The trails in and around Wellington on Stage 6 would offer a superb mix of singletrack but with 2000m of vertical ascent spread over 76km the racing was anything but easy, especially with a resurgent Cannondale Factory Racing outfit looking to reclaim their second place on the general classification over Canyon Topeak.
Attacks would come early and at regular intervals. Cannondale Factory Racing's Henrique Avancini made his early ambitions known when he and Mani Fumic sent the leading group into a frenzy of watts and panic. Canyon Topeak and Centurion Vaude had no choice but to follow in a fast-paced first hour of racing that would see Nicola Rohrbach hit the deck in a crash - something he, and team-mate Daniel Geismayr, would never fully recover from.
"Today we rode for the GC," said Avancini. "We had two goals: get clear of Centurion Vaude and get back our second place from Canyon Topeak. That's why we put the pressure on early and kept the pace high."
After riding at the measured pace for most of the morning Investec Songo Specialized would finally make their move on the Green Mamba - a long and steep brute of a climb.
Cannondale Factory Racing were unable go with the attack and were forced to adopt a damage control approach for the reminder of the stage.
For the Czech Express and his partner, Howie Grotts, it was full speed ahead, the two riding a faultless final 35km in which they stamped their dominance and consolidated their lead.
"It was a pretty good day for us. We knew the profile would suit us so we put pressure on from the start," said Fumic.
"We lead for most of the stage and tried to press on all the time and put the other guys in the hurt box. Investec Songo Specialized attacked us on Mamba climb but we had nothing left. We saw Canyon Topeak were taking strain so we kept the pace on to get the gap and extend it."
Their tactic worked and after initially marking Cannondale's continued attacks, Canyon Topeak's Alban Lakata was unable to match the intensity and fell off the pace. They'd eventually finish Stage 6 in fifth position and surrender their four second lead and second place position on the general classification to Cannondale Factory Racing.
"Today Investec Songo Specialized showed that they are unreachable," said a dejected Lakata. "They are both in impressive shape. We lost second but tomorrow we will try again. It was a proper fight with Cannondale so let’s hope the legs are there tomorrow to close that gap."
Jaroslav Kulhavy was pleased with the way he and partner Grotts performed on Stage 6 but mentioned the race is not over until they cross the finish line at Val de Vie on Sunday’s Grand Finale. Still, their lead has grown to well over eight minutes and barring any misfortune the race is theirs for the taking.
"Howie (Grotts) has been getting stronger every day," said Kulhavy. "We have to be careful tomorrow. We have a pretty good gap so there can’t be any crashes or mechanicals."
"Today was perfect - after we got a gap, we just kept a consistent pace," said Grotts. "It's been an incredible experience thus far and everything has just clicked together for us."
Fabian Rabensteiner and Michele Casagrande continued their consistent run of results by finishing second, leapfrogging Simon Stiebjahn and Tim Bohme to sixth overall in the general classification - a position they may very well defend going into the Grand Finale on Sunday.
"It is really nice to be with the front guys racing," said Rabensteiner. "We are having a good time at the moment. Today's stage was a really great one - not just our finishing on the podium but the routes, too."
The biggest surprise of the day was the South African pairing of Matthew Beers and Nico Bell who appear to have found their groove after a series of illness setbacks hampered Beers’ earlier performances.
The re-energised NAD MTB duo put in a superlative performance that saw them cross the line as the first all-South African team. They now find themselves in third place overall on the African Men's special jersey competition behind leaders Matthys Beukes and Julian Jessop and HB Kruger and Stuart Marais.
"We got some time on the Absa African Men's special jersey race today," said Bell. "Tomorrow we will give it a full effort. That's the goal - we will go as hard as we can."
Meanwhile, as Langvad and Courtney contemplate a clean-sweep at the Absa Cape Epic, their rivals are battling just to stay in the race.
Illness and injury has been a constant spectre hanging over the women’s race at the Cape Epic, and on Saturday it once again influenced the podium with an obviously ill Mariske Strauss and partner Annie Last forced to concede second overall.
As Annika Langvad and Kate Courtney have been charging inexorably to victory, their rivals have been battling just to stay in the event, let alone remain competitive in the ever-changing fight for the second step of the podium.
On Saturday, as Langvad and Courtney moved to within one stage of a clean-sweep by winning the 76km out-and back race from Wellington, it was the turn of Strauss to fall victim to illness and she had to dig deep to just reach the finish line. The South African and her Silverback-KMC partner Annie Last finished sixth on the stage, a distant 16 minutes behind the rampant leaders.
Their result, in conjunction with an impressive ride by second-placed Robyn de Groot and Sabine Spitz on Saturday, means the Ascendis Health pair have moved into second overall, a distant 46 minutes back from Investec Songo Specialized but six minutes up on Strauss and Last. Margot Moschetti and Raiza Goulao finished third on the stage.
Last was full of praise for her ill partner who was rushed straight from the finish line to the medical facilities.
"Mariske was not well before she started, so to finish was a really good job," said Last. "She wanted to finish and she is being taken to the Mediclinic now - hopefully she will be okay for tomorrow.
"She did the 76 kays basically with no food inside her. It was impressive - she had to dig very deep.
"We have lost second, but that is life. The Absa Cape Epic is about getting through eight days consistently. Anything can happen, you can have a mechanical, you can get ill, you can have a crash. You can have problems and other teams can have problems. Team Spur had to pull out the other day - It is just one of those things.
"Right now I just hope Mariske is going to be okay."
Since defending champion Jennie Stenerhag was forced to withdraw with injury two weeks before the start of the 2018 event, all the potential rivals for Investec Songo Specialized have been battling illness: Stenerhag was replaced by Angelika Tazreiter in the Meerendal CBC team, but then Esther Süss was left riding solo when the Austrian was forced out; Spitz struggled on the opening few days with a virus; Team Spur (Ariane Lüthi and Githa Michiels) were lying second on Wednesday when Michiels was advised to retire by the medical team at Mediclinic; and now Silverback-KMC have been forced to give up second position and Strauss is struggling to stay in the race.
The one team that looks like it is running on rails are the leaders, but even Courtney acknowledged that this was no easy ride to the finish.
"I felt so good today!" said Kate as she got off her bike. "Annika and I really executed as a team today. I think we have gotten better and better as a team every day. We are getting better at working together and reading each other's body language, and better at knowing when to lead and when to be behind. I think it has been a real team effort.
"But this race is hard, very hard. It is an incredibly big challenge. I think it is hard to explain how difficult it is if you have not ridden the tough single tracks, and been out there all day long.
"I think it is one of the most magical mountain bike races. There is so much hype and so many people paying attention. You also get to do it in a team which is very special."
Despite collecting their seventh win, Langvad is not too focused on the clean-sweep.
"Clean-sweep? I have not thought too much about making the clean-sweep. I take it very much in small pieces. So I take it day by day, small piece at a time, and in the end it will make a big picture and we will need to see what the big picture is."
But one team hoping to break the sequence is the Ascendis Health pair who have been improving daily since Spitz shook off her virus.
"It would be fantastic if we could get a stage win tomorrow," said De Groot who won the Grand Finale at Val de Vie Estate in 2017. "And what that would be to finish? It would be like last year and that is something that we will not give up hope on."
In the Absa African Women's special jersey race Candice Lill and Amy Beth McDougall (dormakaba) are over two hours ahead of Hannele Steyn and Jeannie Dreyer. Only a major disaster is going to prevent the dormakaba pair from collecting the trophy, which is ironically named after Steyn who has finished every Cape Epic since the race's inception in 2004.
"We just need to keep it steady tomorrow. It is definitely an honour to have the red jersey on our shoulders and it will be an honour to be the first winners of the African Women's special jersey," said McDougall.