Philip Buys on the top step of the Absa Cape Epic podium


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Philip Buys Thursday became the first South African to stand on the top step of the Absa Cape Epic podium since Burry Stander in 2012 as the race dished up a host of fresh dramas.

Buys and his Swiss partner, two times cross country world champion Nino Schurter (Scott-Odlo), won the 88km stage four - which started and finished in Greyton - after breaking from the field near the halfway stage and managing to keep a chasing pack at bay.

They are both cross country specialists - shorter races with an emphasis on technical skills - and yesterday’s shorter stage with many singletrack sections suited them. 
Buys said he and Schurter “managed to increase the gap on each downhill and then maintain it on the climbs … it is a very special feeling to win it”. 

Schurter, the world’s top ranked mountain biker, said the South African was getting stronger every day: “Soon I’m going to be in trouble and in the hurtbox.”

Behind them there was an early shock when four-times winner and pre-race favourite Karl Platt withdrew with a damaged knee. He had damaged it in a fall on Tuesday and started Thursday’s stage, but had to withdraw, leaving his partner Urs Huber (Team Bulls) to ride on alone but out of the race.

“I just wanted to finish the race … I have never not finished the Epic before. But on the first climb I knew there was trouble. At seven kilometres I said to Urs it is no use, I can’t pedal,” recounted Platt. “I wont say it was the hardest decision ever to make, because I had no choice. I am very disappointed because I was in the shape of my life. I will be back though. I just want to say thanks to all the support.”

For the first time since the race began Sunday the leading men’s team retained the yellow jersey: Topeak-Ergon’s Robert Mennen (German) and Kristian Hynek (Czech) finished third on the stage but still have a lead of nearly 12 minutes.

“We’re the first team to have it for a second day and we’ll do our best to keep it until Sunday (the closing stage from Elgin to Lourensford wine estate),” said Hynek. “The shirts fit us well and we like the colour … we don’t want to give them back.”

Second Thursday was German pair Markus Kaufmann and Jochen Kaess (Centurion-Vaude), but they remain outside the top 10 overall after a bad day on Tuesday when Kaufmann broke the frame of his bike.
Moving into second overall after finishing fifth Thursday were four-times winner Swiss Christoph Sauser and Czech Frantisek Rabon, in spite of the former breaking a chain and crashing during the stage.

Sauser said later that he and Rabon had been behind Schurter and Buys when they made their break but his chain broke. He fixed it and was chasing back to a group just behind the leading pair when his pedal hit a rock hidden in grass and he was thrown over his handlebars.

He had been hurt around the upper chest and shoulders, but had finished well and was looking forward to the remaining three stages.

Sauser’s chances of this year being first to win the Epic five times might hinge on Friday’s 115km stage from Greyton to Elgin, which contains a huge 2 800m of vertical gain and several brutal climbs on the way. 

There was a significant turnaround Thursday in what has become a thrilling women’s race when leader Esther Suss’s back shock absorber lost air and stopped working minutes after the start. The Swiss rider and English partner Sally Bigham (Meerendal) lost 12 minutes on the day and slipped to second behind a charging Ariane Kleinhans, from Switzerland, and Dane Annike Langvad (RECM2). 

“My sitting position was not good and I did not have power,” said Suss. Her body position on steep climbs also meant her weight was too far back and “my front wheel kept on lifting”. 

Kleinhans and Langvad had a disastrous day on Monday, losing nearly 24 minutes to Suss and Bigham, but had been chipping away at the lead and must now be favourites to win.

“It is unfortunate for them that it was a mechanical problem, but the page turns very quickly at the Epic,” said Kleinhans. “What it means is that we don’t need to attack from now on and will concentrate on riding consistently.”

There was bad news for Cherise Stander, the top South African contender in the mixed category with Theo Blignaut (RECM mixed), when she had to withdrew about 30km into the stage with breathing problems while lying second overall.

Stander’s late husband Burry won the Cape Epic in 2012 with Sauser and in doing so became the last South African to stand on the top step of the podium - until Buys Thursday.