The three-way tussle for second included the Spur, Silverback CBC and Ascendis Health teams. Superior positional awareness within the group saw Mariske Strauss and Jennie Stenerhag pip their rivals in the race for the minor places. There was still drama to unfold however as a protest was lodged against Ariane Lüthi and Babara Benko – for exceeding the 2-minute separation rule at water point three.
For the first time in South African mountain biking history the elite women started at the front of the field in a major stage race, when the Chardonnay event got underway from Lourensford Wine Estate. With no men ahead of them on the trails, to interfere with the women’s competition, the opening day of the 2018 FNB Wines2Whales was treated to exceptional racing from Lill and Morath in particular.
“We said [to each other before the stage] if we’re in good shape then we will make it from the beginning,” Morath said on the finish line at Oak Valley Estate. “We know we are both good at climbing so there was no need to wait, just go” the German cross-country star reflected. Adding to Morath’s assessment Lill supplemented: “We just decided to put our heads down and go. We didn’t look back.”
Behind the Summit pairing the Spur and Silverback CBC teams jostled for position on the trails. After having held second early on, Strauss and Stenerhag were overtaken by Lüthi and Benko before the second water point at Idiom Wines. The Spur combination ascended the Gantouw Pass looking to reduce the deficit to the leaders Lill and Morath but a wrong turn by Lüthi caused them to become separated. In the confusion Benko reached the water point at the Grabouw Country Club two and a half minutes ahead of her partner, exceeding the two minute gap which is allowed between teammates. As a result they received an hour time penalty as per event regulations.
“Babara (Benko) had slipped slightly and was a corner behind me” Lüthi explained. “Suddenly she didn’t realise I had taken a wrong turn and she thought I was ahead, so she was chasing really hard. It was only at the water point that she realised that I was actually behind her. The rest is history” the Swiss marathon champion concluded.
In the final kilometres leading into Oak Valley Lüthi and Benko were caught by the Ascendis Health team of Robyn de Groot and Michelle Vorster. Then the two teams, working together reeled in Silverback CBC. This set up a chaotic sprint for second, which Stenerhag and Strauss won.
“That was quite hard” laughed second placed Strauss as the dust settled. Looking back on how the stage unfolded she added: “I was kind of expecting it. She (Lill) is going really well at the moment. I just came off a break and Jennie (Stenerhag) is getting back into training after her injury so I think our aim was just to do what we could and see how our legs went.”
FNB Wines2Whales is famous for its spectacular trails and the leading women enjoyed them at their uncrowned best. Though Stage 2 is the play day the addition of new singletracks, especially in Lourensford for the tenth edition has improved the riding on the opening day. “Basically most of the race was trails” stage winner Lill recounted. The earlier start also played into the riders enjoyment by Lill’s reckoning: “It was hot and windy heading up the Pass. But in Elgin it was great.”
The elite women were eager to praise the separation of the women’s race from the men’s. The Chardonnay, the first of the three FNB Wines2Whales races, is designated for women’s racing and R100 000 will be paid to the winning team on Sunday afternoon in Hermanus. “It was awesome. To be able to dictate the race and play our own tactics, it changes the race completely. It is more fair” Lill concluded. Strauss agreed with Lill’s assessment of the entirely separate women’s race, but was also keen to highlight the benefits to the sponsors. “With the women racing on their own we get all the media attention which is great for our sponsors” the South African cross-country champion enthused.
After Lill and Morath’s dominant performance on Stage 1 the likes of Strauss, Stenerhag, De Groot and Vorster have it all to do on Stage 2. The second stage of the race features a 66 kilometre route with 1 350 meters of climbing. To follow the action from home mountain biking fans can visit www.wines2whales.com or follow @w2wmtb.
1. Summit: Adelheid Morath & Candice Lill (03:24:27.8)
2. Silverback CBC: Mariske Strauss & Jennie Stenerhag (03:36:06.9 | +11:39)
3. Ascendis Health: Robyn de Groot & Michelle Vorster (03:36:07.3 | +11:40)
4. Galileo Risk: Theresa Ralf & Sarah Hill (03:39:41.4 | +15:13)
5. Tiletoria Ladies: Fienie Barnard & Hanlie Booyens (03:59:43.5 | +35:15)