Max Knox, 21, proved he's maturing into one of South Africa's new endurance sport stars when he won the tough first round of the MTN National Marathon Mountain Bike Series in Barberton on Saturday.
Clocking a time of five hours, 11 minutes and 28 seconds for the gruelling 120km race, which included almost 4,000 metres of ascent, Knox (DCM Chrome) led his team in a top-three sweep across the finish line with Jacques Janse van Rensburg finishing second and Brandon Stewart in third.
However, Stewart was later disqualified for an incident involving South African marathon champion Kevin Evans (MTN Energade) out on the course. Evans crossed the finish line fourth, but was promoted to third following Stewart's removal.
"It was a pretty brutal race today but a good one to win. We had quite a fast pace early on so it ended up being a matter of who had the most left at The end. My teammates were strong today. Any one of us could have won. I just happened to be the least tired at the end," said a typically modest Knox.
Knox, Stewart and Janse van Rensburg were in the small select lead group that formed early on along with defending champion Burry Stander (Mr Price Specialized) and 2007 winner, Evans. Stander, the current Under 23 World Cup cross-country champion, crashed in the muddy conditions just before halfway, sustaining a knee injury. For fear of aggravating the injury, Stander opted to withdraw, leaving Evans to contend with the DCM Chrome trio on his own.
In the women's 75km event, Yolande de Villiers (Cycle Lab Supercycling Toyota) made a triumphant return to racing following a disappointing 2008, most of which saw her sidelined by a lengthy recovery from shoulder surgery.
The 35-year-old former national marathon champion took an early lead and finished in a respectable time of three hours, 43 minutes and 20 seconds, almost 20 minutes ahead of runner-up Ischen Stopforth, who ran her bike across the finish line as a result of a mechanical problem late in the race. Chrissie Viljoen (MTN Energade) completed the top three.
"I was a bit apprehensive for the long, fast downhill so I pushed hard at the start to try and build up as much of a lead as I could. That way I could be a bit cautious on the downhill," said an elated De Villiers, who was virtually unchallenged throughout the race.
"There were a lot of river crossings late in the race and by the end, my arm and hand had gone numb. But it was a case of putting mind over matter since I was very motivated to defend my title. I am so happy to win my first big race back!"
The next event in the MTN National Marathon series, Chandelier, will take place in Oudtshoorn on Sunday, April 26.
See Cyclingnews' full coverage of the Barberton round of the South African National Marathon Series.