German Robert Mennen and his Czech teammate Kristian Hynek (Topeak-Ergon) coolly defended their lead during the seventh and final stage of the Absa Cape Epic to take overall honours in the prestigious mountain bike stage race for the first time.
A large and lively crowd gathered at the finish line at Lourensford Wine Estate, Somerset West, also witnessed Gert Heyns and Matthys Beukes (Scott factory Racing) become the first South Africans ever to win the closing stage ÔÇô the most sought after stage in the event.
And adopted South African Ariane Kleinhans ÔÇô Swiss but living in Stellenbosch ÔÇô and her Danish teammate Annike Langvad were warmly cheered across the line as they won the women’s category by some distance.
Mennen and Hynek started the 67km stage from Elgin with a more than 10-minute lead and defended it comfortably – finishing in a group containing their main general classification rivals.
ÔÇ£I got some revenge for last year,ÔÇØ said Mennen afterwards in reference to the incident in the 2013 Absa Cape Epic when he hit a duiker that ran in front of his bicycle, was thrown over his handlebars and broke his collarbone.
ÔÇ£But I never thought I could win the biggest mountain bike stage race in the world ÔÇªit feels incredible,ÔÇØ said Mennen, who has competed in the Cape Epic twice before.
Hynek was riding his first Epic and confessed to sleeping very little on Saturday night: ÔÇ£It was a big relief to cross the line after having problems on the earlier stages, but nothing went wrong today.ÔÇØ
With a little bit of help from their friends, Hynek and Mennen held on to the zebra-striped yellow leaders’ jersey from stage three. On earlier stages Hynek had twice been the beneficiary of sportsmanship by fellow professionals Centurion-Vaude ÔÇô Germans Markus Kaufmann and Jochen Kaess ÔÇô when they handed over their wheels after he got punctures.
About 45km into Sunday’s stage a group of four riders ÔÇô none in contention for overall laurels ÔÇô broke away.
Cross country World Champion Nino Schurter of Switzerland and his South African teammate Philip Buys (Scott-Odlo) turned up the pace and their back-up team ÔÇô locals Matthys Beukes and Gert Heyns (Scott Factory Racing) ÔÇô joined them. The chasing pack ÔÇô led by former Epic winner Roel Paulissen of Belgium and Riccardo Chiarini of Italy (Torpado) ÔÇô could not reel them in.
As the two teams approached the finish line (see picture right) on the grass at Lourensford, Buys and Schurter backed off, allowing the young South Africans to take the stage and make a piece of Epic history.
An emotional Beukes said the win in the prestigious final stage into Lourensford was ÔÇ£unbelievable ÔÇª to do this with my two best friends (Heyns and Buys) and the world champion ÔÇô who’s also become our friend ÔÇô was very specialÔÇØ.
They and the Scott-Odlo team had got away from others on the portage down the old wagon trail alongside Sir Lowry’s Pass. ÔÇ£Once we realised we were going to win in front of our friends and family nothing could have stopped us ÔÇª we could have gone on forever,ÔÇØ said Beukes.
Four-times winner Christoph Sauser of Switzerland had started the day with Czech partner Frantisek Rabon (Meerendal Songo Specialized) determined to make inroads into the overall lead of Hynek and Mennen, but had to settle for second overall after being unable to shake off the Topeak-Ergon team.
Sauser said he was disappointed not to win after ÔÇ£chasing the yellow every day ÔÇª but that’s the Cape Epic, that’s how it isÔÇØ. He and Rabon suffered several punctures and some technical problems during the race.
Rabon, competing in his first Cape Epic since switching to mountain biking from road racing, said he had been ÔÇ£to hell and back many timesÔÇØ.
He had learnt that the racing was more intense than on the road ÔÇô where you could rest in the peleton on a bad day.
There was some consolation for the Bulls team after losing race favourite Karl Platt to an injury when its back-up team ÔÇô Germans Tim Boehme and Simon Stiebjahn (Bulls 2) ÔÇô finished third overall.
Kleinhans and Langvad (RECM2) won the women’s category by more than 30 minutes, overturning a 24-minute deficit after stage one when they were plagued by punctures and mechanical problems.
They had ridden a conservative race Sunday to hold their lead, but still won the stage by 12 minutes.
Langvad said the finish at Lourensford was ÔÇ£amazing ÔÇª overwhelming ÔÇª surreal with this huge crowdÔÇØ
Kleinhans thanked South Africans who had ÔÇ£adopted me as their daughter ÔÇª their support made me very emotionalÔÇØ.
Esther Suss of Switzerland and Briton Sally Bigham (Meerendal) finished second and South African Theresa Ralph and Swede Jennie Stenerhag (Cape Brewing Company) were third.