The MTN Clarens marathon that will take place on Saturday, February 19 will probably boil down to a battle of wits and brawn between the riders from Garmin-adidas and DCM.
When it comes to racing marathons, Max Knox (DCM) is certainly the in-form rider at the moment. He finished fourth in the Attakwas and fulfilled the role of destroyer in Barberton when he simply "killed off" his competitors on the last climb of the race to achieve a third consecutive victory.
The only thing that could complicate matters for Knox and his DCM teammates, Brandon Stewart and Thomas Zahnd, is that none of them have ever raced in Clarens before because of international commitments.
However, racing in Clarens will be nothing new for the Garmin-adidas riders. Even though Kevin Evans (360Life) was the overall winner, they have practically dominated last year's race. Mannie Heymans finished second, followed by Buys a mere 10 seconds behind, in the third place. Francois Theron finished fourth.
Cycling experts predict that Heymans will win on Saturday, in spite of being more than 10 years older than most of his rivals. Heymans proved, with his third-place finish in Barberton, that he is fighting fit. It was noticeable in Barberton that Heymans had developed into a "thinking" cyclist. He realizes that he can no longer, as he did in his prime, rely on simply outriding his rivals on steep climbs.
He has now resorted to riding at his own steady pace, playing the waiting game. And it seems to be working for him. Towards the end of the Barberton race, Heymans managed to catch up with and pass his younger rivals one by one.
What makes the Clarens marathon an exciting challenge, is the steep, technical climb which will be contested on a slick rock surface. Not many riders can boast that they have conquered the climb, staying on their bikes all the way to the top. Buys is one of the elite few who can.
Judged purely on his climbing and technical abilities, the question is not if Buys is capable of winning the Clarens race, but rather when he will do so. The only factor that might count against him is the fact that at the moment he focuses on cross country racing and not so much on marathon racing. This could mean that his stamina might not be what it should be.
Knox is not overly worried about the fact that neither he, nor his teammates, have ever raced at Clarens. "It is just another race. I know that there will be tough climbs and challenging downhill sections, as well as some really technical singletrack sections, but that applies to every marathon. Therefore, riding in Clarens cannot be much more difficult than racing in Barberton, or Sabie, or any other venue for that matter.
"The challenge will be to stay focused and not make any costly mistakes. What might count in our favour is the fact that we will be prepared to work as a team to ensure victory. It does not matter to us who wins, as long as it is a DCM rider."
For Zahnd, the race at Clarens will be a welcome return to South African racing, which he absolutely loves.
Zahnd and Knox teamed up in October last year to win the DCM Cape Pioneer Trek. He is also a past stage winner in the Cape Epic.
The Epic is the reason why Zahnd is back in South Africa already. He will be teaming up with Knox again. The Swiss rider readily admits that his form is not quite what it should be at the moment.
"After winning the DCM Cape Pioneer Trek I took a break. During the winter months I could not really train on my mountain bike, so I did gymnasium work and cross country skiing to keep fit. Whenever the weather allowed it, I tried to go for a training ride."
According to Zahnd coming to South Africa was, as far as temperatures are concerned, not such a big shock. "We had some quite pleasant weather of about 10 degrees in Switzerland."
As far as Saturday's race is concerned, Zahnd sees his role as helping Knox and Brandon Stewart to a victory.
Ben-Melt Swanepoel and Adrien Niyonshuti (MTN/Qhubeka) could be the riders who might spoil the fun for the DCM and Garmin-adidas riders who will have safety in numbers. Riding as individuals against the two teams will be challenging but they might become so embroiled in their fight that the race opens up for a rider like Niyonshuti.
Niyonshuti impressed with his ride this past weekend at the Continental African Mountain Bike Championships held in Jonkershoek in the cross country discipline. He not only finished fourth but also qualified for Olympics for Rwanda. Niyonshuti is much more at home on the marathon circuit and judging from his performance he should be right up there in the fight for the win.
Burry Stander (Specialized/USN), bronze medal winner at last year's marathon world championship, Kevin Evans (360Life), defending champion at Clarens and overall winner of the MTN marathon series last year, and David George (360Life), this year's winner at Attakwas, will not be competing.