As the leading riders moved into the second half of the Absa Cape Epic on Stage 3 around Greyton on Wednesday, the race for the Hansgrohe Women’s category title between teams Meerendal CBC and Ascendis Health is looking more and more likely to come down to good – or bad – fortune.
For the second day in a row there was no obvious difference between the two pairings as they spent the entire 78km stage locked in a close battle with neither able to gain a definitive advantage. Robyn de Groot and Sabine Spitz (Ascendis Health) managed to get the stage win by outsprinting the overall race leaders, Esther Suss and Jennie Stenerhag, in a desperate dash for the finish line after three hours 41 minutes and 20 seconds of racing.
These two teams have dominated the women’s race so far and between them have won all four of the stages. Ascendis Health has wins from the Prologue and Stage 3 while Meerendal emerged victorious on Stages 1 and 2.
On Wednesday there was nothing to choose between the two once again and it is hard to see anybody else coming through to challenge after the chasers conceded time for the fourth stage in a row.
Mariske Strauss and Annie Last (Hansgrohe Cadence OMX Pro) are the best of the rest and only lost three minutes on Wednesday (3:44:25), but are now 24 minutes off the pace overall and it would take a remarkable set of circumstances for the them to come into contention for the win.
The key factor dividing the leading two teams so far was a small mechanical problem for Spitz on Stage 1 and then her spectacular crash on the same stage when she lost concentration and crashed over the edge of a steep, rocky bank. While the crash was unlucky, the general opinion is that Spitz is fortunate to still be in the race.
That bad luck means Ascendis Health has an almost nine-minute deficit to make up and they might need a chunk of good fortune if they are going to claw the time back.
“Today went well,” said Spitz after edging out Suss in the sprint to claim the stage. “Actually the riding time was a lot shorter than we expected today. The shorter stage was not good for us, but for all the riders and the fun riders we appreciate that it was good riding.
“We are still work on making up time and will work on it day by day. It is interesting that when we checked our computers from Stage 1 and compared it to my mishap with the crash and when I struggled with the gearrings, that was almost exactly the time difference between us and Jennie and Esther on the day. So I think we are about the same level.
“We will see day by day … we need to see if there is a technical issue for them maybe, or one of them has a hard day.”
Suss dismissed any suggestion they were content with their nine-minute lead and riding a defensive race.
“No! We definitely did not just try and sit on,” she said while recovering after the hectic race for the line on Wednesday. “We try to go as fast as we can. Jennie went to the front and went as hard as she could when she was strong, and I went hard on the front when I could. We tried very hard in the second part of the day.
“We are not really happy with the second. I worked maybe too hard on the flat section just before the finish. But we are still in the lead and today we did not lose any time, so I think that is the best for us.”
1. Ascendis Health 51-1 Sabine Spitz (Germany) 51-2 Robyn de Groot (South Africa) 3:41.20,6
2. Meerendal CBC 52-1 Esther Suss (Switzerland) 52-2 Jennie Stenerhag (Sweden) 3:41.20,8 +0,2
3. Hansgrohe Cadence OMX Pro 54-1 Mariske Strauss (South Africa) 54-2 Annie Last (England) 3:44.25,4 +3.04,8
1. Meerendal CBC 52-1 Esther Suss (Switzerland) 52-2 Jennie Stenerhag (Sweden) 13:13.23,0
2. Ascendis Health 51-1 Sabine Spitz (Germany) 51-2 Robyn de Groot (South Africa) 13:22.20,8 +8.57,8
3. Hansgrohe Cadence OMX Pro 54-1 Mariske Strauss (South Africa) 54-2 Annie Last (England) 13:37.45,1 +24.22,1
4. Spur 50-1 Ariane Lüthi (Switzerland) 50-2 Adelheid Morath (Germany) 13:56.34,3 +43.11,3
5. DormaKaba SA 55-1 Candice Lill (South Africa) 55-2 Vera Adrian (Namibia) 14:00.51,0 +47.28,0
6. Hollard-Velocity Sports Lab 138-1 Carmen Buchacher (South Africa) 138-2 Michelle Vorster (Namibia) 14:14.19,0 +1:00.56,0
7. Meerendal CBC 2 53-1 Hielke Elferink (Netherlands) 53-2 Cornelia Hug (Switzerland) 14:15.32,3 +1:02.09,3
8. Merchants 438-1 Jeannie Bomford (South Africa) 438-2 Samantha Sanders (South Africa) 14:20.15,4 +1:06.52,4
9. Spur Foundation 57-1 Alice Pirard (Belgium) 57-2 Sabrina Enaux (France) 15:03.14,3 +1:49.51,3
10. LIVBeyond 667-1 Fienie Barnard (South Africa) 667-2 Dalene van der Leek (South Africa) 15:08.59,9 +1:55.36,9
* The 2017 Absa Cape Epic mountain bike stage race is taking place until Sunday 26 March. Watch the action live on our website www.cape-epic.com