In the lead up to and during the first few stages in the orange Hansgrohe Women’s category leaders’ jerseys, Jennie Stenerhag and Esther Süss were slightly overlooked by the media. The Meerendal CBC pairing were not underdogs by anyone’s reckoning, but they had quietly gone about their preparation, happily letting the Absa Cape Epic hype swirl by them, focusing on the task at hand.
When the day of the Prologue finally dawned on Sunday 19 March, Stenerhag and Süss were itching to race. In Stenerhag’s case, there was added motivation; in 2016, she was forced to withdraw with a heart condition and underwent heart surgery after the race. And so began the long road to winning the 2017 Absa Cape Epic.
Once on the road to recovery, Stenerhag sent Süss a message which said: “Would you like to race the Absa Cape Epic with me? But only if you want to win!” While the media focus was elsewhere, Stenerhag and Süss’ focus was very definitely on the winning the race.
The 2017 Absa Cape Epic got off to a good start for Meerendal CBC on the trails of Meerendal Wine Estate. Perhaps the first good omen of the event was the fact that it started on Esther Süss’ birthday. On the racing front, the pair crossed the line with the second fastest time of the day, 40 seconds down on stage winners Robyn de Groot and Sabine Spitz.
On the 101 kilometre long Stage 1, Stenerhag and Süss decided to lay down a marker. On the steep and rugged climb to the Hansgrohe Women’s Hotspot, Stenerhag attacked and Süss soon followed, distancing the rest of the women’s field. They went over the hotspot with a 30 second lead, but rather than sitting up and waiting for the pack to regroup on the undulating trails beyond, they maintained a high tempo which saw the rest of the women’s field distanced. The move was a stage racing classic; putting the race favourites, de Groot and Spitz, and Ariane Lüthi and Adelheid Morath, on the back foot. The pressure soon told and Team Spur’s Lüthi and Morath chose to rather ride at a more conservative pace, than give chase beyond their limit on the very technical trails; where the smallest mistake could lead to a crash or a mechanical. The Ascendis Health team, of de Groot and Spitz had to defend their leaders’ jerseys however, and had to do everything they could to reel in the Meerendal CBC women. Their frantic pursuit saw them make two crucial mistakes. First, a mechanical cost them time and then Spitz crashed – leaving her with a cut above her eye which would need seven stitches. By putting their rivals under pressure with a timely attack, Stenerhag and Süss had ridden themselves into the lead by 8 minutes and 52 seconds.
With the heat and rocky trails of Stage 1 playing havoc with the safety of the Absa Cape Epic entrants, and more scorching temperatures predicted for Stage 2 – the last 40 kilometres of which offered no easy access for rescue personnel in the case of riders collapsing with heat stroke en masse – the stage was shortened. The race organisers decided to shorten the stage to 62 kilometres, with the stage finish brought forward to water point two at the Caledon Botanical Gardens. de Groot and Spitz had to go on the offensive, and with a comfortable lead and more tough stages to follow, Stenerhag and Süss were content to shadow their key rivals. The stage came down to a sprint finish, which proved tricky without the Absa Cape Epic’s usual series of arches signalling the exact finish line from a distance. Stenerhag and Süss proved the more capable at adapting to the difficult sprint though, adding just over five seconds to their lead as Spitz coasted across the line once it was clear she could not match either Meerendal CBC rider’s kick.
Stage 3 proved to be another brutally hot stage for the non-elite riders, while in the UCI women’s race, the 78 kilometre stage was again nullified by the strengths of Stenerhag and Süss. de Groot and Spitz again went on the offensive, but could not distance the Meerendal CBC duo. The stage came down to a sprint finish again and though de Groot and Spitz took the stage honours, the Meerendal CBC lead was trimmed by just two tenths of a second.
The longest stage of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic was the 112 kilometre long Stage 4. It had been pencilled in as one of the potentially decisive stages of the race. After two stages in which Stenerhag and Süss aimed to conserve energy they were both feeling strong ahead of the stage. But with head winds and district roads facing riders from Elandskloof to the foot of the Botrivier Pass climb, 85 kilometres into the stage, they once again decided to race intelligently and conserve energy. On the lower slopes of the climb, they ratcheted up the intensity until only de Groot and Spitz could follow; until Spitz punctured near the top of the climb, slashing the sidewall of her front tyre. The puncture handed Meerendal CBC the stage victory and another 3 minutes and 42 seconds on their nearest rivals.
By the start of Stage 5 Meerendal CBCs lead was 12 minutes and 40 seconds. Stenerhag and Süss were pushing thoughts of overall victory out of their minds; they had to remain focused on the task at hand. Again, de Groot and Spitz went on the offensive, and once again Stenerhag and Süss proved they were equal to anything the favourites could throw at them. 7 kilometres from the finish, the first moment of bad luck, or loss of concentration, for Meerendal CBC occurred. A male rider had stopped to allow the leading women past on a section of singletrack, but he did not realise there were two teams rather than just one. After de Groot and Spitz had passed him, he stepped out into the trail, knocking Süss off the singletrack into a tree on the downhill side of the trail. She crashed chest first into the trunk of the tree, winding herself and managing to get tangled and pinned between the bike and the tree. The rapid assistance of Stenerhag freed her from the situation in seconds and the Meerendal CBC pair were soon back on their bikes and chasing the leaders. With Stenerhag putting in a massive effort on the front, they managed to catch de Groot and Spitz with a kilometre to go, and even contested for the third sprint finish of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic, though they lost out on the line.
The crash on Stage 5 illustrated just how quickly the Absa Cape Epic can be lost so on the Queen Stage, Stage 6. Stenerhag and Süss decided that offence would be the best defence of their overall lead. The stage featured the notorious Groenlandberg climb in the first 30 kilometres followed by three more significant climbs, to produce a total of 2 750 metres of vertical ascent in the 103 kilometre long route. On the Groenlandberg, Stenerhag and Süss once again showed themselves to be the strongest climbers in the race, distancing the rest of the women’s field. Five-time Absa Cape Epic winner, Christoph Sauser, is fond of reiterating that the Epic cannot be won on the downhills, but it can be lost; and so it proved. Chasing Stenerhag and Süss; de Groot and Spitz had to take more risks, which eventually proved their undoing. A relatively mild crash on a loose and rocky jeep track broke the carbon handlebar of Spitz’s bike. The Ascendis Health team lost nearly 35 minutes and their second place on the Hansgrohe Women’s classification in that moment. The long days in the saddle eventually told on Stenerhag and Süss too, as the pair eased up slightly upon hearing about Spitz’s crash, which allowed the Hansgrohe Cadence OMX Pro team of Mariske Strauss and Annie Last to catch them in the closing kilometres of the stage. With Strauss and Last over thirty minutes behind on the general classification, Stenerhag and Süss could afford to let the young duo go rather than contest another energy-sapping sprint for stage honours.
Heading into the final stage of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic, both Stenerhag and Süss were clearly nervous. They had worked so hard and raced so intelligently to lead the Hansgrohe Women’s category ahead of the final stage of the race, but they were all too aware that a potentially dangerous 85 kilometres still separated them from the Grand Finale at Val de Vie Estate. They allowed the stage win chasing de Groot and Spitz, and Strauss and Last to set the pace though much of the stage; which summited the scenic Franschhoek Pass before taking riders through the Drakenstein Correctional Centre. From there, the trails became cruelly sandy, but while the teams of de Groot and Spitz and Strauss and Last distanced Stenerhag and Süss ever so slightly in the final kilometres, their overall victory was never in doubt. Crossing the line 15 seconds after the fourth dramatic sprint finish (which was won by de Groot and Spitz) of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic women’s race, Stenerhag and Süss were elated to be crowned champions of the Hansgrohe Women’s category.
The women’s race was arguably the most dramatic yet, and proved once again that with the support of events like the Absa Cape Epic, and the backing of sponsors like Hansgrohe, Meerendal Wines and Cape Brewing Co, that women’s mountain biking can thrill as a spectator sport. Though the first post-race task for Jennie Stenerhag and Esther Süss is to allow the magnitude of their victory to sink in, followed by enjoying the sensations which come with that; their attention will soon turn to the 2018 Absa Cape Epic and planning their title defence. With the display of racing they and the other elite women put on this year there is no doubt the 2018 women’s field will be stronger than ever. And as the title holders, they will not have the luxury of coming into the race as a dark horse team, but that will not throw the level headed combination off their game plan… 2018 beware, Stenerhag and Süss will be back to defend their Absa Cape Epic title!
Absa Cape Epic | General Classification – Hansgrohe Women’s Category
1) Meerendal CBC: Jennie Stenerhag & Esther Suss (31:39:43.7)
2) Hansgrohe Cadence OMX Pro: Annie Last & Mariske Strauss (+35:19)
3) Ascendis Health: Sabine Spitz & Robyn de Groot (+47:02)
4) Team Spur: Ariane Lüthi & Adeleid Morath (+1:10:05)
5) Hollard-Velocity Sports Lab: Carmen Buchacher & Michelle Vorster (+1:22:59)
6) dormakaba SA: Candice Lill & Vera Adrian (+1:35:17)
7) Meerendal CBC 2: Hielke Elferink & Cornelia Hug (+2:17:33)
8) Merchants: Jeannie Bomford & Samantha Sanders (+2:17:33)
9) LIVBeyond: Fienie Barnard & Dalene van der Leek (+3:42:41)
10) Spur Foundation: Alice Pirard & Sabrina Enaux (+3:54:37)