The 2023 Absa Cape Epic roared into life Sunday with some explosive mountain bike racing in and around the hills of Durbanville in South Africa.
The stage race started with a team time trial serving as the prologue, providing amateurs a chance to test their legs and the elite teams an opportunity to gauge their opponents.
Durangoan Christopher Blevins and his partner on Toyota-Specialized-NinetyOne, Matthew Beers, the men’s 2021 Absa Cape Epic champion, won the 27-kilometer prologue by 7.4 seconds in 1 hour, 3 minutes and 1.9 seconds.
In the CM.com women’s category, defending champ Sofia Gomez Villafane and her new race partner Katerina Nash (NinetyOne-Songo-Specialized) flew home in first ahead of the all-African pairing of Namibia’s Vera Looser and Mauritius’s Kim le Court (Efficient Infiniti Insure). Villafane and Nash won the prologue by seven seconds in 1:18:57.5.
Beers and Blevins, who started well in 2022 but trailed off when Beers got ill, crushed the second half of the prologue, descending to the finish faster than any other team on the day.
“He’s a horse,” Blevins said of his partner Beers. “He should be in a barn with those other animals we saw out there today. He was ripping the flats apart with his power today.”
Beers credited Blevins with getting the team over the line in one piece. “We kept it on the limit today and tried not to go over that. Chris knows how to manage me, probably better than I know how to manage myself. We didn’t go overboard today and as a team, I think we did a great job.”
On Stage 1 on Monday, however, the leader jerseys in both elite races traded hands.
Fabian Rabensteiner and Wout Alleman (Wilier Pirelli Factory) won the 98-kilometer stage for the men while Nino Schurter and Andri Frischknecht (SCOTT-SRAM MTB-Racing) finished second to take the general classification lead. Blevins and Beers finished 12th on the day, slipping to eighth overall, eight minutes out of first.
Villafane and Nash battled in the latter parts of Stage 1 and eventually finished second, 5:54.9 behind Candice Lill and Amy Wakefield (e-FORT.net/SeattleCoffeeCo).
Wakefield had a seemingly innocuous collision with a tree, but post-race footage showed a branch had pierced her upper arm. “I could see muscle and fat in the gash, but didn’t see any blood, so I just taped it up and got back on the bike,” Wakefield said.
“I actually asked Amy if she wanted to abandon the race,” said Lill. “It was really bad, but Amy is so tough. She just took my duct tape, wrapped it around her bicep and carried on.”
Undeterred by the drama, the pair rode on, caught Villafane and Nash at the 70-kilometer mark and then surged ahead to win the stage and take the GC lead.
There were no changes to the general classification’s leaders after the 116-kilometer Stage 2 on Tuesday, but Blevins and Beers moved into fifth place with the stage win.
With a flat start, a tough middle section punctuated by two big climbs, and an undulating final 30 kilometers, there was little margin for error. Blevins, having recovered well from a Stage 1 ailment, pushed the pace, but no one was able to make a clean break for victory as the well-matched teams kept each other in check.
The final 10 kilometers, however, turned into a two-team race between SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing and Toyota-Specialized-NinetyOne.
Schurter led into the final singletrack, but as the two teams popped out onto the tar home stretch, Beers mashed his monstrous legs and raced away. Frischknecht attempted to follow, but it was Blevins who had the energy to chase and ultimately rode home comfortably alongside his Toyota-Specialized-NinetyOne partner for the Stage 2 win in 4:20:31.31.
“It’s very motivating to bounce back with a stage win after a day like yesterday,” Blevins said. “It’s still a long week and there is a lot of racing to come, but we are happy for now.”
Schurter and Frischknecht finished 15.5 seconds later to hold onto the men’s GC lead.
The top three women’s teams, meanwhile, raced together all day.
With Wakefield recovering from late-night surgery to her arm injury and dealing with a lack of sleep, the onus was on Villafane and Nash or Efficient Infiniti Insure to attack. For Wakefield and Lill, the aim was to ride defensively and make sure no team was able to eat into their overall lead.
On a stage that featured few opportunities for decisive moves, the three women’s teams couldn't be separated. Looser and Le Court eventually made the killer move with 5 kilometers to go, though Looser misjudged her attack slightly, thinking she only had a kilometer or two left of the racing.
Le Court, initially stuck behind NinetyOne-Songo-Specialized, was eventually able to chase down her partner and the pair raced away to a stage victory in 5:28:42.6. Villafane and Nash finished second on the stage, 4.4 seconds after Efficient Infiniti Insure, to remain in second in the GC, 5:24 behind Wakefield and Lill.
The race has five more stages before the winners are crowned Sunday.