Cape Town - The pressure that comes with wearing the yellow jersey was etched onto the faces of Manuel Fumic and Henrique Avancini ahead of Stage 2 on Tuesday - a demanding 106km/2000m course that would yet again favour the diesel engines of the marathon racers.
A new-found sense of maturity is paying off for the exuberant duo who spent most of the day conserving energy and riding smart.
Marathon incumbents and Prologue winners Nicola Rohrbach and Daniel Geismayr made up for Monday's ordinary display by riding to a calculated and powerful tempo. Their efforts were not without drama however...
The pair experienced a mechanical early in the stage but the back-up team of Markus Kaufmann and Jodok Salzmann were on hand to assist with a rear-wheel change - a move that would ultimately keep them in third position on the general classification.
"I had a flat tyre after 5km and the bunch was quite big so we just kept pushing and managed to get back to them," said Rohrbach. "It was not easy with all the dust but it was a better day for us and to get second today."
Geismayr echoed his partners sentiments: "Our strategy was to make up some time after yesterday. After 60km I tried to attack on a 100m climb but it all stayed together and nobody wanted to work so it came to sprint finish."
Monday's runners up made their intentions known when they attacked on the appreciably steep and loose "One-Two-Three" climb, a move only Canyon Topeak and Centurion Vaude were able to follow.
They maintained their momentum on the loose descents by using their cross-country prowess to full effect and entered the 9.5km Bosvark Technical Terrain in first position. The tight and twisty nature of this section worked in their favour but no sooner did they extend their lead than a costly puncture forced them to surrender it to a chasing pack comprising yellow jersey wearers Cannondale Factory Racing.
After putting in a serious effort to get back to the leading pack, Jaroslav Kulhavy and Howard Grotts looked poised for their first stage victory after breaking away a technical section about 15km from the finish. Kulhavy would unfortunately suffer another puncture and with it, surrender all hopes of snatching the yellow jersey away from Cannondale Factory Racing.
"Today we were let down by mechanicals," said Grotts. "We were set for a good stage and did everything right. It was just so frustrating to be in the front and then lose time. I was riding over my limit when we chase back - now I just need to recover well."
Further back the combination of five-time winner Karl Platt and Urs Huber were struggling to keep up with the pace - a surprise given Monday's valiant performance.
"Today I felt strong and good at the start," said Platt."“But at 70km or so I just lost all my energy. I can't explain it - this is just so disappointing."
Daniel Geismayr tried to mix things up by attacking just after the Breede River crossing but Rohrbach was unable to match his partner’s effort and the bunch came together yet again. In the end it was Cannondale Factory Racing who asserted their dominance in the final 500m, communicating on an almost telepathic level which saw them outsmart Centurion Vaude and Canyon Topeak to win in a sprint finish for a second day in a row.
"Today was all about keeping safe for us," said Fumic. "The stage suited the marathon guys more and they went for it to show us. We focussed on damage control but got caught out a few times. In the sprint our experience helped us for sure and to get the stage win and another day in yellow makes us happy. There’s still a lot of racing to come."
Alban Lakata was happy to finish on the podium but expressed some of bitterness at how the final kilometres played out.
"Kristian was up to race in front today and it was brilliant," said Lakata. "In the end the sprint finish was a little bit chaotic and I thought the Cannondale wouldn't sprint – especially since we did a lot of work today.
"The course felt like it had less climbing but there was a lot of tricky terrain - sand, dust and slow single-track riding. I actually enjoyed the route today despite it not suiting my style of riding.
"Coming into the Absa Cape Epic I felt we could win every stage and I think we can still make up a lot of time in the next few days."
Matthys Beukes and Julian Jessop bagged their first win in the African Men’s special jersey race with Timothy Hammond and Arno Du Toit and HB Kruger and Stuart Marais rounding off the podium.
Nico Bell and Matthew Beers - who finished 6th - were forced to surrender their red jersey to the pairing of Kruger and Marais.
"Today's start was tough but we managed to work through it," said Kruger. "We are very happy to get our hands on that red jersey - that was the one goal we had. There are still more days to come and we will defend the jersey."
Meanwhile, once again Annika Langvad and Kate Courtney stamped their authority on the Women's category of the Cape Epic when they collected their third win in three days over the 106km out-and-back Stage 2 from Robertson on Tuesday.
A brutal attack 30 kilometres from the finish allowed the pairing to drive home the advantage gained on the opening two days of racing, and by winning by over four minutes they have extended their lead to a daunting six and a half minutes over Ariane Lüthi and Githa Michiels.
While the leaders are turning this into a one-team procession, the dice for second remains intriguing with Lüthi/Michiels edging out Mariske Strauss and Annie Last by the narrowest of margins after a tense sprint on Tuesday.
Their brutal tussle for podium places left Michiels lying prone on the finish line at the end of the stage and glassy-eyed as she prepared for the podium presentation.
Spur are now over six minutes ahead of their young rivals in the fight for second, but with Wednesday's 122km stage followed by another 111km brute on Thursday, Michiels' recovery is going to be key to their fight for the second step on the podium.
Team Ascendis Health finished fourth once again on Tuesday as Robyn de Groot had to nurse Sabine Spitz to the finish as the German continues to struggle with illness. The pair lost another 12 minutes to the leaders and are now 26 minutes off the pace with stage wins the only realistic target remaining if Spitz can recover fully.
When asked if the stage win was a comfortable victory, American Courtney laughed and said that "...comfortable is a very strong word with a partner like Annika!"
"There was a pretty steep climb about 30 kilometres to go and Annika got on the front and set the pace and I just hung on for dear life. We managed to get a gap and then hold it to the finish.
The USA Champion added that she is "... learning that every second matters in this race. We saw yesterday with our flat that a minute gap can vanish in a few seconds, so it is really about staying on the gas, staying focused and giving our best every second of the race."
Behind the dominant leaders, as the chasing pair of teams were approaching the finish, it seemed as if the Belgiun Michiels had lost the group and there were a few questions as to whether Lüthi would slow down to help her obviously struggling teammate.
The Swiss three-time Cape Epic winner said dropping back was not an option.
"I just believed in Githa. I knew she was super strong, but I was also completely on my limit and needed to save my energy. I knew I could not have gotten her back. I felt the pace was slightly dropping and I was betting on her strength and I was right.
"She really is an animal. She had to chase back a lot while I was resting and the girls were rolling through. She put in such a sprint at the finish - I am so impressed with her. It was absolutely mind blowing how she did that sprint and came around the last corners. It was absolutely crazy."
A tired Michiels, who collapsed off her bike on the finish line for almost two minutes before moving off to the recovery zone, said later she could not clearly remember the finish.
"I felt good today until the last 30 kilometres. The last 30 is always a case of suffering for me and I was just trying not to let Ariane down. I gave everything I had. I don't understand how I got here. I did not even know if I was over the finish when I just fell."
In the race to be the inaugural African Women's special jersey champions, Candice Lill and Amy Beth McDougall (dormakaba) had a tough day and finished seventh women overall, but still increased their lead to just under an hour as Hannele Steyn and Jeannie Dreyer (Nolands Spar) moved into second, overtaking Nadia Visser and Katie Lennard (Western Girls).