RECAP: ABSA CAPE EPIC '21
Unusual in many respects, the 17th Absa Cape Epic was certainly memorable. Matt Beers became the first South African to lift the elite men’s trophy since the late Burry Stander, while Jordan Sarrou was the first ever French champion of the Untamed. In the women’s race, Sina Frei and Laura Stigger rode to a historic clean sweep of stage wins. In the age group categories Craig Uria and Andrew Duvenage flew the South African flag, in the Dimension Data Masters competition, and Peter Vesel helped Bart Brentjens add another Absa Cape Epic title to his impressive palmarès.
Laura and Sebastian Stark were as dominant in the Mixed category as the CST PostNL Bafang team were in the Grand Masters. PYGA Euro Steel won their 6th Absa African jersey race. Mariske Strauss and Candice Lill added the women’s Absa African title to their 2nd position overall and the Fairtree Cannondale team sealed a life-changing Exxaro Jersey competition win. Here is how it unfolded.
17 October 2021 | UCT
The fields of the University of Cape Town are usually abuzz with mountain biking fans, but due to the Covid pandemic no spectators were allowed into the race village. This created an eerie silence, into which the announcers’ voices boomed. By the time the Absa Cape Epic reached Ceres the lack of fans felt normal. Initially, though, their absence was a shock to the system and another reminder of the extraordinary circumstances in which the race was taking place.
Having rolled off the start ramp among the earliest elite men’s starters BMC – KTM looked set to cause an upset for much of the Prologue. Cross-country specialists Filippo Viero Colombo and Juri Zanotti’s time of 45 minutes and 4 seconds stood until Matt Beers and Jordan Sarrou blitzed the 20-kilometre course, 1 minute and 40 seconds faster.
“It’s a great feeling to get the win. I’ve been visualising it ever since I got a taste for this a few years back.
Bedecked in yellow for the first time in his 5 Absa Cape Epic starts, Beers was grinning from ear-to-ear: “It’s a great feeling to get the win. I’ve been visualising it ever since I got a taste for this a few years back. Jordan was just a beast on the climbs, so I let him set the pace and I just hung on for dear life.”
The NinetyOne-songo-Specialized pair, of Sina Frei and Laura Stigger, got their maiden Absa Cape Epic campaigns off to the best possible start; beating the South African challengers, Faces CST, by 1 minute and 33 seconds. In the Dimension Data Masters race five-time elite champion Karl Platt illustrated his hunger for continued Absa Cape Epic success by stampeding to stage honours, alongside Alban Lakata, for the Bulls Legends.
Bart Brentjens and Peter Vesel were just 12.5 seconds faster than Barti Bucher and Hans Juerg Gerber in the Masters race, while Laura and Sebastian Stark got their Mixed category title defence off to a winning start.
18 October 2021 | Ceres
The first marathon stage of the 2021 Absa Cape Epic took in 98-kilometres of the Eselfontein trails near Ceres. Many teams would end the day thankful that they raced those famously rocky and technical singletracks in spring rather than summer. Yet there were still a few decisive mechanicals, punctures and crashes.
The first afflicted the BMC – KTM team, who had started the day in second overall. Viero Colombo and Zanotti suffered two mechanicals in quick succession, ending their general classification aspirations before the race had truly begun. The second arguably cost NinetyOne-songo-Specialized the stage win, when Beers lost the use the lower sprockets of his cassette. He and Sarrou had been extending a 60 second advantage when the mechanical gremlins struck.
It was a really nice track, but also hard, we had to push for every metre, nothing was for free out there but that is the Absa Cape Epic and what we are here for.
Mariske Strauss crashed dramatically, in what could have been race-ending fashion, late in the stage too. The Faces CST rider was snagged by a stray loop of wire, which brought her abruptly to the floor. Fortunately, she was able to continue, as was the case for Beers in the men’s race.
Team Bulls kept their noses clean on a difficult day and held off Canyon Northwave and NinetyOne-songo-Specialized to claim 1st and 2nd on the stage. "Simon and I checked the last kilometre before the start this morning so we knew what to expect,” Team Bulls’ Urs Huber related after the stage. “We’re very happy with the stage win. It was a really nice track, but also hard, we had to push for every metre, nothing was for free out there but that is the Absa Cape Epic and what we are here for. It couldn’t be better to go one-two today, with Martin Frey and Simon Stiebjahn.”
19 October 2021 | Ceres to Tulbagh
The race’s first point-to-point day brought with it the withdrawal of Karl Platt. Having won two stages in the Dimension Data Masters category the Bulls Legend ace had begun to struggle with a stomach bug overnight. He did what he could on the 96-kilometre stage, but was forced to withdraw less than half-way through the day.
Platt’s illness handed Craig Uria and Andrew Duvenage, of Restonic, the blue jerseys. The South Africans would not relinquish them for the remainder of the race. The men in yellow, meanwhile, firmed up their grip on the elite men’s leader jerseys. Beers and Sarrou took risks on the singletrack downhill to Tulbagh, which secured them the stage win and a further GC advantage over Canyon Northwave.
We didn’t want to take too many risks. We expected the final descent to be fast and dangerous, and it was.
Andreas Seewald was slightly critical of the race leaders’ tactics after the stage. “We didn’t want to take too many risks,” the Marathon World Champion explained. “We expected the final descent to be fast and dangerous, and it was. They were taking a lot of risks – we want[ed] to do well overall and not take too many risks, so we [were] playing it safe over the first few days.”
In the women’s race the NinetyOne-songo-Specialized team also played it safe early on. Only on the final climb of the day did Frei and Stigger show their strength. Once they had distanced Ariane Lüthi and Robyn de Groot, however, they rode safely and relatively comfortably to their 3rd stage win of the race.
20 October 2021 | Tulbagh
Having avoided risks the day before, Seewald and Stošek went all in on Stage 3. But only after an early attack from the red Absa African jersey wearers, PYGA Euro Steel. Philip Buys and Pieter du Toit fought their way into an early lead, claimed the Dimension Data Hotspot prize, on the main road of Tulbagh, and then crashed out of contention for stage honours.
Du Toit slipped on a bridge across a small ravine, landing heavily on his handlebar. The impact broke his carbon bar and only a bike-swap from the PYGA Euro Steel back-up team made it possible for the youngster to race on efficiently. He was not the only South African to struggle that day however.
The lanky South African marathon champ was unable to match the lithe climbers and had to race to limit his and Sarrou’s losses on the stage.
On Fanties Pass, arguably the toughest climb of the 2021 race, Canyon Northwave put Beers on the back foot. The lanky South African marathon champ was unable to match the lithe climbers and had to race to limit his and Sarrou’s losses on the stage. NinetyOne-songo-Specialized did enough to retain their yellow jerseys but it looked as if the pendulum had swung Seewald and Stošek’s way.
Having gradually found their legs and rhythm the Land Rover Ladies were having their best day of the race, until disaster struck. Near the half-way point in the 91-kilometre-long stage Marie Rabie and Hayley Preen were racing alongside the women holding the general classification podium places. But a crash put the South African road champion, Preen, out of the Absa Cape Epic with a fractured wrist. Illustrating once more that anything can happen in the Untamed African Mountain Bike Race.
21 October 2021 | Tulbagh to Goudini Spa
There was drama on Stage 4 before the racing even got underway. The previous day’s stage winners were out of the race before the start gun had been fired and they were soon joined by the 3rd placed team of Urs Huber and Simon Schneller. Though unlike Stošek, Schneller was able to complete the stage, keeping Team Bulls in the race; despite falling out of overall contention.
The 73-kilometre route from Tulbagh to the Goudini Spa was deceptively challenging and with the NinetyOne-songo-Specialized team’s advantage suddenly far more secure, there was a lull in the action as the teams re-established a pecking order. PYGA Euro Steel’s Buys and Du Toit were the first to seize the opportunity which Canyon Northwave’s withdrawal and Team Bulls’ travails presented.
Coming into the event we had focussed on the second half of the race, and on Stage 4 we just had super legs
Buys and Du Toit’s punch was quickly countered by the hitherto luckless Buff Scott team. Having suffered mechanicals and punctures on the early stages Hans Becking and José Dias started the day in 6th position, nearly 16-minutes back. They were thus allowed to fly and collected their first stage win of the race.
“We took every stage day-by-day,” Hans Becking reflected. “You wake up and you ask your legs how they are doing, then you wait to see how you feel. Coming into the event we had focussed on the second half of the race, and [on Stage 4] we just had super legs. We felt good right from the start, so we knew it was go-time.”
In the women’s race Stage 4 marked a turning point for Faces CST. Strauss and Candice Lill were Frei and Stigger’s nearest rivals on the day, supplanting Lüthi and De Groot. Though the South Africans would continue to fight throughout the rest of the race, try as they may they could not displace the NinetyOne-songo-Specialized women from the top step of the daily podium.
22 October 2021 | Wellington
As the weekend approached the Absa Cape Epic entered crunch time, the final few opportunities for teams to move up on the general classification or watch their lead slip away. Stage 5 was an imposing one, complete with 2 900-metres of climbing in just 84-kilometres. If anyone were to crack it could be spectacular.
Having lost ground, the day before, in the battle for 2nd, behind NinetyOne-songo-Specialized, Team Salusmed were in danger of slipping behind Faces CST overall. Lüthi and De Groot thus did all they could to remain with Frei, Stigger, Strauss and Lill. But when the elastic eventually snapped, they rapidly lost 10-minutes to the red jersey wearers.
It [was] wonderful to share [the] week with her, and I hope that our ride can help inspire the next generation of female South African mountain bikers
While the women’s race leaders were, arguably, out of range for any of the chasers, the battle for the other podium places was on. The prize money difference alone made the fight for 2nd and 3rd a highly competitive one, while the increased prestige was also vital to the teams and their sponsors. The motivation created by leading the Absa African jersey competition clearly had Strauss eager to push on. “It’s very special to be racing in the Absa African Women’s jersey, and especially to be able to do it with someone like Candice,” she said. “It [was] wonderful to share [the] week with her, and I hope that our ride can help inspire the next generation of female South African mountain bikers.”
In the men’s race, the stage provided Becking and Dias with another stage win, while NinetyOne-songo-Specialized shadowed Team Bulls 2 in order to conserve their overall lead. The Exxaro and Mixed categories were all but wrapped up after Stage 5, with the Starks as well as Lorenzo Leroux and Luyanda Thobigunya only needing to reach Val de Vie safely in order to secure their titles. Only the Grand Masters title remained up for grabs, with just 3-minutes and 14 seconds separating CST PostNL Bafang from the chasing BiXS Bikeholiday team.
23 October 2021 | Wellington
The heavens opened overnight causing the penultimate stage of the 2021 Absa Cape Epic to be delayed as the route team frantically checked the safety of bridges and trails. Muddy conditions would make for a stressful stage, as Buff Scott and Faces CST went on the offensive in the men’s and women’s races. Both the yellow and orange jersey wearing teams were briefly in trouble, though Sarrou’s issues were more dangerous to NinetyOne-songo-Specialized’s overall lead.
Stigger’s problems were caused by a lost contact lens. She had prepared for that however and while Frei gave her a push and a steadying hand, the young Austrian managed to insert a fresh lens mid-stage, without putting a foot down. Later she lost a second contact and even briefly went off course when her blurred vision caused her to miss a route marker. Ultimately, though, she and Frei were able to contest the sprint for stage honours alongside Strauss and Lill. The NinetyOne-songo-Specialized team pipped Faces CST to the line, completing their 7th win on the trot and setting themselves up for a historic clean sweep the following day.
The NinetyOne-songo-Specialized team pipped Faces CST to the line, completing their 7th win on the trot and setting themselves up for a historic clean sweep the following day.
Sarrou was forced onto the back foot, initially, by Becking and Dias. But after Becking punctured the Bulls 2 team continued to exert pressure on the former World Champion. Though he cracked briefly, with the aid of Beers, Sarrou was able to first limit his losses and then regain parity with Frey and Stiebjahn. Though the Germans won the stage, their 1.6-second victory margin hardly dented Ninety One-songo-Specialized’s 6-minute and 38-second general classification lead.
24 October 2021 | Wellington to Val de Vie
The trail to Val de Vie was not unduly littered with hazards, though it was no smooth ride either. With their overall titles all-but wrapped-up the NinetyOne-songo-Specialized men’s and women’s teams had only to reach the Valley of Life safely. As was the case for the other category leaders, barring CST PostNL Bafang’s Brentjens and Vesel, who had a tricky final day ahead of them.
Still, the men in yellow and the women in orange went on the attack. Both the elite category leading teams claimed the Dimension Data Hotspot prize early in the stage before Beers and Sarrou were joined by eventual stage winners Buff Scott at the front of the men’s race. Frei and Stigger never relented in their pursuit of the Grand Finale prize, though.
“Christmas presents are for Christmas” their team manager, Benno Willeit had said before the stage. Frei and Stigger ensured there were no gifts for the rest of the women’s field as they surged to their 8th consecutive win of the race. Buff Scott secured their 3rd win on the final day and in so doing rode their way onto the general classification podium, joining Frey and Stiebjahn as well as the Absa Cape Epic winners, Beers and Sarrou, on the stage at Val de Vie.
Frei and Stigger ensured there were no gifts for the rest of the women’s field as they surged to their 8th consecutive win of the race.
Frei and Stigger were accompanied up onto the final podium by Strauss and Lill, who claimed 2nd, along with Lüthi and De Groot, who had to be content with 3rd. The Absa African jersey competitions were won by Buys and Du Toit, by finishing 6th overall, and by the Faces CST team, adding to their 2nd in the elite women’s race. Leroux and Thobigunya’s victory, in the Exxaro jersey competition, ensured that Leroux’s youngest daughter and Thobigunya’s niece will be joining Leroux’s twins at Curro in 2022.
The Mixed category was wrapped up by the classy Bauer-Werner Young Guns couple, with Restonic securing the Dimension Data Masters competition. The Grand Masters category had started the day as the closest contest across the various competitions, but even so the jersey failed to change hands on the final stage. CST PostNL Bafang won Stage 7 by a minute to secure the overall title and Brentjens’ 7th Absa Cape Epic category win (1 Elite, 4 Dimension Data Masters and 2 Grand Masters).
‘Mad’ Max Menzies and his McGregor Young Warriors teammate, Fernell Regue, secured the lanterne rouge as final finishers of the 2021 Absa Cape Epic. The Steel Challenge team completed the race on rigid steel singlespeed bikes, to make the Absa Cape Epic even harder than it already was. Which may have been an act of folly rather than an Epic Performance.
- NinetyOne-songo-Specialized’s clean sweep of the elite women’s stages
- Buff Scott’s 3 stage wins in the second half of the race
- Laura Stigger putting a contact lens in while on the bike
- Bart Brentjens pulling clear of Barti Bucher as the rider with the most Absa Cape Epic category wins (7 vs Bucher’s 6)
- Lorenzo Leroux and Luyanda Thobigunya’s race for education, winning Curro bursaries or STADIO higher education programmes through victory in the Exxaro Jersey competition
- Ben Elst walking the final 10km of Stage 7 due to a destroyed wheel