Former five-time winner Christoph Sauser has become something of a super mentor to the Investec Songo Specialized riders and was delighted to seen Jaroslav Kulhavy and Howard Grotts snatch the yellow men’s jerseys and the Annika Langvad/Kate Courtney combination stay in orange.
But he did inject a note of caution: “It is good we have both teams in (the leaders’ jerseys) with quite a bit of time, but everything can be put upside down very quickly - you only borrow the jersey on this race.”
Stage 3’s transition from Robertson to Worcester on Wednesday might have been the longest stage of this year’s race, but with just 1 800m of ascent spread over 122km it was also the flattest.
Ideal conditions then for the turbodiesel-powered weapons like Kulhavy and the marathon maestros Alban Lakata and Kristian Hynek (Canyon Topeak). Despite the day’s gruelling puncture-induced efforts - in which Grotts took tremendous strain chasing back the leaders - it was Investec Songo Specialized who piled on the pressure by driving the pace.
As the leaders approached the base of the Pieter’s Express climb, Investec Songo Specialized attacked in what would prove to be the move of the day. Only Canyon Topeak had enough in reserves to board the Czech Express and secure a one-way ticket to HTS Drostdy in Worcester.
“We got the win at the Dimension Data Hotspot (at 17km) and after that we just kept on going. Luckily we had Jaro (Kulhavy) on our side - he’s like a locomotive,” said Lakata.
The breakaway was firmly established at the 29km mark, where Investec Songo Specialized gained the virtual lead with a 2.24,4 advantage over the yellow jersey group. The strategy of forcing an early split had paid off and, with Kulhavy and Lakata bringing the firepower, the average speed at the head of the race reached a staggering 28km/h. Further back Cannondale Factory Racing found themselves surrounded by Buff Scott MTB, Trek Selle San Marco 1, Centurion Vaude, BULLS 2 and KMC EKOÏ SRSuntour.
As happened the previous day, Investec Songo Specialized’s efforts were thwarted by a series of costly punctures. But when it comes to chasing, Jaroslav Kulhavy knows only one speed - full gas. With Grotts in tow the two reduced the gap in a matter of minutes and moved through the Land Rover Technical Terrain together with Canyon Topeak.
With just 15km left to negotiate, Grotts got caught out by a sandy stretch that would ultimately gift Canyon Topeak their first stage win of the 2018 Absa Cape Epic - Lakata’s first since 2010.
“It’s insane. How crazy was that? It is really cool to win the stage and I was enjoying it the whole day,” said Lakata.
Lakata went on to praise Kulhavy for his incredible power and the huge effort he put in on the flats.
“We are lucky we had him (Jaro) on our side today, he did 80 percent of the work. They (Investec Songo Specialized) had some flats and Howie (Grotts) was struggling so we got the stage win.”
Despite finishing just over a minute behind Canyon Topeak, Kulhavy and Grotts were able to steal the yellow jersey away from Cannondale Factory Racing. Grotts, who will become the first American to wear yellow at the Absa Cape Epic, said afterwards: “I was suffering like a dog out there. It is probably the most I have ever suffered in any race but it was worth it.”
For Cannondale Factory Racing it was a day of damage control as Manuel Fumic and Henrique Avancini began a chase back of their own after leaving the Buff Scott MTB team behind on the Land Rover Technical Terrain. Their efforts almost paid off but it was a case of too little too late as they dropped to second overall on the general classification.
As things now stand it’s Investec Songo Specialized lead Cannondale Factory Racing by 2.12,7 with Canyon Topeak in third, 3.14,4 off the pace.
In the Absa African Men’s special jersey race Ellsworth-ASG’s HB Kruger and Stuart Marais managed to keep their red jersey despite finishing in fourth place.
Stage spoils went to Matthys Beukes and Julian Jessop (PYGA Euro Steel) while Timothy Hammond/Arno Du Toit (SPOT Africa) and Marco Joubert/Dylan Rebello (Imbuko Momsen) made up the balance of the podium.
In the Women’s category, Investec Songo Specialized maintained their unbeaten record by claiming win number four.
Langvad and Courtney were able to power away from their rivals, who could do nothing to stop their seemingly unshakable surge to the 2018 title - and not even a crash into some other riders near the end, which brought both the leaders down, could stop their progress.
Langvad and Courtney rode away from their rivals with about 40km to go and built a substantial victory of well over five minutes to extend their overall lead to 12 minutes.
Team Spur’s Ariane Lüthi and Githa Michiels and a resurgent Ascendis Health’s Sabine Spitz and Robyn de Groot fought a race-long battle for the runner up spot. Although both teams spent time chasing their rivals, the positions on the bottom steps of the podium were decided on a sprint, with Lüthi and Michiels claiming second, also for the fourth day in a row.
Despite their dominant performance over the Prologue and first three stages, Langvad and Courtney know they can take nothing for granted.
“The thing about this terrain is that it is so rough and you can have mechanicals,” said Langvad.
“On paper it looks like a comfortable lead but you still need to perform solidly because it is so unpredictable and a lot of things can happen out there … near the finish it turned a bit sandy and we wanted to overtake one guy and he just stood still - and we both went flying,” said Langvad, indicating herself and her partner.
In the race for the inaugural Absa African Women’s special jersey, Candice Lill and Amy Beth McDougall (dormakaba) consolidated their already impressive lead. They lead by just under an hour with 14-time race finisher Hannele Steyn and extraordinary ultra-distance athlete Jeannie Dreyer (Nolands Spar) second and Nadia Visser and Katie Lennard (Western Girls) third.
In the Grand Masters category Team Robert Daniel’s Robert Sim and Udo Boelts suffered from some serious mechanical issues and lost time. However, they hung on desperately to their lead in the over-50 category.
Midway through the stage defending champion Barti Bucher and his new partner Hans Juerg Gerber (Meerendal CBC 2) had a huge lead over former Giro d’Italia stage winner Boelts and Sim.
However, the 2016 winners, who easily won the opening three stages, fought back over the second half of the stage and reduced the deficit from 15 minutes to seven minutes and are still 9 minutes ahead overall.
Bucher and Gerber won the stage from former Springbok rugby star Joel Stransky and Andrew McLean (CycleLab KTM), with Martijn Mellaart and Shaun Sale (Sales Hire) third.
In the Dimension Data Masters category, the top four teams finished in their general classification order to consolidate the standings in the fiercely competitive over-40 class.
Italian Massimo Debertolis and Czech Ondrej Fojtik (Wilier Force 7C 2) won with their third stage win in three days and added two minutes to their overall lead. They now go into the second half of the race with a substantial 13-minute advantage over Brad Clarke and Rohin Adams (Mornington Cycles/TRush).
The Australian pair lying second are now five more minutes ahead of Bart Brentjens and Abraao Azevedo (CST Sandd A. Eagle AAZ), with George Hincapie and Christian Vande Velde (Absa-WBR) losing more time to sit in fourth, well over half an hour off the pace.
Meanwhile, Nicky Giliomee and Brennan Anderson (Journey by Junto) put in a strong ride to win the stage in the Virgin Active Mixed category and move within touching distance of the overall leaders. The Team Merida Argentina pair of Agustina Maria Apaza and Cesar Lettoli ultimately saw their gap of 9:36,9 slashed by over seven minutes by Giliomee and Anderson. The Argentinians, who won the first three stages of the race, are now just 2:34,9 ahead of the South Africans after they dug deep to come home in third place.
Yolandi du Toit and Gus Klohn (Garmin Powerbar Mixed) were second on the day, just over two minutes behind the winners, and have moved up to third place overall.
Lucky Mlangeni and Tshepo Tlou
(Exxaro/PWC 1) took their fourth stage win in a row in Worcester in the
competition for the Exxaro special jersey race. They extended their overall
lead over Luyanda Thobigunya and Baphelele Mbobo (BMT Fairtree Academy) to 28
minutes. Khumbudzo Masala and Kagiso Tlous (Exxaro / EOH) were third on