By Bardy the Action Scribe

South Africans Kevin Evans and David George gave the host nation something to cheer about when they raced to a dominant stage victory and the early overall lead at the 2008 Absa Cape Epic in Knysna on Friday.

Riding as Team MTN Energade 1, George and Evans scorched their way around the 17km prologue time trial course in a rapid 31 minutes 04 seconds, almost one minute quicker than runners-up, the Cannondale Vredestein team of Roel Paulissen (BEL) and Jakob Fuglsang (DEN). Defending champions, Stefan Sahm and Karl Platt (both GER) were third, 1min15sec back.

“We did a good job today,” said the typically modest Evans, struggling to contain a virtually permanent grin. “We came to this race hoping to win a stage and maybe wear the leader’s jersey and we’ve accomplished that on the first day.”

Evans says that thanks to the meticulous preparation of George, a five-time South African time trial champion and former Under-23 world championships bronze medallist, the pair were already at an advantage even before the start.

“Dave insisted we wear skinsuits and that we warm up on stationary rollers. It’s small details like this that we’ve been incorporating into our training over the past four months that have got us to the top of the podium today.”

Evans, the current South African marathon champion, and George, the 2006 Commonwealth Games road race silver medalist, have made no secret of their intention to finish on the final podium of the world’s biggest mountain bike stage race, which is ranked HC (hors categorie), the highest ranking of any international stage race. The pair have been training intently since November 2007 for the nine-day, 966km race from Knysna to the Lourensford Wine Estate in the Western Cape.

Starting fifth from the end of a field of almost 600 teams from 40 countries, Evans and George quickly erased the one-minute gap to the team that started before them before catching another three teams on their way to the finish, including their stablemates, MTN Energade 2, Melt Swanepoel (RSA) and Mannie Heymans (NAM).

“Some of the guys looked a bit surprised to see us catch them, but we had a faultless ride and are in the best shape of our lives,” beamed Evans, who admitted that he and George would start Saturday’s second stage with the pressure of defending the lead, but said it wasn’t a bad thing.

“To beat us, the other teams have to ride away from us. And having placed all our training emphasis on endurance and climbing, rather than the high intensity required on the prologue stage, we feel confident we can stay with them.”

Evans is the only South African to have ever finished on the final Cape Epic podium when he and Austrian teammate Sylvio Wieltschnig paired up in 2005. Until now, a South African team has never worn the leader’s jersey in the event.

Unlike most of the top riders that are riding carbon-fibre hardtail bikes (with only a front shock), George is competing on an aluminium dual suspension bike to make up for his lack of pure mountain biking skills. It’s a prototype bike built specifically for George by Raleigh South Africa’s Jan Begemann, a leading German bike developer.

“The bike was awesome today, but obviously the real test comes in the long stages to come,” said George. “There is no option for me really, I have to race a dual suspension bike and I feel that Raleigh will be able develop this prototype into a high performance carbon-fibre frame for their 2009 range.”

The other South Africans to finish in the top 10 on Friday were Burry Stander, who, with Swiss world marathon champion, Christoph Sauser, was fourth 1min26sec off the pace and Swanepoel, who, with Heymans was eighth, 2min48sec down on Evans and George.

The top Masters team was the Adidas William Simpson pair of Shan Wilson (RSA) and Walter Platzgummer (ITA), in 16th overall, with the German pair of Ivonne Kraft and Nico Pfitzenmaier (Team Joybike) the top Mixed team in 46th place overall. The leading women on Friday were the American pair of Susan Haywood and Jennifer Smith on the Trek/VW WSD team in 83rd position.

On Saturday, the 590 two-rider teams tackle the gruelling 123km leg from Knysna to George. With a total of 3091 metres of ascent, this stage contains the most climbing of any stage in this year’s edition of the race and is bound to be definitive in terms of arranging the field to highlight all of the contenders.

2008 Absa Cape Epic
Friday 28 March, Knysna
Prologue: 17km (301m ascent)
1 MTN Energade 1 – Kevin Evans RSA / David George RSA 31min04sec
2 Cannondale Vredestein – Roel Paulissen (BEL) / Jakob Fuglsang (DEN) @ 57 sec
3 Bulls – Karl Platt (GER) / Stefan Sahm (GER) @ 1:16
4 – Christoph Sauser (SUI) / Burry Stander (RSA) @ 1:26
5 Dolphin – Bart Brentjens (NED) / Alban Lakata (AUT) @ 1:43
6 Team Alb-Gold Mountainbike – Hannes Genze (GER) / Jochen Kaess (GER) @ 2:40
7 Full-Dynamix RSM – Fredrik Kessaikof (SUI) / Massimo Debertolis (ITA) @ 2:43
8 MTN Energade 2 – Melt Swanepoel (RSA) / Mannie Heymans (NAM) @ 2:48
9 ETTO Hoydahl 3 – Martin Bratland (NOR) / Kristian Torgerson (NOR) @ 2:54:
10 ETTO Hoydahl 1 – Jo Nordskar (NOR) / Anders Hovdenes (NOR) @ 3:22

1 Adidas William Simpson – Shan Wilson (RSA) / Walter Platzgummer (ITA) 36:24
2 ABSA Masters – Doug Brown (RSA) / Barti Bucher (SUI) @ 59sec
3 Pragma Masters – M.C. Franken (RSA) / Peter Buggle (IRE) @ @ 1:56

1 Team Joybike – Ivonne Kraft (GER) / Nico Pfitzenmaier (GER) 40:15
2 Cycle Lab Toyora – Johan Labuschagne (RSA) / Yolande de Villiers (RSA) @ 9sec
3 Novatec CK MTB Dohnany – Thomas Legnavsky (SLA) / Janke Stevkova (SLA) @ 1:17

1 Trek VW WSD – Susan Haywood (USA) / Jennifer Smith (USA) 42:51
2 Rocky Mountain – Pia Sundstedt (FIN) / Alison Sydor (CAN) @ 38sec
3 ABSA Ladies – Erica Green (RSA) / Hanlie Booyens (RSA) @ 51sec