Annika Langvad (Specialized) won her fourth consecutive opening round race in the elite women, while New Zealand's Sam Gaze (Specialized) finally ended Nino Schurter's (Scott-SRAM) unbeaten streak in the elite men.
Stellenbosch is actually an 'old-new' location, having hosted a Downhill World Cup back in 1997 and a Downhill / Dual Slalom in 1998. It is the first World Cup in South Africa since Pietermaritzburg in 2014. The competition took place on the slopes of the Coetzenburg mountain in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape, situated 50km from Cape Town.
The Stellenbosch course was very dry and dusty; as might be expected from the ongoing water shortages the region is facing. This, coupled with the short, steep climbs and technical sections of the course, meant it was difficult to avoid mistakes, which could easily cost seconds.
Former world and World Cup champion Langvad took the lead on the first lap of the six-lap race, with Pauline Ferrand Prevot (Canyon Factory XC) in second and under 23 rider Anne Tauber (CST Sandd American Eagle) in third. Prevot and Langvad rode together for the first half of the race, until Langvad bobbled, on one of the steep climbs on the fourth lap, having to put her foot down, which allowed Ferrand Prevot to get away.
The French rider, back in top form after a season of illness and injury, opened a gap of 12 seconds, but the Danish rider rejoined her within half a lap and then rode away in the last lap and a half to win by 13 seconds. Tauber took third at 34 seconds.
"I have no idea why I am so good [at the start of the season]," Langvad said. "It was a really good day for me, amazingly since I struggled a lot this week in training. I felt the pressure [of winning last three opening rounds] and I knew my shape was good. But I got fed up of putting pressure on myself and said 'you know what, just go out there and smash it, and don't give a bleep about anything else'.
"It's such an intense course and so easy to make small mistakes. Even though I had a stick in my wheel, and I had to unclip and run some stuff...but I'm really satisfied because I managed to keep composed and come back."
The battle for fourth and fifth, the final two podium spots, was just as intense as the lead. World champion Jolanda Neff (Kross Racing), racing five weeks after breaking her clavicle at a Cyclo-cross World Cup, and Catharine Pendrel (Clif Pro Team) held fourth and fifth for most of the race, until Neff's team-mate Maja Wloszczowksa joined them on the last lap, with the two Kross riders dropping Pendrel in the final half lap. Helen Grobert (Cannondale Factory) then caught Pendrel and jumped across to the two Kross riders in the final 500 metres, beating them in a three-way sprint for fourth, just ahead of Wloszczowska. Australia's lone entry, Rebecca Henderson (Primaflor Mondraker Rotor), finished 15th.
Schurter came into Stellenbosch having set a new record for XCO, after sweeping the series in 2017. However, he admitted pre-race that there were two riders he was concerned about, reigning under 23 world champion Gaze and cyclo-cross star Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus), who had switched full time to mountain bike this season.
Gaze and Schurter immediately charged to the front of the men's race, followed by Maxime Marotte (Cannondale Factory), Anton Cooper (Trek Factory) and Henrique Avancini (Cannondale Factory). Van der Poel had a poor start position on the eighth row but had an incredible first lap, rocketing up to fifth by the end of the lap. However, the Dutch rider had gone as high as he would go and would fade slightly in the final laps to finish fourth after joining Marotte for a while in third.
Schurter and Gaze rode the race like a two-up time trial, taking turns at the front setting the pace and never gapping each other by more than a metre or two, despite attacks by both riders on the short and steep climbs. Gaze moved to the front for the final couple of kilometres and attacked going over a bridge in the last 200 metres, leading as they swept around the final corner onto the grass straightaway. He clearly had the lead, with Schurter on his wheel but unable to come around, and then Schurter pulled his left foot out of his pedal with 50 metres to go, ensuring the win for Gaze, his first ever Elite World Cup victory. Remarkably, Marotte had closed to within 10 metres of the two leaders for the final sprint and came across the line only two seconds back. Australia's Dan McConnell (Primaflor Mondraker Rotor) did not finish, out of action on the third lap.
"It's a dream come true," Gaze said. "I grew up watching the sport, idolizing these guys. At London [2012 Olympics] I was watching Nino and Jaroslav [Kulhavy], so I had a dream that I could do it. It's a beautiful moment when you finally do it. I started to cramp with a lap and a half to go, and I was just showing a poker face and trying to be calm. As it got closer and closer to the finish, I knew I had to be in front to be sure that I had the line for the sprint, and I did it. I worked really hard last winter, I had a lot of personal and physical problems [with migraines] and I finally got them in check. You always hope, but when it becomes reality it's mind-blowing."
For Schurter, his streak was broken after an incredible run though unlikely to ever be matched.
"I'm a little bit disappointed," Schurter said, "I was really close. It was a tough race; first I was afraid about van der Poel and had to work quite a bit to make sure he didn't get to the front and at the end, I didn't really have the solution for Sam. In the sprint it was unlucky; I was surprised that I was able to keep up with him, but then I unclipped. It was bad luck for me but an amazing performance from Sam today. I knew he is a very powerful rider; he is probably the highest peak [power output] in the whole field, and I didn't have the solution for him today. He's a talented rider and he's going to be a hard one to beat."