With Kevin Evans (MTN-Energade) and Burry Stander (Specialized/MR Price) expected on the start line for Saturday's MTN Barberton Ultra marathon in South Africa, predicting a winner is no easy task.
Two years ago, Stander and Evans were involved in a dramatic battle that continued all the way to the finish line, with Stander just managing to outsprint Evans.
Last year neither of them managed to win, but they made sure that there was adequate drama.
Stander crashed spectacularly while racing at full speed down the mountain. He made a slight error of judgment around one of the corners in the thick mud and had to pay the price. His crash was not in vain as Herman Verwey, a photographer, managed to cash in on Stander's mud bath. He won a major local photographic competition with the picture he had taken of the all muddy Stander grimacing with pain.
Evans's drama also led to some pain. He was involved in a war of words with Brandon Stewart (DCM) which ended with Stewart pushing Evans into the bushes.
With many looking forward to the rematch of the Evans and Stander, Evans pointed out that it very seldom happens that both of them manage to race to the finish line.
"Look what happened during last year's MTN South African Ultra marathon in Harrismith," said Evans. "I had a bad day with punctures and Burry won. Two weeks ago, at the MTN Attakwas Ultra marathon, it was Burry who punctured at a crucial moment, and I won the race."
Evans made it clear that he is not obsessed with winning the Barberton Race, because this year his main focus is not on winning the MTN Series overall.
"I had a good start to the season, winning the MTN Attakwas Ultra marathon. That has taken much pressure off me. So I will just go out and enjoy myself. I might even see if I could help one of my teammates to a podium finish."
But having said that, Evans admits that he will probably not be able to contain himself. "When I enter a race I become instinctively competitive. When the starter's gun goes off and the racing begins, that is when the monster in me comes out. I won't be doing what I am doing if I were not fundamentally competitive.
"To have Burry also racing, makes it exciting. He is a classy rider. You don't become a World Champion if you are not the best. Burry is the one rider who is not scared to take the initiative whenever he races."
Saturday could be a classic scenario of two dogs fighting for a bone and a third opponent riding away with the spoils. Max Knox (DCM) won the MTN Barberton Ultra marathon last year, and he makes no secret of his intention to defend his title successfully.
According to Knox he had done all the hard training over the December holidays. "During the MTN Attakwas Ultra marathon, I could feel that I was in good form. Unfortunately I punctured when it mattered. What might count in my favour is that I know the Barberton course very well.
"The important thing to remember when racing at Barberton is that the course is quite hilly. Many riders make the mistake of getting carried away during the first half of the race and then ending up paying the price towards the end. It is important to pace yourself. If you can manage to stay with the front guys towards the end, you will have a fair chance of winning.
"I know that Burry and Kevin will be my main rivals, but am not concerned about their presence," said Knox. "I am going to do my own race and only worry about what I can do. In the end, the only thing that matters to me is whether or not I have given my best."
Ben-Melt Swanepoel (Specialized/MR Price) and David George will be the other two riders to watch on Saturday.
As far as the women's race is concerned, it will be a big surprise if Yolandé Speedy (MTN-energade) does not win. She proved by finishing 19th overall in the MTN Attakwas Ultra marathon over 135km that she is in a class of her own.
The big battle will be between Yolandi du Toit (Team Bizhub) and Ischen Stopforth (Team Bizhub) for the second position. Yolande de Villiers will not be attending due to injury.
The race's route has been changed for this year.
"For true mountain bikers the race might have been too fast and perhaps even bordering on easy in the past," said series organizer Fritz Pienaar, "but I think last year we managed to make it more challenging by changing the route slightly so that second half of the race is more technical. The MTN Barberton still has one of the toughest climbs of the series. The big climb starts after about 10 kilometers and finishes after about 17 kilometers.
"The moment you get to the top you will be challenged by one a steep and very fast downhill section where a rider will have to keep his wits about him if he does not want to crash. The second half of the race consists mostly of rolling hills with challenging technical section towards the finish."
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