Mpumalanga will welcome a flood of cross country and downhill specialists as they descend on Mankele MTB Park on Saturday and Sunday July 21 and 22 to challenge for their respective South African mountain bike national championship titles.
Attention towards this year's championship event is at an all time high with the return to South Africa of three Olympic representatives, Burry Stander, Philip Buys and Candice Neethling, who will be looking to add a national title to their names ahead of sport's biggest global spectacular taking place in London in less than a fortnight.
Course designer and owner at Mankele MTB Park Mark Meyer has prepared a 5.4km cross country course with 120m of climbing and a 1.8km downhill track with the usual technicalities and thrills that can be expected at Mankele. Swooping bush tunnels, boardwalks and bridges, and great singletrack will keep the cross country riders focused, while the rock gardens, berms, jumps and some really tight switchbacks will keep the downhill riders enthralled.
"The two big drops on the XCO course are creating the biggest buzz," said Meyer. "And the downhill riders can prepare for a new drop off before the rock garden, it's quite a monster drop off. It is about 300m from the end of the run, and will be a great spectator point."
2011 national champion and London Olympic cross country medal contender Burry Stander (Specialized) is optimistic ahead of the race: "The national championship is always important for me every year. The racing is getting very tough now, with Phil Buys riding very strong and the U23 riders racing really well, so there are some big challenges. But my preparation for next weekend's World Cup (in France) is going well, and I am looking forward to good form in the weeks ahead."
When asked what makes Mankele stand out as one of his favourite courses in South Africa, Stander said, "The terrain is so good. A lot of the courses are hardpack when it has been ridden a few times, but the soil here stays quite sandy and rough. So it adds another element to the racing, and you have to focus on keeping traction - there are a lot of skills that come into play that are not always tested on other tracks."
The women's defending national champion Yolande Speedy, who is making a comeback to mountain bike racing after breaking her wrist earlier this year, is looking forward to getting back into the action at this weekend's nationals.
"I have raced in a number of marathon races and my wrist is holding up well, now it's time for some cross country," said Speedy. "I love technical courses although I must admit I'm still battling to muster enough courage for the big drop off at Mankele! My injury didn't keep me out of the saddle for long, but it's taken time to regain movement and strength in my wrist, and I have only been back on the mountain bike for the last month."
Downhill national cup series winner Tiaan Odendaal has been training hard for a shot at the national championship title, having just come off a high performance training camp that has pushed and motivated him mentally as well. "I am looking forward to this race, it's going to be a tough race as all the elite men who have been challenging the national cup series will be out for the same prize."
Odendaal has an extra spring in his step since being selected this week for the national world championship squad. "I am very honoured to be chosen to represent South Africa in the world championships in Austria at the end of August. The national championship race is my second most important race after the world champs; to be SA National Champion is very important to me," said Odendaal.