Ultra marathon mountain bike racing is the newest challenge for endurance-oriented mountain bikers racing in South Africa. The MTN National Marathon Series will kick off with the Barberton Classic in Mpumalanga on January 24. Throughout the series, marathon events of a minimum of 70km will continue to be held; however, ultra marathon distances will be added to some events.
At the foot of the Mkhonjwa Mountains, the Barberton classic will be the first of seven events comprising the national series. A 75km marathon and a 45km half marathon route will be combined for a 120km ultra marathon event with almost 4,000m of climbing.
"I think it's fantastic!" said David George, a stage race specialist for the MTN Energade team, who finished third overall with Kevin Evans at the 2008 Cape Epic. "We have shown that this country has world class riders, now we'll have more world-class events to nurture those riders. With the longer distances, riders will have to be conditioned for endurance to succeed. You won't get cross country specialists winning so easily anymore."
"It's going to make a big impact on local racing," said Team DCM Chrome rider Max Knox, who along with Brandon Stewart, finished seventh overall at the 2008 Cape Epic. "It makes it possible to specialise in marathon races, and we'll see some different faces on the race podiums now. I'm looking forward to the bigger challenge."
Open to all riders who believe they'll manage the increased distance within the cut-off time of five hours at the 75km mark, the ultra marathons will only offer MTN National Series points to elite men.
"The top men take more than four hours to finish the marathon world championships, and we want our talented South African riders to be able to prepare for these international tests at home," said Fritz Pienaar, Series Director. "Some of the events may even qualify for International Cycling Union grading in future, which will encourage more international riders to compete in South Africa. It's all very positive and we're excited about it."
This year's opening round at Barberton is shaping up to be a duel between two men, Kevin Evans and Burry Stander. Evans (MTN Energade) is the current South African marathon champion while Stander (Mr. Price / Specialized) is the current national cross country champion. Last year, Stander outsprinted Evans by the narrowest of margins to capture the 75km race while in 2007, Evans finished just seconds ahead of Stander to claim the win.
"The extra kilometers at Barberton will change the race for sure," predicted Evans. "You'll see the difference between the guys who put in the big miles over December and those who didn't. I'm looking forward to the longer race. It suits me better."
Cross country specialist Stander, who won the U23 UCI World Cup overall, is relatively unfazed by the additional distance. "Obviously a shorter race suits me better, but I'm currently preparing for the Cape Epic which means a lot more endurance training. I'm looking forward to Barberton where I intend to do my best to defend the title. Every race I start I try and win."
Others to watch include Francois Theron (Garmin Adidas), who defeated Evans at the 126km Attakwas Extreme Challenge last Saturday. His teammates Mannie Heymans, Marc Bassingthwaighte and Philip Buys are also men to watch along with the DCM Chrome trio of Max Knox, Brandon Stewart and Ben-Melt Swanepoel and MTN Energade teammates David George and Mathy Buekes and Schwinn's Johnny Kritzinger.
In the women's 75km event, 35-year-old Yolande de Villiers (DCM Toyota), defending champion, is expected to make a strong return. She spent most of 2008 sidelined after shoulder surgery and was unable to compete last weekend due to a broken derailleur hanger. Other podium contenders will include Samantha Oosthuizen (Garmin adidas), Yolandi du Toit and reigning MTN Series champion, Tania Raats (Bell Equipment).
For more information or to enter online, visit www.cyclesport.co.za