Cape Town - Defending champion Christoph Sauser, of the Burry Stander Songo team, set off in defence of his Absa Cape Epic title in aggressive style on Sunday, winning the 22km prologue in Durbanville in 55 minutes, 10 seconds (55:10).
Sauser hung on to the back wheel of his partner, Olympic cross country champion Jaroslav Kulhavy, who set a blistering pace up the opening 235m climb from the Meerendal farmhouse - ironically called the “Stairway to Heaven”.
Wearing the South African colours of Burry Stander, in honour of Sauser's former partner who died after he was hit by a taxi while training in January, they emerged with a lead of over a minute on the Multivan Merida team of Jose Hermida, who was fourth in the Olympics, and Rudi van Houts.
VIDEO: Cape Epic prologue, highlights
“We are really pleased with that performance,” said Sauser, a three-time winner of the gruelling stage race.
“In the past we have seen that people who do well in the prologue do well in the whole race, but this is just the start and there is a long way to go.
"We know there is much to do, but we were pleased with our speed.”
As expected, Olympic riders - five of the top 10 from the London Games lined up - dominated the short opening leg.
Marco Fontana and Manuel Fumic, of the Cannondale Factory team, who were third and seventh in London respectively, had targeted the prologue as the stage to make their mark. Their introduction to the Epic was harsh, as they finished in third place.
“We started out really fast but then we realised how hot it was and had to slow up a bit,” Fontana said.
Race favourites Karl Platt and Urs Huber (Bulls 1 team) kept in touch in fifth place, a little over two minutes behind the leaders.
Philip Buys and Matthys Beukes, in ninth place, were the best of the South African teams.
The women's prologue was dominated by Swiss rider Esther Suss, winning her 18th stage in her fifth appearance at the race.
Suss dragged Jane Neussli with her as team BMC Wheeler took a lead of almost two minutes ahead of Sally Bingham and Milena Landtwing (Topeak Ergon), who struggled to find her rhythm on the rugged climb.
The first main stage of the race, over 96km on Monday, includes climbs of 2 350m and a crossing of the Olifants River.
Results after the prologue of the Absa Cape Epic mountain bike race at Meerendal Estate on Sunday:
Men: C Sauser and J Kulhavy (Burry Stander Songo) 55 minutes, 10 seconds (55:10), 2 J Hermida and R van Houts (Multivan Merida) +1:07, 3 M Fontana and M Fumic (Cannondale Factory Racing) +1:24, 4 A Lakata and R Mennen (Topeak Ergon) +1:53, 5 K Platt and U Huber (Bulls 1) +2:08, 6 T Dietsch and T Boehme (Bulls 2) +2:41; 7 M Knox and K Yamamoto (Burry Stander Songo 2) +2:45, 8 N Schurter and F Vogel (Scott-Swisspower MTB) +2:51, 9 P Buys and M Beukes (Scott Factory Racing) +3:06; 10 D Lill & C Keey (Cannondale Blend) +3:14.
Women: 1 E Suss and J Neussli (BMC Wheelers) 1 hour, 08 minutes, 01 second (1:08:01), 2 S Bingham and M Landtwing (Topeak Ergon) +1:57, 3 Y Speedy and C Williamson (Energas) +3:34, 4 H Booyens and I Stopforth (Pragma Volcan Ladies) +7:01, 5 S Mertens and L Turpijn (+7:35).