SA XCO Cup #3, Wolwespruit

SA XCO Cup #3, 26 March
Wolwespruit, Pretoria

James: 1st place

The race for Olympic qualification is hotting up and the Stihl SA XCO Cup Series events are a battleground for the country’s top cross-country racers. Having won the first outing in Mankele and then finishing a disappointing fifth in his hometown race at Helderberg, Team Spur’s James Reid had a point to prove. The new Wolwespruit course, just outside Pretoria, was the scene of the fierce tussle for the podium.

Reid broke away fairly early in the race, and worked hard to build a comfortable lead over second placed Brendon Davids (Trek Racing Team). Philip Buys (Scott Factory Racing powered by LCB) trailed in third and Alan Hatherly (Kargo Pro MTB Team) was a long way back in fourth. James emerged victorious, despite a nasty crash in the final lap of the race.

“The race was a confirmation that I’m back in the cross country scene. I went out hard from the start, had a good mid section and unfortunately a bit of a crash at the end! It was good to put my cards on the table after the ups and downs of the past few weeks” James admitted. “It’s really cool to see the growth of the national cross country series especially the number of riders coming through from the Spur Schools Mountain Bike League.”

James now looks to the high mountain trails of Afriski Resort in Lesotho, which play host to the African Continental Championships this weekend. “It’s super important for my Olympic hopes and this back-to-back racing is similar to what we experience in Europe racing UCI World Cups. It should be interesting to see what happens this weekend,” James said.

Absa Cape Epic: A Smoking Second to Stay in Orange

Absa Cape Epic: Stage 5, 18 March
Stellenbosch, Western Cape

Ariane and Annika: 2nd on stage, 1st place Overall

It was a ‘management’ day for Annika Langvad and Ariane Kleinhans on Friday’s 93km transition Stage 5 from Wellington to Stellenbosch – billed as this year’s Queen Stage for its 2500m of climbing.

The day was won by the Sport for Good pairing of German mountain-biking legend Sabine Spitz and her Ukranian partner Yana Belomoina.

The four rode together for most of the day, with Annika and Ariane eventually letting their competitors go, and crossing the line two minutes behind the Sport for Good pair.

“We definitely didn’t give anything away,” Ariane admitted. “[Sabine and Yana] earned the win. I struggled in a sandy patch before the finish and got a bit stuck. They had more left in the tank – to put two minutes into us in a very short section is very impressive!”

The ride consolidated Team Spur-Specialized’s overall lead however, and they have a healthy gap of almost 14 minutes over second-placed Topeak Ergon.

Annika called it a “perfect day… it only got hot towards the end after being quite cool,” explaining how they didn’t think that they would have a good day due to all the climbing – which usually doesn’t favour her and Ariane.

“We went together into the first climb, all three leading teams, and there was a little bit of fighting for position,” Ariane revealed at the finish. “Then in the downhill I thought we should keep the pressure on where we could… to control things. So I went to the front in the first downhill to put pressure on them. That way they can’t take anything away from us. It turned out to be a good strategy as we could go into the climbs relaxed and I could pace myself well. And in the downhills we kept it safe and didn’t risk anything.”

“We were actually surprised; we paced ourselves very well and got a good result out of it in the end. With two days to go the lead we have gives us a very nice feeling. We appreciate every second so to add another minute today is perfect. It means that if we get a puncture or anything we can take our time fixing it,” Annika added.

With two technical stages still to come, Ariane was not willing to let her thoughts turn to the Grand Finale at Meerendal just yet.

“To win a third title in a row would be an absolute dream, but I don’t really want to talk about it apart from saying we will give it our all to achieve it.”

Absa Cape Epic: A Fun Day in the Orange Office

Absa Cape Epic: Stage 4, 17 March
Wellington, Western Cape

Ariane and Annika: 1st on stage, 1st place Overall

Thursday’s Stage 4 of the Cape Epic lived up to its hype and produced spectacularly close racing among the top women’s teams. In the end Ariane Kleinhans and Annika Langvad of Team Spur Specialized took the win by a nail-biting five seconds over Team Sport For Good’s Sabine Spitz and Yana Belomoina.

After the sudden and sad withdrawal of Jennie Stenerhag of second-placed Team Ascendis Health on Stage 3, all eyes were on the German, Spitz at the start. The Olympic Gold medalist and multiple World Champion was in her element on the 75km stage through the renowned trail network of Welvanpas outside Wellington. She was paired up with Ukranian U23 World Champ, Belomoina, an explosive talent also accustomed to shorter, high-intensity racing.

The roller coaster course featured punchy climbs and high-speed singeltrack and rewarded the aggressive pace-makers, Sport For Good with an early lead. After four days of sweltering heat, overcast skies made for sublime riding conditions but red-hot racing.

“We found ourselves in an early struggle for second-place with Team Topeak Ergon,” Ariane explained at the finish line. But our ladies kept their heads and soon dispatched the Topeak team.

“We weren’t sure of the gap to Sabine, but we just kept the pace and were able to bridge to her and Yana,” Ariane said.

The four riders then started working together, to turn up the heat on the chasing Topeak team, putting their technical skill to good use and stretching their lead. By Waterpoint 3 the quartet had built a lead of 90 seconds, but the bar-to-bar race for the finish line between Team Spur Specialized and Sport For Good, pushed their advantage to more than five minutes over Topeak by the time they were safely home in Wellington.

“It was great racing with Sabine and Yana. We worked well together and it was a good feeling,” Annika said. “At one point Ariane and I came down a singletrack section and over a road and we only saw the route marker very late. So we had to unclip and turn our bikes… up an incline. Yana and Sabine were right behind us, and as they came close, Sabine gave me a push in front to get me going again!”

The closing kilometres saw Annika set a furious pace. “I just went as hard as I could, so no one could come around,” the Dane confessed. The tactic worked, and Ariane and Annika rounded the final bend in the finishing chute first and claimed their third stage win.

Stage 5 is going to be a head game. It’s not the longest of this year’s race, traversing just 93km, but its five brutal climbs and total vertical ascent of 2500m has earned it the intimidating status of “Queen Stage”. Ariane and Annika will need to ride within themselves yet be ready to fend off early attacks from teams looking to chip away at their over 10-minute lead. Another day of riveting racing awaits for our women.

Absa Cape Epic: Cool, Calm and Fast in Orange

Absa Cape Epic: Stage 3, 16 March
Wellington, Western Cape

Ariane and Annika: 1st on stage, 1st place Overall

It was another hot and dusty day for Stage 3 of the 2016 Absa Cape Epic, over 104km from Tulbagh to Wellington. Ariane Kleinhans and Annika Langvad of Spur-Specialized moved a step closer to clinching their third straight Absa Cape Epic title by winning the stage in a time of 5:18.47.

Although our Swiss-Danish pair arrived at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s Wellington campus 32,1 seconds ahead of Team Topeak Ergon, they didn’t have it all their own way today.

The three contenders in the Women’s category, as well as Sport for Good, remained within a minute of each other at all three water points on the 104km transition stage from Tulbagh. While it didn’t end in a sprint finish, they all described the racing as fierce and exactly what the women’s category has been calling out for.

“We were all four teams together the whole time. It was super exciting! We got ahead over the first climb but then it was brought back again and we rode together up to Bainskloof Pass and into the trails at Welvanpas. You could just feel the tension building…” Ariane said at the finish.

“I didn’t see that coming,” Annika told Ariane as they celebrated their victory.

“It was a very close race and we had no idea how it was going to finish. The racing was very tough because we were all together until the last 20km or so,” said Annika. The Dane believes that it was their strategy and mental fortitude that saw them eventually emerge from the pack to win.

“We didn’t win because we were stronger today, but because we chose best when to use our advantage. After the last descent we went through vineyards and the corners were very slippery… that’s where we made our advantage count.”

Our women’s team found themselves opening a gap on Topeak Ergon’s Sally Bigham and Adel Morath as well as Robyn de Groot and Jennie Stenerhag from Team Ascendis Health over the final kilometres. They carved the loose and dusty corners with expert precision to emerge at the finish line with a slender lead.

Sadly, after making much of the day’s racing by driving the pace and attacking the singletrack descent, Team Ascendis Health’s Jennie Stenerhag experienced health issues on the finish line, and will be unable to continue the race. Her partner Robyn de Groot will continue to ride alone in the Outcast jersey. We wish Jennie a speedy and full recovery.

Ariane and Annika will look to box clever again on Thursday’s Stage 4, which will start and finish at Wellington and take place almost exclusively on the highly regarded Welvanpas trail network.

By Absa Cape Epic standards it is short – only 75km – but has some sharp climbs and an accumulated altitude gain of 1850m. The tight singletrack will favour the cross country specialists, such as Sport for Good’s Sabine Spitz and Yana Belomoina. Look out for fierce racing up front.

James Bows Out of the Absa Cape Epic

It was a case of until we meet again, rather than goodbye, as James Reid from Team Spur withdrew from the 2016 Absa Cape Epic on Tuesday, 15 March, to focus on his Olympic qualification.

Reid started the 100th stage of the world’s most prestigious mountain-bike stage race in the Outcast special jersey for UCI riders, after teammate Gert Heyns was forced to withdraw on Monday’s Stage 1, due to illness.

Reid has had an unfortunate run of luck at this year’s Cape Epic. Two weeks before the race his original partner, US National XCO Champ, Howard Grotts broke his ribs in training and was forced to withdraw.

The eleventh-hour team of Reid and Heyns were quietly optimistic that they could shake things up, especially in the fierce competition for the Absa African Special Jersey. The young cross-country specialists had started the week off well with a powerful performance at the Prologue at Meerendal on Sunday, where they finished fourth overall to claim the red African jersey.

“On Tuesday’s Stage 2 I started in C-batch and went hard from the start to try and get a good day’s racing done,” Reid commented afterward. “However, you don’t get the stimulus when you aren’t with the front guys and what actually struck me was how much longer five hours felt today over yesterday. I think it’s because I didn’t have the ‘racing’ stimulus – the chatting, reading other riders’ body language, responding to attacks or carving singletrack together.’

Reid explained that riding back in the pack felt as though he was, “playing pac-man against himself.”

“Yeah, you can sort of get into it, but after a while there are only one or two Outcasts out there and it gets kind of lonely – sure, you are riding your bike in a beautiful setting, but because you’re not racing, you’re not as emotionally invested in the day as everyone else… The sense of accomplishment is not nearly as big,” he said.

Reid is philosophical about the situation, “this is bike racing and bike racing can be brutal, you do what you can with the cards that you’re dealt,” he said.

Reid made the decision to withdraw from the race to start building toward 2016 African Continental Mountain Bike Championships on 2 April, at Afriski in Lesotho, where he hopes to gather valuable points toward Olympic qualification. With no UCI points on offer to Outcast riders at the Cape Epic, James needs to rejoin the hunt for selection.

“I understand what a privilege it is to ride in the Cape Epic and I want to thank the organisers as well as my sponsors Spur and Specialized for all their support. But there are important races in the next two weeks that are crucial for Rio selection. So I will shift my attention to racing in circles really quickly for an-hour-and-a-half, as opposed to out in the mountains for five hours,” the reigning South African XCO Champion joked.

Reid is adamant he’ll return to the Absa Cape Epic to take care of unfinished business. “This event is incredible,” he said. “It really is all that it is made out to be – the pace at the front is brutal and just judging by the [low] number of riders at the sharp end who speak English as a first language, it really is a multi-lingual, international, professional bike race.”

“Lessons learned. A lot of lessons learned. There could be more [if he stayed in the race], but I feel the gains would be marginal,” he said. “I’m disappointed to leave, but I feel like I have enough knowledge loaded in my mind to take on this race properly, with a fighting chance, in a year’s time.”

“You really have to have a good strategy and a lot of experience; and you have to have the right partner and the best support – which I have had this year – to make a go of it, I’m excited for next year already,” Reid concluded.

Absa Cape Epic: Our Ladies are Back!

Absa Cape Epic: Stage 2, 15 March
Tulbagh, Western Cape

Ariane and Annika: 1st on stage, 1st place Overall

With textbook stage-race pacing, Ariane Kleinhans and Annika Langvad of Team Spur-Specialized won the Women’s category of the 100th stage of the Absa Cape Epic in Saronsberg, on Tuesday.

It was an intriguing day’s racing in the Sasol Women’s category, with the defending champions surging to victory and taking the overall lead with a stage time of 5:06.00,2.

For much of the stage the Spur-Specialized pair played a tactical game – biding their time in third place behind Team Sport for Good’s Sabine Spitz and Yana Belomoina and Sally Bigham and Adel Morath of Team Topeak Ergon.

“I could definitely feel yesterday’s effort,” said an elated Ariane at the finish. “We kept it really, really steady. Even when Sabine and Yana went up the first climb, we just let them go – and I think that paid off,” she said.

Significantly, Ariane and Annika remained ahead of the erstwhile race leaders, Robyn de Groot and Jennie Stenerhag of Team Ascendis Health. By the time Ariane and Annika stormed back to Tulbagh, their 58-second deficit had turned into a three-minute, 17-second lead overall.

“Just before the top of the first climb we overtook the orange jersey holders [De Groot and Stenerhag] and headed into the downhill ahead of them. Then it was a ding-dong battle from there. We hung tight and after the third water point we could see Sport for Good,” Ariane said.

“I knew it was a long descent so I prepared myself well for it. You can blow on that last descent. And then I just let it roll and kept it soft on the brakes and headed down.”

Ariane dived into the final descent with Annika hot on her heels. The pair blitzed the mammoth downhill, overtaking the two leading teams – Sport for Good and Topeak-Ergon.

“When I saw Ariane disappear in the downhill I thought, sh*t, she’s fast! Okay, I need to follow that wheel because it’s fast and it’s really good for us,” Annika said, laughing. “I also thought, this is a little bit sketchy but if she can go that pace I can probably too. Then one-by-one we overtook them. First Yana and then Sabine, and toward the end Adel and Sally. I had no idea how big a gap we had to close on them. When we reached them I could see Ariane was on fire and the last part – from the bottom of the descent to the finish line – was in our favour because it was a headwind and really fast with lots of tricky corners.”

“We manged to do everything right on today’s stage, and that’s why we’re in orange now!” Annika added.

“I’m Incredibly happy – can’t even describe it – it’s an emotional win!” said Ariane.

Annika Langvad & Ariane Kleinhans of Spur-Specialized  win stage 2 of the 2016 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race from Saronsberg Wine Estate in Tulbagh, South Africa on the 15th March 2016 Photo by Gary Perkin/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS PLEASE ENSURE THE APPROPRIATE CREDIT IS GIVEN TO THE PHOTOGRAPHER AND SPORTZPICS ALONG WITH THE ABSA CAPE EPIC {ace2016}

Annika Langvad & Ariane Kleinhans of Spur-Specialized win stage 2 of the 2016 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race from Saronsberg Wine Estate in Tulbagh, South Africa on the 15th March 2016
Photo by Gary Perkin/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

The importance of the win was perhaps best described by long-time Absa Cape Epic commentator and analyst, Neil Gardiner. “It was a significant victory not only because it puts them back in orange, but because they bounced back from a disastrous Stage 1 the previous day,” he said.

“Mountain biking is very much like life, you have good days and bad days, and it’s about how you handle the bad days. It’s easy to handle a good day, because it’s all smiles and high fives, but the real true test is how you manage the bad days.”

“If you can stay in the race, stay in the game, it’s all about waiting for another day when your luck will change, because inevitably it does. Yesterday was probably one of the worst days Ariane has had on a bike – she fell, she was struggling with her fitness, she had a mechanical and she was overtaken in the last couple of kilometres – hugely demoralising, really. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong,” he said.

“But today, she was rewarded with her patience, she stayed in the game. Nothing better than that, when you’ve overcome the adversity,” Gardiner added.

Absa Cape Epic: End of the Road for Gert

Absa Cape Epic: Stage 1, 14 March
Tulbagh, Western Cape

Gert Heyns retired

James Reid and partner Gert Heyns were dealt a harsh dose of reality with a race-ending illness to Gert on Stage 1 around Tulbagh. The youngsters were mixing it up in the early going, hoping to hold onto the African leaders’ jersey that they earned after their superb Prologue race on Sunday.

Alas, as the day wore on, Gert succumbed to lingering flu symptoms and James was forced to nurse his compatriot to Waterpoint 3, where Gert withdrew.

James will continue to race on his own in the white Cape Epic “Outcast” jersey, reserved for professional riders whose partners have been forced to abandon.

“It is what it is,” said a visibly disappointed James as he rolled over the finish line alone. “We overcame so many challenges to be here, it’s sad that it ended this way. But Gert needs to look after his health. For me, I’ll get some valuable training in here at the Cape Epic for a couple of days. Then I need to shift focus to the upcoming African Continental Champs in a few weeks and my other major goal of the year – Olympic qualification!”

Absa Cape Epic: Thrills and Spills

Absa Cape Epic: Stage 1, 14 March
Tulbagh, Western Cape

Ariane and Annika: 2nd on stage, 2nd place Overall

It was a hot and dusty day around the Tulbagh Valley for Team Spur as they battled through a tough 108km on Monday’s Stage 1. Both our men’s and women’s teams fell victim to the harsh terrain and ruthless nature of the Absa Cape Epic.

Our women’s Team Spur-Specialized had a fantastic start to the race. Laying down the power and surging clear of the world-class chasing ladies’ peloton early on, building a three-minute lead heading into the final 20km.

Unfortunately, the run of form came to a crashing end as Ariane Kleinhans slipped up in an innocuous turn and bent her bike’s rear brake disc. Unbeknownst to Ariane and her powerful Danish partner Annika Langvad, the brakes were engaging and it wasn’t long before Ariane felt the effects of riding flat-out with her brakes on!

They were caught in the final 2km by Team Ascendis, and beaten to the line by 38 seconds. Ariane was shattered as she crossed the line, but ultimately relieved to hear the problem was with her bike, and not her legs!

Our ladies are the ultimate professionals and are already focused on reversing their fortune tomorrow. Ariane and Annika remain motivated and excited to put their stamp on this race!

Absa Cape Epic: Resplendent in Red!

Absa Cape Epic: Prologue, 13 March
Meerendal, Western Cape

James and Gert Heyns: 1st place African jersey; 4th place Overall

Our Men’s team of James Reid and Gert Heyns will wear the Absa African jerseys at the start of Stage 1 in Saronsberg having put their cross-country skills to good use on the shorter Prologue course for a respectable fourth place.

As the leading all-African team at the event, they’ll start Stage 1 in the red special jersey. The pair, who only came together in the week leading up to the Absa Cape Epic due to various misfortunes befalling their teammates, was looking good and lying in second place behind winners Karl Platt and Urs Huber at the halfway mark. But both athletes have suffered from flu symptoms over the past week and the second half of the course saw them unable to hold their ferocious pace, with James taking a tumble towards the end of the Prologue adding to their time.

“We went out as hard as we could today – maybe our pacing was a little bit off, we didn’t really play it safe – as you can see from the crash,” James commented afterward, “and besides, on a Prologue you can’t afford to hold back.”

The short Prologue course obviously suited the cross-country expertise of James, but there’s plenty more technical riding to come… This year is being billed as the Epic of singletrack and there are a few stages later in the week that will play into their hands – particularly the stages around Wellington.

“We definitely earmarked [the Prologue] as a stage we were more likely to do better in,” James said, “mostly because 100-plus kilometres is a bit more challenging – especially in a multi-stage format. There are a couple of other days in the week that we have our eye on for sure.”

Tomorrow’s Stage 1 from Saronsberg Wine Estate in Tulbagh promises to be a tough one – as has become the tradition with the first full stage of the race. The riders will ascend 2 300m over 108km, a lot of it on rugged and rocky terrain. This is a stage that will suit the marathon specialists and will give a good indication of riders’ form for the event.