On a dramatic day that saw one South African ABSA Cape Epic victory hope fade, another surged on the brutal 89km Stage 1 that started and finished at Saronsberg in Tulbach.

While Kevin Evans (Nedbank 360Life) headed to a hospital ER to confirm his broken collarbone after a crash on a treacherous descent, his compatriot and rival, Burry Stander (36One-Songo-Specialized) was standing on the top step of the podium, celebrating his second consecutive stage win along with Swiss teammate, Christoph Sauser.

Stander and Sauser rode the final 20km alone in the front to secure the stage win in a time of 3hr 53min 13sec, extending their overall lead in the gruelling race which still has six stages remaining. Taking the early lead is nothing new for Stander and Sauser, who have started the world’s most prestigious stage race three times as teammates. They’ve been early leaders almost each time, but haven’t been able to maintain that to the finish.

In 2008, Stander was forced to withdraw on Day 3 while he and Sauser were leading. A knee injury ending his victory hopes early. In 2009 Stander and Sauser were dominating the race, having won the first four stages. On Day 5 Stander crashed, destroyed a wheel and was handed a one-hour penalty for accepting outside assistance, crushing any chance of a victory. Then last year, Stander started the race with a stomach illness. And just as he recovered and the team looked to set to challenge for the win, Sauser became ill and the pair ended up finishing second overall.

After three years of illness, injury and bad luck, they’re taking no chances this year.  While most top teams are racing on hardtail 29-inch wheeled bikes, Stander and Sauser are racing on dual suspension 29-inch wheeled bikes, the rear suspension giving them the option of added control on the tricky descents and more traction on the bumpy climbs.

While most title contenders have opted for super lightweight accessories, Stander and Sauser have chosen heavier, but more durable accessories such as tyres, handlebars, stems and seatposts.

“Our bikes weigh 9.5 kgs, which is as much as a kilogramme heavier than some of the other guys’ bikes,” explained Stander. “But we have learned from the past that lighter isn’t necessarily better at the Cape Epic. This race has some of the most rugged terrain in the world and we’ve taken a more cautious approach this year.”

Stander says that he and Sauser have even been conservative with their racing strategy.

“We are only really racing the climbs. The rest of the time we are going steady and staying out of trouble. On the descents we are normally among the quickest, but we’re not taking any risks. It just isn’t worth it. As we saw from Kevin’s unfortunate crash today, your race can be over in seconds.”

Second place on Monday was the Swiss Stockli Pro team of Urs Huber and Konny Looser, who were 1min 02 sec down, followed by the German Team Bulls 2 pairing of Thomas Dietsch and Tim Boehme, 2min 17sec down on Stander and Sauser. Three time-winners and defending champions, Team Bulls 1, Stefan Sahm and Karl Platt (both of Germany) were fifth, almost four minutes back.

Stander refused to show any signs of contentment in the fact that he and Sauser have extended their overall lead to 3min 23sec over second-placed Huber and Looser.

“We may be in the lead, but we’re not in the clear. This race is so unpredictable. You cannot take anything for granted. We are taking one day at a time and we are doing so with far less aggressive racing than we have shown in the past,” said Stander.

Evans meanwhile underwent surgery on Monday night to repair his collarbone. An hour after withdrawing from the race, he sent out a short, but powerful twitter message: “My collarbone is broken but my heart is shattered.”  

Judging by the overwhelming sympathetic response to his tweet, the hopes of the host nation were also shattered.

His Nedbank 360Life teammate, David George was equally glum: “I’m very disappointed, but it’s part of the game I guess,” he said. Starting the day in fourth overall, the pair seemed on track to challenge for the honour of becoming the first ever South African team to win the world’s most coveted mountain bike stage race.

In its seven previous editions, a South African has never won the Cape Epic. Evans has been third three times (once with George) and Stander was second last year.

In the women’s race on Monday, the Swiss pair of Eva Lechner and Nathalie Schneitter (Colnago Arreghini Sudtirol) claimed their second consecutive stage win, but were less than two minutes ahead of Team USN’s Karien van Jaarsveld (RSA) and Sally Bigham (ENG). The all-South African ABSA aBreast team of Hanlie Booyens and Ischen Stopforth were third. In the overall classification, Lechner and Schneitter have an 8min 13sec lead of Van Jaarsveld and Bigham.

In the Master’s category, the German Team Juwl pair of Carsten Bresser and Udo Boelts dominated the stage to beat the South African pair of Robert Sim and Doug Brown (Team Robert Sim) by over 15 minutes, extending their overall lead in the process. And in the Mixed division, the Wheeler BIXS Swiss pair of Barti Bucher and Esther Suss  won the stage comfortably to extend their overall advantage to more than 15 minutes over South African Erik Kleinhans and his Swiss partner Ariane Luthi (Contego/Giant/Sludge).

Tuesday’s Stage 2 takes the remaining 580 two-rider teams over a 104km route that includes 2300 metres of vertical ascent, also starting and finishing at Saronsberg in Tulbach.