Words: Chris Whitfield
German mountain biker Robert Mennen had barely pulled on the yellow Absa Cape Epic leaders’ jersey after Wednesday’s stage three and he was musing about whether it was cursed.
“We’re a little bit afraid … I’m not sure if there’s a little bit of bad luck, but hopefully we can keep it on our shoulders a bit longer (than the others have)," said German Mennen, who together with Topeak-Ergon teammate Kristian Hynek took the overall lead Wednesday.
Three teams have worn what would normally be regarded as one of the most prized rewards in their sport in the race’s three stages so far - and each has suffered a disastrous day.
The 134km stage from Robertson to Greyton - the longest this year - was won in a sprint by Switzerland’s Christoph Sauser, aiming for his fifth win, and Czech Frantisek Rabon (Meerendal Songo Specialized).
Wednesday it was the turn of the other four-times winner Karl Platt to fall victim to the travails of those wearing the yellow jersey. The German and teammate Urs Huber (Bulls) began the day in yellow after a strong stage two, but it was soon evident that he was suffering from a knee damaged in a crash on Tuesday.
The other top teams, sensing a weakness, attacked strongly and at about 50km a grimacing Platt could no longer resist. A group of three teams pulled away from the Bulls pair on a stage characterised by open roads, rolling hills and a persistent wind - much of it directly in the riders’ faces.
Sauser and Rabon are third overall after winning the sprint in 4:53.36,4. Markus Kaufmann and Jochen Kaess (Centurion-Vaude) finished a split second behind Sauser and Rabon, but their disastrous stage two - when Kaufmann broke the frame of his bike while they were wearing yellow - meant the Germans are out of contention for the overall win.
Mennen and Hynek finished third in the sprint and their steady performances over four days - including a prologue - in which other top teams have all either battled with mechanical problems, illness or crashes have given them what might be a telling lead.
Platt and Huber finished nearly 11 minutes back in sixth, but are still second overall - 15 seconds ahead of Sauser and Rabon, but nine-and-a-half minutes behind Mennen and Hynek.
The Topeak-Ergon pairing have impressed with their powerful riding and generally calm approach, but do not have a back-up team. Sauser and Rabon have been enjoying great support from South Africans Erik Kleinhans and Nico Bell (RECM), and this could prove decisive by the time the riders reach the finish at Lourensford Wine Estate on Sunday.
“So far it is the most interesting Epic in many years," said Sauser. “I thought the Bulls would still be in the lead after the stage. When I saw Karl dropping out of the back of the lead group I went to the front and said to the guys we must go for it now."
Rabon, who has converted to mountain biking from road riding, said: “Today there was extra pressure on me because everybody said this stage would suit me. But now I can say I enjoyed a stage at the Epic. After all the bad luck and chasing the whole time, we could do some racing today."
Mennen entered mountain biking legend at last year’s Cape Epic when he broke his collarbone after crashing into a duiker: “Last year I was out of the race so early after hitting the antelope," he said Wednesday. “This year’s like getting something back from last year."
The team in yellow after the prologue on Sunday, Spaniard Jose Hermida and Dutchman Rudi van Houts (Multivan Merida), lost the jersey when the former suffered an allergic reaction to something in his breakfast before Monday’s stage one and could barely finish the ride.
Stage three signalled the end to the hopes of two other top teams. German Hannes Genze - riding with Swiss Konny Looser (Meerendal Centurion Wheeler) - broke and badly gashed his his forearm in a heavy crash midway through the stage and could not continue. And South African Waylon Woolcock did not get to the start after succumbing to a stomach bug overnight, leaving partner Darren Lill (Cannondale Blend) to continue on his own but out the race.
South Africa’s Philip Buys, riding with cross country World Champion Nino Schurter (Scott-Odlo) broke away from the leaders early in yesterday’s staged but faded towards the end, finishing fourth but nearly five minutes back. They are now seventh overall.
Original women’s favourites Swiss Ariane Kleinhans and Dane Annike Langvad (RECM 2) won the category by two-and-a-half minutes in 5:34.06,7, but will be disappointed in their performance: they were hoping to make up more time on the overall leaders but ended up riding on their own in windy, blustery conditions and appeared to weaken towards the end.
They are now 11 minutes behind leaders Esther Suss, also Swiss, and England’s Sally Bigham (Meerendal) in the race for overall honours. Kleinhans and Langvad were plagued by punctures and technical problems on stage one and lost 24 minutes on that day.
South Africa’s Theresa Ralph and her Swedish teammate Jennie Stenerhag (Cape Brewing Company) remain third but are now 51 minutes behind the leaders.
Thursday stage four is an 88km loop which starts and ends in Greyton.