The 23rdedition of the Cyprus Sunshine Cup Afxentia Stage Race kicked off under threatening skies as Linda Indergand and Luca Schwarzbauer descended the 730 metres from above Lefkara down to Skarinou in the fastest times to take the Elite Women’s and Elite Men’s leaders’ jerseys respectively.
The downhill prologue is a unique start to a stage race and one that most of the riders relish. The technical singletrails and flat-out tracks lend themselves to the daredevil descenders but there are a couple of hard, punchy climbs to test the legs and lungs as well. And today it was not only the course they had to contend with, but the weather as well; not even the fastest riders could descend quicker than the rain! And so it was a tale of daring to push the limits or instead play it safe.
Indergand Beats van der Breggen Again
As the winner of last year’s Afxentia race, the reigning World Road Race Champion, Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans), was the last Elite Woman to set off. Having spent a week already here in Cyprus getting to grips with the trails, she was feeling relaxed and confident on the bike, although she admitted that her second place finish was unexpected.
“I’m happy with that”, she said at the finish line. “I’m already feeling much more confident than last year. I can actually now recover on the downhill sections rather than feel tense and nervous.”
Van der Breggen also recorded a second place finish in the Prologue in 2018, and this year it was once again Linda Indergand (Superior XC Team) who was the only rider to top her time. Indergand caught Anne Terpstra (GHOST Factory Racing) and there was some confusion and frustration between them as to whether they were allowed to work together, an issue that was resolved at the finish line with the utmost respect between the two riders. Indergand’s technical prowess and power ultimately outweighed Terpstra’s climbing capabilities and the Swiss rider took the win.
Terpstra finished fifth, just behind Annika Langvad (Specialized Racing) who erred on the side of caution in the wet conditions. “I was nervous in the streets, especially with the green moss on the stones that I saw earlier in the week, so I took it easy. It’s the first race of the season so it always feels a little awkward to get the race speed…but it’s nice to start with something a little different.”
Taking third place was Terpstra’s teammate, Lisa Pasteiner. The young Austrian was willing to take risks and it paid off today, although there were a few sketchy moments through the streets of Lefkara which she recalled to her team with much laughter!
“It felt fast. I risked a lot…but you can’t underestimate the climbs – you have to get the balance right, I learned that from last year. It’s fun, I just hope I didn’t kill myself on day one!”
Luca Schwarzbauer was the 18thlast rider to start so it was a long wait at the finish line as each rider thereafter failed to beat his blistering time.
Wrapped up against the rain in a rather ungainly blue bin bag, Schwarzbauer did not look like he had just won a stage of a prestigious UCI race, but his smile said otherwise: the 22 year-old first year Elite was delighted!
“I know I’m in good shape, but I never expected that – maybe a top 10. The last weeks I was just at home training by myself and studying; I didn’t do any special preparation. The downhills are not bad for me but it’s not perfect, I’m more of an all-rounder. I checked the course through the town very well so I think that was a part of the success. It’s the first stage and there’s a lot to come but I’m very happy. It’s great to ride in the leader’s jersey, I’ve never done that before!”
Behind Schwarzbauer the CST Sandd Bafang team had three riders in the top five: Sebastian Fini Carstensen was second, Martin Blums third and David Nordemann fifth. Nordemann, the U23 World Championship bronze medallist, was fourth overall at Afxentia last year and looks set to shine again this year:
“It was really slippery and hard in the cold”, said the Dutchman, “Especially on the climbs my legs felt like they were frozen but I don’t think big time differences will be made here so I just didn’t take too many risks and went full gas on the climbs. I think I did a good time.”
The CST Sandd Bafang riders were spilt by a previous winner of Afxentia, Jan Skarnitzl (Mitas Mercedes-Benz Praha Trek), who used his experience to finish fourth.
Skarnitzl’s Czech National teammates were a little off the pace, with Jaroslav Kulhavy in eighth and Ondrej Cink in 16th.
Punctures played their part in today’s stage, and there were a few riders with slightly less skin than they started with. With the riders wet and a little cold, everyone made a quick exit from the finish area, but with a fun stage behind them and the promise of sunshine tomorrow there was plenty of smiling faces underneath the mud.