Burry Stander and Kevin Evans gave themselves a great boost just a week before the start of the Absa Cape Epic when they fought out a titanic duel for the South African Marathon mountain Biking Championships at Inanda Dam near Durban on Sunday.
Stander emerged with the South African title after narrowly winning the final sprint for the line, but both riders will be happy with their form going into South Africa’s richest mountain bike event, the eight-day Epic which starts next Sunday in Cape Town.
For Evans, the result, although obviously massively disappointing, was probably the most encouraging as it was just 12 weeks to the day he was rushed into hospital for an emergency appendectomy.
The fact that despite an early puncture he was the only rider who could stay with Stander, the undisputed king of South African cycling, means he now knows he has the form to mount a serious challenge for victory at the Epic.
Ironically, there was more concern for Evans's Epic partner David George, who has enjoyed a sparkling early season but crashed heavily on Friday but still raced to fifth with 30 stitches in his heavily-bandaged right arm on Sunday. The injuries do not seem to be too serious and he is expected to be ready for Sunday's prologue time trial.
At the Epic, Stander and Evans will both be chasing a South African victory and both could well end up on the podium. Evans and George are the overwhelming favourites to end as the top African team while Stander and his Swiss partner, Christoph Sauser, are favourites to unseat the defending champions, the Bulls team of Karl Platt and Stefan Sahm.
The marathon championship race was over a brutal 82km course with just short of 2,000m of climbing which makes it a good test for the Epic entrants - although they would probably have liked a bit more rest time between the two events. After sitting in the pack for most of the first half of the race, Stander attacked when the race entered the long sections of single-track specifically cut out of the KZN bush for this event, and only Evans and Phillip Buys could hold his pace.
Buys eventually dropped away, leaving the defending champion Evans and the 2009 champion Stander to fight for the victory, which was only decided on the final sprint.
Stander's winning time was 3:25:20 with Evans one second behind. Buys claimed third, four minutes off the pace, while KZN youngster Rourke Croeser proved he is well on the way to becoming a force in South African mountain biking with an impressive fourth overall.
For Stander this event was his third big title this year after he won the African Cross Country Championships earlier in the year and the South African Cross Country title last weekend - but he probably would trade all three for an overall victory in the Cape Epic.
The women's race was spoiled when the leading group of three riders missed a turn and lost about 15 minutes getting back on course.
Briton Catherine Williamson won the women's event, but Karien van Jaarsveld was the first South African so she was awarded the South African title. They were lying fourth and fifth but were told at the first tech zone they were leading which was the first time they realised the leaders had headed off course.
Overwhelming favourite and defending champion Yolandi Speedy ended sixth after a heavy crash took away her desire to chase back, while Cherise Taylor, the winner of last Sunday's Argus Pick n Pay Tour and the current South African Time Trial Champion, fought back from the setback to claim third and the silver medal, followed by Candice Neethling who was the third member of the trio to take a wrong turn.
Meanwhile Brandon Stewart, who ended sixth yesterday, revealed on Friday that he will be riding the Epic with tough veteran Shan Wilson.
Stewart, a consistent top 10 finisher in stages in the Epic, was struggling to secure a partner due to a combination of bad luck and sponsorship issues. Wilson, whose partner Andrew McLean was forced to withdraw due to an iron deficiency, and Stewart have competed together previously and have two stage wins to their name.
Wilson has evidently lost nine kilograms preparing for the 2011 Epic and together with McLean was the big favourite to win the Masters category.
|#||Rider Name (Country) Team||Result|
|1||Burry Stander (RSA) Specialized Racing||3:25:20|
|2||Kevin Evans (RSA)||0:00:01|
|3||Philip Buys (RSA)||0:04:19|
|4||Rourke Croeser (RSA) Orange Monkey / Cannondale||0:05:54|
|5||David George (RSA)||0:05:55|
|6||Brandon Stewart (RSA)||0:06:50|
|7||Paul Cordes (RSA) MTN Qhubeka||0:11:16|
|8||Francois Theron (RSA)||0:11:59|
|9||Mannie Heymans (Nam)||0:12:17|
|10||Ben Melt Swanepoel (RSA)||0:14:45|
|#||Rider Name (Country) Team||Result|
|1||Catherine Hare Willianson (GBr)||4:21:46|
|2||Karien Van Jaarsveld (RSA)||0:07:32|
|3||Cherise Taylor (RSA)||0:07:49|
|4||Candice Neethling (RSA)||0:16:46|
|5||Yolandi Du Toit (RSA)||0:27:02|
|6||Yolande Speedy (RSA) MTN Qhubeka||0:27:45|
|7||Brenda Potts (RSA)||0:42:47|
|8||Nicci Grobler (RSA)||0:44:17|