There is no guarantee that a South African mountain biker will win the MTN South African marathon series opener in Attakwas on Saturday, January 15.
With international ranking points on offer for the first time, a talented field of overseas mountain bikers is expected as favorites. Karl Platt and Stefan Sahm (both Germany) and Johnni Junker Nielsen (Denmark) have entered, which means that the South African riders will have their work cut out.
Kevin Evans, the defending champion, will not be racing because of an appendectomy three weeks ago. This means that David George (360Life) and Max Knox (DCM) are definitely the pre-race South African favourites. But rumour has it that Mannie Heymans (Garmin-adidas) is on good form at the moment and hungry to pull off a big one.
Platt and Sahm are no strangers to the South African mountain biking scene. They have won the UCI-sanctioned Cape Epic mountain bike stage race in 2007, 2009 and 2010. Platt also won the inaugural Cape Epic with Heymans as his teammate.
Platt belongs to a small, elite group of racers who can boast of having won the "Triple Crown of endurance" twice: the Cape Epic, the TransAlp and the Trans Rockies all in the same calendar year. The first time Platt accomplished this, he did so with three different racing partners. In 2007, Platt and Sahm completed the endurance hat trick together.
George competed in the MTN Attakwas for the first time last year and surprised everybody by finishing second, after Kevin Evans. Max Knox (DCM) was third.
George's biggest mistake last year was that he pushed himself too hard in an effort to catch up with Evans. At one stage the time gap between the two riders was less than a minute, but over the last 20 kilometers George paid the price for his hard racing. This enabled Evans to ride away from him to win by more than five minutes. George is determined not to be left behind again during the last few kilometers.
"I now fully realize that the MTN Attakwas marathon is not only one of the toughest races on the calendar, but also one of the longest. The only way to ensure that you will be competitive is to do six to seven hour training rides in December to do your hard base miles."
George has been training with Platt and Sahm. "They are definitely not in top form at the moment but it would nevertheless be a mistake to underestimate them. Being the true professionals that they are, I know that they will give it a go on Saturday."
Another rider that may surprise on the day is MTN Qhubeka's Adrien Niyonshuti, who rode a brilliant race during the 2010 DCM Cape Pioneer over this very route.
Women's favorites recover from injuries
Women's favorites Yolandé de Villiers (Cyclelab) and Ischen Stopforth (Bizhub) are both coming off a crash-filled 2010 season, and only Stopforth is healed enough to compete in the MTN Attakwas marathon.
The "Year of the Big Fall" kicked off with De Villiers breaking her shoulder in a crash during the MTN Attakwas marathon. A few weeks later, Stopforth was involved in a bad crash in which she broke her pelvic bone, as well as a collarbone. But this was not the end of their troubles. In September, during the first stage of the DCM Cape Pioneer, Stopforth crashed again, this time breaking three ribs.
Lady Luck waited until the very last day of 2010 before she decided to desert De Villiers again. She was competing in a fun ride at Groot Brak when the chain of the rider in front of her broke. When he crashed, De Villiers rode into him and went down hard, breaking two of her ribs when she hit the ground.
Right now the only cycling she is capable of doing is to practice on an indoor trainer in front of the television, but she hopes that she will have recovered sufficiently to be able to compete in the MTN Barberton marathon on January 29.
"I suppose I could go for walks to keep fit, but to me that would be really frustrating. I would much rather run than walk, but unfortunately that is not possible because of the pain."
Stopforth admits that she is not in the same physical condition that she was in 2009 when she won the MTN Attakwas marathon for women and finished 15th overall.
"Actually I have been wondering lately how many times I have raced through the Attakwas and also why I put myself through eight hours of hell again and again. In my opinion the MTN Attakwas is one the toughest races. It is not just the gradient of the climbs that makes for tough going. The loose rocks on the route make the Attakwas the hard race that it is. Sometimes it is better just to get off your bike and walk because if you keep riding you will certainly crash.
"That is what happened to me during the first stage of the DCM Cape Pioneer. When I got to the top of the very steep climb just before Bonnievale, I realized that I was in serious trouble.
"It was a bastard of a descent that awaited me and, even though I knew that I was going to crash, I kept on riding. Needless to say, I did go down. In the final moments before I crashed I tried to keep to the left, hoping that there would be a cameraman on the route who could help me to soften the impact of hitting the ground. As luck would have it, there was no one around and I had to bear the full brunt of the crash by myself."
According to Stopforth the secret of enjoying the MTN Attakwas is to pace yourself.
"It is a long race. Therefore the last thing any rider should do is to go out too fast. The energy that you waste when you do that, will certainly come back to haunt you during the second part of the race."
De Villiers said that, before her crash, she often trained on the MTN Attakwas route during December. "It was raining every time I went there, which made the riding very tricky.
"I just want to warn the riders that there is a new loop just before Bonnievale. It starts off with a very tricky technical descent, followed by a really tough climb. Even though the distance is just a few kilometres, it will be one of the toughest sections because of the loose rocks. I don't think many riders will be able to ride there. The safer option will certainly be to get off your bike and push."
Among the non-injured, the women's favorites are Yolandé Speedy, Mariske Strauss and Eszter Cluer. Last year, Speedy won the women's event and finished 19th overall.
Strauss has the ability to become the next "Queen" of South African mountain biking, but to win one of South Africa’s toughest races over 121km might be just too tall an order for the 19-year-old rider at this stage.
Cluer has competed in track and field, mountain biking and off-road triathlon and last year won the South African Xterra Championship.
"I will be honest. I am slightly worried about racing the MTN Attakwas. Everybody keeps telling me how difficult the race is," said Cluer. "You have to remember that the furthest I have ever raced was last year when I won the Hill2Hill. I enjoyed every moment, but it should be remembered that it was only a 105-kilometer race, and it was flat and easy."
The MTN Attakwas is arguably one of the toughest one-day races in South Africa. The first half of the race uses the 25-kilometer long Attakwas jeep trail to cross the Outeniqua Mountain Range. This challenging stretch comprises some of the technically most demanding jeep tracks and trails found in South Africa.
It is interesting to note that this is the same route that was used by the Voortrekker pioneers in their ox-wagons during the 19th century in their quest to reach the interior of the country.
Henco Rademeyer, Dryland Events manager, said that Saturday's race would be slightly easier. "When talking to some of the riders after last year's MTN Attakwas marathon, we came to the conclusion that the race had become too tough a challenge. Roughly estimated, I would say that it was too hard by approximately 10 to 15 percent. This means that the riders could not really enjoy the racing and, in our view, that defeats the whole purpose of the race."
"We have omitted some of the toughest sections in the early part of the race and shortened the first half by about 10 kilometers. The second half of the race, from Bonnievale to Mosselbay, remains unchanged."