Schurter and teammate Matthias Stirnemann were comfortable throughout Stage 6, winning ahead of South African Max Knox and his Colombian parter Hector Paez (Kansai Plascon). In doing so, they opened up a lead of almost seven minutes in the overall standings ahead of second-placed Christoph Sauser and Jaroslav Kulhavy (Investec-Songo-Specialized). Third on the day went to Nicola Rohrbach and Daniel Geismayr (Centurion Vaude 2.)
Stage 6 was labelled as the 2017 Absa Cape Epic’s Queen Stage - the toughest of the seven stages. Riders set off from Oak Valley Wine Estate and were soon confronted with the major obstacle of the day, a daunting and lengthy climb up the Groenlandberg.
It was on the way down from that crest that Sauser and Kulhavy’s race was effectively ended, with the former suffering yet another puncture. It allowed SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing to open their lengthy time gap.
“The plan was basically to stay with Investec-Songo-Specialized the whole day and make sure they didn’t get away from us,” said Schurter. “We thought they might make a move today, but after Christoph got a flat on the first major downhill, we were able to attack and get away. From there we just went like it was another cross-country race. For us, it’s been eight days of cross-country riding.”
Once again at this Absa Cape Epic, the pace was set at the start by South Africans Philip Buys and Matthys Beukes (PYGA Euro Steel). This time they were joined by Rohrbach and Geismayr.
By water point 2 the Centurion Vaude 2 pair had opened a 45 second gap between themselves and the chasing pack (PYGA Euro Steel again succumbing to their 2017 puncture curse), but soon after they were caught by SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing, the SCOTT-SRAM Young Guns and Kansai Plascon. The Young Guns then punctured with Kansai Plascon and Centurion Vaude 2 dropping off the pace after water point 3. For the final 5km it was all Schurter and Stirnemann.
“I don’t know what happened today, but it was much less suffering than yesterday! It was a good day on the bike,” said Stirnemann. “Every day I feel like I am getting stronger on the bike. I recovered well last night; that showed this morning when I could get my rhythm a lot quicker.”
By the time the riders returned to Oak Valley a big crowd had gathered, and there were huge cheers for the first South African rider home. Reigning South African marathon champion Knox and Paez (a multiple Colombian national champion) have been in good shape all week, but have been rumbled by bad luck at inopportune moments. Today things finally went their way. Knox, tired but elated with second on the day, had nothing but praise for his teammate.
“The stage was tough, very tough. The pace was hard,” he said. “I have to say, my partner Hector is incredibly strong. I was riding at the limit, pushing myself to go harder the whole time. I was dropping off and barely hanging in, but Hector just kept encouraging me, kept pulling me along. He’s incredible. I have been feeling off my game all week, but he has been immense.”
Thanks to a steady week-long performance and an excellent Stage 6, Knox and Paez now also find themselves in third overall at the Absa Cape Epic. “This has been such a cross-country race so far; for us marathon racers there have only been two days that suited us, one of which was today. It’s amazing to be on the podium at last and great to come second today.
“This is such an amazing field this year; it’s been great to ride alongside world champions and Olympic champions. We’d obviously like to stay in the top three overall, but it’s not over yet. Tomorrow is another shorter day and the cross-country guys will be firing again.”
After another untimely puncture, five-time champion Sauser all but conceded defeat. “I have been in these situations before, so I can deal with it, but I am obviously very disappointed,” he said. “I just had no energy on the bike, especially after the puncture. It will be hard, but I will have to get up to race again in the morning. I think now, unless there is a major catastrophe, our chances of winning are over. Nino and Matthias are too strong. I don’t think we can catch them.”
1. SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing 5-1 Nino Schurter (Switzerland) 5-2 Matthias Stirnemann (Switzerland) 4:26.38,9
2. Kansai Plascon 7-1 Hector Leonardo Paez Leon (Colombia) 7-2 Max Knox (South Africa) 4:26.55,0 +16,1
3. Centurion Vaude 2 16-1 Nicola Rohrbach (Switzerland) 16-2 Daniel Geismayr (Austria) 4:27.52,2 +1.13,3
1. SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing 5-1 Nino Schurter (Switzerland) 5-2 Matthias Stirnemann (Switzerland) 23:37.13,3
2. Investec-Songo-Specialized 3-1 Christoph Sauser (Switzerland) 3-2 Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic) 23:44.02,4 +6.49,1
3. Kansai Plascon 7-1 Hector Leonardo Paez Leon (Colombia) 7-2 Max Knox (South Africa) 23:52.00,0 +14.46,7
4. Centurion Vaude 2 16-1 Nicola Rohrbach (Switzerland) 16-2 Daniel Geismayr (Austria) 23:56.35,2 +19.21,9
5. Cannondale Factory Racing XC 8-1 Manuel Fumic (Germany) 8-2 Henrique Avancini (Brazil) 24:02.19,7 +25.06,4
6. Scott-SRAM Young Guns 18-1 Michiel Van der Heijden (Netherlands) 18-2 Andri Frischknecht (Switzerland) 24:11.44,0 +34.30,7
7. Bulls 1-1 Karl Platt (Germany) 1-2 Urs Huber (Switzerland) 24:26.38,7 +49.25,4
8. PYGA Euro Steel 9-1 Philip Buys (South Africa) 9-2 Matthys Beukes (South Africa) 24:36.57,0 +59.43,7
9. Topeak Ergon Racing 4-1 Alban Lakata (Austria) 4-2 Kristian Hynek (Czech Republic) 24:43.04,3 +1:05.51,0
10. Centurion Vaude 6-1 Jochen Kaess (Germany) 6-2 Markus Kaufmann (Germany) 24:49.16,8 +1:12.03,5