After the heartbreak of having their Cape Epic victory hopes crushed by an untimely early exit, Team Nedbank 360Life's David George and Kevin Evans bounced back on Saturday with a one-two finish at the MTN Tulbagh marathon in the Western Cape province of South Africa.
George, the winner of the first round of South Africa's series back in January, rode a tactically faultless race to claim the victory in a fast time of 4:29:08 and in the process, rose back to the top of the MTN Series rankings with three rounds remaining.
Evans had to outsprint Max Knox (Do-It-Now Ghost) to claim the runner-up place, but the fact that his plated collarbone held up well in his first mountain bike race since that fateful Cape Epic stage 1 crash on March 28 was more reason for Nedbank 360Life to celebrate.
George and Knox moved ahead of the other contenders at 19km into the 105km race and built up a lead of 45 seconds over a small chase group that included Evans, Adrien Niyonshuti (MTN Qhubeka), Darren Lill, Nico Bell, Erik Kleinhans (Contego) and Charles Keey (MTN Qhubeka).
Then, just before the 60km mark, George powered away from Knox up a climb and then extended his lead on the following descent, putting around a minute into Knox just on that downhill before going on to build his lead into a substantial one over the final 40 kilometres. Evans caught a tiring Knox in the final kilometres and made short work of dispatching him in the last 100 metres.
"With Kevin back in the mix, we had another card to play, so I went with Max early on. I let him set the pace because I knew we had Kevin as a second option not too far back," said George. "When you're in good racing condition, you always feel in control. That's how it was for me today. On the climbs I was strong and on the descents I was confident and sharp.
"Obviously I'm also building my skills with every mountain bike ride I do," said George, a former professional road cyclist.
"It was a great way for us to return to the racing scene. A first and second place in a strong field also shows that we are on track for the (marathon) world championships next month," said George. "Since the Cape Epic, I've been doing some great training - both quantity and quality. The last few weeks I've been feeling so good on the bike. Today I was really in control in every aspect. It's a good place to be."
George was quick to pay tribute to the team's sponsors, specifically the title sponsor, Nedbank 360Life, for their belief in the pair. "For the first time in my life as a pro cyclist, I am able to make decisions that suit me best. We have no pressure from our sponsors because they know we want to win as much as they want us to - probably more actually. Glad we could show them today how that kind of support pays off."
"Now Tulbagh and I are even," said Evans, referring to his collarbone-snapping crash in Tulbagh on stage 1 of this year's Cape Epic. "It was the last place I raced a mountain bike and, appropriately, the first place again after recovering from the crash and surgery. Coming back with a podium finish does my confidence a lot of good."
George and Evans are now focusing on their second major goal for the year, the 2011 marathon world championships in Italy at the end of June. Next on their schedule is this week's Subaru Sani2c, a three-day stage race in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. They then head to Europe where they will contest some build-up races in preparation for the World Championships on June 26.
George, who also won the MTN Attakwas marathon and finished second in Barberton, is now the likely overall leader in the MTN marathon series.
Kleynhans wins women's race
Arianne Kleynhans (Contego-Giant-Sludge) achieved her second victory in the MTN women's marathon series. The Swiss rider had also won the MTN Attakwas event.
"Gutsy" is the most appropriate word to describe Kleynhans' victory. She took the lead within minutes after the starter’s gun went off and from then on there was no stopping her. She basically time-trialed straight to the finish.
According to Kleynhans, she experienced one of those races when nothing could go wrong and riding a mountain bike became just one huge pleasure.
Catherine Williamson (Bizhub) finished second, Ischen Stopforth (Bizhub) was third, Candice Neethling (Bizhub) fourth and Karien van Jaarsveld (USN) fifth.
After her performance on Saturday there can be no doubt that Neethling has what it takes to become one of the great riders in South African women's mountain biking.
The 18-year-old was the only rider who really chased hard to catch up with Kleynhans. Because of this effort she was second overall for a long time, but unfortunately her legs let her down when it really mattered.
Stopforth, who was full of praise for her younger teammate’s performance, was of the opinion that Neethling’s problem on Saturday was that she had concentrated mainly on cross-country races during the past few weeks.
"It has been some time since she had raced in a marathon and I think that was the reason why Candice began to tire towards the end of the race."
According to Stopforth, the reason why she and Williamson were slow off the mark on Saturday was that their legs were still tired after racing, and winning, the Joburg2C tour the weekend before.
"We became stronger and stronger as the race progressed."
Unfortunately for Stopforth, she took a "flyer" towards the end of race. It occurred when she was racing down a dip, just before a river crossing.
"I was chasing to catch up with Catherine. Things began to go wrong the moment I rode into the river. My mountain bike's front wheel hit a rock and this caused my bike's handlebars to turn a full 180 degrees. I was in full flight before I hit the ground, face first.
"My nose took most of the hammering, causing quite a bad nose bleed. Luckily nothing was broken, but my nose is still bruised and swollen. It is certainly not a pretty sight," Stopforth joked.
Stopforth was full of praise for the Tulbagh course. "I expected it to be the same as the one used during the Epic but it was not. It was a totally new racing experience, quite challenging but still enjoyable.
"Ones technical skills were definitely tested with all the twists and turns on the route and the loose rocks."
|#||Rider Name (Country) Team||Result|
|1||David George (Rsa) Nedbank 360Life||4:29:08|
|2||Kevin Evans (Rsa) Nedbank 360Life||0:08:15|
|3||Max Knox (Rsa) Do-It-Now Ghost||0:08:25|
|4||Adrien Niyonshuti (RWA) MTN Qhubeka||0:12:57|
|5||Nico Bell (Rsa)||0:14:33|
|6||Charles Keey (Rsa) MTN Qhubeka||0:16:44|
|7||Darren Lill (Rsa)||0:26:57|
|8||Mannie Heymans (Nam) Garmin adidas||0:31:34|
|9||Francois Theron (Rsa) Garmin adidas||0:31:36|
|10||Grieg Knox (Rsa)||0:39:10|
|#||Rider Name (Country) Team||Result|
|1||Arianne Kleynhans (Contego/Giant/Sludge)|
|2||Catherine Williamson (Bizhub)|
|3||Ischen Stopforth (Bizhub)|
|4||Candice Neethling (Bizhub)|
|5||Karien van Jaarsveld (USN) fifth.|