Four-time South African marathon champion Kevin Evans and his Nedbank 360Life teammate David George will launch a powerful assault at the MTN Gravel Travel race in Wellington in the Western Cape province on Saturday, August 25 in their quest to claim the South African 2012 marathon national title.
Evans was beaten to the 2011 national title in a close finish with Burry Stander in KwaZulu-Natal in March of 2011. But that was after having spent a month off the bike following surgery to remove a burst appendix. Evans has been in excellent health in 2012 and has been focussing on peaking for both the South African and the world marathon championships.
Since the 2011 marathon championships, George has developed from a consistent podium contender into a regular race winner. The former road racing professional has found increased confidence through technical sections and on descents, essentially strengthening his only real weakness.
After having won the Gravel Travel event in 2011, Evans will be a firm favourite on Saturday. But the 103km race, which has almost 3 000 metres of ascent, is deceptively tough and any of a number of title-hungry riders could claim the coveted victory including Jacques Rossouw (USN Mannie's Bike Hut), Max Knox (Specialized), Ben Melt Swanepoel (Squirt Merida), Brandon Stewart (FedGroup - Itec Connect), Neil MacDonald and Waylon Woolcock (both Team RE:CM), Charles Keey, Ruan du Toit and Dave Morison (all Blend Properties) and Gawie Combrink and Nico Bell (both Westvaal Columbia).
Stander has opted not to defend his marathon title in favour of preparing for the 2012 UCI Cross Country World Championships.
"Our main goal for the second half of the year is a medal at the marathon world champs. But we would love to capture the South African title in the process. Kevin has won this title a few times, but it's one title I've not yet won," said George, a former five-time national time trial champion and the 2003 national road race champion.
George was complimentary about the race route for the national showpiece.
"It's a beautiful course, possibly the nicest marathon race route in the country. Besides being very scenic, it's well balanced with lots of flowing singletrack. There are no super-long climbs, but you still climb a lot in total, so you need to measure your effort evenly throughout," said George.
The race is also round 6 of the eight-race 2012 MTN National Marathon Series. George is the 2011 Series champion and says that defending the title it is a high priority.
"It's the most prestigious marathon series in the world, not just in South Africa, so Kev and I are definitely gunning for the Series win again in 2012," said George.
Knox currently leads the 2012 MTN Series points standings with Evans and George, who, despite missing one round, are dangerously poised in third and fourth respectively. They'll be contesting all of the last three rounds in Wellington, Hilton and Parys.
Ralph and Kleinhans among favorites in women's race
Theresa Ralph has proven that being 37 years old is no excuse for not being able to excel in sports. This mom of two children (ages 6 and 8), who began to compete seriously in mountain biking only two and half years ago, is already playing a major role in local mountain biking events.
Judging by her results so far, Ralph has a realistic chance of winning the MTN Gravel Travel South African Marathon Championship which will start and finish at the Diemersfontein Wine Estate outside Wellington.
She is a bit wary about being called a pre-race favourite. "I have never competed in the MTN Gravel Travel so I don't know what to expect. You can say that I will be going into the race 'blind'.
"But having raced the other MTN events, I know that I will be in for a real mountain biking treat, especially because the race will take place in the Western Cape which is considered to be the mecca of South African mountain biking.
"I expect the MTN Gravel Travel to be technically challenging as well as hard, but I also expect to have fun."
Ralph admitted that she is not one of the strongest climbers. "My strength lies in the open dirt roads. Once I get going, I am like a 'diesel engine'. I can just keep going for hours on end.
"But I have adapted my training schedule to focus more on improving my climbing skills. Hopefully my brain will have adapted to the new program by race day. I am confident that I will be able to hold my own on the short steep little climbs and not lose too much time to the leaders."
Ralph predicts that Arianne Kleinhans (Contego), who dominated the early season's racing, will be the rider to beat.
The last time Ralph and Kleinhans raced against each other was at the MTN Mabalingwe which Ralph won.
A definite highlight for Ralph was finishing second overall in the women's tour of the Absa Cape Epic.
She also won two stages in the Sani2C with Karien van Jaarsveld.
Ralph won the Magalies Monster for a third successive year. In this year's race she finished second overall, merely seconds behind the leading male rider.
"Never underestimate us tough moms. We know how to peak at a good old age," Ralph said jokingly when asked about her cycling success.
On a more serious note, Ralph said that part of her success must be ascribed to the fact that she has always actively participated in sports.
"I used to swim. Then I started to play water polo. I also ran and competed in some road cycling events.
According to Ralph she only became aware of mountain bike racing when her brother, Robert, competed in the 2009 Cape Epic.
"The next year my husband, Jonathan, also entered to race the Cape Epic. He never planned for me to be his racing partner, but in the end we raced together. "I first started training on a mountain bike six months before the 2010 Epic."
Finishing her first Epic turned out to be the turning point for Ralph. "I was completely hooked on mountain biking. I simply cannot get enough of racing my mountain bike. I just love the challenge."