Cape Town - With just over five minutes separating the top three men’s teams on the general classification it was full gas from the gun on Stage 5’s 39km time-trial in Wellington.
With a brutal 39km/1 430m to negotiate, there was no rest for Investec Songo Specialized, Cannondale Factory Racing and Canyon Topeak as the hunt for the yellow jersey intensified on Stage 5 in Wellington.
On paper the course looked to favour the cross-country specialists - more specifically the Cannondale Factory Racing boys and Prologue winners, Centurion Vaude, but as it turned out that was not the case…
Cannondale Factory Racing were the biggest losers of the day, a direct result of yesterday’s heroic efforts having caught up with them.
Manuel Fumic and Henrique Avancini looked out of sorts for most of the route, the latter of whom was taking tremendous strain on the climbs.
“We rode really hard and took some risks,” said Avancini.
“We gave it a shot but had no legs - it is what it is.”
Cannondale Factory Racing would eventually finish in fifth place, and with that result, drop one place below Alban Lakata and Kristian Hynek (Canyon Topeak) on the general classification to third.
According to Hynek, Lakata was making him “suffer” for a large part of the time-trial but eventually “found his legs”.
“Pacing is key on a stage like this but on the other hand, like the Prologue, you have to go flat out. I wasn’t feeling good at the beginning but Alban still pushed the tempo and made me suffer,” laughed Hynek.
“I eventually started to feel better and like to think Alban was also on the limit at some point - we rode well in the end.”
Although Canyon Topeak trail Jaroslav Kulhavy and Howard Grotts by over seven minutes, the reigning marathon world champion believes he and Hynek are still in with a shot of winning the Absa Cape Epic.
“We did not expect to have such a good day after yesterday’s suffering,” said Lakata.
“We rode to our strategy and it worked well. We are still in it to win it and the next two stages suit us - more climbing, less flats.”
After winning yesterday’s Queen Stage, Centurion Vaude’s Daniel Geismayr and Nicola Rohrbach would finish in a disappointing seventh place - 3.39,9 off the pace.
“Nicola (Rohrbach) wasn’t feeling well today,” said Geismayr after the stage.
“We had to go at a steady and slow pace. We will see what happens in the next two days.”
The day however, belonged to Investec Songo Specialized who are showing no signs of weakness. It was a flawless display in which Kulhavy and Grotts asserted their dominance closing down Cannondale Factory Racing, who started three minutes ahead of them, within the first 20km.
“It was amazing for us. We are really happy because we went at our own tempo and when we caught Cannondale we felt confident,” said Kulhavy.
“It felt like the hardest stage because of the elevation and steep climbs.”
“I knew today’s course would suit us a little better,” said Grotts.
“I really felt more comfortable today and Jaro (Kulhavy) was setting a perfect pace. It was just us against the clock and we didn’t have to worry about anyone else.”
Investec Songo Specialized now carry a 7.15,8 lead going into Stage 6 - a tough 76km/2 000m day out in Wellington. They’ll be well aware of the threat Lakata and Hynek present to their position at the top of the general classification and will need a mechanical-free day to keep the charging Canyon Topeak pairing at bay.
In the Absa African Men’s special jersey race it was NAD MTB that posted the fastest time of the day, a solid result considering just a few days ago Matthew Beers was nursing a stomach bug. For current red jersey wearers of PYGA Euro Steel it was a day of consolidation.
“It was a really nice route and we started fast and tried to gain on the flats with me on the front and Julian (Jessop) in my slip,” said Matthys Beukes.
“We raced hard on flats and backed off on the climbs. That was our strategy.”
The PYGA Euro Steel pairing still managed to secure the second step of the podium with Marco Joubert and Dylan Rebello (Imbuko Momsen) registering third place for a second day in a row. The young duo now find themselves in third place overall - just under a minute and a half ahead of Timothy Hammond and Arno du Toit (SPOT Africa) who trail in fourth.
“We came into the Absa Cape Epic looking to finish top 20 and possibly grab a podium in the Absa African Men’s special jersey race,” said Joubert.
“We have not had a smooth race as we’ve suffered with mechanicals but we will just keep going and keep it consistent. Today was the first time we attacked and with Matt (Beers) starting to come right we will have to watch out for them (NAD MTB).”
Meanwhile, Annika Langvad and Kate Courtney collected their sixth win from six days of racing at the Absa Cape Epic.
It was just another day of Absa Cape Epic racing and another win for Langvad and Courtney as they snatched a surprisingly tight victory.
It was the sixth win from six stages for the Investec Songo Specialized pair, but for the first time at the 2018 event there was some doubt about the result in the Women’s category for most of the stage.
A resurgent Sabine Spitz and Robyn de Groot (Ascendis Health) led by 31 seconds through halfway and ended up just 12.5 seconds down at the end of the stage.
While the margin of victory was small, the Danish multiple world champion and her young American partner extended their lead by two minutes 52 seconds over Annie Last and Mariske Strauss (Silverback-KMC) who are currently lying second overall and who were third on the stage.
The gap from Investec Songo Specialized to Silverback on general classification has now grown to just over 35 minutes and even the two leaders are being forced to cautiously admit that their victory is looking like a certainty.
“We are counting down the days a little bit now,” admitted Langvad after the finish, the first time she has publicly hinted that it will be tough for their chasers to claim the overall win.
However Langvad, who has never been beaten in her three previous attempts at the Absa Cape Epic, is still cautious about the two remaining stages.
“One of the proper challenges of this race is to concentrate all the time. Eight days is a long, long time and just the tiniest little mishap and everything can be gone in the blink of an eye.
“We wanted to keep it nice and steady in the time-trial. Today we could ride at our own pace and we did that.
“But what was quite helpful was that we could see Mariske and Annie on some of the climbs ahead of us and so we kind of figured we were getting closer to them, but we had no idea about Sabine and Robin.”
Courtney said their tactic was to ride a controlled stage.
“The time-trial is a different challenge. Everything is tough in its own way out here at the Absa Cape Epic. I think today was hard after a long day yesterday but we were able to ride in control and especially on the descents, where there were a lot of rocky and sandy corners, and we were able to pull back and avoid having any big mishaps.”
The American was also cautiously optimistic about the remaining two stages: “Honestly, anything can happen. We are just trying to stay focused and stay on top of it and maximise our recovery for the last two days.”
Despite nearly becoming the first team to get the better of the potent Investec Songo Specialized duo this week, Spitz and De Groot seemed surprised at the result.
“I did not realise we had done so well,” said the South African.
“I felt better than I expected. After four days of over 100km we expected it to be really tough but we rode nicely together and paced ourselves well, which worked out well for us I think.”
Spitz seemed pleased that their tactics had worked so well: “Today the goal was to ride smart - smooth pedalling. The time-trial can be killing and I was sure that if we went too hard in the beginning we would not ride well when we got to the technical parts - the technical climbs where you get the rises and the kickers and power peaks. It was the right decision to ride smart and we were second, so it shows we made the right decision.”
“The goal for us is to make time back. We are still battling and fighting for the second place in the overall. So there are still two more days to go and we will see how it turns out.”
With the temperature climbing the pro riders enjoyed the best of the weather, but Englishwoman Last said it was still uncomfortably hot.
“On the first climb you could feel the heat was already there. On the start line it was very pretty because you could see the sunrise, but on the climbs it was hot. It was a 39km time-trial with 1 400 metres of climbing and (on Thursday) we did 113km with 1 800 metres, so there was a lot of climbing for a lot less distance.”