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Jaroslav Kulhavy of Investec-Songo-Specialized celebrates as he crosses the line to win stage 2 of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic with partner Christoph Sauser of Investec-Songo-Specialized. Photo by Shaun Roy/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

The short distance, though, meant nothing to the elite men’s field, as they cranked up the pace on what essentially became a longish cross-country course.

Jaroslav Kulhavy and Christoph Sauser (Investec-Songo-Specialized) were first over the line in a thrilling sprint finish to claim their first stage win of the 2017 event, with Nino Schurter and Matthias Stirnemann (SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing) just behind in second. Overall leaders Manual Fumic and Henrique Avancini (Cannondale Factory Racing XC) were in the sprint but finished third on the day and hold a decent two minute-plus lead over Sauser and Kulhavy in the race for the Absa Cape Epic title.

From the outset, the pace was fast and furious as some teams eyed a potential stage win with the distance cut by 40km. According to Fumic and Schurter, it was Philiip Buys and Matthys Beukes (PYGA Euro Steel) who started like an all too common Western Cape veld fire, blazing their way out of Hermanus.

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Matthys Beukes from team PYGA Euro Steel and partner Philip Buys during stage 2 of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic. Photo by Mark Sampson/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

“It was hectic at the start, really frantic stuff,” said Fumic. “The Pyga guys clearly wanted a stage win, so they went off like rockets. But I wasn’t surprised by the pace; it was just pure cross-country racing today. There was a lot of suffering on the route, but I am used to suffering.

“Henrique and I weren’t too worried, because our plan was always to sit in the peloton and to see what happens. Nino and Matthias pushed at the Hot Spot so we went with. Jaro and Susi dropped off but Jaro kept bringing them back on the flats. At this stage he was doing all the work.”

Schurter added, “That was a hard and fast day. The pace was hot from start to finish. I think the teams chasing the Absa African special jersey wanted a stage win and they went really fast from the start. Phil (Buys) and Matthys (Beukes) really flew from the minute we started.”

Despite the cross-country like conditions, it was the marathon men who came away victorious on the stage. “That was very tough. The first half was so fast, and then we didn't stop at all for water. I was worried at one stage, but we managed to pull through,” said Kulhavy. “Christoph lost contact up the big climb, but luckily he caught and we were able to push on for the stage win.”

Schurter was happy with his performance on the shortened stage. “It was a good race today. I knew that when they made it shorter we could expect a fast day,” he said. “Our plan was just to see how the day unfolded. We decided to attack on the Dimension Data Hotspot and Manny and Henrique came with us. Jaro and Susi dropped off, but then after some single track there was a flat section where Jaro’s power helped. Susi was able to hang in and they got over the line first.”

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Manuel Fumic and Henrique Avancini lead Nino Schurter and Matthias Stirnemann down the fast, open gravel roads towards Caledon. Photo by Ewald Sadie/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

For Fumic and Avancini, the surprise leaders as the race heads into Stage 3, there is the prospect of a major upset in the air. Stage 3 will, at 78km, will also suit their considerable talents, and leave the chasing pack with the tricky task of trying to eat into their lead on another shortish day.

They are playing their cards close to their chest, though, and will continue a so far successful strategy of riding hard at the front and attempting to control the pace of the race. They’ll also continue having fun.

“For us it’s all about limiting damage and making the chasing teams do the work. They are the ones under pressure, not us. We are very comfortable and we just try to stay in front and control the situation,” said Fumic. “So far it is working. Our tactics going forward are pretty simple; every night that we are in the yellow leaders’ jersey we drink red wine, that is our motivation to stay in front for the rest of the week.”

Stage 3 of the Absa Cape Epic is a 78km circular route of the area surrounding Greyton and Genadendal that starts and finishes at Elandskloof.