawie Combrinck and Nico, rode up to us. In fact, both times pretty much as we finished, they came through. It's not an easy decision. You've already been tinkering around for two minutes and suddenly there's a fresh wheel available: should you swap wheels and tinker for another 30-45 seconds, or risk it? We decided to risk it, but then we had to plug again. Time-wise, it probably ended up exactly the same.
We had a bit of a rest while fixing the flat, and then we didn't go crazy but just kept riding steady for the 15km to the finish. Because we rode with zero emotions at the end, we couldn't really squeeze ourselves out that much, so maybe we saved a bit of energy there. Although, I would rather have raced with more emotion and be in the leaders' jersey today…
But it's far from over. Two minutes to Cannondale is do-able. It's 30 seconds to Scott, and today would have been a tight finish with Scott for sure. We definitely would have made time on Cannondale because we probably closed down another two minutes or more on them after the puncture. So our performance was very good, but luck wasn't on our side.
Jaro and I have both been in this situation before. In 2013, we lost time on the Bulls for three days, even though we were the stronger team. I almost gave up because we were eight or nine minutes back, and it's hard to think how you could make that time back. But by the end we did it.
So it's not a new scenario. But, I don't know, you can't predict the Epic. We can't have more bad luck, that's for sure. And since we're strong, it's also not good if we go crazy and start taking risks.
They say Friday is a cross-country stage, but we're talking about 80km with lots of climbing and we already have five stages in the legs. So I wouldn't call this cross-country any more. A lot of it is going to be mental – who can still squeeze themselves out – and who recovers better, and who has the muscle power.
Stage 5 will be hard. Those first climbs are going to be hard and then it's lots of single-track with transition bits in between. I've done so many races in Grabouw, I know it like my pocket. So I know pretty much every metre, but I can't predict every rock.
To trail by 2:15 with three days to go, including Saturday's queen stage? Two years ago we did more or less the same course on Stage 1 and it was huge carnage that day, especially on Groenlandberg and those rocky downhills. My focus is always just on the next day, but that queen stage is definitely in the back of my mind too.
Scott can now smell the overall victory. They did so well on Thursday, especially their back-up team. Cannondale will try to defend but they have two strong teams right on their backs, so for them it's a very uncomfortable situation.
Jaro and I don't have that much to lose any more. I would have loved to be in the leaders' jersey, but everything in the team is still 100%. Nobody is sick or has a niggle, and we have very experienced staff and great equipment. We have all the tools to win the Epic. But now we have to be on the hunt.