Burry Stander (Mr Price Specialized) lived up to his pre-race favourite status and won his seventh-successive national title when he dominated the elite men's race at the South African cross-country championships in George on Saturday. Yolande Speedy (IMC Racing Momentum) won the women's race, collecting her second-ever elite national title.
On the gravity side, Johann Potgieter (Red Bull/Von Zipper) continued his George-based winning streak that started in 2006, as he went on to win the downhill title. Anka Martin took the women's title as the first South African finisher behind race winner Helene Fruhwirth (Morewood).
Stander, the current Under 23 World Cup Champion not only retained his national Under 23 national title, but beat the elite men convincingly, coming home more than seven minutes ahead of runner-up Marc Bassingthwaighte (Garmin adidas). According to Stander, who regularly records such large winning margins in South Africa, the difference between him and his African rivals isn't as much physical as it is mental.
"Physically, these guys are superb athletes, but I just have better conditioning and confidence from focusing my career on cross country racing and not racing so often," said Stander, when asked why he was so much quicker than his domestic rivals.
"Racing regularly abroad at a quicker pace, as I have done for the past two years, gets you onto a slightly higher physical level, but it's the mental jump that's biggest and most important," said Stander, agreeing that the continued fascination with marathon and stage racing in South Africa was largely to blame for the lack of depth in cross country racing, the only mountain bike racing discipline contested at Commonwealth and Olympic Games.
Speedy won the battle of the eras as well as the national elite women's cross country title when she beat former multiple national champion Erica Green to the gold medal. Speedy, a Beijing Olympian, scored a commanding victory over Green, a former double Olympian (Atlanta and Sydney), who at 38, has made a return to competition, largely in preparation for next week's Cape Epic.
Speedy was a model of consistency, clocking very even lap times throughout. "It was a very smooth, steady race. Everything went well.
The downhill course proved to be one of the most physically demanding in the country, with plenty of berms, jumps and a high percentage of pedalling required. The 22-year-old Potgieter clocked a first run time 3:25.02 down the challenging 2km course, giving him the early lead by more than two seconds over Jonty Neethling (Fox/Morewood).
Potgieter's second run was more than a second slower than his first and a motivated Neethling improved his time by just under a second, making it a tight finish between two of the pre-race favourites with Potgieter ultimately taking the gold by a second-and-a-half from Neethling.
Potgieter, who also won the national title in 2006, proclaimed Sunday's result as the highlight of his career thus far.
In the women's event top Austrian racer, Lene Fruhwurth (Morewood), ranked 18th in the world, captured the overall victory with a quick time of 4:12.38. However, it was runner-up Anka Martin, who was the fastest of the South Africans in 4:14.16 and was awarded the national title. Martin has been one of the country's leading female downhill racers for the past few years, but seldom competes locally as she's based in the United States where she races for her team.
The national championships, which took place in the forests at the foot of the Outeniqua Mountain range in temperatures over 35 degrees Celsius, doubled as round three of the MTN National Cup, Africa's only national downhill racing series. Round four will be in Pietermaritzburg just before the opening round of the UCI World Cup the first weekend in April.