The year didn't turn out the way they'd planned, but elite South African marathon racers David George and Kevin Evans of Team Nedbank 360Life secured a tough mountain bike stage race win when they rolled with a sense of satisfaction over the finish line in Oudtshoorn, Western Cape on Saturday to claim a dominant victory at the DCM Cape Pioneer Trek.
It wasn't the Cape Epic, their primary stage race goal for the year, but the Cape Pioneer Trek, a three-year-old event that's growing in stature, was, according to Evans, just as tough and an appropriate conclusion to what was a tumultuous year for the two-rider team.
"We started the year with a win in Oudtshoorn, and we finished with a win in Oudtshoorn, A nice way to book-end a roller coaster season," said George, a former road racing professional, who personally enjoyed a watershed year as a mountain biker, winning a number of high profile races, including the Willingen Marathon in Germany and capturing the MTN South African National Marathon Series title.
George won the Attakwas marathon, the opener of the MTN National Series, in Oudtshoorn in January, giving the newly formed team a perfect start. But less than three months later, when Evans crashed out of the Cape Epic with a broken collarbone on stage 1, it was reassessment time for the team that intended (and still intends) to become the first South African team to win the Cape Epic.
Misfortune on the bike, illness and injury took turns in beating Evans and George down throughout the year, both in South Africa and Europe. But each time they bounced back with the resilience of a seasoned boxer, refusing to be counted out no matter how hard the blow.
The Cape Pioneer Trek became their final goal race of the year with the aim of using it to confirm their status as world-class racers, fine-tune their equipment and hone their strategy for their assault on the 2012 Cape Epic, which will take place in the same province over similar terrain next April.
The Nedbank 360Life pair won the opening stage of the Cape Pioneer Trek last Monday and then spent the remaining five days defending their lead. They managed to increase it to more than 30 minutes over the runners-up, another South African pairing of Nico Bell and Melt Swanepoel, by the final stage. Evans and George also won stage 4, in the process beating some pedigreed teams, including the pairing of Switzerland's reigning marathon world champion and Cape Epic 2011 winner, Christoph Sauser and his young South African partner, Max Knox.
Sauser and Knox won the other four stages, but were out of overall title contention after Sauser inadvertently took a shortcut on stage 1 and was given a one-hour time penalty.
The figures of the Cape Pioneer Trek route illustrate the challenging nature of the event: Total distance 659km; total metres of ascent 13,468m. The rugged terrain and relentless winds turned the tough-o-meter up even further, as did a 10km beach sand section at the start of stage 5.
"That was a very tough event," said Evans. "I have always had respect for the Karoo (a semi-arid region of South Africa) and any race here is a real challenge. The organisers put on a truly world-class event and I really have huge respect for the riders that completed each stage in the middle and back of the field," said Evans.
"We achieved our objective here," said George. "We won the overall title and dialed in our equipment. We had a couple of tyre problems, but we are extremely happy!"
See Cyclingnews' full coverage of the Cape Pioneer Trek.