With Kevin Evans and David George opting to compete in the Joburg2C mountain bike stage race rather than the MTN Clarens, Max Knox might just be the new overall leader in the MTN marathon series after the MTN Clarens National MTB Ultra taking place on Saturday, May 5.
Evans (Nedbank360Life) is currently leading with 11639 points, Knox is second with 10628 points and George (Nedbank360Life) third with 10355 points. Nico Bell is fourth (9947) and Gawie Combrinck fifth (8800).
According to Knox, it will be a mistake to think that it will be any easier to win at Clarens because of the absence of Evans and George. "I raced in the MTN Clarens race for the first time last year, and I realize that it will always be one of the toughest races of the series.
"The altitude and the terrain make for real hard racing. One's body and equipment are really tested.
"I can only hope that it does not rain, because then the terrain will become twice as difficult." Fortunately for the riders the race is being held later this year and the weather should be kind.
Knox welcomes the fact that Evans and George won't be racing. "I think it is high time that somebody else wins at Clarens."
Evans won in 2009 and 2010 and, if it had not been for an appendectomy as well as a broken collarbone last year, he would probably have completed his hat trick of victories.
Knox added jokingly that he thinks it is time for the old men of South African mountain biking, namely Evans and George, to start taking things easier. "They made quite an impressive silver screen debut with their Epic Tale Movie. Perhaps they should consider taking up Hollywood contracts and leave the serious racing to us youngsters."
Adrien Niyonshuti (MTN-Qhubeka), last year's champion, will not be defending his title this year. Niyonshuti showed perseverance at the Epic when his teammate Jacques Janse van Rensburg became ill at an early stage of the tour. He impressed with his never-say-die attitude and finished solo among the 20 top teams.
If Bell and Combrinck should decide to race in Clarens, they will most probably be podium contenders.
The two Lowvelders, who are in fact competing as amateurs against the professionals, surprised everybody by finishing second in the Cape Epic's African Jersey Competition.
Actually it is hard to believe that, at the beginning of last year, Combrinck was still considered to be a roadie who sometimes competed in mountain bike races.
One of the unique features of the Clarens marathon is the "slick rock climb". If it rains, moss grows profusely on the slick rock surfaces in some sections of the climb. This makes it almost impossible for the riders to stay on their bikes.
MTN SA Senior Manager Sponsorship Des Pooe said, "The MTN MTB series has been quite successful thus far attracting various notable mountain bikers and amateurs participating in the series. MTN Clarens promises to be yet another event which provides riders with a test of their endurance levels and the much sought after adrenalin rush."
Two years ago, Philip Buys said that the only way he could move forward was to grab a handful of grass or branches and physically pull himself forward. He said that, at times, it felt as if he was crawling his way to the top. This year though without the risk of rain riders will be spoilt by the unique views from the rock face.
The section of the track that runs through the Golden Gate National Park will be very interesting. The riders will be faced with a tough climb, but once they reach the top a big surprise will await them. The beautiful lush green that will be all around them, will give the impression that they are in the Garden of Eden.
There will also be game in abundance. Those who are prepared to take time out to admire the scenery may see blue wildebeest, springbok, eland, hartebeest, zebra and buffalo.
One of the riders said it felt to him as if he was riding through the Serengeti.
The last few kilometres of the marathon used to be extremely challenging. There was a rough section where the mountain bikers had to get off their bikes and run with them. They will even have to run down some steps. This year thanks to the WOF (Working on Fire) trail building team there is a brand new four-kilometre hand-built singletrack section that will bypass this sting in the tail from a year ago.