The SCOTT-SRAM Young Guns crossed the line first in a time of 4:10.00,3 with Schurter and Stirnemann popping wheelies (almost into the fencing) right behind them.
"We are very happy and very surprised. When we looked at the stage, our main aim was just to survive," Frischknecht said.
"But this stage win is amazing; super cool. Riding with Nino and Matthias was great motivation, and when we managed the last sandy climb quite well, we started to think that we could take the stage. It was horrible (up the climb) but we made it.”
Overall leaders Manuel Fumic and Henrique Avancini (Cannondale Factory Racing XC) finished third on the day, two-and-a-half minutes off the pace. Their time was enough to retain the yellow zebra leader jersey, though.
Stage 4 of the Absa Cape Epic was a 112km trek from Elandskloof near Greyton to Oak Valley Wine Estate in Elgin. It was a day that most expected marathon men Christoph Sauser and Jaroslav Kulhavy (Investec-Songo-Specialized) to make their move and knock the cheeky cross-country kings off their perch.
Instead, it was cross-country star Schurter who threw down the gauntlet, and in doing so helped guide his younger team of Frischknecht (the 2015 Swiss under-23 cross-country champion) and Van der Heijden (the 2014 under-23 cross-country world champion) to a surprise stage victory.
"We never ride with a plan, we just like to ride,” said Schurter. “Today it worked out very well for both our teams, so that's fantastic. The last big climb was terrible, very sandy, but both our teams seemed to manage it best and we were able to get away."
The day started cool and overcast - a relief for the riders who have baked in the high temperatures since the Prologue - but as has been the case since the start, the race pace was hot again. For most of the day, the elite bunch stayed together until the surprise leaders of Hector Paez and Max Knox (Kansai Plascon) emerged at the front of the pack. The pair appeared strong and three hours into the day’s racing they had forced a gap of 45 seconds between them and the chasing pack.
The Botrivier Pass, though, had the final say in the matter, as teams took strain up the sandy climb. Both SCOTT teams managed the climb best, while once over the top Investec-Songo-Specialized suffered a torn sidewall.
Despite appearing to struggle in the latter half of the day, and finishing third on the stage, overall leader Manual Fumic was upbeat about Cannondale Factory Racing XC’s ride.
"We thought Nino and Matthias would go for it today, so we just wanted to keep Susi and Jaro in check,” he said.
“We managed to do that pretty well for most of the day, so we are happy again with the result. We weren't too worried with Scott making up time, we knew we had a decent gap on them.
"Today was all about managing the pace and keeping Investec-Songo-Specialized close. I would definitely say it’s another good day for us. It’s a long way till Sunday, so today we did not want to waste too much energy.”
ADVANTAGE SUSS AND STENERHAG
The pendulum in the Hansgrohe Women’s category at the Absa Cape Epic swung a little more toward a victory for Esther Suss and Jennie Stenerhag (Meerendal CBC) on Thursday with the duo adding another three minutes 40 seconds to their lead after the stage.
The Meerendal CBC pair were able to take advantage of some bad luck at a crucial point in Thursday’s race when Sabine Spitz sliced the sidewall of her front tyre and she and partner Robyn de Groot (Ascendis Health) were forced to let the race leaders ride off into the distance.
Ascendis Health’s problems also allowed the young Hansgrohe Cadence OMX Pro team of Mariske Strauss and Annie Last to claim second position on the stage, three minutes behind the race leaders, and consolidate their third position overall.
The disaster happened about 85km into the stage near the beginning of the long 15km Botrivier Pass, the main climb of the day just as the leading teams were starting to make their push for victory.
“We had a really bad sidewall cut pretty much on the pressure point on the day,” said Spitz’s riding partner Robyn de Groot. “It was just really bad luck and our day changed from a matter of trying to gain anything we could on the leaders, to rather trying to limit our losses.
“The first portion of the climb was quite sandy with some sharp rocks and Sabine must have hit one at just the wrong angle. Her tyre was cut badly and went flat straight away.
“I don’t know how much time we lost. We were just too busy trying to get it right so we did not have to stop again.”
Stenerhag was content to take the win and even more pleased to have extended their overall lead to a solid 12 minutes 40 seconds with just three stages remaining.
“Obviously we are happy with the win,” she said. “It is not that nice to win because of somebody else’s bad luck, but it is all racing and we have to be happy with the win and extend our lead a little bit.
“The stage wasn’t as hard as I expected. Almost all the ladies teams were together for the first 70km or something so it wasn’t that fast. But then obviously at the end with all the climbing that was hard.”
Although in a strong position with just three days of racing left, the Swede, who was forced to withdraw last year with health problems, is all too aware that things can still go wrong.
“We always want to win the stages and extend the lead as much as we can so we will keep riding hard tomorrow and not ride conservatively. It is mountain biking and you saw what happened to the others today, you are never safe.”