Four men and three women dominated
During this season's South African MTN Marathon National Series, four men dominated the racing: David George, Kevin Evans, Max Knox and Adrien Niyonshuti. Between the four of them, they won 13 of the 24 podium places on offer during the eight races, taking six victories among them.
Evans, who was a six-time overall winner, had dominated the marathon series, but in 2011, his streak came to an end through no fault of his own before the season even started. He had to undergo an emergency appendectomy in December last year. This meant that he was unable to race at Attakwas and was only half fit at Barberton.
This was not the end of his bad luck. He crashed during the first stage of the Absa Cape Epic and broke his collarbone. This meant another six weeks without serious training.
Fortunately all was not lost for his Nedbank360Life team. David George stepped up to the plate. With his victories at Attakwas and Tulbagh, third place at Barberton, third in Ride Crater Cruise, fourth in the Gravel Travel and fourth at Hilton Dirt Fest, he was not only the overall winner, but also made sure that the title stayed in the team.
If a prize were to be awarded for the best team of the series, Evans and George would be definite contenders, because Evans also won two races: MTN Gravel Travel and MTN Ride Crater Cruise. It means that between them they won four of the eight races.
Evans also made South African cycling history by being the first rider to win the MTN Ride Crater Cruise three consecutive times.
Max Knox (Ghost) was the other rider who completed a hat-trick of victories when he again left all of his rivals behind on the slopes of the Barberton mountains.
Adrien Niyonshuti (MTN-Qhubeka) also performed admirably throughout the series, being a contender every time he competed.
His perseverance eventually paid off when he won the MTN Attakwas Marathon in Clarens. In doing so he also made cycling history because it was the first time that a black rider won one of the MTN races.
Niyonshuti's victory was even more exciting because he managed to stay in front throughout what was certainly one of the toughest races in the MTN series for a long time.
In this race the concept of a 'mud bath' acquired new meaning for many of the riders.
Germany's Karl Platt and Burry Stander (Specialized) were the only other race winners in the Series. Platt won at Sabie and Stander at Hilton.
If one takes into account that Platt won at Sabie and finished third at Attakwas and Sahm was second in Attakwas, it means that the rest of the local riders one won eight podium finishes in eight attempts.
This is why the comeback of Jacques Rossouw (Team Fedgroup-ITEC) can be considered to be such an important event in South African mountain biking. Even though he only competed in two of the MTN marathons, he made his presence felt by finishing third in the Gravel Travel and second in the Rider Crater Cruise.
With his aggressive approach to racing, Rossouw is the one rider who may upset the proverbial applecart. The new team that he rides for was put together by Brandon Stewart. The combination of these two riders will surely also make for some interesting racing with the addition of a new team to the scene.
An important but unanswered question is "Where is the next generation of marathon riders in South Africa?"
Stander, Knox and Niyonshuti are the only three twenty-something riders who are able to hold their own against the thirty-something gang, namely Evans, George, Stewart and Rossouw.
At this stage, fans might expect a couple of 21-year-old riders indicating that they have what it takes to become a dominant force in the foreseeable future of the MTN series.
The 2012 season will hopefully hold some answers with the likes of James Reid joining 360Life and Luke Roberts joining RE:CM. One of the exciting revelations of the MTN Marathons has been the meteoric rise of the 19-year-old Lourens Luus (Valencia). The youngster won nearly every marathon he entered in the series.
While Stander used to beat the "old men" of South African mountain biking back when he was 19, such performances among young riders in marathons are uncommon.
The women's MTN marathon series boiled down to an exciting battle between Yolandé Speedy (MTN-Qhubeka), Ariane Kleinhans (Contego/Giant/Sludge) and Eszther Erdelyi (then MTN-Qhubeka).
Kleinhans (Attakwas, Tulbach, Ride Crater Cruise) and Speedy (Clarens, Gravel Travel, Hilton) both won three races and Erdelyi two (Barberton and Sabie).
Speedy won overall because of her consistency throughout the series.
What made the performances by Speedy and Kleinhans remarkable is the fact that both battled with injuries but refused to give up.
Kleinhans is a Swiss rider who has only been racing in South Africa since last year and Erdelyi is a former Hungarian rider who has also recently started to compete in local races.
Speedy has been a stalwart of South African mountain biking for more than 10 years.
The 18-year-old Candice Neethling (Bizhub) was the only youngster who showed any promise in the MTN series.
Yolandi du Toit (Bizhub), Ischen Stopforth (Bizhub) and Karien van Jaarsveld (USN) are the only other riders who consistently finished in the top three.
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