Second on Stage 3, which ended in a sprint finish, were Nino Schurter and Matthias Stirnemann (SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing), with third-place going to Nicola Rohrbach and Daniel Geismayr (Centurion Vaude 2).
Stage 3 was a relatively short 78km that took riders out of the Elandskloof race village towards Genadendal and through the Greyton network of mountain bike trails. It was a day for the cross-country specialists to rise to the occasion, with Schurter and Stirneman duly obliging.
The pair, who had picked the stage for a potential win, were aggressive on the climbs and descents, causing overall leaders Cannondale to drop off the pace a number of times. But the Olympic champion and his partner just couldn’t shake off the imposing presence of Sauser and Kulhavy.
Sitting patiently and biding their time, Investec-Songo-Specialized made the decisive attack on the final big climb of the day (the UFO climb, so named because of a bizarre building at the top). As they pushed, Cannondale Factory Racing XC dropped back and were forced into a helter skelter descent to make up time. Sauser and Kulhavy simply kept their cool, and ensured that the stage would go down to a two-team sprint. With Kulhavy in front and Schurter second, Stirneman misjudged the location of the finish line and started sprinting too early, allowing Sauser to power past.
"That was a good day for us,” said a relaxed Sauser. “We managed to make good progress and win the stage. It was only a short day so we weren't expecting to eat too much time into the Cannondale Factory Racing XC guys, but we did so we’ll take the win and that little bonus.
“Our plan was always to put in some extra effort up the last climb of the day in the hope that we could split the bunch, and that seemed to work. The Cannondale guys were chasing hard, but we could tell that they were on the rivet. We were then able to go down nice and conservatively; there are some horrible, sharp rocks there and the last thing we wanted was a flat or a crash.”
Kulhavy, who looked incredibly fresh when crossing the line, added, "That was a much better day than yesterday. Our plan was to attack on the climbs and the flats; that worked well for us today.”
For the SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing team, it was a case of what might have been. They worked hard all day, only for a minor miscalculation to rob them of a stage win (though Schurter clearly enjoyed the dice; after crossing the line he immediately embraced Sauser with a big hug and bigger smile).
“This was a shorter stage, so Nino and I felt like it would suit us better,” said Stirnemann. “We want to win a stage every day, but this was one we thought that we could take. I thought we had it in the end, but I started sprinting for the finish too early; I didn't know where it was! That's when Susi passed me at the very last second. I enjoyed the ride, though. The whole day was very nice, with great riding.”
With a long day tomorrow - 112km from Elandskloof to Oak Valley in Elgin - the overall leaders will have their work cut out for them. Especially after a day when not everything went their way.
"That was tough. But we survived,” said Avancini. “For the first half we had it under control. But Jaroslav and Christoph were really strong on the climbs and the flats. That's where we lost it a bit. Mannie was also clipped by a bike towards the end, which slowed us down slightly. It was a hard day for us but we fought hard and we'll carry on fighting to the very last day.”
Stage 4 will certainly suit the big engine of Jaroslav Kulhavy and the nous of Sauser, so if Cannondale Factory Racing XC are to hold on to their slender lead of one minute and 20 seconds, they’ll have to fight all the way.
1. Investec-Songo-Specialized 3-1 Christoph Sauser (Switzerland) 3-2 Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic) 3:03.46,0
2. SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing 5-1 Nino Schurter (Switzerland) 5-2 Matthias Stirnemann (Switzerland) 3:03.46,4 +0,4
3. Centurion Vaude 2 16-1 Nicola Rohrbach (Switzerland) 16-2 Daniel Geismayr (Austria) 3:03.54,5 +8,5
1. Cannondale Factory Racing XC 8-1 Manuel Fumic (Germany) 8-2 Henrique Avancini (Brazil) 11:05.51,4
2. Investec-Songo-Specialized 3-1 Christoph Sauser (Switzerland) 3-2 Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic) 11:07.11,6 +1.20,2
3. SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing 5-1 Nino Schurter (Switzerland) 5-2 Matthias Stirnemann (Switzerland) 11:09.55,2 +4.03,8
4. Kansai Plascon 7-1 Hector Leonardo Paez Leon (Colombia) 7-2 Max Knox (South Africa) 11:15.23,5 +9.32,1
5. Centurion Vaude 2 16-1 Nicola Rohrbach (Switzerland) 16-2 Daniel Geismayr (Austria) 11:15.59,4 +10.08,0
6. Bulls 1-1 Karl Platt (Germany) 1-2 Urs Huber (Switzerland) 11:21.47,6 +15.56,2
7. Centurion Vaude 6-1 Jochen Kaess (Germany) 6-2 Markus Kaufmann (Germany) 11:24.20,2 +18.28,8
8. Topeak Ergon Racing 4-1 Alban Lakata (Austria) 4-2 Kristian Hynek (Czech Republic) 11:26.45,6 +20.54,2
9. Scott-SRAM Young Guns 18-1 Michiel Van der Heijden (Netherlands) 18-2 Andri Frischknecht (Switzerland) 11:30.26,1 +24.34,7
10. PYGA Euro Steel 9-1 Philip Buys (South Africa) 9-2 Matthys Beukes (South Africa) 11:32.43,0 +26.51,6