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Germans win brutal first stage of the Cape Epic

Markus Kaufmann and Jochen Kaess (Team Centurion-Vaude) survived a brutal 113-kilometre opening stage of the Absa Cape Epic on Monday to notch up a telling win as several top contenders suffered setbacks.

The Germans, pictured right, finished in 4hr 42min 50sec, two minutes ahead of a sprinting group of five teams led home by Switzerland’s four-time Epic winner Christoph Sauser and his Czech teammate Frantisek Rabon (Meerendal Songo Specialized).

The course took the riders through rain in a loop, starting and finishing in Robertson, over some of the most rugged terrain in the Western Cape and up three brutal climbs. All of the top teams had problems during the day, ranging from punctures and mechanical problems to crashes and illness.

Several teams who had an eye on the men’s category podium were set back ÔÇô among them favourites Karl Platt, from Germany, and Swiss teammate Urs Huber (Bulls), who slipped into seventh place overall and are five minutes off the pace, with fears that Huber may be getting ill.

But biggest setback of the day probably befell Spaniard Jose Hermida and his Dutch partner Rudi van Houts (Team Multivan Merida), who had won Sunday’s prologue but finished more than one hour and 15 minutes off the pace yesterday. Hermida fell victim to stomach problems overnight and struggled throughout.

In the women’s even, pre-race favourites and prologue winners Ariane Kleinhans and Annika Langvad had a disastrous day with a series of punctures and problems and fell 25 minutes off the pace.

Kaufmann and Kaess ÔÇô who came into the Epic unheralded ÔÇô survived a flat tyre and a fall to eventually pull away near the end of the stage. ÔÇ£It was really crazy ÔÇô every team had a problem,ÔÇØ said Kaufmann afterwards.

With 50km to go six teams had regrouped and were racing for the win, but then each of their rivals picked up problems.

We had problems and the other guys had problems  but in the end we won it and we are very happy, said Kaess.

Moving ominously up the field, after finishing second yesterday, are Sauser and Rabon, who were two minutes behind the leaders in spite of having┬átwo┬ápunctures themselves. Sauser has won the race four times and yesterday’s result moves them into third overall.

ÔÇ£I believe we are one of the favourites now, if not the favourites,ÔÇØ said┬áSauser. ÔÇ£The route is going to favour us more and more from now.ÔÇØ

He pointed to the long 134km stage three from Robertson to Greyton on Wednesday as one where he and Rabon ÔÇô who has what his fellow professionals like to call a ÔÇ£big engineÔÇØ ÔÇô could profit. ┬áThe Czech, relatively new to mountain biking from a professional road riding career, said ÔÇ£we showed today we can fight back even if the luck was not on our sideÔÇØ.

Second overall, and third on Monday in a sprint finish with Sauser and Rabon, are Team BMC’s Lukas Fluckiger and Martin Fanger (both Swiss).

The women’s race also gave rise to high drama. Kleinhans (Swiss) and Langvad (Danish) vowed to carry on fighting after their difficult day. ÔÇ£It was an awful day. We had punctures the whole time. And every time we fixed it we had to fight our way back. Just to get another puncture. It was horrible,ÔÇØ said Langvad.

They eventually finished third but are nearly 25 minutes behind Monday’s winners, Briton Sally Bigham and Swiss Esther Suss (Meerendal), who finished in 5:24:31. ÔÇ£It’s always nice to win a stage, and to win a stage and take the overall lead is special,ÔÇØ said Bigham. ÔÇ£I want to beat someone because I am the strongest not because the other team had troubles, but I guess it’s all part of the Epic,ÔÇØ she added.

Cape Brewing Company’s Jennie Stenerhag of Sweden and Theresa Ralph of South Africa took advantage of RECM’s problems to move up into┬ásecond┬áplace but are 16 minutes┬ábehind the leaders.

On Monday night riders would have gone to bed with one eye on the heavens. Although Tuesday’s 101km stage was billed as being easier than Monday, the weatherman had been predicting significant downpours overnight ÔÇô which could make for another testing day.

Photo by Nick Muzik/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS